“Everyone [attending the retreat] wanted the same thing: to be reminded of what it felt like to be pulled toward his or her work, and to be unable to resist.”

~Mark Salzman, author of The Man in the Empty Boat

By Brian Kaufman

I’ve talked to writers who entertain the fantasy of writing a novel in prison. There are good reasons for this. We lead busy lives, and daily chores must take precedence. We work. We care for family members. We even rest and recharge.

And we procrastinate.


Feeling Seen: Representation Matters

By Katie Lewis

Representation matters. I don’t think any socially conscious writer in the year 2022 really needs to be told that. However, I want to share the absolute elation I have felt at increasingly seeing characters I can relate to more frequently in recent years. It truly is the best feeling to stumble across yourself in books or media.

Equal Rights for Everyone Doesn’t Mean Eliminating Rights for Anyone.

Continue reading “Feeling Seen: Representation Matters”

One of The Least Favorite Most Important Jobs for Writers

By David E. Sharp

I have no passion for marketing. Naturally, at a recent writing conference I attended, sessions on marketing were at the top of my list. I learned about marketing through algorithms, marketing via the website, marketing at live events, and marketing through subliminal messaging.

Continue reading “One of The Least Favorite Most Important Jobs for Writers”

Without Pacing What’s The Point

By Shelley Widhalm

I’m reading a book with two intriguing main characters and compelling relationships gone wrong. Still, the repetitive dialog and plot points make it boring.

The issue is with the pacing, intermittent external and internal tension, and lack of cliffhangers at the end of chapters. I’m determined to finish the book, though, since I have this problem of not giving up something I’ve read 50 pages in.

Continue reading “Without Pacing What’s The Point”

By Brian Kaufman

Writers compose in a vacuum. The voices they hear are in their heads. Imagination has benefits, both for mental health and creative purposes. According to neuroscientists, people have “default networks” in their brains that become active (and are exercised) when they drift into the realm of imagination. In addition, storytelling allows an exploration of compelling new adventures without risk. 

The risk comes later—when others read what you’ve written.

Continue reading

Subverting Tropes

By Katie Lewis

I’ve always been very interested in Japanese mythology and media. But recently, I’ve been more inspired by other East Asian cultures. Mainly, I’ve been immersing myself in Chinese stories as research for a book I’m working on (since I’m half-Italian and half-English/German mutt).

As a result, I often have to explain Chinese tropes to my partner when talking about the books I’m reading. As my colleague Brian Kaufman pointed out a few weeks ago, every genre has tropes. However, twisting those tropes around can surprise readers in the right ways.

Know the Rules Before You Break Them

I loved Brian’s article, and to quote him directly, “Breaking rules should be applauded, so long as you understand the reason for the rules in the first place.” That sentence is essentially my Golden Rule of writing. I love breaking the rules, but it runs the risk of seeming cliche or jarring if you don’t have a good understanding of what rules you’re subverting.

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Are You Published?

By Amy Rivers

An author walks into a conference. She smiles, shakes hands, and introduces herself to fellow authors. Then someone asks the question, “are you published?” She immediately starts to sweat. Why you ask? Because this loaded question is frequently followed by some variation of the qualifying question, “Who did you publish with?” 

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Are You Living in A Novel?

By David E. Sharp

Among my early writings was a theatrical production about an evening of fine dining gone horribly wrong. Faux pas are made. The kitchen catches fire. A food critic dies. Twice. You get the idea.

We staged it in a restaurant with no stage. The audience simply enjoyed it from a unique perspective of being part of the set, seated at tables, eating their dinner as they “eavesdropped” on the events unfolding around them.

Continue reading “Are You Living in A Novel?”

Craft Books: The Fine Dining Experience

By Shelley Widhalm

Reading fiction is like having a sweet chocolatey snack, but reading and writing books is the main course, the wine and dessert combined. And if you haven’t heard it by now, reading all of the books is one of the foundational ways of improving your writing mind.

If reading fiction is the chocolate soufflé of this dining metaphor. Craft books serve as the main course. I dig the main course. I am constantly working on the craft. Nothing like a prime filet mignon or a solid cauliflower steak to fuel the body. A skillful wine pairing brings out the best of the meal. You can relish the nuances of flavor and spice in both the food and the glass. I am inspired by these little nuggets whenever I experience burnout or the doldrums. And the dessert because . . . well, because.

