What Most Settings Lack

We all have places we know and love.  They aren’t rooms with amazing views, patios with comfortable couches, or castles in the middle of a forest.  They’re rooms with happy memories, patios where we fell in love, castles where a hero grew up.  Cool views, couches, and surroundings make a setting fun to describe, but what makes a setting really great is nostalgia – a sense of the familiar combined with vivid and emotional memories.

‘Your setting needs to mean something to the character for it to mean something to us.’  We’ve all heard some version of that incredibly important advice, but what I’m talking about is something a little different.  This post is about an often overlooked – and maybe smaller – part of creating a great setting.  It’s about the simple fact that nostalgia in the reader can be created in the time it takes them to finish a book.  Not only do we want the setting to mean something to our hero, we want it to mean something to our reader.

Welcome to the second post of a five part series on simple (but maybe not so obvious) tips to make our stories better.  Today’s topic is Setting Familiarity.

Readers’ feelings of affection for settings come from balancing two things.  

How ‘cool’ a setting is only gets us halfway there.  Just reading a paragraph telling us that a mansion is huge and beautiful and set in the side of an icy mountain makes us ‘think’ the setting is cool, not ‘feel’ or ‘know’ the setting is cool.  But if we read that description in the first few chapters, then return to the mansion 50 pages later for a big turning point in a characters life, and again for a big turning point in the plot, we can leave the mansion for the rest of the book and when it turns out that the climax of the story takes place at the mansion you won’t even have to spend a paragraph describing it – it’ll already mean something to us.  We’re familiar with it.  We have an image of it in our mind more vivid than anything an author’s description can conjure up.  And even better, we have memories there (our own memories, not our character’s).

Setting familiarity is the second half of making your setting powerful, but it doesn’t mean that the entire book should take place in one room.  It’s just something to keep in mind where applicable.

Think about all the school stories you’ve read and think about how well you got to know the setting, how comfortable it made you, how you cared about it almost as much as you cared about some of the characters.  Maybe you even wished you could be there yourself.

A clear example of falling in love with a setting is Harry Potter.  We all wanted to go to Hogwarts after finishing the very first book, not just because it was important to Harry, but because it was important to us.  The seventh book of the series had a lot of action, our favorite characters, and answers to a ton of mysteries.  But a large part of it wasn’t set at Hogwarts, and because of that there was a big part of the book that was missing.

This may work for some books more than others, but even if you’re writing a jet-setting thriller you might be able to use it to your advantage.  Keep it in mind.  Even if you only return somewhere once, a bit of nostalgia is a powerful thing.


Why Your Character Is Boring


Welcome to the first post of a five part series on simple (but maybe not so obvious) tips to make our stories better.  They’ll be applicable to most of us no matter what we’re writing, though some people will find that certain posts are more relevant than others.  I also promise that the subjects won’t be ‘building tension,’ ‘realistic dialogue,’ or ‘how to write the best book ever!’

Today I’m going to start with the shortest of the topics: Writing a proactive protagonist.

If your protagonist is too far out of his or her depth for too long, they’ll be boring. Readers love a hero who can say the things they won’t and do the things they can’t.  They love a character who makes things happen, outsmarts the bad guy, achieves the impossible.  Characters accomplish this by being active, by taking charge and doing things based on their internal motivations and not just as a response to external events.

This topic really hit home for me when I looked back at an old manuscript about a (hold your breath for originality) Detective.  I liked him a lot – he had a complicated and interesting past, strong skill set, and good attitude.  He was smart as hell.  

And for the first 2/3 of the book he didn’t do anything.  

He sort of just floated from place to place as everything happened around him – sure he did things like follow standard police procedure and worry about how to save a kidnapped girl / avenge a murder / insert inciting incident here.  But he didn’t take charge and do something of his own, change the course of the plot, or make the antagonist respond to him until nearly the end of the book.  The plot might have been fine, but by that point it was too late for him to be a strong character, even if he did save the day in the end.  He was a taker for the first chunk of the book and that was the impression he left on readers.  Think about some of the stronger investigative leads in books we know: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, (dare I say? maybe not..) Alex Cross.  They definitely weren’t taking what was happening to them lying down.  They were active, they were geniuses, they were motivated.  To put it in the simplest terms: they did things.  Awesome things.

