The Long and Winding Road

In a few weeks I’ll finish revising the second novel I’ve completed in 2018 (technically they were both completed in 2017 in terms of first drafts, and now they’re both hitting a “presentable” polished stage, meaning I can inflict them on my long-suffering agent). This isn’t unusual for me; since 1988 or so I’ve completed 44 novels, and it’s not at all strange for me to finish 2-3 in a calendar year. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re good novels; of those 44, after all, I’ve published 10 (one self-published), and at the moment there’s only 3 unpublished novels that have any chance of seeing the light of day (and that number includes the 2 I’m discussing here).

That’s me, that’s my process. I’m a write-it-all-and-figure-it-out-later kind of guy. I draft quickly, pants my way through plot, and as a result I have a high failure rate in terms of having top-notch material ready for my agent. I’m okay with that, because it’s just naturally how I work. By the time I figure out that a novel’s not working out I’m 80% of the way through it and my compulsive need to finish things kicks in.

The two novels I’m finishing up right now are really good, I think. And they’re interesting because they were both born, originally, as short stories written in 1992. Which, if you’re keeping score at home, was 26 fucking years ago.

I am old.

The Glorious Year of Glad

So, 26 years ago I wrote a story called The Hollow Men and a story called The Only Time. One was sci-fi, and one was sort of a dark thriller that wasn’t speculative but felt speculative, is the best way I can describe it.

I never sold either story as a short, but they lingered with me. The Only Time I tried to work into a novel in 1999, and to be honest I really liked that book at the time. A few years ago I was thinking about my journey with The Electric Church (which was originally written in 1993, then revised in 2004 into the version that sold to Orbit Books), so I dusted off that 1999 draft of The Only Time to see if similar magic might be done, but I wasn’t too happy with it in the cold light of middle age, so I started re-working it entirely in 2016, combining it with another concept. I finished that draft in 2017 and, frankly, hated it. The mixture of concepts didn’t work, and the earlier chapters had a different tone and feel because they hued closer to the earlier draft.

The Hollow Men just sat on my hard drive for decades. I always liked the core story, but even shortly after finishing it I realized it was juvenelia—one of those stories you write as a kid because you think it’s “cool” and “edgy” when it’s really just pointlessly nihilistic. But the basic concept stayed with me, and I finally decided in 2015 to try to expand the story into a novel. 60,000 words later, I had a hot stinking mess of a story. There was some great stuff in it, but one of the big reveals in the latter part of the plot turned out a bit more ridiculous than I’d expected.

I worked on it again in 2016, changing the big reveal to something more speculative and out-there. This didn’t work either.

Finally, I started revising again last year. The book had bloated up a bit, so I started cutting out unnecessary stuff, shifted a few parts around, and removed all explicit references to the speculative aspect while leaving it in invisibly—in other words, I know what’s behind everything, but it’s no longer stated in the story, and that works so much better y’all.

So: I wrote two shorts stories in 1992. In 2018, I’m finishing up novel-length versions of each and you would be hard-pressed to see the connections between them. The novels are so different from those original stories you’d never guess in a million years th related in any way.

And that’s writing, sometimes. The evolution of ideas is harsh. You cut ruthlessly. You sand and hone endlessly. Details erode away to reveal new details. Characters and entire subplots get deleted, shifted around, rendered invisible. And sometimes it take more than a quarter-century to take an idea and make it into a book.


What Does Writing Look Like

Whenever you go looking for writing advice, you’ll hear the phrase butt in chair a lot. Basically it’s an admonition/reminder that you can’t write a novel or a story if you don’t, you know, write. So you have to actually sit down with your butt in a chair and type or scribble, or nothing gets done.

This is true, and it’s decent advice as far as things go. But there’s another aspect or dimension to any writing advice. You have to ask yourself, what does “writing” look like?

It Looks Like a Lot of Work, is What It Looks Like

Because writing isn’t just tapping at a keyboard.

