Traits of Successful Writers IV– Craft Tuesday at Write on the River


You could also call this willingness to change. This is not only important when starting out, but it is perhaps even more important after first getting published. You should be willing to learn from any source to improve your writing.

Before you can be willing to change though, you have to be willing to say the three hardest words in the human language for most people, “I was wrong”. This should be followed with:, “Maybe I’m not doing this the best possible way. Maybe I can learn from someone else.”

One thing I see too much of is writers who want validation instead of help. They want to be told how great their manuscript is and have a publisher put the check in the mail. They don’t want to hear what’s wrong and what more work needs to be done. I find this very strange in the environment of conferences and classes, where the entire purpose is not validation but to become better writers.

After three books published, I took some graduate literature courses at the local college. It was a very worthwhile experience and expanded my horizons. In fact, the longer I write, the more I appreciate the literary side of the house. I think many genre writers get too caught up in the “formula” of their genre and trap themselves, becoming unable to write anything different. In the same manner, if you have a background in literature, don’t turn your nose up at information that seems too “common” or genre oriented.

I read a book and took a course on screenplays and learned some things about writing that I can incorporate not only into my work on screenplays, but also my novels. I found the way a screenplay is broken down interesting and I use it later in this book to help you get the big picture on how a novel works.

I recently watched the visiting writer at a local college come into our writer’s group to do a reading. She walked in, did her reading, took her applause, and then walked out. I guess she was simply too good of a writer to waste her time listening to the other people in the group read or discuss writing.   She didn’t bother to find out whom she had just read to and because of that she lost the opportunity to network with several published authors who might have helped her in her attempts to publish her next novel.

That’s another lesson I’ve learned—you never know who you’re dealing with so be courteous and open to all you meet. No matter what your mindset, listen to others and what they have to say about writing even if you disagree with them. You might find yourself agreeing a year or two later. In this book, you might find me appearing to be somewhat schizophrenic, taking several different perspectives, some of them seemingly opposed to each other, but remember, I began writing this in 1990 and have been adding to it ever since, so in these pages you see some of my own evolution as a writer. I do have to say that for mainly ego reasons, I was very touchy when first starting out at what I perceived to be snubs from the literary community toward genre writing. Now I see that attitude to be naive and wrong. You have to decide what you want to do and pursue it, regardless of what others say or believe. Another thing I have learned is that it is guaranteed that someone, somewhere, will not like what you’ve written after you get published. It’s also guaranteed that some of those people feel a burning desire to inform you of those dislikes.

The biggest change I have made over the years is to alter my perspective on plotting and characters. I will discuss this in detail further in this book but for my first dozen manuscripts or so I believed that the plot drove the story. Now I realize that characters drive the story. In order to make that change, though, I had to admit that what I was doing was not the best way to work and be willing to look at points of view diametrically opposed to my own.

You can’t ever get better if you don’t first admit you’re not doing it the best possible way. When I taught a writing correspondence course, I would have to say that 80-90% of the students were unwilling to change anything based on the feedback I was giving them. The first question this raises is why they even took the course in the first place? The answer I mentioned above—they wanted validation. The few who did change, who did the hard work and reworked their material, and put the time into thinking about the questions I would pose—they made great strides as writers.

Remember that change takes stages. First one has to accept that there is a need for change. Then you have to intellectually accept the change, which isn’t total acceptance. After a while of living with the mental acceptance, you will gradually have emotional acceptance of the change, which is total acceptance. That is why it takes years and years to change, if one ever does.

I find change usually requires Kubler-Ross’s five emotional stages. I also touch on this in editing, but very briefly we tend to go through:

  1. There is no problem or need to change
  2. How dare someone, including me, say I’m not doing it right
  3. Maybe if I can change some small things it will make a big difference
  4. Yes, I do really need to change
  5. Which leads to change

Once, I spent every day of a week reading the fifteen New York Times bestsellers. I did this because I wanted to become a NYT bestseller. I read them with an open mind and I learned many things. I adjusted some of the structure of my plotting in accordance with what I learned and incorporated what I learned in places in this book also.

