Writing Advice

Luck and Prosperity

18 November 2017

From author Joey Loi via Medium:

Finally, in the distance, lights emerge from behind the low early morning fog. Seventy four salt-skinned men and twenty eight salt-skinned women look eagerly onwards. Together they bob with the ocean, up and down, up and down, to the tune of God’s will and the mercy of men who captain Chinese fishing vessels. The boat drifts towards the lights, pushed by indifferent water, aided only by a ragged canvas sail that never wanted to carry this weight. Cruel, holy water. It holds out a ticket to those desperate enough to reach for one, but promises nothing. These drifters no longer hear the water, they hear only whatever it is that makes those lights glow.

Among the black hair and raw sour stench, Chon sits restlessly on the white-stained damp deck. His crossed legs are propped up by his arms folded elbow-in-hand over his knees, his two younger sisters flanking his sides. Kin skin sticking to kin skin. Two hours ago, they were instructed to dump anything that could suggest that their boat left from China: a radio with Chinese labels, local newspapers used to wrap three day old buns. They wouldn’t qualify for refuge if the Hong Kong government discovered they hadn’t come directly from Vietnam.

He’s exhausted and can’t sleep. Chon lifts his head and squints toward the shore, anxiously scanning for ships coming to turn them away. He’s heard it happen to his drifting countrymen before. Fortune can be taken away as arbitrarily as it is given. But his sleep-deprived concentration fails, and he succumbs to wonder — have we made it?

Link to the rest at Medium

PG stumbled across this piece and ended up reading it because he was engaged by the the opening excerpted above.

The Secrets of Resilience

11 November 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

[R]esilient people are everywhere, not just in the ranks of celebrities. They are ordinary women and men, in every walk of life, who meet the definition of resilience set forth by American Psychological Association: “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”

Across nearly two decades as a clinical psychologist and an educator, I have worked with many accomplished people who grew up in difficult circumstances. One thing I have learned from them is that the way we tend to talk about resilience is too simplistic. In everyday conversation, we say that people who are resilient “bounce back” or “rebound.” The dictionary defines resilience as elasticity, that is, the ability to recover quickly and easily—to snap into shape again, like a rubber band stretched and released.

These images are fine for describing recovery from short-term problems, like the flu or a career disappointment, but they don’t capture how resilience truly works and feels. The most common childhood adversities aren’t one-time events but chronic sources of stress: bullying, neglect, physical or sexual abuse, the death of a parent or sibling, addiction or mental illness in the home, domestic violence.

Such problems are recurring threats to a child or teen’s safety and well-being. Resilient youth do not just rebound from them. What they do is much more complicated and courageous. For them, resilience is an ongoing battle, a way of approaching life, not a restorative bounce.

. . . .

When the researchers asked these resilient adults how they understood their own success in retrospect, the majority reported that their most important asset was determination.

“I am a fighter—I am determined—I will survive,” said one woman who made her way out of an abusive childhood. “I give it 100% before I give up. I will never lose hope.”

“When things have to be done, you just do it. I am not the type of person to run away—no matter how difficult the problem,” said another subject who became a bookkeeper.

And another who became aerospace engineer put it this way: “I don’t let problems take control. I just pick myself up and start all over—you can always try again.”

Other research has suggested the importance of the fighter within. In a 2010 paper in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Anke Ehlers of the University of Oxford reported on 81 adults who had formerly been held as political prisoners in East Germany. They had been subjected to mental and physical abuse, including beatings, threats and being kept in the dark. Decades after their release, about two-thirds of the former prisoners had, at some point, met criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while about one-third of the prisoners had not.

What made some more likely to suffer from PTSD? Dr. Ehlers found that the extent to which prisoners had fought back in their own minds made a bigger difference than the severity of the abuse they had suffered. Those who felt mentally defeated—who felt like they were “nothing” or who quit caring what became of them—were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD later. By contrast, prisoners who had resisted from within—even if they appeared to have given up on the outside, by complying with guards or signing false confessions—fared better down the line.

