The two rules of writing

I talk often with other writers.  I enjoy getting to share ideas with students, Wattpad stars, published writers…it’s just nice to spend time conversing with others about the craft that we love so much.

Lately, I’ve been talking with my good friend Emily Godhand.  She’s got an awesome paranormal thriller, Fear of the Dark and we talk writing…a lot.  Recently, she’s been bugging me to share my theory on how the many rules of how to write can be stated more simply.  So, blame her for this long, long post!

As writers we often look for advice from authors that we admire, and luckily there is no shortage of input from many of the greats.  John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonegut, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and so many others have given a collection of rules and advice on how to write.

Oftentimes, their advice is not really related to the art of writing.  Of Hugh Howey’s three rules, two of them are about self publishing.  Margaret Atwood wisely advises you to do back exercises.  Hemmingway agrees with Atwood on using pencils, but also says (not surprisingly) to keep things brief.  King says to never write with the television on.

But when they do talk about writing, their advice varies.  Jack Keroac’s list of 30 techniques and beliefs is more like a numbered poem.  Leonard says to never start a book with the weather.  Gaiman says to laugh at your own jokes.  If you put it all together, you’d have a very intimidating list of rules by which to write.  Heck, Stephen King actually has two rules about avoiding adverbs.

But I’m going to tell you a secret.

Here’s the real truth…when it comes down to the actual art and craft of writing, there are only TWO rules.

  1. Be Clear.
  2. Don’t Be Boring.

That’s it folks.  Two rules.

Now, here’s the thing…are there other rules that we need to pay attention to?  Perhaps things like grammar and rules of style?  Yup, there sure are.  But, and this is the key, every one of those other rules is actually a sub-rule under one of the Big Two.

Remember all those pesky rules on commas?  How about the i before e in spelling?  And don’t forget run on sentences and fragments.  All of these rules of grammar are focused on one thing…making sure that your writing is clear, that the reader can actually understand what you mean.

Following rule #1, Be Clear, is the first hurdle you have to overcome as a writer.  You have to remember that all those vital backstory clues actually have to be on the page instead of just in your brain.  If you are writing any kind of action, you have to make sure the reader knows where the characters are and can understand what is happening in the scene.

This is a big part of why we do re-writes, so we can look back and find those spots that aren’t really clear.  And your readers will really thank you for this.  Every error or muddled sentence is a stumbling block that takes your reader out of the story.  Don’t let that happen.  Rewrite and fix things.

But, here’s the bad news.  Rule #1 is the easy one, by far.

The real effort is in #2, Don’t Be Boring.  The problem with this one is that it covers so much ground.  If you thought all those grammar rules were too numerous to count, just think of all the ways writers have come up with to, sadly, be boring.

Think about it…does nothing happen in the book?  Boring.  Do things happen but they are disconnected and don’t add up to anything?  Boring.  Do the characters talk too much?  Do they talk about random subjects just like in a Tarantino movie?  Do they say exactly what they mean every time they speak?  Boring, boring and boring.

That’s just the start of a very long list.

Now, we can’t tackle every one of the ways writers end up boring their readers, but we can hit some of the big ones.  Let’s tackle a few of the ones that get talked about a lot.

The first, and most primal of the Don’t Be Boring sub-rules is to show instead of tell.  This sub-rule is so big it has an army of sub-sub-rules below it.

Here are the basics of showing vs. telling (and let’s get a little meta):

When we write, we are aiming to create an image, a world in the mind of our readers.  We want them to see, hear, smell, feel and taste what is going on.  We want to engage our readers by immersing them in the scene.

Or…let me put that another way…

If a character in my story is eating a piece of cake, I could just tell the reader that the icing falls off the fork, that the crumbs break apart as she chews and that bitter chocolate is blended with sugar to make it taste better.  Or, I could describe how she leans over the small plate.  How the hair on the back of her neck stands up at the screeching noise her fork makes when she scrapes it a little too hard against the crackled white glaze in order to get every last molecule of frosting into the next bite.  And as she closes her lips over the fork, the darkness of the chocolate in the dissolving crumbs almost seems to burn her tongue, only to be soothed by the sweetness of the chocolate.

Okay, enough food examples.  But did you see the difference in those two descriptions?  In the first, I told you what was going on.  In the second, I showed you.  Which was easier to gloss over?  Which put you in the scene with the character and made you hungry for cake?

The thing is, any time we simply state what is going on, we give our readers a chance to tune out.  Whether we are talking about the characters emotions, what they are doing, or the setting, simply telling the reader what happened just doesn’t create anything compelling.

