Death by Pen

I’ll take this deadly weapon, the pen.

You can have your firearms, go–

bear them in your well-regulated militia–

while I bare my soul instead.

We shall see who leaves the

more indelible mark.
Perhaps someday my pen will kill me.

That would be no accident,

even though I have this bad habit

of leaving the safety off.


Writer’s Thursday… on Saturday?

Why not move Writer’s Thursday to Saturday when I feel like it? I know we’re supposed to be consistent, but I had another issue I wanted to talk about on the 31st. So I did.

Everyone else is writing about resolutions, but we often don’t take time to celebrate our accomplishments. The last day of the year is a great time to celebrate what you’ve accomplished over the last 365 days. I want to hear from you what you did!

As for myself, beginning at the very end of April, up until today, I’ve posted over 100 blogs on this site. That’s almost one every two days!

At the end of November my second book was published by a traditional publishing house. That means I wrote a book proposal and put well over 70,000 words through the editing gauntlet with an editor as well. (Lest you think that all that writing is in addition to all the blogs I just mentioned, not so. Many of the blogs were used as the rough draft material for the book.)

My next novel(s) now have some 95,000 words. I expect this series to close in on 200,000 by the end of next year. I also think there’s a good possibility I’ll be taking all the Intentional Community blogs and fashioning a book out of them as well, perhaps by the end of 2016.  But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here. I really got a lot written this year and hit some pretty significant milestones! Hooray!

If you wrote a lot this year, or achieved some other milestone, make a note in the comments! Or, if you consider yourself a writer but feel that you don’t have much to show from this year, now may be the time to join a writer’s group. Luckily for you, I lead one, and you can join it! Two of the guys in our group will be finishing their first novel’s rough drafts within the next few weeks, and the group works because we’re accountable to produce every month! If you want to join, the cost is only $30 per month and you can just reach out to me via email: and I will get you the relevant information. Not sure? Check out the videos in the Writer’s Group page on this blog and get to know me and Justin a bit better.

Want to write down some Resolutions? We’ll help you make those attainable and help hold you accountable to getting it done, so that next year, when I post a similar blog, you’ll have something to celebrate too!


Writers keep on a writin’

Hey writers, it’s writing Thursday again here on my blog, and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Motivated New Year (not just January or November, either).

In our writer’s group last Thursday night (meets monthly for accountability and support) we talked about setup. Here’s our video on the topic.

Knowing your basic setup is great, but how do you maintain disciplines of writing (if you write daily or even once or twice a week) or really disciplines of any kind (how many calories you consume) when your normal setup gets upset by holiday travel?

Maybe you’re hosting people, maybe you’re with relatives, but usually a holiday week means somethin’s gotta give, and there’s a good chance your normal setup will suffer.

My main tip here is pretty simple: have a plan. You may know what your situation is going to look like, and there’s always Uncle Harv who arrives at the last minute throwing everything off kilter again.

The second tip is that you may have to squeeze it in the cracks instead of having a nice three hour block.

The third thing is, to avoid discouragements, appropriately adjust your expectations. Maybe you usually write 10,000 words a month, adjust that to a lower number. Or, if you’re like Justin, you have two weeks off school and you actually have more time. Find space to push yourself, either way. That’s how you get it done!

Again, everybody have a wonderful holiday and keep on a-writin’.

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.


How to Improve your Writing, number 2.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This is the second in a five week series on how to improve yourself as a writer, with five minute exercises designed to train you in five areas.

Last week I talked about how to improve grammar, punctuation and spelling (but not vocabulary). If you missed it, it has to do with memorization. Fun-fun.

This week, let’s talk about a five minute exercise you can do to work at expressing emotion in your writing.

When writing a novel, play or screenplay your emotional attachment to characters needs to be disguised, embedded in the dialog.

In The Postscript to The Name of The Rose, Umberto Eco notes that “a novelist should not supply interpretations of his work; otherwise he would not have written a novel, which is a machine for generating interpretations.” He notes that Shakespeare works so well because there’s virtually no stage direction to tell the actors HOW the actions are done. All expressiveness happens out of the scripted dialog.

