Monthly Archives: January 2011

Writers: Give The Gift of “Getting Off The Dime”

Also known as getting one’s ass in gear.

With my son in college I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering career choices.   Not mine (too late there)… his.  About how to launch one’s naïve and hopeful self in the general vicinity of making a worthy and enduring dream come true.

First you find such a dream.  Some never do. 

Then you need a gameplan.  Some never do that, either.

Some just talk about intentions, or the dream that got away.

And then there’s writing. 

Where none of the principles of career management and dream-mongering apply. And yet, if you take things at face value, it is a dream held by many.

It isn’t remotely hard to grasp why so few people plan on becoming a writer.  It’s more like the universe leads you there after kicking around the want ads for a while.

It seems, from the writer’s point of view, that more people want to be writers than don’t.  Even if they can’t write a grocery list.  This article is about calling them out, and perhaps helping them get started.

Imagine a cocktail party in which you confess to a group of strangers that you build stadiums and bridges for a living (something I hope catches my son’s fancy, by the way).  And very quickly, almost as a knee-jerk reaction, somebody says, “oh yeah, I’ve always wanted to do that, I’ve got this cool idea for a ballpark stuck in my head… I dunno, maybe I’ll get around to starting on that someday.”

Impressive.  The guy wants to build a baseball stadium.  When he gets around to it.

You, the stadium builder, may be inclined to club the guy with your diploma and stuff the documents from your student loan down his throat.  Or you might just smile, take a calming sip and try to somehow avoid shaking your head at the insensitive, minimalizing cluelessness of that comment, which was offered in all seriousness, if not with that very intention.

But you’re a writer and the comment was about writing a book someday, which means you probably took it as a compliment.

And maybe it was. 

Who knows… unless you dig a little deeper.

Yes, this writing thing we do is a strange and mysterious avocation indeed.  It is a dream held by many, a pursuit dabbled in by some, a dream seriously pursued by a courageous few, and a destination that demands a strong constitution and a clear and strategic head.

It’s so damn easy to say that you intend to write a book.  And yet – because you, the real writer, know – the orator has no idea what they are saying, and how self-serving it can come off.  As if they are choosing between this and running for the Senate in their spare time.

It’s inane and confounding… unless you dig for the gold in this moment.

What you know, and what this cocktail bantering neophyte doesn’t, is that writing a book is something you can dabble at, or it is something you can go after with a ferocious passion.  There is little middle ground between those two adopted mindsets, and only one of them has a shot at working out.

If you’ve been a writer for long, you’ve discovered that this is what people will tell you – that they’d like to write a book.  Become an author.  That they’re sitting on a literary gold.  You’ll hear it all the time, in fact: yeah, I’ve got this story in my head… maybe I’ll get around to it one day.

Just like that stadium.

You may take it as a compliment, and they may mean it as one, but this conversation is a snake pit disguised as a can of worms.  You get to decide if you call them out on it.  Or not.

Unless it isn’t a lie.  Which defines the opportunity at hand.

If you haven’t heard this before, then nobody in your little universe knows you are a writer.  Because it is inevitable, it comes with the territory.

I offer you a genuine, thoughtful response for when it happens to you. 

It will either shut them up through some combination of embarrassment, the sudden realization of their own naïveté, the exposure of their complete and utter self-puffing lie … or it might very well point them where they need to go.

Either way, it’s good (and good fun) to call them out and see what happens.

In which case, if it isn’t a lie, the calling out becomes a magnificent gift.  Maybe somebody told you how to move from intention to action, maybe not, but this is your chance to bestow it.

What you say might get them off the dime and allow them to truly, seriously, determine if writing a book is something they should, or would want to, pursue.

First question: why?

Ask them to explain why they are considering writing a book someday.  Listen closely for the right answer, which doesn’t come near the words “rich” and “famous” or “fun.”

Rewarding, very possibly.  But “fun” is relative, as is building stadiums.

What you’re looking for in this moment is a story worth telling, in some combination with an experience (the writing itself) that they believe might benefit or reward them in some meaningful way.  To get something off their chest.  To explore that which they do not understand.  To grow.  To make people happy.

To live the dream.  There’s always the chance that they’re simply trying to get some skin with you.  Roll with it, see what happens.

It is not your place to judge their story in this moment.  Just listen.  Judge only the intentions behind it.  If you deem them worthy – because you know how freaking hard it is to sit down and turn the intention to write a book into the outcome of having written one – press forward with this conversation.  And lead them to salvation.

Trust me, if they weren’t serious they’ll ditch you quicker than an empty glass.  But if they are, there’s no separating them from you in this moment.

And in that moment, you are living into your destiny as a writer.  Because you have the opportunity to change a life.

Now ask, why not?                 

Once they’ve aired the backstory of their intentions, then ask why they haven’t started this journey in earnest.

You can write the script for the forthcoming response.  Don’t have time.  Don’t know how.  Don’t think I’d be up for it, not smart enough.  I don’t read that many books so I don’t think I could write one.





Welcome to being human.  Welcome to writing.

There is only one thing you can say in that moment that will help. 

