Tag Archives: Writer’s Digest


Every now and then, you pick up a book that hits all the right notes. There’s action, drama, intrigue, romance, danger, all of that. You read the book, turning the pages till you reach the climax, and you think, I’d like to read more by this author.

And then you have time to think about it, and you realize something’s missing. But what is it? You go over it in your mind, and everything’s there. The plot unfolds the way it should, the three-act structure is in place, all the pieces fit together.

But still, something’s missing.

200px-MichaelCrighton_StateOfFearI’ve read more than my share of these kinds of books, some by some pretty famous authors. For me, Michael Crichton comes to mind: good books, thoroughly researched (the man was a demon when it came to research; he spent three years researching climate data for State of Fear), all the right characters to advance the plot…but there’s always something missing from his books.

It’s like walking into a show house. Everything is in its place. All the décor matches, and there aren’t any throwaway pieces of furniture. I remember going to an American Log Homes show house back in the nineties. One of the things about log homes is that most dealers live in one of the homes, and their houses tend to be the model home as well. This one felt a bit like an exercise in lunacy, as each room was totally different to show that log homes could fit into any décor style. Take each room by itself, it was okay. But there was no theme to the home, if you get my drift. And, what’s more, because it was a model home, even though the dealers lived in it, it didn’t have that feel of being a home. Everything was too perfect, too clean.

Books that are that way remind me of when Watson was on Jeopardy! Yeah, he got all the right answers, and he won. But, to me, it felt like a cheat. After all, as good as the two human champions were—and though I’ve never actually seen the episodes Watson was in, I know the two humans were the best players the show’s ever had—there was still the fact they were human. Watson had instant recall. He was never subject to that feeling we often have of knowing something, it’s right on the tip of my tongue, if I can just think of it….

Watson didn’t have that problem. And on top of that, he didn’t have to go through the physical act of pushing the button to say he had the answer. His reactions were faster-than-human. The only real satisfaction the humans could take was that it took a supercomputer to beat them. No mere computer was up to the task. That’s like saying it took a superhero to win the fight against some normal guy.hal_9000_wall2013_by_vectorgeek-d5sp2sr

That’s how these books are: all the right answers are in place, but they might as well have been written by HAL 9000 for all the humanity that’s in them. It’s like you’re reading programming code turned back into English. All the action is there, but the emotion feels fake. Like that model house, there’s no dirt in the corners, no throw pillow out of place, no dirty fork left lying on the counter. The curtains hang just right, the dining room chandelier doesn’t have any burnt-out bulbs, and even the eight-year-old remembered to make his bed that morning.

Grit. Soul. Bottom. Call it what you want, it’s not there. It’s got the rhythm, but it can’t feel the beat.

And yet, for me at least, it’s hard to point at any specific point in the story and say, “Here’s where and how you can fix that. This is where you can put that jazzy feel that gives it bottom.” I can’t do it because I suspect either the writer has it or he doesn’t. And no amount of books from Writer’s Digest will ever infuse his (or her) prose with that all-important feeling if it’s not already there.

542692_10150749842905379_252657169_nNow, we’re all different (duh). So maybe all writers feel that way to at least one other reader out there. You may find Michael Crichton’s books to be full of feeling. Maybe it’s that so many of his characters tend to be professionals of one sort or another, and most of them in fields I know very little about, so I find it hard to relate. Maybe my stories of common folks caught up in webs of crime will feel sterile to someone who immerses themselves in Crichton’s works.

So I can’t offer up a solution. Part of the reason this blog exists is for me to make observations about the reading/writing world, and this is one I’ve made over the years. I doubt there even is a solution, especially in light of the what I said in the last paragraph. I’m simply saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed this. Have you?”

And by the way, I still read Michael Crichton on occasion, and enjoy his stories.


Still At It

I just thought I’d tell everyone that I’m still at it. I sent off something like six queries today, so I’ve got my fingers crossed about that. Pipeline is still going great, too. I have to keep a notebook on the desk in front of me with a pen handy because I’m getting ideas as I write, and if I don’t stop to jot them down they get away from me. Again, it’s a process that seems to be perpetuating itself, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

On another note, I was talking to my cousin who writes about Pipeline this past Saturday night and he told me that he’s writing a short story about a guy involved in the meth trade. And on Thanksgiving day, another cousin talked to me about doing a book called Rural Empires concerning two families in the drug trades, one that mainly markets meth and the other marijuana. I’ve actually invented the meth family and included them in Pipeline as my character’s way of moving up toward the cartel. I’ve always enjoyed it when things intersect between books, so it’s hard to resist doing it myself when I get the chance. Even if one of those worlds hasn’t really been created yet. I bring these coincidences up, though, because of another coincidence: an article in the latest Writer’s Digest on just this phenomenon of shared ideas coming up at the same time. I guess because of the violence in Mexico and the increasing problem meth seems to represent, it’s only natural that people would get similar ideas, especially in an area like this where lots of the stuff gets moved around and used. Or so I understand.

