Spider Writers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I usually spend a bit of the early morning outside. Mrs. B has created a lovely garden spot in our back yard. There’s a Celtic cross under an arched trellis, with creeping vines all over, and I’ll sip some coffee and have a little quiet time. Good for the brain and the soul.

The other morning, quite by chance, I saw something wondrous—a beam of sunlight illuminated a silvery, gossamer thread about eight feet in length. It was a single strand of spider web extending from our overhang to about twelve inches above our outdoor table. From there a more intricate web spread outward, like a pyramid, with three strands mooring it to the surface. A miracle of art and architecture!

I had Cindy come outside to see it. We gave it a full minute of admiration before I reluctantly took it down. As I did I said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Spider. I really am.”

I gave the anonymous arachnid no further thought.

The next morning I came out as usual. And once again the sunlight revealed that overnight the same spider had constructed the exact same web!

This time I had not the heart to take it down, for I know that spider must be a writer.

Spider webs are made of silk, a natural protein fiber. The material comes from an underside structure on the spider’s abdomen called a spinneret. In this way, a spider can seriously maintain it is creating art from the gut.

And isn’t that what writers do?

We toil and spin. We reach deep inside. We weave a dream onto the page. (This metaphor is also pursued in Larry Block’s excellent Spider, Spin Me a Web.)

And when we release our work it is sometimes summarily taken down—rejected by publisher or agent, ripped by critic or reader reviews. All that work!

So what do we do?

We go back to the keyboard and spin again.

We’ve talked recently about persistence and why we write. But maybe there’s one thing we ought to learn from the spider: We write simply because that is what we do.

To me that’s the difference between a writer and a hobbyist. Nothing wrong with the latter, mind you. A hobbyist can make some nice lettuce through productivity and business sense.

But a writer is someone who can’t contemplate not writing. William Goyen expressed it this way:

“I can’t imagine not writing. Writing simply is a way of life for me. The older I get, the more a way of life it is. At the beginning, it was totally a way of life excluding everything else. Now it’s gathered to it marriage and children and other responsibilities. But still, it is simply a way of life before all other ways, a way to observe the world and to move through life, among human beings, and to record it all above all and to shape it, to give it sense, and to express something of myself in it. Writing is something I cannot imagine living without, nor scarcely would want to. Not to live daily as a writing person is inconceivable to me.” (The Writer’s Chapbook, George Plimpton, ed.)

Now, I don’t mean that there aren’t times when we need a break. Rest is as much a part of the writing life as typing. That’s why I normally write six days a week and take Sundays off to rest. I always find I’m raring to go on Monday. I’ve taken two or three weeks off near the end of a year to think through my goals for the next twelve months.

I also understand completely when even highly successful writers may want a longer break from the hamster wheel. I do suspect, however, that at some point there will be a tug in the gut, that yearning to spin another web.

Because that’s what we do.

George Bernau was a San Diego lawyer who nearly died in a car accident. In the hospital he took stock of his life and “decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life.” He had discovered he was a spider writer and went on to write some popular thrillers.

So…

Do you ever contemplate giving up writing for good? Think you actually could do it without your Spidey sense luring you back? 

Do you take breaks from writing? How do you feel when you’re away from the keyboard for any length of time?

 

Advice to a Budding Author, Old-School Version

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The other day I was rooting around in some old files and found a document from 2003 titled “Budding Author Questionnaire.” I wrote it to answer some questions a high school student sent me. His assignment was to find someone who was doing what he wanted to do someday and conduct an interview.

It was a stroll down memory lane to see what I advised the lad. Remember, this was four years before the Kindle arrived and changed everything. Self-publishing was not an option. The only way forward was by way of the Forbidden City.

Which was probably why Dorothy Parker once quipped, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

But one should never toss cold water on the hopes of high school students. They’ll get to real life soon enough.

So I wrote the following answers. I thought it might be fun see if you think any of it still applies…or what you would add. (Do so in the comments.)

Here we go:

What training does a career in writing require?

Mostly it is self training. You must teach yourself to write. You can read good books on writing, take courses, go to writing conferences, etc. But the most important thing you do is write, each day if possible, and apply what you are learning. You learn by writing, trying, seeing where you need to improve, finding out how to improve, and writing some more. There is no shortcut.

In college I wrote to an author I admired asking some of these same questions. He wrote back and said, “Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years.” He was right.

