Skip to content


La Storia

In Italian, the word storia means both story and history, which I think is interesting. As someone with a background in both studying history and writing stories, I often read something about the past and wonder about the story behind it.

Most recently, I came across this article on and was immediately filled with questions. The article talks about how nine of the fifteen peasant girls became servants, but what of the other six? I assume they went into careers like comb-maker and thread-maker, but did they all? Could one of them have become the arbalester? It seems unlikely, but what of the person who did? Who knew that arbalesters even went through an apprenticeship? What happened to those kids?

The past is such a rich field, with all of human experience to draw on, and it’s hard to look into it and not wonder, “What happened to them? What was it like?”

Logic and Magic?

This article by N.K. Jemisin seems to have caused a minor kerfuffle. Some people agree: “Yes, it’s fercrissakes magic. It’s supposed to be all about wonder and stuff, not logic.” Some disagree: “Magic is energy and energy is physics and physics requires logical rules. Also, you can’t have a plot and character development without rules and logic.”

Clearly there are two very different schools of thought here. Both have good points, both are missing a point or two.

Jemisin makes some good points; magic is, well, magic. It’s anti-logic. That’s what makes it magic. (She’s dead wrong about the need some people have for rules and logic in magic coming from D&D; D&D got its magic system mostly from Jack Vance’s short stories. The plot-puzzle type of story, where each spell is a key that fits in a particular plot-keyhole predates D&D by decades.)

The other side has good arguments as well; if magic can do anything, how do you construct a plot that makes sense to the reader?

What a puzzle, eh? Perhaps an example will (magically) illuminate the subject.

The magic in LoTR is almost completely unexplained. What powers does Gandalf have? Elrond? The Nazgul? How does their magic work? We don’t know. It doesn’t matter. All we really know–all we need to know–is that Sauron’s power is tied to the One Ring, and the only way to destroy the Ring (and Sauron) is by tossing it into the fire where it was forged.

But Frodo doesn’t use magic to solve that problem. The magic in the Lord of The Rings is almost entirely in the background, not used to resolve plot problems, so it doesn’t need to be explained.

Here’s the real Important Rule of Fictional Magic Systems: The magic in your story-world requires rules and explanation in direct proportion to how much you’ll be using magic to solve plot problems.

This is a subset of a larger rule; the reader must be able to follow the plot-threads that you use to resolve the story conflicts. If you use magic to resolve the conflicts, the reader must be able to understand how magic works well enough to follow along, just as she would the science in a science fiction story, or the law in a legal thriller.

As with everything else in your story world, explain as much as the reader needs to know to follow along and don’t worry about the rest. No magic; just the basic rules of storytelling.

Hitting The Wall

This author calls it Bad Brain Days. I call it hitting the wall. It’s that point in writing your book when you think it sucks, it’s never going to be any good, you’re not any good, you’re just wasting your time, etc., etc.

Writing a book–novel, non-fiction, whatever–is a marathon. You slog away and slog away, a word at a time, a page or two or five a day, and eventually you cross the finish line. But at some point in that process, you hit The Wall, and going any further seems like any unbearable waste of time and effort.

It’s The Wall the separates the experienced novelists from the inexperienced ones. If you’ve actually written an entire novel, you know that you can write an entire novel. You can get through The Wall and finish. The inexperienced novelist doesn’t have that advantage; the wall looks insurmountable. Many novels die there.

There’s no easy fix, no neat trick to learn. It’s just a matter of putting your head down and slogging. Keep putting one word after another, just like an endurance runner keeps putting one foot in front of another, even when it seems like he can’t take one more step, and you’ll get through it. It’s simple. Not easy, but simple.

Don’t look back. Don’t start thinking about how you need to take a different approach, don’t go back and revise chapter one. Keep going. Finish the project. Only when it’s done can you go back and see what really needs to be changed in the second draft. You’ll probably find it’s a lot better than you think.

And once you’ve done, you know that you can do it again, and The Wall won’t seem quite so high the next time.

How do you sit down and write 120,000 words? One word at a time.

Big Bad Block

I’ve been thinking a little about writer’s block lately. Haven’t had it, thank goodness, just been thinking about it.

A lot of people will tell you that writer’s block is a made-up thing. Plumbers and laborers and computer programmers don’t get writer’s block, right? You never hear a plumber say, “I just can’t fix another toilet today. I just don’t know how.” And it’s true that people who work at certain kind of jobs may find themselves hating their work, contemplating suicide rather than go to work, or desperate to change their line of work, but they rarely or never find themselves psychologically unable to do the work.

So, writers who claim to be blocked are just whining drama queens, right?

Maybe not.

