The Ten Events of the Highly Successful Writer

by James Scott Bell


Bob Mathias

One of the greatest athletes America ever produced was Bob Mathias. Listen to this: in 1948 Mathias was a high school student in Tulare, California. His track coach mentioned he ought to consider the decathlon. This is, of course, ten events, several of which Mathias had never attempted. They trained for three weeks. Three. Mathias won the local AAU decathlon. A short time later, he won the nationals and Olympic trials.

Mathias went to the London games and won the gold medal. He was seventeen-years-old, the youngest person ever to win a gold in track and field.

In 1952 he went to the Olympics in Helsinki, and did what no one had ever done before—he won the decathlon again. To top it all off, he starred as himself in the movie The Bob Mathias Story, which I watched several times as a kid.

I thought of Mathias a few days ago when I read this phrase once again: “A writing career is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” It suddenly occurred to me that this is inadequate. Why? Because it doesn’t matter if you run 26 miles if it’s in the wrong direction!

Instead, I think a successful writing career is more like a decathlon. There are at least ten “events” you must master in order to compete and win a medal. Here they are:

  1. Dedication

Are you willing to put in the work? Pay the price? Stick with it and not give up? Will you stay with this even though it’s going to take you years to get there?

Olympic champions start young and spend countless hours practicing, for years, for that one shot at gold. Similarly, it takes a long time and a lot of work to gain a writing foothold these days.

While there are no hard rules on this, suppose I told you that it’s going to take you five years and five quality books to start making solid income as a writer? Will you still go for it?

I hope so.

  1. Production

Decathletes have to spend a set amount of time every week in training. A writer has to spend a set amount of time every week writing.

You don’t produce books by not writing them. (Maybe I should go into the Zen koan business. Or not.)

Seriously, when I hear people say, “I just can’t write to a quota. I have to get into the mood,” I hear the sound of a cash register not ringing. (See? Zen master!)

  1. Quality

In sports, practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. The precision of your drills is what makes the difference when it comes time for actual competition.

So the words you produce must be quality words. By quality I mean this: the best you can do while keeping your audience in mind.

Who is your audience? Readers. If you’re writing in a genre, you know those readers have certain expectations. You must serve those expectations at the same time you are exceeding them. How? By being an original, surprising them, elevating your book beyond the merely competent.

How do you get to that point? See #4.

  1. Study

A decathlete watches film of great athletes competing in certain events. Slow motion of champion pole vaulters, shot putters, discus and javelin throwers. You hone your skills partly by studying what others do well.

I can’t understand writers wanting to get ahead in the fiction game not making study of the craft a regular habit. I simply do not get it. Do you want some fresh-out-of-med-school doctor who doesn’t read the medical journals or observe experienced surgeons taking out your spleen?

At least when a writer makes mistakes nobody dies. But the interest of a reader does. And that can mean death to a career.

  1. Creativity

Did you know that every decathlete before 1968 used either the scissor kick or Western roll for the high jump? That’s because those two techniques were the only ones the dedicated high jumpers ever employed.

Then along came a guy named Dick Fosbury who, in high school, wasn’t able to win in the

Dick Fosbury

Dick Fosbury

high jump using old-school technique. Over the course of time he experimented with methods until he started going over the bar backwards, something no one had ever contemplated before. He began to set records with “The Fosbury Flop” and he won the gold medal at the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City.

All high jumpers and decathletes now use the Flop.

Writer, you need to nurture your creativity, try new things, play and explore. You still need to jump over the bar. How you do that is your individual style.

  1. Goals

Great athletes give themselves benchmarks to shoot for, and put in place plans to reach them. These goals are measurable. In other words, they can be assessed according to what was done or not done, what was accomplished or not accomplished. Then there is a time for reassessment and recommitment.

Writers need to set goals, too. Not just word count, but the development of future projects, craft study objectives, social media presence, even personal health (which affects production). Goal setting is one of the essential skills of success.

I prepared a short monograph on this topic that can be found HERE.

  1. Perseverance

Every champion athlete has had setbacks, losses, injuries. There are many, many times when quitting seems like an option. Those are the very times the great ones push on. Like Rocky Bleier, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back who came home from service in Vietnam with a right leg shredded by shrapnel. Coaches and doctors told him to give up football. He refused, and worked harder than everyone else. For two long years he struggled, and made the team again. Two years after that he was a starter. Two years after that he gained 1,000 yards for the season.

The writing life has plenty of frustration and disappointment. A rejection can feel like a shredding of your soul. That’s when you let it hurt for half an hour. Pound a pillow. Eat some ice cream. Cry if you must. But then take a deep breath and go to your keyboard and write something. Anything. You cannot be defeated if you keep pounding the keys.

  1. Courage 

In addition to perseverance, champions have times during an event where they must reach down deep and tap a reservoir of courage. That’s certainly true in the decathlon, the most demanding two days in all of sports. When Rafer Johnson competed for the United States in the Rome Olympics in 1960, he was coming off the effects of an auto accident the year before. His big rival (and UCLA teammate) was C. K. Yang, competing for Taiwan. It all came down to the final event, the grueling 1,500 meter run. Johnson needed to stay within ten seconds of Yang in order to win. But Yang was almost twenty seconds better at this event than Johnson. Johnson reached inside and willed himself to dog Yang’s heels. He finished only 1.2 seconds behind Yang, and took home the gold.