Novels can be written with some sort of agenda behind them based on a sort of activism, but they don’t usually fare as well as novels without a distinct agenda. Atlas Shrugged is a great example of a book that’s been widely read and criticized for its distinct agenda. It’s also just not a very good read. We don’t like to be told what to think when we read a novel. I’m a huge fan of Barbara Kingsolver, but some of her books border on activism. I tend to agree with her concerns for the earth’s ecosystems, and she’s far better than Ayn Rand, but it’s still there. A bit. Many Christian novels aren’t Christian at all, or perhaps it would be better to say they aren’t novels. On the other hand, lots of great novels have Christians in them and they use words like Fuck and Nipples, too. For my part I am not trying to write an adjective (Christian) I’m writing a noun (novel). Whatever adjective one might ascribe to my novel, it isn’t worth much if it isn’t considered a novel.

Eco notes a difference between

“How are you?”

“Not bad, and how are you?”


“How are you?” John inquired anxiously.

“Not bad, and how are you?” Peter cackled.

He points out that the author of the latter has intruded on the story to impose his point of view.

There’s a line between novels and poems in terms of the way words are used to express feeling. I think the same goes for the difference between musical performance and theatrical performance. I’ve heard it said that rock musicians make terrible actors because during a rock concert the musicians express their own feelings and aren’t really able to tell a story any other way, so when they get in front of a movie camera they aren’t really able to avoid interjecting their own point of view in favor of playing a role.

Similarly, the novelist conceals his heart like an actor, while the poet writes with heart on sleeve. The words novelists use construct, as Eco said, a machine for generating interpretations. Poems, on the other hand, are about the feeling of the words perhaps even more than the meaning of the story they tell. There’s a difference between sharing your feelings and telling a story.

I have a friend whose first novel was not very good and I’m discovering why. She told us that she spent far more than half her composition time weeping as she attempted to reconcile her emotions between two conflicting social ideologies: she had people she loved on both sides. And this entire social conflict was her subject matter. The novel would have been better off as a series of poems.

So, when artists talk about growing in terms of sharing a heart-expression, there are certainly some cases when you need to keep your poker face. Kill the adverbs and let the dialog give your reader space to decide for themselves which character they like the most, and which one they hate. You can grow in the Heart area in two directions because it’s a continuum. To the one side there is the musician/poet and to the other side the actor/novelist. Knowing which direction you want to go is important. This doesn’t mean that the actor/novelist doesn’t write and perform from the heart, it just means that their heart is accommodating someone else’s story to empower it by an authentic depiction, while the poet/musician is sharing authentically from their own heart. Novelists must of course write from the heart, often expressed as “write what you know.” If you want to write what you feel, turn to poetry.

If we want a five minute exercise to help us move in one direction — towards personal sharing —  writing a quick poem might work, but I think we’d do even better to write down words that express how we feel about our immediate surroundings. Try doing it in the first person, in the present tense, and go ahead and stack it up with adverbs, feelings.

On a Friday in November I write with cold feet in fuzzy slippers, my scalp itches, I hope my kid didn’t bring home a head lice epidemic. Feeling enslaved to my circumstances but always hopeful too. Thinking about yesterday. Remembering, reliving it: I pace the floor, exalting when the mail comes, my final proof arrives from the publisher. I flip the pages through my fingers, I’m nervous, jumpy already, quickly finding imperfections; that’s why you order a proof, it’s a maddeningly painstaking process, you’re so close to the finish line but you’ve got nothing left in the tank. Will people like it? Will they even read it? Are they interested enough to buy it? Still, here it is, none of that matters, I want to celebrate, enjoying a sort of masculine sensation of accomplishment. My wife wants to be alone. I drink a glass of wine alone, drop into bed with a book, the wind rattles the window behind my head, researching the next novel already, not really taking the time to enjoy the moment. Sadly, I turn out the light. I didn’t really share my moment with anyone, at least, not the way I’d hoped. What’s my problem? Do I not believe that this is good work? I’m sorely tempted to think that royalty checks are the only thing that will impress her.

So now, on Friday, the wind stays close to my office window, the sky all gray, today I wonder again, will they buy it?

Remember, if you want heart stuff, you gotta let it bleed. You can clean it up, edit later.

Now, if you want to go the other direction towards the novelist/actor, take a paragraph and cut adverbs and let the reader interject feelings for themselves. You’re still in the character’s head, but you’re not being emotionally guided in the same way.

