I teach and mentor a great many writers, and one of the first things I ask them is this:
What’s the number one thing holding you back?
Again and again, the answer is:
Discipline. Discipline. Discipline. The stubborn lack of it is the bane of the would-be writer’s existence, or so they tell me.
And yet I wonder. Can it be true that all these passionate, smart, sensitive, longing-to-write humans are just too lazy to bother doing the thing they say they most want to do?
So this word discipline interests me. What do these writers mean by it?
The first definition of discipline, according to Merriam-Webster, is:
a) control gained by enforcing obedience or order
b) orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior
Kind of rigid-sounding, don’t you think? And the second definition of definition is punishment....
Long ago, in the days of actual paper maps, I was driving in a neighborhood I didn’t know. My purpose and destination are long forgotten, also irrelevant. Back to the story:
I stopped to ask for directions. The conversation went like this:
“Can you tell me how to get to fill-in-the-blank?”
“Sure. Just go to the donut shop and make a left.”
“Actually, I’ve never been here before, so I don't know where the donut shop is.”
“It’s on the same street as that big lumberyard. Can’t miss it.”
I get a bad feeling about how this is going. I smile.
”Thanks, but I don’t know this area, so I don’t know where the lumberyard is either. Can you just give me directions?”
At this point my helpful samaritan is looking at me like I’m an idiot.
“Okay,” he says, nice and slow, “the lumberyard is near the high school. Go to the high school and head down the...
Most of what writers do is—shh!—secret.
How could it be otherwise? Our work is private because we do it inside our heads.
Maybe we do this interior labor while sitting at a desk, typing or scribbling away, but the essential processes remain invisible to the eye.
Which raises the not-so-secret question: How is a would-be writer, who's longing to write but has never actually seen anyone do it (because, guess what, you can't), supposed to know how to approach this challenging novel-writing gig to begin with?
It’s a puzzle, and it’s why developing writers experience so much struggle.
Yes, they’ve seen the finished books! Chances are they’ve read a ton.
But they haven't seen all the...
Big confession today, storytellers! It’s ALL A LIE.
I’m talking about fiction of course.
By its very definition, fiction is a made-up story. It’s not pretending to be factually true, although it may contain many details that are, in fact true.
But fiction not history, not memoir, not journalism.
It’s a story, pure and simple.
I often say that storytelling is how we tell the truth about what it means to be human, but there is so much about good fiction that is nothing like real life! Some quick examples:
In real life, our days can be repetitive. People are creatures of habit and our day-to-day routines are fairly predictable.
When something happens that is way out of the ordinary it’s a big deal, and often quite shocking, either positively or negatively.
In real life, we don’t always have a clear sense of mission. We minimize or...
You probably know that I spent my formative years working in the theatre. What a valuable experience! Among the storytelling lessons I learned was this:
Every action has a motive.
It’s the classic actor’s question: What’s my motivation? Story doesn't happen without it. But just in case you missed that day in drama class, let me define some terms:
Action is what a character does.
There's a reason they call it acting. Characters act. They do stuff. They walk. They talk. They pour another glass of booze (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), hide behind the curtains and eavesdrop (Hamlet), and run their enemies through with a sword (also Hamlet).
Our characters explore spooky attics and travel through dangerous...
Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
My writing is worth money.
Deep breaths, storytellers! I would love to know your answer. You can leave a comment below and tell me. I read every one.
But here’s what I’ve observed during my years mentoring writers. When posed with this question, some—we’ll call them Group A—will immediately protest:
“I just love to write! I don’t care if I make money at it. I do it for me."
“Money would be nice, but really I just want to get something out there and published. That would satisfy me.”
You might find these responses attractively modest, or nobly artistic, or both. If so, you’re probably in Group A.
Then there’s Group B:
“Sure, I’d love to get paid to write! I get story ideas all the time. But I know I can never make a living at it, so I don’t even try anymore.”
Ouch. That’s a hard place to land....
There’s a key question that can make or break your storytelling, and it’s this:
How does your main character react to pressure?
These four strategies are psychological patterns that describe how humans react to stress, pressure, or trauma.
You may have heard them described as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
And how is this relevant to writing fiction, you ask?
It’s story structure, my friends! A story depicts a central character with important, high stakes goal who encounters obstacles along the way. The struggle to achieve the goal despite opposition creates a journey of meaningful transformation.
Or, to put it simply:
How your main character reacts to pressure is literally the plot of your book.
For that reason alone, this subject is worth...
True fact: I rarely leave a restaurant without a box of leftovers tucked under my arm.
I’m not sorry about it, either. I never like to let food go to waste. Even if there’s only a little bit left, it’s enough to pop in an omelette, or throw on top of a pasta, right?
And isn’t that how many of us treat our writing, too?
We hate to cut stuff. We worked so hard on those bits! Surely there’s a place to use them. Into the refrigerator they go.
And if we’ve been working on something for a while—maybe it’s our first whack at a novel—we hate, hate, hate to admit that it might not be workable at all.
One more rewrite? Ten? We know we can save it!
“Waiter, bring me a box to put this messy draft of a novel in! I don’t want any of it to go to waste.”
Now listen, dear storyteller. I have news for you.
Most of our work is not our best work.
In fact, most of our actual writing labor will never see the light of day at...
You probably know that I started my storytelling career in the theatre. When I was about to graduate high school and was auditioning for college acting programs, my brother Tom gave me a fantastic gift: a copy of a book by Michael Shurtleff called Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part.
I still have that book, forty-odd years later. Thanks, Tom!
And I still think about one of the central ideas I learned from it, which is this:
Every scene is a love scene.
Shurtleff breaks this idea down for actors. But what does it mean for writers?
Here’s how I’ve come to think of it: Every scene is driven by desire. Something is wanted. Something is pursued. Even when it's not a romance scene, there is desire on the page.
And something, or someone, or even some fearful or ambivalent part of our hero’s inner landscape—stands in the way. If it weren’t so, the hero would already...
Has this happened to you? You wrote a little something, or a lot of something, and you shared it with others.
You know it's not perfect. You’re expecting a few notes. But the reaction you get surprises you:
“I couldn't follow it.”
“I didn’t get it.”
“I just wasn't sure what was happening.”
This kind of feedback can be bewildering. What we wrote is so clear to us! So why did our readers find it confusing?
My dear storytellers, the art of writing really good fiction—fiction that works for the reader—is made of many different skills. One of the key ones is this:
You must cultivate the ability to see your text as the reader sees it.
Consider how well you know your book by the time you've got pages to show people. You’ve been working on it for months. You can recite chunks from memory. You know your characters like the back of your hand.
But the reader is new in town. They only know what...