There are times in your writing when you have to dig deep, keep going, try harder. It may just mean hanging on for one last lap. The great thing is, even if things don’t turn out quite the way you want, you will be a stronger writer because of it. No effort is wasted.

  1. Balance

Athletes have to give their bodies time to recover from an intense workout. There is a delicate balance between exertion and rest. And when it’s a young athlete, they have to figure in school work and a bit of a social life. The number of athletes who were driven too hard by an overzealous parent, and ended up out of athletics altogether, are legion. See, for example, Todd Marinovich.

There is a time to rest as a writer. Personally, I write six days a week. I take Sundays off. It’s hard. I’m like a horse that wants and expects to run on the track. But the day off gives my mind time to rest and recharge. I come to Monday raring to go.

And don’t forget the people in your life. Give them the time they deserve, even though you may have to explain that far off look you get sometimes. You know, the one where you’re thinking what a great scene this would make, or how that bartender over there would be a terrific minor character…

  1. Joy

A champion athlete has to take joy in his event. Eric Liddell, the Scottish sprinter who won a gold medal in the 440 at the1924 games, was depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire. As the son of a missionary, he was expected to go to the mission field, leaving athletics behind. After his sister reprimands him, Liddel replies, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

“In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it.”Clayton Meeker Hamilton, A Manual of the Art of Fiction (1919)

Just as the decathlon is the toughest of athletic contests, so the writing life is one of the toughest ways to make a buck. Yet isn’t that what makes it worthwhile? When you score a win, and you will––you’ll finish that novel, you’ll start to see some sales, you’ll get an email from a delighted reader––you’ll feel that joy of accomplishment that the ne’er do wells never do.

The easy road is for chumps.

Keep writing.

Being the Next…


I was for no particular reason thinking about the Miami Vice television series on Friday afternoon. You’ve probably at least heard of Miami Vice, if you haven’t seen an episode.Television producer Michael Mann originally conceived the idea behind the iconic series during a brainstorming/brainstreaming session in which he wrote the words “MTV cops” on a piece of paper. The audience didn’t necessarily tune in entirely for the music, but they sure didn’t turn away, either. Mann gave viewers a forty-eight minute music video featuring multiple songs, violence, some PG-rated sex, and a lot of style, all from the viewpoint of Crockett and Tubbs, a couple of Miami-Dade County drug enforcement agents.  If your dad or, uh, grandfather has a white linen sport coat in the back of his closet it may well mean that he was rockin’ his best Sonny Crockett back in the day.

cop rock

Now. Have you ever heard of…Cop Rock? It was pitched as the next Miami Vice, and featured dramatic episodes with a cast ensemble who, in the middle of a squad room, a murder scene, or whatever, would…burst into song and dance. It is almost impossible to watch more than a few minutes of any of the very few episodes of Cop Rock that aired without hoping that the cast, scriptwriters, showrunners, and the like would…burst into flame. Just kidding. I think.

I mention this because I don’t think that it’s a good idea to aim at being the “next” of something. I understand that the “next” Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train is precisely what editors — some editors, anyway — are looking for. The entertainment business is reactive, not proactive. The gatekeepers don’t get in trouble for missing a hit; they get in trouble for pushing a project that winds up dead on arrival. The theory is that if a book has a troubled female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator then readers who bought The Girl on the Train will buy and read that, too. At some point, however, that demand is going to run out, and you don’t want it to run out just before your book gets published.

I’m starting to see a number of Jack Reacher-type books, wherein a strong, silent type with an extraordinary skillset wanders into a town and reluctantly becomes involved in someone’s troubles. They’re not all bad books, but it’s almost impossible to read them with comparing them to Lee Child’s offspring, and to find them at least somewhat wanting. I would submit that one is better served by taking an element here and an element there from stories or series that you admire — whether successful or otherwise — and changing the narrative. p.g. sturges does an excellent job of this in his “Shortcut Man” series. Dick Henry, the Shortcut Man, is an ex-cop who stays in one place, helping people with everyday problems by utilizing extra-legal means. Henry is Robert McCall, without the gravitas. Tim Hallinan pulls off a similar trick in his Junior Bender series, which features a cat burglar who works for criminals. Bender is Richard Stark’s Parker turned inside out.  Both protagonists are criminals, but likeable guys; they’re anti-heroes without the “anti-”, if you will. 

What I would like to know is: what authors — or series — do you go to for inspiration? And I mean “inspiration” as a spark, not a model.

First Page Critique – Already Dead

Here’s this month’s Thursday First Page Critique. My comments follow.

Already dead

 Aguascalientes, Mexico

     Leo wasn’t dead yet, so that’s a good thing … he thought. One never ever knows how these meetings will end up. Sometimes they finish nice and easy, some information passed around, possible issues are brought up and dealt with or maybe some questions need to be answered. A nice meal usually followed, some alcohol, if you are lucky maybe even some hookers. Then again, sometimes they ended with a loud BANG! and that was it. When you were summoned by the “higher ups” coming out alive was never a guarantee. The fact they were meeting in a public place did nothing to calm his nerves. In this business, you could get clipped in your own front yard with your all your neighbors, your mother a group of mariachi and even fucking mother Teresa watching and the only thing that mattered was someone got a job done. He was escorted to the banquet area of the restaurant by a young, pretty hostess. Walking in, he was a bit uneasy, he didn’t even notice how beautiful she was or how perfect her ass looked in her black slacks. What he did notice was the five bodyguards scattered throughout the room.

