Archives for posts with tag: writing fiction

Stories are messy.
(on purpose. designed that way by the author.)

Life is messy.
(not on purpose. it happens TO us. ugh.)

We can make something good of the mess*
*in the story
*in life

(I “traveled” to the UK for this series. Come join me for a sec.)
Read part 3 of my guest blog with James Prescott right here.

* Thup


Hey, there.

Part 2 of my series of guest posts for James Prescott in the UK is up and running.  There’s been a lot of buzz about it, so I thought you might like to go here and check it out:

“Ten Life Messes with Potential to Improve your Life.”

(Let me know what you think.)

Raising my mug to you —
* Thup


In fiction, to truncate time is to jump — or skip over — time in the story.

Authors truncate time because we readers don’t need to know every single minute in the character’s life.

Or every single hour. Or every single day. What the heck, we can skip whole months and years, if we want to, and the story goes on.

For example…

* The wet ropes kept slipping, so it took him about five minutes to wrap them around the ship’s metal bars…
* Within five hours, we’d broken down the sprawling camp and packed the two jeeps full…
* The next morning, even after the sun rose, it was still dark as the rain continued
* After five days of driving the reluctant horses across the dusty plains, we rested…
* It took five weeks for the party of twelve to cross the range…

(Okay, you might not get away with five weeks… but if you’re writing/reading a War-and-Peace-type-of-story-thingy, hey, it might happen.)

Truncating time is tricky.
You have to pick and choose the place of your time loss with thought. You have to choose your amount time loss with care.
(It has to make sense.)

In our personal lives, though, truncating time doesn’t make sense.

We have to go through things, good and bad.
We can’t skip the hard parts (even though we’d like to).

(Oh, how we’d like to.)

Pain happens.

And it never comes at a time that’s convenient.

Instead of truncating the time, we go through it.
Minute by minute.
Hour by hour.
Day by day.
Week by week.
Month by month.
Until the bad has passed, and we are okay again, in a new now.

We do get through.
The pain gets to be less.
We do find a new path, a new way.
(And it’s good.)

But in the middle, we wish for truncated time.

Think about those around you.
I bet you can be there for someone who wishes for truncated time.

And if you’re in the middle this,
of time you wish could be skipped,
reach upward and outward.
Find a way to give love. Because love, on any level, heals.
And healing takes time.

* Thup

Yes, I believe in success formulas.
They’re everywhere.
For just about everything.
(In work, life, and love.)

Okay. So if you want to be a successful writer (or creative artist),
read through to the end of this post.

Because writing has success formulas, too.
For instance…

* Look at Blake Snyder‘s Beat Sheet. Following Snyder’s formula, movies surge through the box office to pulse in our veins. We remember the movies: their meaning, their message, and how they made us feel.

* Look at Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and The Hero’s Journey. Following Campbell’s formulas, books surge through bestseller lists and into our cognitive and emotional pathways. We remember the journey, the challenges, and the characters like they’re our friends.

* And I believe that we’re hardwired for story –
hardwired to receive epiphanies, challenges, and emotional catharsis through story. Time after time, story captures and changes us.

You may not like formula, but it’s there.
And it works.

I sat in the movie theater two nights ago enveloped in The Edge of Tomorrowbreathing Blake Snyder’s beats, ticking them off one by one. And I loved it. The formula worked — the beats of story lined up perfectly. The opening image…the setup…the theme stated…the catalyst….right up to the mirrored closing shot. To me, the movie met all my expectations, and then some.

The operative word.
We go about life with expectations.
Some good, some bad.

Regardless, we like to have our expectations met.
The fulfillment of expectations brings certainty.

Tony Robbins names certainty (predictability) as one of our Six Human Needs. When we expect something, and it happens, we feel good.

As artists, we have to meet expectations…while also bringing freshness to the formula. We all know The Edge of Tomorrow is Groundhog Day with a twist. Yep. Same concept. Same premise. Same players. Different setting and scenarios. How did the writers get away with it? They made the twist twisty enough.

