How to Succeed When You Don’t Have a Clue

July 4, 2015

I’ve been around the block enough times to have accumulated a few successes and failures – in writing and elsewhere – and some of those have surprised me. Stuff I thought would work, didn’t – and some of my long shots came through. So I wrote this list. There are plenty of “How to Succeed” lists on the internet… but at least mine is only three bullets long.

1) Reject “knowledge.”

The world is much more complicated than we think. Theories about how something should work are nice for making us feel less overwhelmed, but if you fly by theory, and can’t understand why you aren’t getting anywhere, throw the theory away. What’s more: don’t replace it with another theory.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — quotable physicist Albert Einstein

When smart people fail, they often spin their wheels in endless analysis. Dumb people don’t bother with this — and that is the advantage in being stupid. Most failure is random, and burning time trying to track down the imperfection in your technique (polishing your resume yet again, revising your novel yet again) doesn’t pay as well as just taking another random shot. Dumb people can clean the floor with intellectuals, as long as they’re persistent.

2) Don’t give up.

I’ve taught mathematics for years, and I can report from the trenches: intelligence isn’t what gets good grades. Persistence does. A+ math students push through confusion, get over frustration, and keep on going. The students who fail are the ones who never learn how to climb over that wall. A lot of my job is helping students manage their frustration, so they don’t give up.

When I’m hammering away at troubleshooting a computer, I’m always open to being surprised. I’ll try anything — even stuff that seems illogical — because too frequently, that is the stuff that works. Aside from taking good notes (so you don’t repeat yourself), what pays here is creativity. Are you crazy enough to keep trying new things? If not, and you are truly stuck, you’re shackled by theory — see #1.

Change one variable — even randomly! — and try again.

3) Google it.

I know that some think the internet makes us less intelligent. I’m amazed by this opinion, because from what I’ve seen, the internet adds thirty points to the effective IQ of billions of people. This is on my short-list of reasons I’m excited about the future of the planet. If you can use a search engine, you’re as competent as any expert was thirty years ago. Actually, you’re as competent as all of them.

“I google everything!” — quotable hacker Samy Kamkar

(I don’t mean Google literally — that’s insane. Have some self-respect and use something more private, like Startpage or DuckDuckGo.)

What readers pay, what writers make

December 18, 2014

I thought it would be fun to break down the dollars and cents of an ebook sale. Who gets what? What’s Amazon’s haul? What does that legendary 70% royalty really add up to?

Suppose you live here in Washington State in the bucolic Pacific Northwest, and you buy Outrageous Fortunes from (the numbers for other ebook retailers would be similar).

The price is $2.99.

But you notice that your credit card is charged $3.30. That’s the down side of Washington State: a sales tax near ten percent. So you have blessed the people in Olympia with 31 cents, so they can keep the schools open and the buses less late.

So Amazon kicks the $0.31 to Washington State, sends 70% of the $2.99 to me, and keeps the rest — $0.94 — for itself. Amazon’s cut, then, is a little less than a buck.

My 70%, on the other hand, is a hefty $2.05. This is a comparable dollar amount to what an author with a traditional publisher’s contract might receive for the sale of a $15 to $25 book — and there’s your indie revolution that Konrath and others have written so much about.

Hold on, there’s another player involved, and that’s the American government way over in Washington D.C. As long as I’m a sole proprietor, the IRS helps itself to 28% of my royalties, or 57 cents of that $2.05. That leaves me with a post-tax royalty of $1.48.

(The U.S. Government also gets a cut of the $0.94 that went to Amazon, since most of it ends up as income for Amazon employees or vendors. I would estimate 10% to 30%… let’s call it 20 cents, leaving Amazon with $0.74 and giving the U.S. Government a total haul of $0.77.)

The final breakdown of an ebook sale:
$0.31 to Washington State
$0.74 (roughly) to Amazon
$0.77 (roughly) to the United States
$1.48 to me.

All from the $3.30 paid by the reader. I think a better definition of “royalty percentage” would come from what I actually receive divided by what the reader actually pays, or $1.48 / $3.30 = 45%.

The Writing Process Blog Tour Continues

March 26, 2014

Thanks to Claire Gebben for inviting me to this tour. Claire was born and raised on the southeast side of Cleveland in Moreland Hills, Ohio, and penciled her first novel at age ten. Her writing has appeared in Shark Reef, The Speculative Edge, Soundings Review, The Fine Line, and ColumbiaKIDS e-zine. The Last of the Blacksmiths is her first novel.