Now, I’ve literally written every single day of my life since I was about twelve years old. That’s a lot of days, and a lot of writing (though I should note that many, many writers started writing as kids and have written every day since, so this doesn’t make me special), and most of that involved typing or writing longhand to some degree. But there are other things that may not look like writing but which definitely are writing. For example:

  • Thinking. Thinking is writing, so sitting in a comfortable chair staring into space counts. As long as you’re actually thinking and not just daydreaming about shaving your cats and dressing them in tiny suits.
  • Reading. Everyone tells you to read widely in order to become a better writer, so reading counts. So does watching and listening, as long as you take some time at some point to process the things you consume and consider what they can teach you.
  • Talking. Talking about your work—or someone else’s work—is also writing. The concepts you are exposed to in conversation about the craft or business of writing are just as vital as anything else.
  • Revision. This might seem obvious, but some writers consider revision to be treading water—you’re not creating anything new, so it’s just busywork. But revision is often just as creative as a first draft.
  • Drinking. Just kidding. Or am I? Deranging your thoughts and experiencing a chemically-altered perspective can be part of the creative process. Or so I tell myself at 3AM when one more shot of whiskey seems like a terrible, awesome idea.

Writing int his context is sort of like expenses that you claim on your taxes: Just about anything can count. If it somehow, in some way, worms its way into your creative process at some point it counts as writing.

So “butt in chair” and similar advice doesn’t have to be taken literally. As long as you’re working on your writing in some sense, you’re doing the work, even if you didn’t type anything.

Now I have to go pitch a book about why Day Drinking is a great way to write a novel.

Build a Privacy Screen

I’ve often discussed the fact that I’m pretty much the worst judge of my own material, as well as the most clueless person in the room when it comes to my own career. The books I thought would sell usually haven’t, and many of the ideas I thought were nuts when I first heard them have turned out to be the most lucrative decisions I ever made.

In other words, I’m a moron. The only reason for you to take my writing and career advice seriously that I can come up with is the fact that I’ve made every mistake, so you can definitely learn from my general drunken incompetence.

This also means that there’s always a disconnect between the work I’m doing and my feelings towards it and the work that has sold or hasn’t sold. For example, sometimes when working on a new novel I start thinking about whether it can sell—whether a publisher will like it and pay me money for it, and whether it actually appeals to readers assuming that happens. It’s tempting to start comparing it to older books that succeeded or failed, and before long you’re in your own head and the work suffers.

You have to build a Privacy Screen.

Or a Wall

What I mean by that is that you have to disconnect your creative work from your business. While there may be writers in the world who can combine their sense of the market with their creative endeavors (outlining and writing novels based on their sense of what will sell), it’s usually a losing proposition, at least for me. If it works for you, that’s great. It never works for me, and thinking about sales and publishers and contracts while I’m writing usually leads to a lot of dubious decisions in terms of plot, character, and literally everything else that goes into a book.

Instead, when I’m writing a new story, I don’t think about anything except the story part. Years later, after that story has sat for a while and browned up, been revised and had the dark edges trimmed off, that’s when I will tentatively wonder if it has any legs in an economic sense. The best part is, I grow disconnected from my own work over time. A few years after finishing something, it’s like someone else, a stranger, wrote it, so I can usually judge pretty fairly whether something has a chance or not.

Personally, I think this separation is necessary. If I start thinking about a story’s saleability while I’m still writing it, it’s just so easy to talk myself out of what I’m doing out of insecurity and panic.

The cure is obvious, though: Every time I start to think about selling a story while I’m still writing it, I drink until I black out. Usually when I wake up, the story is miraculously finished!

Publish or Perish

Different writers take different approaches to their careers. There’s no wrong way to pursue your literary goals—some folks want bestsellers and big advances, some folks want more control over their own writing, some folks want to self-publish and some folks want to publish small, smart books. Some folks want to stick with short stories, some people want to spend decades working on a single, epic novel.

You do you. Personally, the only thing I don’t understand about other writers are people who don’t try to basically publish everything they’ve written that’s any good at all.

