How to Write a Story

One of the most basic and common questions a writer gets is ‛how do you come up with ideas’ or ‛how do you write a story,’ both of which are almost koan-like in their complex simplicity. While some folks see margin in making the writing process extremely complicated and filled with jargon and mystery, it really isn’t that hard. In fact, I’m going to show you how to write a story right now. If you’ve never written a story ever, this is for you.

One disclaimer: The story you write may not be a good story. And finishing it is up to you. But using this incredible secret, anyone—literally anyone—can write a story. Here goes.

Step 1: Imagine a Scenario

Start with any sort of scenario. It could be a Half-Dog, Half-Man Warrior in the depths of space trapped on a spaceship rapidly leaking oxygen, or it could be an old man weeding his garden on the last morning of his life. Or anything, really. Just imagine a scene. Crib something from your own life if you can’t drum up something purely imaginary.

Step 2: Imagine Something Unexpected

Next, ask yourself what the people in your scenario expect to happen. The Half-Dog Warrior might expect to die. The old man might expect to have breakfast in a few minutes, once he’s done with his gardening. Then, make something else happen. Something unexpected. The Half-Dog Warrior suddenly picks up a distress call. The old man sees Death, a corporeal hooded figure, lounging in a lawn chair across the street, waving.

Now, imagine how the character reacts to something unexpected. There’s your story.

Step 3: End the Damn Thing

Ending it can be hard, but only if you insist on a clever, or mind-blowing ending. If you decide you just need to end it, it’s easy. Do that. Clever or mind-blowing tends to happen when you’re not looking, so by pursuing endings of any kind you’ll wind up with finished stories, some portion of which will be brilliant in their endings.

The Half-Dog Warrior breaths his last bit of air as the young puppy he rescued speeds off in the ersatz escape pod he fashioned. The old man invites Death in for tea, and Death, startled, decides to spare him. Whatever. The Warrior flies into a star just to see what it’s like, or crosses the Event Horizon of a Black Hole to experience eternity in a moment. The Old Man sets his house on fire in his last excruciating moments, out of simple bitter rage. Whatever.

See? Stories are easy. The hard part is actually writing them down.


Luck Denial

One of my goals when putting Writing Without Rules together was to get past the idea that you needed to be an expert, a guru in order to write and publish a book. The whole premise is that if you spend any amount of time talking to me, you start to get the creeping feeling that this guy doesn’t know anything about anything, he’s just making shit up and then you realize that if I can publish all these books, for money, so can you!

So, success at writing doesn’t require expertise in a dozen different skill sets, it only requires one—the actual writing part. It also requires hard work, of course; saying that I’m an absent-minded guy who doesn’t understand business or social media isn’t meant to imply that I’m lazy. And there’s a third aspect to writing and publishing success (and success in general) that people don’t like to discuss: Luck.

90% of Success is Just Showing Up

Luck and its twisted cousin, privilege, make people uncomfortable. People think that if you point out their luck, their privilege, you’re taking away from their accomplishments. The fact is, luck is always a factor. Whether it’s the privilege you were born into or happening to be in the right place at the right time, selling novels and getting a writing career off the ground requires luck. It’s just that simple.

But luck just gets you in the room. It doesn’t actually write the novels or the articles. Being lucky—and acknowledging that luck—doesn’t mean your work isn’t great. They are separate considerations.

I’ve been lucky in my career. Plenty lucky. I’ve also worked my ass off. The former does not erase the latter, but neither does it work the other way around—no matter how hard I work, the fact is that luck has played a role in my career, as it has in most careers. I’m okay with that, and I’m also okay with efforts to spread the luck around more evenly. Success isn’t finite. The fact that some groups that have been underrepresented in publishing for decades—centuries—are finally getting more attention, more deals, more support doesn’t mean that my own career suffers. As long as I’m writing good stuff, I’ll get it published. With a little luck.

The bottom line is: Anyone who pretends that luck has never helped them to success is lying to you, or to themselves.

Surviving BookCon 2018

One of the hardest lessons for any author is that getting a book published is only half the job. Or one-fourth of the job—you have to write the damn thing first, and then revise and perfect it, and then get it published. And once you’ve got it out there, you have to promote it.

Different writers will approach promotion differently. You might concentrate on social media, or you might make videos, or you might go to cons and other events in order to meet real, live people and try to hand-sell them some books. I’ve done cons before—ComicCon and the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, for two—and this month I found myself at Book Expo America and BookCon at the Javits Center in New York City. My publisher, Writer’s Digest Books, asked me to stop in and do some book signings, and it reminded me of a few book promotion lessons I’ve learned at these things.

Be Prepared

Be prepared for two things at these sorts of events: One, the sheer scale of it—there will be a lot of people, most of whom have no idea who you are. Two, the psychology of it. Unless you’re super famous, chances are no one will have heard of you, and you have to be ready for the vaguely interested looks and the blunt questions about why anyone should care about your book.