Now, on to me.

What am I working on?

Hair of the Bear is the sequel to New World. It’s in the final editing stages and will be available Real Soon Now. These books take place in a fantasy wilderness derived from American folklore and lumberjack tales, a rich cultural source almost totally untapped by fiction writers. Lucky me!

Ninja Girl will be available shortly thereafter. The draft is finished and needs editing. It’s about a teenaged girl who discovers that she has super powers. She learns that ninjas throughout history have always been women, and she’s introduced to a secret society and its quest to save the world from another secret society. But she still has to survive high school. It’s borne of my love for Joss Whedon’s work, of course.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I have a science-fiction writer’s taste for implications — pushing ideas as far as I can to see what new insights arise — and a thriller writer’s taste for danger and a pounding pulse. My characters are usually faced with mind-bending scenarios, which they struggle to deal with so they can avoid being killed.

I often write about power. My characters are often enormously competent — flawed, of course, broken sometimes — but talented and capable in some way, and they often find themselves granted enormous powers. Perhaps through technology or magic. Then we get to see what they do with that power. Will they fail? Abuse it, destroy themselves? Or will they rise to the challenge?

Why do I write what I do?

I draw a lot of inspiration from writers I love, both novelists and screenwriters. Awe can be motivating. But I think I draw more inspiration from writers who stink, or maybe from good writers who blow it. Nothing sticks in my imagination like witnessing a poorly executed idea. I’ll worry that thing like a toothache, and twist it and twist it and twist it, until I have my own story to tell.

How does my writing process work?

Some writers don’t plan much, because they are afraid that if they take the time and effort to plan a novel, their creative energy will be used up so when they sit down to write page one, they won’t want to do it.

You know what uses up my creative energy? Writing the draft. When I type “THE END,” I’m pretty much done. I sure can’t turn around and rewrite if the draft doesn’t work. So I plan and outline a lot, with notes and index cards on a corkboard. And rather than deplete me, the act of planning charges me up. By the time I start a draft, I’m ready to explode. And when I finish, I’ve got something that’s pretty close to being right.


That’s it! Now, if I had done my job right, I would have found a couple of writers to link to next… but no luck. Writers are often too busy to blog, so I’ll just pass the buck to my partner this week, Stephanie Lile.

A Writer’s Commencement Speech

September 5, 2013

Last month, I graduated from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts with my sparkly new MFA. My fellow grads were kind enough to elect me as their commencement speaker.

Among other things, I said this:

There are benefits to a writing career. Nicholas Taleb, in his book Antifragile, says that in most careers – teacher, banker, janitor – the unexpected is bad news. (He calls this the “turkey problem”: most turkeys are fed and cared for, day after day – it’s very predictable… until Thanksgiving, when those turkeys confront the unexpected.) Most professionals don’t like surprises, because the biggest, most career-changing surprise possible is downsizing, budget cuts – sudden unemployment. And what’s the best surprise they can hope for? A Christmas bonus? A three-percent raise? Teachers, bankers, and janitors crave the status quo.

Writers love surprises. We struggle to escape the status quo, because in our business, that’s called “breaking out.” For us, the unexpected is good news. We don’t get downsized. For us, the biggest, most career-changing surprise possible is sudden best-sellerdom.

Plenty of turkeys are optimists, but wouldn’t be if they could see the future. Plenty of writers are pessimists, but wouldn’t be if they could see the future.

A lot of people seem to have enjoyed the rest of the speech as well. And trust me — the line about lentils was really, really funny.

The Promised Confrontation

April 1, 2013

[This is another snip from my talk on “suspense” at Write on the Sound in 2012.]

It was a powerful moment for me when I realized that we don’t read fiction to find out what will happen.

We read to find out if what we expect will happen actually does. A key to suspense is to create expectation in the reader – preferably the expectation of “something good.” Readers love upheaval, reversal, conflict, turmoil, transformation… readers love confrontation.

Example: Chekhov’s gun. (That is, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”)
Crisis: which wire?

When you’ve got a confrontation coming up, don’t merely foreshadow it, creating uncertainty. Let the reader know with clarity that trouble is on the way.