It was a Friday. Yesterday Joe’s final proof arrived from the publisher. He had flipped through it several times. He wondered how people would react to what he’d written. Still, there was the book. It had been on a computer screen for months, but now it had weight. That was the noticeable thing about flipping pages, it was half a pound of paper. That and the imperfections. Some of the photographs’ captions were cut off. The editor had more work to do. But it would be done on time for the release date, and that was out of Joe’s hands. He poured some wine. His wife was downstairs, doing some laundry, bed sheets and pillow cases. Joe knew she was angry. She’d found a dead louse and treated her hair, which killed forty-five minutes of her evening, ruining her plans, whatever they were, and they probably didn’t include sex in the first place. He realized she wouldn’t end up celebrating with him in any sort of way, after all. He drank his wine, then got in bed with a book, something he’d purchased with his next novel in mind. It got late; he turned off the light. Now, Friday, not much light still in the November sky. Joe scratched his head and wrote some more. You have to keep writing, they said. So he did.

There’s definitely heart in the second piece, it just comes across differently.

Know what your intended medium expects of artists in terms of how they share their heart, then work to take your writing, painting, lyrics, poetry or acting in that direction. Novelists let their readers decide what to think. Poets invite their readers to feel a certain way.

As Eco said when asked whom of the characters he most identified with, “For God’s sake, with whom does the author identify? With the adverbs, obviously!”

It’s been interesting to try to write the story in two ways, once with a personal, journaling-style authenticity and once with a more detached novelist approach. The second piece still has that authentic feel of a real world, even if it’s fiction. You, the reader, get to decide what Joe’s feeling. (Probably skewed by reading the first paragraph earlier, though!) Take five minutes, writing a story both ways, because a huge part of expressing your emotions is knowing when and how it’s appropriate.

Five days (or six) to becoming a better writer: Day One

My first rule of thumb is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. In other words, if you are cruising right along with your writing, don’t stop to read this. However, I am assuming to some extent that you’re not cruising or you wouldn’t bother searching articles like this one. Unless you’re not sure:

You may wonder, “what if my writing is going well, but isn’t very good? I’m producing, but I keep producing stuff nobody wants to read?”

First of all, there’s a difference between writing trash and writing good stuff without an audience. Great writing will find an audience eventually if you’re persistent. You may have to travel through multiple iterations of marketing to get to the far side of the galaxy where the audience awaits, but be selective regarding which critics may tell you whether or not your work is good.

Now, if you’ve determined it isn’t good, you need to determine how you need to grow. That is the focus of this series, where I will hone in on five areas and talk about practical methods you can use to improve. You may take five minutes each day of the week to work on them, so perhaps this one is for Monday.

  1. My spelling, grammar and punctuation are sloppy.

Now we have something to work with. I don’t believe that any writer can churn out rough drafts with any consistency and concern themselves with their grammar and punctuation, but sometimes we do get hung up on whether or not we’re writing clean copy. Trust me, you’re not, and you need to just keep going. But on the other hand, it’s hard for me to proceed if I know I have a misspelling, so I understand the emotional obstacle here. When Word or WordPress underlines a word in red, I have to play with it. You don’t really have to worry about this to crank out a manuscript, but you do need to know your stuff even when you employ an editor. I have two prime examples. For my first novel, my editor told me that few people would know what “pad Thai” is ( a quick informal survey on Facebook resulted in 100% of respondents saying that of course they know what it is) and this resulted in a debate on whether to italicize it or not, and on my newest book “The Art of Motivational Listening” my editor corrected “Canada goose” to “Canadian goose” and I had to re-correct her. This is a common error; many people do not know that “Canada goose” is the correct nomenclature.

How do you get better in five minutes a day?

Grammar, punctuation and spelling are all, unfortunately, a matter of memorization. But in five minutes a day you could read through Strunk and White, looking for one thing that you didn’t know, and keeping it in mind throughout the day. In fact, you might even make a new flashcard each day to help you remember things. Does the comma go inside the quotation mark? Which is the principle and which is the principal? What’s the difference between capital and capitol? I was lucky and I got drilled on this stuff in both 6th and 9th grades. To be sure, it was dry, but I got a good education. If you never had a teacher who cared, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it now. Even though I had great teachers, even they messed up on occasion. My 9th grade English teacher once asked the class rhetorically if a poet wasn’t using poetic license when he or she used the word “hippopotami” and I had to tell her (cocky brat that I was) that it was indeed in the dictionary as a legitimate alternate spelling for the plural of hippopotamus, therefore a poor example of poetic license. (The shame of the story was that she did not change her lesson plan and three years later my brother made the same correction).