Paper the World

Me, I basically plan to publish everything I’ve ever completed, even the stuff that is pretty terrible, even the obvious juvenelia. I’ll put out a self-pub book that’s 5,000 pages long called SOMERS SUCK and it will just be all the awful stories I wrote plus several awful novels, plus all that poetry I wrote when I was in my tortured 20s. The world may never recover.

I’m only slightly kidding. I firmly believe that writing—or any creative endeavor—should ultimately lead to getting your work read or viewed or listened to by as large an audience as possible. I believe that if you wait for your work to be polished and perfect enough you will wait forever, for the simple reason that everything I wrote five years ago seems awful to me today, but that is a moving target. The stuff I’m writing today will seem awful five years from now. So judging your own work is a loser’s game—just get it out there and let the world judge you.

So, I submit most of the short stories I write. I have inflicted some mediocre novels on my agent. All in the hopes that maybe I’m wrong about how mediocre they are—after all, we’re the worst judges of our own work, as you may have noticed.

Oh, sure, there are some things that even I know are too terrible to submit. Slowly, short stories I once liked drop off the submission list as I rack up rejections and slowly realize they weren’t very good to begin with. And novels get retired too—although sometimes resurrected if I happen to see an opportunity. But I more or less intend to publish everything, and I put a lot of constant effort into that goal. I’ll likely never achieve it, but I think it’s useful as a career motivator.

Also, I’d love it if people in the future started wearing T-shirts that read SOMERS SUCK. Actually, that would be cool right now.

Avoid “By the Way” Writing

I’m currently reading a novel that’s pretty well done in many ways, but the author has one terrible habit that really annoys the crap out of me: By the Way Writing.

BTW Writing is when you shoehorn facts into the prose when information suddenly becomes necessary for the reader to know. It’s a form of exposition that gives exposition a bad name. Here’s a made-up example:

Jim turned the corner and stopped dead, uncertain if he should keep going or turn back. Up ahead was his old friend Tanner, who would almost certainly demand money, probably framed as a mysterious debt suddenly remembered and now long over due (Jim hated to loan money because of his deadbeat father, who had steadily drained the family bank accounts with constant small loans begged from his mother).

The BTW part is that last sentence; BTW Writing almost always occurs at the end of a paragraph or longer section within one, and often though not always within parentheses. It’s a clunker of an expo drop, and I call it “By the Way” due to the awkward way it’s just shoved in there, because the writer suddenly remembered that they hadn’t communicated that information before. Realizing it was important for context or character development, they just toss it in. It’s literally like saying “By the way, this is why he’s like that.”

Ban the BTW

This is shitty writing for many reasons, but it’s fairly common to see it creep into your first drafts because often when you’re working on a story you do suddenly realize you either forgot to include a detail earlier, or you suddenly realize there’s a detail to include in the first place. I do a lot of first-draft BTW writing myself. It’s often easier to just drop a loaded parens into your paragraph than it is to stop dead and search back to find the right place to bring it up earlier.

The key though is to go back and fix that. Find your BTW bombs and defuse them, sprinkling that information earlier in the draft in a more elegant way.

Like a lot of bad writing habits, this one can be subtle and tough to spot. Sometimes reading your work out loud can help, because BTW lines tend to stop the flow like a truck crashing into a building, and you can feel that when you read it out loud, because you literally have to stop and shift mental gears when you hit one.

By the way, there should be a joke here at the end, but I can’t think of one.

The Curse of Experience

The first time I wrote a story, I was probably eight or nine years old. It was a school assignment that, bizarrely, involved bookbinding; our assignment was to write a story, lay out signatures, create hardback covers, and bind it all into a book by hand. I have no idea why someone thought this was a useful skill for kids in Jersey City, New Jersey to have—but it was fun. I wrote a story about how the planet Earth was created by aliens who had this huge pill, like a Tylenol rapid-release capsule, they launched into space.

What I remember from my early days of writing was the sense of limitless possibility. Every book I read offered something I could steal and try out for myself. Every idea I had seemed incredibly new and original (spoiler: they weren’t, but they felt that way). Every time I sat down to work on an idea, I had this rush of exploratory joy—I was venturing into fresh snow every single time, and it was mine to mark up and shape.

