Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 2 - What could go wrong?

The decisions writers make shape their lives and their careers. They determine their opportunities and the impact of the work they do. But not all decisions are equally important, and one of the most common mistakes writers makes is obsessing over decisions that are reversible or have little consequence.

Determining reversibility should be easy. If I choose A, can I go back and choose B instead? If I can, the gravity of the decision is immediately reduced. I met someone who wrote a love story from the point of view of a gay best friend, and then rewrote the story from the female lover's point of view. There was a cost in time, but part of the investment came back in terms of a better understanding of the story and something special available online for fans of the published version. Reversible. No real problem.

Consequence is more difficult to determine. You don't always know exactly. And what one person considers trivial outcomes may be important to someone else. If you have specific consequences in mind, one question to ask yourself is, on a scale of one to ten, how much does it matter to you? I had an offer from a publisher for a novel I co-wrote. The publisher's other books had covers I thought were okay, but my collaborator hated them. Three for me was eight for her, so we never accepted the contract.

Of course, the best way to get a good overview of consequences is to write down your criteria before a decision is to be made. Let's try that.

Should I submit my novel to a traditional novel or independently publish it? Look at possible benefits or drawbacks of each.
  • Time investment - Traditional publishing brings in a crew of helpers (editors, designers, marketers), while most of the work (and all the decisions) fall on a writer who independently publishes.
  • Skill development - Independent publishers are pushed by circumstances to learn and understand dimensions of publishing that they might otherwise miss. Those who are traditionally published get an outside view on things from story development to word choice to fonts used for covers.
  • Exposure - Traditional publishers put books into markets and in front of critics independent publishers usually can't reach. But independent publishers can use their knowledge of audiences to direct placement and can time publication to their best advantage.
  • Passion - Traditional publishers can deliver on the dream of many writers for recognition, while independent writers get to tell exactly the stories they want to.
  • Money - Often, traditional publishers sell more books, but writers who independently publish get larger shares of the profits.
OK, your mileage may vary on these, but I hope you get the idea. It's only possible to evaluate the chances of each consequence and what these mean to you when you take a closer look. Ultimately, with something like this publishing decision, you can do your research and even may create spreadsheets and rankings that allow you to see the consequences in a glance.

Let's take on a more subtle decision. Should I write my romantic comedy as a novel or a feature film script?

First, look at a few considerations by asking questions:

  • How comfortable am I with each format?
  • What's my best guess on the marketability of one versus the other?
  • What are the time investments? Opportunity costs?
  • How does the money compare?
  • What opportunities might the work generate?
  • What might I learn that interest me? Enhances my skills?
  • Who might I work with (either specific people or people in certain roles)?
  • What research would I need to do? Will I need to invest money or social capital?
  • How passionate am I about the story?
  • Does the story represent work I want to do more of?

Out of these, criteria emerge less directly, and I might be able to guess how much each matters in terms of:
  • Time
  • Opportunity
  • Passion
  • Money
  • Experience
Note that this decision is a reversible. Both a novel and a script could be written.  Also, the decision could become a more informed decision by writing a few chapters and an outline for the novel or a few scenes and a treatment for the screenplay. Prototyping, especially if the time investment is limited, is a great way to reach good decisions.

Can you guess what might lead to bad decisions? Not having criteria. And, in particular,  the potential problem rise when you don't have criteria at a high level, like career aspirations. If you make a decision without knowing what you want, you can only get a good result if you are lucky.

Another problem is changing criteria. This happens a lot, especially when other people jump in to influence you. Once an editor sent me pages of text arguing against my criteria. She really wanted the manuscript, which was flattering. But ultimately, I didn't let her minimize what I determined were my priorities, and I held onto my own criteria. And I turned her down.

Other people, including other writers, will try to push their own criteria on you. I've seen traditionally published people claim their choice was the only reasonable one for everyone and I've seen independently published writers do the same. The only reasonable criteria for you are your criteria.

This is not to say that you shouldn't listen to other people. The ideas, experiences, and warnings of others can be invaluable. Talk to other writers (and agents and agents). Read advice. Check out sites like SFWA's Writers Beware http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/. As you do, look to your own values and use that to assess what you learn.