Example: Carrie, by Stephen King. The prom-night telekinetic conflagration at the end of this novel is still famous. Let’s look at the clues King planted for us:

Page 5: “a [telekinetic] potential of immense magnitude existed within Carrie White. The great tragedy is that we are now all Monday-morning quarterbacks…” The Shadow Exploded: Documented Facts and Specific Conclusions Derived from the Case of Carietta White
Page 22: “I’ve seen some high school pictures of her, and that horrible black-and-white photo on the cover of Newsweek.” Carrie: The Black Dawn of T.K.
Page 27: “And now there’s this other thing. No one can laugh that off either. Too many people are dead.” Carrie: The Black Dawn of T.K.
Page 37: “The outcome of the White affair raises grave and difficult questions. An earthquake has struck our ordered notions of the way the natural world is supposed to act and react.” Telekinesis: Analysis and Aftermath
Page 48: “the only witness to any possible prologue to the the final climactic events was Margaret White, and she, of course is dead…” The Shadow Exploded
Page 122: The trouble at the prom begins.

Exercise: Think of a revealing moment, an exciting confrontation, or a reversal in your work-in-progress. Did you intend this scene as a complete surprise for the reader? If so, play with the notion of letting the reader know it will happen well ahead of time. If you foreshadowed it somewhat, then consider letting the reader know with certainty that the confrontation will be inevitable. Brainstorm a new piece of evidence could you present to the reader (an object, a offhand line of dialogue, a scene from a new POV).


Write or Die, etc.

December 27, 2012

I’ve found a couple of great writing tools lately, and I want to pass them on. Both are by a guy called Doctor Wicked. Normally I would hesitate to recommend anything from someone with a name like that, but it’s the internet age, and apparently, that sort of thing is okay now.

One is a proofreading program, what I would call a bot editor, called EditMinion. You paste your work in, and it makes suggestions. It’s borne of the universal frustration created by the mentally challenged spelling and grammar checkers found in Word and similar programs, and designed specifically to catch what the checkers miss.

But how good can a bot editor be? Don’t you still need beta-readers? Don’t you still need a good critique group… with humans in it?

Of course you do. But a bot editor may show you things that your human readers missed. And bots are fast. I like clicking a button and getting results instantly, because I can consider those results while waiting three weeks for that email.

I can’t declare that something like EditMinion (or even impressive, expensive bots like Nina Davies’s Autocrit) will make you a better writer. But I do think that they are pretty neat.

And information tech improves quickly, so in another year… watch out. They might be smarter than you.


Doctor Wicked’s real masterpiece, though, is a little gem called Write or Die. I’ll quote his description of it:

Write or Die is a web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences…

The idea is to instill in the would-be writer a fear of not writing. We do this by employing principles taught in Introduction to Psychology. Anyone remember Operant Conditioning and Negative Reinforcement?

When I sit down to write, it takes me forever to get going, and when I get stuck with the need for just the right verb, I stare at the wall. Then I’m relishing the glory of the previous scene or daydreaming about the upcoming chapter, and ten minutes have gone by.

I’m a daydreamer. It’s what made me a writer in the first place. But it costs me a lot of hours in the chair to get a novel down. Write or Die happens to be just what I need to crank my words-per-hour up to a reasonable level. It keeps my fingers striking those keys.

Or else.

*Gentle Mode: A certain amount of time after you stop writing, a box will pop up, gently reminding you to continue writing.
*Normal Mode: If you persistently avoid writing, you will be played a most unpleasant sound. The sound will stop if and only if you continue to write.
*Kamikaze Mode: Keep Writing or Your Work Will Unwrite Itself.

Write or Die screenshot

I used to write in four-hour blocks on the weekends. Nowadays, I get the same wordcount in a handful of ten-minute sessions, because if I stop typing, my computer screams at me. It doesn’t sound fun, but strangely, it is. And I can sneak writing time in on weekdays, which is boosting my weekly wordcount.

It feels a little funny saying it, but I will: Thanks, Doctor Wicked.


If you’ve got a program or website that helps you write or edit your work, please mention it in a comment!

The Art of the MacGuffin

November 12, 2012

Here’s a segment from my talk on suspense at the 2012 Write on the Sound in Edmonds, Washington.


The term “MacGuffin” was coined by Alfred Hitchcock, and the statue in The Maltese Falcon is a classic example. It’s a concrete object that your main character pursues as an external goal.

the stuff that dreams are made of
Your main character may not be pursuing an object, but if you can link an object (or a person or place) to your character’s goal, you will trigger the emotions of your readers more easily.

We are actually talking about symbolism, here. Working symbols into your writing can seem elaborate and artificial, and it’s often not clear where to start. What aspect of a story should get a symbol?