Other than that, not a lot is going on. Oh, I’ve decided that I want to enter the “Crosstown Traffic” short story (you can read it on this site if you haven’t already) in the annual Writer’s Digest competition. Grand prize is $3,000 and a trip to New York at their annual conference, along with you material shown to four different publishing people (agents and/or editors). I figure I might as well. What do I have to lose besides the entry fee?

I hope things are going good for the other writers out there.



How Do You Write?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I write. I don’t mean my language or any of that. I guess to be more specific I need to say I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how I plan my writing.

There are lots of ways to write a novel. I just read an interview with David Morrell (author of First Blood) and Ken Follet (author of The Pillars of the Earth) in the most recent issue of Writer’s Digest and it was very interesting. I’ve read some of Mr. Morrell’s novels (I highly recommend Creepers. He barely gives you a chance to catch your breath), and I have The Pillars of the Earth in my to-be-read stack. Besides the fact that these are two very interesting writers, one of the neat things about the interview was that Mr. Morrell writes pretty much from the seat of his pants while Mr. Follet spends six months to a year outlining his works. He even outlines backwards to be sure everything connects like he wants it. He said his outlines are usually about 50 typed pages.

When Mr. Follet related this, Mr. Morrell said, “Wow.”

That’s kinda what I thought, too.

In the past, I’ve always been one who writes by the seat of my pants. I usually come up with a beginning, and the beginning almost always suggests an ending. And, sometimes, I’ll always have at least one or two pivotal scenes in mind. I let my subconscious stew and boil until I just can’t stand it anymore and then I start writing. The hard parts of this process are gauging when it’s time to actually start writing and how far you’ll get when you do. I have an old fantasy novel in which I stalled out on page 198. Not a happy circumstance.

Needless to say, this can be a little frustrating. So, at the suggestion of a friend, I tried outlining my sf novel utilizing a loose adaptation of The Marshall Plan. This plan was devised by agent and mystery novelist Evan Marshall. I’m not going into all its details (if you’re interested, get a copy of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing from Writer’s Digest Books), but suffice it to say that the plan works all the detail in so that, by the time you finish, writing is the easy part because everything is already planned out. You just utilize your section sheets and your scene-by-scene outline and write the thing.

I can see some of the advantages of this. The biggest one, to me, is that it allows you to map out the idea and see if you can make it work instead of stalling out at page 198 like I did. You have everything laid out, and that gives you a road map that will take you all the way to the end of your novel.

My sf novel has six POV characters, so I decided to try The Marshall Plan and lay it out. The idea was that I could spend some time planning the thing out and not invest a lot of time to it and have it die in the middle. And, since this would be my first attempt at a story that was more epic in scope than normal, I thought it would be a good way to avoid stepping on my own toes.

Right now, I’m stalled out at page 189.

Things that make you go “Hmm.”

So what’s the problem? Well, I was talking about it with my daughter last night and I have a theory: I stuck too closely to the outline. I’m the kind of writer who writes from inspiration, and I suffocated that by sticking strictly to the outline. I like the idea of having the hard work (plotting the story) done before I start writing. I don’t like stifling my creativity by sticking to the outline to the letter.

I need to find a happy medium there. Because, like I told my daughter, it’s like using an atlas to drive somewhere you’ve never been. I can start from where I live and drive to, say, LA and just trust that I’ll get there and then maybe get lost somewhere in New Mexico or Arizona. Or, I can buy an atlas and plan a route that way. The good thing about having the map is, if I get to Arizona and see a sign beside the interstate that points to some kind of interesting attraction, I can revise my travel route around that. Take a side trip, go see the attraction, then resume the trip, still heading safely for LA.

To translate that to writing, I can still outline my novels scene-by-scene, but I will also allow myself to rework that outline if—no when inspiration strikes. Finish writing the piece of inspiration and then adapt the outline to fit the new development. Maybe not the easiest way to write, but I’m gonna try it to see if it’ll work.

I need to retain some freedom. My daughter said the way she likes to write is that she takes off on the trip, not even sure where’s she’s going. She just has some characters with her and some ideas of where she might stop along the way, but there are no guarantees (did I get that about right, Jesi? Hope so). I can understand the appeal there. I’ve read other authors who talk about writing this way and how it keeps the writing fresh because the author is discovering the surprises just as the reader is. I know that I had that experience with my urban fantasy, and it was so exciting that I wrote it in about three months. Not too bad considering it originally come out around 114,000 words.

One of the tricks I’ve discovered when writing this way is that you stop your daily writing before you write everything in your head. That way, the next day, you can start with an idea of where you’re going and, once the inspiration hits you can keep going. And I was gratified to read that other authors do that as well (it’s neat when you actually discover one of these techniques for yourself).

All of this has me curious: how do you do it? Since I’m trying to devise a new model for myself, any comments and suggestions would be appreciated. And let me know what you’ve experienced if you’ve experimented with different ways of doing it. Put in the pros and cons, too. This could start an interesting discussion (I hope).