Research -- too much and too little -- can be problematic. Learning how to ask good questions, the ones that matter, is one of the best skills you can master. Don't make important decisions impulsively if you can avoid it, but watch your time investment. Get the answers you need, then stop and move on. However, the drive to be thorough is often tied more to fear than to being judicious. So don't get lost in your research, either. You'll never know everything and you'll never come up with everything that could go wrong.

Finally, a major wrong turn I've seen far too often is not accepting the answer. This usually happens when, in his/her heart of hearts, the writer has already decided and just wants to justify that decision. When the facts don't add up for the preferred choice, data is questioned, more information is gathered, people giving advice are judges as "not understanding," etc., etc. What follows is a miserable and harmful exercise in delay or self-deception. It's unhealthy. Better to make a decision and deal with the consequences than to create stress, abuse logic, and fray relationships in this kind of a game.

Last time, I looked at the value of a writer's decisions and questions that need answering. I'll continue this series next week with a start on a decision-making guide, complete with some good practices.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 1 - Key choices

One of the deadly sins for writing is dithering. Over and over again, I’ve come across writers who struggle to choose what they will do during their limited writing time. Will I work on project A, B, or C? Which scene should I take on? Do I want to draft new pages? Or rewrite?

On and on it goes. Promiscuous writers, who need to create pages for every idea that comes to them, create long confusing list of opportunities. Others carried in every direction by contests, manuscript want lists, pitch events, and offers of collaboration.

Number 2 of Heinlein’s Rules for Writers is “Finish What You Start.” Dithering prevents this. No one became a better writer or got published by writing dozens (or hundreds) of unfinished stories.

But though I’ve been advising writers to stop dithering for years, I’ve never provided any guidance on the ultimate way to avoid the malady — making decisions. That’s the point of this series of blogs. I’ll begin here by noting some of the key choices writers face, along with the stakes involved.

Next week, I’ll review some of the problems that confound writers. I also hope to do a posting on decision-making methodology, and another on the best ways to reduce the number of decisions writers face. 

Note that, while wrestling with decisions is a classic way to procrastinate, I’m not going to get into the “head games” that get in the way. Fears, sloth, doubts, distractions, and lack of interest can all be root causes for avoiding writing, and indecisiveness can be a great way to cover these up. Even the best advice on making choices will not help in these cases. The need to do research or lack of time or some other reason why stories don’t get written will rise up immediately after the decisions have been made. The work still won’t get done.

So, to get thing started, here are some choices writers might make that could be both important and difficult:
If you have your own questions, please feel welcome to add them in comments.
  • What should I write? 
  • What about research?
  • What format should I focus on?
  • What genre should I choose?
  • What’s my next step in rewriting?
  • Am I finished rewriting?
  • Should I collaborate?
  • Should I enter contest X?
  • Should I get an agent?
  • Should I submit or self-publish?
  • Should I sign a contract and give away rights?
  • What should I charge?
  • What do I need to learn next?
These questions all have implications with regard to resources (like money), skill development, artistic achievement (and ambition), opportunities, social standing, access to other people and communities, experiences, self esteem, and career path. These represent the stakes, what’s at risk, with every choice.

Of course, for some people, the answers to these questions may be obvious or trivial or even irrelevant. Their meanings have to do with your needs what you value, where you are in your journey, and what your career goals are.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

For decisions that need to be made right away, this is good guidance. Just decide and move on. But for many decisions, factors around the decision (e.g., its importance and whether it’s reversible) and the investment in decision making (time, money, research, social capital) come into play. These raise the value of taking a closer look at how decisions shouldn’t be made and how they should. More on this next time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writers' Mini-Productivity Clinic - Tips and concerns

I wrote this up for a class I'm teaching. It may be a good way for readers of this blog to review the essentials, so here it is for you.

Most of us would like to increase out output, but not at the expense of quality. That is, you don’t want to simply put more words on paper. You want to get more of your novel done for each hour of work.

Based on my experiences with hundreds of writers, the most valuable change you can make is to draft the full manuscript with your internal editor turned off. This does not mean engaging in automatic writing or moving to stream of consciousness. It means keeping your focus on telling the story without paying too much attention to making every word perfect the first time through or rewriting along the way. In other words, relax, have fun, and allow your creative self to shine through. Be tough and rigorous later, when you’re revising.

