Tag Archives: writing how-to

I Have a Hunger to Write a Book

” I have loved words and books since I was a child. I feel I have a hunger to write a book brewing back in my subconscious. Hoping that in my lifetime it can come to fruition by the right timing and place in my life, not while working fulll time as an RN.”

Courtney wrote the above in a comment on one of my posts about writing. This is my response:

Courtney – There is no such thing as “right timing” to begin writing. Yes, there will hopefully come a time when work and family are not so demanding you you have more time to pursue things that please you. I know many authors who started writing in retirement.

But if you wait until the perfect day comes, chances are you will eagerly clear your desk, sharpen your pencils (or load a new cartridge in your fountain pen, or set up that writing software), shoo your spouse off to play golf, then sit down and open your notebook or document …

And draw a complete blank.

You will make false starts that will have you deciding you’re not quite ready.  You will decide to do research, you will retreat to read books by popular authors to help you decide what you should write. Maybe you will invest in a bunch of writing books and tutorials to help you get started.

None of these things will help.

After many unproductive and unrewarding days, you will find it easier to watch Seinfeld reruns and that book you want to write will slip away as a silly dream of your youth.

Waiting to begin is a bad strategy. Think about friends who have decided to get fit. Maybe they set a goal, they will hike the Appalachian Trail, run a marathon or even bike across America. None of these people waited until the day came to get started, and we understand why: to launch yourself into such a lofty goal with no preparation is to doom yourself to failure.

Writing a book can be compared to hiking the Appalachian Trail. It is an overwhelming  undertaking. You are guaranteed to find yourself stuck in  the woods during a torrential downpour regretting that you ever left your cozy home. And when you finish you will feel a satisfaction as great as anything you ever accomplish in your life.

The thing is, when you run into trouble on the trail, you’re miles from civilization. You can only go forward or back, and back is just as painful as forward, so it is easier to make the decision to stick with it.

(Ten years ago I crossed the Andes on horseback, riding over a skinny trail  that hugged the mountainside—a trail covered with loose gravel from many rockslides. Have I mentioned that I am terrified of heights? It was an incredible experience, but one I only completed because I had No Way Out.)


You are focussing on the wrong things. It’s all well and good to buy a map if you want to walk the Appalachian Trail, but no amount of knowledge, time or money will help if you don’t exercise your legs and strengthen them slowly over time.

A writer’s legs is his/her imagination. This is the muscle you need to exercise and strengthen so that when the time comes it does not fail you. Everything else is secondary.

Start today. Play the What If game. The advantage of this is that there is no pressure and you can play with characters and scenarios to your heart’s content. You can play What If in five minute increments, anywhere. You can do this on the bus, while you are doing dishes, or even during boring sexual encounters.

The advantage to this approach is that you are under no pressure to be productive and therefore your imagination will not disappear faster than a teenager who has been told to mow the lawn.

As you exercise your imagination, you are also exploring ideas that you will use later. And if you jot down your ideas (say keep them in One Note on your phone) you will find yourself refining a book treatment without thinking about it.

BONUS: Folks with demanding jobs will find a quick round of What If is a great way to handle stress. Especially if they indulge in question #5, below.

When it comes time to write your book (and you will become so enthused you will FIND the time), you will already know what to write and it will be FUN.

Playing What If is easy. All you do is ask yourself questions and play with the answers. My dad travelled for work and used to amuse himself on the road by speculating what the people around him in restaurants were doing – where they came from, why they were with the people they were with, and the nature of their conversations.

Anything can inspire a round of What If, and you can create your own questions. Here are some examples to get your started:

  1. What kind of heroine do I want to read about in a book?
  2. What world does she live in?
  3. How does she get her laundry done?
  4. What does she do when she’s pissed off?
  5. What would be the most enjoyable way to murder my boss?
  6. How could I get away with it?
  7. What are the two women in the next booth talking about?
  8. What is my dog thinking?
  9. What, besides cockroaches and Twinkles (oh, wait, we no longer have Twinkles) will survive Armageddon?
  10. Where is that weird-looking guy going and what is he going to do when he gets there? How will that work out for him? For everyone around him? What will he do next?

It really is that easy. Quick now, the next person you lay eyes on, what will they do if they will the lottery?


Endless Rewrites and How to Stop Them

Someone shared the above graphic in Taylor Stevens Facebook group recently. Podcaster and really good guy Stephen Campbell of The Author Biz commented: “For me, the erasing and retyping what you just wrote areas need to be larger, which probably shrinks that already small purple section.”

It was a call for help. Not really, but it felt like one and it got all my “gotta fix this” neurons buzzing. Our group was just wrapping up a conversation about how annoying it is to get unsolicited advice, so instead of telling Steve what he should do, I am tossing my thoughts here where people can stumble upon them and be awed by my wisdom (yeah, right).

NOTE: None of the thoughts below are commentary on Steve’s writing or his processes. The first is quite competent and the second I know nothing about. These are my thoughts, generated in response to his statement.

What does it mean when you keep rewriting the same scene, paragraph, sentence, over and over? 

  1. You aren’t clear about your characters’ motivations.
  2. You know something is wrong, but you don’t know what.
  3. You don’t believe the way you write is good enough and you’re chasing “Style.”
  4. You’re afraid.

Which one it is depends on the nature of your rewrites.


If you keep changing what your characters say and do, if you’re unsure what should happen and how it should happen, it points to not being grounded in who your characters are and why they do what they do. Maybe you are too focused on the what and not enough on the why.