(By the way, Robbins also says that we need uncertainty. Hence the need for the twist.)

The Formula vs. The Twist
How much do we stick to the formula? How much do we deviate from the formula (how much of a twist is too much)? I believe balance is learned, then practiced — to learn the skills of the formula, and then to know how much to push the artistry into difference, beyond the receiver’s expectations. It’s something we have to try out.

Learn the formulas. Use the formulas.
Then, yeah, just get creating and see where it goes.
(Writers, WRITE.)
Push the formula. Then push it a little more.

Oh. And here’s an Aside Life Application (of course)
(You know me — loving life application):

Life truths (formulas) make for our lifestory’s success.
(Covey’s Law of the Farm is a formula to pay attention to.)
(Maxwell has Seven Laws.)
(Blanchard says we need to get to higher levels of interaction.)
(Goldsmith says our formulas work to a point, but we need to be careful to not let our formulas be our downfall.)
(And on and on. There’s no shortage of life truths and formulas.)

Ignore the life formulas, and you get way off track. Yeah. Bad.
So. Really. Get to the good. Get going, get learning. There are a lot of formulas ready for us, waiting for us.
Let’s. Use. Them.

They will save you (and me) from a lot of wrong thinking, hurtful actions, and pain that could have been avoided.

And. As we write today
(or draw today)
(or paint today)
(or take that photograph today)
(or whatever-create today),
may we know the formulas and use them.
(May the formulas be with you.)

Balance between formula (certainty) and twist (uncertainty) creates the best result.

* Thup
coffee white

PS. Here’s a list of Leadership Gurus with a lot of great formulas.
PPS. Okay, let’s not forget Zig Ziglar. Read or listen to him, and you’ll find success formulas growing all over the place.
PPPS. And, oh yes, Nick Vujicic‘s life truths. POWERFUL. Watch this.

Public service announcement:  Writers of fiction, this post is for you.

Warning:  Contains embedded content and conclusions for the Average Joe and Josephine’s life.

(Read on.)

Mounded foam on my latte is good.
(No question about it.)

But are bubbles good?

I mean, both the latte and the black coffee came from reputable shops.
But somehow, the bubbles bug me.
I’m used to a smooth, black surface on my coffee.

Something doesn’t seem right.

Fiction writers, at the opening of your story, this is the feeling you want your reader to have.

Everything seems fine.
(There’s nothing bad happening, really.)
But something — just one little thing — is off.

It’s subtle.
But it’s there.
(trouble lurks)

Even on your first page, before all breaks loose, your hero’s Ordinary World has bubbles.

In my current story, I’m in the process of putting bubbles into the story. Story outline in hand, I’m deliberately placing (“planting”) little, bothersome pieces in earlier chapters that, if you’re really paying attention, simply don’t seem right. Later on, those plants give the reader an, oh! I get it! I knew something wasn’t right! confirmation (so he/she can pat him/herself on the back for “catching’ it).

Bubbles entice the reader, prepare the reader, and draw the reader further into the story’s web.

We should pay attention to bubbles.


But in our lives, we often don’t pay attention to the bubbles. We pass over the bubbles, brushing them off as outlier thoughts with no impact on our lives.

Brushing off bubbles can be dangerous.

If something doesn’t seem right, paying attention might be the thing to do. (Just sayin’.)

I’ve been caught in bad situations because of not paying attention to bubbles.(Haven’t you?)

Sometimes premonitions give us warning (as in this article, on the possibility of a sixth sense).

(By the way, fiction writers, you can get away with creating premonitions in some stories. But back to reality….)

Bubbles are more than premonitions. They’re our brain catching inconsistencies. We simply need to pay attention. Because there’s something in our brains going on all the time, where the parts of the brain work together to signal, to alert us to potential danger.

Some call it gut instinct kicking in (even Oprah puts in her two cents on gut instinct). But there’s something more.