To help you do this, I’ll offer some tips and alert you to some concerns.

Warning 1 Be careful about trying to write faster if you are a “natural.” It is okay to experiment out of your comfort zone, but too much forcing is a mistake.

Warning 2 Don’t try to adopt all the tips at once.

Warning 3 Change is hard, and every change involves trade-offs. If your instincts say a change is not worth it, trust your instincts.

Warning 4 If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Samuel R. Delany, reportedly, never puts a word down until he knows it’s right, and never revises. There are people like this. Rarely. If you are one of them or if a tip or concern does not make sense for you, don’t force it.

This is not a complete set of tips. For me, Fast Writing addresses six steps (Overcoming Blocks, Knowing What to Write, Fast Plotting, Fast Drafting, Fast Rewriting and Fast Synopsis Writing), and each has many opportunities for speeding things up. The tips below are a selection that might be helpful.

The Ten Tips

1. Make a decision on what you will write the day before. Decide which project, which section and which of the six steps you will work on. It is okay to do something else, but do what you committed to do.

2. Measure your work. Count words or commit to minutes. Chart your work every day. Flannery O’Connor wrote 200 words a day exactly. I write 10,000 words a week. For years, I wrote 40 minutes per day. Write what’s right for you. Track it. Consider increasing your commitment once you have a month without missing your goals. Sometimes, doing something like a Weight Watchers weigh in helps people to keep their commitments.

3. Use technology judiciously. This may mean turning off Wi-Fi or learning to use Dragon Dictate (a favorite of mine). Experiment with what will make you more efficient without damaging your work.

4. Make your notes in full sentences. This one is from Ray Bradbury, and it has been a real timesaver. I no longer puzzle over random words like “galoshes.”

5. Write, don’t think. This one is from Isaac Asimov. In drafting (and sometimes plotting), charging forward without worrying about spelling or the exact word can keep fill the pages. When I write nonfiction, I often put the word “bagel” in when I don’t know a statistic or a name or another fact. After the draft is done, I then search for all the bagels and fix them.

6. Try dialogue only. A conversation (especially in romance) often can carry a scene. If you let the characters speak without worrying about what the setting or their faces look like, the pages can fill up quickly. Then you can go back and fill in the visuals later.

7. Master your world without stinting your writing. Often you can run out of things to say for the simple reason that you don’t know enough about your world and your people. A little research often can open things up for you. Just be careful not to have library time consume your writing time.

8. Don’t finish anything, but finish everything. For many people, it is twice as hard to start a scene or a chapter than it is to finish one. Leaving them unfinished at the end of your writing time gives you a perfect starting point.

9. Don’t leave your best stuff in the Green Room. Actors know what I’m talking about. Even Shakespeare can become stale. Lots of writers tell their stories so often that it feels like leftovers by the time they hit the keyboard. Share your story in written form.

10. Have documented processes. For each of the six steps, write down the process you use. Create forms, flow charts, or questions, if that helps. What you want is a definite plan of attack. Then you can avoid the excuse of not knowing (or having decided) what to do next.

Bonus tip: Relax, enjoy, make mistakes, have fun. As Damon Knight said, “It’s not a watercolor.”

