Archive for category: Creative Writing

Last week, I helped my BFF pack and move some stuff into her new place. She’s moving officially in a couple of weeks, but my day with her was the first day she got serious about packing. She said starting is the hardest part for her and that we at least did that.

I think getting started is the hardest part for just about anything. It’s certainly true for writing (whether it’s fiction, my day job, a new draft, revisions). It’s true for cleaning, shopping, writing thank-you notes, doing taxes, exercising, learning any new skill, taking up a hobby, etc. Once I start — whatever it is — I’m usually good, hitting a groove. But getting started can be torture, at times.

A quick google search revealed that much has been written about this phenomenon (see here, here, and here to start — ha!).

When people tell me they want to write and then ask my advice about it, I tell them the same thing: “butt in chair, butt in chair.” You just got to do it.

This all seems apt as I stare at the bright and shiny Day One of this new calendar year.

Here’s to getting started…may it be easier for all of us in 2018.

(And if it’s not? Just get started anyway.)

The day after Christmas, I was driving home from Salisbury Beach (normally, I visit the ocean on Christmas Day, but Mother Nature didn’t cooperate this year).

In the car, One Love by U2 came on the radio (yep, I still listen to the radio). It’s a classic, right? I just looked it up — it was released in 1991, which is the same year I graduated high school.

But the song…this version featured U2 and Mary J. Blige, and holy shit, WOW was it different in a really incredible way. Now, I have nothing against the original. As I said, it’s a classic. It’s U2. What’s not to like?

The re-imagined work, however — it’s special. (And yes, I realize I’m late to the party; they did the song together back in 2005, apparently.)

My experience with this song has stayed with me these last few dwindling December days. The readers who follow my blog know I’ve been working on a novel for the last 5.5 years. The novel has gone through A LOT. We’re talking top-to-bottom revisions (several), endless pitches to agents, countless submissions to traditional publishers, and two more rewrites once it became clear we weren’t going to get any takers. This past fall, I embarked on one final attempt at salvaging the damned thing.

So what’s the song got to do with my book? Well, as I was driving along the day after XMas, mesmerized by Bono and Blige, I realized what I’m attempting to do is exactly what they did to that song: breathe new life into an old work in a wholly original, emotional, and unexpected way.

I have no idea if I’ll make it. But at least I know what I need to do, what I’m striving for. And that’s something.

If you’re curious and haven’t heard this version, here you go. (If you’re reading this via email subscription, click through to watch the YouTube video.)

If you’re new to writing, you’ll encounter plenty of advice from well-meaning scribes, especially if you hang out in writer forums or with your local critique group.

But not all advice is created equal. Unfortunately, even in this enlightened age, plenty of writing myths persist—myths that can discourage new writers or lead them down the wrong path.

So let’s set the record straight and bust some of the biggest myths for good.

Myth #1: Good writers are born, not made. While some folks are born with natural  talent—e.g. an innate sense of story or way with words—plenty of other people (including this writer right here) have learned the craft over time. If you’re willing to put in the time, you can pick up mechanics, structure, and so forth.  

Myth #2. If you can’t spell, you can’t write. Here’s a list of great thinkers who supposedly couldn’t spell. You’ll notice the list includes many famous authors. My point: while you should certainly strive to spell correctly, you won’t be doomed if spelling is your weakness. Telling a good story has nothing to do with knowing how many S’s are in Mississippi. That said, if you know spelling isn’t your thing, make sure you have someone proofread your work before you send it out into the world. (And remember that spell-check is your friend!)

Myth #3. Great writers get it right the first time. Ha. I wish. No writer gets it right the first time. And most of us don’t get it right the second or third time, either. Great writing is all about great rewriting. The writers who make the craft look effortless are the ones who embrace the revision process.  

Myth #4. You need to write every day. If you look online, you’ll find plenty of advice regarding how and when you should write, including the notion that you should write every day. First, be careful of any advice that uses the word “should.” Second, when it comes to writing, there are no absolutes. Some writers write every day, including holidays and birthdays (Stephen King comes to mind). Some writers work a Monday-to-Friday schedule. Others consider themselves weekend warriors. The key is learning what works best for you and your process.