This sort of inner defiance is, in part, how one man—an officer in the military who came to me for a consultation—told me he survived years of bullying as a child and teen: “I refused to accept what they said about me was true.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Since it is a rare author who does not experience failure, including repeated failure in addition to other life challenges, PG thinks resilience is an important character trait in addition to the other abilities a successful author has.


10 November 2017

From Medium:

Putting “passionate” on a resumé is like including Microsoft Word in the list of software you know.

In job interviews, being “passionate” distinguishes you from your peers as much as the fact that you’ve got a pulse. Sure, it checks a box, but does it make you special?

Offering passion as a professional qualification is like when reality TV contestants are asked why they should be spared elimination, and they say they want it more than other contestants. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize this was a “wanting it” competition.

. . . .

Being passionate about something—whether it’s design, drag, baking while being delightfully British—is not the same thing as being skilled at it.

. . . .

The value of a design is not in how the designer feels about it. Passion doesn’t always translate to quality.

. . . .

My problem with passion is not that people care about their work. I care about my work. But how we signal how passionate we are about design — late nights, burn out, becoming more brand than human—is toxic.

Link to the rest at Medium

From Chuck Wendig:

The act creates momentum. Writing begets writing begets writing.

The lack of act has its own momentum, too — don’t write today, and tomorrow you wonder if this is really who you are, if this is what you’re meant to do, and so the next day you think it’s just not happening, the Muse isn’t there, the inspiration hasn’t lit a fire under your ass yet, the rats don’t feel like they’re gnawing at you and oh, hey, other writers — well, they’re all talented and driven and they’d never think of sitting down and not writing and maybe that’s who you are, not a writer but rather, Not A Writer, and so the gap in your effort cracks and pops and widens like a broken jaw, a yawning mouth, and soon all you see is the broken teeth of your efforts, broken dreams there in the dark of the mind and the back of the throat, and what you Want to do is lost beneath the illusion of what you Didn’t — or what you Can’t — do.

We fight that inertia, we fight the fear and the doubt by writing.

The words you write right now are words you can fix later.

The words you don’t write today are a curse, a hex, a black hole painted white.

You think that forcing it is counterproductive, that it means nothing, that you’ll just spit mud and blood onto the paper — and you might be right, but you might be wrong. Might be gold in them thar hills, might be a cure for what ails you in those droplets of blood. You don’t know. You can’t know. You’re you — your own worst judge, your own enemy, your greatest hater.

If you’re dying in the snow, no matter how much it hurts, you’ve gotta get up and walk.

Link to the rest at Terrible Minds

Andy Martin and Lee Child discuss chapter one of the new Jack Reacher

4 November 2017

From The Independent:

Lee Child was born James Grant, in Coventry, in 1954. Sacked from his job with Granada TV in 1995, he re-invented himself as Lee Child with his first novel Killing Floor, which launched the career of his XXL hero, ex-military policeman Jack Reacher. Now based in New York, he begins a new novel every September 1st (the day he went out to buy the paper and pencil he used to write the first one).The Midnight Line is his 22nd novel.

Chapter One: Jack Reacher and Michelle Chang spent three days in Milwaukee. On the fourth morning she was gone.

Andy Martin
Not quite a one-night stand. A three-night stand. Roughly par for the course for Reacher. The end of the romance initiated in Make Me. But more importantly, look how precise this is. It’s all about the timing. Reacher has the uncanny ability to know what the time is without checking. The clock is always accessible in his head. You could say that Reacher embodies time. He is a walking, talking (well, not much of that) head-butting principle of temporality. He determines how long bad guys are going to spend in hospital – or possibly eternity. And then consider your titles – Gone Tomorrow, 61 hours – now The Midnight Line. And your next one, the one you just started: Yesterday à la Paul McCartney. Everything is timing.