If you tell them they are stepping off a ledge with no parachute, that writing a book is an intoxicating hot mess of confusion and contradiction and that, at the end of the day, you have to figure it out for yourself and good luck with that because nobody in my writing group can do it – even though that may be true – that’s like telling a kid with a bat and a dream that the odds of getting drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers are greater than dying in an air disaster.  Both of which are miniscule and dark.

Don’t go there.  Writing is a journey, not a destination.  Writing is a promise of experience, not of outcome.  Be clear on that.  And convey it as you respond.

Life is nothing if not experience.  Outcome is rarely within our total control.

Instead, tell them there is an accessible literary methodology available, a model to be seized and harnessed.  Not less reliable than the physics of flying.  Physics that can be learned.  That there are examples everywhere that prove the model viable, and that if they are serious about this writing thing, it is something they can discover and embrace, and then through practice and a dash of inspiration and a shit-load of hard work… they can get there.

They can write a story

Or not.  There are never guarantees when it comes to our writing.

And that if they do this, and do it with passion and courage, it will be the sweetest, most rewarding and hopeful personal journey of their entire life.  That they will be alive in a way that people who don’t write are not, and that they might never be otherwise.

Because they are listening to the lyrics.  Looking for meaning and poetry and God in everything, every moment and every frame, in every drop of rain, every tear and every silent thought.

Tell them that.

Tell them that writing will bring them back to life.

If they turn away in search of more vodka, you never stood a chance anyhow.  The dream was a lie designed for one of two things: to impress you, or to minimize you.

But if this response elicits more questions, delivered with eyes the size of martini olives… well, that warm glow you’re feeling is the rush of lighting a fuse in someone who just might listen.  Of giving wings to a dream that you already understand.

Writers like to say – and I’ve said this here myself – that at the end of the day we’re very much alone with our stories, that this is a lonely pursuit that requires one’s enjoyment of one’s own company.

Alone with our stories, maybe.  Alone with the experience of writing… we share that with everyone who tries to engage with it. 

Maybe writing is a passion that, when shared, breaks down the walls between us.  Certainly that is the goal of all that we write, of every solitary moment we spend writing it.  And if we get to share it, along with our pursuit of the craft, with humble enthusiasm and hope, you may just find someone who will listen.

Published or unpublished, we can all speak for the experience of being a writer, and for the rewards it offers.

Even when it hurts.  Nobody said life was easy.

Share the love.  There will never be enough good stories out there, and you may be a part of one simply by opening a door.

My new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” (coming out from Writers Digest Books at the end of February), is my love letter to the craft of writing, and a fresh new model for anyone looking for a way to access what it means and what it takes to bring a story to viable life. 

As is this website, which I hope has opened a few doors for you, as well. 


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Attack of the Killer Story Ideas

As a writer you get this question all the time: where do your story ideas come from? 

Sometimes we have an answer – like, it’s based on my divorce experience when I wanted to kill my wife’s lawyer – sometimes we fake it because we don’t really have a clue.

And upon occasion, the universe gets all the credit.  Serendipity can be very literate.

In other words, reality sucks sometimes, but, sucky or not, it can inspire some pretty cool story ideas.   

Thing is, reality is virtually shouting other things at us all the while, masking the softly uttered literary gold running through tirades of being late, taxes due, spouse not getting you, kids acting out, and tires blowing up on the freeway.

You have to look for the gold in those moments.  Sometimes there are manuscripts hidden in that pile of lemons.

The latter – a blown tire on the freeway – happened to me earlier this week. 

An example from the sucky end of the spectrum.

And the result, in addition to an unbudgeted set of tires, was a file of stories I probably won’t live long enough to write.  I’m talking Stephen King kind of ideas, where reality turns dark and whisks you away to someplace unexpected and frighteningly compelling.

Allow me to explain.

My wife kicked me out of the house last weekend.  Not for reasons of domestic unrest, but because her daughters and two friends were flying in for four days of drinking, debauchery and the solving of all the world’s problems between shopping trips.

I’m lucky to have a wife that still craves occasional debauchery, but that’s another story idea altogether.

Anyhow, I drove from my home in Scottsdale over to Los Angeles to see my son, who attends a ridiculously expensive college there (props to him, he made the dean’s list last semester, but that’s another story, too).

See, even setting this up prompts concepts and premises to bubble to the surface.

On the drive home the car started pulling to the right. 

I figured it was an alignment thing.  Then it began to sound as if I was plowing down a railroad track on baby coaster wheels.

So I pulled over.  And sure enough, the right front was completely flat, just short of shredded.

I wasn’t up to the notion of changing that tire – the spare was uninflated (this is like desperately needing water and being given powdered milk instead) though the car came with a little electric air-pump gizmo with instructions written in a foreign tongue.  But there were no tools for the removal of the lug nuts.  The jack looked like a prop from Hostel II.

So I called AAA and waited.

The setting is important here.  It was in the middle of nowhere, unseasonably warm and bright, on I-10 halfway between Palm Springs and Phoenix.  If you’ve ever been there, you know this looks like a movie set from The Book of Eli, just short of a poster from Resident Evil III.   Only with convoys of traffic  barreling past you at eighty miles an hour.