Writing is my profession—I’m a professional writer and editor. Some people consider it a hobby because I am working on getting traditionally published. I’ve been writing for 20-plus years, meaning I’ve read dozens of writing books to learn and improve my craft, collecting a few favorites along the way.

Most of the books I purchased and can’t give up, but some I checked out from the library, feeling sad they can’t have a place on my bookshelf.

Everything in moderation, apparently.

The most satisfying five offer a little bit of everything: solid main dish, perfect wine pairings, and of course, dessert.

The Book for Plotters And Pantsers

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Lisa Cron.

Main Dish: I love the concept of the third rail, so essential for hooking readers and developing successful novels. The third rail is about the viewpoint character’s internal struggle. Everything in the story must point to this struggle—the plot, the action, and the details. The conflict is what the character must learn, overcome, and deal with internally to solve the problem presented by the external plot. The external and internal layers of the story must be woven with the plot, beginning to end. 

Wine: I love workbooks, and this book helps you identify the character’s internal struggle, then blueprint your novel’s opening, the ending, the characters, the why (what your character cares about), and the unexplored world of the WHAT (the point you want to make and that will tell you what internal problem the story is about).

Dessert:  I am working through the exercises to help me as I write my next novel. It’s about a sex-crazed, insecure journalist whose world is sent into an uproar by the arrival of an IT professional on break from responsibility. 

The Book to Address The Basics

Crafting Novels & Short Stories: The Complete Guide to Writing Great Fiction, The Editors of Writer’s Digest.

Main Course: Written in essay format, the book covers the basics of the writing craft with sections on character, plot and conflict, point of view, setting and backstory, dialog, description, and word choice—the idea is to help writers identify what’s working and what isn’t working for them.

Between sections, there are tips for the writing life, such as how to get started and feed your creativity. There are comparisons between long-form and short-form writing or novels, short stories, flash fiction, and novellas. For instance, the short form foregoes the middle of books and has just a beginning and end, and the number of characters and scenes is limited.

Wine: Writer’s block makes me want to drink, but I just keep to coffee and one or two glasses of my fav. Elizabeth Sims writes about writer’s block in her essay, “Start Me Up,” “When your writing feels heavy and effortful, chances are your imagination is tired. Adding some nastiness can work wonders.”

Sims suggests upping the antics by doing some free writing and applying what you dig up in the story, such as greater character depth or more exciting action. When I think of nastiness, I think of making things super hard for the character and then letting her squirm. 

Dessert: Here, it’s found in Appendix A, “Fiction Genre Descriptions.” I learned about Roman A Clefs, novels that incorporate real people and events under the guise of fiction, and all the different mystery and romance sub-genres. My fav is Glitz (not just because I like to dress up and be all sparkly), but also because I want to learn about “wealthy characters with high-powered positions in careers that are considered glamorous … and are set in exciting or exotic locales.”

I want to go to an exciting locale like the bar … where there’s . . . um, wine. 

The Critical Book

Conflict & Suspense, James Scott Bell 

Main Dish: The book is divided into two parts, the first about conflict and the second about suspense—no surprises there, given the title! What’s excellent is Bell’s advice about brainstorming for conflict and understanding conflict from the foundations to the structure and how it interweaves all the elements of a story.

Suspense involves much the same, and Bell advises stretching the tension. The key to tension is waiting, and the longer, the better. Tension is created by providing the viewpoint character a scene goal. Something keeps the protagonist from resolving the conflict, and the character suffers a setback. Throw in the ticking clock, such as attaching a time limit.

Add obstacles to prevent character relief, releasing that tension at the last moment (not just in the climax, but in more minor time pressures along the way).

Dessert: For each scene, set up the Objective, Obstacle, and Outcome and strive for something surprising, such as in the dialog, a character action, or an event. The great thing about dessert is the surprise that you still have room for it. This sentence toward the end of the book is a spoiler.