Referring to his bestseller, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell states, “When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions.”

Those “instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.”

We notice the bubbles. Our brains are smart. But, then again, we can blow off the smart signals our brain is sending to us.

FBI, CIA, and Special Ops persons are trained to pay attention. They’ll be the first to tell you how much the Average Joe and Josephine miss, on a daily basis.

(By the way, I ADORE Joe Navarro’s book, What Every BODY is Saying: An ex-FBI Agent’s guide to speed reading people. Paying attention to body language is one way for us to notice bad-bubbles people. And as a writer, it’s full of practical description for us to “show, don’t tell” our characters.)


While it’s cool for your main character to blow off the bubble-event or clue (it makes good story), in real life, blowing off the bubble-event or clue brings us trouble we could have avoided.

Sometimes we simply need to pay attention. Because though bubbles look harmless (and even fun), and we may brush them off as non-important, bubbles can spell danger.

If something in life seems off, we need to pay attention.
Don’t go on as if nothing’s wrong.
(Take care of yourself.)

* Thup


I’m in the middle of an editing project, and editing is popcorning all over my brain cells. So if you’re serious about editing your written work well, then this one’s for you.

Here we go.

editor graphic
And editing takes form in three ways:
And rhythm & sound.

If you want to be a fabulous self editor, then you’ll need to know all three.

1. Details…
Just about anyone who knows punctuation and grammar well can edit for details.
A period here, a comma there. No, a semicolon does not work there. Yes, in this case, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks. No, you can’t put the words not only in your sentence without but also. The style guide says so, and we follow the rules.

So many people believe that they know the rules. They even charge money for “professional editing” but, in reality, don’t know what they’re doing.

Yeah, this is a pet peeve of mine.

I’m currently editing work that another “editor” did already, and I’m horrified — because the details that this person missed are details that I teach middle schoolers. I’m setting my own record for how many times I cringe in one sitting. GAH.

Please. Do yourself a favor that lasts for years to come. Learn the rules. They’re finite.

And please. If you don’t know the rules really well, then don’t call yourself an editor. Polish your ability, first. Then take on the job.

2. Content…

Editing for content is much harder than editing for details. It’s harder to take a run-on sentence and make it concise. It’s even harder to realize when something’s missing and ask the author to add details.

In order to write well, you have to know what I call reader questions.

Reader questions are those questions that pop into the reader’s mind — the next-step info that the reader naturally wants to know, from sentence to sentence.

If I said, “I had a fabulous day,” your reader question is, “Yeah? What made it so fabulous?” So the next sentence that I write needs to answer the question and tell you what made it fabulous.


If I said, “We went to the beach,” you might want to know, “What beach? How long were you there? What kind of things did you do?” Each of these questions is valid — and each one comes in rapid-fire response.

The good writer answers these questions linearly, in the order that they pop into the reader’s mind. (Yes, writers have to be mind-readers.)

Most authors and writers (of all kinds) miss info. They skip important stuff. Since the idea is clear in your own mind, you think that the readers get it, too.

But they don’t.

Editing for content is knowing reader questions, identifying what’s missing, seeing what’s out of order, and identifying what’s too much info (the infamous rabbit trails).

The best editors can take text, assess content needs right away, and understand what parts of the puzzle need to be arranged, removed, and added.

3. Rhythm & Sound…
Editing for rhythm and sound is, I believe, the hardest editing of all. Poets, I think you know more about editing for rhythm and sound than anyone.

It’s all about what you feel and hear.

* The word choice matters. (A new “flavor” of a word might be stronger.)
* The sounds of words matter. (One word’s assonance, consonance, or percussiveness might sound better, next to another.)
* The lengths of words matter. (One word might feel better, next to another, because it stops the sound with a /p/ or moves the reader forward with an /m/.)

* Sentence lengths matter. (Short, medium-length, or long — each sentence has a feel to it.)
* Sentence sound matters. (Sentences are like music. Really.)