Myth #5. Don’t start writing until you know exactly what you want to say. Remember, you can’t revise a blank page. And if you think the muse will rescue you by whispering sweet nothings in your ear, well—you’re going to end up sorely disappointed.

Myth #6. The writing life is a solitary life. OK, so here’s the thing. Writing can be solitary, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m an extreme introvert and relish my solitude, but I know plenty of writers who love engaging with their fellow scribblers. Think conferences, expos, meetups, or coffee dates with a fellow novelist pal. Bottom line: you decide how solitary you want your writing life to be.

Myth #7. Writers can’t make a living. I’ve been a professional writer since 2002. I pay the rent. I buy groceries. I put money away for a rainy day. In other words, I make a living as a writer.  

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Will you be able to make a living as a fiction writer? Possibly. You have a better chance now than ever before, thanks to self-publishing (which is something I also do; and yes, I make money from my self-pubbed fiction). Like any other endeavor, it won’t happen overnight, and you will need to work at it. But it can happen.

Myth #8. You need an English degree or graduate degree to write. Nope. And this is coming from someone who earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. The only things you need: your imagination, your willingness to get your story down on paper, and your desire to improve.  

You can learn grammar, punctuation, structure, and anything else through books, the Internet, critique groups, and so forth. In other words, you don’t need the degree. That said, there are good reasons to pursue a writing degree (for example, if you want to teach at the college level in the US, you’ll more than likely need an MFA, at the very least). But a degree is not the be-all, end-all for writing a book, short story, or ad copy.  

Myth #9. You must read in order to be a good writer. This is tricky, because I do believe all good writers are avid readers. The two go hand-in-hand. But being an avid reader alone won’t make you a good writer. You need to take what you’ve learned from reading and write, rewrite, write, and rewrite some more. This, over time, is what it takes to become a competent writer.

Bottom line: get writing.

A friend of mine is working on a book of poetry. The other day, he sent me an email with this question: “I’m nearly finished with my book but I’m struggling with when to stop doing rewrites and edits and just call it complete. Any advice on when to stop editing? I feel like I could keep rewriting and I feel like I might be getting in my own way.”

Here was my response: 


I’m a firm believer that a piece of writing is never “done.” (This isn’t an original thought, either.)

I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

If that sounds familiar—if you’re debating comma placement—you’re probably “done.” At least for now. Getting an objective third party—someone who doesn’t know you, and someone who DOES know poetry—to review your work and provide feedback is probably a good next step.

(Edited to add: this would apply to fiction and nonfiction as well.)

Writers write. Right?



The smart writers know when to shelve a work-in-progress.

Case in point: I recently finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King.


It’s a time travel story that centers on this question: what would happen if JFK had lived? I CRUSHED ON THIS BOOK SO HARD. Here’s the thing about King: he is so versatile, and he has evolved so much as a writer. So if you tried him in the past, meaning decades ago, and he wasn’t your cup o’ tea, consider trying him again. Consider this book!

I digress. Back to my point. In the afterword, King says this: “I originally tried to write this book in 1972. I dropped the project because the research it would involve seemed far too daunting for a man who was teaching full-time. There was another reason: even nine years after the deed, the wound was still too fresh. I’m glad I waited.”

So know this, dear writers: it’s OK to shelve an idea that’s not working for whatever reason. Maybe you don’t have the necessary means to do the research. Maybe you don’t have the necessary life wisdom to write the story you’re trying to tell and you need to wait a little while longer and, you know, live. This doesn’t mean you stop writing altogether. It simply means you stop writing that particular story. Latch on to a new idea and work on it.

All that said, I’d like to offer two caveats:

1. Don’t allow a challenging story to convince you it just needs to be shelved. There’s a difference between shelving a story for a good reason and shelving a story out of fear or (gasp) laziness. Learn the difference (how these differences manifest will vary from person to person, which is why you need to get cozy with your inner self).