Look back at your manuscript.  Is your character simply getting swept along by the events around him/her?  Are they out of their depth for a little bit too long before doing something about it?  This doesn’t fully apply to every type of book – but I think it’s important to remember no matter what you’re writing.  Characters should act, not react.  The difference (which I mentioned earlier) is that one comes from internal resolve, while the other is a response to external events.  The latter is impossible to avoid, and most books actually need and benefit from it, but without the former your character and your story will never be the strongest they can be.


The Best Time to Write

writer time

We all have our favorite time to write, our routines and habits, and our difficulties with finding a quiet place to work.  And we all talk about these things pretty often – it was just a little while ago that I wrote a post about the ideal writing spot.  But there’s something more important than an ideal writing spot, and that’s an ideal writing time.  

Time is the biggest complaining point writers have when it comes to actually writing.  It’s important to find the right time for you, and to do that you need to think about more than just your busy day, you need to think about how much busier it might get when things pop up that you haven’t even thought about.

For people with normal working hours here is a breakdown of the three main times you might write.

Morning, Pre-Work.  If you’re serious about writing every single day and willing to dedicate yourself to making your dream come true this is the best time to write.  There’s no chance that something comes up and you have to cancel your writing time later in the day, no chance that you get caught at happy hour and are too drunk to write when you get home.  Of course, it’s one thing to talk about waking up early and set the alarm, but it’s another thing entirely to actually get out of bed an hour early instead of hitting the snooze button and making that stupid ass honking noise go away.

Work Break, Lunch Time, Right After Work.  Another great time to make sure you get your writing in is during a break, lunch, or directly after work.  There’s still a chance that something comes up, but not as big of a chance as writing later in the day.  You can write during your lunch break and eat at your desk.  Or eat while you write and get grease all over your keyboard.  Or eat and think about writing and pretend that counts.

Late Evening, Night Time, Before Bed.  I know a lot of people who only like to write at night, but it’s also the time where you have the greatest chance of missing a day or two of writing each week.  Like I said before, you might get too drunk at happy hour.  Or maybe you’re just too tired.  Maybe a Friends marathon or playoff game is on TV and the next thing you know it it’s 1 in the morning and you have to wake up in five hours.  If this is when you want to write, go for it, just make sure you’re willing to put extra effort into making sure that the late night time slot stays open for you to do serious work.

Obviously some people have a specific time where they write best and don’t like to write during any other part of the day, but we put so much thought into the books we’re writing that it would be a shame if we didn’t put a good amount of thought into when we can actually write them.


The 7 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Novel

Do I know how to grab your attention or what? Anyway, for a quick-post-Friday I wanted to share an article I stumbled on while reading the Writers Digest website, called (use your powers of deduction here), ‘The 7 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Novel’. The post was written by Adrienne Crezo, managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine. I think it’s clear to all of us that there are far more than 7 essential elements of a bestselling novel, and that bestselling novels themselves defy generalization (unless you use the broadest terms imaginable like ‘tense’, ‘exciting’, or ‘unique’). But that absolutely doesn’t mean that the points aren’t good, helpful pieces of information.

The essential elements are:

1.  Readability

2.  Strangeness

3.  Controversy

In addition to what is said in the article, I think that controversy is especially important because nothing gets people thinking or talking about your story more than controversy – the hard issues.  Tackle a big problem, something that really matters, something about which people have differing opinions and strong feelings.  This is how you get people to think about your book even when they aren’t reading it and long after they’ve put it down for good.  Don’t be afraid to let your characters choose a side, and don’t be afraid to struggle with the difficulty of choosing what is or isn’t right in a situation, because if you present your problem strongly and grapple with it, chances are you’ll get your readers to grapple with it too.

4.  Big Actions with Big Consequences

5.  Nuanced Uniqueness

6.  Extreme Situations

This is one of my favorites.  “There’s no real limit except your own creativity; get your characters as deeply in trouble as you can, and then figure out what they would do when “it’s make or break, do or die.”

7.  Reasons to Care

Arguably the most important of the 7.

For more on each point, visit the article: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/the-7-essential-elements-of-a-bestselling-novel

Have a good weekend.


The Ideal Writing Spot

Most author advice will tell you that you have to be able to write in any place at any time. It’s true – you won’t get very much done if you refuse to write anywhere other than your favorite spot under ideal conditions. Learning to write in random locations and tune out distractions is a big part of being able to produce good work day after day. TV in the background? No problem. People walking in and out of the room? No problem. Interrupted every few minutes by random questions? Annoying, but no problem. Your baby crying? No problem. Actually, maybe problem.  Okay fine, definitely problem.  But everything else is something you can learn (read: struggle and probably fail) to tune out.

