When Is It Time to Let Your Old Work Go?

What do you do with your unpublished/unsold work? Where is your juvenilia? Do you treasure it, or let it go?

I’m a let-it-go person. My first two unpublished, and probably unpublishable novels are around here…somewhere. Well, the second one might be in a box in the mudroom. At least I think it made it onto the moving truck eleven years ago. I kind of hope it’s not, because I really don’t want anyone finding it and reading it when I die. (Let alone trying to publish it–that never works out well for the dead writer. I’m put in mind of some of Shirley Jackson’s early story drafts that were published posthumously. And isn’t there 3/4 of a Hemingway novel out there somewhere?) There are probably also drafts of that second novel on 3.5″ floppy disks in my office closet.

My very first unpublished novel may not even have made it onto a 3.5″ disk. I think I finished it in 1998. Before I wrote it, I read a Somerset Maugham autobiography that suggested that all writers should finish their first novel and then immediately put it away in a drawer. It’s only just this minute that I realized he said, “a drawer,” and not, “the trash.” So perhaps I shouldn’t have completely lost track of it.

I have a 17-year-old son who is embarrassed by everything he’s done in the past–the past being fifteen minutes ago, or longer. I’m not that bad, but I don’t feel the desire to go too far back and look at the writer I was. It took years and years and years for me to get that (third) first novel published. To get it good enough. While I’m very comfortable with reflecting on my own work, or poking fun at my old habits–the first 3 short stories and first 2 novels I wrote all had old-fashioned silver-handled vanity hand-mirror and brush sets in them!–in workshops or, well, here, I don’t necessarily care to see them on paper.

It’s a lot like travel. If I am not overburdened with luggage, I’ll take my SLR camera with me because I love, love, love to frame the world through the camera’s lens. But if I can’t take it, I don’t stress about it. The things I see and do live in my memories. There are times when I’ve consciously said, “I will remember how this looks and how it feels.” And I do. That’s enough.

I remember how it felt to write those books and stories. They are landmarks on my journey through the writing life, and I don’t need physical evidence of them. Bits and pieces of them survive in other work. Creativity is never, ever wasted. The words and ideas make their way through my fingers and travel out into the world. I guess I could go full-on dork and say I set them free and they take on their own lives. Or not. And I get to make new ones. Always new ones.

What’s your relationship with work from your past?

A “Moveable Feast” That Never Grows Stale

    Photo purchased from Shutterstock by KL

I’m in the air today on the last leg of a long-delayed  return trip to Paris. The last time I was in the city was 1978 (yikes!). I was worried that since then Paris might have gone the way of so many urban cities, losing its charm and character in the endless pursuit of development and “progress. To my delight, I’ve discovered that Parisiennes value (and therefore preserve) their history and characteristic lifestyle. If anything, Paris is more beautiful than it was in the 70’s (that decade was not a cultural high point for most if any cities, as I dimly recall).

I won’t be able to check in again until the wee hours later today, but please share if any favorite location of your extreme youth has also survived the test of time. Have you ever been back after a long absence to a place that emanates  a rosy, nostalgic glow in your memory? Did you find it to be the same as you remember, worse, or better?


Deeper Thinking About Writing Your Scenes

by Larry Brooks

Deeper than what, you might fairly ask?

Perhaps, deeper than you’re thinking about them now. Because too often, newer writers (in particular) begin writing a scene without a clear intention for that scene. As a means of discovery (finding and vetting story options), this can be viable and legit…

… but unless you rethink and recast the scene once you do understand the purpose of a particular scene – its mission, if you will – chances are that scene will become a liability.

New writers tend to forget that next step.  The scene rambles, then it finds (perhaps stumbles upon) its purpose… then it’s on to the next scene.

If you have a bunch of scenes created this way, you may have tanked the whole novel on this one issue of craft alone.

Scene writing is its own core competency, separate from – yet every bit as essential as – the other primary core competencies you need to manifest: 1) a conceptually-rich premise, 2) character, 3) theme, 4) structure and 5) writing voice, including dialogue and the general nature of your narrative.

