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Write on the RiverProcess is something many of us never consciously focus on. Yet we all have one as artists. How we create a world, a story, out of just our imagination. How we translate that story through the sole medium of the printed word into a vivid story in the minds of readers.

I’m somewhere around manuscript number 70. That means I’ve written over five million published words. And a lot more that were never published. I learn from every book I write. It seems I learn more each year, which is kind of scary, given I’ve been making a living as a writer for a quarter century.

The last five or so years I’ve really focused on my creative process. Honing it. Learning from other writers and their process. Each of us has a unique one, but we share many traits.

My wife and I have run numerous Write on the River Workshops and while we have a formal description of the workshop, I think the key to it has been helping each writer who attends uncover their process. Bring it into consciousness where it can be molded from craft to art.

Process evolves; it isn’t static. As we learn more, we adapt. I’m a much more free-flowing writer now than I was just a year ago. A big reason for that is that I have more trust in my process.

Process is psychological. Each of us focuses on different things: character, setting, voice, pace, tone, plot. Each of us ‘researches’ differently. Often we’re unaware of what we’re doing. I’ve found that the more aware we become, the better writer we become.

My wife has worked with many authors, including #1 NY Times Bestsellers. I’ve taught thousands over the years. Between us we bring to different types of processes to our teaching, which makes for a very unique experience.

IMG_2479We’ve had 100% positive feedback from participants. Of course, some of that could be the champagne. But even after that wears off, we hear from participants for years. In fact, we ended up starting a Retreat for Workshop graduates who just want to come back and hang out for a weekend and write and chat.

Or maybe they just want to see Cool Gus and Sassy Becca.

If you’d like more information: Write on the River. We’re currently scheduling our next couple of workshops and each is limited to four slots. If you have any questions feel free to drop us a line at

indexStories tend to blur together after a while. Reading the Bookbub descriptions each day of those books on special, they get numbing. I once submitted a bunch of ideas to an agent; he came back with: “I see fifty of these a day. Give me an interesting character. Re-read Day of the Jackal. Give me a character dossier like that.” After all, we know from page 1 of that book that the Jackal will fail. DeGaulle wasn’t assassinated. So why read it? Because the assassin is so interesting and his plan so unique.

It makes sense. Think of your favorite book. Do you remember plot or character? Yet so often we focus on plot as writers. When I gave the keynote at Thrillerfest a few years ago (and will be there this year), I talked about pitching. I told people that when they saw me afterward, walking around looking dazed as I am wont to do, feel free to pitch me and I’d give honest feedback. Since these were thrillers– well, I got numbed out by the words: Al Qaeda, nuclear weapons, CIA, SEALs, Special Ops, FBI, biological weapons, etc. etc.  They all sounded roughly the same. I told them give me an intriguing character. A Jack Reacher. So how to do this?

Your basic story dynamic is the Protagonist (the character who owns the story) struggles with . . .The Antagonist (the character who if removed will cause the conflict and story to collapse) because both must achieve their concrete, specific . . .Goals (the external, concrete things they are each trying desperately to get, not necessarily the same thing).

The Protagonist:   Must be someone the reader wants to identify and spend time with:  smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different.  Consider giving your protagonist an anomaly.  What this means is they have something in their character that doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ who they appear to be.  Russell Crowe in LA Confidential is, in essence, a thug cop used as muscle.  No one thinks he’s very smart.  But from the very beginning of the movie, he goes out of his way to protect women in peril, even when he has no vested interested.  Why?  That ‘why’ is a hook that keeps you following his character.  This anomaly gets explained eventually.

How do we get a character anomaly out quickly?  To give us some commonality, let me use some popular tv shows:

A private investigator with OCD– his name is Monk.

A brilliant diagnostic doctor, addicted to vicodin, who hates people but saves their lives.  His name is House.

A southern belle in LA, always wears dresses, had affair in previous job with new boss, who heads a major crimes unit in LA and is a superb CLOSER.  (Fish out of water story)

A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer who decides to start cooking meth. His name is Walter White.

Some had really good ideas, but the character just didn’t cut it:

LIFE:  What if a LA cop is wrongly convicted of murder, sent to prison, but then is exonerated by DNA and as part of his settlement gets 50 million dollars AND his gold detective badge so he can try to find the real murderer.

Good idea.  The writing was decent.  But the character just didn’t pop.  Lasted one season.  The anomaly they tried to give the character didn’t work:  he buys a huge mansion with his money, but he doesn’t put any furniture in it.  Besides not being very interesting, it doesn’t make sense.

STANDOFF:  A male-female hostage negotiation team who are secretly having an affair, have it revealed during a hostage situation.

The writing on that show was actually very good.  Some excellent episodes.  But if your hero and heroine are involved from the pilot, you don’t have that Moonlighting or X-Files sexual tension.