The MacGuffin gives us an answer. Your main character’s goal gets a symbol, especially if that goal is abstract.

“No ideas but in things.” – William Carlos Williams

link goes to a great Moby Dick articleExample: The white whale in Moby Dick. I’m serious! Imagine if Ahab was maimed by “a whale,” so he swore revenge against “whales,” and set out to hunt “whales” in all the oceans of the world. That’s more realistic than Ahab going mano-a-mano with an Albino Mutant Monster of Chaos… and yet, it sucks. How would we readers know if Ahab had accomplished his goal? How many whales are enough? Is Ahab winning or losing? Where are we in the story?

Example: Suppose your main character’s goal is to reconcile with her mother. That’s a bit nebulous, and difficult for the reader to get a grip on. But if the main character remembers when her mother used to push her on the backyard swing, and harbors a deep wish to someday push her mother on that swing, that’s a goal the reader can anticipate, perceive, and feel strongly about.

Exercise: Consider your work in progress and your main character’s goal. How will the reader know that your main character has triumphed (or failed) at the story’s end?

A) Think of a place that, if your main character arrives there, would show the reader that the main character has succeeded (or failed).

B) Think of a thing that, if your main character possesses it (or loses it), clearly signifies the main character’s victory (or failure).

C) Think of a single unique person who, if your main character were to meet/defeat/make love to/etc., clearly signifies the main character’s victory (or failure).

To sum up, readers are more likely to turn the page if they know where your main character stands, and that’s a lot easier if readers can see, touch, and taste the main character’s goal.

Playing the “theme” game

August 5, 2012

What is the theme of your novel?

The question strikes terror in the hearts of writers everywhere. “Why does my novel have to have a theme?”

Steady, now. You need to hear this. Theme is the underlying message your novel conveys. It’s the survival wisdom that we all instinctively seek when we seek stories.

You need theme. As an author, you can’t leave it out. Fiction without a theme, or with a confused theme that can’t be extracted from the muck, leaves us cold. Such stories are forgettable, at best. Theme is the marrow of the story, and we hunger for it.

Don’t believe me? You think that a theme in a story makes it a ham-handed morality tale? Okay, let’s look at a work that — I would say — lacks a discernible theme.

Limitless is a movie with a great science-fiction premise: a pill that makes you a genius (and who wouldn’t want to be a genius?).

Giving characters exactly what they think they want is a great way to create thematically powerful work. The trailer looks like this is a movie that will really “say” something, doesn’t it?

But it doesn’t. The main character takes the pills, becomes a genius… and spends the rest of the movie trying to elude baddies and find more pills. He succeeds in the end. Because the pills helped him. He’s not even an especially good guy.

The end.

So what’s the point? There is no point. There was no inner trait or value that the guy possessed that enabled him to succeed. There’s no lesson, no survival wisdom, that I can take away. The film is entertaining in parts, but by the end, I felt like I’d only seen the surface of something hollow.

Good news

There’s no excuse for leaving theme unaddressed in your writing, because theme is easy.

It’s practically a game. Once you’ve finished reading the book or watching the movie (or writing your draft), just ask two questions:

1) Who won?

(Did the main character triumph? Or not so much? In a thriller or horror work, the winners are probably the characters who are still standing. In a romance, if the couple finally gets together, they win.)

2) Why?

(That is: what trait, characteristic, moral value, or skill did the winners possess that enabled them to win?)

(I adapted these two questions from questions asked by Robert McKee about “controlling idea” in his master work STORY. He used a lot more words.)

The answers to these two questions constitute the theme of your work. Let’s see some examples.

Dawn of the Dead (2004): Who would think a zombie movie could have such a powerful theme? Everyone who clings to old affections, romantic or familial, dies in this movie. The only survivors make it to the end credits by heartlessly weeding the bitten out of their ranks, and showing no mercy. The obvious theme: To survive, we must be ruthless.

(Interestingly, the survivors are all killed off in segments blended into the final credits, so that ice-cold, razor-sharp theme is sadly erased.)

Side note: Themes need not be nice. They just need to be there. (Imagine that I wrote a long, long essay about the moral value of art and the importance of artistic freedom and posted it about here.)

In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, a much-loved, yet still underrated, film), Indiana Jones and Marion survive to the end because he chooses to abandon pursuit of the Ark, and protects her instead. Theme: Our survival depends not on chasing the quest, but on caring for each other.

Side note: Themes need not be nice… but they can be.

