Leave Yourself Wanting More

You’ve heard the show business adage, “Always leave them wanting more,” meaning an entertainer should exit the stage before the audience gets bored.   Helen DunmoreBy the same principle, novelist and poet Helen Dunmore said you should “finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.”


Why is that?  There seems to be some important facet of human nature at work here.  To cite another example of this phenomenon, I used to read to my children when they were quite young, but I tried to observe them as I read to look for the early signs of boredom.  In time I found I could stop reading, even in the middle of a book, and tell them that was it for the night.  They’d beg me to go on, but I wouldn’t, because I knew I’d timed it right.

The human brain seems unusually good at pattern recognition and associating things together.  If your brain associates a given entertainer with a feeling of boredom, you’ll be less likely to pay for a ticket next time.  Similarly, if a child associates books with a feeling of interest and yearning for more, the child will likely develop a love of reading.

Let’s say it’s late at night and you’ve been writing for a while.  You are at the point when you usually go to bed.  You know you should call it quits, but you’re so near the end of a section, or chapter, or the whole book.  Moreover, you’re in the flow, and the words are coming out well, better than usual.  If you can just push it a little longer, you’ll achieve the satisfaction of completing something good.

This is the moment of decision, and you’re tempted to push on.  If you do, and your fatigue causes you to get stuck for words, your brain can start associating writing with being stuck and tired.  That leads to writer’s block.

However, if you save your work and turn off the computer now, your brain will associate writing with being in the flow, with feelings of interest and enthusiasm.  Moreover, you’ll get the sleep you need.

It’s a funny thing, but you needn’t worry about forgetting overnight what you were going to write next.  When you come back to your manuscript the next day all the memories flood back in, along with the confidence and fervor of the previous night, and pretty soon you’re in the zone again.

If you wish, before you finish for the night (even in the middle of a sentence!) you could jot down some quick notes of where the prose was headed.  By some mysterious mental mechanism, your brain will be thinking subconsciously during your non-writing interval, working out better phrasing, solving plot problems, etc.  The next day when you resume, you may find you have better ideas than you ended up with the night before.

Has this been your experience?  Do you agree with Helen Dunmore and me, or do you adhere to a different school of thought?  Leave a comment and let me know.  There’s much more I want to say, but I’ll stop here, so you’ll associate feelings of fascination with—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

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Is Your First Draft Terrible Enough?

That’s not a typo; I’m questioning whether the first draft of your story is horrible, trashy, and amateurish enough to qualify as a first draft.  I’m not talking about cacography here, I’m talking about tripe, drivel, bunkum.

Yes, I know all writers are different and for some, their first draft is their publishable, final draft.  Isaac Asimov said he didn’t re-write his stories.  But I’m guessing that doesn’t work for most writers, especially beginning writers.

For most of you, here’s my advice:  set out to write a bad first draft.  Why?  I’ll explain.

The first draft is unlike all later ones in that it has no predecessor, just a blank screen (or page) and a writer’s mind buzzing with ideas.  That moment before you write the first word is a daunting one; the task seems mountainous.  Often that story idea in your head seems so perfect, you just know readers will love it.

But when you try writing down that idea, it looks so awful it’s embarrassing.  The text falls far short of the shining, crystalline structure in your mind.  You can get so frustrated you’ll be tempted to abandon the whole stupid idea.  “What was I thinking?  I’m no writer!”

I’m suggesting it’s best to admit up front your first draft will be garbage.  That way you’re establishing reasonable expectations and lessening the frustration.  Trust in your ability to improve the first draft later.  Accept that those later revisions will be easier than writing the first draft; you will get closer to the ideal story in your mind.

How do you write a first draft that qualifies as pure dreck?  Think of your writing mind as having at least four component parts, four people with distinct attributes.  These are your muse, your playful inner child, your squint-eyed editor, and your glad-handing marketer.

I’ve described the muse before.  By the time you’re writing your first draft, her job is done and she’s left town.  Think of your squinty-eyed editor as a scowling old man with an eyeshade and a huge supply of blue pencils.  Send this editor on vacation now.  Trust me, he’ll come back well-rested to help you with your second draft.  As to that ever-smiling, extroverted marketer with the plaid suit, he’s on vacation most of the time and that’s okay for now.

215px-Big_PosterLet’s focus on the one I left out, the playful inner child.  I suggest you picture the character Josh Baskin, played by Tom Hanks in the 1988 movie “Big.”  He was pure drive, energy, and enthusiasm.  He had no inhibitions, no taboos, and no fear of failure.

