Finding Your Story’s Starting Line

Track athlete in a light blue track suit crouching at a starting line and preparing to run
Photo by Gratisography / Ryan McGuire from Freerange

I was on a panel once that was taking questions from the audience, and a guy raised his hand and asked how to know when to start a new chapter. He said he’d written hundreds of pages, and it was only chapter one. A silence fell over the room as the audience waited with rapt attention and those of us on the panel had no idea how to respond to that. Without seeing that guy’s manuscript, I was certain his problem was he hadn’t found the beginning of his story yet.

To the guy’s credit, he’d started writing his novel, and that’s admirable. Moreover, he’d started doing the work, and that’s progress.

I don’t remember how we, the panel, responded to him, but the point here is, again, without seeing that manuscript, I would expect to find pages and pages and pages of world building and information about characters, places, customs, traditions, etc. That stuff is important, but it’s not the story.

Finding the starting line is a very common problem for us writers because we are (and this is true—unless you’re using generative AI, which is bad and I’m going to get to someday) human beings, and it’s natural for human beings, when beginning any creative process, to search for information. Even legal cases start with a discovery process. As storytellers, we begin by asking questions like, Who is this person? What is this place? We build a foundation.

I’m here to tell you, while that stuff is incredibly important and you need to work on it because everything rests on it, the story starts elsewhere.

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You’re Not a Bad Writer If It’s Difficult and You Choose Grace

An exhausted writer lays his head down at his desk.
Image by Nataliya Vaitkevich, Pexels

I think, if any writer says every day is a good writing day, they’re lying. I think it’s okay to struggle. I have to think that because I struggle often.

I think we (as in human beings) tend to believe in The Natural because we all (as in all human beings) want to believe there’s something we each were specifically designed to do. We want to find our life’s purpose, and we want to fulfill it. There’s a bit of the chosen one complex hidden here, but I think it’s typically fine and healthy. 

Where we might go awry is in the logical leap that, if we find our purpose, it should be easy, right? I mean, when you take a pair of jeans that should be your size to the dressing room, they should go on without much tugging or tummy tucking involved.

In my own case, I’ve spent about fifteen years of my life chasing my writing dreams. That’s a long time, and I haven’t felt like I’ve really accomplished much, if I’m being honest. Sure, I’ve had some wins here and there, but most of those could be attributed to stubbornness versus actual skill or talent. Law of averages and all that.

Despite a world that seems resistant, I firmly believe I was put on this earth to tell stories. That isn’t to say I believe in an omnipotent and omniscient deity that had a plan for me when my parents did the deed, but I do think, given all of my talents, desires, passions, etc., I keep coming back to banging thoughts out on a keyboard. It’s the intersection of what I love and what I think I’m pretty good at (nevermind the other half of the Ikigai).

The trouble is writing fiction is difficult, and in my experience, there’s a difficulty creep. That is, as I’ve grown and improved as a storyteller, you might think it would get easier, but it doesn’t. There’s a principle that google’s failing me on right now in which every new discovery begets a certain number of new questions, and I think the pursuit of every artform is probably a lot like that. Not only are we evolving as people, writers, and readers, but with each project, we spark new ideas that we might not have otherwise illuminated, and as we chase those, inspiration strikes again, and writing then becomes a chain or web of stories that probably wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t started somewhere.

All of that is to say any writing worth writing is an act of discovery, and that is necessarily difficult. Therefore, I don’t think any writer should feel difficulty is an indication that the pursuit is in vain. Quite the opposite, I would think. I would imagine, if we asked every writer who achieved a measure of success, none of them would admit to it being easy for them, and I don’t think that would be a lie.

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How I Define Bad, Good, and Great Writing

A book lays open with some of its pages folded over to create a heart shape.

In my last post, I wrote about some practical tips and approaches for writing better prose. Then someone asked me about the qualities I think make writing good or even great. It was an earnest question, but the question, itself, is a bit of a trap, I think.

My tips, generally speaking, will be broad or even unbearably mechanical. Some might consider them vague or esoteric. Others might consider them unhelpful.

Without turning this post into one about creative writing pedagogy, I think it’s vital to grant writers the space to be themselves, to explore their own tastes and desires in literature, to become the writer they were meant to be not the writer the world thinks they should be. (I acknowledge there are writers who want to write to market, and that’s great, but I’m not the best teacher for those writers.)

Which is to say I’m never going to tell you what to do. I’m going to try to guide you toward figuring that out for yourself.

So when I was asked how I see the lines between bad, good, and great writing, I felt a little wary of defining bad, good, and great writing for others. I think saying the lines between them are subjective is a bit of a copout, and I think it’s wrong. I think we can define good art, though importantly, I think the bar for what constitutes good art should be set perhaps shockingly (to some) low.