“Enjoy your meal/ Provecho” she said with a sly sexy smile, she motioned for him to advance forward to the farthest table in the large room. Leo smiled back and walked up to the table and exhaled. The three older gentleman seated at the table did not bother to formally stand up. They greeted and acknowledged Leo, smiled and offered him the only seat to join them. Everything is always business with these types.

My Comments

Although I do think there could be an interesting snarky, wise guy ‘voice’ to this first page, it is submerged beneath extraneous information and stylistic choices that slow the pace and detract from the story. Overall, I wanted to see more action and tension in this first page – to have questions (and stakes) raised and to be exposed to the unique voice of Leo and his POV.

Here are my specific concerns:

  1. POV confusion: We have a lot of pronouns going on in this first page. First we have ‘Leo’ then we have ‘he’, ‘one’ and ‘you’ and then back to ‘he’. This wouldn’t ordinarily pose too much of an issue but in this piece it feels strained, like we aren’t too sure about the POV the writer intends to use. The first line “Leo wasn’t dead yet, so that’s a good thing … he thought.” makes it sound like the narrator is someone other than Leo (otherwise why not say ‘I’?) Then we switch to the more detached use of ‘one’ and ‘you’ then return to the pronoun ‘he’ – although by now we aren’t totally sure who ‘he’ is…I assume it is Leo since Leo is the character referenced in the last paragraph. As a reader, however, I shouldn’t have to puzzle at all. From the get go it should be clear who is speaking and the POV should keep me engaged (to be honest the use of ‘one’ and ‘you’ created a distance for me from the narrative voice). Also, if the writer is using Leo’s point of view than Leo cannot say: “he didn’t even notice how beautiful she was or how perfect her ass looked in her black slacks” because, as the narrator, he obviously did…
  2. Generic information/sentences: It is crucial that the first page intrigues a reader – it should raise questions and tension that means a reader can’t wait to turn the page and keep reading. That’s why sentences like: “One never ever knows how these meetings will end up. Sometimes they finish nice and easy, some information passed around, possible issues are brought up and dealt with or maybe some questions need to be answered” are flat and dull. There’s no real information being imparted  that is specific to the situation. This sentence could be used for almost any meeting…but what the reader wants is specifics – details that ground the story and which add texture and sensory detail that is gripping as well as believable. Once we get to the statement that people get gunned down in their front yards we’re starting to approach the detail we need, but, it is still too generic and stereotypical.
  3. Lack of Tension: I really wanted to be worried for the protagonist’s safety in this first page and to feel that there was a very real threat of him being bumped off. Yet in this first page we never get the level of tension needed for a reader to believe that this is a drug meeting that could easily go horribly wrong. The fact that we had the beautiful sexy girl beckoning Leo to the table also seems too much like a stereotype. I wanted to see more specific details that made me believe this scenario.
  4. Telling but not showing: This directly leads on from the last comment. I wanted to see more action in this first page but instead, although I was told a lot of information about the dangers (as well as the banality) of these meetings – I never really saw or experienced it on the page.

So what about you? What comments or feedback would you give for today’s submission?

Do You Really Need an Editor?

by Robert Gregory Browne

The short answer to the above question we most often hear is this: Yes. Every book needs an editor. And while Joe gave us a nice set of tools for self-editing last week, I’d like to take a moment to answer this question on a more philosophical level.

I spend a lot of time on Facebook. And one day I floated the idea that not every writer and every book needs an editor.

That’s right. I said it.

I’m sure you can imagine the howls of protest. One author was so incensed by this suggestion that he simply would not leave the comment section in peace, and I, of course, took the bait (never take the bait) and engaged in a fairly heated “discussion” about the topic.

The point I made then and will float now is that in nearly every solo creative pursuit I can think of—painting, songwriting, composing, sculpting, furniture making, origami folding, calligraphy, graphic design, illustrating, etc.—you never hear anyone say to these artists, “Make sure you pass that work through an editor.”

So this begs another couple of questions:

Why do people assume—including many authors—that a book simply can’t survive without the help of a good developmental editor? Why is it a commonly held belief that every writer needs someone to help him or her see the forest from the trees before they embarrass themselves with plot holes and shaky character motivation?

Now keep in mind that I’m not talking about a copy editor. I will join the chorus in that regard and say every book needs a copy editor and proof readers, simply because the size of your typical book requires that grammar and typos be caught.

But why do we automatically assume that every author needs a developmental editor?

I’m not suggesting, of course, that some authors don’t need one, but I also believe that many veteran authors—the guys and gals who have been doing this job for years and are pretty damn good at what they do—already know how to tell a fine story, and can quite successfully produce and publish a compelling, well-written book without any help from anyone else.

I know an author who uses only a copy editor on his books, and he’s extremely successful. His books sell like hotcakes, so he must be doing something right.

My own books get a light edit from a writer friend, but the notes are usually minimal and she often says, “this is how I’d change it, but really, it’s great the way it is.” My only real reason for passing it through her is that a) I highly value her opinion; and b) my confidence as a writer is lacking just enough that I figure I should get a second opinion.