These days? Much of that thrill is gone. And that’s something all creators have to deal with.

Three Chords and a Beat

I wasn’t really aware of this curse of experience until I began learning how to play guitar a few years back. I’d always wanted to play, and finally learning how was a lot of fun—and in those early days when every new chord or bit of music theory knowledge was a revelation, I felt like every song I put together was a major creative breakthrough. Looking back, those songs are terrible—but at the time I had that sense of excitement that I once had with writing. It made me realize how I’d lost some of that in recent years with my writing work.

Don’t get me wrong—I still feel vital and creative. I still get excited about writing something new and I still push myself to experiment and try new techniques. But the excitement is tempered by the knowledge that what I produce probably isn’t going to be a world-shattering new idea. I’ve been at this too long. I know my own limitations too well, and I am much more familiar with the body of work produced over the centuries, so I can no longer fool myself that I’m doing anything seismically new.

That’s the curse of experience: The knowledge that you’re not as smart as you once thought you were.

Still, we beat on. Knowing your limitations doesn’t mean you don’t still have a fire in the belly for creating something awesome. It just means you don’t fool yourself quite so much. There’s a sadness in that, but also power. It’s like my knowledge of the capabilities of my liver: Limiting, sure, but also kind of comforting to know where your line is.

Know When to Not Revise

There’s a persistent myth that your first effort on a manuscript will be terrible. That a good book or story requires dozens of revision cycles, endless routing through beta readers, and wordsmithing until it’s almost unrecognizable when compared to the first draft.

This is what scientists call horseshit.

Hole in One

Some stories require that kind of massive effort, it’s true. And some writers like to work like that, which is fine. But neither of those facts means that your story isn’t actually kind of great in its initial draft form. There’s a sort of understandable instinct to distrust things that seem too easy, and when you bang out 80,000 words in 3 months and actually love everything you did, it’s natural enough to feel like you must be missing something.

But, hey, it happens, so why not to you? In other words, don’t start tearing your first draft apart and jump into a heavy revision just because. Consider the possibility that your first draft is actually great, and maybe all you need is a polish?

Of course, I say this as a writer who tends to be very satisfied with my first drafts, or, you know, completely unsatisfied. In other words, I either like my first draft enough to polish it and do something with it, or I despise it and want to bury it in the back yard and never admit it existed. For me, personally, there’s nothing in-between.

But assuming your first draft is trash just … well, just because all first drafts must be trash? That’s crazy. In fact, I’d encourage the opposite: Assume your first draft is fire, and then try to find reasons why it isn’t. Because I firmly believe most first drafts are actually pretty good, and most revision is kind of unnecessary in the sense that it doesn’t actually improve things, just re-arranges them.

Of course, what do I know. I’m sitting here wearing a cardboard box as pants as I write this.

Three Simple Rules

As you all know, I’m not a complicated man. Give me a cat in my lap, a glass of scotch, and a keyboard and I’m more or less complete. Also, I have a tendency to reduce all of life’s questions to an extremely brief list of bullet points; I am comforted by limited choices, and so I boil everything down to insane levels of generality.

For example, my writing career philosophy (not to be confused with an artistic philosophy), which is essentially three nested rules:

  1. It’s better to finish stories than not.
  2. It’s better to be published than not.
  3. It’s better to be paid than not.

That’s it. Those are the guiding principles of my writing career.

Simple Rules for a Simpleton

Better to finish stories. I make this point a lot, but it bears repeating: You sell exactly zero of the stories and novels you don’t finish. Even if I’m not feeling 100% confident in a story’s success, I try to finish it. I can always revise a mediocre story later. I can’t do anything with a story that isn’t even a story yet.

Better to be published than not. I firmly believe that the only reason for writing, for creating, is to share your ideas and works and let people read them. Possibly to force people to read them, too, but that’s a whole other blog post involving the small private army I’m organizing. The point is, I intend to publish everything I write, someday. And so should you.

Better to be paid. You can’t always control market forces, and you can’t always get paid. But you should aspire to always be paid, because being paid for your work recognizes the value of it, being paid means your publishing partner values your work, and being paid means you might be able to write more.