Are you in a particular genre of writing?

I write thrillers, mostly legal thrillers.

What additional special training did it require?

Since I’m a lawyer, I have that background. But I have also written in other fields, such as bio-technology. You can stretch your mind and experience through research, interviewing experts, and actually participating in some activities you wouldn’t normally touch. Writing, in this way, becomes an exercise in personal growth.

What natural abilities or interests are needed for a career in writing?

You should love to read, and be moved by books. You should have some love of words and the rhythms of language. You should be something of a dreamer.

What is the approximate starting salary range for authors?

Using “salary” with fiction writer is like using “sure thing” at the racetrack. There is no regular or predictable income.

Fiction writers get an “advance against royalties” and then the royalties themselves—if any. The advance is a portion of what the publisher thinks the book, when published, will earn in sales. First-time novelists, being unknown commodities, do not demand large advances (though there have been exceptions for first novels that publishers thought would be blockbusters. However, many of these bombed, which hurt the authors’ careers.)

The average annual income for fiction writers in the U.S. is something like $3,000. But that is skewed. A handful of authors make millions; a large number make virtually nothing. My goal, and the goal I advise for new writers, is to try to build your audience progressively by writing better and better books. Gain the publisher’s confidence that you can turn in a solid performance every time. Then you will make some money, too. And there’s always that racetrack chance you’ll win the trifecta, and join the John Grishams or Danielle Steels—just don’t bet the farm on it.

I don’t advise “quitting your day job” too soon. Having a dependable source of income is a wise idea unless and until you have enough of a sales record to be able to count on book income alone. Even then, you might consider keeping a low-stress side job, like price checker at the 99¢ Store.

Is there good job availability for those who choose writing?

There is always room for another superb writer. It’s hard to break in, but if you are consistent and persistent, and show that you can produce over and over again, you might make it.

Would you rate the opportunities for advancement as poor, fair, good, or excellent?

As with anything in our capitalist system, the opportunities for advancement are tied to the value that you offer an employer. If a publisher begins to make money from your books, and you stay productive, your chances to build a career are good to excellent.

But writing, as with all the arts, does not offer as predictable a path as other work, where you can pretty much know that Effort X will result in Reward Y.

That’s why you need to write for more than just financial gain. You’ve got to write because writing itself is a reward.

Could you list a particular advantage to being a writer?

You can’t beat the hours. Or the dress code. During the summer I work in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. If I go to Starbucks, I wear flip flops.

A particular disadvantage?

Not knowing how much your next royalty check is going to be. Also, writing concerns can easily take over your life, which is a real threat to more important things, like your spiritual life, family life, etc. You have to keep watch. If writing becomes the most important thing in your day-to-day existence, you could end up like Fitzgerald or many another writer who turned to the bottle for solace.

Do you have any special advice for someone interested in writing (such as college courses to take, things to study)?

Read some good books on the craft. Take classes, sure. But remember to put into practice what you’re learning. Try stuff. Show it to others. Get feedback. Develop “Rhino skin,” which means you can take criticism without dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Remember, no criticism of your writing is personal unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.

Are there any current problems faced by most authors?

More and more books are being published, an estimated 114,487 in 2001, compared to 39,000 in 1975. This is good news and bad news. Your chances of being published are increased a bit, but your chances of getting noticed in the avalanche are smaller.

The only way to get (and keep) that notice is to become known as someone who writes quality books—emphasis on the plural.

Why did you choose writing as your profession?

Writing chose me. It was something I couldn’t not do. Even if I never made any money, I was going to write. At the very least I was going to publish at Kinko’s and distribute copies to my family until they shouted “Mercy!” And then I was going to find another family to torment.

Looking back across your career and where you are now, was it worth everything you did, everything you sacrificed to get where you are?

The “sacrifice” is really countless hours spent trying, studying, trying again, surviving disappointment and on and on. But since that was the only way I was going to get anywhere in the writing game, it was certainly worth it. I loved the learning. Flashbulbs would go off when I discovered something, and then saw I could do it. I still love that aspect of the craft. I will never stop trying to learn to do things better.

Not to discount the frustrations and obstacles. They are real. But if writing is what you must do, and you love it, you can keep going. I like this quote from a long-ago professor at the Yale Divinity School named Grenville Kleiser:

Be done with the past, save where it serves to inspire you to greater and nobler effort. Be done with regrets over vanished opportunities, seeming failures, and bitter disappointments….Be done with the “might have been” and think of the “shall be.”

