Category Archives: other cool stuff

Coping With Trolls and the Irretrievably Lost… but Thankful for You

I’ve had a bit of a tough week.  If I wasn’t the type who wants to please everyone, then the source of my temporary anxiety (a close cousin to temporary insanity, from which all sorts of bad things emerge), could be trivialized… but that’s me.

So here I sit, vacillating between two extremes.

Part of the tough week, of course, stems from the situation in Paris, where I was vacationing with my lovely wife (I wrote about that HERE) exactly one month ago.  Having just been there makes the news clips more immediate and vivid, and the emotions – including rage – that surface without arms-length recourse (because I’m an arms-length recourse kind of guy) are frustrating.  Unlike things we can excuse-away with a pithy “just part of life, dude!” rationalization, this stuff burns into the soul, while also showing us how people from all walks and corners come together as one mind and one heart.

From that alone, hope emerges.

Not so much with some readers of my book, it seems.

Closer to home, this week has been marred by three one-star reviews, one each for my three writing books.

Now, if you look closely, you’ll understand why this is just as embarrassing (to even mention it) as it is troublesome.  Each review was preceded by five or six glowing 5-star reviews, which for the more mentally healthy author would make the one-star hatchet job nearly invisible.

But any one-star review gets your attention, and you’d think it would be from any valid criticism delivered.  Not so.  It’s the crazy, clueless, misunderstood and downright vitriolic intention of some of them that irritates and festers.  People hide on the internet, saying things they’d never dare say to someone’s face… especially mine. If you’ve seen me, you get that.

Valid criticism is a gift.  It makes us better.  The clueless ramblings of the lost and angry reader… that’s just sad.

These aren’t my first encounters with the dreaded one-star, or the collision with someone who is bent on raining insults my way.  When the first troll popped up in the Story Engineering review thread a few years ago – a guy named Bunker, who had never published a word, then or since – I made the mistake of engaging with him, which turned ugly fast (he said he wanted to come to my house and throw books at me… I gave him my address and begged him to show up, but of course he didn’t, because this type of reviewer is cowardly to the core; the invite is still open, by the way).

I wrote one of my writing guru buddies (James Scott Bell) about it, and his response was as brilliant, nourishing and as enduring as it was brief.

He said: “Pffft.  A gnat.”

I have finally learned to not engage with gnats, because it never turns out well for either side.

Nonetheless, three more showed up online this week.  

Mean spirited, as if I’d just insulted the entire history of their family tree.

One of the them, in particular, a review (if you can call it that) for my new writing book (“Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant“) chock-full of inaccuracies, misperception and misplaced vitriol.  And I choose to respond here simply to set the record straight, in addition to a much briefer response as a Comment below his review, which Amazon refused to take down (I’m always amazed at Amazon’s support of unfairness and clear slander in reviews, yet they take down responses that seek to clarify for readers who might be tempted to assign credibility; I’m also amazed at the number of people who click on finding such reviews helpful… that’s scary to me).

It takes a thick skin to publish anything these days.  Trust me on this.

This review makes several inaccurate claims.

First… that I promise definitions of important writing terms, but don’t deliver them.  Not true.  I not only deliver them, I shine a light on them in context to the writing proposition itself.

Definitions of important story elements and essences appear – each under a thick black graphic header that could be missed only by someone who really never read the book (or doesn’t think they’ll get called out, or is thick-headed enough to not understand what they were encountering, which in this case were the very definitions this reviewer claims aren’t there) – on pages 46, 62, 93, 102, 109, 112, 115, 127, 128, 133 and 136.  

Also, he claims the book is full of buzzwords.  Interesting.  This is like reading a book on, say, golf, and then claiming that words such as “chip shot” or “the rough” or “closest to the pin” are buzzwords.  The only person who could possibly find a random buzzword in my book is someone completely new to the writing game.  Which, in this case and supported by the review in whole, is clearly the case here.

Also, the reviewer says the book offers a “secret” to be revealed later (not true), and then claims I never deliver.  This is where I refer you to the 18 five-star reviews (out of the 22 posted thus far) who disagree, and to the Foreword by Michael Hauge, who is one of the most famous writing teachers in the entire world, who used the word “brilliant” in describing it.

So why am I upset by one poor, sad guy – three, if you count the other two this week – who doesn’t agree?  Especially when it’s abundantly clear that he shouldn’t even be reading a book on writing in the first place?

Interesting question.  After well over 400 5-star reviews across my three writing books, I should focus on that, instead.

I should focus on the good stuff, like other authors commenting on my work, which also happened twice this week (read it HERE and HERE).

I think I’ve finally figured it out.

As a reader, writing a novel can look so easy.  So the naive flock to a new writing book, unaware of what they’re walking into.  Like someone strolling the streets of New York and wandering into a conference on brain surgery, hoping to find a free donut.

But what real writers know is this: writing a novel is complex.  It’s challenging.  It’s not something everyone can do well.  The material in my books doesn’t shy away from this truth, and because I break the craft down into elements in way that nobody really has before, the new writer/reader may be intimidated, confused, and discouraged.  Because it’s all so darn complicated.