There are two types of books, besides bestsellers, that I recommend new novelists read: first novels (because this book was sold on its own merits) and breakout novels (the book that breaks a mid-list author into being a best selling author).

I constantly have to reinforce to writers the fact that the reader does not know what the writer knows. That a writer must be able to get out of their own head and into the head of a reader who is starting from page one.

If you start your manuscript with fifty pages of expository material, knowing that your great hook is on page 51, realize one thing—the reader doesn’t know the great hook is on page 51 and very few will want to wade through that much background information without knowing why it is important or that the hook is coming.

The Writing Routine

It seems like people always want to know what a writer’s “routine” is. I always get that question when I teach and I always have a hard time answering it. I have the same sort of answer when people ask about some of the material in the next chapter: I will use and do whatever it takes to get a manuscript done. If I have to outline on an easel pad, I do it. If I have to write in chalk on the side of an apartment building, I’ll do it. If I have to call the homicide squad to ask a stupid question, I’ll try to get someone else to do it, and when they won’t, do it myself.

Each individual has to discover what works, but the operative word in this sentence is works. Don’t lock yourself in—find what works, and if it stops working, find something else.

One interesting thing I have found is that the entire creative process has many paths but they all seem to parallel each other. I listened to a panel with Terry Brooks, Elizabeth George, Bryce Courtenay and Dan Millman as each talked about their own unique process of writing a novel. And on the surface it appeared that all were very different in their approach, but underlying what they were saying, I could see that they all did essentially the same things, just differently. Confusing? For example, Terry Brooks is a big fan of outlining and hates rewriting. But Bryce Courtenay doesn’t outline, he just starts writing and then spends a lot of time rewriting. But in essence, Bryce Courtenay’s first draft of the manuscript is equal to Terry Brooks polished outline. The same thought processes and amount of work go into it.


This is what you feel about what you are writing about. I talk about intent a little further on—what you want the reader to feel from the book. You also have to consider how you feel about what you are writing, because consciously or subconsciously, it will come through in your writing.

Your passion could be to tell an interesting and entertaining story. It could be to write a novel about what love means to you. Sometimes when I am trying to get a writer to get back to their original idea, I ask them what is most important about their book to them? What do they feel the most about? This is the core of the book.

I refer to this throughout this book, but one thing I believe is that if you are a writer, no one can stop you from writing.

This brings up the difficult subject of rewriting and changing. I’ve seen writers totally change their manuscript based on the off-hand comment of an editor/agent/writing instructor. Sometimes the change is for the better, but sometimes it tears the guts out of the book. I think a writer has to be true to himself or herself first. But the writer also must be objective enough to get out of their own head and see if what they have written works. To have these two capabilities reside inside of one person is a paradox and why it is difficult for most people to do this successfully.


45 Years Ago Today: Apollo 13 Successfully Returned

Apollo13_CoverApollo 13:  Successful Failure

“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.” Gene Kranz; the Monday morning after the Apollo 1 disaster; flight director for Apollo 13.

Apolo 13 is a catastrophe that could have been. While still a failure as far as the intended mission, Apollo 13 shows both the negative and positive side of cascade events working against each other until the balance ultimately revolved around which side was a hair better.

By all odds, the Apollo 13 mission should have ended with three dead astronauts and the entire space program suspended, if not stopped. Instead it was described, strangely, as “NASA’s finest hour.” The flight’s commander, Lovell, more accurately labeled it: “a successful failure.”

As you will see when we go through the cascade events, NASA actually did make a lot of mistakes, but it also did enough things right to nudge out those negative cascade events.

The Facts

On 13 April 1970, en route to the moon, Apollo 13 experienced an explosion which crippled the service module and required the three man crew to abandon their moon mission and focus on getting back to Earth alive. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, they made it back to Earth and a successful re-entry.

27 January 1967: A fire in the capsule during a test of Apollo 1 kills Astronauts Virgil I ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee.