Still, it sums up why a full meal is essential to a pleasant gastronomic experience(or read). “If your story is paced with confrontation and tension and complications and surprises and twists and cliff-hangers and emotions, you may have a shot at a writing career.”

The Wildly Strong Reactions Book

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott 

Main Dish: This is the meal that everyone loves or loves to hate. You know, like “Hawaiian Pizza”. Though written in a random musing sort of way, this book offers a lot of great writing tips. I like how Lamott describes the process of the writer needing to get out of her own way and that if you keep writing, the words will arrive. She recommends starting small with short assignments and writing as much as possible through a small picture frame.

Wine: This is the best part of the meal. Like the best part of writing, the wine is the shitty first draft, where you get to let it all out. Later drafts are where the good writing comes in, like wine that ferments with time.

Lamott says, “Writing is not rapturous,” but instead takes the process to figure out what’s happening in the story, such as the direction and the beautiful sentences that take removing to get to the core. It takes letting the unconscious do its work, and if monitored too tightly, it will say, “Shut up and go away.”

Dessert: Perfectionism is okay for sweet gooey caramel and chocolate, but in writing, it can block playfulness and inventiveness, taking away the fun. That’s not good for me because I place pleasure high on my Hierarchy of Needs. Lamott is all about the mini-sized Milky Way bar, perfect in a pinch without the need for a lengthy preparation.

The Vegetable Book: Not Always Delicious, But Necessary for A Balanced Diet

Have You Eaten Grandma? Or, the Live-Saving Importance of Correct Punctuation, Grammar, and Good English, Gyles Brandreth 

Main Course: This writer and chancellor of the University of Chester add humor to his informal grammar and punctuation rules guide. While also gives some fun comparisons between American and British English, including how unusual words are spelled and different word usages. Calling himself the “punctuation perfectionist,” Brandreth uses a storytelling format to explain the rules. He provides compelling examples of punctuation, dashes, apostrophes, prefixes, and plurals (really, check it out!).

Wine: Brandreth says, “Punctuation is essential to clear communication. Without punctuation, no one knows what’s going on.” You might not know what’s going on if you drink too much wine. That’s why I like to stop at a glass. Period. The period is the most fundamental of all punctuation marks, by the way.

Dessert: I like the “Extra Rules” and “The Rules: Guidance for Good Communication.” He says, “You can start a sentence with a conjunction now and then.” (And that makes me so happy!) I like his five A’s: Be accurate, ambitious, adventurous, accepting, and aware. To be adventurous in grammar, “Dare to be different in the words you use and how you use them.”

I have other favorite writing books, but I can’t find them. I put them in boxes, and I lost the boxes somewhere in my storage unit. I’m sad about that, but I’ll move on since there are other books in the sea (or was that fish?). In fact, I’m happy when I think about eating, drinking, and being merry with my wine and my dessert, and when I’m writing, reading books about writing, or writing about writing.

Story Genius

Crafting Novels & Short Stories

Conflict and Suspense

Have You Eaten Grandma?

A Story about Stories

By Brian Kaufman

I would argue that almost every story idea has already been told. The secret to originality is two-fold. First, make the story truly yours (there being only one of you). And second, layer the thing until unpacking it is like separating strands of angel hair pasta. 

It is an energetic, first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist.

It helps to be a little crazy. My guess is that the readers of this blog are fellow travelers in crazy land, so let me relate a tale of stories, storytellers, and stories about storytellers.

Hunter S. Thompson said that he first heard the term “Gonzo” from a Boston editor, who claimed the word was Boston slang for “weird.” Other suggestions for the word’s origin include the Italian word for rude and the Spanish word for foolish.

This distinctive brand of journalism was never intended to be objective. In fact, the gonzo writer takes center stage, making personal observations and reactions the entire point.

“The writer must be a participant in the scene . . . like a film director who writes his own scripts, does his own camera work, and somehow manages to film the action as the protagonist, or at least the main character.”

~Hunter S. Thompson

I went back to school at Colorado State University when I was in my late forties, hoping to eventually switch careers. I did. I was fortunate to take a literature course from an incredible professor who regularly gave us enough rope to hang ourselves. For example, after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he charged the class with demonstrating what Hunter S. was all about.