That’s six core competencies (categorically) in all.

If this was an athletic contest of some kind, scene writing would be where you actually manifest your skills and instincts on the field/court itself, while the others reside in the realm of preparation and training, strategy and game plan, teamwork and aggression.

Obvious? If you could read enough manuscripts under development, you’d see that it isn’t.

One of the stories I was coaching recently had this little wrinkle: the main character’s quest was interrupted by a flashback scene showing the hero as a boy delivering newspapers, falling off his bike and being laughed at by a group of girls standing on the opposite corner.

Then the reader was taken right back in the thick of the hunt for the adult hero’s blackmailer.

That little flashback was actually well done, but it was like a helping of turkey sage dressing plopped onto the plate that was otherwise a steak dinner. I kept waiting for it to connect to the main dramatic spine of the story.

I read on. And on. It never did.

I asked the writer why this scene was even in the story.  He said it was there because he loved it. This had actually happened to him, back in the day, and he’d never forgotten it. Yeah, I countered, but why is it in this story, in which the hero has no adult issues with women laughing at him, or with any childhood issues at all?

He said he thought it contributed to characterization. He said he thought it was cool.

It didn’t. It wasn’t. It a distraction, the slamming of a Pause button. His answer to my question was a defensive scramble, a rookie rationalization, rather than logic that fit into the professional level of craft understanding.

You know that truism about killing your darlings? This was a case study for that.

The scene didn’t have a purpose in this story. It was strategically indefensible. It contributed nothing to narrative exposition… which is something that all of our scenes must accomplish (with a caveat that this contribution may read differently in the contextually-unique opening setup scenes, an awareness of which is a subtlety that separates new writers from proven pros).

Scenes are, by definition, strategic in nature.  

When a story works, its scenes have a reason to be.  A purposeful mission to fulfill. And, a context that helps define the mission based on where it resides within the story.

There are many ways to boil this down into a storytelling principle, like this:

Every scene in your novel needs to move the story forward at an expositional level. The riskiest scenes are when the writer defends it as a tool of characterization, rather than a tool of exposition that is informed by characterization.

The best scenes accomplish both.

The question becomes this: how does your scene move the story forward, literally, by injecting new information or nuance into the narrative?

My advice, to both planners and pantsers: don’t write the scene until you know. Or if you must, don’t label the scene as “final” until you have a good answer.

So how do you know? One word: context. By understanding what has happened before the scene… and, with equal clarity how the scene will tee up what happens after it.

Putting that evolved clarity into your scenes often becomes the primary value-add of the revision process.

Here are more questions you should ask about your scenes:

What single element of exposition does this scene contribute to the narrative?

Is there, in fact, more than one expositional mission for the scene? Hopefully not by your design. There shouldn’t be multiple scene missions in an expositional context (one scene showing a car crash and a drug deal and a sexual encounter… not a good idea), especially after the Part 1 setup quartile. If so, consider creating separate and sequential scenes, even a series of scenes, to deliver them.

If there is no obvious mission for a scene, why are you considering this scene at all? If the answer serves anything other than the dramatic forwarding of the story… pause and rethink.

If your scene is there simply to create or reinforce setting and show characterization (which can work early in a story, and not all that often), or to fill in blanks that the reader is fully capable of filling in themselves, consider adding that context to scenes that do have a  clearer narrative mission as the main purpose and point.

Knowing the scene’s mission, you can now cut into the scene (begin it) at the last possible moment, avoiding obligatory chit-chat that doesn’t setup the “moment” the scene delivers.

Ask yourself how the scene changes the story. If it doesn’t, look closer at it. Your entire story arc needs to appear as a sloping line, either up or down, it should never be cruising along at one dramatic altitude.

Is your scene part of a dramatic sequence?  

Each beat of a sequence that contributes new information is worthy of its own scene. Consider separating scenes in a tightly unspooling sequence by using skipped lines (white space) as transitional devices between them.

Do you know how to set up a scene to empower the scenes that follow?  Seek to understand how, and when, each scene connects to the whole.