2. When a story isn’t working, don’t assume you must shelve it. Analyze what’s going on. Is the story not working because it needs time on the shelf? Is the story not working because the idea/concept isn’t sustainable? Is the story not working because you’re the obstacle, meaning you need to revise and/or recalculate your approach (see this blog post to understand what I mean)?

Sometimes you don’t need to shelve a story. Sometimes you need to shit-can it. It happens. No shame in having an idea that just isn’t working — and that *likely* won’t work, no matter what you do. (Getting good at recognizing these scenarios is another important skill all writers need to develop, including this writer here.)

Bottom line: Write. Know when to stop writing a particular project. Write some more.

I’ve been bitching to my writer friends (and anyone who’ll listen) that I can’t seem to write a goddamn story without some weird time warp timeline. WHY CAN’T I WRITE FORWARD? Meaning I start at point A and move to point B and then C and then D until I get to the end. FLASHBACKS SHOULDN’T BE MY ENEMY.

But the other day, after coming off revision #5968657475457 for book #3 and returning to book #4 (the one giving me hives because of the timeline), I took a step back and asked myself, Well, why CAN’T I write this forward? What’s stopping me but me?


Yes, it sounds so simple. It IS so simple. But my brain and heart had to meet up, apparently, and be like OK, WE CAN DO THIS. We CAN write this story in chronological order. Because, WHY NOT?

And so now I’m licking my lips with anticipation, my fingers twitching over the keyboard, the ideas tumbling out. And I’m outlining. Holy crap a real honest-to-goodness outline. (I think the outline is proving easier this time around since the story is going in order…it’s hard for me to write an outline when time warping.)

Essentially, I just keep asking myself one question: So then what happened? And bird by bird, just like Anne Lamott promised, it’s coming together.

I share this only to remind my fellow scribes (and to show readers my ridiculous process) that sometimes you need to stop and question why you can’t write something a certain way. Too often, we writers get caught up in so-called rules (e.g. don’t write in present tense, don’t write in second person, don’t open with weather, don’t kill your main character) that we accept them without question. And sometimes these “rules” come from our own heads.

Stop. Drop. And question. Always question. Try breaking one of the rules and see how it feels.

I recently finished binge watching Orange is the New Black (OITNB). I definitely enjoyed this series. I wouldn’t use the word “love,” but I definitely liked it, and I’ll be watching season 4 when it comes out in June.

What I DID love was the way the writers presented character backstory. 

Three takeaways…

1. ALL characters have backstories. Even minor characters. It’s easy to allow secondary or third-tier characters to wallow in the land of one or two dimensions. OITNB does a fabulous job of revealing character backstories through flashbacks. Now, I’m not sure this would work in a network show where you have to wait week to week for the story to unfold. But for a Netflix series where you can binge 13 episodes in a short amount of time, it does work. By the second episode, I trusted the writers and knew they’d eventually get to everyone’s backstories.

Novel writers need to do the same: we need to keep ALL characters’ backstories in mind. No, the cashier who appears in one paragraph doesn’t need you to present her backstory (even though she has one). But who knows? If you take the time to consider her backstory, you might be able to provide a telling detail that reveals insight into who she is and that makes your story all the richer because of it.

2. A rich and honest character backstory should solve (or at least diminish) the “I didn’t like any of the characters” issue. An age-old debate centers around whether you need to have at least one “likable” character in your book. What happens if none of your characters is likable? I think when this issue comes up in reviews and book clubs (e.g. “I hated this book! I hated all the characters!”), what people are really saying is that they couldn’t connect with any of the characters. In other words, the issue isn’t a lack of likability so much as it’s a lack of character development.

I think it’s perfectly OK to have characters who aren’t likable, as long as we readers can understand, on some level, how the characters got to be where they are. If we can see their arc and how they evolved, we can still dislike and even hate the character, but perhaps connect on a human level, which can then allow us to accept the character for who he or she is and avoid dismissing an otherwise worthwhile story out of hand.

