Brave Words of Wisdom

In my experience, a vital part of creating a fictional narrative is being willing to screw up when writing, followed by figuring out how to fix your mistakes, as well as understanding that very few stories are truly perfect, and, finally, knowing when to trash what you’ve written and begin anew. If I’m not careful, perfectionism and fear of failure can hold me back from creating fiction.

Today’s trio of words of wisdom is about being brave in your writing (and rewriting) and being willing to embrace mistakes, fixing what you can, and learning from what you can’t fix.

First Clare Langely-Hawthrone talks about her revision process. Then Boyd Morrison explains why it is important to not avoid making mistakes at all costs when writing. Finally, Joe Hartlaub shares another author’s courage in being willing to discard a novel that didn’t work.

I view revising as adding the second and third coats of paint to a project – each layer adds a subtly and a depth to the characters, to the setting, and to the themes that swirl around the plot. What I find the biggest challenge is avoiding what I call ‘tinkering’ – changing my mind over a minute plot point only to find it has rolling ramifications and then (in total disgust) I find I have to go all the way back and return it all to the way it was. I guess this is what people call a ‘learning process’ but I seem to be a bit ‘learning challenged’ when it comes to this – and still find myself adding complexity where NO MORE is needed! ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ is a motto I need to have branded to my forehead.

Those who want to see the writing process in action can find me sitting in my writing studio, a converted garage in the back of our house, bleary eyed at one o’clock in the morning, determined to finish the next chapter as I’m ‘on a roll’. I might be on the internet checking on a historical reference, looking up the architecture for a historic home or searching The Times database for an event the latest fashions for that year. I might even be using the delete key to liberal advantage as part of the revision process involves getting rid of all the extraneous stuff that I find stops the flow of the narrative (sometimes bringing tears to my eyes if it was a point of historical research I spent hours on!)

Yesterday I deleted a whole chapter – painful but necessary. I then merged two minor characters to streamline the plot. I decided one scene moved like molasses and I got bogged down in worrying whether the house should have gothic archways or not…Time passed. It was one am…Time to call it quits till the red pen, the axe and the delete key were brought back out to do it all again.

Ah the joys of revision. You just got to be brave…

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—September 15, 2008


In writing, trying to eliminate mistakes is the mistake. Yes, there are objective errors that you want to avoid in a novel. Don’t put a safety on a Glock pistol. Don’t make your continuity and timelines inconsistent. Don’t change the name of a character halfway through. These are indisputable mistakes, and yet I have seen them all in novels. Bestselling novels.

In one of my own books, THE ARK, I explained that the elevators of a slowing airplane lowered to maintain altitude. Of course, this is incorrect. The elevators should go up to pitch the aircraft up. I’ve flown planes myself. I have a degree in mechanical engineering during which I studied fluid dynamics. I know that it was wrong, and I still made the mistake. No one—including my brother, who is a former Air Force pilot—caught the error until the book was in stores. No one died, and only one reader has ever brought it up (in fact, it’s the only reason I know the mistake happened). However, the error still bugs me.

What’s more insidious for a writer is the avoidance of subjective mistakes. We want to get everything right in a story: characters, plot, twists, literary merit, creativity, emotional resonance. We want the story to be perfect, and impatient people like me want it to be perfect from the moment we start typing it.

But it never is. It can’t be. Ever. I bet you’d only be able to come up with a tiny list of  stories that didn’t have a single thing you’d change. And even then, go look at the Amazon reviews for those books. You’ll find at least a few people (and sometimes hundreds of them) who don’t agree with your definition of perfection.

Voltaire is considered the originator of the phrase, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” We’re afraid that if our story isn’t perfect, it won’t be good enough. The idea for a novel that we have in our minds never comes out on the page like we imagine. Sometimes we can’t write at all because we’ll be disappointed that it won’t come out perfectly formed on the first try.

What we have to come to terms with is that making mistakes is part of the process. That’s how we learn. That’s how we make art. My wife, who is sometimes frustrated when I delay delivering pages to her to edit, gave me a T-shirt for Christmas that says, “Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page.” That notion can be freeing if you take it to heart. You can’t make it better if it doesn’t exist in the first place.

I’m getting more comfortable with making mistakes, but it’s a daily struggle. The lesson slowly worming its way into my head is that to fixate on creating the perfect novel results in creating nothing. So I’m learning to focus on the right thing: getting a story out that reflects my voice, where even the flaws and imperfections are unique to me.