In The Hunger Games (the book; I missed the movie), Katniss and Peeta survive not because Katniss is such a badass, but because she learned to express her affection for him, persuading the audience to spare them both. Theme: Our survival depends not on skills, weapons, or brutality, but on having the courage to express our deepest emotions.


Yeah, really! Why do you think the book is so popular?

Themes can be negative, or cautionary, too. Especially if nobody gets out of the story alive.

Ishmael is the only survivor of Moby Dick, but I’d say that’s because he’s the POV character and Melville didn’t know how to kill him off. Captain Ahab’s pursuit of that whale led to the death of his entire crew, creating a theme we all know: Obsession can destroy you and everyone around you.

Romeo & Juliet don’t make it out alive, because of the feud between their families. This is another easy one: The need for revenge can claim that which you value most.

Or: Vendetta is pernicious.

Or even: Get over your grudge, or somebody innocent may have to pay.

The wording matters less than the sentiment. The sentiment always comes through, though, once you answer the two questions.

Theme is one of the most surprising elements of fiction, and the theme game is addicting. And just wait until you ask those two little questions about your own work!

1) Who won?

2) Why?

Writerly Tricks (Not) Found in The Avengers Movie

May 25, 2012

Join me in raising a stein to Joss Whedon, who’s been at this for a long time. I’ve been following his work since Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer… 13 years ago.
Joss Whedon
He rewrote the Avengers screenplay originally created by Zak Penn. I can’t think of a trickier story to tell than an origin story with a large ensemble of characters, who are already well known. What a minefield of clichés to avoid! But good old Joss; he did it.

What can we find in his script? Below, I’ll give you some things to watch for with your writer’s eye when you see it (or see it again).

Spoilers below… but come on, if I tell you that the good guys win, will that keep you from seeing it?


First, I’m going to pick on Joss a little, just to get it out of the way. Because we have to talk about the villain.

The villain establishes the stakes of the story, and is a good gauge of a story’s intensity. The more powerful and compelling the villain, the more compelling the story.

The villain in The Avengers – Loki, god of mischief and Thor’s brother – isn’t very threatening. We never really believe that the Avengers will fail to kick his patootie. Because of that, the villain is the weakest point of this story.

Now, I think that was a tactical decision on Joss’s part. He’s got a lot of story he needs to tell, and it’s of a particular type: the first Avengers movie couldn’t be about the villain. It’s about the heroes. So Loki does a set of necessary jobs for the plot, and nothing more.

First, Loki provides motivation for the other characters to overcome their differences – the arc of the movie.

Second, Loki provides Joss with an ingredient he needs to do one of the things he’s great at: writing scenes with plenty of reversals and confrontational dialogue. Reversals occur when power shifts in a scene, and a character gains or loses the upper hand. Repeated reversals are called zigzagging – a set of successes and failures, sometimes in rapid succession. Loki is powerful, but not too powerful, so each Avenger gets to have nicely balanced, exciting scenes with him.

The Hulk
Loki gets his evil monologues interrupted. A lot. Most memorably by “the big guy.”


Joss’s real strength as a screenwriter is the ability to walk in the shoes of his characters, and then write dialogue that is grimly or hilariously honest. Because each Avenger is so different, Joss’s ability to capture a point of view shines through. These perspectives come out in conflict, and there’s as much adversarial dialogue between the Avengers as real confrontation between the Avengers and Loki.

There are too many characters, and not enough screen time, for the complex inner conflicts Joss is also great at portraying. Contradictory inner motives are easier to reveal in a movie with fewer characters, a season of television (22 dramatic hours), or a novel (4-8 dramatic hours, or longer if you’re a slow reader like me).

As we speak, The Avengers is racing toward the billion-dollar mark. It’s great to see a guy kicked around for so long finally get his due. You’ve heard what his fans say: you can’t stop the signal.


Evidence the Writer’s World has Changed, Exhibit 192-387-B

March 9, 2012

Writers cry about the burden of self promotion and yearn for the halcyon days when publishers did it all.

Cheer up, now. I have it on good authority that self promotion can be fun. (And did publishers really do it all? I hear a lot of odd stories about that species, but I don’t think half of them are true.)

Witness what an investment of $15 has produced for Bruce Holland Rogers:

I don’t know if it will work for Bruce. I don’t know what his return in subscriptions will be for this investment of 1,500 pennies (that’s five bones each to three different sellers on

And I care not. This video put me in a good mood, and if this is what DIY author promotion looks like, I’m all in.