But the truth is, after writing about twenty novels, I’m not sure I need an editor at all.

I’m not huge on conspiracy theories, but I suspect the “required” editor/author meme started decades ago when authors were forced to stop self-publishing and go through publishing houses to get their work out to the public. I think the idea of each book needing an editor grew out of the publisher’s desire to make his services more attractive to the author, and to give said publisher greater control over what should and shouldn’t be published (and how much money he could grab in the process).

Now, as I said in my last post, some writers highly value the back and forth they get from an editor and it helps them write the book they want to write. And if that’s they’re particular desire, and it works for them, that’s wonderful.

But I firmly believe that many authors are seasoned enough that this step in the process is unnecessary and they can simply use Joe’s tips to edit their own work.

Just like painters do. And songwriters. And composers. And…

And lawyers writing a closing argument. If a guy who’s writing to keep someone from going to jail doesn’t need an editor, then why should we?

We are, after all, only writing to entertain, and it’s ultimately the readers who will decide whether or not our story sucks.

If you feel, personally, that your work will benefit from the back and forth an editor brings to the table, then by all means go for it. But if you have the chops, going without an editor is not a sin against literature.

Or is it? You tell me what you think.

Contagion II: Zika Virus Pushes Us Into The Realm of Science Fiction

By Kathryn Lilley


Another year, another virus panic. Last year the news media were sounding the alarm bells about the Ebola virus. This year, we’re slowly ratcheting up toward a full-blown freak-out about the Zika virus. Compared to Ebola, Zika is a milder, gentler virus, but its implications for humanity may be much more serious.

ZIka virus, which is spread by mosquitos, causes a mild fever or rash in most people who become infected. Pregnant women who are exposed to Zika, however, can give birth to newborns suffering microcephaly–abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. There is no vaccine for Zika virus, and no reliable prevention method (except to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos).

US health officials recently advised women who are pregnant to avoid traveling to 22 countries where the virus is already circulating. The travel warnings include many popular tourist destinations: Mexico, Puerto Rico, parts of the Carribbean (Barbados, Martinique, Saint Martin), and most notably Brazil, where the summer Olympics are to be held. (Nearly 4,000 afflicted babies with malformed heads were born in Brazil in 2015, up from only 150 such births in 2014). According to the World Health Organization, Zika virus is expected to spread to every country in the Americas, except for Canada and Chile. Officials in some countries where Zika virus is present, such as El Salvador, have taken the drastic step of advising women to delay becoming pregnant until at least 2018.

Just don’t get pregnant, ladies. Really? If that’s how officials are responding to this health crisis, then I think we’ve crossed a line into an area known previously only in science fiction. Zika virus is like Contagion meets Children of Men. In Children of Men, the women of earth had  become infertile for some mysterious reason. The rest of the story was a thriller, with a group of people trying to protect the last remaining pregnant woman on earth from the clutches of an evil mob.

Regarding Zika virus, to paraphrase a line from Contagion: “We don’t need to weaponize the virus. The mosquitos are doing it.”


Meanwhile, I’m updating my list of medical thrillers to add to my TBR pile. Here are some medical thrillers I’ve already read, and recommend:

GRAY MATTER by Gary Braver (Highly intelligent children are being kidnapped and “harvested” for their brain tissue)

HARVEST, by Tess Gerritsen (another excellent thriller involving an organ harvesting plot)

THE HOT ZONE, Richard Preston (truth is scarier than fiction in this tale of virus hunters tracking down virulent viruses in the lab, and on the ground)

What else? What other medical thrillers should I add to my TBR pile?

Dirty Little Secrets About the Story Development Process

This just happened.

In the January issue of Writers Digest magazine, the cover article interviews a bestselling author on how she writes her novels.  She’s billed as an “overnight success,” which of course is a deliberate irony, because that really never happens when you throw in the unheralded years before a breakout novel takes wing.

As the visuals illustrate, if not the copy.

There are ten of her previous book covers – from before the overnight success breakout – featured on the first page of the article, spanning ten years.  Thus proving this to be true.

A great talent, no question.  Delightful and humble, too.  If I said she was also quite pretty I’d get hate mail from the misogynist police (I’m not that guy; hey, David Baldacci is pretty cute, too), but I will say this about that: her agent would undoubtedly say she’s the perfect storm from a PR standpoint.

Her first novel was published in 2002, but her “breakout” hit didn’t happen until 2013, which sold five million copies worldwide.   For her, “overnight” took eleven years.

She must have learned a few things along the way.

So we should listen closely to what she has to say about the writing process, right?

Here are a few highlights from just that:

… she is “relearning to write a novel with every story…”

… “I wrote the first three chapters again and again…”

… “frequently I write chapters that I end up having to ditch…”

… “I think it gets harder…” (after you’ve published your first novel)

… “I do outline.  I’m always amazed by these people who say that they just start and see where    the story takes them… I couldn’t do it…”

“… then I had to replot the entire book…”

… “Every time I start a book, I think, I have no idea how I did this the last time.  No idea…”

…  The words “What is this really about?” are taped over the top of her monitor…

… The Interviewer suggest this: “It seems fortunate if a writer can hit on concepts from which to   grow a story rather than a single plot idea, or even a character, because there are so many ways you can approach them.”  (This one gets a massive gold star from me.)