1968: Oxygen tank that will eventually be in Apollo 13 is dropped two inches while being removed.

March 1970: Oxygen tank indicates trouble while being emptied.

11 April 1970: Apollo 13 launches.

13 April 1970: Oxygen tank explodes.

17 April 1970: Successful splashdown of Apollo 13.

Here are the cascade events leading up to the almost catastrophe:

1. A design change wasn’t completely integrated across all equipment.

2. One of the two oxygen tanks was dropped.

3. Unfocused workmanship.

4. Mechanical failure. When the fan was turned on to stir the tanks 55 hours and 54 minutes into the flight toward the moon, the oxygen tank exploded.

5. The catastrophe of Apollo 1 helped save the astronauts on Apollo 13.

6. Innovation, catastrophe planning and leadership helped save Apollo 13.

Leading to a successful landing 45 years ago today.  For more, read the short: Apollo 13:  Successful Failure.

103 Years Ago Today: Titanic Sinks

“There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.”  Phillip Franklin, White Star Line vice-president, 1912

Titanic is a classic example of systematic cascade events, many unrelated to each other, any of which if corrected, would have averted the final event.

Titanic_The Facts

 The Titanic sank in the early morning of 15 April 1912 after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The official death toll is 1,517 making it #5 on the all time fatality list for shipwrecks. What makes this sinking notable is that the Titanic was the largest ship afloat at the time of its maiden voyage and was declared ‘unsinkable’ by its builders.

Hubris is the father of tragedy and catastrophe.


Roughly 1,000 BC: Snow falls on Greenland, which will eventually become the iceberg the Titanic strikes.

31 July 1908: Plans for Number 400 (Olympic) are presented to the White Star Line and approved. Number 401 (Titanic) is also approved.

31 March 1909: Construction begins on Titanic.

1909: The fatal iceberg calves off a glacier on the west coast of Greenland.

31 May 1911: Number 401 slides on 22 tons of soap and tallow into the water. It is not christened or formally named, keeping with White Star tradition.

2 April 1912: First sea trials of Titanic.

10 April 1912: Titanic sets out on her first, and last, voyage.

14 April 1912; 11:40 pm: Titanic strikes an iceberg.

15 April 1912; 2:20 am: Titanic sinks.

The six cascade events that led to the seventh, and fatal, final event:

1. An unusual weather pattern caused more icebergs than usual and forced them further south than normal.

2. Rivets were of inferior material, some put in by inexperienced welders, causing more damage during the collision than should have occurred.

3. Lack of a sufficient number of lifeboats for the crew and passengers.

4. The two lookouts in the crows nest didn’t have binoculars.

5. The ship was going too fast for the conditions.

6. Warnings were ignored and the wireless radio wasn’t used correctly

7.  Ship sinks.

BTW, a cook survived in the water for over two hours, constantly swimming, until he was rescued.  I empathize with this because one of the first things I did upon taking over my Special Forces A-Team was to go to Denmark where we completed the Royal Danish Navy’s Fromandkorpset School– their combat swim school.  We learned great things, like dry suits aren’t.  I’ll post more about this experience shortly.

If you want more about Titanic and the cascade events, check out Titanic: Systematic Failure

Traits of Successful Writers III– Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Contentment & Desire

I started by saying wanting to make a million dollars isn’t the best motivation to write a novel. But you do need some tangible reasons. In a perfect world I suppose we could accomplish all the things we would like without having any external stimulus. But this isn’t a perfect world. I find putting my back against the wall helps. I wrote my first two novels living in Korea. I studied and taught martial arts six hours a day and went nuts the rest of the time. I wrote, to a certain extent, to keep my sanity. Then after getting published, I wrote because I enjoyed it but also to make money to live on. I had job offers where I could be financially secure, but I didn’t take them. I wrote, and continue to write, because I have to both internally and externally.

