Out of My Head 4: The Technique of Writing

The storyteller only needs to answer three questions: What’s happening?  Who’s it happening to?  Why should we care?

  • What’s happening is the plot
  • Who it’s happening to is the character
  • Why we should care is the emotional heart of the story, the most important part

Writing is making decisions.  Every moment of every story, every chapter, every paragraph, is a decision.

Identify characters right away.

Get to the conflict as quickly as possible.

Use words that fit the setting.  Earthy setting = earthy words.  Sophisticated setting = sophisticated words.  Semantic discord happens when words and imagery don’t fit together.



Style is the way the story is told.

Effectiveness vs elegance.  Clarity requires that most of your sentences be simple and straightforward.  But storytelling also begs for vivid imagery and character, and it requires a distinctive voice to evoke that imagery.

Language should always be clear.

Don’t choose frills over substance.  Don’t be pretentious.  When you focus on the language instead of the meaning, you’re putting your attention in the wrong place.  Focus on clarity.  Accuracy is the most effective style of all.



Three types, which interact in varying degrees and capacities:

Voice-of-the-Story: subject, setting, and genre imply a specific resonance; high fantasy, Westerns, crime drama, hard SF.

Voice-of-Point-of-View: first person or third?  If first person, who is narrating? Past tense or present?  All of this implies tone.

Voice-of-the-Author: the subconscious word and style choices we make as writers; our tells, our fingerprints.  The distinctive quality that makes you you, arising out of talent, craft, and life experience.



Effective dialogue needs descriptive action interspersed throughout.  This gives detail and context.  If dialogue is the best way to reveal a character, the second best way is the description that accompanies dialogue.  This includes the use of silence, as demonstrated through pause, beat, or hesitation.

Steer clear of verbs other than “said” to carry dialogue.  The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer not being invisible.  Be straightforward and simple.  A word like said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, or lied.

Avoid adverbs to modify the verb “said”.  The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.  (As notoriously found in the Tom Swift series, where writers went to great lengths to avoid repeating the unmodified “said”… he pointed out sharply.)

Characters living in the past need to speak like they’re living in the past.  Contemporary turns of phrase will shatter the fourth wall and pull readers out of the story.

Use accents and regional dialects sparingly.  Once you start to spell dialogue phonetically and load the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.  (Think early Star Trek novels, where Chekov and Scotty were written like the actors sounded onscreen.  Their lines were all but impossible to decipher.)

Write dialogue first whenever possible, before describing action or scenery.  Most of what your reader needs to know can be conveyed through the spoken word, keeping description and stage direction to a minimum.

Historically, the art form with the purest representation of dialogue has been the theatre.  Motion and scope are far more limited on the stage than in any other form.  All you have is language.  Shakespeare never included stage direction in his work, relying almost exclusively on dialogue to carry the story.  (As opposed to Neil Simon who over-staged every action and movement, no matter how small.  Don’t do this.)


Story Form

  • Long Novel – 150,000 words and up
  • Mid-Sized Novel – 75,000 to 150,000 words
  • Short Novel – 40,000 to 75,000 words
  • Novella – 17,500 to 40,000 words
  • Novelette – 7,500 to 17,500 words
  • Short story – less than 7,500 words
  • Flash – 1,000 words or less.

Short Story – a singleness of event and decision.

Novella – events build one atop another, often with progressing value systems; a single principal character is featured more often than not.

Novel – the central player is the society in which the story takes place; one or more principal characters within that society carry intertwining plots.



The first line can either set the stage or hook you into the character.  (And those that hook you almost always follow with a bit of scenery.)  It should be surprising enough to tease you into reading the second line and the third and the rest.  Let your line have some mystery to it, and the reader will keep going to find out why.

The last line should imply that the story will continue, and should hopefully leave you wondering what will happen next.

Short sentences provide clarity and a crisp readable style, very useful for writing action and short fiction.  Long and involved sentences create a flowing sense of motion, but use caution: long sentences can become labored and overwrought.

A paragraph is a complete moment.  Every sentence in the paragraph is a part of that moment.  Tell not only what happens but also what it feels like.  A successful paragraph will evoke action, emotion, and the physical senses.  When you’ve said everything you have to say about that specific moment, end the paragraph and start the next.


The Rhythm of Fiction

Three elements to keep in mind with regard to narrative flow: story rhythm separates plot from random strings of events; there must be equal parts action and reaction (yang and yin); there must be movement, either internal or external.  The hero must change

  1. Story Structure is rigid (the traditional pyramid):
  • First crisis
  • Exposition
  • Second crisis
  • Transition (optional)
  • Third crisis
  • Undercutting (optional)
  • Climax
  • Result
  • Close
  1. Story Rhythm is always in motion, diagramed as a continuously expanding series of loops:
  • Goal
  • Action
  • Disaster
  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

The decision leads naturally to the next goal, followed by action, disaster, reaction, and so on.  The loops get bigger with each repetition as jeopardy escalates to the story’s climax.