What if I have a character who is tired and wants to sit down to rest?  Do I simply write that he sits in a chair and feels better?  Who would want to read that?

But if I describe what the exhaustion really feels like, how the chair feels, how the muscles unwind one by one, how he drifts off to sleep…these details give the reader something to latch onto.  With descriptions that are vivid and well placed, you can pull your reader further into your story and your characters’ lives.  This is a great way to avoid being boring.

Let’s go into one more example of not being boring by showing instead of telling.  Adverbs.

A number of great writers specifically mention avoiding adverbs in their how to write lists, and with good reason.  Adverbs, while very handy and quick, are the biggest shortcut to telling and being boring…especially when used to describe dialogue.

Think of all the stories you’ve read where the writer says the characters said something loudly, quietly, angrily or any other way that people say things.  You think to yourself that this is a super, quick way to describe how something was happening, but really, every adverb is a missed opportunity to show something important about your characters.

You can say that your character said something sadly, but what are you really giving your readers?  Just one generic, over-used word that doesn’t say anything specific.  Instead, what if you took the opportunity to show your readers what was so sad about the speaker?  What if you said she was was slumped over, with her head in her hands?  With something as simple as that, you’ve gone from a quick, throw-away word to creating an image in your reader’s mind.

That’s how avoiding adverbs can keep you from being boring.

There are tons of other ways to avoid being boring.  You can make sure your plot is connected and makes sense.  You can make sure your protagonist has a recognizable goal.  You can create an antagonist who wants the same thing as the hero and is very hard to beat.  The list can go on and on.  It’s hard work.

But there is good news.  If you work on these two rules a little bit every time you write, your writing will get better.  It will be clearer and more engaging and your readers will become devoted fans.

Reasons For Hope

Preview – A Short Story About Hope


The voices of the people in the next room were louder than usual, and that is saying something in the area I live in.  People come to the local coffee shop mostly to socialize and it always seems like they are used to shouting across a field of corn in order to be heard instead of talking across a small table.

But this morning their voices were even louder, tinged with anger…and fear.

It’s understandable.  I sat in the backroom of the coffee shop, working on the sequel to Schism and my mind kept wandering to all the bad news we’ve heard over the last month.  No matter if we listen to the radio, read the newspaper or watch television, there has been a barrage of stories about violence in the middle east, disease in Africa and anger in the United States. Because of Wattpad, I now have friends in each of these areas and I worry for their safety and well-being.

There has been so much bad news lately that it’s been sinking in, pulling my mood down into worry and fear.  You probably have felt the same feeling…like you are being pulled deeper down into a hole that won’t let you climb out.

But I want to tell you a quick story.

Twenty-three years ago I had cancer.  First, there was a lump on the side of my neck that kept growing, then another lump below it, and finally two.  I wore turtlenecks and dress shirts with high collars to hide it.  I would lean sideways in class to cover it all with my hand and I did not want to go to the doctor.  But, my parents saw the lumps one day and made me go in.

First, there was a CT scan, which showed a solid mass in my neck, then a needle aspiration that turned up “suspicious” cells.  Within a week my neck had been opened up for a full biopsy and I waited for the results in the recovery room.  My family was around me, very worried about what we would hear.

The surgeon came in and gave us the news.  I had Hodgkins Lymphoma.  My parents and siblings were distraught, but I wasn’t.  I had done my research.

The most important thing that I had uncovered in that busy week was that if I had received that diagnosis in the 1950s, 60s, 70s or even 80s, it probably would have been a death sentence.  But a lot of progress had been made in treating Hodgkins and things looked good.  Very good.  I had every reason to be hopeful about what would happen.

Now, don’t get me wrong…the next six months were…not fun.  I was cut open again.  With my abdomen pulled apart, they pulled out my spleen and lymph nodes and replaced them with little metal clips.  It makes for some cool looking x-rays, trust me.  And then, there were the radiation treatments.  Imagine the worst sunburn you’ve ever had not only hitting your skin, but your muscles and the connective tissues in your back, neck and shoulders.  There were days and weeks when the pain and exhaustion made it almost impossible to get out of bed.

But, I made it.  And through it all, I was able to keep my chin up because I knew that medical research and progress had turned Hodgkins into something that was often treatable.  I’m here, writing in the coffee shop today because of that progress.

Now for the big part of the story…remember that research I did in the week before I was diagnosed?  I’ve continued it.  I had a hunch that medicine wasn’t the only area where we’ve made progress, and that hunch was absolutely correct.