It quickly occurred to me that this very stretch of road inspired one of my favorite blog posts from last year, about a truck full of caskets that passed me like I was standing still.

That, too, was a treasure trove of spooky story ideas still awaiting my attention.  That’s how it works: the ideas arrive, they filter, and the ones that remain become worthy of consideration.

Maybe it was that connection to the casket truck that started it. 

As I looked around me, waiting there on the shoulder of the freeway next to an unending desert, eyes alert for approaching rattlesnakes, kicking through the litter of discarded truck fenders and lights, shredded tire rubber and shards of junk food wrappers, my imagination began to take over.

Being alone with my imagination is a horror story in its own right.

I started counting the story ideas this sorry state of affairs summoned forth. 

I stopped counting at 22, but the idea-train kept on truckin’. 

Not because I hadn’t found one that captivated me – there were about six of those – but because I was no longer in control.  The Muse had taken over, and she was driving an 18-wheeler with a bottle of Jack in her hand.

That was the first of the ideas.  What if an 18-wheeler suddenly veered off the road and came straight at me?  What if it really was full of empty caskets?

What if a car full of young men (I’m thinking snakes tattoos on their throats) wearing dusters and Oakland Raiders hats stopped and wanted to discuss my personal financial situation?

What if a limousine pulled over to help, the open door beckoning me, and there in backseat sat a leather-clad Kate Beckensale lookalike asking if I needed a ride?

I rather liked than one, to be honest.

What if the police arrived, siren’s blaring, guns pulled, seeking to arrest my clueless ass?  And when I asked why, they showed me an FBI Most Wanted poster with my mug on it.  Or better, when I looked in the rearview from the backseat of the squad car, my mug had morphed into Suspect #4 from that list.

What if – and I really liked this one – all of a sudden the traffic just stopped, as if that old episode of The Twilight Zone kicked in and somebody had clicked a diabolical stopwatch from hell that stopped all time and motion?

What if nobody came to help me?  What if it gets dark and my heart suddenly decided to shut down?

What if the apocalypse happened while waiting for my two truck savior, and when I got back to town all the church people had vanished, leaving behind a bunch of I-told-you-so notes of farewell?

What if a seemingly friendly old fellow stopped to take me to the next service provider (60 miles in either direction, by the way), and suddenly began talking about my life, asking me the secret questions about my guilt and regrets and dying dreams along the way, as if he already knew the answers?  What if he pulled off at an exit and we were suddenly back in my old hometown, on the street where I grew up, all Ebinezer-Scrooge-on-Christmas-Eve-like?

What if the person who pulled over to help me was… a future version of me?  A long forgotten version of me?  Or my dead father?

What if that person was God himself – or herself, whatever – and wanted to discuss my moral balance sheet, because that 18-wheeler had connected?

What if a hungry band of coyotes happened to wander by in search of the nearest buffet, and decided that I looked pretty tasty?

What if, in my impatience, I tried to change the tire myself and the front end collapsed on my ankle?  What if it was dark by now, and things in the night came to visit (hints of King’s Gerald’s game at work here)?

What if, at dusk, a massive mushroom cloud appeared in the west, right over Los Angeles?

What if my wife and her daughters and two friends appeared out of nowhere, on motorcycles… and they had fangs?  (Will speak to my shrink about that one.)

The Genre of Sudden Inspiration

The situation seemed to lean toward dark science fiction and fantasy – not my favorite reading or my chosen writing niche, by the way, so go figure – with elements of thriller and existential personal reflection tossed in all Jonathan Franzen-like.

Where was this coming from?  And what was I to make of it all?

Everyone has an imagination to some degree.  Everyone goes off to dark places now and then.  Writers, however, should pay attention to it.  Because it might just be a gift waiting to be unwrapped.

Were these stories?  No, not yet, not even close. 

But they were ideas, notions and seeds that could easily evolve into concepts. Which from there could inspire a character and a theme and the beginning of a story worth telling.

Which means, there might be a compelling reason to tell this story.  Which is the very essence of theme, the most challenging of the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

When theme arrives unannounced, the aware writer listens.  Because it is a rare gift indeed.  That awareness – the necessity to marry a compelling concept with a powerful theme – is a milestone in a writer’s development.  

Remember that the next time a clever idea knocks on your brain.

Reality throws idea-inspiring situations at us all the time. 

Some of them frustrating, some of them terrifying, many of them mundane yet riddled with thematic gold.

We writers are in a constant search for our next story.  Sometimes we settle on the wrong one – the concept is a little thin on thematic resonance… yet it seemed so cool at the time – sometimes we allow the Big One to get away.

But the question today is this: are you listening?  Paying attention?  Are you asking what if? when reality smacks you upside the head with an opportunity?

The art of storytelling is all about turning the mundane into the profound.  And, imbuing the spectacular with humanity.

That voice you hear nagging at you from the background?  Next time give a listen.  It just might be a worthy story begging for your attention.

What real-life situations from your life have inspired story ideas that won’t leave you alone?


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