ACTION (Yang): goal, action, disaster

REACTION (Yin): reaction, dilemma, decision

Story structure is the skeleton that supports rhythm’s muscles.


Three Axes-of-Story in Genre Fiction

First axis-of-story: story elements.  A character in a setting with a problem, who makes multiple attempts to solve that problem with increasing stakes for failure, before coming to a resolution.

  • Character
  • Setting
  • Problem
  • Try/Fail Cycles
  • Resolution

Second axis-of-story: craft techniques.  Voice, point-of-view, structure, style–all the narrative and technical choices that a writer makes to build a story.

  • Voice
  • Style
  • Point-of-view
  • Structure
  • Person/Tense
  • Punctuation
  • Paragraphing

Third axis-of-story: genre devices.  These are the things that make a genre story what it is, rather than mainstream fiction.


Behind the Scenes

Authority – the writer’s ability to convince the reader he knows what he’s talking about.  Don’t undermine your own authority by losing the reader.

Research – a shotgun blast, not a well-targeted bullet.  Winging something of value with a single pellet is a success.

Dilemma – two different emotions in conflict with each other.

Climax – the story’s psychological turning point.

Second Artist Effect – the first artist sees a landscape and paints what he’s seen.  The second artist see’s the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of the real landscape.  He’s not creating anything new, nor uniquely his own.  (Think of the countless replications of Lord of the Rings, or any Young Adult dystopia.)

Plot Device – an element introduced into the story solely to advance or resolve the plot.  It should flow naturally from the setting or characters.

MacGuffin – a plot device that motivates the characters into action or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise.

Word Echoes – the same word repeated in close proximity.  It draws attention to itself and distracts the reader.  However, there is a point at which the contortions to avoid the echo become more artificial than the echo itself.



Out of My Head 3: Talent and Craft

Let’s say for the sake of discussion that creativity is to talent as craft is to technique.  One is a subset of the other, each one-half of the writing experience.

Craft is objective.  It’s the external process; rules that can be taught.  It’s scholarly old men over the course of centuries deciding how grammar, punctuation, and story structure work.  Creativity is the internal process; it’s subjective, and comes from a different place altogether.  It’s the art that informs and gives meaning to craft.

Writing then is the act of maintaining the balance between craft and creativity.

I don’t put a lot of stock in talent for its own sake.  You have what you have; either you’re born with it or you’re not.  Talent can be squandered, ignored, thrown away.  Quoting author Steven Barnes: “Attitude, not Aptitude, is the best indicator of future Altitude.”

Relying on talent isn’t enough.  It’s a dead end.  You can’t control talent, but you can control craft.  You need the ability to learn craft, and become good at it.  A perfectly fine story can be written using nothing but technique.  Many authors do.  I don’t recommend it, but that’s just me.  That’s my blue pill.

Creativity is the part of ourselves that wants to play.  Can it be taught?  I honestly don’t know.  Creativity can be nurtured, most definitely; stimulated, encouraged to grow.  The spark is already there, in all of us.  Our child-selves utilized it every day.

Our make-believe worlds were not “make-believe” at all.  They were real.  But then what happens?  We either hold on to our creativity, nurture it, allow it to broaden and mature, or we lose it.  Even worse, we forget it was ever there.

All we really need to do is remember.

Out of My Head 2: The Basics

In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.

Don’t waste time and effort trying to be the writer-artiste, hiding behind a carefully crafted pseudonym, persona, or avatar.  Don’t covet celebrity before it’s deserved.  You have to earn that.  Use your precious energy to write.  It’s never too late to be who you really are.

Teachers say “write what you know”.  I don’t really believe that’s true, particularly not in genre fiction.  No one knows what an AI will do when it’s plugged in for the first time.  No one knows about FTL spacecraft, or wormholes to other galaxies, or elves, or dragons, or magic in urban settings, or plucky young heroines in YA dystopias.  But we write about them anyway.  We’re drawn to the things that appeal to us, the ones that nourish our spirit.  So write them.  Don’t get lost in what you know.  Focus on what makes you happy.  Write what you love.

The trick is to learn from real writers.

Approach with caution the Creative Writing professor who’s never published any fiction herself.  The buddy who’s full of great ideas and characters and plot twists but has never done anything with them.  The Best Friend Forever who’s loved everything you have ever written and can’t wait for you to write more.  Or the guy who covets the writer’s lifestyle without having earned it.  You know him.  He hangs out with writers, attends writer events, even fawns his way onto panels so that he can talk to you about writing.  But he hasn’t paid his dues.  He hasn’t sold anything of his own.  These people can’t help you.  None of them can help you.  You have to let all of that go if you want to move forward.