Lee Child
Well, it’s a chronological art form, propelling the reader through the story a beat, an hour, a day at a time. So a sense of beats, days, and hours passing is important. It grounds the reader against a scale. At this stage, it’s all about postponement. I don’t want to give anything away yet. Really, if Reacher was as smart as some people think he is, the novel would be over on page 2 because he would have worked it all out.

Reacher came back to the room with coffee and found a note on his pillow. He had seen such notes before. They all said the same thing. Either directly or indirectly. Chang’s note was indirect. And more elegant than most. Not in terms of presentation. It was a ballpoint scrawl on motel notepaper gone wavy with damp. But elegant in terms of expression. She had used a simile, to explain and flatter and apologize all at once. She had written “You’re like New York City. I love to visit, but I could never live there.”

AM:The note on the pillow. The text within the text. Reacher as reader. It’s interesting how often he really is just that, a reader (he’s also a bit of a mind-reader). And he notes, in an almost literary critical way, it’s not a metaphor, it’s a “simile”. Not too many tough-guy vigilante drifters would bother with that distinction.

LC: He likes precision. Words have meanings, and he likes to know them. In general people like the contrast between his enormous physicality and his delight at small intellectual diversions.

AM: And Reacher is compared to New York. Big enough perhaps. Space as well as time. Isn’t his ultimate geographical goal to encompass the whole of the United States? The itinerant style. In Make Me he gets off a train to kick-start the novel. This time it’s the bus. Reacher’s trajectory is like a game of hopscotch.

LC: And he’s noticing one person after another telling him his lifestyle is odd. There’s a little introspection in this novel, mostly because of Chang. But mostly he’s happy. He enjoys small pleasures. I think you once called it the “infra-ordinary” – not the extraordinary – that’s what he’s into.

Link to the rest at The Independent and thanks to Sam for the tip. There’s a video of the conversation at the link.

Uneven Balance is a Tension Killer

4 November 2017

From How to Fight Write:

I have a scene in my book where the two main characters fight soon after meeting one another, in an area where no one else gets in their way and they have a lot of flat empty space. Both are very skilled, but only one of them has weapons. It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such. The character that isn’t armed needs to win, and I’m not entirely sure how, realistically, he would.

I’d ask what two highly skilled characters are doing getting into such a silly situation when they know better, especially the one caught without their weapons. However, real people do stupid things too.  For all I know, they might of been drinking. Just know, the higher the level of training then the less likely it is for two characters to fight when they don’t absolutely have to.  Justification is good. Make sure you’ve got a reason for them to fight that feels natural for both characters beyond needing them to fight for the plot. I don’t know why they’re fighting, for all I know it could’ve started off a drunken row with one yelling, “Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!”

These characters don’t actually exist, but it’s important to get yourself in the habit of thinking they could die. I could die is one of the major thoughts that will occur in the mind of anyone who is highly skilled, and more likely to occur than it is with someone who isn’t sufficiently trained.

. . . .

The soldier understands that violence is unpredictable, that death is sudden, and no form of combat is ever truly safe. One mistake is the difference between life and death. Characters who are skilled will avoid violence because they understand its costs. They have nothing to prove. Remember, a knife is one of those “hell no” weapons. No one wants to be anywhere near a knife when they’re armed with one of their own, much less unarmed.

I could die. Is this worth it? I don’t want to die. Is this worth my life?

Often in well-written fiction when you’ve got an incredibly skilled character jumping into fights all the time for no real reason, it’s because they have a death wish. When someone does want to die, simply doesn’t care about living any longer, or sees themselves as already dead then that changes the stakes. There’s also, “I like to fight” which often translates into “I like to kill” in regards to unrestrained violence. Unless there’s a rules set down, two highly skilled characters have an excellent chance of killing each other. The weapons one of these characters has brought to this fight, say, “yes, I do intend kill you. I will make you very dead.”

Link to the rest at How to Fight Write and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.

How Long Is Writing Supposed to Take?