Be Active

If you’re not famous, don’t assume people will just be drawn to your booth by the sheer animal magnetism of your talent, charm, and fashion sense. Get crowd wranglers out there—people who will walk around with your book and go up to folks and say “Hey, want a free signed copy? This guy’s awesome and he’s right over there!” No need to get fancy about this—trickery, like having folks pretend to be just plain old fans, won’t work. But wrangling the crowd is the difference between sitting alone, silently crying, and having a robust line of people.

Have Fun

Probably the most-forgotten bit of advice is to always have fun when promoting your book. Enjoying what you’re doing will make other people enjoy it as well—and the opposite applies, believe me. If you force yourself to deal with crowds despite wanting to vomit at the thought of it, that flopsweat is going to be obvious to everyone and they will run away. Stick to whatever it is you enjoy. Me, while meeting 200 people in half an hour is a bit stressful I do kind of enjoy bantering with people. I like the folks who challenge me—they walk up and say, why should I read this? Or, what’s your favorite part of the book? I like the glint in their eye as they challenge me to prove to them that it’s worthwhile.

But not everyone enjoys that. If you don’t, don’t force it.

Have Merch

It’s a basic thing, but it’s essential: Have bookmarks, or business cards, or candy, or something to give people with your name and website on it. Like I said, a great majority of these people don’t know you and are only barely interested. Slipping a bookmark into the book you just signed could be the difference between them forgetting all about you and remembering something you said a month later when they’re in their local bookstore.

Also: Be prepared for awkward conversations. There will be many of them.

BookCon was a blast. We gave away ~200 copies of Writing Without Rules, I met a bunch of cool people, saw some old friends, and got to meet people from my publisher I’d only emailed with before. Plus the sheer scale of the event and the energy in the air was incredible. And I managed to keep my pants on the whole time, which surprised more than one person, let me tell you.

When Description becomes a Delaying Tactic

WE’VE all probably read at least one of those lengthy old classic novels where the author spends copious amounts of verbiage describing things—endless rafts of detail. You read something like Swann’s Way, for example, where the intense detail-drenched description is part of the whole point, and you think, well, why not me?

Every young writer goes through a phase of insane, intense wordiness; it’s part of either trying on different writing personas like hats or simply experimenting with different approaches. I know that even in my dotage when I read an exciting new writer I often find myself mimicking their style and stealing their tricks. Eventually it all gets sanded down into your style (hopefully), the individual bits lost.

Except sometimes things become bad habits. Like excessive description; if it’s part of your style, if it’s purposeful, that’s fine. Just be careful that you’re not spending 10,000 words describing how the room smells because you’re not sure how to move forward.

Spin Those Wheels

We all have tricks that we use when we get stuck. Whether you’re a Pantser who gets caught without any clue how to get your character out of the locked room you’ve put them in, or a Plotter who has suddenly realized that your genius plot twist in Chapter 23 makes zero sense, we all get stuck and hit a wall from time to time. And sometimes that means you have a choice: You can just stop dead while your underbrain works it all out, or you can just keep writing nonsense in the hope that the physical act of pouring words onto the page will shake something loose.

And this can work, it’s true. Sometimes when you get stuck, just going ham on describing everything in minute detail can get you moving. You just keep disgorging words until something shakes loose.

But you have to do this thoughtfully. Don’t get confused and think that this sort of mindless automatic writing is good—it might be, but don’t assume it is. Sometimes excessive description is just a way of filling up pages and keeping your fingers moving. Useful, sure, but not necessarily something you’re going to keep. Knowing when you’re just treading water like that is powerful. It means you’re completely in control of your writing.

Of course, maybe you are the sort of writer who spends 10,000 words on how the room smells. That’s fine, too. As long as it’s purposeful, as long as it’s intentional and wielded skillfully, it can work. You just need to be in control of it.

When I’m stuck I don’t dive into description, though. I usually just open a new bottle of Scotch and see what happens. Works every time.

Writing Without Rules Launch

We had the launch event for Writing Without Rules last night, at the totally awesome Little City Books in Hoboken, New Jersey last night, and it was awesome! Beer, wine, and whiskey, Jeff sweating profusely in front of a crowd, The Duchess taking charge and orchestrating everything, my agent gently mocking me from the front row — what could be better?

If you missed it, here is a video documentary of the even by the incredible Bruce Meier of uhmm Ltd.

The Marathon: Book Promotion

As I write this I’ve been pushing Writing Without Rules in one sense or another for about 2 years. Promoting a book can be exhausting, and slightly humiliating; when every other tweet or post is essentially “HEY BUY MY BOOK” you start to feel a bit like a charlatan. But the grim truth is, if you don’t remind folks about your work, they might forget you. If you don’t mention your books often, you might miss any number of serendipitous moments when someone passing through your social media might see a cover, or a quote, or a snip of a review and decide to check it out.