Where in the scene does its moment of revelation (fulfillment of the mission) occur?  The later the better… even down to the last sentence. Which means, you are writing lean-and-mean on both ends of the scene itself.

After the mission is clear… then what?

Once the mission of a scene is identified, the questions sound like this: What is the best creative strategy for this scene (cut in as late as possible, dramatize the key moment, transition out at the height of the drama)?

Does it leverage previous scenes, and thus remains bound in alignment to them?

When you are clear on the mission of a scene, and when that mission contributes momentum to the forward motion of the story, only then do the artistic options for it become fully clear.





Less Focus For Better Writing

by James Scott Bell

On a recent Saturday morning I took one of my famous homemade cappuccinos out by the pool and reclined on a lounge with a Dean Koontz and my AlphaSmart. My intent was simply to enjoy an hour of relaxed reading before getting back to a scene in my WIP.

The weather was sublime (“Looks like another perfect day, AH love L.A….” – Randy Newman), and I found myself contentedly sipping my brew and doing absolutely nothing. Looked at the sky, the clouds, a distant plane floating toward Burbank or LAX. A little part of my mind said, You can read now. But I didn’t listen. I was enjoying the fine art of loafing.

Which lasted about three minutes. Because something happened I know has happened to you. Up there in the writing bungalow of my brain, the staff was working under the radar. A messenger send down a memo. It was about one of the secondary characters in my WIP. It was an idea that brought her more fullness and sympathy and was perfectly in keeping with her backstory.

I grabbed my AlphaSmart and wrote a page of voice journal—the character speaking directly to me. It was deep and evocative and I knew a lot of it was going right into my book.

As I said, you know that feeling. In the car, the shower, at the grocery store—a great idea flashes and you jot it down or record it as a memo on your phone. And you can’t wait to get back to the keyboard.

This bit of serendipity got me to thinking that maybe I should try to be more systematic about my loafing. I’m naturally good at it, but how much better could I be if I used a little discipline?

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus”, Dr. Srini Pillay writes about our over-emphasis on focus. We have our to-do lists, timetables, goals. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it turns out we also should be practicing “unfocus.”

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).

The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

Dr. Pillay recommends building “positive constructive daydreaming” (PCD) into your day. I do this very well at my local coffee house. I stare. Out the window. Sometimes at people. I’m really working, though. That’s PCD time!

Another tip from the good doctor: power naps. “When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert.”

But the technique that really jumped out at me was this:

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.

This is close to something I’ve done on occasion. I may have finished a draft and am doing the first read through. Something’s not working. I don’t know what.

I set it aside for awhile and do something unfocused: like pleasure reading, eating a Tommy Burger, or riding my bike. Then when I go back to it I think of a favorite author and pretend he’s looking over my shoulder at the draft. I have him say, “I think you need to ….” and just imagine what he would advise. It’s amazing how often this can break the logjam.

In light of all the science, then, I’ve determined to take a little more unfocus time on weekends.

I’ve also gotten more specific about how I spend my focus time. I’m a morning person. I like getting up while it’s still dark and pouring that first cup of java and getting some words down. I can write for two or three hours straight. But I’ve stopped doing that. I am forcing myself to take a break after 45 minutes of writing, to let the noggin rest a bit. Ten minutes maybe. Then back to work.

In the afternoon, from roughly 1 – 4, I can’t focus like I do in the morning. So I’ll write (or edit) in 25-minute spurts. Then I’ll get up and do something unfocused for fifteen minutes. Or I might lie on my back on the floor with my legs up on a chair for ten minutes, and deep-breathe. Then I go for my next 25-minute writing stint. I believe this is called the Pomodoro Technique.

Oh yes, and this cannot be emphasized enough: tame your social media distractions or they will eat your brain!

There’s a famous story (one of many) about the dictatorial head of Columbia Studio, Harry Cohn. He walked on the lot one morning and strode past the writers’ bungalow. It was completely quiet. He blew his stack and started cursing at the building.

Suddenly, the place burst with the sound of typewriters clacking away.

Harry Cohn shouted, “LIARS!”

In retrospect, maybe he should have given them all a raise. They were unfocusing!

