Run With It

I used to be a pretty good athlete, decades ago. In high school I was the Oklahoma state champion in the pole vault 2 years running, and took second place another year. Over the years, I’ve kept in shape by approaching workouts like eating, or sleeping: something that has to be done almost every day, no matter how small or insignificant the workout might seem.

After the holidays, getting back into the gym can feel demoralizing. Whereas before the break you might have been running 3, 4, even 5 miles a day on the treadmill, after all of the eggnog, turkey and chocolate from Xmas you’re lucky to get 1 or 2 in. I used to beat myself up about a bad day at the gym, which would make me want to go there less and less, until I realized that the important thing is not “how hard” you work out when you’re there, but just that you motivate to get yourself there in the first place.

Writing is very similar. Some nights I pound out 1,000 words in nothing flat and feel great – others I goof around in my notebook writing down vague ideas that may never turn into anything at all. The important part is not “how much” you’re getting onto the page, the important part is just showing up at your desk in the first place, ready to think about writing, ready to actually write, ready to edit, ready for whatever happens.

Someone told me once about a playwright who would write for at least an hour, every day (I can’t remember his name). One day he sat down to write and wrote “The …” – then paced in his office for 60 minutes, finally finishing the sentence “… hell with it.” But at least he was there, ready for the lightning bolt, should it strike. Ready to run with it if the ideas were flowing.

*Update* 05/31/2009

In a surprising development, my writing regimen is cutting into my running regimen. I’ll need a new belt soon at this rate.

Go Big or Go Home

It’s been a trying couple of weeks here in Aspiring Authorland. After plodding along at a pretty regular clip on a novel and completing about 1/3 of the first draft, I submitted it to an editor and asked for some objective input on how it was going.

Needless to say, his eyes didn’t open wide with delight like Simon Cowell’s did a few weeks back when Susan Boyle opened her mouth to start singing. His feedback was to stop, go back to the beginning, and start over from scratch. As hard as that was to hear, I actually agreed with him.

But while he was evaluating the manuscript, I shot out of bed one night with a perfect idea for a short story. I finished the final draft last night. It’s called “Animal Control” and it’s beautiful. Really. I showed it to this same editor, worked with him briefly on it, and submitted it this morning to “The New Yorker.” As crazy as this sounds, I think it actually has a shot at being considered for publication there, or I wouldn’t have sent it in. I’ll post an update here once I hear back from them.

What did I learn from all of this?

  • Go Big or Go Home

Write what you love. I was writing a formulaic novel because I had been reading agent blogs, editor blogs, publisher blogs and the like for months, and thought that if I could just piece together something that made sense and had a semi-interesting hook, it would sell. The problem with this approach? My heart wasn’t that into it.

The exact opposite happened with the short story. It appeared one night, fully formed, demanding to be written. I will probably not make much, if any, money off of it. But it’s pretty damn good. It’s heart is in the right place, because I put all of myself into it.

And Now, For Something Completely Different

We went camping this weekend, 7 (or was it 8?) families at a beautiful lake in west Texas. I was stressing about losing the weekend, which is usually prime writing time, to the fun but mindless task of packing, driving, unpacking, cooking, herding kids, organizing hikes, etc. and worried that it would eat into my weekly page goal.

But the opposite actually happened. Getting away from the city and the computer for a few days was the best thing that could have happened. The overdoses of sugar, junk food, hyperactive children and fresh air acted like a kind of spa treatment on my brain, flushing all of the crap out of there so that when we returned last night I was working with an almost blank slate.

I’ve just started a new section of the book and am switching POV for awhile, and was having trouble settling into the new character’s skin. Today when I sat down to read what I’d completed so far, I scrapped the whole thing and started over. The result is much, much better than what I had going into the weekend.

It takes a ton of routine and discipline required to plug away at a book which could never see the light of day, but I’m finding that it’s going to be important for me to step back and build in regular “off the beaten path” experiences as well to ensure that the creative juices keep flowing.

Some notable quotes overheard this weekend … maybe future fodder for a story line or scene:

  • 8-YEAR OLD GIRL: “My dog ate my brother’s umbilical cord.”

  • 6-YEAR OLD GIRL: “[Redacted] just hit me.”
  • PARENT: “Aren’t you in karate? Next time he does that, you should karate chop him.”
  • 6-YEAR OLD GIRL: “That wouldn’t be appropriate.”

Telling Stories

My oldest daughter has been observing my novel writing process with the eyes of a hawk. The other night she sidled up to me as I was working and asked if I would help her write her own book.

“What do you want to write about?” I asked.


“What about books?”

“I don’t know,” she sat down. “Something with magic.”

We talked about it for a few minutes and, once I realized she was serious about the project, I helped her outline the book. We created a ten chapter outline on a single sheet of note paper and I quizzed her on what she wanted the book to be about.

“Well, there’s this girl, you see, who really likes books. She loves how they take her on adventures and stuff. And then there’s this evil wizard who starts making the books disappear. And maybe there’s a magic necklace or something that she can use to fight the bad wizard. And then she’ll get to read all of the books that disappear. And the girl has a best friend who is a princess. They get to play together at the end. I want a whole chapter on that.”