The Concerns

There are some habits that (for most writers) cut into productivity. Some are easy to fix. Some are difficult. But if you have a bad habit and break it, the benefits in productivity can be enormous, compounded over all the years you write. Here are the main concerns I have seen writers work on to good effect:
  1. Looping - This is rewriting along the way. I’ve met dozens of writers who have been working on their first few chapters for years. Drafting and revising access different parts of the brain. It takes energy to switch back and forth, making writing a drudgery. Revising along the way wakes up the internal editor, who is happy to disparage the work and create doubts.
  2. Dithering - Some people allow themselves to decide which project to work on each day. And they often get wallowed in indecision. Or they allow themselves to make impromptu jumps to different scenes —but which ones? Or they have ad hoc revision processes, where they may shift around between macro fixes (like story logic) and micro fixes (like making verbs more active).  Setting up the need to make decisions during your writing time consumes energy and bring the work to a stop. Have a process that directs you to an ordered set of choices, and stick with it.
  3. Promiscuity - Yes, writers have roving eyes for ideas. And the cute new ones often cause a writer to abandon the Work in Progress (especially during the deadly slump that shows up half to three-quarters of the way through the drafting). Noting (and even working on) new ideas is fine — as long as the Work in Progress is being attended to regularly.
  4. Procrastination - Life gets in the way. Sometimes when it shouldn’t. Why is it that laundry needs doing or pencils need sharpening during writing sessions? Usually, because chores are much more appealing when the writing gets challenging. By all means, take a break from time to time. But remember what Judith Guest said. For every day you take off, it will take a day to get back into the rhythm of the work.
  5. Random walks - This is related to dithering, and you are vulnerable to not knowing what comes next if you haven’t created a process for your work. Rewriting (which is complex and multi-layered) is a major vulnerability for writers who haven’t documented out the steps that work for them. Taking on everything in a manuscript that needs fixing at once is inefficient and creates confusion.
  6. Getting “writerly” - I owe this one to Kristan Higgins, who noted that many writers convince themselves they are writing when they are surfing the Web (research), publicizing (especially by indulging in social media), and talking with other writers. All of this is fine in its place, but it is not writing. It’s what Kristan calls “writerly activities.” If you pretend these make you a writer, you are robbing time from the work of storytelling.

The simplest formula for success.

I have compassion for people who want to be writers who feel frustrated or as if their efforts have stalled. Here’s the most successful advice I’ve had for them.

Step 1. Commit to writing 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Put these sessions onto your calendar.

Step 2. Choose a work that will be your Work in Progress (WIP), and commit to working on it during your sessions until the manuscript is complete.

Step 3. Each day before a session, write one complete sentence on what the next day’s work will be. Something like, “Franklin will steal the diamond.” That’s the scene you’ll be writing.

Step 4. Set a timer at the beginning of your session and get right to work. Just write. Don’t research.

Don’t consult a thesaurus. Get words down. Move the story forward. (You’ll probably get a page or so drafted.)

With this process, you’ll develop good habits, grow as a writer, and have the equivalent of a manuscript drafted every year.

And you deserve it. The two hours you give yourself as a gift each week should belong to you. Some moms with kids in diapers have been able to do this for themselves. So can you.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Unexpected in Fiction 3 – Reader anticipation

Having looked at how surprise might be used in storytelling and the approaches writers can take to creating the unexpected, let's take a look at it from the reader's point of view.

Most readers don't want to be confused, but they don't want to be bored either. Familiar details and predictable sequences can build verisimilitude and help readers to orient themselves and feel at home in a story, but they are always hoping something strange will happen. And, once they've observed a pattern and been engaged enough to use it to predict what will happen next, they hope the writer will change things up.

The way the reader participates in surprise is through anticipation. Working out puzzles, looking for answers, and wanting to know what happens next require an investment on the part of the reader.

That depends upon five things:

First the reader must be engaged in the story. Titles, hooks, and genre tropes can all be used to draw a reader in.

Second, they need to be presented with what is normal.  H.G. Wells said, “As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.” I think this has relevance to all types of fiction. If there are no limits and oddity and change are constant, nothing is unexpected.

Third, the reader must be kept immersed in the story. Language, empathetic characters, and questions all keep them involved and participating.

Fourth is trust. Readers will only invest enough to speculate on answers if they have confidence in the writer. They must believe that the writer is competence and will not cheat them with, say, a deus ex machina.

Fifth, based on the set up, something should be missing. The reader should feel an urge to complete an idea or formulate theories about how questions might be answered. And these can't be just any questions. They must be questions where readers believe the answers will matter, either because they will reveal something or because they will be entertaining or both.

Putting in apparent answers in fine.  As much as fairness is a part of anticipation, readers usually want to be misled. Red herrings and distractions that misdirect without being ham-handed are welcome.

One more thing to keep in mind: Engagement requires that the reader will not be repelled by the qualities or the content of the work (although it is possible to push the envelope for readers occasionally). For instance, some people will never watch black-and-white movies. Others have this or reactions against fiction, such as fantasy, that is not mimetic. This is fine. No writer can appeal to everyone. But knowing the audience has these limits and requirements can be a useful guide for a writer.