I wish you abundant success in your future endeavors.

Sincerely,
James Scott Bell

Keep on Clacking Till Your Soul Goes Packing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We writers have a great gig, don’t we?

We get to play in our imagination every day. We bring characters to life or—even better—watch as characters come to life while we write. We dream. We create plots and scenes and twists and turns.

Some of us have day jobs (or, as Brother Gilstrap used to put it, “my big-boy job”) and write when we can. Others do this for a living. Still others occupy a middle position where they have some days they can dedicate to clacking away at the keyboard. (As a Southern California boy, I have to admit I love being able to “go to work” in shorts, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt. I enjoyed practicing law but didn’t like having to wear a suit and tie every day!)

But maybe the thing I love most about the writing life is this: I can write as long as I’m a sentient being. I never have to quit. And I can effortlessly slide into the role of crusty but benign eccentric who mumbles aphorisms—even to other people—and still hits the keyboard each day.

In fact, I know how I want to look when that time comes. Like this:

Donald Hall, photo by Gary Knight, www.garyknight.org. Used by permission

That’s writer Donald Hall as posted by The Paris Review. In the accompanying essay, Hall (now deceased) reflects on the approach of his 90th birthday. There he is in comfy pants and T-shirt, a favorite chair, hair a bit mussed, surrounded by books, some of which are on the floor as his active reads. Perfect! (I’ll have to check with Mrs. B about the beard, and I’ll probably be barefoot much of the time.)

On Hall’s wall is a print of the famous Andy Warhol painting of Elizabeth Taylor, which got me wondering what one picture or painting I would like to have hanging over me as I approach 90. Something noir-ish, I suspect. Heck, I already have it—a movie poster from the 1953 re-issue of Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum.

Trivia note: The original poster for Out of the Past from 1947 has Mitchum with a cigarette. So why not in the re-issue poster? Because 1953 was after Mitchum’s infamous bust for smoking reefer. He did two months in the jug for that, and most people thought his career was over. But Howard Hughes, who owned Mitchum’s contract, figured out Mitchum’s “bad boy” image was catnip for the bobby-soxers. Mitchum became more popular than ever. But when Out of the Past was re-issued, there was no need to remind people of the arrest by sticking what could have been a joint in his mouth!

Back to Donald Hall. He ruefully compares his earlier writing life with his present:

Back then, I wrote all day getting up at five. By this time, I rise scratchy at six or twitch in bed until seven. I drink coffee before I pick up a pen. I look through the newspaper. I try to write all morning, but exhaustion shuts me down by ten o’clock. I dictate a letter. I nap. I rise to a lunch of crackers and peanut butter, followed by further exhaustion. At night I watch baseball on television, and between innings run through the New York Times Book Review. I roll over all night. Breakfast. Coffee.

Of course an octogenarian scribbler is going to be a tad slower than his thirty-year-old former self. But Hall did something each day, and that’s the point—not stopping.

Printed newspapers will probably be gone by the time I’m 90, but coffee will remain. Coffee is forever. And so is storytelling.

So, TKZ friends, imagine your ninety-year-old self. How do you look? What are you doing? What picture is hanging on your wall?

Riding the Writer Roller-Coaster

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

First off, thank you for all your wonderful support for the launch of my new thriller, Your Son Is Alive. The print version is now available.

Launch week is usually a high for an author, though nerves can be set a-jangling as we wonder what the reception will be.

Which brings up the subject of the roller-coaster ride that is the writing life. For as we all know there are ups and downs and curves and twists. Sometimes it’s exciting. Other times you get queasy. Which is why you should never launch a book after a big Italian dinner.

Ahem.

We all know this gig is rife with opportunities for that devil disappointment. Our human condition can’t avoid it. We construct hopes for ourselves and our work knowing there are plenty of rocks and boulders ahead in the rushing waters of the marketplace.

This is not just in our professional lives, of course. It’s there in every other aspect of our existence on this good Earth. We are hopeful beings, we strive and and work and desire. Sometimes those things turn out exactly as we envisioned. Most of the time not so much.

I remember when my son began playing baseball. He developed into a pretty good pitcher at a young age, and there was one game where he gave up a home run that lost the game. It crushed him. As the other team was running onto the field cheering, he was standing on the mound trying not to cry.