My idea was to perform a prank—something Thompson was famous for. 

Thompson once celebrated Jack Nicholson’s birthday by launching a 40-million-candlepower flare overhead and pointing a spotlight directly at Nicholson’s home while playing a tape of pig shrieks through a loudspeaker. Thompson then fired a few rounds from his handgun. He expected Nicholson to come out and praise this creative way of saying, “Happy Birthday!” 

Surprisingly, the actor stayed inside.

A friend spent an insane night with Hunter S. on another occasion, setting fire to a boat. The friend concluded his account with the observation that if you thought you were in on Hunter’s jokes, you were the joke.

This last thought hatched an idea. 

I told the good professor my plan and convinced him to miss a lecture and turn the class over to a substitute.

In a meeting with the class, I explained part of my idea. We would produce a performance art piece exhibiting the worst behaviors in upper education history and film the substitute teacher’s reactions. One of the students had a video camera. We brainstormed some hilarious gags, turning our creativity loose. No handguns, though.

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

~Hunter S. Thompson

I arranged the substitute professor myself. She came to mind because I thought she could dead-pan her way through an hour without giving anything away. When I explained what I had in mind, she jumped at the chance.

The class, however, did not know that the substitute prof would be in on the shenanigans. More on that later.

“No, we are getting ahead of our story, and only a jackass would do that.”

~Hunter S. Thompson

The appointed day arrived. Every member of the class participated in the insanity. Let me share some of the best moments with you:

  • One student gave a show-and-tell presentation on pets. Unfortunately, he had terrible luck with pets. They’d all died, so he showed a flow chart of his past dead pets, even managing some tears.
  • Everyone was welcome to speak, but not everyone at once, so we had a system. Whoever held the “free speech” stuffed animal had the floor. Better, there were two stuffed animals—one blue and one pink—for male and female students. These were passed (or thrown) to allow new speakers.
  • The mock class assignment was to present personal reactions to Nabokov’s Lolita. I gave a brief presentation on the author’s Biblical references. (Hint: there are no Biblical references in Lolita, so I made them up.)
  • One young lady explained that the novel resonated with her because of her relationship with her seventh-grade history professor. (Some laughter can be horrifying.)
  • Another student noted the edition of Lolita we were reading had a picture of a girl with a bicycle on the cover. She then talked about her first bicycle . . . for ten minutes.
  • Throughout, students lurched out of their chairs, announcing that they needed to go to the restroom. Six female students went together at one point.

As I mentioned, the festivities were filmed. Our cameraman narrated and commented throughout, adding a layer of self-referencing. After a while, we forgot all about the assignment. We were too busy reveling in silliness.

“We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end.”

~Hunter S. Thompson

We delivered the finished VHS tape to our regular, beloved professor and waited for the next class to hear his verdict.

The professor was solemn when he arrived (late) to class, carrying a letter. He felt that perhaps we’d gotten a little out of hand. The substitute, he explained, had reported us to the Dean, and we would be facing an inquiry and possible expulsion.

Disbelieving students glared at me. Angry muttering was heard.

Then, our dear professor said, “I’m just kidding.” He added a kicker. “By the way, Brian set you all up. The substitute was a plant.”

If you think you’re in on the joke, friends, you are the joke. Our professor understood perfectly, something I realized there, under the bus.

I am a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson. His prose draws a jagged line between insightful, poetic, and insane. I never took his kind of lifestyle plunge, but my toe’s been in the water enough to understand a little and be inspired by it.

Steampunk is a literary genre that seeks to reverse engineer technology and present it in a historical (usually Victorian) format. I recently co-wrote a novel with Aaron Spriggs (The Strange and Savage Life of a Brass-Key Journalist – Piston Valve Press). Not content with bringing modern tech back into the past, we also brought a cultural phenomenon—gonzo journalism—to the 1870s. My share of the toad-licking insanity that ensues started in a CSU classroom.

One last story (and this was a story about stories—untangle that). A friend of a friend claimed to have gone to Woody Creek to get his copy of Fear and Loathing autographed. When he came upon the author, he made his request. Thompson threw the book on the ground, pulled out his pistol, and shot it.

Best autograph ever.