… Her response: “Since I’ve really been thinking it through in that way – and in quite a calculated way – before I start, either my books have really improved or people have just responded better to or people have just responded better to them, I’m not sure.”

“Fortunate.”  Perhaps the understatement of the writing year.

My money is on the improvement option.  Maybe she has learned something along the way.  Maybe she just has trouble summarizing what that might be.

What will writers learn here, and adopt as their own process?

We can be sure that some writers will believe they’ve learned something from this interview.  They may accept and try to emulate this author within their own writing process… because hey, this multi-million-copy bestselling author says so.

In my opinion much of she says is indeed good stuff, worthy of attention (because we can learn from both sides of an equation, especially if we take the time to really dissect it).  And yet some of it is inexplicable, because while this author acknowledges what works for her, she goes on to say she hasn’t really learned much of anything from her writing experience, even when most of it occurs as a published author.

Scary.  Do this for ten years, publish ten novels… and you still aren’t sure how this is done.

Broad statements and truisms about process are everywhere in the writing conversation, many of them fuzzy, just as many contradictory.

Leaving us with only one conclusion (so glad this works for them) and a seductive lie that manifests as self-delusion (oh, THIS is how it’s done, I’ll do it just that way).

Consensus is nowhere on the horizon.  And yet, we are faced with these choices every time we stare down a blank page.

Good thing that horizon is peppered with plenty of bonafide knowledge about craft, specific principles and tools that apply to and stand ready to help any and every writer.

Because it’s about what the story must be, not about how you get there.

You think all the elephant versus donkey noise is loud and obnoxious out there? 

Put your ear to the writing rail, and you’ll hear an equally biased and under-informed blah-blah-blah on the issue of how a novel should be written.

That’s the wrong question, in my opinion.  The better question is this: what are the criteria and benchmarks for a story that works?

There are answers to that, too.

I keep posting about it, it seems (here and on my own website), because just when I think I’ve contributed something to this clarity, I’ll find myself referred to on various corners of social media as “the formula guy” or “the guy who hates pantsers.”

Story structure and formula… NOT the same thing.  I’ve never heard a professional make this claim, though I have heard a lot of under-qualified writers make the converse assertion.

And that’s the problem with the writing conversation out there.  A significant percentage of it – at workshops, in forums, even in keynotes and interviews with bestselling authors – is toxic, because it is misleading for newer authors and stubborn authors who can’t whittle through the proper context.

For example – when Diana Gabaldon tells you she begins her novels without knowing what the ending will be (which she has, many times, in magazine interviews) – sounds great, doesn’t it? Just keep going and the ending will save you – know that the drafts she writes early-on are there to search for and discover that best ending… and then when she finds it, the subsequent draft that works, the one she submits, is written in the full and functional knowledge of what the ending will be.

Because the ending is one of the things that informs and empowers all the narrative that precedes it.

This is true for almost any and all published novels, regardless of the writer’s process.  This isn’t process, this is outcome.

And despite my best efforts across three (and counting) popular writing books, there is always some highly credible bestselling author completely confusing the issue in an interview or behind a microphone.

Not because they are confused – on the issue of what works for them versus what other writers should do – as much as because they aren’t telling you the whole story of how their book came to be.

But rather – and this is worse – because they don’t seem to be confused at all.

It is the pinnacle of hubris to say you don’t really understand how you do what you do, and say it in the wake of some huge success, thus leaving us with only one unspoken conclusion: Gee, this writer must be a natural-born freaking genius!  They just sit down and magic happens, what a gift!

And so the star-struck crowd buys what they are selling.

To be honest, I used to be pretty hard on one end of the process continuum. 

Not on pantsers, per se – though this was the perception – but on a story development preference that urges you to just start with very little, write what you feel and follow your instincts toward a gloriously functional outcome, without knowing or caring how it compares to the accepted standards of craft.  If you are a literary genius, then you can have abundant fun with this… but if you’re not a practicing prodigy or learned master of the form, then there are less-than-mysterious principles and tools that will help you write a book that is – get ready for it – just as good.

Just listen to your characters and don’t worry about structure or arc or anything that smacks of, well, the dreaded “formula.”  Do this long enough and sooner or later you will find your story, and hopefully, it will resemble what the market expects from your chosen genre.

That’s certainly one way to go about it.  And a wildly popular one, at that.  Due in no small part because some really big names say this is what they do.

I’ve never said this doesn’t work, or that it can’t work.

It’s just one end of the process continuum. 

One that pre-destines you to a longer story development process.  If you can’t do any planning of your story ahead of time, which is the antithesis of pantsing, that means one of two things: for whatever reason you actually can’t, in the same way that some people can’t learn by reading, they must learn by doing… or… you aren’t aware of and honoring of the principles by which a story that words is assembled.  The more you know about that, the more likely you will be to engage in some level of story planning.

All perhaps because you heard some author you admire claim to do it this way.

Rest assured, those highly skilled authors who lay claim to being a punster are informed pantsers, and they actually do engage with story planning in their minds, leveraging an advanced sense of story to lead them quickly to what works while avoiding what doesn’t.

Which is impossible if you don’t know these aspects of craft in the first place.