I went out to the mound and put my arm around him and bucked him up as best I could. Then later, over ice cream, I tried to impart a little bit of stoic wisdom. “Most of life is about losing,” I said. “It’s how we handle the losses that make us or break us.”

I told him that in moments like this, when a home run is given up or such like, I would allow him one great big DANG IT! He could pound his glove as hard as he could. He could feel it for a moment, he could shout, “Dang it!” But after that he was to begin the task of forgetting it and getting ready for the next batter or the next game.

It’s a lesson he learned well. He went on to become one of the best pitchers in the league. During the season he had a bad inning against the strongest team. It was brutal. And they let him know it, the way little boys do. They jeered and threw shade. He pounded his glove as the coach relieved him.

Then came the championship game, and he faced that same team. As he stood on the mound they began to jeer again and try to rattle him. He proceeded to mow them down. And his team won the championship.

I consider that one of the best moments of both our lives.

This is how we should handle disappointment in our writing life. Our book goes out there and doesn’t perform as well as we would like. Or we get a scathing review. Or a rejection from an editor. Or Aunt Hildegard says, “When are you going to grow up and go to dental school?”

Give yourself a great big DANG IT! Pound your glove (but do not kick the dog). Then get back to your keyboard. One of the great truths about writing is that when we are in “the zone,” disappointments melt away. When we come out of the zone, the harshness may try to revisit, but it won’t be as strong. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Let me offer three more bits of stoic wisdom:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others

Comedian Tom Shillue has a great five-minute video on the perils of comparison. Here is part of what he says:

If my happiness were based on being the biggest comedian in the business, I’d be mad at whoever was getting more Netflix specials than me. (I have zero.)

If it were based on having the best TV ratings, I’d be mad at Jimmy Fallon. He beats me every night.

And if it were based on being rich, I’d be mad at a lot of people.

And even if I were rich – really rich, like #10 on the Forbes 400 rich – I’d be mad that there were nine other people richer than me. It never ends.

Comparing yourself to others creates a totally unrealistic measure for what constitutes success. And I know, because the entertainment business is all about unrealistic expectations.

He concludes: “Professional success is about making a living, pursuing excellence, and finding meaning in what you do.” (You might also be interested in this video by the redoubtable Joanna Penn on the dangers of comparing yourself to other writers … and how to get over it.)

  1. Keep expectations in check

While it’s good to set goals, make plans, and take action, watch out for letting expectations build up too much in your mind. We have this wisdom not only from ancient philosophy; there’s also recent data that suggests lowering expectations leads to greater happiness.

For example, if you get nominated for an award, don’t keep picturing your acceptance speech. Don’t dust the mantel twice a day. When you get to the banquet, sit at the table and be a good conversationalist. Try to enjoy the rubber chicken. Then, if your name is called, it’s a bonus. If it’s not, you won’t want to crawl under the table with a bottle of wine (or whine, as the case may be).

As the great John Wooden used to tell his players, “All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.”

  1. Worry only about the page in front of you

Epictetus said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

You can’t control the will of agents, editors, critics, readers, awards committees or the IRS. So don’t worry about them. Instead, focus on your daily work. Get into your scene. Think about ways to make it better. That’s what you can control.

The mental aspect of writing is every bit as important as the physical act of typing. Which is why I wrote a whole book on the subject.

Friends, when you’re hit with disappointment, or on the other end with a great reward, remember the Latin phrase (which I had the audacity to make up):

Carpe Typem!

Seize the Keyboard!

What is your go-to method for handling the highs and lows of the writing life?

Don’t Be Satisfied With Competence

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In reviewing Uncommon Type, a short story collection by Tom Hanks, the critic concluded that, with one exception, Hanks’s stories “are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.”

Ouch, man.

I like Tom Hanks. I’ve liked him ever since Bosom Buddies. I haven’t read his stories, so this is not a pile-on. And critics have been known to be wrong (ya think?)

But I was struck by that phrase, the special banality of mere competence. That’s because when I teach workshops, I usually lead off with this quote from a former acquisitions editor for a major house:

As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago, the type of submission that’s the toughest to spot—and the most essential to avoid—is the one that is skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable.