So what about you? Do you ever practice “unfocus”? 



For more on the mental side of the writing life, see The Mental Game of Writing: 29 Secrets For Overcoming Obstacles And Freeing Your Mind For Success.

Eavesdroppers, Beware!

By Debbie Burke




We might as well confess. As writers, we’ve been known to eavesdrop on conversations.


We wonder, what is that couple at the next table squabbling about? Or we listen over the dressing room partition to young women anticipating their lovers’ reactions to lingerie they’re trying on. Or we’re stuck on a plane beside a gnarly guy with strange tattoos who’s swearing at the unfortunate soul on the other end of his cell phone.


Writers can’t help being incurably nosy, because we’re always on the lookout for the germ of a great story idea.


But what about when a normal person listens in on conversations among crime writers? Those can veer into potentially gruesome territory, especially when we’re doing research with professional experts, like medical first responders, law enforcement, military personnel, and others whose jobs bring them in contact with violence, its perpetrators and victims. Such experts always have colorful stories to share about bizarre cases and unsolved mysteries.


However, those chats can get graphic. If a civilian (non-writer) happened to listen in on such conversations, they might overhear scary stuff they’d rather not know. On top of that, the gory details could ruin someone’s lunch if they’re unlucky enough to sit too close to your table.


GROSS-OUT ALERT: If your stomach is delicate, skip the next two paragraphs.


While hanging out in the hotel bar at a writers conference, an FBI agent told me the story about an obese female who’d died under suspicious circumstances. Because he wasn’t looking forward to observing the autopsy on a body that had been dead for several days, he’d skipped breakfast to avoid the embarrassment of losing it, and stuffed his nose with Vicks to deal with the smell. But he wasn’t ready for the visual about to unfold before him.


Decomposition causes gases to build up inside a body, the reason why drowning victims eventually float to the surface. When the medical examiner made the Y-shaped cut in the woman’s torso, yards of gas-filled intestines billowed up through the incision. According to the FBI agent, they looked “just like balloon animals.” He has not been able to look at balloon animals since without thinking of that unforgettable image. Neither have I.


Okay, it’s safe to resume reading.


One morning, I met for coffee at a local haunt with two mystery writer pals, one of whom is an emergency physician. I often query her about strangulation, gunshot wounds, blood loss, drug overdoses, etc. She’s an indispensable encyclopedia of medical knowledge.


The subject came up about how to kill someone using an IV in a hospital. The learned doctor suggested several drugs that couldn’t be traced in an autopsy. The three of us debated the pros and cons of various drugs, looking for an option that would be easy for a killer to obtain, but wouldn’t show on a toxicological screen.


Suddenly, we noticed other customers had moved far away from our table and were shooting concerned looks in our direction. Thankfully, no one called 911 to report three seemingly harmless, but obviously evil, women plotting the perfect murder.


Then there’s the time my husband and I were on vacation in Florida. We’d become acquainted with an interesting gentleman who was a retired coroner. Since I got up early and my husband slept late, for several mornings, the coroner and I wound up on side-by-side chaise lounges, sunning ourselves by the pool. Naturally we’d get talking. He told me about unusual cases and I’d ask him about various plot devices. At the time, I was working on a short story about a murder committed in a nudist resort. But where do you hide the weapon?


The coroner came up with the ideal solution. Take a bottle of sunscreen lotion. Add a particular lethal drug. The toxin is absorbed through the skin and mimics the effects of a heart attack. Brilliant!


Then we noticed sunbathers on adjacent chaises, suspiciously watching us. I’m sure they thought the coroner and I were clandestine lovers, plotting the murder of my poor, unsuspecting husband.


Nevertheless, this tale had a happy ending: my short story was published and, thankfully, my husband survived unscathed.


Writers get carried away with imaginary characters and imaginary crimes. Maybe we should issue disclaimers to innocent folks at adjacent tables. “It’s okay, we’re not really going to rob a bank. We’re just writers. Pull up a chair and help us plan the perfect crime.”