In OITNB, many unlikable characters (e.g. Leanne, Pennsatucky, Big Boo, even Healy) become more human once we have a better understanding of their backstories. No, we might never like them (I still don’t like Leanne), but I understand them better.

And, yes —  I realize some writers might want to write a book with nothing but unlikable characters. That’s fine, if that’s truly your goal. It’s your story, your book. (And, yes — there are readers who can overlook the unlikability factor in a story that’s brilliantly told.)

3. Character backstory doesn’t mean “info dump.” For my current work-in-progress, I’ve written dozen of detailed scenes that have allowed me to get to really know my characters. And 90 percent of those scenes have been discarded or revised down to a few lines.

See, it’s important for me, the writer, to know every character detail, but it’s not necessary for the reader. And as for the info the reader does need to know? Don’t present it all in one big info dump.

OITNB presents character backstories over time. We might get a revealing flashback for Pennsatucky in one episode and then 10 episodes later, get another flashback that provides further insight. Holding back some info is what keeps readers reading (and viewers viewing).

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For #TBT, I’m digging into the radio archives. When I was a pup and still finding my voice, I worked for a Boston radio station as the producer of a morning show. This picture is from 1995-ish. I’m in the green. Next to me: morning show host Gary Dickson, the incredibly talented Moneen Daley Harte, and, yes, Tony Randall (google him, kids).


One of my many tasks included editing down long interviews (think 10 to 15 minutes) to 90 seconds. This was the best instruction a future writer could ever get on the subject of revision. My boss, Don Kelley, would remind me whenever I was whining that I couldn’t possibly cut out one more thing (because it was SO IMPORTANT) that only I would know what I cut…the audience wouldn’t. My job was to stitch together a pithy and fast moving story.

The lesson served me well. I now love revising and “killing my darlings,” all in an effort to create the most compelling story possible.

All that said, I know revision can be challenging for some writers, especially major developmental revisions (we’re talking story gutting, not tidying up prose).

So I thought I’d share my revision tips for the Big, Hairy Revision Monster most writers encounter at some point. (Yes, even those careful plotters with outlines — the Big Hairy Revision Monster doesn’t discriminate.) Use what makes sense, reject what doesn’t, and figure out what works best for you.

1. Walk away. This isn’t a revelation. Probably every book on the writing craft talks about shelving a piece for a series of days, weeks, months, even years. Time brings perspective. This is probably the hardest tip (even for me) because when writers finish a story, the temptation is to share it RIGHT AWAY, which makes sense.

Most writers I know WANT readers. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with sharing your work-in-progress with some trusted readers to get feedback. The problem is when you send it out prematurely to EVERYONE. Meaning, you self-publish it too soon or you query that agent before it’s ready.

Put the bloody thing away and let the wounds heal. Then, go back and re-read it with a fresh and ruthless eye. If you still think it’s ready, OK. But more often than not (if you’re being true to yourself and the story), you’ll see some stuff that needs fixing. It might be minor stuff. It might be major stuff. Either way, fix it.

2. Do something drastic. When a piece is NOT working, I’ll often do something drastic, like start over. I’ve tossed completed, polished 100,000-word manuscripts out the window and started anew. (And I’ve not regretted it yet.) Or I might just “play” a little with an idea. Write a scene from another character’s POV or try a scene in third person instead of first or draft a chapter in present tense as opposed to past, just to see how it feels. Often, I’ll abandon these writing exercises, but the exercise is enough to get me going again. And sometimes the exercise leads to a major breakthrough.

3. Do something even more drastic. The drastic stuff I referenced above has to do with the way you’re telling the story (e.g. past tense or present tense). But sometimes what you need to do is completely turn the story itself (I’m talking plot) upside down and inside out.

What I’ll do is ask myself crazy what-if questions. Like, what if the good guy is really the bad guy? How would that affect this story? Or what if this person isn’t really dead…what then? These questions are enough to make a writer want to puke because once you start going down this rabbit hole, you see how incredibly involved and painful it would be to not only start over, but also start over with a completely different story. But sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do.