2 November 2017

From Electric Lit:

In 2010, I was three years into writing my linked story collection when I took my first trip to Vermont to attend a writers’ conference. My workshop was a group of seven that included our instructor, Ellen Lesser. With a couch and cushioned chairs set in an oval everyone talked around me and about my story. I remained “in the box” (that is, not allowed to speak) during my classmates’ deliberations and discussions. My only additions were steady nods or pursed lips. Once I was allowed to speak, I thanked them, but bemoaned the fact that this particular piece in my collection was taking a long time. Ellen crossed her legs and met my eyes. She tucked a salt and pepper lock behind her ear and said in a kind and confident tone, “You’re acting as if writing should be an efficient process, Jennifer. It’s not.”

. . . .

Six years later, I returned from yet another conference where I workshopped another story in this same collection. The instructor in this case, Tayari Jones, recognized the character, having seen a previous iteration of a story a few years earlier. Like Ellen, she gave me the tough love stare and asked, “What’s taking so long?” I had no answer.

Where Ellen’s comment attempted to help me reconcile the writing process. Tayari’s question pushed me to try and understand my process. I was unable to pinpoint my reasons — personal, professional, creative — for not finishing, but I also had a hard time accepting that the process is the process. Ellen’s words rang as a kind of “it is what it is” lament that has no finite answer or fix. For many of us we’re still figuring out “our process.” We tinker with methods of productivity as “process.” “Process” is not always efficient nor pretty.

. . . .

A popular post on Electric Literature is an infographic of how long it took authors to write their most famous novels. The timing ranges from 2.5 days for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to 16 years for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.I’m unsure if these metrics provided relief or added anxiety. Did this mean that I was right on track because Victor Hugo needed 12 years in the 1800s to finish an epic novel, or that I was way behind schedule compared to the 4 years it took Audrey Niffenegger to produce The Time Traveler’s Wife? Pulitzer prize winner Donna Tartt, a notably reclusive writer, seems to publish a novel every 10 years. Another Pulitzer winner, Junot Díaz, has called himself a “slow writer,” too. Slow doesn’t keep the words from coming, yet is it a fair measurement? And who, exactly, determines what “slow” means when it comes to the writing process? Is it us writers, the business, public expectation, or the characters and stories that need time to develop?

. . . .

The pressures of perfection make it appealing to click away from my Word document and open a web browser. It’s kind of masochistic, wondering why I’m not finished with a particular project while at the same time baking a bundt cake, editing someone else’s work, checking email I checked three minutes ago, and going on social media using the hashtag #amwriting to relay my progress even though we all know I’m not writing in that moment. Once I begin to question the words on the page, a scene’s progression, and/or my overall concept, it’s a brief reprieve to go for a bike ride rather than tackle the problem at hand. The pressure of being perfect as an artist in a world full of artists, residing in one of the most artistic cities in the world, living with characters for almost a decade, has me throw up my hands and say “I put in enough time, right?” before I log onto Twitter. (#TheStruggleIsReal.) It leads me to settle in my chaise with a book and be optimistic that I won’t be as hard on myself for the time not spent on the work. The pressure has me hope that the distance I felt growing between myself and the words on the screen isn’t as broad as I perceive it to be.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Writing Insights Part One: Becoming a Writer by Hugh Howey

1 November 2017

From Amazon Author Insights (beta version):

I started writing my first novel when I was twelve years old. I was thirty-three when I completed my first rough draft. That’s twenty years of wanting to do something and not knowing how. Twenty years of failure and frustrations and giving up.

A big part of the problem is that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know which questions to ask, much less who might have the answers.

These days, people write to me as if I know what I’m doing. Or like I have a shortcut to success. I’m not sure either is true. One thing I’ve learned is that luck plays a massive role. But what I do have are some insights today that I wish I’d had twenty years ago, tips and pointers that might’ve saved me a lot of headache and heartache if I’d known them sooner. Maybe it’ll help some aspiring writer out there if I jot them all down now.