That being said not all places were created equal. We all have an ideal writing spot, a spot where we just seem to have more energy and focus, where we can write 2,000 words in two hours that are better than the 400 we would have ended up writing anywhere else.

I have two favorite spots.


1.  A Coffee Shop. This is the place where I get the most work done. Cafes, Starbucks, whatever, coffee shops just have a different feel than anywhere else – like if I’m goofing off instead of working the barista is going to come over and dump coffee on my head. Places like these have that steady hum of work being done which is nice when you aren’t wearing headphones. They have things going on that can visually distract you, but for some reason they just don’t, or you don’t notice, or you just don’t care. And it smells great, like coffee, which always reminds me of the library. Lastly, and this might be my favorite part, there are always half a dozen people studying for the lsat, mcat, gre, law or medical school exams, anything that requires a ten inch thick textbook really, and they make you feel like your life is the easiest and happiest thing in the world by comparison.


2.  A Flagstone Patio. I’ll take a wood deck, too, but it’ll be grudgingly. Sitting on one of these at either a round glass table or in a lawn chair is great. Get some good sun when it’s nice out. You can play music on speakers or from your computer instead of wearing headphones. It’s great for relaxing and doing some work at the same time.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that I end up doing most of my writing on a particularly comfortable couch at home. If I’m feeling ambitious I might even sit up on it. And if I want to be a real maniac I’ll sometimes sit at the table in the other room. It’s one of our versions of the great debate – write sitting up at a table to be more productive or write lying on the couch because we’re lazy. It’s amazing how much more work gets done at a table or desk.

What about you? What’s your ideal writing spot? Where do you actually end up doing most of your work? How do you deal with distractions?

The Simplest Writing Advice

Writers are an incredibly insecure group of people.  It’s true.  I’m even insecure about writing about our insecurities – what if people get upset about it?  (If you did, sorry).  But the fact is that we are very insecure, and an extension of that fact is that it isn’t an insult. In many way it actually makes a lot of sense. Fiction is hard to judge (people are entitled to their own opinion, unless, of course, it’s just plain wrong), it’s often difficult for writers to tell if they’re getting better, and each piece of writing takes so long to finish and is so time consuming that it’s not easy to finish it on faith alone.  And while each book you write might make you a better writer, it might take two or three (read: a ton) of them for your improvement to be noticeable.  Because of all this, confidence is something that writers are always chasing, and that makes it hard to believe that the simplest advice about writing is true.


To be a better writer all you have to do is write.  It’s not only the simplest way, it’s the best way.

But there are a couple of things to understand about those two sentences:

1)  As I said before, it’s true.  No doubt about it – the best way to get better is to write. Sometimes it can be hard to believe because in school we learn by studying and memorizing, making flashcards and study guides, reading fat textbooks.  We need to stop thinking like that.  Weird as it is, writing is more like a sport than a class in many ways (though it’s also way less cool).

In a sport you get better by playing.  There are drills that you can do, specific parts of the game you practice over and over again so when the time comes to really compete you can execute them perfectly without thinking about it.  You can study the game to get better, analyze certain plays, but when it comes down to it, the player who spends 12 hours a day watching game film will never beat the player who spends two hours a day running around the field playing the game itself.  You write to get better at writing, there is no getting around that, nothing you can do to replace the practice you need.  It’s easy to lose sight of this, especially for those of us on WordPress reading other peoples’ thoughts and tricking ourselves into thinking that this somehow counts as writing practice.  Don’t get me wrong, I want you to read this blog, maybe I should tell you that reading this blog is different, that it does count as writing practice.  Come on in, get addicted, stay a while.  But the truth is that it doesn’t.  We always need to remember what is most important when trying to get better at writing, and that is to write.  Committing to this piece of information can often separate the people who love writing, who will put in the time and effort to make it happen no matter what, from the people who love the idea of writing and just hope that one day it’ll happen for them.