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Practical Tips for Writing Better Prose

A frustrated man at a typewriter with many pieces of crumpled paper nearby.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

I think it’s important to know your strengths as a writer. That way, you can embrace them and lean into them but also challenge yourself to grow in other ways.

One of the most common pieces of positive feedback I get is about my prose. It’s nice to hear, because I’ve worked very hard to develop that as a strength.

Now, I’m not claiming I am the best proser that ever did prose. I’m simply saying I think my ability to construct a sentence is one of my strengths. I have many weaknesses. Believe me, no one knows my weaknesses as a writer better than me.

I attribute some of my prose acumen to one of my other artistic loves: music. There was a time in my life when I considered myself a musician, and for many reasons, I shifted focus to fiction. However, I think the time I spent studying, composing, and thinking about music tuned me toward the melody of words. Some writers struggle with voice and tone in their writing. Those are elements that come naturally to me. I often tell people I can’t write a character until I hear them speaking to me. I usually get a funny look for that, but it’s true. Every character, at least the way I write them, has a voice, a musicality that gives their personality color. Once I hear them, my job is to help readers hear them, too, using text. That’s the goal, anyway.

I do think some writers are naturally inclined toward writing good prose. Writers are, and this is true, people, and every person has natural abilities. That isn’t to say I believe in the “it” gene for anything, really. I think everyone can write good prose if that is what they want from their writing.

What are your strengths? What are your goals? How can you leverage your strengths to achieve your goals?

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‘So you’re a writer? Let me ask you, where do you get your ideas?’

When you’re a writer, one of the most common questions you get is about where your stories come from. I don’t know about other writers, but in my experience, stories begin like a loose thread you one day notice on your shirt. Smarter people will get the scissors, cut it off, and toss it aside, but not you. You’re compelled to pick and tug at it because there’s something satisfying about drawing it out.

The more you work it, the more your shirt unravels. Before long, the seam is open, and you can see something of what you look like underneath. You keep pulling, and eventually, the sleeve is in tatters. You keep going, and often, the thread jumps off the seam. That’s when it becomes grueling work.

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Anatomy of an Ending

There is a popular sentiment that stories, like life, are about the journey, not the ending. I think good fiction has to differentiate itself from life, so stories are about the journey and the ending.

Maybe I’m hopelessly morbid, but I think about death all the time. I know I’m not the only one, but how I’m going to check out is constantly on my mind. It doesn’t frighten me or stop me from living, but like a good story, I do want to know how it all ends. Like reading a good story, though, I’m not eager to get there. It’s a paradox. I don’t want it to end.

You can stop psychoanalyzing me now.

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Confidence in Writing

Last week, a young writer asked if I had any insecurities about my writing. My initial response was, yes, of course I have insecurities. I wouldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t on some level insecure about my writing (and in general about everything for always and forever).

However, after some retrospection, I realized I’m in a much better place than I was when I started.

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A Picture May Be Worth A Thousand Words, But An Imagination Is Way More Efficient Than That

If you had someone encourage you to write when you were young, he or she may have said, “paint me a picture.” As it turns out, this would be the worst advice anyone would ever give you. Even more dire is it may be the foundation of what many people believe to be good writing, and it’s evident as one of the most pervasive problems I see in the work of new writers.

Sometimes I think, maybe one day, I’ll get to teach a creative writing class. I think I would really enjoy it, and I think I could be reasonably good at it. In these times of grand fantasy, I consider the lessons I might bestow upon the next generation of writers.

Chief among them would be, as the writer, you’re not the painter. You’re the person at the paint store. Your readers aren’t using your imagination. Your readers are using their imaginations.

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I Survived A Writer’s Worst Nightmare, And All I Got Was This Stinkin’ Blog Post

Today, I recalled that I survived an author’s worst nightmare. I gave it some consideration, smiled off a painful memory that became bittersweet in context, and moved on with my thoughts before yanking myself back to ponder it some more. I thought maybe the experience could be useful for another writer. Therefore, here we are.

In college, I was on the selection committee for a student-run literary mag run. I also submitted a poem for consideration. You may already see where this is going.

Setting aside the amazing ethical conflict of being allowed to sit on a submissions committee and submit, there’s a much more practical reason this shouldn’t ever be allowed. Continue reading “I Survived A Writer’s Worst Nightmare, And All I Got Was This Stinkin’ Blog Post”

Writing Tips, Episode 2: Verbs

It’s been a while (ten months, in fact) since I wrote about writing. I never intended for the topic to be a regular feature, but that is too long, especially since this second tip is the integral other half of a sentence. Good thing you’re not paying for this.

Verbs are the key to powerful prose. My first tip is all about the subject of a sentence. That is, the thing that is performing an action. This tip is all about that action.

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