Tag Archives: writing fiction

Designing the Read

Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

Anne Lamott


When you set out to write, you’re designing the read for a certain type of reader – you.

So the question is, FullSizeRender_2What inspires you? 

As I mentioned last week, powerful writing comes from powerful editing. So when you edit and when you’re writing your first draft, you’ve got to continually think about what fires you up about this story. How is the theme, the big idea, the message, involving and providing what you want to read?

The thoughts and feelings of your main character and the story itself arise from that. That’s where the deepest drama comes from.

This is why I recommend considering your favorite books and how the author captured that essential empathy and connected to your own hopes and desires. Think about and decide specifically what you love and why. Likely, you share some similar passions with your favorite authors you can cultivate and develop.

What is it exactly? Certainly, it involves the words and phrasing–the elemental writer’s passion. But beyond that, what in the subject, the observations, the dialogue and relationships shows the author’s mind at work, their heart for this story? Think of the book as a well-tended garden and consider the care invested in it.

That’s what your applied passion will produce if you just keep at it.

FullSizeRenderRemember, your reader wants to figure out not just the external puzzles and mysteries, but the interior ones as well—the insights and connections, the hidden distinctions and revelations. Those are the uniquely suited plants a writer chooses and waters. And then, as they flourish, decisions come about which elements to bring forward and which to prune into subtler background. Your preferences matter most and your vision needs to be strong to shape the effect you want to have. But what readers need, that’s the writer’s job to consider too, no matter what kind of book you’re writing. And that’s where good editing considers all the elements and designs the best possible experience.

The beauty of a well-designed garden is obvious. But how exactly the gardener made their decisions, what went into each plant and how much pruning was involved? Most people won’t care. But you will. Because you’ve felt the swell in your spirit at knowing someone took the time to care that much. And it inspired you to care as well.

Repeat it until it’s second-nature: the drama and impact of the read comes from what you write and what you don’t. Ponder on that for several mornings as you sit down to write: it’s what you’re bringing and what you’re taking away that makes the garden beautiful. Consider your favorite books and how you yourself are thrilled when you read a story that allows you to fill in and imagine what the author suggested. That’s what good writing does. And if you’re writing a first draft, just tell the story to yourself and don’t worry about designing it yet. This shaping work creates the magic from the editing process, where you think about creating a stronger experience by augmenting the essential, and eliminating all else. But in writing, often you have to over-plant and then edit for economy and efficiency.

Focus on the 2 of 3 rule when you write, and think what readers need in each chapter/scene/section: 1) reveal character, 2) advance plot, and/or 3) describe setting. Ideally, have 2 of those 3 happening at any given spot and you’ll have a lush garden.

FullSizeRender_1Then, once the first draft is done, read aloud with someone and address any obvious weaknesses as you work to strengthen the experience — heighten the central desire, deepen the opposition, raise the stakes, convey the plight. Show what your character is seeing and feeling through description of the setting, reduce extra detail, digressions, and places where the story stops moving forward. Show us the characters’ feelings about her situation and the people in her life. Use your outline to consider what each chapter experience is—happy, sad, anger, fear, or surprise. And refer to the feel wheel often.

And where does your motivation for all of this work come from? From the chance to do something very few people get to do for perfect strangers: offer hope.

What brings that hope, what saves someone desperate to live, is a story—your story. That’s why you’ve got to believe in that power.

You don’t need to know whether the story is timely, fitting, competitive, or even desirable. You only need to believe in the power of your story to save.

You can do this if you’ll choose to ignore the distractions and lesser gardens around you. You can speak the truth of your experience clearly and powerfully so that anyone attuned to hear it will feel in their heart it’s their own story being expressed.

For as Buechner said, “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”

Free your reader, my friend. Concentrate on that concentrated passion….

For the higher purpose,


On Writing Novels

Thanks for grace these few months while the blog’s been on hiatus. I’ve been writing a fair amount, and learning a lot about my process. Though I’ve edited for years, I still know surprisingly little about the real writing of books. And specifically novels. Certainly it’s an occupation that takes a good while to learn and requires special mental tools to really survive it. I do know a lot of theory and general information about what makes novels work and even how authors write them. And I read a lot. But I don’t know how one makes people love their type of story and how to ensure they’ll spend time and money seeking it out.

It’d be nice to know these things going in. But then you wouldn’t need faith, right?

Aside from the need for faith, one thing I think I have a moderate amount of control over in writing this novel is the vital need to love what I’m writing. If I don’t love it, I’d better figure out why and fix it or I’ll never finish.

I know it’s a common problem, losing steam. I’ve muscled my way through articles, essays, short stories, even novellas, and there’s just no muscling through 300+ pages. My muscles, my mind, and my muse revolt. I start climbing the walls and moaning about how long it’s getting and how much extraneous blather I have to put in to keep readers up. Of course, it isn’t extraneous, but that essential fictive bubble is easily burst by the interior editor and his clawing demands.

So, I go to combat this self-sabotage by striving for a sort of verbal diarrhea and ignoring the pleas for economy and restraint. And if I get a couple good thoughts or scenes, I celebrate my victory by feeling powerful and a little larger for a few hours or so. And even once the feeling fades, some part of me recalls that my happiness does rest in this mental trickery to just get the flipping story out. And when the urge to edit becomes unbearable again, I’ll have to figure out new tricks for tripping up the sage saboteur.

Basically, the deal is, to truly love what I’m writing, I have to fight to preserve my created world from the disconnecting, fracturing one constantly sniping at me. I have to remember that I write to connect the dots and make sense of things, and that the demoniac with the red pen is not my chum. If I’m going to write, I have to enjoy living in that world where some nonlinear beauty adds an organic, natural quality, and the chaotic tumbling of words serves a greater purpose and will make some sort of larger sense.

Honestly, the writer in me doesn’t really care how good the prose is. He just wants people to read it and enjoy it. Yes, quality literature is enormously important. But it’s no good if I’m worried about how good it is. And because I know that my “good edit” is the enemy of great story, I can’t worry about quality while I’m writing. If I do, no one’s ever reading it.

Second, Kafka and Hawthorne are dead. And though one might aspire to them, living writers can’t eat ideals. The purest prose doesn’t put money in your pocket. Today, if you want another contract, you need readers. That’s difficult enough, so in the end you need to write what’s going to get you read and let someone else sort out the quality question. This is why I think there’s little else that so determines your ability to find readers than gagging that inner word Nazi, at least while you’re writing. From his perspective, the struggle I’ve met with in trying to write this book makes perfect sense—he knows how badly my sentences suck. But should I care?

Of course not. Because thirdly, the only real quality to be concerned with doesn’t have to do with big words and literary phrasing. It’s the quality of the ideas, of the content. And how those ideas illuminate depth of meaning. And form those connections that end isolation. And rip at the frozen seas inside.

So in the end it’s good to remember: only you have your particular message. And only you can protect the big reasons you write. And as you strive to preserve your love for your work in progress, you may have to keep reminding yourself like I do that you can’t ever let anyone—even yourself—throw you off.