. . . .

Insight #1: Anyone can become a successful writer; the only person who can stop you is you.

I spent twenty years stopping myself from becoming a successful writer. The biggest obstacle I faced is thinking success meant selling a ton of books, which meant writing something that millions of readers would enjoy. As I began writing my first attempts at a novel, watching the sentences form on the screen, I knew the words weren’t good enough, and so I stopped in order to spare all those readers from what I was writing.

The problem is that I had the definition of “successful writer” all wrong. A successful writer is one who finishes what they start while striving to improve their craft. It’s as simple as that. And the only one who can stop you from doing this is you.

Imagine if NBA all-star Steph Curry attempted to learn to play basketball with a million people watching. Or if the first pickup game he ever played was his only chance to land an agent and get signed to an NBA team. This is the pressure writers put on themselves, and it makes no sense. Basketball players will put all the hustle and energy into a thousand practice games before they ever get a shot at turning pro. Most will spend a dozen years playing almost every day of their lives before they make it onto a high school or college team. Writers should have the same expectations. Perhaps you write a dozen novels before you write one that blows you away or becomes a bestseller. The point is to finish them all. Play all four quarters. Steph Curry played a thousand games to the end before he turned pro. Every game he finished was a success. He didn’t stop himself, and neither should you.

Insight #2: You can’t compare your rough draft to any of the books you’ve read.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, there’s a good chance that you’ve never read a rough draft in your life. So don’t compare what you’re working on to what you’ve read from your favorite authors. Their rough drafts were nowhere near as wonderful and polished as the final product that you loved as a reader and that made you want to become a writer. Just like you, they had to get the words down on the page first. And then they had to go back and rewrite much of what they wrote, several times. At this point, they probably gave it to their spouse or a friend to read, and that person saw lots of room for improvement. Which meant another revision. The same process took place again with their agent. And then their editor. Each time, the rough draft got better and better. So will yours.

The books that made you want to become a writer were rewritten and revised as much as a dozen times, with the input of several other people. You don’t get to see all of the mistakes and boring bits – all of that has been cut away. It’s just like when you take a thousand photos on an epic vacation and only share the thirty or forty very best ones. This is what it takes to be a successful writer: You have to learn how to write the good and the bad all the way until the finish. Trust the revision process. No one will have to see your rough draft but you. And you can’t revise a work to perfection until it already exists. So make it exist.

. . . .

Insight #7: Competition is complicated

It might be true that there are a limited number of readers, and that you have to outwork your peers to turn writing into a career, but that doesn’t mean we’re all in competition with each other. We’re only competing to a certain degree, and then we’re in cahoots. Believe it or not, this is a team game.

Steph Curry played for Davidson College, not far from where I grew up. I watched him play college ball. Steph was competing with every player on his team, and every player in his division, for a spot in the NBA. But once he made it to the NBA, he was now reliant on not just his teammates but on his opposition to advance his career. The better Lebron James played, the more spectators and the more money Steph Curry enjoyed. And vice versa. Every NBA superstar grows the pool of viewers, hence advertising dollars, and so all NBA pros benefit.

I see a lot of writers get this wrong, claiming it’s a zero-sum game and we’re all competing with each other. This is nonsense. None of us can write fast enough, or a wide enough variety of material, to please all readers. We rely on our fellow pros to keep interest in the hobby high. JK Rowling did so much for all writers when she increased the number of young avid readers. I rely on my colleagues to keep people reading while I’m working on the next book. Just as Steph and Lebron both work to keep ratings high, advertising dollars flowing, and salary caps increasing.

