Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Follow Up to My Previous Post

In my last post I recommended the film “The Gambler” because of a provocative scene (a monologue, actually) on the challenge and frustrations of the fiction-writing life. 

Several folks have told me they didn’t feel the same.

That it was actually discouraging instead of motivating.  Fair enough.  I get that.  I apologize for not better positioning my perspective within the post.  The last thing I want to be is discouraging, the whole point here is to help you move forward.

Below are some clarifying thoughts on this, some of a highly personal and reflective nature.  (To paraphrase the song… it’s my blog and I’ll wax philosophical if I want to.)

If you haven’t read the post and would like to before reading my response below, click HERE to read it, then come back if you’ like to engage with my response.


I think Wahlberg’s classroom monologue spoke to me because it’s true: in that entire room, at that school, on that day, nobody will be good enough.

You can’t sit-in on the aspiration to write good fiction. Bang out a story between classes. It’s too hard for that to work.

Like Wahlberg’s character (like me, a teacher of fiction writing), I don’t think I ever was, am, or will be “good enough.”

The business itself is a jungle, completely dismantled, for the most part the traditional publishing proposition is a cross between a dream and a lie.  What I heard from Wahlberg’s character is that you have to strive for that genius level, which is always someone else’s opinion.

He didn’t exactly say that.

In fact, he’d written it off as impossible. I haven’t. What’s left is one and only one choice: get better.

There’s only one way to do that, one ticket in (because we sure as hell aren’t born that way) – and that’s craft. Findable, reliable, practiceable… and still, only rarely seized. It’s the science and physics of genius. The principles are so powerful and pervasive that, when you embrace them until they embrace you back, “genius” becomes an achievable goal.

He’s right about one thing: genius is required. Define genius as you may, but for me it means hitching a ride on the power of the genius principles that are available to us. That’s what I write about here.

And so, I was moved when I heard this spoken this eloquently.

I found myself motivated to work harder, go deeper (because that’s where genius lives and suffers), to see if it’s really there or not. Most of us don’t go that deep, we don’t realize that we must. I felt the movie challenged us to have the balls to see what we can really do once you’re all-in, knowing the bar is that f-ing high.

I loved his passion.  I related to that. 

The business had broken his heart.  I relate to that, too.  But unlike him, in sort of a reverse modeling fashion – I haven’t given up.  I’m here, with you, doing battle with these demons, fueling myself – and you – with craft.

Then again, I may be full of complete crap on this, simply hearing what I wanted to hear. But isn’t that what good writing does, putting us in the interpreter’s seat? I just thought it was profound, and the profound always moves me in strange ways.

It makes me want to write.

I wasn’t discouraged.  It didn’t make we want to gamble my life away like the Wahlberg character is doing. But realizing that I already have – I’ve gambled everything in choosing to write for a living – here I am with my meager chips and there’s still a game going on.

Ain’t broke yet, still hoping for the ace to land in front of me, praying I know what to do with it when it happens.

Until that happens, I’m all-in.

All my chips. And as I sit here watching the cards being dealt, I am constantly looking for a strategic edge. So far I’ve only found one thing – craft.

Craft never lies. It never cares, either… it just is. The choice is ours.

I hope this clarifies.

Be bold. Study harder. Write more. Write smarter.

Choose stronger stories. That’s massively important.  Think bigger.

Don’t listen to your characters (they don’t understand the game they’re in) and don’t wait for a Muse to tap your shoulder.

That’s all bullshit. It really is. It’s like trying to attach angel wings to a jet fighter. You have a mission, and it’s on you.   Nobody will rescue you. The only assistance you’ll ever get is principle-driven (as opposed to sense-driven) craft, however it reaches out to you, whoever is dealing those cards.

Storytelling sense, when it works, is nothing other than the principles of craft internalized.

Discover the genius within you. You do that by losing yourself in the work, in the principles that are the actual grist of genius after all.


Thanks Art, for the nudge.


A quick update – my little ebook, “Warm Hugs for Writers,” has been reduced to $2.99.  It’s all in the title, and sometimes that’s just what we need.


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Novelists: A Risky Bet that Just Might Be a Sure Thing… For You

I’m about to recommend a movie to you.  That alone is a risky bet, but there is rationale behind my madness.

I’m talking about “The Gambler,” starring Mark Wahlberg, one of the major holiday releases out now.  Critics are not hating it, but to be honest they’re comparing it to Applebees on a street full of fine steak houses.

I get that.  It’s not a perfect movie.  But I found it perfectly entertaining, and, as a novelist and especially as someone who is in touch with thousands of  other novelists (via this site), it’s my job to alert you to this opportunity.

The Gambler

See it for the script. 

See it for an in-your-face wake-up call.

The elegant, rapturous, too-true dialogue in this film could only come from the mind of a true writer – writing about writing – as spoken by an actor who embellishes it with the grit and emotion and angst that writing fiction with professional ambitions culls from us.

He speaks the truth.  And he nails it better than anything I’ve ever heard.

If you want to know why so many writing teachers (present company included) seem grumpy and impatient, go see this movie… if nothing else than for the second scene, in which Wahlberg gives his students a stark lesson in writing reality.

The hero – Wahlberg – is one of us. 

His day job is teaching “the modern novel” at a major Los Angeles university, with a well reviewed and under-achieving “first novel” under his belt.

Maybe now you understand why I related to this guy.

He has an attitude and a point of view on it all.  And that‘s why you should see this.  It just might shift you into a higher writing gear.

Like an alcoholic driven to drink to drown out his anxieties, Wahlberg is driven into the dark world of high stakes gambling (where the odds are significantly better than trying to crack the bestseller code), populated with organized crime factions and loan sharks who make the horrifying stakes abundantly clear.

The film is inspired by the 1962 classic of the same name starring James Caan, which was written by the legendary James Toback (who also wrote “The Player,” which you should rent tonight if you’ve never seen it).

That’s part of the problem for the reviewers who aren’t loving it, it doesn’t compare in terms of overall cinematic art (not all of the risks the director takes pay off).  But there is much here to enjoy, and much to learn in terms of character arc, structure, story world and all things visual (stunningly artful).  John Goodman, in particular, gives the performance of his life as a loan shark who could go monologue for monologue with Aaron Sorkin .

Here’s a link to the Rotten Tomatoes page for this film, where you can read the critics bashes and also see the trailer.

If you write fiction, the first twenty minutes are worth every dime and every minute of your time.  The opening shows Wahlberg behaving recklessly in an underground gambling club, but it’s that second scene – Walhberg lecturing to a room full of wide-eyed, terrified college writing students – that just might give you the wake-up call you need.

I frequently tell writers who come to me for coaching that they’re not thinking big enough, deep enough, artfully enough.  If you’re one of them and aren’t quite sure what any of that even means… here’s a film that will explain it better and more powerfully than I could ever hope to.


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