Remember also to consider extremes when writing about characters in order to involve your reader more intensely.  You can have a good character and a bad character.  But would the reader prefer to see an evil character and a noble character?  Think of personalities as a pendulum and understand that the further you swing that pendulum, the more involved the reader usually will be.  Therefore, take any very positive trait you can think of and try to find its opposite.  Do the reverse.  Then use those traits to develop your characters.

Your protagonist must be in trouble, usually not random.

Must be introduced as soon as possible, first is preferred.  Usually, we must meet the protagonist by the end of the second scene.  Right away you’re signaling something to the reader if you introduce the problem before the protagonist and vice versa.

Your protagonist must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal.   Note I say external and specific goal—something tangible.  Don’t confuse goal with motivation.

We often empathize with a reluctant protagonist.  Don Maass in How To Write The Breakout Novel says that redemption is the most powerful character arc.  The problem is having empathy initially with a character who needs to be redeemed.  So we must see the spark of redemption in a negative protagonist very quickly.  In the first scene where we meet them, we must see them do something, often a very minor thing, sometimes even just one sentence worth, that resonates in the reader’s subconscious that the character has the potential for redemption.

The protagonist, as she is at the beginning of the book, would fail if thrust into the climactic scene.  This is something you should check after your first draft is done.  Take the protagonist from the opening, throw her into the climactic scene, and the bad guy should win.  Her arc is the change that allows her to triumph where she wouldn’t have before.

The protagonist drives the main storyline story.  You have one for one main story line. You will always have one protagonist and one antagonist.  In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who is the protagonist?


NovelWriterWhy?  Because he always comes up with the plans.  “You keep thinking Butch; that’s what you’re good at.”

In Lonesome Dove who is the protagonist?  Even though we might love Gus the most, the protagonist is Call, because he keeps the plot moving via the cattle drive.  Also he is the one still standing at the very end, right back where he started from.

Remember that your protagonist is only as good as the antagonist is bad.  There would be no Clarice Sterling without a Hannibal Lecter.

What is your protagonist’s anomaly?

PS: Next Write on the River Writers Workshop is sold out. So we’ve scheduled another 16-17 April. Already one slot is gone to someone on the waiting list. 3 left. If you have any questions, drop me a line.




Ever see that? How about a blog titled: “I Can’t Make A Living Writing Any More”?

Hmm. Nope.

Writers are strange creatures. I have complete strangers hit me up on twitter asking me publicly if I’d recommend an agent for them. Or look at their queries. Even their manuscripts (nothing  compared to what agents get hit with). Next brain surgeon I see on twitter I’m going to ask him for some free surgery, since my brain seems a little off. Seriously.

Ever have someone ask what you do, and when you answer that  you’re a writer, they say: “Never heard of you.”

My reply is: “What’s your name?” and when they tell me, I say: “Never heard of you either.”

Nah. I give them my card, a book if I have one handy. Every person is a potential reader.

Writers, we tend not to value themselves. And one of the rules my wife has taught me is: We teach people how to treat us.

I just realized I’m writing this blog after writing yesterday’s blog about Bernie Madoff. The mind works in mysterious ways. Real subtle, there, Bob.

WDW_B&N copyBack to teaching people how to treat us: when I do consulting or keynoting for Who Dares Wins, outside of the world of publishing, I quickly learned that when asked my fee, if it were too low, I might not get the gig as they then felt I wasn’t very good if I didn’t charge much. Almost the opposite of being a writer, who will give away their first born to give a talk, somehow thinking they will eventually sell books.

You have to consider not only the actual talk, but your expertise.  When I present Who Dares Wins, I’m not just giving a company a two-hour presentation.  I’m giving them the benefit of decades of experience as a Special Forces student, team leader, operations officer, commander, soldier, instructor at the JFK Special Warfare Center and consultant to previous organizations.  Also, being a NY Times bestselling author who has sold millions of books and started up a successful publishing company that has thrived through extreme turmoil in the entertainment business.  That stuff is hard to come by.  Rare.  It’s worth something.

I do feel uncomfortable when someone asks how much I charge for a talk, particularly in the writing world when I know money is tight for the organizations.  I remember, though, what I was told one year at the Maui Writers Conference.  A CEO of a very successful company told me that in the corporate world, to get the kind of high level expertise that was being given at Maui one would expect to pay tens of thousands of dollars.  And all these best-selling authors were getting was a plane ticket and a hotel room for their collective experiences and expertise.

I believe writers should value their expertise.  If asked what you charge, consider who is asking, what is being asked, and what value it will have to those who receive your expertise.  Remember, all they can do is say no, or tell you what they can pay.  Or you can always negotiate.  One technique I use for some of my day long presentations is give a percentage of my book sales at the event back to the organization.  This is a win-win situation.