Boyd Morrison—April 22, 2013


You may know of John Clarkson. He is an extremely talented author whose novels, particularly those in his current James Beck series, stand as an example of what the job of writing looks like when it is perfectly and professionally done. John intermittently blogs and recently told a story about his current work-in-progress. I will summarize it but you really need to read John’s brief dissertation to get the full flavor of what happened. John describes the process of writing what would have been the third novel in the Beck series, and realizing, upon completion, that it didn’t work (and why). He concluded that it could not be fixed so he trashed it and started over. His account is illuminating, tragic, hopeful, and ultimately inspiring. Oh, and it is very brave, too. John, in workmanlike, understated prose gives us the reasons why what would have been his latest novel didn’t come together. Ouch. How many of us would willingly and intentionally exhibit what we perceived to be a screwup on the internet town square in a forthright manner and without reservation? I know of at least one person who would pause before doing so. He’s typing these words right now.

The truth is that John is not alone in what he went through, though he is certainly walking point when describing the experience. Not every written volume of every successful series makes it to the finish line.  They lay on the blacktop and the finish line rises up to meet them. Sometimes being successful is as much knowing what doesn’t work as what does work, and being brave enough to pull the pin, rather than hoping that no one will notice. There is a term used for these books which don’t make pass the author’s own white glove test. Such manuscripts are called “trunk novels.” I am reasonably sure that every successful author has at least one. I daresay that we will probably not walk with Jack Reacher down every mile of middle America that he traverses, or that we see the account of every mystery that Spenser or Bryant and May encounter and/or solve. What is different here is that John takes us through the process of determining whether the book goes to the agent or the trunk. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s an informative one.

Joe Hartlaub—July 13, 2019


  1. Do you revise bravely? How do you kill your darlings?
  2. How do you deal with perfectionism? Do you embrace your mistakes?
  3. Have you ever had to trash an entire novel and start over? How did you handle that?


Brand-new librarian Meg Booker is just supposed to be checking out books.

Instead, it’s the patrons who are being checked out–permanently.

A Shush Before Dying releases in ebook on April 29, 2023, with print to follow.

Preorder from these retailers.

10 Writing Tips from NaNoWriMo

Last week I reflected on my first time through the NaNoWriMo experience. One month to produce a novel. I enjoyed it. The discipline confirmed some lessons in the craft and gave me new insights on others. So here are my top 10 tips from NaNo. Useful, I think, whatever your normal pace.
1. Loosen Up
If we’re not careful with our writing we can get too tentative about it. We write too carefully at times. The old “inner editor” gets bolder and louder. Writing fast under a looming deadline forces you to free yourself. Which is a good thing. Even now, after NaNo, I feel my normal daily writing is a little freer. For this reason alone, NaNo was worth it.
2. Study the Craft
I benefitted from having novel structure wired into me. For example, whenever I’d reach a point where I wasn’t sure what to write, I’d take a moment and think about my Lead character’s objective. Then I’d start a scene where the Lead takes steps to solve the problem. I’d find the material coming to me as I needed it.
Lesson: Keep studying the craft when you’re not writing. Then when you start putting down the words, you’ll be doing some of the right things by instinct. We don’t tell somebody to just go out to the golf course and start swinging. You can kill somebody that way. We try to get them to practice and drill, and then try to have some fun when actually playing.
3. Bring in the Unexpected
When writing a scene, if things were slowing down or conflict was lagging, I’d ask the boys in the basement to send up something that was the equivalent of Raymond Chandler’s admonition to just “bring in a guy with a gun.”
Peter Dunne, author of Emotional Structure, gives similar advice. “If you think things are slowing down then throw something at your hero that forces him to run like hell.”
I did this a number of times and it worked every time.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Skip Around in Your First Draft
I would sometimes leave one scene and jump to another scene and work on that. Then I’d go back to the previous scene and find my mind had been working on it subconsciously.
I had a special folder in Scrivener called “Random Scenes.” This is where I’d start writing a scene that came to mind, but had no idea where it would go. Some of my best writing is there, and will find its way into the book.
5. Write Everywhere
I wrote mostly in my home office, but sometimes I’d strap my AlphaSmart to my back and walk or ride my bike to Starbucks and work there for awhile. I had a doctor’s appointment, and tapped out 300 words in the waiting room. I wrote on the subway going downtown, and in my car waiting in a parking lot. And on the treadmill, of course.
I snatched time, rested, snatched more time. Taking breaks was important between intense spurts. I’d lie on the floor with my feet up for ten or fifteen minutes. Then I’d put on rock music or suspense soundtracks and pump up the volume and write.
Those of you who have trouble finding time to write, cut out some non-essentials. Do you really have to watch Dancing With the Stars? And then snatch time to write.
6. Like Voting in Chicago, Write Early and Often
Get as much writing done as you can, as early as you can. I tell writers to follow the “Nifty 350” or “Furious 500” plan. That is, get 350 or 500 words done the very first thing in morning. Get them out of the way, and your quota seems less daunting.
7. Don’t Be Afraid
By its very design, NaNoWriMo forces you to let the story lead. You’re not always going to be able to stick to a plan. Even if you’re an outliner by nature, you have to be ready for organic rabbit trails to emerge in front of you, and have the courage to follow them. But if you do, you’re liable to find gold at the end. This happened for me several times. 
8. Journal Daily
Keep a running journal. Sue Grafton does this for all her books. It’s like a letter you type to yourself each day, asking where you are in the story, jotting down some ideas that have percolated in the night. Just five minutes of this is worth it. You stimulate something in your mind this way, and get ideas you don’t get by just waiting around.
9. Let Things Cool Before You Revise
That’s what I’m doing right now. I’ll print out a full outline (again, something Scrivener lets you do) then do a read through of my full draft.
10. Enjoy Being a Writer
I said last week that I felt the joy of just pure writing again. That’s one of the things I like best about NaNoWriMo. It celebrates the experience and discipline of writing. And we need all the joy we can get in this crazy racket.
My advice to you writers out there is this: start planning ahead for next November. Give NaNoWriMo a shot. Go to their website and sniff around. Read some of the “pep talks” given by well known authors.
Try it once. Even on the sly. No one will have to know but you.
But I’m betting you’ll have fun and will come out of it a better writer.