Channel that character as you write your first draft.  Strive to get in the zone, in the flow.  If you find yourself momentarily stuck, write down what you will need later to get past the sticky part, put that in brackets (or different font or color, whatever), and move on.  For example, knowing how important the opening hook is, let’s say you can’t think of one.  Just write “[come up with hook]” and write on.  Chances are the words you write next might serve as a hook, or a hook will occur to you later.  Don’t stop to do research now, just bracket it, “[Do whales really get hiccups?],” and look it up later.

Even though your first draft is a stinking pile of compost, you’ll feel better about having something written down, something you can now work with.  Further, by writing in burst mode, you can maintain a consistent, integrated work that maintains the same tone and voice throughout.

More great first draft advice is available here, here, and here.  By the way, do you think this blog post is poorly written?  Ha!  You should have seen the first draft typed up by—

                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

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A Review of “A Steampunk Carol”

How about that?  My book, “A Steampunk Carol,” received a favorable review by the nice folks at Coffee Time Romance.  Here’s that review, where my book earned 3 coffee cups on their rating scale.

ASteampunkCarol72dpiReviewed At CTRcoffeethoughts





I’ll raise my own coffee cup to Hollie, at Coffee Time Romance.  Her review is much appreciated by—

                                                         Poseidon’s Scribe


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A Path Not Taken

Want to be a published author?  Curious about the best path to take?  In this post, I’m going to suggest you not do what I did, and instead I’ll offer a short cut.

which-way-29941281444641fqVCFirst let me retrace my steps for you.  In the mid-1980s, I had a great idea for a story.  Way too big for a short story, this had to be a novel.  I’d never thought of being a writer, and the notion scared me a bit, but the idea wouldn’t let go.  I studied writing—read books about writing, joined a writer’s group, went to writer’s conferences, joined a critique group.  And began writing.

I stayed enthusiastic about my novel, but only about the writing of it, the first, second and third drafts.  The more I wrote and rewrote, the more scared I got of the next phase, finding an agent and sending my novel out.

In 1999, I took a brief break and wrote a short story called “Target Practice” which I submitted, and it got accepted in the anthology Lower than the Angels by Lite Circle Books.  That should have been a clue I was on the wrong path, but I went back to working on the novel.

Around 2004 or 2005, I abandoned that first great idea novel (yes, after 20 years of work!), and started a different novel.

In 2006, with the second novel about one quarter finished, I resumed writing short stories.  This time I got serious about actually submitting them.  After many rejections, I started getting published.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see where I went wrong.  I should have started with short stories and worked my way up to novels.  It’s distressing to think of the time I wasted, and how much earlier I might have gotten stories in print.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the two decades of work on a now-abandoned novel was time well spent.  One could claim those years contained my 10,000 hours, the time required to develop genius-level capability.  It’s also true that my first novel might have actually gotten published had I bothered to submit it, and might have done well.

Certainly there are cases of authors getting their first novel published and seeing it become a best-seller.  But these are rare enough that I believe a better strategy for most writers is to start with short stories.  Crawling should precede walking for most people.  That method allows you to become familiar, more quickly, with the whole writing-submitting-publishing-marketing process end to end.

There you have it.  Advice, as I say at the top of my web page, straight from Mount Olympus.  Please don’t do what I did; don’t waste twenty years on a low-percentage strategy.  Don’t follow that first path trod by—

                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

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Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle

Years ago, while reading Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, I was struck by a memorable passage.  He’d titled the fourth chapter “Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle.”

After stating that he’d read how other authors found writing a difficult chore, Mr. Bradbury wrote:

Zen - BradburyBut, you see, my stories have led me through my life.  They shout, I follow.  They run up and bite me on the leg—I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite.  When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off. 

That is the kind of life I’ve had.  Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it.  Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next.  But you’re on your way before dawn.  And the trip?  Exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration. 

Always fun to read Bradbury; even his nonfiction hums with an electric rhythm.  But today I thought I’d examine his metaphor a bit, since it has stayed in my mind for at least a decade.

Drunk on bicycleI understand why it appealed to Bradbury.  First, the phrasing is a bit odd to American ears, and he often sought interesting new ways to express ideas.  Second, I’m sure he had a distinct mental image of what it would be like to be drunk and in charge of a bicycle.  That idea of going somewhere but not knowing where; the wobbly, weaving way you’d be ever on the edge of falling.  Bradbury saw that as being akin to his writing experiences.