Debbie Burke wrote a TKZ guest blog several weeks ago about Kindle Scout. She plans to take the plunge soon and enter her suspense thriller, Instrument of the Devil.

Endings Really Matter

By John Gilstrap

I just finished a book that was sent to me in search of a blurb.  It was one of the most thrilling thrillers I’ve read in a long time, and because the publisher was on tight time constraints, I gave the book a rave blurb when I was only about three-quarters of the way through.  I mean, this was a pulse-pounder.

Until the last 30 pages.

“Before you kill me, you’ve got to tell me why you did it, and how all of your compatriots fit into the puzzle.”  Okay, it wasn’t that on-the-nose, but it was close.  Such a disappointment.  I don’t regret the blurb, and I would read the author again because of the exciting 9/10 of the storytelling, but I really felt let down.  And no, I won’t share the book title or the author because I don’t think that would be fair.

Folks, this show-don’t-tell trope holds from the beginning of a story all the way through to the last page.  I think that writers sometimes get tired of their own stories, or they’re leaning face-first into the fan blades of a submission deadline and they sort of eject from the plot and characters, settling for, “Well, it’s good enough.”

And you know what? I get that.  I’ll readily forgive that of an author I’ve followed and whose works I enjoy, provided it’s a one-off.  I’ll write it off as their Mulligan book, their bye.  But at that point, they’re on notice.  The next book better be up to standard, or they lose their spot on the TBR pile.

This is why the bar is set especially high for new writers.  Rookies don’t get a Mulligan on their first swing.  They’ve got to slam that baby three hundred yards straight down the fairway.

Getting Out of Rewrite Hell Alive

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” – Truman Capote

By PJ Parrish

I hate Lee Child.

Well, at least I got your attention.

Okay, I don’t really hate the guy. He’s actually one of the menschiest men in our business. But about once a year, right around the same time, I really really really hate the guy.
Why? He claims he never rewrites. He says he writes one draft and that is what makes it into print. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave to a reporter for the Independent newspaper in Britain:

“This isn’t the first draft, you know.”

He’d only written two words. CHAPTER ONE.

“Oh,” I said. “What is it then?”

“It’s the only draft!”

Right then, he sounded more like Jack Reacher than Lee Child. More Reacher than writer.

“I don’t want to improve it. When I’ve written something, that is the way it has to stay. It’s like one of those old photos you come across. From the 1970s. And you have this terrible Seventies haircut and giant lapels on your jacket. It’s ridiculous – but it’s there. It is what it is. Leave it alone.”

Okay, let me try to qualify this a little. This week I am starting rewrites on our latest Louis Kincaid thriller. Now, we’re pretty clean writers. We write so slowly that things tend to fall in place as we go along. But this newest book was different. It didn’t chug nicely along, with a little lurch or two along the way. This one was a big Victorian locomotive that would speed ahead for three chapters, hit a hill, careen backwards, smack into a tree and then start groaning forward again, all the while belching out noxious clouds of purple smoke.

But at least it is done. And while we normally now would be going in with a light heart and an Allen wrench to fine-tune, this time we are going back into the manuscript with grim determination and a scalpel in one hand and sledgehammer in the other.

I know the story is solid. In fact, it might be the best book we’ve written. But I also know we have weeks of rewrite hell ahead. How did this happen? Partly because this book came when both Kelly and I had a lot of life stuff going on. For my part, I moved to a new city after living in the same place for 40 years, so I often had to break my vow of writing daily and thus I had to leave my imaginary world and live in the real world of closing statements and cardboard boxes. The main man in my life wasn’t my hero Louis Kincaid but Two Men and a Truck.

Writing tip of the day no. 1: Even when life intrudes, do everything you can to maintain daily contact with your novel. Visit your imaginary world every day, even if it’s just to go back and read what you already wrote.

But that wasn’t the only problem. The story we chose this time was very ambitious, both in plot, characterization and theme. This time out, for book no. 14, we weren’t just juggling with fire torches, we were juggling with chainsaws. And at times, we lost our way in both the arcs of the case (plot) and its people (character).