No one wants to talk about money. I remember watching the movie White Palace. In it the character Susan Sarandon plays is having a relationship with a younger man and she goes with him to his apartment for the first time. She’s very impressed with it and asks him how much he pays a month. He equivocates and hems and haws. She looks at him and says something to the effect of: “We can sleep together and make love, but you won’t tell me how much you pay for your apartment?” (I think her language wasn’t as mild, though.) That comment struck me because it’s so true of our society. Talking about money is more taboo it seems than talking about sex. I find this particularly interesting when we consider the academic side of writing. I was sitting in a writer’s group that I helped form and we had invited a professor who edited the local university’s literary publication to talk to us about the magazine. He started out by making the comment, “If you think you can make a living writing, forget about it.” Be careful of bitter people because their aura can be damaging.

Because you can make money writing. I’ve done it now for over twenty-five years and am currently making more as an indie author than I ever made as a best-selling traditional author. I’ve heard some authors and freelancers say never give away anything you’ve written for free, even if just to see it in print, and I tend to agree. If someone isn’t willing to pay for it, then work harder to make it good enough so someone will. Quite honestly, publishers will not be impressed with your credentials of getting published in publications that they never heard of and didn’t pay you anything other than to give you three free copies. I’m not saying absolutely don’t do that, but if you do, realize it is only a step and you need to move beyond. Don’t get stuck there.

I am not saying write simply for the money, but if you don’t factor money into the writing equation somewhere, and take it as a serious factor, you will fail, because eventually you will have to get a real job. Money cannot only be a source of motivation, but it is the basis for making a living at writing, which is very hard to do. It’s a vicious equation: to become a better writer, you must write—to write you must have time to write—to have time to write it most certainly helps to make some money at it.

OK, now that I’ve gotten the mercenary side of the business out of the way, go back to Pearl Buck’s quote: the root of your desire must be a passion to tell a story. Some people tend to look down upon telling a story in a format such as science fiction or mystery or action/adventure. But if that’s your passion and your story, then tell it and don’t worry what anyone thinks. I think there is one bottom line on how good a writer is: how many people read his/her book. That’s called commercial writing and sneered at in certain quarters, but if no one wants to read what a person writes then maybe he or she just isn’t writing that well. Think about it.

I sat on a panel at a conference and they asked each of us what we liked and disliked about writing for a living. The answers were interesting. I think an author needs the paradoxical combination of being able to be content and discontent at the same time. Because publishing is such a slow business and positive feedback so rare, you have to be reasonably content for long periods of time by yourself. At the same time you have to motivate yourself to write the manuscript, to do all the dirty work that needs to be done, to pursue long-range goals.

Setting Objectives

So far I’ve talked about what you need. Now let me mention something we could all do without: procrastination. If you’re like me, when you were in school, that term paper never really needed to be done until the night before it was due. I remember at West Point the radio station would have a contest the night before the big Social Sciences paper was due. They would have call-ins with the award going to the person who could claim they were starting their paper the latest.

In fact, for me, the one time I did a paper early—in fact so early that I was able to get feedback without a grade—the instructor gave me some basic pointers which I incorporated, then turned in the paper—again early, this time for a grade. I got an F. So much for positive reinforcement.

My main theme is that to become a writer you must write. You can be the greatest marketing specialist in the world, but if you don’t have a product to market, you’re not going to get published or sell. I am very big on understanding the business aspects of publishing and marketing your work as best you can, but I have seen people (including myself at times) forget one very important rule: you have to have a good product. Putting ninety percent of your effort into trying to sell your work when it is simply not good enough, is a waste of time. Put that effort into writing another manuscript that is good enough.

The best way I’ve found to overcome procrastination is to set objectives, both short and long range. If you feel such cold objectives interfere with your creativity, you might be right. But a novel is a heck of a long way to go simply burning the fuel of passion. One common fault that many suffer from is starting a novel, getting about a quarter of the way in, then dropping it to move on to something better, and starting a new novel. I know in everything I’ve worked on, about a hundred and fifty pages in, my mind has already started to move on to a new project and I’m somewhat bored with what I am working on. That’s where discipline and a schedule come in. If my next project isn’t due to start for three more months, then I have to work those three months on my present project in order to earn the right to start the new one.


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