2) Sticking with the sports analogy here, a person who plays pick-up basketball for five hours a day will never beat a person who goes to practice, listens to his coach, works on his shooting, dribbling, and passing form, plays the game for two hours a day, then watches his film or takes advice from other people about his technique.  Writing is important, but you can’t simply place word after word in an endless march until the end of time.  Yes, you’ll still get better, but you’ll never reach the level of someone who is mindful of what they’re doing.  Practice specific parts of a story (plotting, characterization, theme), focus on one thing for a certain amount of time, like making each character speak in his or her own unique voice, or trying to weave a certain theme into a piece of writing, and eventually you’ll always write that way.  Read your own work and revise it, making sure to understand what you can improve on so that in your next piece you can focus on one specific technique to take it one level higher.  Practice every day, listen to advice, pay attention to your own game and learn how you can get better, do drills to work on a single skill.  Then when the next match rolls around you might be surprised at how much better you’re playing.

What about you?  Do you spend more time writing or reading and thinking about it?  What tricks have you used to keep yourself motivated and committed to practicing the actual act of writing?  Do you always write before you blog, so that if you don’t write one day you aren’t allowed on WordPress?  Do you look closely at your own work to see specific things that you can do better?  Do you think you might start now?


Why July is Important


July is an important month for writing.  We’re in the middle of the summer, it’s hot outside, the pool and beach are trying to dominate our free time, and there are way too many good movies in theaters right now.  Some people find it easier to write when the days are longer and the weather is nice because they’re in a better mood.  Some people find it easier to write in January when the days are short and cold because a steaming cup of coffee (or hot chocolate if you’re a traitor) somehow makes the wood of your desk seem comfortable.  If you’re the kind that writes better in summer, you better write in July, because if you don’t you can’t really expect to write in January when you’re depressed.  If you prefer writing in the winter, July is the toughest month, but if you make this month a good one you’ll show yourself that you’ve got a solid handle on the whole writing thing.

So happy July everyone.

June was a great month and it went by fast.  I set three writing goals and I’m happy to say that I met them all.  I finished revising Embracing Ghosts, let people read it, and got great feedback (the kind that says, ‘Hey, you don’t suck.  This is something I wouldn’t be too surprised to find on a bookshelf.’).  I also revised The Man in the Black BMW, got even better feedback on that, and will be sending it out to a few places next month. Finally, and most fun of all, I’ve started my new project and made a lot more progress on it than I thought I would.

Big Life Events:

I start work July 14.  I just got my group assignment and I couldn’t be happier with it. I’ll be working on the Large Enterprise team’s Finance Practice (which is consulting mumbo jumbo for finance and accounting work).  It’s exactly what I wanted, but it’s going to be challenging too – full days and an hour long commute each way.  All of this means that I’ll never have had less time to write, so I’m going to have make a real effort.  The metro ride is long but hopefully I can get stuff done while I’m on it (writing, reading, brainstorming, or whatever else).

Writing Events – Goals for July:

1.  As I mentioned in other posts, for me the beginning of a book involves a lot of crazy ideas and free writing, then hours and hours finding the pieces that connect and create a great story.  If I jump right in my story won’t be nearly as suspenseful, well planned, or, to be honest, cool.  The mysteries, the twists and turns, the great backstory, I find that most of this comes from that one month period of lightning (not that I don’t think of many more things while I’m working).  At the end of the month I want to be finished with my brainstorm, have all the dots I want connected in an organized outline, and be ready to break the story into scenes and write.

2.  Have all of the character sheets and backstory ready for the main people in the book. I’ll add to this as I go, but I already have the main players in my head.  I just have to get them down.

3.  Read five good books by great writers and take one writing lesson from each of them. Write the lessons down in my ‘Elements of a Great Book’ document and work on remembering how and why they worked, and how I can use them in my own writing.  I’ll share these at the end of the month.

Random Thing for July:

I’m going up to New York City for the 4th.  I’ll be staying with and seeing a ton of my friends and going out a lot, but I’m going to wake up every day and write something through the pounding hangover, even if it’s just a paragraph or a single idea.

What are your goals for July?  How did you do in June?  Do you get more or less writing done during the summer months? (Or winter months for you southern hemisphere weirdos).  Do you like writing better in the summer or winter?

Each month is just one month of a year, of the many years of your life.  In the grand scheme of things it may not seem like much, but in five years you could have set and met 60 small goals, or you could have set 60 goals and met 30 of them, or you could have let the time go by happily but unproductively.  You could be published, famous, and rich, you could be living humbly where you were but happy with the five books and amazing progress you’ve made, or you could be exactly where you were five years ago and okay with that.  There is no right answer, just keep your dreams in mind when thinking about whether or not it’s worth setting goals this month.  They add up.