* The way that sentences are arranged in the paragraph matter. (The combination of sentence lengths can increase, decrease, or keep steady the reader’s momentum.)

The best editors focus on rhythm and sound. And if you want to be a great self-editor, then focusing on rhythm and sound will make it happen for you.

Read John Gardner‘s works. He’s brilliant with these kinds of things.

Become an editor in all three ways, for your own work —
in details, content, and rhythm & sound.

It matters.
(And I want you to be successful.)

* Thup


I’m convinced.

We’re all different. We all prefer different work spaces and work processes. But sometimes, for the best productivity of any creative venture, we need a block of time. And not just any block of time. A clean block of time.

clean from electronics
No phones, no email, and no buzzers. Of any kind. (Is this even possible?) There’s something about today’s screaming technology that siphons the life out of creativity.

Little electronic gnats follow us everywhere, even infesting our computers. Every few minutes or so on my Mac, a little window drops down on the top right of the screen telling me that an email just came in, or my hard-drive space is almost full (a writer’s problem), or that it’s now 9:00.

In normal, everyday work, I need the interruption, to get the job done. But when I’m trying to be creatively productive in a clean block of time, helpful reminders dirty up the art of creating.

To be uber-productive, I have to turn the reminders off. You might have to, too.

 kidclean of kids’ interruptions.
I know, I know. Moms and dads, this one’s almost impossible. BUT. To create in a mentally-free space, we have to clear our minds.

We have to get away — or work before the kids wake up or after they go to bed. (Remember, I have a ton of kids. I get this.)

There’s something about clean, uninterrupted silence that gets us into a place of high creativity. Little voices or taps on the arm whoosh us out of that space.

Yes, sometimes that interrupted time, or shared time with our kid sitting next to us, is the only thing we’ve got — so we’ll take it. But to be uber-productive, I have to find alone space. You might have to, too.

heartsclean of significant-other interruptions.
When it comes to getting to the inner place of creation, your significant other will most likely not get it. To those of you who are paired with creatives, you have a blessed life.

Oh, the not-getting-it isn’t intentional. On the contrary, the “Oops! I’m sorry! You were deep in thought just then, weren’t you?” moments are honest.

I have to work out that special block of alone time, with confirmation that it’s not about them. It’s about me. To be uber-productive, you might have to do this, too.

social mediaclean of social media.
I don’t have to go on about this one. Whether it’s Facebook, Linked in, Twitter, or Instagram, social media can’t exist in an uber-creative-uber-productive block of time. For all of us. With four fingers pointing back at me. (’nuff said)

worry  clean of worries.
None of us are ever worry free. Our minds swirl. Social, relational, financial, and job-related — it doesn’t matter where the concerns come from.

If I don’t have a quiet time where I release concerns in prayer or meditation, creativity remains wrapped and bound in shredded pieces of emotional cloth. I putter. I mutter. I flit. I do anything but go into the creative space. (Can you relate?)

It doesn’t matter who or what shut the door. It’s shut. For me, to be creative, that worry needs releasing.

To be uber-productive, you might have to do this, too. However. Whatever. Whomever. The clean block of time can’t truly happen with worry.

So. One more thing on this clean-block-of-time, super-productive thing.

For me, it has to be planned. Scheduled. Made happen.

It’s Monday. This just might be a good time to put something in the calendar, to ensure that this coveted uber-productive creative time happens.

(I am.)

Lifting my mug to you. Here’s to an uber-productive week.

* Thup


In the creative process, importing is faster.

Let me explain.

When I create an online course, I import a previous course’s outline, to use as a guide. Using the same form, I create the new course around the placeholders of the old one. Importing makes life oh-so-much easier.

When I create a beat sheet for a screenplay, I import a previous beat sheet, to use as a quick guide. Using the same form, I create the new beat sheet within the same headings. Doing so speeds it up — and even gives me ideas, based on the old ideas’ categories and form.

