path of the storyteller / blog

World-building: It’s not just for fantasy


This week’s talk is in response to a question that came up during a previous livestream that went something like this:

Yes, research is a useful tool for brainstorming new books, but how do we do “research” if we’re writing fantasy?

I love this question, as it gives us a lot to think about. What is fantasy, really? Isn't all fiction “made up?” Is there any such thing as truly “realistic” fiction, when you think about it?

Practically speaking, world-building for a fantasy realm involves a lot more than drawing maps and making lists of slang words in Elvish. The world of your story is nothing less than the crucible of transformation of your hero, the arena of combat, the rules of the game.

In other words, the world-building is storytelling, too. 

Let’s go through the phantom tollbooth, hop on the transporter and take a fantastic journey to the world of world-building. We’ll explore the...

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Is writing ”by ear” holding you back?


The phrase “by ear” comes to us from the context of music. As in: "I don’t read music, but I can play by ear." 

A musician who plays by ear doesn't rely on formal training or music that’s been written down, but on some innate or acquired ability to pick up an instrument and play, or to recreate what they’ve heard. 

In this context, the ability to “play be ear” seems like a good thing, a special talent. A person who can play music with no formal training! Impressive, right? 

Writers do the same thing, of course. We write and revise “by ear.” When our prose "sounds good" to us, we say it’s done. 

There’s nothing wrong with this, to a point. Immersion and imitation are a natural kind of learning. We learn to talk by immersion in people talking—by ear—and we learn to write by immersion in what we read. It’s how we all begin.

It's when...

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What’s your success story?


Who doesn’t love a good success story? Underdog team prevails, small town kid gets cast in a Spielberg movie, scrappy entrepreneur starts in her garage and ends up a billionaire?

Above all, a success story is a story—it shows a hero overcoming obstacles en route to a big transformation.

Success stories appeal precisely because we love stories, and because we want to mine these tales for clues about how we, too, might achieve “success.”

I’d argue that we’re always mining stories for clues about how to live and find meaning in our lives, but today I want to talk particularly about how we writers relate to this idea of success. 

Success is good, right? But scratch the surface and things get complicated fast. As writers, how do we define success, and how does that definition impact our creative work?

Do we feel worthy of success? Does it trigger fears of exposure? Of losing our identity? Of disrupting...

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Here’s how to get back in the flow

process Jan 08, 2022

New year, new you—new book?

I have a successful writer friend (think NY Times bestseller) who says, “Every time I start a new book, it’s like I’ve forgotten how to do it.” 

She hasn’t, of course, but that new book feeling of starting over from absolute zero is a familiar one to writers who’ve been doing this a while.

It can be daunting. We look at the blank page and think: How did I forget how to do my job? When I was revising my last book, it felt like it was all going so well!

This is like comparing an intimate conversation with the person you know best in the world with walking into a vast, loud party where you know absolutely no one.

They feel different because they are different. 

In this livestream I talk about that scary, new-book feeling. How can we make friends quickly at this intimidating new gathering, and get ourselves back in the flow?  

My weekly livestream about story structure, writing...

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The twelve days of story structure: a holiday lesson for you to unwrap

story structure Dec 20, 2021

To watch this special presentation, go to

Warmest wishes of the season to you, my dear storyteller!

This week I’m pulling out all the jingle bells to bring you a livestream of unprecedented festivity!

Because, let’s face it: Holiday-themed stories are irresistible. My personal bucket list includes writing a Christmas movie (Hallmark, are you listening?).

We all have our favorites, from the sublime (Amahl and the Night Visitors gets my vote here) to the sublimely ridiculous (bring on the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser!).

From O. Henry to It’s a Wonderful Life to good ol’ Charlie Brown, there are countless books, poems, movies, and TV specials that fill the season with storytelling—and I'm not even going to mention the vast song catalogue, but songs are a kind of storytelling, too.

These are the tales that satisfy and keep satisfying, year after year after year.

In this week’s...

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How much is too much? Compress your prose for maximum impact!


This time of year, even the most disciplined among us can become prone to excess.

We do too much, we plan too much, we eat too much, we spend too much.

In our writing, too, we want to make sure we give our readers “enough.” As we revise our drafts to increase reader satisfaction, is it any wonder we’re inclined to add more stuff? More vivid description, more witty banter, more plot twists, more character development?

But does this actually make things better?

In a word, nope!

One of the most important things we do in revision is to compress the prose. We pare things down so the glitter of story energy can shine brightly, instead of being buried under a heap of crumpled wrapping paper we don’t want or need.

How to pare down our prose during revision is the topic of this week’s livestream. Practical decluttering tips in store!

I hope you find the perfect sweet spot for finding peace and joy this holiday season. Not too much, not too little, but...

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tick...tick...time to quit?


This week’s livestream is about failure, success, how long it takes to get from one to the other, and how we can best use that time wisely and well. That’s all you need to know to dive in—but if you want to get the context for this talk, read on. And yes, musical theatre is involved!

All writers will find much to ponder about the creative life from the new film, Tick...Tick...BOOM! (now streaming on Netflix). 

This 2021 musical film was adapted by Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of Hamilton), based on a small-cast musical that itself was adapted by playwright David Auburn in 2001 from an earlier, one-man version of the same material.

Under the title Boho Days, this solo show was written and first performed by Jonathan Larson in 1990.

Today, Larson is best known as the creator of RENT, which opened on Broadway in 1996. RENT was a massive hit that helped reshape what a Broadway musical could look and...

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in praise of teaching

mentors Dec 01, 2021

My dear storytellers, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving.

I’ll be back with a new livestream next week. Today, I’d like to share some thoughts about one of the great teachers on my own path as writer: Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen died on Friday morning at his home in Connecticut. He was 91 years old and writing until the end.

On the Wednesday before he died, he saw two plays in New York, a matinee and an evening performance. On Thursday he shared Thanksgiving with friends, and Friday morning he left us.

He last appeared the Colbert show in mid-September, talking about what he was working on next, among other inspiring remarks. 

I was profoundly influenced and inspired by his work and supported by his personal encouragement, as so many writers were. (I tell the tale of how I came to meet and work with my idol when I was eighteen years old in this livestream.) 

As artists we must always...

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a writer gives thanks


It’s Thanksgiving week here in the US, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge something that too often gets lost in the (cranberry) sauce.

Writers have a lot to be grateful for.

Don’t get me wrong. I know how writers like to complain! I hear your complaints. I complain too sometimes. None of this is easy, and it’s not supposed to be.

Writing is hard. Revisions are hard. Putting our work out into the world is hard. There is a lot of self-doubt, frustration, and long periods of developing our craft, with no guarantees of success. 

There are drafts we labor over that need to be labored over again. There are books we write thinking, "this is the one!" only to realize that “the one” might still be a book or two away. We’re getting closer, but we’re not quite there yet. It all takes longer than we expected. 

Even for the published, there are industry politics and marketplace realities to face. There is...

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who’s the opponent?


I was doing a little research into Stoic philosophy—like ya do!—and came across a quote from Seneca: 

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
—Seneca (4 B.C.E. — 65 C.E.)

To be thankful for one’s misfortunes is Stoic to the max. Leave it to a Roman to pull no punches!

But look at that second sentence: Without an opponent, “no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”

For our hero to pass through a story without an opponent would make for a pretty dull tale. And yet, experience suggests that the single aspect of good storytelling that developing writers most want to punch in the face is the necessity of filling their pages with obstacles. 

I get it. No one wants obstacles in real life. We want smooth sailing, even if Seneca says...

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