Those are simple rules, but they make all the difference. Notice there’s a lot of wiggle room with each, though; I don’t see much value in being rigid. Sometimes you might not finish something for a good reason, sometimes you might be okay with not being paid. Guidelines instead of rules, maybe—but useful nonetheless.

On the other hand, my rules for alcohol are even simpler:

  1. Whiskey.

KISSing Up Action Scenes

I sometimes find action scenes a bit of a challenge, in part because I’ve written so many of them now it’s sometimes tough to find a new way of approaching them. No matter what genre you work in or style of writing you employ, there will always be aspects of storytelling that begin to feel a bit rote over time, and for me writing about people attacking each other, shooting at each other, and chasing each other has become so prevalent in my work I can sleepwalk through those sequences.

I hopefully don’t need to state that sleepwalking through your own writing process is never a good idea.

Keeping things fresh means trying new things, both in terms of choreography and technical approach. When writing an action scene I always work out the rough choreography first—nothing too detailed, and nothing formal or written down. I just like to start with two basics: Where is everyone in the beginning of the scene, and where do I want them to be at the end of it (the answer is usually 50% “dead,” btw)?

Then, once I have those basics in my brain, I keep it simple.


There’s always a temptation to make your action scenes kind of crazy, with a bit of the old ultraviolence and all that. The same temptation occurs in action films, and you can probably think of a few movies where the action is so frenetic and insane that your suspension of disbelief goes right out the window. That can happen in your writing, too; sure, your character might be a badass, but is she really capable of being shot three times and thrown out the window only to come racing back into the fray? Can anyone actually fight off fifteen people at once?

Sure, if you Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I like to steal a trick from action films to keep things streamlined: Space out your enemies. In the real world, if fifteen thugs come at you, they’re going to swarm you and the fight’s over in no time. In movies, you might notice that when the hero faces fifteen opponents they come at him one at a time while the others stand around tentatively, looking menacing but not, you know, actually attacking. Keeping things simple by dicing your action scene into smaller, easily manageable bits like that is one way to keep things clear in your own head, which will also keep things clear on the page.

Next, steal a trick from writers who know what they’re doing. Read some Elmore Leonard or Lee Child and see how they render action scenes: Briefly, with an economy of words to convey both the action and the way the hero triumphs. They don’t pour thousands of words describing the roundhouse kicks and the precise holds and martial arts moves employed. They use simple action verbs, keep things moving briskly, and trust your minds eye to fill in the rest. In other words, they keep it simple.

Of course, I’ve lost every fistfight I’ve ever been in. It’s one reason I’m a writer instead of a mercenary.

As You Know, Exposition is Tough

Elsewhere in this blog I’ve advised writers to avoid exposition entirely in first drafts—to write as if everyone was as familiar with your characters and setting as you are, then going back and filling exposition sparingly later. The idea being that you’ll more clearly see when exposition is necessary once you’ve told the story.

That advice still stands, but it doesn’t address how, exactly, to cram exposition into your story when you decide it’s necessary. You could write an entire book on the subject, but here’s one piece of pithy advice you can take or leave: Avoid as you know dialog.

As You Know, I’m an Idiot

As you know is a phrase that works to imply that what’s about to be said is common knowledge:

NPC: What time is it?

Main Character: As you know, I recently lost my watch. That’s a stabbing!

<stabs NPC>

It’s an idiot tag, though; if it’s common knowledge, why is the character saying it? Instead of camouflaging exposition, it actually lampshades the fact that your character is about to vomit up a few paragraphs of exposition. Nothing that follows as you know (or similar phrases) will sound natural in any way.

Worse, you don’t even need to actually use a phrase like as you know. Simply having your characters recite information purely for the benefit of the reader will sound artificial and stiff, no matter what else you do.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily tell you how to get necessary exposition into your story in a natural, subtle way. But sometimes the road to better writing is knowing what to stop doing. After you eliminate all the bad choices, after all, what’s left should be if not an ideal choice at least a better choice.

As you know, this is the end of the blog post.