4. Start something else. When you walk away, depending on how long you walk away for, you might turn to something else — another idea that’s been nipping at the edges of your brain. And that’s great! You work on this new idea for a few days or weeks or whatever and then you return to your work-in-progress.

5. Seek out some trusted guidance. Another challenge facing writers is finding people who can provide constructive feedback that compels you to move forward instead of crushing you like a cockroach on peeling linoleum.

Working with a developmental editor can be beneficial, provided you find someone who is a good match (and provided you have the funds — they’re not cheap). Critique groups can potentially be a good source (I say “potentially” because not all critique groups are created equal). It’s hard to have friends, family, or lovers read your work and provide constructive feedback. Whenever possible, I recommend seeking an objective third party who understands story structure, style, and voice. (Again, this will cost money, but it’s worth it…and can save friendships and marriages.)

6. Embrace the mess. There’s no such thing as “neat revising.” Yes, the result — the revision itself — might appear seamless and neat, but to get there? MESSY. Don’t try to fight the mess. (I know this can be hard.)

7. Give up. Don’t give up. The choice is yours. OK, if you’re under contract, you might have no choice but to face the Big Hairy Revision Monster (and even then, there are options). It’s easy for me to say don’t give up, but sometimes giving up IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU NEED TO DO.

If you’re a “real” writer (and I hate saying that, but it’s true in this case), you won’t let the Big Hairy Revision Monster scare you away from writing forever. You’ll start something else, like I suggested in #4, or you’ll take a break from writing for a bit and do something else. And maybe you’ll even come back to the thing you had to abandon…or maybe you won’t. Either is OK. Giving up on a story isn’t necessarily a sign of defeat. Sometimes it’s the wisest move you can make.

I’ve faced many Big Hairy Revision Monsters, and I imagine you have as well. There are more out there, no doubt. Wishing you much luck. Go get ’em.

And if I ever start a band, I’m going to call it “RB & the Big Hairy Revision Monsters.” 🙂

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. — Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve tried explaining this before, but I wasn’t sure if I was alone in my feelings. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon this quote from Le Guin that I realized she feels it and, no doubt, other creative types do as well.

A story isn’t complete until people experience it. I’ll take Le Guin’s quote further and say it’s not just written stories, but also stage plays, screenplays, poems, paintings.

This is why it’s so important to me to share my writing with the world. It’s not about chasing money or fame or awards or anything like that. (Although all those things can certainly sweeten the deal, and the money aspect is necessary if you want to make a living from your art.)

It’s about chasing readers. I want people to read my work, to experience my work. And if they feel inspired to do something more with my work — review it (good or bad), share it with others, discuss it in a book club or classroom, turn it into a film, create fan art, whatever — that’s when the art I’ve created becomes fully alive, something completely separate from me. That’s magic.

Whenever I fall in love with characters on a new-to-me TV show, I always turn to YouTube for mashups, and I’m never disappointed. All I have to do is search on things like “Holder and Linden” (from The Killing) or “Frank and Claire” (from House of Cards) or “Virginia and Bill” (from Masters of Sex) or “Nancy and Andy” (from Weeds) or “Deb and Lundy” (from Dexter) and I’ll find videos created by fans that extend the story of these characters, celebrate the story, share the story. (If you work in TV, you know your show has truly arrived when these mashups start showing up.)

Fan fiction works the same way. People become so enamored by a world an author has created that the fan writes more about the world. The art continues — it goes on and on.

I think that’s the coolest thing. It doesn’t get any better than that.

I watched Breaking Bad for the first time last fall and wrote a detailed blog post on character motivation, or the lack thereof for Walter White, the show’s main character. You can read it here.

Here’s the gist: While I enjoyed Breaking Bad overall, the lacking backstories for the show’s main characters sometimes left me questioning their decisions.

For me, character motivation is everything, especially in fiction (and more so in books than TV; I can be more forgiving of TV, like I was with Breaking Bad; more as to why I feel this way in a second).

Character motivation can make or break a story. If the character does something that doesn’t make sense to that character based on what we, as the reader, have come to know about the character, it can leave the reader questioning whether he or she should trust the story (and, as a result, the author).