Action starts with motivation. If you know what motivates your characters, you don’t have to invent what happens next. You just have to ask them how they’re going to deal with matters as they stand.

Inventing a character’s motivations and personality from scratch is, to me, an overwhelming process of “if X experienced Y, she is now motivated by the need for Z and is likely to do A, B and C.”

After five novels, I am more comfortable inventing characters. In the beginning I drew on people I knew – in some case, soup-to-nuts, with their permission. (BTW, I don’t recommend this. It has worked for me, but with the caveat that I have to consider how they will feel about what I do with them in my books.) Most authors do this to some extent.

Pick your boozy Uncle George to be the alcoholic father of your victim, but make him a plumber instead of a stockbroker, make him 50 pounds lighter and shave his head. This gives you plausible deniability.

When your detective questions him, you’ll know exactly how he will respond and what he will say because you’ve been watching Uncle George all your life. Perhaps you’ve given George sixteen tentacles or super strength. You still understand him well  enough to know what he’d do what that kind of power.

This is a form of working backwards, taking an existing personality and unpacking it. You may never have considered why George acts the way he does, but you start out instinctively knowing what he will do. Over the course of your book you can explore NotGeorge and discover important things about him that will enrich your story. Meanwhile, you will have a believable character with consistent behavior.

The bonus of this strategy is the events in your story evolve in an organic fashion, with solid grounding, and complications will emerge on their own.


Something in your story isn’t working, so you keep rewriting bits, hoping it will come together. The rewrites aren’t helping because they don’t address the real problem. There are three issues that will kill a story:

Your lead character isn’t compelling enough. The character isn’t sympathetic or admirable. They don’t have to be perfect. It’s better if they’re not. But you do have to give us reason to care about them or your story will fall flat and readers won’t finish your book.

Your story lacks structure. A story is like a house. If it doesn’t have all the parts we expect, nobody will buy it. This topic is beyond the scope of a blog post, but there are many books on the subject.

The stakes aren’t high enough. You haven’t communicated why all the drama in your book matters. Ho hum.


You want to be a wordsmith with a unique voice. I get it. We all want that. Pursuit of a “mature” style was something everyone aspired to during my years in art school. The thing is, if you pursue it for it’s own sake, you are likely to wind up sounding like someone else or very contrived.

Imagine we are all ice cream. We look around us and we see Sally, who is chocolate ice cream. David is cherry cordial ice cream and Becky is black raspberry chocolate chip. And there’s us, and we’re just plain old ice cream. No flavor. It’s horribly demoralizing.

What I need to understand is I’ve got a flavor, I just don’t know what it is and I need to grow into it. Other people can see it but it’s invisible to me because it’s just the way I do things, and since I do it all the time, it’s nothing special.

True style grows from the inside out. It results from your unique tastes, sense of logic, and priorities. If you ignore everything else out there and listen to yourself when you look at your work, what makes a sentence or a paragraph fulfill its purpose—in your eyes, you will get there.

Focus on the story and what it takes to tell it. Please yourself in the process. Style will take care of itself.

Chances are you have heroes who are amazing wordsmiths. They didn’t start out that way, and it takes years to learn enough—about writing, about yourself—to make tweaking every word a productive enterprise. In early days it’s more likely to be a case of polishing the deck on the Titanic.

Focus on your story and getting it told. Get it all down on paper, and expect much if not most of it to be written badly. Put it away for a month and when you come back, apply yourself to structural issues. chances are, your issues are there, not in how you word your sentences. If you tell a good story, 95% of readers won’t notice that you’ve used “that” ten times on one page.

Save line editing for the third go round. Focus on whether your sentences flow well and convey what they need to convey, no more. If you spend a lot of time prettying up your verbage, you risk creating “darlings,” those precious but useless sentences we refuse to cut because they are so adorable.

You’re allowed to own a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, but read it and forget about it.


Endlessly rewriting your stuff can be a means of coping with fear. You can sit down at your computer and work on your book every day without ever coming close to having a finished manuscript. This keeps you safe from ever having to face public opinion.

The way to reduce fear is to manage your expectations. Very few writers launch their careers with bestsellers. If they did, chances are, Like Harper Lee, they had extensive mentoring and editing before they published. (Taylor Stevens is another matter. We won’t talk about her.)

Most big name authors published not-so-great stuff under a different name before they hit upon their secret sauce and big success. I’m talking Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, and even Lawrence Block, who wrote lesbian porn early in his career. Tami Hoag published meh romantic suspense early in her career before she wrote A Thin Dark Line.

But what about first books that became NYT bestsellers? The Celestine Prophecy? The Christmas Box? Fifty Shades of Grey? Slammed? In every one of those cases, the author wrote a book to please themselves, one that was not available in the market place. The books were personal and originally not intended for the marketplace. The books took off because their authenticity resonated with the public.

Fifty Shades and Celestine Prophecy (along with many titles by very successful self-published writers) have been castigated for sub-par writing. That should tell you that the average reader cares more about good storytelling than they do about perfect English. If you tell a good story, people will forgive a lack of eloquence as long as your writing is adequate.

The other thing you you need to accept is there is no way to get around your fear except to plow through it. Tell yourself, “Yes, I’m terrified, but if I don’t finish this book and get it out there, I will look back on my life as a failure to pursue my dreams and I will wind up old and bitter and have nothing to show for myself. I would rather give it my best shot and fail than live with never having tried.”