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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

I’ll be doing a day long workshop this weekend in Shreveport, LA on writing the novel and in May in Cleveland where I will be doing pretty much the same thing, but with a different accent. I’m thinking Swedish?

Some random thoughts on conferences:

IMG_0399 3First, let me say that I like teaching at conferences.  It’s a great change of pace from sitting here and writing 14 hours a day and catering to Cool Gus’ constant demands, such as “give me back my big red ball”.  They are also necessary for networking.  Plus you get to travel and find out what the inside of a hotel looks like in Fargo (they speak differently at the desk and there’s usually a “little fellow”).

Here are some notes that come to mind when reflecting on over two decades of conferences:

One-on-ones:  Agents and editors have to suffer through this, but I’ve done a bunch too, in the spirit of the blue-line edit that some places like the Surrey Writers Conference have which I’ll be doing later this year. It’s in that wild and crazy place called Canada. I still remember sitting at my desk when we lived on Whidbey Island and seeing a Canadian warship coming down Puget Sound and hoping that Canada was invading! It’s even more needed now!  Please, invade us!

I think having authors do one-on-ones is a good idea because we can be honest, unlike agents who tell everyone with a forced smile to send their material to them after the conference. Writers– that’s an insider secret. Don’t tell anyone I told you.

By the way.  Here’s another reason besides the possibility of getting attached why agents say that:  90% will never follow up.  I was stunned when I heard that, but over the years agents and editors and my own experience have confirmed this.  So, why do a one-on-one when you’re going to reject yourself anyway by never following up?

Keynotes:  They’re fun to give, but doing the after-dinner keynote, I make it a rule to limit it to 20 minutes. People are tired and some have to drive home.  In fact, I often give a keynote that involves the jump commands I used as a Jumpmaster in Special Forces and the first is a time warning:  “20 Minutes!”  I end the keynote 20 minutes later, with the jump command:  “Go!”

I have never read from my latest work.  Just my preference. I know lots of people like to hear an author read, but at a writers conference, unless there is a teaching point . . .

Conference directors: don’t schedule keynotes to close out the conference on Sunday at noon.  Everyone has to go.  You can feel the crowd twitching for the door.  Let your people go.

Ramp jumpWorkshops:  I prefer to stay busy.  I’m there anyway.  At the San Diego State conference one year I did 8 back to back 50 minute workshops in one day.  However, I couldn’t speak that night, so that might have been too much.  I figure, if I’m here and we took all the trouble to get me there (which for me means  Cool Gus driving me to the airport in the Jeep, getting on a plane and then parachuting in) then I might as well be useful.  I’m there to expose myself to as many people as possible, although that could get me arrested. For those attending, pick your workshops more according to who is presenting (do they have something you want) rather than topic. Honestly, I often find editor and agent panels get too bogged down in minutiae and personal preferences than solid information.  BTW, if you’re looking for a speaker or two, here is a pdf with the ones Jen and I do together, and also separately: BobandJenWorkshops

B&NWIFConference(6)This is a topic that concerned us so much, we wrote a book about it: The Writers Conference Guide.  Which we’ll give you free if you email us  at and tell us what eBook version you want (mobi for Kindle, epub for the others, or pdf if you don’t do an ereader). You get if for asking and for reading this far down in the blog! We won’t add your email to any list, but would request you sign up for the newsletter on your own (hint, hint– click HERE) because we like giving stuff away via the newsletter and if you’re not on it, then you’re going to have to read every blog all the way to the end.

And since you’ve read this far, don’t forget, my wife and I run the infamous Write on the River Workshop. Next one scheduled is booked full, so we’ve scheduled one after that on 16-17 April and have a couple of slots left. We’ve worked with writers running the gamut from #1 NYT Bestsellers to brand new authors. But there are only four slots for each. And attending the Workshop is the only way to be eligible to attending the super-secret Retreat, where we give people the secret handshake!

AND– in two weeks: Time Patrol: Ides of March comes out. I’m stoked for these books because the template of six missions, same day, six different years in history is really bringing up such interesting material.

Think of your favorite book.  What the first thing that comes to mind?  I’m willing to bet, it’s the characters.  Most people relate to people, not things.