When answers are delivered, they must be satisfying. They must feel worthy of the investments the readers have made and they must be fair. That is, the answers must be better than what the reader hope for while staying within the boundaries of the information (clues) that have been presented.

So, consider this when you're writing: a surprise only works if readers are actively involved, gathering information, forming their own hypotheses, connecting logic chains, worrying about the fates of characters, and hoping for insights on matters of concern.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Unexpected in Fiction 2 - How to create surprises

Sometimes you surprise yourself. When you do this as a writer, it can provide big thrills for you and your readers. But, just as happiness is approached indirectly, there is no straight-line formula for self-surprise.


To be surprised, you need to be open to being surprised. This usually means taking the stress off and allowing yourself to have some fun. John Cleese recommends being patient, giving your brain the time to be creative.

Knowledge is a critical component as well. The more you give slack to your curiosity, gathering "useless" information and allowing yourself to dig deeply into areas that fascinate you, the more you'll have at hand to connect to and ways that make sense but don't conform to conventional wisdom.

Another form of knowledge is developing a better understanding of surprise itself. In the last entry, I provided some of the literary uses of surprise, but you can build beyond those. The first step is noticing when you and others get surprised and then analyzing the process. Was the surprise startling? How novel was the information? What was supposed to happen? Was what did happen justified? If you become sensitive to times when you experience surprise and begin to note and analyze these, you'll take steps toward being able to do the same tricks or improve on them. (Sometimes, a disappointment or a failed attempt to surprise can be more instructive than a successful execution.)


Not all surprises are good. In fact, the original meaning of the word was more connected with an ambush than a thrill. To the extent, we protect ourselves from surprising situations. We make plans. As writers, we plot, outline, analyze, and describe. With all the best intentions, we often make surprises that might enhance the manuscripts unlikely.

This is one reason why I'm a big believer in fast drafting a manuscript. Accepting what your brain creates and ignoring the internal editor often opens up possibilities that societal strictures, "rules," and "good taste" preclude. Write fast enough and anything can happen.

This may seem intemperate to you. If so, my next suggestion maybe even more upsetting. Cultivate opportunities to paint yourself into corners. Give your viewpoint characters impossible choices. Select topics and perspectives that are way out of your comfort zone. (Okay, this might not sound like fun, but you can learn to like it.)

You can also add some pressure by setting a timer and forcing yourself to write into the unknown and reach some sort of an endpoint before the timer goes off.

You can also force yourself to explore options. This can be as simple as making a list of 10 to 20 possibilities (and choosing one from the second half of the list) or it can be as challenging as writing several versions of a scene.


Most mystery writers know who the culprit is and how they did it before they begin the story (or so I'm told). So, though I have faith that surprising yourself is this your respect to surprising readers, it is
possible to work from and ending to create the delights of the unexpected. There are several aspects to pulling this off, including charming and distracting the reader so that evidence isn't properly noticed. It's also good to lead people astray with alternate expectations and to introduce new ideas and information in ways that guarantee the reader's understanding. Ultimately, the payoff must be worthwhile and clear.

The value of the conclusion must be high enough to justify the reader's investment in time and engagement. It must be worth the price. Usually, this means something new must be learned, whether it be about who characters really are or how information connects (including meaningful juxtapositions). The payoff isn't much of a payoff if it's expected or only slightly different from what's expected or disappointing compared to what the reader hoped for.

Needless to say, all surprises – not just solutions to murders — must be fair. Except in cases where the author only intends to shock the reader, information must be provided that would have allowed readers to predict the the surprising elements. (One TV writer said the surprise was justified if half his audience could have guessed it. But, of course, you hope none of them actually do.)

A few more notes:

Other than self protection, the main thing working against surprise for authors is politeness. While, as individuals, we may not want to be rude, cultivating a level of social chaos within a story and being actively cruel to our characters can create situations that take readers away from the familiar, enhancing their enjoyment of the stories. It's also important to develop a tolerance for some inconsistency and to put up with contradictions within characters. Logic and much of what we learn in schools push us toward making sense.

As storytellers, we need more latitude. It's difficult to name a major character in fiction who isn't riddled with contradictions. And one prominent scriptwriter told me that every movie has at least one important logical flaw. So, you have my permission to step away from order and dip your toe into chaos from time to time – provided it makes the story better.