They came for the kumbayah, instead they got theory and charts and layers of perception instead.

Imagine buying a textbook on, say, how to install your own furnace, when you’ve never tried anything like that before. And then, when you are overwhelmed, when you realize how little you know, you blame the author of that book.

That’s what’s going on, too often, where my writing books are concerned.  This has been pointed out to me, many times, in fact, by writers who get it, who see right through these clueless one-star reviews (not all of which are clueless, some simply don’t like how I wrote the book, which is fair enough, especially since they are outnumbered across the board by about 10 to 1).

Writing a novel is every bit as complex as taking out a spleen. I know this because experienced doctors who seek to become writers have told me so.  None of them, by the way, posting whiny one-star reviews because they can’t recognize what is true or principles that are more complex than beginning-middle-end… or encounter words they need to look up, but don’t.

Challenging commonly held beliefs – writing is full of them – is risky.  It makes people uncomfortable.  I’ve heard about this one, too… in this book I go right at one of those lofty ideals, that any idea is worthy, nobody can tell you that yours isn’t.  But… it just might be, and that’s the problem that explains many rejections: agents, editors and readers don’t flock to – or throw money at – a bad idea, no matter how well written it is. I might be the first writer in this niche to suggest that maybe, just maybe, it’s a bad or even a weak idea that’s holding you back.  And then, because I realize that offering this without a solution is the kind of thing that is bad business, I give you criteria and checklists to see if that’s the case in your story.

For some, that’s a solution.  For others, even mentioning this is unthinkable.  And so, they blame the messenger.

One of those angry reviewers said I sounded like a college professor.  To her I say… thank you very much.

So, after setting the record straight on those missing definitions, I’m at peace with it all.

Trolls, the confused and the totally lost and clueless are on every corner, and Amazon invites them in without the slightest vetting or remedy.  And by the way, I’m all ears for valid criticism, even when delivered with brass knuckles and a complete disregard for the author’s intentions (certainly mine), which in non-fiction is always to help the reader.

I’m constantly told I’m too wordy… so be it, I hear you.  And I’ll hear the next guy who posts that, too, as if he’s breaking the news.  And I’m working on that, but I’m a conversational, informal writer, if you want a dry textbook, go back to school.

If you’d like to comment on these reviews, or any others, you can do so in the Comment section available below every review posting on And if you’ve actually read my new book, and are a serious student of writing (which mean’s you’ll know all the Big Words you’ll encounter), then you’re invited to review the book, as well.

As for me, I’ll never post a one-star review, for anything.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, is gained by it, and having been in the bulls eye of a few, I know the damage it causes, not the least of which is painting an inaccurate picture for readers who don’t know enough to know a flawed review when they read one.  Damage… not so much for the author, who will get over it, but for the poster him/herself, who can’t hide behind ignorance and the misguided chance to see their name online, which won’t happen any other way.  Readers are, for the most part, smart, and they can smell a fraud with the first awkward sentence.

Amazon won’t take it down, either… you’re forever outed there.


Next April I’m participating in what might just be the most comprehensive, amazing, life-changing writing conference… ever.  Four days, only two instructors, and the deepest dive into craft you’ll ever engage with.  It’s not cheap, but if you’re serious about this you’ll want to consider it.  Click HERE to learn more… you’ll be seeing more of this on as the date approaches.


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Story Structure and the Self-Published Home Run

Andy Weir

Andy Weir is a self-confessed geek. 

He is also the author of the bestseller, The Martian, the film adaptation of which is in theaters right now.

He was (the tense there is important) a computer programmer by day, a science fiction fan and aspiring author by night.

Weir is a guy who sweats the details in all things, and those details – technical veracity that doesn’t depend on concoction – often escaped him in the stories he read for pleasure.  He’d submitted a few of his own manuscripts to agents and publishers, but nothing happened, perhaps because they were loaded with those details.

Sometimes that becomes the juicy irony behind a massive success story. 

Kathryn Stockett, for example, submitted a manuscript entitled The Help to 46 so-called elite agents, and not one of them signed her.  Remember that one when your next rejection slip arrives.  William Goldman was spot-on right when he said of Hollywood and the publishing machine, “Nobody knows anything.”

If you like stories like this about writers who don’t give up, about pathways to success that are anything but traditional, keep reading. 

This one is for you.

Martian book cover

Andy Weir had an idea.  A concept, really (as defined in my new book), because while compelling, it had no hero and no dramatic arc… yet (which exactly fits the mold of the definition of concept).  It was just something he wanted to explore.  And so he began writing what amounted to short chapters on his website, launching a story about an astronaut who, through no fault of his own, finds himself stranded in Cleveland without a wallet.

Okay, that’s not true.  Just seeing if you’re tracking with me here.

His protagonist found himself stranded on Mars. 

The story became a sort of diary about all the things he had to confront to survive, most of which could easily kill him, and how he MacGivered his means of survival, cobbling together all kinds of solutions and tools with absolutely accurate science.  No ending yet, just the unfolding tale of Mark Watney and his time on Mars.