The biggest fear NBA players, team owners, and executives should have is that viewers might change the channel. The real competition at this level is the NFL, MMA, CNN, the great outdoors, and so on. The paradox is this: You compete up to a point, and then you rely on each other. This means it’s never too early to foster great relationships with fellow writers. Which leads me to the next insight…

Link to the rest at From Amazon Author Insights (beta version)

Amy Tan on Writing and the Secrets of Her Past

29 October 2017
Comments Off on Amy Tan on Writing and the Secrets of Her Past

From Shondaland:

In “Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir,” Amy Tan recalls the time a relative told her mother that she shouldn’t fill her daughter’s head with “all these useless stories.” Why should Amy know so much, visit her mother’s painful memories, when it was beyond her power to change the past? Her mother replied: “I tell her so she can tell everyone, tell the whole world . . . That’s how it can be changed.” As she writes in her memoir, “My mother gave me permission to tell the truth.”

Many of Tan’s novels, beginning with “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” were partly inspired by the stories of her own family. But “Where the Past Begins” is Amy Tan as we’ve not previously seen her in fiction. The book reveals her as a daughter, a seeker, and also as a writer — explicitly mining unexplained truths and unknown family secrets from her past and spinning a memoir that is generous and often breathtaking in its vulnerability.

“[O]nce the fiction-writing mind is freed, there are no censors, no prohibitions. It is curious and open to anything,” she writes. “But its most important trait is this: it seeks a story, a narrative that reveals what happened and why it happened.” What happened to her family, why it happened, and how it all contributed to her life as a writer are the questions “Where the Past Begins” seeks to answer. Many of the stories told in this memoir were only discovered in the process of writing it, while others grew from memories that returned to her as she worked on her other books. In September, I was fortunate enough to speak with Amy about her family, her life since the 2016 presidential election, her parents’ sacrifices and precarious status as immigrants, and how she wrote her new memoir.

. . . .

Nicole Chung: “Where the Past Begins” is a work of recovered history, and you say that a lot of these memories began to emerge when you started writing fiction. Do you think that’s a common experience among fiction writers?

Amy Tan: I do think it’s common. We often think that the memories we recover are those that immediately come to mind, but some memories really wend their way back into consciousness through many different means. For example, if you’ve been somewhere and associate a particular smell with that place, the smell is going to evoke that memory.

And it’s the same with writing fiction: I may be writing something fictional, but something will click, some element that is part of a memory, and then more of the memory comes back. This book went many, many levels beyond that. I was able to corroborate memories with these artifacts in my office, these boxes I had from my childhood. It was more than Connect-the-Dots—it was my brain suddenly coming into sync with the brain I had in the past. It was startling to me.

Link to the rest at Shondaland

Do It/Don’t Do It

23 October 2017


Thanks to Christina for the tip.

PG notes that the message of the video changes after the short Charles Bukowski segment.

Fast-Draft Writing for NaNoWriMo and Every Other Month

20 October 2017

From Writers Helping Writers:

I am an advocate of intentional writing, which almost always means slow writing, but sometimes it makes sense to write a fast draft of a book – if, for example, you are participating in NaNoWriMo, have a chunk of time with few distractions, or have a fast-approaching deadline you are motivated to meet.

Writing fast still requires intentionality. You still need a plan – a clear idea of the point you wish your story to make and a grasp of the best narrative structure to get you there. That is to say, you need to know what you want your reader to walk away feeling after they read your novel and what they will walk away believing about the world or human nature. You also need to know where the story starts and ends and what the reader will be tracking along the way.

Let’s assume that you know all those fundamental elements and you’re ready to write. How do you write fast?

The main idea is this: don’t get mired in too much detail. No long descriptive passages about places or people, no finely wrought dialogue (unless you happen to be able to write that fast), no clever turns of phrases that take hours to hone. Aim to get the bones of the story in place – the character’s motivation, the arc of change, the cause-and-effect trajectory that drives the narrative from one scene to the next – and leave everything else for revision.

. . . .

In NaNoWriMo, fast draft writing may mean sacrificing the NaNo wordcount and not “winning.” Winning NaNo with a manuscript that has to be slashed and burned is going to feel good for about a week, and then it’s going to feel really bad as you struggle to rescue the story.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

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