Writing: The X Factor

There’s this thing called the X-Factor. It’s what makes your writing sing.

This is the fifth in a five part series on writing.

The X Factor is this is the unteachable element.

If something’s unteachable, you have to tack. Tacking is a technique sailors use when they want to take a sailboat directly into the wind. Well, you can’t do it. So you go at a 45 degree angle, sideways. Then, to stay on course, you go into the wind sideways the other direction for a while.

How do you tack when it comes to growing in the X-factor?

Tack left: engage the arts. Read. Read challenging things. Read the great Russian writers. See good art at museums or fine art galleries. Watch interesting films with plots. I prefer foreign films, they’re less predictable. Listen to music you don’t normally gravitate to.

Tack right: work on the basics again. Do the four exercises from the previous four weeks. Grow in all four of the other areas, tack towards the muse, and you’ll grow in this area too. You’ll learn to recognize it, for one thing, when it happens to you.

The last thing you have to do is keep consulting the compass as a good sailor would to make sure you’re still headed where you want to go. This means getting feedback from writers you respect, and taking them seriously.

I’m still tacking a lot. My two books are The Art of Motivational Listening (2015) and White Buffalo Gold (2012). See the bookstore for how to order.


Writers Thursday #4 in series

Last week we discussed how to improve both your micro and macro levels of language, from vocabulary to speaking in a particular context.

This week I’m suggesting exercises for increasing your originality.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with your characters, setting, or plot. As long as you know the rules and understand why you’re breaking them, you can do some original work and break some new ground, but you may need a boost.

Here’s a five minute game or exercise: take twenty of your favorite novels. Make some slips of paper with the following categories:

Location/ Setting


Main Character

Supporting Character

Plot driver (a wedding, breakup, death, attack, murder, birth)


For example let’s take classic Romance lit Jane Eyre.

  1. Thornfield Hall
  2. mid 19th century
  3. Jane Eyre
  4. Mr. Rochester
  5. Finds out there’s a mad lady in the attic

Drop the slip with your Location into one bag, Era in the next bag, and so on; repeat with 19 other novels or movies of various genres.

Draw one slip from each bag, so that you end up with something like this:

  1. Setting: Tatooine (Star Wars)
  2. Era: Prehistoric/ Stone Age (Clan of the Cave Bear)
  3. Main Character: Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of …)
  4. Supporting Character: Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre)
  5. Plot element: All the land is sold to corporate farms and the sharecroppers are evicted (Grapes of Wrath)

Now, sketch the plot of a book. Write a few paragraphs: How does it open and how does it end? This exercise should help you break out of any originality ruts and may even help you develop a ground-breaking novel that crosses over two genres. You may not end up writing any books that you came up with during the exercise, but it can help you break out of your ways of thinking.


Writer’s Group: I can do it on my own. Really?

Writing is a solitary existence. The best advice-givers, like Steven King in his book “On Writing” suggest that for a certain amount of time in the course of your manuscript you need to work alone, without allowing other people to see, read or influence what you’re doing.

That’s true, which is part of the reason our writer’s group doesn’t do critiquing. We don’t want to interrupt the flow.

On the other hand, you have to be highly motivated to keep plowing ahead. It’s so easy to just surf the net or go for a long walk rather than write. That’s why we get together for accountability. You set your goal for the month, and you’ve got to deliver.

My goal this past month was 15,000 words. My total was closer to 20,000. If I didn’t have a group I was committing to for that kind of production, it wouldn’t happen.

How many words are you writing this month? What’s your goal? Who’s holding you to it?

Writer’s Group: Setting a really great goal

What sort of goal pushes you but is attainable? That’s what Justin and I have decided to push ourselves and our group toward, so that each one is making headway in writing their book.

I’m setting this blog up a few days in advance. I committed to 15,000 words this month and I have just over a thousand left, two days to go. I’ll attain my goal. I’ll push for that last amount partly because I’m leading and it would be poor leadership if I don’t lead by example, and partly because I’m serious about meeting my goals anyway. And partly because I’m committing to it once again, with 51 hours to go.

We fully expect that the writers in our group will publish their books sooner, more frequently, and with more quality than if they were not in the group.

Yesterday I sent my editor my final comments on the first round of corrections for the full draft. In less than two weeks, my goal is to finalize all the copy and send it to press. I’m ambitiously shooting for publication, for books in my hands, by December 1.

Set your goals just low enough that you can attain them every month, and just high enough that it will take effort. Both of these are important. You MUST attain your goal each month, otherwise you become discouraged. You must also set it high enough that you have to work for it. Otherwise it’s not a goal. Think of it this way: if you say “my goal is to eat three square meals a day” but you already do that anyway, as sort of a natural course of events, it’s not really a “Goal,” is it? But if you change the goal to something like this: “I will eat small portions including hard boiled eggs and carrot sticks six times a day, making sure to chew my food completely, and cut out sweets for the next eight weeks” there is a pretty good chance you can do it, and a pretty good chance it will take some conscious effort. Just like health and fitness goals, writing goals must be attainable to keep up your enthusiasm and courage, and hard enough to let you know there’s effort involved. Best of luck in November, when many people write short novels … but you could be writing novels every month with just a little more regular discipline and accountability!