Remember: if we don’t value ourselves, no one else will. List to Harlan Ellison — Pay The Writer (warning language)

Write It Forward!

It’s a great life. I’m my own boss. I wear shorts and t-shirts in the summer and sweats in the winter to work, which is in my house. I sit at my desk with a great view of the TN River with a blank stare, drool running down the side of my mouth, and I’m working. Well, not really. Because no one’s paying me for my great thoughts. They’re paying for my writing.

I’ve been doing it for over a quarter of a century and here are some harsh truths I’ve learned about making a living as a writer.

1. No one owes you a reading. You have to earn it.

2.  The minute you think you have it made, your career is over.

3.  You have to be ahead of innovation, not following it. I get rather bored lately reading blog posts and tweets and comments from all the gurus making predictions, comments, yada, yada, because I’ve had the bisque. That doesn’t mean there isn’t much to learn. I do read them. Now I focus more on the subtext. But other than that, a lot of it is the same old, same old. But I also have to accept for many writers, it’s new. Still, I also remember what some of these same ‘gurus’ were saying 3 or 4 years ago. Uh-huh. Nevertheless, it’s incumbent on a writer to pay attention to the business side.

4. Listen to those who have skin in the game. I make my living selling stories to readers. If you want to make a living selling stories to readers focus on those people. Those who make their money in ancillary ways off of the book business? Listen to them but also understand their motives are different than yours. Many of them want to make their money off you. Caveat emptor.

5. Trust no one. From the classic I, ClaudiusHerod [to Claudius]: Trust no one, my friend, no one. Not your most grateful freedman. Not your most intimate friend. Not your dearest child. Not the wife of your bosom. Trust no one.  Okay, that’s extreme but essentially, no writer should count on anyone else professionally. Your agent, your editor, your publisher: they are not your friends inside the business. They are not your business manager. They are people who you work with as a self-employed part of the publishing machine. They might love you, but when the numbers don’t add up—later, gator.

6. Publicity doesn’t equal sales. You can be on the front page of the NY Times and unless the story is specifically about your book, it doesn’t lead to sales. I’ve actually BEEN quoted in an article on the front page of the NY Times, one of my books was mentioned, and I got a whopping bump of about four sales because the article wasn’t about the book. I interviewed for a NY Times article that came out this past weekend and didn’t make the final editorial cut. Whatever.

7.  You can be as ‘right’ as you want to be but still fail. I only have to be right for my business. Not anyone else’s. What works for me will not work for anyone else. Stop trying to prove you’re right to others. They don’t care.

8. People lie. Writers are professional liars. I’ve listened to keynotes from writers and known they weren’t telling the truth. I’ve seen ‘deals’ posted in Publishers Marketplace and known the agent was grossly exaggerating the sale. No one blogs about “my career has gone down the crapper”. Nope. People talk about good things. So don’t let it discourage you when everyone seems to be doing better than you. Often they’re hanging on by their fingernails.

9.  No matter how good your writing is, someone will not like it. In fact, the better it is, the bigger the pushback. The more successful you become, the more people will try to take you down. Don’t let them. Also remember, you need haters to succeed. Like a relationship– we’d rather have hate than apathy.

10.  Math wins. Always. The Content eBook Blob is eating up a lot of midlist self-pubbers. Remember the movie The Blob? 1958? Steve McQueen? Every book that is digitized is on the shelf forever. No one is walking the aisles with computer printouts removing those that are beginning to ooze. And every day more and more titles are added.

11.  Nobody knows everything. When we go to industry events, I constantly remind my business partner, Jen, that no one there knows everything. Of course, she sometimes reminds me I don’t know everything. Despite having my wife call me a contrarian, I’m afraid I have to disagree with both of them. Anyway, most people in the business know only a niche. In fact, the larger the organization they are part of, the less they know. People pretend to know a lot, but that’s because they’re . . .

2cfa3f55dc70babbda2b8dad9e18b36212.  Afraid. Fear rules many things in life. Fear is insidious. Repeat the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s brilliant Dune:

13.  It always comes back to content. Bundles, Bookbub, sacrificing goats; they all have their place. But it always comes back to content. Write good stories. Then more good stories. And you will succeed.

Want more good stuff? Sign up for my newsletter. Click here! If you sign up, you get a free book. And, like those late night commercials, get the book and we throw in a wonder-roller to remove dog hair. Okay, that was one step too far. NOTHING removes dog hair, as Cool Gus consistently proves– I just had depot repair on my Macbook Air and they found dog hair inside it.

You get a free book for signing up. That’s pretty cool. And Ides of March is up for pre-order.

And remember. It actually is the best time ever to be a writer. Because the only one who can stop you. Is you.

Time Patrol: Ides of March

15 March 2016

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