Over my two decades of teaching the craft and reading manuscripts submitted at conferences, I’ve seen a rise in the tide of competent fiction. A big reason is, I think, the internet, with great teaching blogs like **blush** this one, and so many others. There are **blush** online courses and podcasts. And we still have the tried-and-true teaching avenues, like critique groups (in person and via email), books and Writer’s Digest, panels of writers at conferences, freelance editors, and so on.

All of which I love. I still get excited about diving into a good article on writing, or revisiting one of the many craft books in my collection.

So yeah, there is a lot of competent fiction out there.

But that’s not good enough.

Let me amend that. What’s “good enough” is highly subjective. But the ministers of content within the walls of the Forbidden City (that is, traditional publishing) are always looking for that “extra” thing. Much of the time they call it voice, and treat it the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously approached obscenity. He couldn’t define it, he said, “But I know it when I see it.”

Of course, now it’s possible for writers outside the walls to publish whatever they like. And competent fiction may bring some return.

But for a long-lasting career, I say make it your goal to go higher.

How?

Create a self-study plan.

There are seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice (or style) and meaning (or theme). You can, in conjunction with others (trusted beta readers, a good editor, a critique group) assess your strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. Try giving yourself scores on a 1-10 scale.

Then start with your weakest factor and design a six-week self-study program. Get a couple of books on the subject. Write some practice scenes. Get feedback.

Then move on to the next factor.

Just think about it. If you were to improve each of these areas just by 10%, the overall effect on your writing will be enormous. And you can get there in less than a year.

Of course, as you’re studying the craft, keep writing your current project and developing your next, and the one after that.

Is this work? Um, yeah. Like any pursuit of excellence.

Is it also fun? Oh, yes. When you see and feel your improvement, there’s nothing quite like it.

It took me a good two years to get to competent. And no buyers. Then one day I had a literal epiphany reading a certain chapter in a certain book (it was Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham). Sirens went off in my head. The next thing I wrote got me a Hollywood agent.

A few years later, I got a book contract (this was seven years after I began to seriously study the craft). When I got another contract with another house, I had the privilege of working with one of the best editors in the business. His feedback took me to another level. When I started working with my agent, Donald Maass, there was another hike.

Each of these stages was a beautiful thing.

I wish you that same beauty, writer friend. It’s worth all the effort.

I’ll leave you with a quote I’ve always liked, from an old-time ad man named Leo Burnett: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

Are you reaching?

If You Hadn’t Become a Writer, What Else Would Have Filled That Void?

Many writers develop the passion to write because they were avid readers as children. The rabid craze wouldn’t be denied and years later, they have come face to face with an amazing addiction for self-expression.

If you didn’t write, what else would you have done to fill the void? What other forms of self-expression would have taken hold of you? Do you have a secret talent?

Do You Have a Typical Writing Day?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Novelist Tracy Chevalier recently observed:

Part of me wishes it were easy to describe my typical writing day. I have heard about them, those smug productive hours when a writer – usually male, it has to be said – sits down each day at 9am with an espresso, writes till 1, makes bouillabaisse, writes from 2 till 5, plays tennis, and after supper sits with a glass of single malt whisky reading over what he’s written that day. That is a scenario I both crave and detest. It will never be that controlled and disciplined for me.

This is an absolute slander! I make a sandwich for lunch, haven’t played tennis in years, and in the evening prefer a California red.

I do, however, have a typical writing day, though of course it has varying tones and I’m free to be as flexible as I want to be. That’s the nice part of being your own boss. Yes, I have to call myself into the office and chew myself out from time to time, but I generally get along with the old so-and-so fellow.

Here’s how I like my day to go:

I’m up before the sun rises. The coffeemaker was set to timer the evening before so my morning brew is ready. I love starting work in the dark. Most people I’ve broached this subject with look at me with a mix of wonder and horror. Their eyes and dropped jaws nonverbally retort, “You do what? The dark? Are you daft?”

Yep. From daft to draft!

I try to do some writing immediately, to bring up what my writer’s mind has been working on all night. There might be a good plot twist there, or an idea for another book, or maybe just a way of phrasing something. Or perhaps it’s just junk. Whatever it is, I spill it into a free form document that I’ll assess later.

I then set out to write a Nifty 350.

Later on, I’ll give a light edit to my previous day’s pages, then go for my quota.

What I really have to watch out for is the temptation to jump onto social media the moment I hit some challenge or other. I’ve written about this before.