Writing tip of the day no. 2: Even if you’re a pantser like me, create a road map for your story. You don’t have to stick to the outline or template, but when you get distracted, it can be a path back to the main story road.

Sometimes, learning about how other writers do things – watching how someone else makes their sausage – can help you find your own process. So let me share some things I’m facing as I go into rewrites this week. It won’t be your tao, but it might spark a how.

First, we have to deal with the little stuff. Things like changing a character name or setting up the bread crumb trail of your clues better. Kelly and I deal with these small potatoes by creating Post-It notes. Here’s a typical Skype conversation for us:

Kelly: We need to beef up the FBI dossier on Steele that Emily gives Louis.

Me: Where do you think it should go?

Kelly: How about in the first restaurant scene where they first talk about the team?

Me: Good idea.

Kelly: Make a sticky note or you’ll forget it.

So I scribble out a note on a Post-It and slap it up on a board in my office. But as I packed up my office, I had to stuff all the “sticky notes” in an envelope .

Today, I got them out of the box and spread them on the glass door of my desk so at least now I can see what awaits me.

This is only part of them. I ran out of room. It gets worse. While we were in mid-move, we were still trying to work so I had to resort to making Microsoft sticky notes that I slapped onto my desk top:

Now do you understand why I hate Lee Child?

What’s weird about this is that normally I love rewriting.  At this point for me, the grunt work is done, the sweat has dried, and I am merely redecorating, pulling weeds, repainting, and repositioning the furniture. But this book needs a new entry door, a couple walls knocked down, a massive new support beam around chapter 25, and a new addition built onto the back.  It’s not Property Brothers; it’s This Old House.

Writing tip of the day no. 3: Sometimes you don’t see the real problems until you have finished the whole book.

It wasn’t until we got around page 400 that Kelly and I realized just how much big structural work was ahead of us. We couldn’t see these issues until we had traveled the entire course of the story. We had been in the PLOT trees for so long that it wasn’t until we emerged back out into the open that we could look back and clearly see the CHARACTER/THEME forest.

So what do we need to fix? Here’s just a few things:

Chapter 1: Yeah, I hear your groans. Because if you read our First Page Critiques here, you know how important the opening moments of your story are. Our story starts slowly, with Louis returning to his home state of Michigan to take a job with a new prestigious cold case squad led by the police captain who, eight years before (in book 2), had caused Louis to lose his job.  Okay, that’s a good obstacle for Louis but it’s not a sexy opening for a thriller. So we wrote a “prologue” in which two young boys are running for their lives from an unknown person who wants to seal them in a box.  Well, THAT’S attention-grabbing.  But as we neared the end of the book, we realized the scene felt artificial, like we were desperate to inject action into the opening. We were trying to gin up the story, but the scene was not organic to what came after — Louis on the first day of the job.

So we’ve axed the boys scene and are writing a scene between Louis and his new boss that will play on the tension between the men and stress the high stakes for Louis.

Writing tip of the day no. 4: Don’t be afraid of the slow opening as long as it has tension, hints at a major conflict, or  conveys that something has been disturbed.  You don’t have to throw a boulder into a lake to make waves; sometimes a well-aimed rock creates ripples enough to make the reader want more.

Another thing we need to fix is our characters’s motivations. Okay, I’ve been married for 35 years and just when I think I know my husband, he does something that makes me think, blink or just laugh my ass off. So it should be with your characters. You won’t know everything about them when you start, so don’t expect to. Keep control of them, yes, but be open to their surprises and their growth.  Kelly and I found we didn’t know really know what drove our villain until he was vanquished around page 350.  Now we have to go back and build up his early scenes — putting in that crucial beam or two! — so his final actions make sense. Even the bad guys deserve this respect.

Then there’s the last thing we need to  fix — our theme. This one is maybe the hardest because theme is a slippery thing. I think theme is really important to good books. It is what your book is really about at its heart. It isn’t plot. Here’s Stephen King on the subject:

Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal. If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered–why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what’s it all about, Alfie?