But it is exhausting. And it can wear you down because so much of it seems to be useless. The trick to promoting a book, friends, is simple: Don’t think about it.

Set It and Forget It

So much of life, I’ve come to realize, lies in being able to keep your thoughts off of something. Your own impending death, certainly. The cycle of horror that is the New York Mets season. And your spastic, unhappy book promotion efforts.

The trick to it is, set things up and then forget them. I set up tweets about my books every week, and then I forget all about them. I don’t check to see if they get any response. I’ve got a half dozen appearances set up to promote Writing Without Rules, and I am not thinking about any of them at all when I’m not preparing materials or getting the logistics worked out. If I allowed myself to think about these events and tweets and contests and giveaways and started comparing them to bumps in sales, I’d be pretty depressed. Because the simple truth about book promotion is that most of it doesn’t actually accomplish much.

It’s like those 419 scams where you get an email informing you of millions of dollars in a bank, and the corrupt government official needs the help of some American citizen to get it out. Sure, 99.9% of the people who get those emails are gonna laugh and ignore it. But they just need that 0.01% to make the scheme profitable. So it is with your book promotion efforts: 99.9% of people will just ignore you, but if you do enough of it, that 0.01% that don’t ignore you can make all the difference.

Doesn’t make it any less humiliating, of course. Just remember, every day that you don’t buy one of my books, you’re ruining my life.

Zine Training

I’ve talked before about putting out a zine; I published The Inner Swine for nearly 20 years, 100,000 words a year broken into four annual issues (until the last few years, when exhaustion got the better of me). The zine was always a way of getting my thoughts and fiction into print when no one wanted to actually pay me to do so, and it was a lot of fun. It was also the best training I could have put myself through.

Blogging Before Blogging

The first issue of The Inner Swine came out in 1995. The Internet existed, of course, but it wasn’t what it is today—it was new and primitive and no one was really sure how it was all going to shake out. Twenty years before I started getting paid to write 500-word blog posts, I was coming up with short, pithy articles for my zine on a wide variety of subjects (many of which I was 100% completely unqualified to write about; circa-2000 Jeff certainly thought he was smart enough to expound on any subject or point of view, no matter how distant he was from it in reality).

By the time I launched a freelance writing career, I’d already trained myself to come up with pitches and article ideas, then develop those ideas into short articles. Without realizing it, my zine prepared me for my future career as a professional writer.

Rules Before Rules

More importantly, I think, Writing Without Rules is kind of like a very special issue of my zine. It’s structure pretty much the same way and uses a similar writing style; every issue of The Inner Swine used to be centered on a specific theme, and I even did one or two writing-themed issues. In a lot of ways, WWR is a super-sized issue of The Inner Swine if it had a writing theme in the 21st century.

All of this is to say that no writing is truly valueless. Even if you’re not getting paid, or you have a small audience, every word you thoughtfully put down on the page or screen pays a small dividend, even if only in the sense of training yourself to write more effectively, efficiently, and energetically. When I got into a groove putting out four issues of a zine every year in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, I had no idea I’d someday publish a book on writing. But nevertheless, The Inner Swine trained me to be able to do so.

It also trained me to be unaffected by negative criticism, because man that zine got some hate mail.


The Aftermath

Writing novels ain’t easy. Heck, writing short stories ain’t easy. Well, in some senses it’s easy; sometimes having an idea is the easiest thing in the world, and even whole sections can fly off your fingers so fast and perfect it seems like you should be able to write, like, a dozen novels a month. Maybe more.

Ah, but then—as every writer knows—comes the doldrums, those slow times when not only can’t you seem to get the words right, you also can’t seem to even have an idea. Everything feels leaden and dead and the idea that you might ever write a complete story again seems depressingly ludicrous.

For those moments, I recommend drinking heavily. Actually, drinking heavily is my go-to medicine for just about any writing-related, but especially those horrible moments when it seems like your Muse has abandoned you.

There’s another horrifying moment for writers, one that gets a lot less attention than the big bad Writer’s Block. It’s the sudden downturn in energy and productivity that sometimes follows completing a major project—The Aftermath of a novel can be brutal. I should know, I didn’t just complete one novel, I completed two, as well as a short story. And I crashed hard.

The Come Down

I wrote several novels over the last 2 years—four of them, to be exact. Two weren’t quite great (and one of those I managed to pare down to a short story that contains the essentials, leading me to believe that I was way over-padding that premise). But two are very good, in my not-so objective opinion. I worked on them concurrently for the last few months, jumping back and forth between them. And when I finished them, very close to each other, I was very happy with the results.