This is irrefutable: when you face the blank page, be it waiting for your narrative or your outline, you are engaged in a search for story.  And your story won’t work, at least as well as it could and should, until you find it.

Not everyone agrees.  And so the debate is launched.  And so some careers advance while others remain fixed and flat.

There came a point in my own journey when I realized that it isn’t a debate at all.

Because neither side is talking about their novels, from a context of how they end up.  No…

They are talking about their process.

It’s a bit like losing weight.  You can diet, or you can sweat off the pounds.  Both approaches have their advocates, their success stories, and an assumption of pain.

Truth is – for the pantser/planner brouhaha and the exercise/diet trade-off – each becomes a sum in excess of the two colliding parts, both of which offer many options and variables, which in itself can complicate the whole proposition.

Both sides depend on the manner in which either approach is undertaken.  And manner is informed by knowledge.

Ultimately, pretty much everybody who ends up succeeding adopts varying degrees of both processes – pantsing, and story planning.

Bottom line: avid and vocal pantsers – like Stephen King – succeed at it precisely because those principles and tools and models… the very thing that lesser pantsers decry as formula or simply don’t know at all… reside in their head.  And they actually use them as intended.

It’s called instinct.  Story sensibility.

It isn’t pantsing or planning that makes or breaks you… it is the level of your story sense.

Let me make this clearer though a hypothetical example. 

Two writers begin with the exact same story concept.  One is clear on the premise, as well (yes Virginia, they are different things), the other not so sure.  The former sketches out the nature of the story’s arc, knowing precisely where and why the story will take a turn.  Because that writer understands this is how and why stories work, and that there are infinite ways to get there… some quicker and more efficient, if not effective, than others.

The other writer, the one who doesn’t know this, just writes. Waits to see what happens, where the characters will send the story  And it turns out, as it often does when an author hasn’t yet nailed down their core story, that their setup takes up the first half of the novel.  The other writer already knows this is too long, but the less informed writer doesn’t… he is making it all up as he goes along.  Yet soon, as soon as someone else reads it, he will be told the story doesn’t work, because it takes too long to get off the ground.

And he will be surprised.  Because that’s what felt right when he did it.

The other, more informed writer… that’s the difference: he would know it wouldn’t work as well that way.  And so he wouldn’t ever write a draft that took that long to achieve dramatic flight.

The “planning” for this story, the process that works best, would manifest as an extension of instinct.  And the lack of that planning, resulting in the mistake, would manifest from either the ignorance of that point of craft, or the rejection of it.

Depends on who you are listening to and believing, right? 

It doesn’t matter which one of these is the pantser and which is the planner.  It doesn’t matter if the more successful author of this story knew it by instinct, of if he learned it from books and workshops and other informed writers… that’s how he will plan it (even if that planning takes place strictly in his head, or with a 40-page outline), and how he would write it.  And it will be closer to working from the very same draft.  Within such a pansting process, the writer knows where and how that story turn must take place.

The other writer either doesn’t know, or doesn’t believe.

And here’s the dirty little secret promised in my title today:

There are just as many successful authors who know their entire story before the write a draft, and then use the draft to polish and optimize that story, as there are those who have no clue where the story is going.  And they are just as talented and artful as their pantser peers.

Process isn’t the point.  Knowing craft is the point.  And when you don’t know or accept craft, then the default process is pantsing, and doing it from an under-informed context.

Once you do know, you can choose your most comfortable and rewarding process and get there nonetheless.

Again, it’s not a debate.  It’s a choice.

Until you can claim a command of all the nuances and elements of story craft (the sum of all those principles and tools and stuff that bumps right up against formula in the name of dramatic arc), then you will benefit from studiest a list of them posted on your wall in great big letters.

Pansting vs. Planning/Outlining: Neither approach can or should claim superiority.


Just like the familiar fortune cookie thing, in which you add the words “in bed” to the end of every fortune (“your dreams will soon come true… in bed” – hilarious, right?)… add the words “for her/him” to anything a writer puts forth as universally true about either pantsing or outlining.


Do that, and what they say, whatever it is, becomes irrefutable truth… for him… or for her.


Stephen King tells you to just sit in a chair and write whatever comes to you… that’s what works for him. Know the whole truth of this, though, before you sign up for this.


Diana Galbaldon tells you that she never knows how her stories will end when she begins… that’s how it works for her.  What you won’t hear?  The draft that works was written with a solid notion of how it ends.


Jeffrey Deaver boasts that he does 22 drafts of every novel… I guess that’s how it works for him.  What may be true, though, is that the last 18 of them were polishes to a solid story arc built upon his knowledge of craft.


Phillip Margolin tells you he writes an idea and then the ending and then a 50 page outline… truly this is how it works for him.  He searches for his story, he finds it, then he develops it with an outline, followed by a polish/revision in his drafts.


James Scott Bell and I present stuff that will lead you to a better story… that’s how it works for everybody.  Process isn’t the issue for either of us, though we both have strong opinions based on what works – wait for it – for us.


When writers (famous or otherwise; beware non-famous ones telling you anything at all is dangerous on both sides of the full or empty needle) tell you that outlining robs the process of spontaneity and limits your options… that’s only true for them.


But maybe not for you.


And if you adopt a story development approach early in your career – perhaps precisely because some big name author you admire said that’s how she/he does things – before you truly know what you’re doing, you may or may not have discovered what is true for you.