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book–at least every one worth reading–is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft–one of them, anyway–is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails

We weren’t sure what this book was about, to be honest. It is about the murder of a mega-church minister — and how that murder ties into the little boys who were nailed into a box and left to die. But that’s just plot. What does all this mean? We knew the theme was loosely about religion. But It wasn’t until Kelly wrote one line of dialogue in chapter 34 that we found the theme. The line came from an atheist whom Louis interviews:

What does a man do with his guilt if he doesn’t believe in God? 

That line made us realize our book’s heart was about how people who are damaged — and people who inflict damage on others — still find a reason to believe in something.  But now we have to go back and carefully calibrate each character, through their actions, thoughts and words, to reflect that main idea. And yes, there is an answer even for the villain.

So, if you’ll excuse me I have some heavy lifting to do. If you are about to finish your book — huzzah, huzzah! — let me leave you with a couple miscellaneous bullet points about surviving rewrite hell.

Don’t get caught in ego-trap that your first draft is great. Hemingway himself said the first draft is always crap. (well, he used a different word).

Sometimes to fix it, you have to break it.

Let your first draft bake. I call this the de-cheesing time. Finish the book, let it sit for at least two weeks, then print it out and read it. The bad parts will stink like bad Brie.

Be courageous but careful. Rewriting is like eating an elephant. It’s one bite at a time.

Take out all the dumb words. Figure out what your writer tic is — mine is an overuse of “then” and “suddenly.” Excise all the flabby physical movements like, “He nodded his head.” (He just nodded.) Don’t keep repeating physical attributes. Once you tell me the lady has sea foam green eyes, don’t tell me again.

Hire an editor if you need one. And most of us need one badly. There is nothing more valuable than a trained reader who will tell you the truth and whose only interest is the quality of your book.

Sometimes you have to add, not subtract. Contrary to what Truman Capote, not every rewrite needs scissors. Sometimes you need to put more meat on the plot bones or inject blood into anemic characters. Stop obsessing about word count. The book will be as long as it needs to be.

Have a plan going in. After you’ve let the draft bake and given it a fresh read, write down the things — big and small — that you have to deal with. Here’s Chuck Wendig on the subject in his usual colorful style:

You write your first draft however you want. Outline, no outline, finger-painted on the back of a Waffle House placemat in your own feces, I don’t care. But you go to attack a rewrite without a plan in mind, you might as well be a chimpanzee humping a football helmet. How do you know what to fix if you haven’t identified what’s broken? This isn’t the time for intuition. Have notes. Put a plan in place. Surgical strike.

And as you eat the elephant, keep an eye out for that theme. Or as Dorothy Parker put it in her book on writing:

I would write a book at least three times–once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.


But, after all this, after all this advice I’ve set out here, isn’t it fair to let the King of the Perfect Draft have the last word? Take it, Lee Child…

My honest answer is ignore advice because it’s got to be your product. It’s got to be an organic product with a vital, vivid integrity of its own and you’ll never get that if you’re worried about what other people are telling you to do.

To Rant or Not to Rant

A few days ago I saw an author ‘rant’ posted on social media (for the sake of anonymity I won’t mention the author or the social media platform!). It was a full-blown tirade against insensitive publishers and their treatment of authors and their submissions. I don’t know the author personally but the post highlighted for me the dangers of airing grievances online. While I certainly have a great deal of sympathy – the whole process of writing and trying to get published is not for the fainthearted – but social media is definitely not the place to air your frustration or bitterness.This particular rant seemed to be aimed at the fact that certain publishers had not bothered to even respond to a full MS submission. Now, I know silence is horrible and the waiting to hear back on a submission is nerve-wracking, but unfortunately it’s all part and parcel of the (traditional) publishing process. The online post reminded me of the rules I try to follow when it comes to social media and dealing with the publishing process…because you never know who might read or share your online post. These rules include:

  • Maintain Professionalism:  This goes for all online posts related to employment, the publishing industry and the submission process. If you want to be taken seriously, you have present yourself as cool, calm and professional. No agent or editor wants to deal with an unprofessional author. They don’t want tantrums or drama. They want great quality work delivered on time. Equally well, I’ve never met anyone in the publishing industry who doesn’t love what they do and who doesn’t have the utmost respect for the work that goes into writing a novel. This is, however, an industry (hey, publishers want to make money) and, though it can be brutal, if you want to participate in it, you have to deal with rejection and frustration like a professional. Which leads to my next rule…
  • Never air your grievances: Even though the publishing process may drive you to drink/despair/chocolate bingeing…never resort to telling the world how awful such-and-such agent/editor/publisher is…unless you’ve encountered truly unethical behavior or a scam. Only then do I feel an author should legitimately alert the online community to what has happened.
  • Be careful of venting your frustration online: Not just because you never know who might read or share you post but also because it has a tendency to lead to a downward spiral of comments/reactions/flame ups that never end well. It may seem cathartic at first but I’m not sure it helps. While I admire honesty (I’m certainly not suggesting authors lie or present an unrealistic picture of the publishing process), I think restraint is usually the best policy. Cry, vent and scream all you want in private but don’t do it public.

So TKZers do you have ‘rules’ you follow when it comes to social media and discussing your experiences with publishing or the publishing process? How do you react when you see a post that rants and rails against the industry? Do you agree authors should keep their frustrations to themselves or would you prefer to see more venting for the sake of honesty?


The Random Dialogue Exercise

by James Scott Bell

Here’s a little exercise I teach in my workshops: take one of your dialogue-heavy scenes. Go to the middle and select a line at random. Now, pull down a random novel from your shelf. Open to a random page. Flip around until you find some dialogue. Pick one line of that dialogue.

NOW: substitute the line you just read for the line you selected in your scene. THEN: figure out how to justify it!

NEXT: Tweak the line so it fits the character. FINALLY: Rewrite the rest of the scene. Do this as a way to create or explore deeper levels of story or character. You may end up not using the dialogue line itself, but you will have opened up new vistas in your story and given your imagination a chance to play.

But if you do use the line, here is a big benefit: It creates a surprise for the reader. And surprise is the greatest page-turning prompt of all. Predictability is dull. So throw the reader off every now and then with something out of the blue.

Another benefit: you can use this exercise whenever you hit bad old writer’s block. Don’t know where your story is going? Having trouble plotting the next few scenes? Not sure who a character is? Try this exercise and get the mental pistons firing again.

Here’s a clip from my current WIP:

“Isn’t the view gorgeous?” she said.

“You better get right to it,” Dylan said, “because this is the last time we meet.”

“You can’t mean that.”

“I’m prepared to walk away.”

“I don’t think so, dear.”

“Watch me.”

“You haven’t even seen what I have.”

“I don’t care—”

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”


“I know people. I can get you help.”

Now I perform the exercise. I’ll show you what I came up with using four very different novels off my shelf.

Using a line from An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Oh, it doesn’t amount to anything, really. We just quarrel, that’s all, once in awhile.”

From The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (1972):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”


From The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Yeah, she had it tucked under her arm when she paid me.”

From L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais (1999):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Well, we’re going to find out, but right now we’ve got a maniac to get off the street.”

Well now! Each one of these lines takes us in a different direction, doesn’t it?

The first one gets me thinking along the lines of Psycho, and multiple personalities.

The second one gives me a whole new aspect of character.

The third one is so obscure I have to do some more cogitating. I try to figure out why this woman would have been paid, and by whom. That’s a whole new plot point! That she could be working with someone. So I spend a few minutes jotting down ideas about that. Also, what did this mystery woman have tucked under her arm?

Since I’m writing a thriller, the last example really got my imagination scrambling. Which is, of course, the point of this exercise.

If I decide to use one of these lines, I’ll tweak it to make it consistent with the character’s voice.

But, after all this, I may just go back to the way I had it before. But wouldn’t that be wasted effort? Far from it! Because the writer’s mind is always stronger after this kind of workout—lithe, supple, and ready for action … hmm, maybe I should write a romance.

But not now, because I’m in the middle of my WIP and I’ve got a maniac to get off the street.

There are innumerable fiction writing exercises and prompts to jump start your writing sessions. What are some of your favorites?