Needing a degree in order to write is bullshit.  Needing an advanced degree in order to write is fucking bullshit.

You can’t learn how to write by reading a book about it, or by listening to someone talk.  (When’s the last time anyone learned to swim without actually getting in the water?)  You can only learn by doing.

Writing is a privilege, not an entitlement.


Goal Structuring

To become a success in anything, you have to have goals.  You have to know what you want, stated as clearly and honestly as possible.

If you feel you aren’t achieving your goals as a writer, examine your behavior.  How are you organizing your time?  If you want to be published, are you writing consistently?  Sending those stories out?  It doesn’t matter what your goals are, only that you understand them and do something about it.

Balance goals with the real world.  I have a day job.  That’s 8, 9, 10 hours a day that require my focus.  I’m married; my wife and I together share the responsibility to nurture and grow that relationship.  I have two sons; they’re adults now but for the longest time they weren’t.  And I own a home; it’s my job to keep it in good repair, take out the trash, make sure the lawn is mowed.  Where my writing time comes from is the same bucket that I use for television, reading, movies, Internet, and social media.  Everything has a trade-off.  This is mine.

What goal are you working on right now?  What story are you writing?  Did you finish it?  If not, what stopped you?  What resources do you need to get back on track?


I Want…

A question that’s not really asked in Creative Writing class is what kind of writer do you want to be?  (We’re not talking about genre.)  There are essentially five kinds of writer in today’s world, each with a trajectory and set of requirements that are very different from the others.  So ask yourself–what do I really want?  I want to be a…

  • Writer
  • Published writer
  • Published writer who gets paid
  • Published writer who gets paid money
  • Published writer who gets paid a professional wage

Each path is tied uniquely to its goal.  They are not easily interchangeable.  The path to becoming a Published Writer will not lead you to a Published Writer Who Gets Paid Money.  The markets are very, very different.  Choose your goals wisely and with careful thought.


Rituals of Productivity

Everyone’s got them.  “I can only write at night.  I need a mug of herbal tea with me at all times.  Only the most up to date software for my laptop, please.”  All of which is fine.  The point is not to be dependent on your rituals or tools.  It becomes an easy excuse not to write if you don’t have them at the ready.  Learn to do without.  Minimalism is a good thing.

When I was in England several years back I visited Charles Dickens’ house.  It’s a museum now, still furnished as when he lived there.  What impressed me the most was his desk.  It’s not really a desk at all; it’s a small table the size and shape of a dinner tray, with long spindly legs mounted on tiny wheels.  Dickens would roll it from room to room when he wrote, wherever the mood struck him and the light was best.  He didn’t need a grand, impressive piece of furniture that bellowed “I Am a Writer!” when he worked.  He just needed to work.


Overcoming Obstacles

Never surrender.  Failure is when you don’t get back up again.

Criticism of your work is not a personal attack.

Lack of control is self-imposed.

Don’t start anything unless you have a profound commitment to finish it.  If you don’t, how will you know if your story is any good?  You can’t revise it, can’t market it, can’t sell it.  The discipline of being a writer isn’t having ideas, it’s following them through to the end.

Conquer fear – “I’m afraid I can’t get what’s in my head onto the page.”  Recognize FEAR for what it is–a learning tool, one more step along the many paths to wisdom.  Which path you take is up to you.

  • Positive response: False Evidence that Appears Real
  • Negative response: Fuck Everything and Run

Writer’s Block – I’ve seen articles listing up to a dozen or so different types of writer’s block, describing each in detail to help you assign your symptoms to the correct category.  That’s much too complicated.  You need that energy to fix the problem at hand.  Here’s the simple definition: writer’s block is a confusion of the flow and edit states.  The writer will edit up front as he goes, with each sentence, and the flow is stymied.  Flow and edit are processed differently in the human brain, as are belief and doubt.  Just get the words on paper.  Less than marvelous is okay.  You can make them pretty later.

Every word you type will help you.


Extracting Outcomes

Don’t post your finished story online, no matter how much you want to.  Not on your website, not on your blog.  Not if you want to sell it.  Why would a publisher pay you for a story that you’ve already offered up to the world for free?

A publisher isn’t going to buy your book if he doesn’t think it will make him any money.  It’s not about good.  It’s about the money.

There is no such thing as “professional quality”.  There’s a whole lot of garbage out there that was produced professionally.  The only criterion that determines if your work is professional is whether or not you’re paid a professional wage.  That’s it.