However, I do like having some ambient noise going on, which means I will sometimes be found writing at some local coffee establishment. But at home, I turn on Coffitivity. I compose in Scrivener, which allows me to have a background on my screen. I have taken a photo of my favorite deli, Langer’s, so it’s like I’m there in a booth, writing:

From about 11 – 1 I’ll generally take care of business matters (e.g., marketing, email) and have some lunch. I’ve pretty much settled that from 1 – 3 it’s zombie time. My brain just wants to lie in a hammock. So I’ll work in a power nap (15 – 20 minutes). That sets me up for the late afternoon. I can usually squeeze in another hour of writing or editing from about 4 – 5.

Then I pretty much knock off. Dinner with Mrs. B. We might watch a movie or classic TV show. If I finish a book, or my wife closes a real estate deal, we’ll celebrate by going out to eat. It’s a short drive to Malibu, where we can nosh by our beloved Pacific Ocean.

That’s as typical as it gets, so long as there are no earthquakes, fires, mudslides, power outages, or locusts.

So now I’d like to hear from you. Do you have a typical writing day? If not, how would you design one?

What Did You do Today, Writers? Tell Us About It

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

iStock_000006470200Medium (2)  CROPPED

Purchased from IStock by Jordan Dane

Lately I’ve had a lot of personal things happening that have been a distraction from my writing. Some are good distractions, while others are more of a black hole, as if I’m walking in a fog some days.

Today I will be at a home inspection. Yes, I am buying a new home. Home buying can be a scary prospect, as well as a spark of hope for a new beginning. It can be especially scary when it comes to looking at mortgages, I was lucky that my friend told me about something like Money Expert so at least I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m getting the right mortgage. But I have been thinking about other things. I haven’t been able to sleep much lately with thoughts of “nesting” in my head. I’m not one to second guess my decisions, but I can see how taking this step could spiral a person into self-doubt.

Buying my home might represent leaving the past behind or it could be taking a metaphorical leap off a cliff that I may or may not be ready for. It could mean putting down roots that I wasn’t sure I could do on my own, or it might be a way of setting a firmer foundation for the rest of my life, or my new home can be a gathering place for my friends and family (meaning that I am opening my life to others).

I’m buying what I hope will be my last home, a place where I can retire comfortably. Another thing on my list today is meeting with my parents. I’ll show them the house then take them for breakfast. A facet of this day’s adventure is that my folks are considering selling the family home and looking into their options going forward. They are still teaching me life lessons as they age and I may be showing them how to let go by my home adventure. I expect today will be life changing in a quiet meaningful way for the three of us.

So you see? As a writer, I can read into so many things. I can write this scenario any number of ways for a story. How much do I give a glimpse into my personal life if I were to thread this reality into a character of mine? That’s the fun part of writing for me. Is it for you? How much of your life experiences do you weave into your stories? Or do you purposefully stay away from anything too close?

Another aspect to this story could be that I’m buying a home from a previous tenant. Who were they? Is there a mystery that surrounds their life? What clues could they leave behind for me to find? This property has an amazing terraced garden. I can feel the love of the gardener in every rare plant grown with such care. It makes me want to plant my own contributions with as much thought and diligence, so that I can pass the love on to the next “gardener.” I have a plan to create a beautiful garden storage space when I thought “garden site sells timber storage” spot on.

The point to sharing this tidbit with my TKZ family is that it can be important to remember how even the mundane aspects of your life can hold a story. This is one thing I am doing today that can turn into a story in books ahead.

So I’ll give you a homework assignment. I’d like you to jot down what you did today, right down to what you ate for lunch and where you ate it. Then pick something from your list to share what might make a good story, similar to how my home inspection launched a range of emotions in me.

Go on, TKZers. Share your day with me.

Writing Doesn’t Make You a Better Writer

I was sitting contentedly at one of my branch offices (with the round green sign) when I overheard a curly-headed young man say, “The only way to learn how to write is to write!”
His female companion nodded with the reverential gaze of the weary pilgrim imbibing the grand secret of the universe from a wizened guru on a Himalayan summit. I dared not break the soporific spell. Even so, I was tempted to slide over and say, “And the only way to learn how to do brain surgery is to do brain surgery.”