Nobody knows everything. Do this exercise five minutes a day for the rest of your life, and you’ll still need an editor. But the first step to better writing from a technical standpoint comes from memorization of the rules. Sorry to break it to ya. If you didn’t do it in school, do it now.

One last thing: what about vocabulary? I’ve talked about grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Vocabulary is really something to discuss in a different section; keep reading and you’ll see why.

See the bookstore for ways to purchase my novel “White Buffalo Gold” (2012) and my non-fiction book “The Art of Motivational Listening” (2015). They were both edited by people who made very few mistakes indeed and the copy is tighter than my blogs are!

Writers: Dig Deep for Longer Impact

90,000 words deep in my next novel, which looks like it might be a 180,000-word + trilogy by the time it’s done, I’ve been re-reading the Postscript to The name of The Rose by Umberto Eco. If you’re a fan of Stephen King’s On Writingyou ought to read Eco’s Postscript, too. Even if you don’t want to invest in the time to read the actual novel Eco wrote, (deep, heavy, erudite, over your head half the time, even the translation into English often leaves bits in Latin, German, French, Italian, maybe Greek) his words about the process in the Postscript are helpful for all writers and you can buy the Postscript by itself! (see link above). Consider this quote:

Eco was asked which of the characters he identified with in his novel, and he replied, “For God’s sake, with whom does the author identify? With the adverbs, obviously!”

Obviously (heh, heh, that’s an adverb). I’d always heard it said that you should work to eliminate adverbs (Stephen King says so, so it must be right) but now I understand why. Don’t tip your hand: good writing allows the readers to decide how they feel about the characters. Lovingly, you must compassionately and thoroughly eliminate your adverbs kindly, so your readers can happily do their job engagedly.

A well-placed adverb can quickly set the tone, but a poorly placed one will even more speedily ruin it. Forcefully err on the side of cutting this garbage out!

Eco set his mystery, The Name of the Rose, in a monastery in the 1300s. He did so much research on the monastery that the conversations his characters have are timed to last just as long as it would take to walk from one building to the other, or whatever. That means he had to know how many steps there was, say, from the kitchen to the library, in this heady Clue!-style whodunit.

I realized my next novel, which starts in 1977, feels pretty real, but I have some back story that’s going to need some deeper understanding of events in England between 1602 (around when the King James Bible was translated)  and 1662 (when the Puritans finally got kicked out of the Anglican church) so I went and bought five books. A book of Puritan sermons, from 1662 on Bartholomew’s Day (the last day all these Puritans preached in the Anglican church). One in particular on a study one Puritan preacher did on the book of Hosea. And more. I might end up needing another five books after I read these. I’m inventing my own sect of Puritans which is a complete fabrication, but if I want it to feel real, I have a lot of pre-work to do to set it authentically. It’s an offshoot branch of Puritanism which needs to break off from real historical events. So, if you want your work to have long lasting impact, you may have to pull back from cranking out the word count and consider how well-constructed your world is. Remember, the reader may not need to know any of it. A rookie mistake is to think that everyone who’s reading it wants to know it all. (This is why some people hate Moby Dick: it’s full of detail about whaling that you probably don’t want if you’re just in for some adventure.) But you, the writer, you need to know all of it.

Tying up loose ends in the final draft stage of writing

Wednesday morning I got up at 5 AM fully intending to get all the final stuff I needed over to Iva (my editor) so we could print the galley proof and see what this book looks like in the flesh — that is, with ink n stuff on paper n stuff.

There’s always more than you thought. Monday I had sent her my final revisions (third, fourth or fifth draft? Lost track.) Wednesday I was looking over the .pdf and found that she’d missed all my revisions on one chapter. The rest looked great. By 7 AM I thought I was done. Later in the day I was working to find one or two more illustrations, adding a link to a friend’s blog, re-captioning a bunch of illustrations … the list went on. The better job I do on the details, the better the galley will look. The better the galley looks, the more likely we can publish it after seeing the galley, without revisions. (Yeah. Right.)