When I create a new book’s outline — or build a new world — the same thing applies: I import a previous outline, creating the new around the form by my handy-dandy highlight-delete-write over function.

Do you do the same? Because everything that we do has form, or format. And if we use a previously-successful format as a guide, it saves time and energy.

The same thing, for ideas. Now, I’m not advocating stealing ideas. But form for ideas is everywhere — and able to be used as a guide, too.

Think about your favorite authors. What is his or her “form,” when introducing a character? Just for fun (and learning), go to your favorite author’s most recent book and look at the first sentences each and every time a new character arrives on the page. Do you see any patterns? Oftentimes, as in character introductions or the first time we are dropped into a setting, successful authors employ form in elements of story.

What’s cool is this: Any form can be copied. Not the content — the form. (Repeat after me: Plagiarism is b.a.d.) Content — the exact words chosen — is off limits. But form is not.

You can even take a super-cool sentence and, breaking it down into its form of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, create a sentence in the same form. If the adjective is a cross-sensory word, you can create a cross-sensory word in its place (e.g., smooth melody is a combination of senses: smooth is tactile/touch and melody is sound). This kind of word form copying is a great way to learn to create your own unique style and content.

Cool fact: Importing is a technique that can be used in just about any field or endeavor. Think about it. I bet that, today, you’re going to interact with form that you can import and use, to make life smoother.

Successful form is everywhere.

* Thup

When you first meet someone,
what makes that person memorable?
(What’s unique?)

I met a woman this morning. At the bank.

I stood in line. She sat in a chair, off to the side,
waiting for assistance.

She wore a beautiful black felt hat, its curve soft,
with a small buckle tucked to the side of the black ribbon
wound round the hat’s base.
(The hat caught my eye.)

Then I saw her white hair, waves set with care,
flowing to frame her face.

Then her glasses, petite and silver-rimmed,
and her eyes, smiling in half-almond arcs beneath.

Then her scarf, flowers wound in loose layers of silk
falling down to her hands, folded, in black leather gloves.

I smiled back. “What a beautiful hat,” I said.

“Thank you.” Her words were measured,
her tone as one cultured, with a slight Asian accent.
“It keeps me warm.” She paused, lips pressed,
her grey eyes looking straight into mine in a way that didn’t carry threat.
“I have Parkinson’s. A coat is difficult. So a hat is necessary.”

It’s then that I noticed: she didn’t wear a coat.
Instead, she wore a thick sweater.
(I could only imagine the physical struggles she faced.)

“Well,” I said, “it is beautiful.”

With a smile that made more wrinkles, she closed her eyes and leaned with a slight nod forward, as if to honor me.
(It’s I who should honor her.)

The hat made an impression. But the way she responded, in her words and actions, told me so much more. I wanted to ask her to join me for cup of tea or coffee and hear her life story. I suspect I’d find a woman of grace, through joy and pain.

In the book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell says that our first impression is a true one.

Your character intro (the first time we meet a character on the page) is critical.

A student asked me this week, how do I create a character introduction that’s really great? My answer: Check out successful authors’ works. Study the first time a character walks onto the page. Some authors have a pattern, a formula (check out Rick Riordan’s character intros for this).

And there’s more.
As with the woman in the bank, look. Really pay attention.
(Write in the hat. And see beneath the hat.)

For life.
Oh, that we could all see beneath the hat.

* Thup

Warning: Long Post.
Only read the following to the end if
you believe in the power of art,
you believe in the ability to learn,
you believe that you can grow as an artist, and
you believe that all people — young and old — can learn, grow, and become.


Yesterday, I was talking to someone on the phone about a writing teacher job.
(an “informal interview” or “pre-interview,” before the “real interview”)

What they said blew. me. away.
(And not in a good way.)

This person (we’ll call him “J”) is a former editor, a published author, and (more recently) an academic teacher of writing. He has a degree in English.