Nobody is lying to you.  Nobody is trying to send you down a rabbit hole.  Because truly, when they tell you how they do it, it does work for them.


The trick then, the holy grail of our avocation, is to discover what actually does work for you


And that’s much trickier, often a product of trial and error that can take years, than hopping on to someone else’s band wagon.


At some point you’ll find that what does work for you aligns with those very same principles and tools that you perhaps once rejected as formulaic.  Or as antithetical to art.


It’s all just process.


Because however you proceed – pantsed or planned and outlined – your process ends up sharing the exact same purpose with what you may believe is the exact opposite.  Because both approaches, no matter how close to the center of the continuum they are, are a means of doing the very same thing:


The discovery of your full story… leading to the execution of it over the dramatic and character arcs of that story.


How you discover it… whatever works for you.  How it needs to play and what criteria are in place to ensure it works… that’s not something you can make up (pants) at all.


The unspoken fact is, some writers pants their stories – make it all up as they go along – because they can’t do it any other way.  They simply can’t visualize a whole story in their head.  Doesn’t make the stories they end up with any lesser in quality – though that is indeed a possible outcome if they settle for the drafts in which they were still searching for the story – it’s all just a process.


And every writer, famous or not, has one.




If you’d like to go deeper into this discussion, may I recommend my new book, “Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant.”


If you’d like to attend a major workshop that delivers the fundamentals of craft in context to your story, read about that HERE.



Self Publishing as a Lemonade Stand

by James Scott Bell


I always used to stop at kids’ lemonade stands. Not anymore, because you can’t find them. You see, our local government here in Los Angeles, which is so business-friendly scores of enterprises are moving to Texas, decided to regulate the tots and their drinks some years ago. It’s happening all over. Not even Jerry Seinfeld could talk his way out of a lemonade shutdown.

Idiotic and sad, because the lemonade stand was often a kid’s first lesson in free enterprise and what it takes to run a successful business. That’s why I always stopped. I love encouraging ambition and the work ethic in kids.

Self-Publishing is a bit like running a lemonade stand, only without government interference. There’s a little something called the First Amendment, you see. With that in mind, what are some of the lessons we can glean from those little businesses we used to see in the summer by the side of the road?

  1. You’ve got to have a good recipe

The quality of the lemonade is the most important thing. Why? Because it leads to more business. I remember stopping at a stand and tasting dull, watery lemonade. And at another where there was way too much sugar in it. But when I got that glass of fresh lemonade that was just right, I went home and told my wife to go get some, too. A quality product gets talked about.

Writer, the most important thing you can do is write books people delight in and want to tell others about. Don’t serve up an inferior brew. You want word-of-mouth from your customers, not just a polite nod as they go looking for another stand.

  1. Get your mom to taste it

Before going out on the street, you need an expert to check your lemonade. Mom knows best. She can suggest changes and show you how to make a better batch.

Just like a good book editor, critique group, or beta readers. Indie writers need solid outside opinions of their work before they put a book up for sale. The ones who ignore this part of the process soon realize no more cars are stopping.

  1. Create curb appeal

The best lemonade stands had a nice look about them. They weren’t just a table and chairs. The owner-operators took time to create a colorful sign prominently featuring LEMONADE on it, with the price. It was big enough to read as you drove by, and wasn’t just a quick scrawl with a crayon on cardboard.

Self-publishing writers need eye-catching covers and compelling book descriptions. We all know that. Great covers and copy will get you to the next step in the selling process, a browse of the sample. So don’t shirk on the design element.

For covers, hire a pro. Expect to pay between $250 – $500. You can pay less, but caveat emptor. You can pay more, but I’m not sure you get more bang for your buck above half a grand.

You must also learn how to write compelling book descriptions. A solid formula can be found in this post.  Study book descriptions in your genre by browsing Amazon.

  1. Spread the word

I always liked seeing a little creativity in a lemonade stand’s “publicity.” Like when a kid would call out to the cars driving by, but not just by shouting, “Lemonade!” It was more like, “Cool off! It’s refreshing! Give it a try!”

When you start taking to social media, writer, don’t just shout, “Book! Buy my book!” Instead, create desire by telling people how it refreshes. Be fun about it. Don’t oversell.

I remember my own lemonade stand efforts. You know who did the most buying? The neighbors who already knew me.

In the same way, build up your social media presence by being a good neighbor. That should be your main focus, always. Then when you come out with a new book, you can announce it to those with whom you already have a trustworthy relationship.

  1. Thank your customers

It was always fun for me to pull up to the curb and see little faces light up. But much more do I remember one stand run by a couple of girls who jumped up and down and shouted, “Thank you! Thank you!” as I drove away. Their sincere gratitude was infectious.

Nurture your readers. As you begin gathering an email list, don’t pepper them with buy messages. Thank them every now and then. Put a “Thank you for reading” note at the back of your books, with a link to your sign-up page and a request for a review. Keep it simple. And sincere.

If you need some lessons in running a lemonade stand-style publishing business, I can offer you a couple of resources:

Self-Publishing Attack

How to Make a Living as a Writer

You will have challenges, of course. That’s another great lesson for kids, one they need to get early––things don’t always go swimmingly, even with your best efforts. That’s why you don’t give up. You look at the setback, learn from it, and try again.