I first heard about ‘the yips’ a couple of years ago, when the Red Sox acquired catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia from the Texas Rangers. There was a lot of talk about how earlier in his career Salty had suffered from the yips.

What the hell, I thought, are ‘the yips?’

In baseball, ‘the yips’ are when a player suddenly loses their ability to throw the ball. There’s nothing physically wrong with the afflicted player, he just suddenly can’t get the ball to go anywhere near where he wants it to. Similar symptoms can afflict other athletes as well. Golfers, too.

Usually, the player can work through it and regain their old form. It’s a psychological block, not a physical condition.

Hmm. Block? Yes, so it would seem. Professional athletes can suffer from a condition very much like writer’s block, where they suddenly lose the ability to do something that they used to do as naturally as breathing.

I thought this was very interesting and it made me wonder about those plumbers. Their work isn’t typically very high-pressure, like playing professional sports, or creative, like writing. (Not to take anything away from plumbers; what they do is essential, and often hard and dirty work. But they rarely have to create something completely new, or do their work in front of an audience of tens of thousands of people.) How about other creative professions, what some people call ‘knowledge workers.’ Do they suffer from anything like writer’s block?

Yes, it seems like they do. (So much for Eben Hewitt’s claim that no one has ever said such a thing.)

So do musicians. Probably a lot of other creative professions too.

And it turns out that every now and then, when faced with something that requires creative thinking, plumbers get blocked too. Just like writers, programmers, and musicians. I bet it also happens to carpenters, architects, engineers, and all sorts of other people that we rarely hear about being ‘blocked.’

Sometimes people who are called on to come up with something new just draw a blank. They can’t figure out what comes next. They’re just stuck. Athletes can become stuck at the point where they have to release the ball or swing the club, commit to acting and whatever result is going to come from it.

I think there’s a similar underlying psychological issue at the root of these blocks and yips. Sometimes the part of our brain that spits out new ideas, the part that works under pressure, just quits on us. Then you’re stuck with trying to coax it back out of hiding.

As for what to do about your block, if you’ve got one, well, I don’t really have any new ideas there. It’s been talked to death. Maybe just knowing that it’s not just you, that it’s not even just writers, is some comfort. I still think that the best way out of writer’s block is to not get it in the first place, and the best way to do that is to follow Hemingway’s old advice: Never write yourself dry. Always stop for the day while you still know what’s going to happen next, so when you sit down the next day you already know what you’re going to write, at least to start with.

If you’ve got it, though, good luck to you. You’ve probably heard all the familiar advice for getting unstuck (just start typing anything at all, etc.) and it’s either worked or it hasn’t. The most interesting idea I came across while researching this post is from the Rhythm Creation article linked above. “Limit the equipment you use to produce your tracks.” (There are actually several ideas in that article that can be applied to writing, but I thought this was the most interesting.) If sitting at the computer and banging at your keyboard (or sitting at your computer and not banging on the keyboard) isn’t working for you, take a pen and notepad and go outside somewhere. Sit under a tree or on a bench in the mall and scribble the old fashioned way. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t write anything?

Or you could go fix some toilets.

Leaving The Pages Behind

It seems that pages may not be my friend.

This is something I stumbled across by accident. When writing my last novel I tracked my progress by pages. It was important to me to use a word processor that displayed the page count, so I could tell how far I’d come, when it was time to start looking for a new chapter break, etc. What I settled on was MS Word (version 2008), and it worked well enough for those purposes, but it was so buggy that by the end of the book I loathed it and swore never to write another story in Word.

(I have notes on most of the word processors I’ve tried since switching to the Mac about four years ago. My notes on MS Word read: “Big fat ugly pig. Weird screen artifacts when scrolling rapidly through a document (shows some lines repeatedly on the screen, doesn’t refresh properly). ‘Fucking MS Fucking Word just fucking crashed on me fucking twice trying to edit a fucking header.'” So, there you go. Not a huge fan.)

The one thing Word has that I’ve missed, though, is the so-called ‘Normal’ view. That focuses the display window on the text and compresses the page break down to a single dashed-line. No other word processor does that quite as well. Typically you have a choice between ‘layout’ view (in which your document window shows a picture of a piece of paper with your text on it, wasting a lot of screen area) or ‘draft’ view, which focuses on the text, but doesn’t show page breaks at all.

I hate ‘layout’ view for writing fiction, but resisted ‘draft’ mode for a long time. I really, really wanted those page breaks. I’m writing my new novel in Bean, though and reluctantly went naked, without visible page indicators. In ‘no layout’ mode Bean doesn’t even show the page count in the status bar at the bottom of the screen, just a word count. It was just me and a long window of text.