Third, I’m sure he enjoyed the concealed contradiction, the playful paradox, inherent in the words “drunk, and in charge.”  There’s no doubt the bicycle rider is going where the bike goes.  If arrested, there’s no doubt whom the police would hold responsible.  But who, after all, is really in charge?  If you’re drunk, as Bradbury says, with life, then you’re in the grip of events beyond your “charge” and it’s your stories that are leading you.

That muse of yours, then, is the one in charge.  You follow where she beckons even when that way seems outlandish or bizarre, because she’s never steered you wrong before.  You’ve no idea where you’ll end up, and the notion of ceding control leaves you with that mix of half terror, half exhilaration.

But when you submit your story before the squinty eyes of the editor, when it’s picked over by readers and critics, where is the responsibility then?  It’s only your name on the story; the muse has vanished, gone on to her other affairs.  Like the drunk bicyclist trying to explain himself to the constable, you can’t point the finger elsewhere.

When I set out to write about this topic today, my aim was to poke holes in the Bradbury’s metaphor, to state that my writing experiences weren’t like that at all.  Especially the half terror part.  I was going to create my own metaphor for my writing life.  I wanted to capture the godlike act of creating a world, of designing the initial conditions, then winding up the characters and letting them go, interacting and confronting their problems.  All the while, that godlike me would be taking notes, watching these wind-up characters’ every move.  If I did my creative job well, readers would enjoy the result.  If not, well, back to the drawing board to create another world peopled with other wind-up dolls.

But instead of condemning Bradbury’s metaphor, I’ve praised it.  From his grave, he laughs at the irony of it.  I thought I was in charge of this blog, thought I had it all planned out.  Now I see I’ve been drunk and in charge of a bicycle, in the grip of other forces.  Yet the one person responsible, the name at the end is—

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

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Suffering the Slings and Arrows

Think you can take criticism well?  How about when people you trust denigrate something you worked very hard on, and are proud of?  Aye, there’s the rub, don’t you think?

Taking CriticismI’ve often discussed critique groups and how much I value them (here, here, and here), but today I thought I’d help you prepare for receiving criticism at your critique group meeting.  Believe me, the first few meetings will be tough when they’re poking holes in your story.  At such times, it’s difficult to remember that group members are (1) being honest, (2) criticizing your work, not you, (3) on your side and want you to succeed, and (4) telling you what readers and editors would think.

Are you supposed to just sit there and take it?  In a word, yes.  The very best thing you can do is be silent and listen.  I don’t mean pretend to listen while thinking of what you’ll say next.  I mean really listen.  Get outside yourself, beyond your ego, and see your work through the critique group members’ eyes.  Suspend your doubts about their intelligence and assume, at least for the moment, that they might just be right.

You’ll feel a powerful temptation to explain why you wrote something the way you did, to help these deluded group members comprehend the brilliance of your prose which they somehow missed.  You’ll even want to defend your story against these attacks, and possibly argue with these formerly intelligent friends who’ve suddenly caught an ignorance virus.

After all, who are they to tell you your story’s hook is boring; your protagonist lacks depth; your plot doesn’t make sense; your setting is like a room with plain, white walls; and the story’s central conflict could have been resolved by a first grader in seconds?  Worse, the passages they’ve recommended cutting are your favorite parts.

No, it won’t be easy to sit there and take it.  But the old adage ‘you can’t learn with your mouth open’ is true.  So you need to develop a thick skin, grow up to adulthood, and listen.  And when you’ve suffered their slings and arrows (without taking arms against that sea of troubles), then what?  Then, my friend, you will thank these critique group members.  Yes, you will express sincere gratitude for the help they’ve provided.

At what point, exactly, did they provide help, you ask?  How can I call it help when your manuscript lies twitching and bleeding on the floor, unloved by all but you?  Here are just some of the ways your group members assisted you:

Free of charge, they’ve given you—

  • a fresh perspective from which to see your work, without the rose-glasses filter of your biases;
  • information you can use to decide whether to change your manuscript, since changes are still your decision, but now these decisions will be based on facts, not guesses, about how readers will likely react;
  • an improved ability to endure criticism.  More negative criticism will come later, from editors and from readers.  But those later critiques won’t upset you, thanks to the way your critique group prepared you.

Here’s an excellent blog entry by Joanna Penn on the subject of taking criticism, and she offers even more thoughts.

So, has this blog entry made you a bit “nobler in the mind?” As always, please leave me a comment with your thoughts.  My next critique group meeting is coming up soon.  My fellow group members will know then whether “practice what you preach” is advice well followed by—

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe




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