I have this love/hate relationship with the details. There comes a point when you take that book and send it to the editor and say “I want nothing more to do with this steaming pile of horse radish, you deal with it” and then they punt it back to you for revisions a few times, and finally right before the end, the very bitter end, the end with coffee dregs gagging you, you just want to say “give control back to me NOW because this has to be perfect” and they do, because it’s yours to screw up if you must. Like, I had this crazy idea that we’d break the rules and NOT underline the title of a certain book which is mentioned multiple times in one particular chapter. (I have my reasons, mainly that underlined stuff looks like a web link these days. I’m about done with underlining.)

In coaching, we say that leaders take responsibility for their lives. Well, that goes for writing too: writers take responsibility for their manuscripts. You have to give it up to the editor to some degree, and you have to also realize that no editor is ever going to care about your book the way you do, just like no renter ever takes care of the place the way an owner does. When the book is done, Iva will go off to another project while I try to sell the darn thing.

This is the time when people start asking you “are you excited” and your primary reply is “I’m exhausted” but of course there is exhilaration as well. Then there’s the whole “now I gotta market this thing” stuff that has you tied up in knots. Dealing with loose ends while you’re tied up in knots, and people think a writer’s job is easy. Ha.

But I have no complaints. Getting that book in your hands is one of the most satisfying things a person can do.  Flipped on the radio Tuesday and caught the tail end of an NPR article. They were saying that 20% of books are now read on e-readers. I know there are lots of gurus out there saying that you can make a living selling e-books, but that’s mostly for people writing genre fiction, the $0.99 garden variety, here-today-forgotten-tomorrow pulp fiction which has come roaring back from the 1920’s. I contend that if you’re going to be any sort of a speaker, coach, trainer, doing any conferences, basically if you’re going to be in front of people AT ALL, you better go ahead and invest in some paper copies. Sure, it’s overhead, but it’s also still how 80% of your readers will prefer to consume your work.

Plus, there’s that feeling you get when you hold your book in your hands like an infant, warm, cuddly, crying out “somebody read me!” That feeling that makes your toes tingle with glee. That feeling of “oh Lord may the world appreciate everything I love about this baby at least a tenth as much as I really hope they will” is similar to the feeling parents get when they hold that infant and say “the world is cruel, little one, but pay no attention to the critics.”

The critics, after all, are spending their time criticizing rather than writing their own book.

In a few days the final touches will be finished. We’ll cut the cord, tie the knot, and send this book out into the world to live in a straw or brick house like a little pig, or watch her go in her cute little jacket to visit grandma and hope that it doesn’t get eaten by the big bad wolf of international Internet indifference. Good luck, little book. And God bless you!

Oh, yeah. The publisher told me yesterday he’s thinking of translating it into Spanish already.

“Yeah, I wrote this book. I can’t read it, but I wrote it.” Hmm. I kind of like that.

Writing about Writing is Writing

It’s popular to say that writing about writing is not writing.

I’ve decided I disagree.

Because writing is part of making art, and because making art aids people to become more self-reflective, writing about writing is just another level of being self-reflective.

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t have disciplined times to work on our fiction. But writing about the work we’re doing on fiction can be a huge part of getting past writer’s block.

I’m not completely prepared to say what causes writer’s block, or even define it. I just think that writing about writing, the meta-work of a writer, could be extremely good for you and could even be considered writing.

This is a philosophical concept I think ought to be called meta-writing.

I’m coming around to this once again as I read the postscript to The Name of A Rose, by Umberto Eco. His entire novel is a book about books. He spends the entire novel writing about the written word. Of course, there’s a murder mystery and a fairly decent performance by Sean “Shawn” Connery and Christian “Laettner” Slater if you can look past the sort of grainy kind of cameras they used in the Middle Ages. But really Eco spends the whole book writing about books, and then the postscript writing about writing. You’ll get this if you read the Postscript, which is actually published as it’s own volume in some cases.

If it’s good enough for Umberto Eco, it’s good enough for me. Happy writer’s Thursday.