I would have gone on to explain that it is too simplistic to say “writing makes you a better writer.” It might make you a better typist. But most writers want to produce prose that other people will actually buy. For that you need more than a clacking keyboard, as essential as that is to the career-minded writer. I’ve heard that some decide to look into having a custom research paper for sale made for them to have a specialized writing reference to help hone the structure of their prose.

Bobby Knight, the legendary basketball coach and tormenter of referees, had a wise saying: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

That’s so true. If what you ingrain in your muscle memory are bad habits, you are not moving toward competence in your sport. In point of fact, you’re hurting your chances of getting to be the best you can be.

When I was learning basketball, I made sure my shot was fundamentally sound: elbow in, hands properly placed, perfect spin on the ball. I became one of the great shooters of my generation (he says, humbly). That skill never left me. At my first Bouchercon I got in the pickup basketball game that S. J. Rozan put together. Nobody knew me yet, but as we were shooting around Reed Farrel Coleman saw my shot and said, “Wow. Look at that spin!” That was cool. (I should have said to Reed, “Look at that prose!”)

But I had spent countless hours refining my shot with the proper fundamentals. By way of contrast, I’d play against kids who had goofy, elbow-out, sidespin shots that had never been corrected. They were never a long-term threat.

So, let’s get a few things straight about getting better at this craft:

1. You learn to write by learning how to write

As a kid I’d check out basketball books from the library and study them. Then I’d practice what I studied on my driveway. I’d watch players like Jerry West and Rick Barry and observe their technique. Later on, I got coaching, and once went to John Wooden’s basketball camp. I played in endless pickup games, and afterward I’d think about how I played and what I could do to improve.

Writers learn their craft by reading novels and picking up techniques. Also by reading books on writing. Then they practice what they learn. They get coaching from editors and go to writers’ conferences. They write every day and after they write they think about how they wrote and what they can do to improve.

2. Creativity and craft go together

Every now and then some contrarian will say a writer should forget about “rules” and just write, man. That’s all you need to do! Rules only choke off your creativity. Burn all those Writer’s Digest books!

It’s a silly argument.

First, they use the word rules as if writing craft teachers (such as your humble correspondent) lay them out as law. But no one ever does that. We talk about the techniques that work because they have been proven to do so over and over again, in actual books that actually sell. And even if a technique is so rock solid someone calls it a rule, we always allow that rules can be broken if—and only if—you know why you’re breaking them and why doing so works better for your story.

What should be said by creativity mavens is this: creativity and the “wild mind” (Natalie Goldberg’s phrase) are the beginning but not the end of the whole creative enterprise. One of the skills the selling writer needs to develop is how to unleash the muse at the right time but then whip her material into shape for the greater needs of the story and the marketplace for that story.
That’s why structure is so important. Structure enables story to get through to readers, you know, the ones who dish out the lettuce. That’s why I call structure “translation software for your imagination.” I know many writers would love to be able to simply wear a beret, sit at Starbucks all day, and have whatever they write go out to the world and bring in abundant bank and critical accolades.

Not going to happen.

Meanwhile, more and more writers who have taken the time to study the craft are happily selling their books in this new, open marketplace we have.

3. Passion, precision and productivity make for writing success

To gain traction in this game, you would do well to consider the three Ps: passion, precision and productivity.

Passion.You find the kind of stories you are burning to tell. For me, it’s usually contemporary suspense. I love reading it, so that’s mostly what I write. But I also believe a writer can pick a genre and learnto love it. Like an arranged marriage. The key is to find some emotional investment in what you write (usually that happens by way of heavy investment in the characters you create). But that’s only the first step.

Precision.Eventually, the selling writers know precisely where the niche is for the books they write. They spend some time studying the market. That’s how all the pulp writers and freelancers of the past made a living. Dean Koontz at one time wanted to be a comic novelist like Joseph Heller. But when his war farce didn’t sell, he switched markets. He went all-in with thrillers. He’s done pretty well at this.

Productivity. Finally, selling writers produce the words. Even so, not everything will sell as hoped, but the words won’t be wasted. They will be making better writers, because they have studied the craft and keep on studying and never give up.

Therefore, writing friends, don’t be lulled into thinking all you have to do each day is traipse through the tulips of your fertile imaginings, fingers following along on the QWERTY tapper, recording every jot and tittle of your genius. That’s the fun part of writing, being totally wild and writing in the zone. The work part of writing is sweating over the material so it has the best chance to connect with readers. That is what makes you a better writer.