Characters bring emotion to story, and emotion is what attaches readers to books.  It took me a while to truly appreciate this fundamental truth of fiction.

Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned about character development over the years.

1.     “Know the enemy and know yourself.  In a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.”  Sun Tzu.  As I teach in Write It Forward for writers and Who Dares Wins in the business world, before we can understand other people, even fictional ones, we must understand ourselves.  So, yes, if you’re a writer, you’ll need some therapy.  It is not normal to sit alone in a dark room and write 100,000 words; seriously, it’s not.  You need to understand your point of view on people and things because that’s going to come out when you develop your characters.  One of the biggest breakthroughs I had on character was when I realized I was writing a character who was doing things I would never in a million years do, but I was able to have him believe he was doing the right thing.

lonesome dove2.     Everyone one has a primary motivator.  You must know the primary motivator for every character.  Be able to say it in one word.  Because when characters are pushed to the limit, that primary motivator is going to determine their course of action, not your decision as author.  In Lonesome Dove, when Blueduck kidnaps Lori, Larry McMurtry did not have a choice as to what each of this characters were going to do.  Because they were fully developed, they all acted ‘in character’.  Gus went after Lori.  Call kept the cattle moving north.  Jake Spoon went to San Antonio and gambled.  In one of my books, my protagonist’s primary motivator is ‘loyalty’.  My antagonist primary motivator is ‘honor.’  Do you see how those two motivators can truly clash and bring the fuel of a novel:  conflict? Would you rather have a loyal friend or an honorable friend? Some people believe you can have both, but there are also times when the two can conflict.

3.     You need at least three layers of motivation to your main characters.  These layers are all present at the beginning of the book, but the character isn’t conscious of the deeper ones.  They can be layered thus

  • What do you want?
  • What do you really want?
  • What do you absolutely need?

4.     Those layers are peeled away until we get down to that need.  In the book Jenny Crusie and I wrote, each peeling away occurred at a turning point in the novel.  JT Wilder in Don’t Look Down:

  • What do you want?  Get paid and get laid.  (He’s a guy)
  • What do you really want?  A relationship. (He’s a guy who needs someone)
  • What do you need?  A relationship and community. (He’s a guy who needs someone and others)

5.     You don’t have to invent characters from scratch.  If you’re not going to use real people (modified hopefully and also not in malice which is called libel), then use what experts have developed for you.  Consider using variations of three templates.

  • Archetypes.  This is very useful for gender differences.  Is there any male equivalent of slut?  That always provokes good debate.
  • Profiling.  I’m big on profiling because it gives you character types that will act in certain ways.  And no, it isn’t just for serial killers.  You can profile anyone.  Indeed, in Write It Forward, one exercise participants do is profile themselves. If you don’t think you have time to write, profile yourself by simply writing down how you spend your time for a week. I guarantee you’ll find time where you could have been writing.
  • The Myers-Briggs.  Many of you have taken it, but it gives you 16 distinct character types you can mine.  By the way, one type, INFJ, is labeled author.  The exact opposite, ESTP, is promoter.  I often tell writers to focus not on what they are; but what they aren’t. That’s the area that needs improvement.

6.     Know your characters’ blind spot.  We use a trait-need-flaw diagram to find that.  It’s the flaw your character isn’t aware of that makes for compelling fiction and is the groundwork of tragedy. Push any character trait to an extreme and it brings the potential for disaster.

7.     Make your antagonist a real person, not a cardboard cut out.  We must understand WHY the antagonist is doing a bad thing.  By the way, evil is not a motivator.  It’s an end result. Don’t confused motivation and goal.

IMG_0972These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned about character over the years.  I can honestly say I’ve learned more about the craft of writing in the past year then in the past 25.  I think the key to success as a writer is always wanting to learn more and become more skilled at the craft in order to become an artist.

If you’re interested in an intense workshop on this, along with idea, conflict box, the current publishing industry and more, we have some openings for our Write on the River Workshop. More details here, but space for each is limited to four. We’ve worked with writers ranging from #1 NYT bestsellers, to those working on their first novel.

Plus you get to meet Cool Gus. And Sassy Becca. And, for now, Xander, the wonder dog.



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!

Time Patrol: Ides of March

15 March 2016

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