Back to what J said that left my hair blown back (and my jaw on the ground).
And, I quote,

“I don’t think you can teach writing fiction. It’s a gift.
You either have it or you don’t.”

My breathing s.t.o.p.p.e.d.
I paused. A BIG pause.

IF he’s right (a whopper-sized IF),
(is it only to weed out the haves from the have-nots?) and

(because then we should just test for “gifted” kids and throw out the rest) and

then I’m wasting a WHOLE lot of money and time on my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Fiction Writing.
Because MFAs are about someone teaching you how to write fiction.
(but that’s another post)

Question of the day:
Or is art only for a special population who are born with the artist-gene?

What about those who are starting out, with no clue?
Artists of any kind who are young or old?
They’re ignorant, but it’s not their fault.
(yes, I’m yelling)

Once a learner gets a chance to observe, listen, read, learn, and practice, then

Consider this, J:

1. 10,000 hours. Talk to Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the book, Outliers. Gladwell believes people can become masters at a skill after logging 10,000 hours in the activity. Granted, when it comes to some sports, Gladwell’s claim is disputed. But what about Suzuki methodology, where little kids are immersed in music from a young age and, no matter the background, they become “gifted” musicians?

I’m trained in Suzuki methodology (see my bio) I’ve seen kids from all backgrounds become musicians. ALL backgrounds. With parents who can’t tap their foot on the beat if their life depended on it. I’ve seen kids from all around the world, transplanted into families through adoption, become brilliant musicians, artists, dancers.

Take my own young son, who was born in the mountains of Guatemala, who could’t clap on the beat and had zero musical input, who’s now a skilled dancer. And how about another son, from an orphanage in the Far East, who didn’t have a lick of art in his life, no paper and pen to draw with, who — after hours and hours of instruction and immersion — is on his way, someday, to work at Pixar or some other studio.

When we say, “you have to be gifted to do this,” you’re making a judgment. But YOU DON”T KNOW.

2. Leadership Theory. I saw it all the time when teaching leadership at a university for seven years. Invariably, when it came to leadership, students came in thinking, “You either have it or you don’t.” Wrongo. Leadership is learned. Yes, those with emotional intelligence grasp and use the skills faster (because transformational leaders exhibit high emotional intelligence). But EVERY SINGLE STUDENT who came into my diverse classroom, by the end of the course, exhibited new leadership skills. They all LEARNED.

3. The Mastery 7 Principle. For over 30 years, I’ve been digging into why some people learn and others “don’t.” What I’ve found, over and over, is that most people don’t master a skill because they’re missing one of the seven must-haves to learn the skill. (More on that in another post…)

The short of it: It’s not the student’s fault. It’s one of two things:
1) the instructor’s fault, in HOW it’s taught (not taught the parts of the task in small enough pieces, not enough repetition, not taught in the learning style, etc.), or it’s
2) that the information is missing an element (the information is incorrect).

It’s not the student! The skills can be LEARNED.
(J just might be missing something)

If you want to be a skilled writer and published author, YOU CAN.
If you want to be a skilled painter and published artist, YOU CAN.
If you want to be a photographer and published artist, YOU CAN.
If you want to be a dancer and professional gigger, YOU CAN.

Which reminds me. You might say, “Wait a minute! What about something like dance? What about those people who physically don’t have what it takes? What if that person is deaf, or in a wheelchair, or blind, or whatever? They can’t do it–they aren’t physically able!”

Don’t tell that to Beethoven.
(he was deaf when he wrote his Ninth Symphony)

Don’t tell that to VanGogh.
(reportedly, he was color blind).

Don’t tell that to my young son from Guatemala who’s a dancer…
a young man who has only five degrees of a visual field, with 20/125 acuity (translated: way legally blind)

who gets up at seven in the morning to stretch,
literally never complains before, during, or after a workout
(of which he’s in for over 20 hours a week),
watches dancers on YouTube and on TV “to learn,”
and works his tushie off to master his art.
(he puts me to shame)

No excuses.


* Thup

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