Remember, if life gives you lemons, gather them up and throw them at people you don’t like either make lemonade or learn how to juggle.

How about you? Did you ever set up a lemonade stand when you were a kid?

If a child came up to you and said, “Gee, I’d like to be a self-published writer someday!” what would you tell them?

How Personal Do You Write?

Jordan Dane


My latest release, THE LAST VICTIM, is a featured book for February 2016 on the Goodreads Psychological Thrillers Book Club. A great group. I’m honored. I’ve contributed a few ideas for discussion questions, submitted giveaways for those who participate in the discussion, but when it came to coming up with interesting tidbits about the book, I had fun remembering what I’d put into this one (and other books). The personal stuff keeps me entertained. It’s a big part of my passion for writing and my natural curiosity gets fed regularly, whether I use a factoid in a book or not.

Here are 5 Ways I keep it real:

1.) Walk the Streets with Yellow Man – If I use a place in my fiction book that criminal activity happens, I tend to make up a name, but maybe model it after a real place, if it fits. But when I can mention a real place, anyone from that city might think I lived there or my use of real places might make them feel like my characters are walking the streets of their hometown. In my latest novel, I used a real restaurant in Seattle called Palace Kitchen. I researched how the place looked outside and picked real items from their menu to use in the book. (Someone please invent a scratch and sniff app to properly research menu items. STAT)

Have you ever wanted to “walk the streets” of a town if you can’t afford to go there? Try using Google maps and look for the little yellow man icon. You click and drag him to where you want to go and let him do the walking for you. You have 360 degree views. I’ve walked the ugly streets of some big cities to find the creepiest places to kill people. Try it. (Not the killing part. The yellow man click and drag part.)

2.) YouTube & Vimeo Put You There – I’ve been researching sniper training. I’ll get a weapons guy to help fine tune the details, but YouTube or Vimeo is a good place to start. In one of my YA novels, ON A DARK WING, I watched videos of the many climbers who tackled Mount Denali in Alaska. I had a friend who climbed the mountain more than once, but you never know what choice morsels you can find from someone’s video while they are “in the trenches.”

3.) No One is Safe – In THE LAST VICTIM, I added my nephew and made him an Alaska State Trooper. Almost all of my books have relatives hidden in their pages. I don’t warn them ahead of time, but they crack up when they see their names or familiar habits in print. Some might be only a voice on a recorded message or another might be a detective walking the streets looking for hookers.

4.) Pets Are Fair Game – In my last book, I added my rescue dog Sancho and my yellow tabby Pinot Grigio (RIP little man). Since I’m writing a work of fiction, I can make them smarter than they are, have them catch a Frisbee, or flash their furry butts in indignation.

5.) Bleed on the Page – In the novella I just finished, I explored grief through my character, Rafael Matero in HOT TARGET, my Omega Team novella series that will launch under Amazon Kindle Worlds February 18th. I lost someone very special to me in 2014 and it ripped my heart out. I’ve only just started back to writing with this Omega series, so I had to bleed on the page with my experiences. It makes this book very personal for me. I struggled for every word and every image to make it feel real. It’s given me a measure of peace and has become my first step toward a new future. I’m so glad I wrote this book. It will always be special to me for that reason.

On the lighter side, I am researching funny military slang or phrases that my former Navy SEAL, Sam Rafferty, might use in my Omega Team Book #2 – TOUGH TARGET, coming out in May 2016. (The third novella in the series will be out in July 2016.) My older brother had a long career with the Air Force and he’s still involved as a contractor for the military. It’s been fun picking his brain, especially with his humor. The more I infuse some handpicked phrases, the more this character is coming alive in my mind for this series. There are plenty of online resources, but the slang or phrases that are the funniest come from the comments written below the posts on slang.

For Discussion:
1.) If you know any fun military slang or phrases, please share them or any links you think would help. (I’ve adapted some of these phrases or slang into my dialogue with Sam Rafferty and it’s been a blast.)

2.) Share some examples how you make your writing personal. I’d love to hear.

HotTarget (3)

HOT TARGET – An Omega Team novella series, created by Desiree Holt for Amazon Kindle Worlds, coming February 18.

When Rafael reaches out to his sister for a job, Athena Matero—a founding member of the private security agency the Omega Team—can’t help be protective of her younger half brother. After the brutal murders of his wife and baby girl, Rafael Matero turned into a solitary loner, only surfacing to fulfill his duties as team leader for an elite SWAT sniper unit with the Chicago Police. Athena decides to fast track his application by vetting him on the job—a mission to Havana Cuba to investigate a cold case murder.

But when the old murder is linked to the shadowy death of a powerful drug cartel leader, Rafael is burdened by a terrible secret from his past—and an unrelenting death wish—that puts him at dangerous odds with Athena and her team. He believes he’s beyond saving, but that doesn’t stop Jacquie Lyles from trying.

Jacquie sees something in Athena’s mysterious brother that touches her heart. Chivalrous and brave, Rafael is as rare as a unicorn in her life as techno computer geek and white hat hacker for the Omega Team. After she joins the team on its mission to Cuba, she uncovers Rafael’s shocking burden and it breaks her heart.

Rafael stands in the crosshairs of a vicious drug cartel—powerless to stop his fate—and his secret could put Athena and her team in the middle of a drug war.