This doesn’t mean characters can’t surprise us (just as people do in real life). But if all the character ever does is surprise the reader and do things over and over that are completely out of character, this *usually* indicates the author doesn’t have a strong grip of her character’s backstory OR that the character she originally presented to readers isn’t necessarily the character she was striving to create. Nothing foils a story faster than an inconsistent character.

I see this a lot with early drafts — my own as well as my fellow writer scribes’ works-in-progress. In those early drafts, we’re getting to know our characters: who they are now; who they were as kids; who they were five, ten, twenty years ago; who they want to be. Our histories shape us in real life, and our characters’ histories should influence who they become on the page.

As fiction writers, we must address and fix inconsistent character issues from early drafts to final drafts, simply because we have time. Showrunners don’t have that luxury. 

To understand what I mean, think about the differences between novel writing and TV writing. A novelist writes a complete book. By the time the book is published, provided the author and editors have done their jobs well, the characters are fully formed and developed. The author especially knows her characters inside and out, right down to things like childhood traumas, flaws (and their origins), dreams and ambitions (and their origins as well).

When showrunners come up with an idea for a show and write the pilot, that’s often as far as they get with the story in terms of understanding the characters. Sure, they might have some hazy knowledge about the characters and the world the characters inhabit, but what they don’t know is if they’re going to get the opportunity to tell the full story. They produce a pilot, a network might order up a bunch of episodes based on the strength of the pilot, and they build from there. And if they don’t get the green light, they have to move on to other stories, other characters. (Yes, there are exceptions regarding this process. But I’m talking in general.) To wit: Showrunner Vince Gilligan revealed in this interview that he didn’t start getting a feel for Walter White’s character and backstory until the fourth season.

This brings me to Better Call Saul, the prequel to Breaking Bad. For those not familiar with Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman is the shyster lawyer who represents criminals and ambulance chasers. He runs stereotypical bad TV ads (that’s where the “Better Call Saul” tagline comes into play). In fact, Saul effectively lives up to every stereotype you can think of when you hear the words “shady lawyer.”

During one episode of Breaking Bad, viewers learn that Saul Goodman wasn’t always Saul Goodman. He used to be Jimmy McGill. We don’t learn much more than that, which left a wonderful prequel opportunity that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould ran with when they created Better Call Saul.

Better Call Saul is a wonderful journey through deep backstory development. Essentially, we know how things played out for Saul Goodman at the end of Breaking Bad. What we didn’t know is how he got from Jimmy McGill to the Saul Goodman we saw in the final episodes of Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul is a slow dance. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching. Well, that’s not true. I expected that the journey to the Saul Goodman we got to know in Breaking Bad would happen much sooner. But it didn’t.

From a craft perspective, I love that Gilligan and Gould are taking their time revealing this wonderful portrait of a man who’s on this path to Shady Lawyerville, including how he ends up on this path and how he desperately tries to get off this path. The journey down this path doesn’t happen overnight (just like in real life). Instead, viewers learn Jimmy McGill’s backstory over ten episodes, backstory rich with details, nuance, and the occasional red herring. Jimmy McGill becomes a wholly formed character and utterly human in the process.

As fiction writers, it’s our responsibility to understand our main characters (and even minor characters) as deeply as Gilligan and Gould know Saul. This doesn’t mean all of those stories and details will make it into your novel. In fact, most of them won’t. But if you, as the writer, know each character’s backstory, you’ll be able to create a much more fully developed and believable character. You won’t leave readers questioning their motivations.

This doesn’t mean readers will agree or condone characters’ bad choices, but if the reader can understand why the character is making the choice, the reader will happily go along for the ride (yes, provided everything else like pacing, storyline, and so forth are buttoned up as well, but that’s a post for another day).

Start with character. It drives everything else. Don’t be afraid to go back and change things from the beginning — even scenes and details you love — if they don’t adequately reflect the full-grown character you have at the end of your story. Your readers will thank you.