Write On

by James Scott Bell

It takes courage to write.

Not the kind of courage that a soldier displays going into battle, or a firefighter reveals charging into a burning building. That’s elevated courage, the kind that deserves to be honored in our culture. I’m not getting anywhere near to describing that kind of guts.

I’m talking about the non-lethal world, where it takes a degree of courage to do almost anything worth doing. Because for every enterprise of note there are critics and doubters, scoffers and jeerers, ready to pour acid rain on your parade.

It takes courage to write because obstacles and doubts come in many forms and build big brick walls to try to stop your progress.

Dick Simon (of Simon & Schuster) once said, “All writers are scared to death. Some simply hide it better than others.”

And what a couple of weeks it’s been for writers here on TKZ. We’ve had talks about the e-book tsunami and book price wars. We’ve chatted about branding and tried to figure out what makes readers buy books. We’ve had veteran writers sharing openly about their mistakes and the ramifications thereof.

And we all know the publishing business is in major shakeup mode right now. Trying to predict the future of the industry is sort of like trying to judge the family prospects of guests on Jerry Springer—can any relationship survive?

With all this going on, any writer – new or established – can start to wonder: Is the dream worth it? Do I have any chance of getting published? Staying published? Am I good enough? Am I a fraud? Are the odds too great?

Every true writer faces questions like this. And every true writer finds a way to dig down and write on.

Over a fifteen year writing career (twenty if you toss in the uncompensated beginnings) I’ve faced all the same doubts. Through trial and error I worked out a few ways to keep on keeping on. Maybe one of these will help next time you feel like throwing in the towel.

1. Think in terms of one more page. Don’t ponder the future or replay the past. Don’t stew about the industry or the myriad things you can’t control. Think about the work in front of you. Get that page done, then move on to the next. Establish a quota system and stick to it. The writing itself becomes the best way out of the bog of doubt.

2. Get some visual motivation. When I decided I was going to be a writer no matter what, I went out and bought a black coffee mug with Writer written in gold across it. A little corny, sure, but I didn’t care. I wanted to earn the right to be called a writer, and seeing the cup daily reminded me of the commitment I’d made.

In my office now I have pictures of three writers I admire.

The first is of Stephen King, in his home office, feet up on the desk, looking over a manuscript. He’s dressed casually. His dog is under his legs, looking at the camera.

This is my idea of the good life.

Then there’s a picture of John D. MacDonald, tapping away at his typewriter, pipe in mouth. He was prolific (his biography is entitled Red Hot Typewriter) and a master of story and style.

The photo reminds me to keep producing words.

Finally, I have a picture of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, from the back of one of his novels, arms folded, staring out as if in challenge. He was even more prolific than MacDonald, writing both literary and genre novels.

If I’m not working hard enough, his glare reminds me to get going again.

3. Go to a bookstore and browse. Look at author photos and dust jackets. See what’s come out lately. If you can, make it an independent bookstore, and buy a book from them. They are folks who love books and are struggling mightily right now. Show a little support, then go back to your keyboard and write.

4. Re-read some favorites. I have a shelf of novels I especially love. Sometimes I’ll take one down at random and start reading. I get inspired again with the pure joy of what writing can be. Then I try to make some magic happen on my own page.

5. Remember what Satchel Paige once said: “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.”

What about you? What are your favorite ways to keep going? Or are you a writer who has no doubts at all?