The new novel is moving along much more briskly than the last one. It’s hard to point to one thing and say “That’s why,” but I have to wonder if part of the way the words are flowing is the lack of that page break every 250 or so words. It’s not that I’d say, “Okay, I’ve got my four pages. I can stop now.” I think it’s just the little mental tick, that awareness of, “Oh, I’ve flipped over to another page,” that may have been interfering slightly. That little bit of focus on pages, which don’t really matter to the story, instead of words and scenes, which do.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s switching from Courier font to Menlo. Maybe it’s the story, or other things going on in my life, or the weather. But it’s hard not to think that the the unimpeded flow of words in the word processor may have something to do with the unimpeded flow of words coming from my fingers.

I’m not talking about a ‘distraction free’ writing environment, such as have become all the rage lately. If that’s your thing, fine, but I use other windows when I’m working (mainly a text file up on another screen with notes and character names). I’m just talking about in your word processor itself. If you’re using a view mode that shows page breaks, try turning them off. Arrange your application window so there’s nothing there but your words. Close the toolbars if it’ll let you, so you can fit an extra line or two of text on the screen.

It’s worth a shot, and it doesn’t cost anything to try it. Maybe you can get rid of some friction that you didn’t even realize was there.

Write a Successful Novel In Five Simple Steps

Want to write a novel and rake in some money? It’s very simple. Just follow these steps:

  1. Spend twenty years learning how to write, honing your craft.

  2. Spend twenty years learning about people and the world, so you have something to write about. (May be done concurrently with step 1, but often isn’t.)

  3. Write a novel.

  4. Put the novel out where people can see it. (Send it to publishers, self-publish, etc.)

  5. Get lucky.

Sufficient quantities of good luck can substitute for some or all of the learning and skill acquired in steps 1 and 2. No amount of learning and skill can overcome an insufficiency of luck.

There you go! Five simple steps to writing success.

Close the Window, Pick Up The Phone

I was writing at the library the other day and for some reason my laptop wouldn’t latch onto the library’s WIFI. When I had to look up something or other, do a quick bit of research, I used my iPhone.

It worked. No Internet on the laptop kept me focused, but I wasn’t completely cut off from whatever facts I thought I needed. The extra step of picking up the phone to get to the Internet (and the low speed and small screen), kept me from lunging for it every time I paused in my writing, the way I might on the computer.

Give it a try. Unplug your computer from the Internet, or turn off your WIFI, do your fact checking on your phone, and write. If you don’t have an Internet-capable phone, go back to the old trick; slap [lookitup] in the text where you need to check something and move on. Go back later and fill in the gaps.

Sometimes Enough Is Enough

A common mistake that new writers make is over-explaining, particularly with background and backstory. I don’t know if it’s because the writers put so much into the background and feel like it has to be shared (sometimes in excruciating detail), or if they lack confidence in the reader’s ability to follow the story without that information, or some combination of the two (most likely), but there it is. New writers often put in too much stuff that isn’t story.

That was one failing I never had, though I had plenty of others. I’m a pretty minimalist writer. (No, not this kind of minimalism; my desk looks like the site of an illicit intimate encounter between a used bookstore and an electronics shop.) Not only are infodumps anathema, as they should be for all writers of fiction, but I shy away from lavish description as well. Not that there’s anything wrong with lavish description, necessarily; it’s just not my style. I sprinkle in just enough background to (hopefully) keep the reader from getting lost.

This was brought home to me a while back in an amusing way. One of my first reader’s raised some questions about my novel’s background. When I sat down to address this issue, and better explain how magic had influenced the development of technology, the question I asked myself was, “Where can I put in a line about that?”

In a 100,000 word novel, my first reflex was to use no more than a single sentence to fill in this bit of background, and that is exactly what I ended up using.

The preparation and concentration required to work magic made it better suited to the factory and laboratory than the battlefield, but it could be decisive on the battlefield too.
Not out of any sense of minimalism for its own sake, but because it was background, not essential to the plot, and–most importantly–not something that the viewpoint character would dwell on. Exposition works best when it flows naturally from the characters’ perceptions and reactions, rather than interrupting the narrative with a chunk of data.

More significant pieces of background and backstory get whole scenes, but it’s important that those scenes fill other roles as well. Even in a novel, every sentence must serve a purpose, and there should always be a drive to push the plot forward, increase tension, and draw the reader along towards the climax.

When putting in your backstory and exposition, don’t just ask yourself, “Where can I put this?” Also ask yourself, “How little of this can I get away with? Do I even need it at all?”

You might be surprised at how quickly your plot moves along once you jettison the excess baggage.