Not-So-Random Observations

Quit looking for the magic, and do the work.

The most honest validation you will ever receive for your work is a paycheck.

Blow your pipes out.  Get rid of the media stuff built up inside.  You’ll never find your own voice otherwise.

Don’t self-critique while writing.

Treat writing like the profession it is.  Build a portfolio.  Amass finished work.  No one wants to see incomplete material.  What is your reputation at any given moment?  Be the good guy.  Learn to meet deadlines.  Work ethic is just as important as talent.  Put yourself out there.  Market your work.  If you don’t believe in yourself, who will?

“I write for the fans.”  This is bullshit.  It’s pandering.  Don’t pimp out your inner child.  Write for you.

Writing is not important by itself.  It’s only important if it makes a difference.  So make a difference.



Norwescon 39

Lots of excitement and energy this year as Norwescon 39 quickly approaches.  Programming has done an exceptional job in promoting diversity in subject matter while welcoming new panelists to share the spotlight alongside returning favorites.  Writing Track alone has a higher percentage of pros who are new to Norwescon than have participated in a long while.  I’m looking forward to having a drink or few with old friends after much too long an absence, as well as the opportunity to remedy those relationships that need mending.  Here is my schedule per the program guide for March 24-27, 2016:

Mar 24, 3PM – “Your Story is a Problem, and That’s Good”.  A story is about a problem.  Your hero has to solve that problem.  How do you balance the two?  Listen as our pros share how they scale their crises and heroes with a fit that’s dramatically plausible and satisfying.

Mar 24, 6PM – “Patterns of Success, Patterns of Failure”.  Rituals of productivity: every writer has them.  The things we think we need in order to be creative.  Share with our panelists what works, what does not, and what might be outright destructive.

Mar 24, 8PM – “How a Writers Workshop Changed My Life”.  Writers workshops can be positive forums for young creativity in development.  But for some they can lead to false expectations and disappointment.  Hear panelists share their experiences in writers workshops, and perhaps share your own as well.

Mar 25, 2PM – Writers Workshop: Tracy Durnell

Mar 25, 4PM – “The Art of Writing It Again”.  Your editor orders a major rewrite of your masterpiece.  How exactly do you go about doing it?  Discuss with our panelists how to best cope with revision while still keeping true to the story you wanted to tell in the first place.

Mar 25, 6PM – “Writing is a Long Con”.  Most overnight successes take ten years.  You have to think big picture, write for the long haul, and understand it’s a long game.  Pros will talk about strategizing long-term and how to give yourself every advantage for enduring success.

Mar 26, 10AM – Writers Workshop: Shweta Sundararajan

Mar 26, 12PM – ” Fundamentals of Worldbuilding”.  Story arises from what your characters want and need, not from where they live.  Learn from our panel of worldbuilders how your planet, kingdom, or landscape can inform the characters and how to keep the story apace without overwhelming the narrative with geographic or cultural details.

Mar 26, 2PM – Autograph Session 1

Mar 26, 7PM – “Worldbuilding: Gods, Religion, and Mythos”.  What makes for a compelling mythos?  How do characters correctly or mistakenly address these aspects in their narrative?  Join our pros as they discuss the nuances of balancing these three elements in a fantasy setting.

Mar 26, 830PM – Reading: “Evensong, Having been Answered”

Mar 27, 2PM – “Worldbuilding: Alien Means Different”.  Speculative fiction is filled with alien societies and characters based on all-too-human quirks and cultural traits.  A convenient shortcut, or creatively lazy?  Discuss how writers build worlds that are truly alien yet are still relatable to readers.

I Swear Our House Wasn’t a Fixer-Upper When We Bought It

A wee two bedroom mid-century, move-in ready.  That’s what it was, I swear.  Two years later now and I’m not so sure.

We just finished a full ceiling makeover, for no other reason than we didn’t like the acoustic popcorn that was there originally.  Seal the rooms; scrape the popcorn; haul out the debris; add new beams because they look nice; patch, mud, and sand; prime and paint.

Ah, but heed well, padawan.  There’s more.

Prior to the ceiling project, we (counting backwards) replaced the mailbox; installed new front and back doors, a new window in the bathroom, and cabinets in the laundry room; dug a fire pit in the front yard (to match the one in the back); removed a wood-burning stove and patched the hole where the stove pipe exited the roof; built a shed; installed exterior electrics and lighting; ripped out the old landscaping (which included a laurel hedge that occupied the same length, width, and height as the Great Wall of China); and planted forty-three new trees and assorted varieties of ground cover to replace the Great Wall of China.

In a house that wasn’t a fixer-upper.

I feel like the guy on that insurance commercial: “I’m never buying another house.”