Since then I’ve been … well, struggling’s not the right word. It’s been slow, though. I don’t have a big project in mind, and the smaller pieces I’m working on aren’t exactly pouring out of me.

I’ll get there, I always do. And that’s what’s necessary in these moments: Faith in yourself, in your own idea machine. You have to remind yourself that the tens of millions of words you’ve written over the course of your life (or the thousands, or the hundreds) all came after periods of struggle. It happens, it’s not a big deal, and it will pass.

Aside from, you guessed it, drinking heavily, my antidote to this crash is to work on as many short projects as possible. Short stories can get a lot of half-baked ideas out of your head—some of which might become fully-baked with a little time and effort—and keep your fingers moving until your lizard brain shrugs off the malaise and gets cranking again. When that happens, you want to be ready. Although the drinking never hurts either.

Decentralizing a Novel

Writing is a glorious creative adventure wherein your imagination is free to roam infinite universes, but it’s also a craft and a skill. As the latter, sometimes it can get a bit … well, boring‘s not the right word. Familiar, maybe? The first time you pull off some literary trick it’s exciting. When you’ve written 600 short stories and twenty-five novels, some of your own bag of tricks get a little been-there, if you know what I mean.

Shaking things up is necessary from time to time. Working in a new, unfamiliar genre, or changing up your process can be remedies to a certain malaise that can set in. I’ve always been mystified by writers who act like their process is somehow an unchangeable fact of the universe, as if changing the schedule and mechanics of their writing will somehow result in disaster. I myself get into deep, comfy ruts when it comes to schedule and mechanics, but I also try to occasionally challenge myself and get out of that comfort zone—like writing a novel as a series of novellas, for example. Recently, I find myself contemplating a decentralized style of writing a novel.

Literally Linear

I’m usually a pretty linear writer; even when my story jumps around in time or is otherwise complex, I start at the beginning of my story and proceed A—Z from there in the order that I conceive of the story. That’s how my brain works, so that’s how I write.

I have an idea for a novel right now that’s going to involve a frame story of sorts and then some individual episodes. Normally, as I said, I would start at the beginning and just go forward from there, but this time, for whatever reason, I want to try something different, so I’m going to just randomly write sections of the book until I’m done. Instead of starting with what would be Chapter 1 and moving forward linearly, I’m going to maybe start by writing Chapter 14, then Chapter 20, and so on.

Why? Why not? But mainly I want to keep things fresh and try something new. There’s such low stakes with little tricks like this, there’s almost zero reason not to try things once in a while in an effort to shake up your own complacency. Worst case scenario? I give up and restart with a more traditional approach to process. Or maybe I go insane and start wandering the neighborhood in a robe, muttering to myself … more often.

Gettin’ Fancy

When I was in college, I once wrote a short story entirely in crayon. This was most likely because I was bored, but there was a story reason for the choice that I can’t recall (just as I can’t recall what the story itself was about, and I lack sufficient energy and motivation to dig it out of my files to find out), some sort of color theme. It’s one of the few times in my career I’ve tried to play around with the presentation of a story as opposed to relying on the words themselves to carry whatever message I’m trying to convey. Although I do have certain private peccadillos (only writing short stories in longhand, only using a blue pen) when it comes to publishing my work I don’t like to rely on font or design choices to carry anything, because those can be lost or misinterpreted. When the superadvanced roach species that rules this planet in the future finds my work (and they will), I don’t want half the point lost because they don’t have Comic Sans loaded on their futuristic devices.

It’s Not a Rule, Though

I’m currently reading a novel that does rely on a lot of design work and special fonts, and it’s not working for me. For one thing, the special fonts are distracting; one is meant to resemble handwriting, but the perfect repetition of the letter forms betrays it and spikes me out of the narrative. For another, the special, heavily-designed sections meant to resemble specific modes of writing, time periods, and other aspects of the story are just kind of useless.

Your mileage may vary, of course; anything can be pulled off in a novel or story, it just requires that you have the talent and vision to do so. For example, I love House of Leaves despite (or perhaps because of) it’s use of font shenanigans and specific design choices. And would I love Carroll’s The Mouse’s Tail—which I named my blog after!—if it wasn’t so meticulously laid out?

Still, for myself, I’m a purist. I’d like to think I can convey anything I need to simply through my control of the language. And I kind of feel like that’s definitely where you should start, even if you do end up utilizing some font shenanigans or other design wankery to get a certain effect. All of your work should be design-indifferent, utlimately, in my opinion, with the frills added on later. I stick with italics for anything that’s not part of the main narrative, and if you’re confused after reading one of my stories, then it’s not the fault of the design or the font choices, but rather of my writing.

But then, what do I know? Depends who you ask. The Duchess will tell you I have some knowledge of housekeeping, but not much else. And she will go on at length on this subject, too, so clear some time.