We gradually outlined the thing, settling on a title of “Journey to the Heart of Books,” a YA fantasy that will obviously be heavily influenced by her current reading choices of “Harry Potter”, “Inkheart” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, and started a manila folder where she could keep her notes and ideas.

After finishing the outline, we labeled ten 3X5 index cards with the title of each chapter.

“Now you need to write down 5 things that should happen in each chapter,” I told her, “starting with chapter one. Who is this girl? What’s her name? What does she look like? What does she like to do? What is she afraid of? That kind of stuff. Once you’re done, move on to chapter two, and so on until you have 5 things for all 10 chapters.”

“Then what?”

“Then we can write the book.”

After she had the basics, I left her alone to work on it.

Then our youngest daughter sidled up to me as well.

“Daddy? Will you help me write a book too?”

Here we go again.

Growing Pains

Nobody’s perfect.

Even the modern day messiah, Barack Obama, has a character flaw – he smokes. So when you’re writing your breakout novel, screenplay or short story, make sure to give your character a few flaws that they can wrestle with and, hopefully, overcome through adversity.

Some of the best examples of this writing tactic tie subtle (or glaringly obvious) plot points to the character’s own psychological and emotional growth.

Here are a few examples:


  • Our protagonist begins the film as a rising star in the Los Angeles legal community. He’s about to leave the D.A.’s office for a high-paying job at one of the most prestigious firms in the country, when he’s dragged into a seemingly slam-dunk case. The problem is, he’s cocky, overly focused on making money, and doesn’t seem to have a soul.
  • After losing the case and seeing his client die at the hands of a sociopath, our hero eats a big plate full of humble pie, managing to find his soul in the process. He quits the high-powered firm, goes back to work at the D.A.’s office, and finds a way to solve the highly complex case and retry the villain on different charges.
  • The movie closes with the protagonist preparing to argue his case alone, a phalanx of high-powered attorneys prepared to argue against him. But we’re sure that this time, he’s going to win … because his heart and head are finally in the right place.

Little Miss Sunshine:

  • The motley group of folks in this film each have some major flaw: Grandpa is a heroin addict. Dad is a failed motivational speaker and life coach who is overly concerned with success and appearances. Mom is in a seemingly loveless marriage and is alone. Uncle Frank, the #2 Proust scholar in the country, has just tried to commit suicide. Dwayne has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force academy, so that he can escape the drudgery of his home life. And then there’s Olive – an unathletic but cheery kid with horrible fashion sense who wants to be a beauty queen.
  • When Olive learns that she’s been accepted into the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant, the whole famdamily piles into a VW bus and takes a road trip to California. Along the way: Grandpa dies, Mom becomes more frustrated with her family, Dwayne learns that his poor vision will get him rejected from the Air Force Academy, Dad’s mentor turns out to be a con artist, Uncle Frank reveals that his lover left him for the #1 Proust scholar in the country, and Olive begins to doubt whether she has the talent to win the competition.
  • The movie ends with Olive’s horrible performance at the competition, a combination burlesque show and pilates act performed to the song “Superfreak“. We learn that Grandpa taught her the dance (humanizing the dead heroin addict) and watch as the whole family comes together to support Olive, who is hands down the most interesting little girl at the competition. Dad is no longer concerned what the audience thinks about him and his family, because finally … after a long road trip in a packed bus … the family is truly together.

So before you send in the manuscript to your agent or editor, ask yourself this … do you like these characters? If the answer is a resounding “YES!” – you might have some more work to do. Make the reader have to work to like the character, and make the character earn that respect.

Here’s a clip of Olive’s dance from the last few moments of “Little Miss Sunshine.” Perfect.

Never Judge A Book By Its … Karate Uniform

I volunteer at my kids’ school each week, helping teach karate classes in the after-school program. This usually involves me getting dressed up in a funny-looking pair of white pajamas and trying to get a roomful of toddlers (many with attention spans shorter than a fruit fly’s) to stop talking and pay attention to the real karate teacher long enough to soak up some important aspect of Kenpo karate.

We try to mix things up and make it fun for them and mostly the lessons seem to sink in for a majority of the children.

On the other days of the week I’m just a regular old dad, dropping off and picking up my girls, attending parent/teacher conferences, etc. Often, the karate kids are surprised to see me in street clothes, and have reactions ranging from “Karate teacher! Time for karate!” to “Karate teacher? What are you doing here?”

These kids think of me as “The Karate Teacher,” even though when I think or talk about myself this is the farthest thing from my mind. The uniform has ‘branded’ me in their minds, and it’s hard for me to grow beyond that first impression that it has created for them.

How does this apply to writing, you ask?

When you’re writing fiction, sometimes lengthy, detailed character descriptions can get in the way of the story. The reader wants to be caught up in your narrative – they’ll envision a character for themselves based upon his or her actions, dialogue, speech patterns, and thoughts. Don’t get it the way of that with overly descriptive paragraphs outlining each wrinkle on the character’s face.

Give your reader the freedom to “fill in the blanks” and only sketch out the basic details needed to bring the character to life.