Soon those blog posts had a following. Some readers were fellow science geeks who gleefully corrected anything (as science folk usually do) that wasn’t realistic.  After a while, when a killer ending manifested (this has to happen before any manuscript will work), one of those readers suggested Weir post the chapters online for all to read as a singular collated manuscript.  Weir selected Amazon Kindle for this, posting it for free.

It didn’t take long for takers to show up in the tens of thousands. 

The Martian became the #1 free Kindle book, inspiring another reader to send Weir an email that said something like this (I’m assuming and paraphrasing here): “Dude, you need to sell this.  You’ll get even more takers.”

Because across the vast sea of readers out there, most still assume that a story selling for real money is better than something available for free.

So Weir published The Martian for 99 cents. 

(Sorry, it’s nine bucks as of today.)

And as predicted, sales instantly explored, reaching the coveted #1 Kindle book throne very quickly.

Andy Weir was a happy science guy, this outcome far exceeded his expectations.

But fate was just getting started turning his story into an unthinkable dream shot.

An agent found him and offered to take The Martian into the dark world of traditional publishing.  Weir said yes, his expectations nowhere near what was about to happen.

Very soon thereafter the agent called with the news: he had found a publisher who would pay a mid six-figure advance for hardcover rights.

And then, the agent called four days later – sit back and allow that one to sink in – to announce that the movie rights for the book had sold, also for significant cash.

That was a good week for Andy Weir.

But then, the odds descended.  Only a fraction of these movie deals ever reach the screen.  So Weir wasn’t counting his chickens… yet.

More good news.  Ridley Scott, perhaps the biggest name in high concept movies, wanted to direct.  And Matt Damon would sign on to play Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut.

Shortly thereafter the novel became a New York Times bestseller.

Imagine, if you can, this happening to you.

It’s the most delicious self-publishing success story since Twilight, which had a similar path.  Other self-published novels have found significant success as well, but don’t forget that the path to the bestseller list and the silver screen remains a steep and arduous one for self-published authors, the odds remain orders of magnitude higher for traditionally published projects.

But then, in that scenario, you absolutely have to land an agent, and we’ve shown that sometimes they don’t know their own ass from second base.  So if your self-published project finds one for you, that’s the best outcome of all.

Why does The Martian work so well?

Have you read the book or seen the film, which is quite close to the dramatic and details of the novel?

As a student of storytelling craft, you should.

Two things jump out.  First… the concept is killer.  Concepts alone can make or break you, and this one is an example of the former.  Before you add the hero, the situational center-piece of Weir’s concept is irresistible.  It drips with dramatic potential, and the closer you look at it, a rich stage for character and theme crystallizes before your mind’s eye.

That alone makes this novel an ideal candidate for deconstruction here on Storyfix.

Because it is the structure of the novel (and of the film, which matches identically) that elevates The Martian as an even better learning model.  Its structure is perfect.  Quartile by quartile, story milestone by story milestone, scene by scene, the architecture of the novel is a poster child for classic four-part structure (3-Act structure if you’re still stuck in that less precise model, which is the same basic sequence).

In my next post I’ll walk you through The Martian from a structural perspective, defining those quartiles and parts and their specific locations within the novel. 

But I’ll tell you this now… those major story milestone occur within only a few pages of their optimal target.  And that isn’t remotely an accident.  If you are skeptic, allow this to convince.  If you are already a student of structure, all this to pump fresh adrenaline and hope into your writing chops.

The question then becomes, how did Weir pull that off?  Is he a student of some form of structure, or is he a pantser who somehow found the thread that would make his story work?

I certainly don’t know, but from what I’ve read, Weir is a candidate for structural thinking (most programmers are).  And even if he’s a panster, the likely backstory is that as he revised the story based on feedback and his gut story sensibility (that’s the story of every successfully pantsed novel, drafts evolve, and the end-zone of the evolution almost always aligns with the principles of structure, whether they want to acknowledge it or not), it moved closer and closer to the paradigm that awaits all of us, even in a first draft if you understand it well enough.

Until then, head to the theater or grab the paperback (which I read in one sitting while on a flight from Paris to Salt Lake two weeks ago, an 11 hour sequestering that my wife and I are just now recovering from).

Thank  goodness, and Andy Weir, I had that paperback with me.  And thank goodness someone like Ridley Scott and Matt Damon made it happen for him in Hollywood.

Now you can benefit from the learning the story makes available.

Click HERE to read (or return to) the deconstruction post.


It’s November Mustache Month… a Challenge for Men’s Health

I’m posting this for my son, who is 25 and lives in Austin, Texas.  He’s growing a mustache for his fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the Prevention Institute, the Livestrong Foundation, Ichom, and several corporate sponsors, for men everywhere who would benefit from preventative and care programs that will save and enrich their lives.

I’m proud of my son for doing this. 

I hope you can toss a few bucks toward this cause, using this THIS LINK to donate.  

As you can see, my son is way better looking than me, even with that ‘stache… which goes away in December, he promises.

nelson with stash



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