The simple truth is that the world is a much better place than it was 70 years ago.  It is a phenomenally better place than it was 1000 or 2000 years ago.

I’m so glad that so many of you have loved my book Schsim, but I actually don’t write only fiction.  I also write nonfiction, particularly about how the world is changing and I’d like to share with you a preview of my upcoming book Reasons For Hope.  My wish is that it helps lift you out of that pit that the news media throws us all into.  We all need that help.


I’ll be posting these previews on Wattpad.  Click here for the link.

The blog hop…

Hello everyone!  I’ve got a different sort of post today, as I’ve been invited by a friend on Wattpad to be part of a blog hop.  And…as it gives me a chance to promote a few fellow authors, I jumped right in.

For those of you who don’t know what a blog hop is (I had to look it up), it’s basically a chain letter, but on blogs.  I hope the web doesn’t get mad at us for plugging up the wires, but it’s a fun idea because the person who invited me answered the following questions, I answer them, and the people I invite answer them too..and it keeps going until everyone in the world has answered these questions.  Maybe it’s more of a blogging pyramid scheme than a chain letter?  Hmmm…

So, I was invited into the pyramid by Katrin Hollister, who has a great book on Wattpad called Rise of the Vengeful Dragon.  If you are a fantasy fan, check it out now!

And after I’m done with this post, I’ll be passing the proverbial pyramid torch to Emily Godhand, Everyn Kildare and Kat Loveland.  Go check out their pages!  Emily writes a fantastic horror thriller called Fear of the Dark, Everyn’s book Crow is a great paranormal fantasy that reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman and Kat is working on book 2 of her Honor Bound series…a very cool action packed thriller that mixes fashion models, superheroes and child trafficking.

So, here we go!  Onto the questions…

1.  What am I working on?

Currently I’m working on the sequels to Schism.  I have been working on the outlines for several other novels, but the reactions of a few people who have read the entire book and demanded the sequel have convinced me to focus in on Schism II and III.

While I can’t give any story details away, I can tell you that these books are shaping up to have even more action, more twists and even worse bad guys for our heroes William, Bryan and Jess to deal with.  But, they have a few new allies to give them a fighting chance.

2.  How is my work different from others of its genre?

I guess I should try to answer this…okay, please correct me, but I’m not too aware of other paranormal thrillers that dive so much into transpersonal psychology???  Is that different?

But honestly, I think every book that tries to be original ends up being different from the rest.  I think every author wants their characters and story to stand out and work hard to make that happen.

It’s up to the readers to tell me how mine is different.

3.  Why do I write what I do?

I love to tell stories.  I love to stay awake too long thinking up plot connections, ways to express themes that interest me and come up with horrible situations for my protagonists to have to get out of.

Most of all, I try to write stories about things that interest me.  If I end up liking it at every stage…planning, outlining, writing, editing, posting, recording audio and audio editing, then I think there’s a chance others might like it too.

4.  How does my writing process work?

Oh wow where to start…you can take a look at the archives of my blog to get a hint of that…but basically, I plan!  Before I put even a paragraph down, I work out every bit of the plot, the character arcs, the theme, the point of view switches…it all gets nailed down.

That way, all of the pain is up front.  Once I start the writing, I get to focus in on that and don’t have to worry about going astray.  I still re-write and edit like crazy, but I’d say the planning cuts the re-writes in half, at least.  I don’t have to do structural changes, just cosmetic work and that saves a ton of time!

I recommend it highly.

There you go!  Now it’s up to Emily and Kat to take up the blog hop banner and continue to build that pyramid.  Please check out their blogs and their work!


The Middle of it All

In preparation for Schism becoming a featured story on Wattpad on July 18, I’ve been releasing a chapter every day and hit a milestone today…Chapter 25…the middle of the book.

And posting that chapter got me to thinking about the most elusive and misunderstood element in the world of structure, the midpoint.

While we’ve been working with three act structure for books, movies and plays for as long as we can remember (yes, some might bring up alternative forms, but we’re still talking beginning, middle and end that make up three acts), the poor midpoint is often completely overlooked.

And, when we are focused on this three act structure that has a clear end of the beginning (plot point 1) and a clear beginning of the end (plot point 2) in our stories, it’s understandable why the middle gets little attention.  But…this is something that’s also really dangerous.

Because, that neglected middle of the story isn’t just the half-way point in the behemoth of act 2, it’s also a stumbling point that nails almost every writer.  It’s the brick wall that most people think of as Writer’s Block.

Go find out.  Ask any writer who is stuck or has stopped working on a book or story and they’ll say they “got about half-way done” before they got blocked or ran out of ideas, or just got stumped.  It’s that big of a deal…and yet no one talks about it!

Part of the problem is that the father of modern story structure, the late Syd Field, didn’t talk about it much, and not in the clear terms that he laid out the two main plot points.  Instead, he said the midpoint should be a reversal of fortune for the protagonist.

Look elsewhere and it gets even foggier…other story structure theories talk about the midpoint as a First Culmination or something that is either similar to OR the opposite of the ending of the story.

Wow.  That’s helpful, isn’t it?

But there is a fundamental truth here, beneath all the disagreeing theories.  The truth about the midpoint is that it doesn’t have to be just ONE thing, but it had better be SOMETHING.

What I mean by this is that you don’t have to follow any particular dogma about the midpoint.  There doesn’t have to be a reversal of fortune, it doesn’t have to foreshadow the ending or provide contrast to it.  But you had better make sure that something is happening at the midpoint.  Why?  Because you need to make sure that something is happening at EVERY point in your story.  If not, then you are on the fast track toward boring, and no one wants that.

So, if the midpoint isn’t any one thing in particular, how can we keep it from becoming the Writer’s Block quagmire that it is?

The answer is one simple, pain in the butt word…planning.

You see, most writers don’t realize that when they sit down with their latest idea, they don’t really have the full story yet.  They have a great beginning and probably a mind-blowing ending, but these two things don’t have enough oomph to carry a story all the way through the wilderness of act 2, which generally takes up 50% of a novel or script.  Instead, they have enough action and problems that are sparked by the story’s opening to get about half way through.  Then, they run out of steam, get stumped and the second half of act 2 falls stays stuck in limbo.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  All the writer has to do is jot down the rough points of the story before beginning to see the giant hole that appears after the midpoint.  Armed with that knowledge, any writer with enough patience can dig into the story and figure out what interesting actions have to take place to get from the midpoint to the end of act 2.

Best of luck to you all in your writing, and don’t let the midpoint get you down!



Loglines…Polishing the Rough Idea

Okay everyone, let’s start to dig into the first steps of writing your novel.

At this point, you may have a rough idea of what you want to write and you may have some particular scenes worked out in your head or in notes.  Maybe you’ve jumped into the writing itself.

These are all great steps, but let me ask you a quick question…have you written the logline yet?  Actually, I should ask this instead…have you written and rewritten and re-rewritten the logline for your novel?

If you haven’t, let me make a friendly suggestion.  Do.

There are lots of approaches to loglines, and lots of definitions, but basically a logline is a tool that helps you describe the heart of your story in the shortest, clearest way possible.  And it seems like everybody has a different way to do this.

One of the best that I’ve studied is from Blake Snyder, a screenwriting instructor and very good guy who sadly passed away in 2009.  His recommendations for a good logline were simple and direct.

In one sentence (maybe two) describe the protagonist, the antagonist and what’s at stake.

Want to practice a bit?  Think of your favorite movies and books.  Write a quick logline for each, then work on honing them until they’re interesting and capture the heart of what’s going on.

Though it’s simple, it’s definitely not easy.  But it’s worth the time it takes to practice and hone the skill.  Because once you have, this simple little logline will give you a much better idea what is going on in your story.

Here’s how it works and what you can get out of it for your own story…

One of the biggest problems that writers run into is the feeling that their story is stuck.  It usually happens about 100-200 pages into the book (30-50 pages into a screenplay), somewhere between the first act and the midpoint.  Some people call it writer’s block (which I may just rant about in another post), but what it really is is a lack of clarity about what is going on in the story.

And a good, clear logline is the first step in getting that clarity.

You see, your logline has a description of your protagonist, so you know something of the heart of your main character.  It also has the stakes, which tells you what the hero is after and how important it is, and the antagonist gives you a good idea of what the hero is up against.

Knowing what’s important to the protagonist not only gives you a goal that points to the plot, but it also informs you about the theme or underlying meaning of your story.  This can even influence subplots and character design.

In short, this is a very useful tool that can help you in many ways.  Plus, it’s very useful for queries and describing your book to people that you meet (a short description to a stranger is much more enticing than a whole plot summary, trust me!).

One final piece of advice I would have on loglines is to rewrite your logline at every stage of writing.  Start the process with a logline, do one after your first outline, after your final outline, after your first draft and even after you’ve polished the manuscript.  It can help you at each stage.

Talk to you soon!  Please don’t hesitate if you have any questions!