Why Do My Stories Feel All Out of Balance?

Quoth Anonymous: How do I balance the amount of description and dialogue and thoughts and things in my fiction? I feel like I go on a tear and overdo one way over the others for long passages.

You know how after a plane crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board assembles whatever pieces they recover in a hangar somewhere to see what happened? Sometimes you have to do that with your fiction, understanding its individual parts to see how they’re working (or not working) together.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

The parts you’re asking about here are sentences, and each one in your fiction is primarily doing one of these things:

  • Dialogue, for performing a character’s speech: “Holy shit,” he said. “Bayonets really hurt when they past your skin.”
  • Action, for performing a character’s motions in real time: Timothy lifted himself with shaking arms from the slick and spreading pool of blood beneath his open chest wound. 
  • Thoughts/Feelings, for conveying how a character is reacting to the situation: There was no way he’d make it to spaghetti night at the VFW by six, which was just one more reason for Ingrid to be pissed at him. 
  • Description, for focusing on an interesting or important element of the setting: He’d never noticed it before, but the linoleum floor in his grandmother’s kitchen wasn’t uniformly a shade of gastric green but also speckled with squares of a rancid mustard hue. He sniffed, wondering if they were actually mustard, but they reeked more like a half century of Grammy’s sour feet.
  • Summary, for conveying what happened without performing it: For the next several hours, Timothy dozed and woke and dozed again. He enjoyed the dozing more because his brain was trying to entertain him with the all-star hits of his life: winning the intramural pennant, that kiss under the pier on prom night, finding that issue of Hustler in the woods.   

Now this model is very general, of course, and it’s more descriptive than prescriptive: you shouldn’t be precisely planning the function of each sentence before you write it (though hey, why not if you want to try?).

The best-case scenario is to develop an ear for the way sentences sound as you write them so they’ll naturally balance, but that’s not an instinct we dropped down out of the trees with.

You’ll have to learn it somewhere, mostly by reading works like the one you want to write and noticing the balance that author strikes between each type of sentence. You can try to do that intuitively, or you can try something more structured like this:

  1. Pick up a book in the genre in which you’re writing. Preferably, it should be one that you actually enjoyed reading.
  2. Take out five highlighters.
  3. On the first page, draw one line with each color and label them DIALOGUE, THOUGHTS, SUMMARY, ACTION, and DESCRIPTION.
  4. Now start with a passage you admire and start highlighting based on what you think the primary purpose of each sentence happens to be. You’ll see very quickly how the author is (or isn’t) balancing each of these elements.

Identifying the functions of each sentence like this is more for debugging your work, discovering the specific reason(s) it doesn’t feel or sound right. Nobody’s life depends upon the accuracy of your assessment, so if you’re not sure what a sentence is doing, take your best guess.

We’re looking at ratios here, not landing a guy on the Moon.

Some of the books you highlight may be heavy on description, striving to provide an experience for the readers. Others may be heavy in dialogue, moving the story along quickly perhaps at the risk of losing a sense of living the story. Maybe there are lots of thoughts and feelings, an interiority for a narrator’s inner landscape like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

Another debugging (or educational) trick to try is the squint test: peer at a page at a distance where you can’t make out the individual words, just looking at the blocks. Are they big blocks, signifying a slower and more contemplative pace? Or are they small blocks, hinting that this is a section of quick action and reaction?

(By the way, going slow isn’t bad at all. Going slow is what gives people a sense of experiencing this story as real, and it’s a necessary for lulling people into what John Gardner called the ‘fictive dream.’)

The last suggestion I’ll offer is that it’s okay to take your time. When you’re drafting a story, you’re in a hurry to get it done. You’re framing the house. In subsequent drafts, you’re adding the details…and you shouldn’t be afraid to take a whole paragraph (Or two! Or three!) to set the scene or tell us what a character is feeling.

The writing goes slower than the reading, so your sense of pace is going to be off until you read it aloud. Most people I know (including me) start thin and have to bulk out the story so it feels real.

That may feel like a lot of work for something that felt like a simple question. The truest answer is that you’ll get a feel for that over time, especially if you’re perceptive with other people’s work and honest about your own.

But that answer sucks in the short term when you don’t have those instincts yet. Identifying the sentences may be a good way to develop them.  

What Do You Do with Rejected Stories?

Quoth Don: How often do you approach the box where you keep your past works (I can hear the creaking of the chest as you open it) and revisit writing that was rejected to improve your writing now?

Good question, Don!

My general feeling with rejected stories is that once they’re gone, they’re gone.

By the time I’ve written something, sent it into the world, and received rejections for it, the emotional connection I had to it in the first place has long faded. Sometimes elements of that work sneak their way subconsciously into other stories, but I seldom reach into the trunk and try to resurrect them entirely.

As any good crime scene investigator will tell you, once there’s maggots, you ain’t bringing that one back.

I don’t really keep my rejected stories in trunks. Barrels work better.

I have only a few basic reactions to a story rejection:

  • Relief, because I’ve since realized that the story (at least that draft) deserved to be rejected and the editor saved me some embarrassment.
  • Chagrin, because I’d submitted it in the vague hope that I was wrong about how mediocre it was but the editor caught me.
  • Disappointment, because that story actually felt right and obviously didn’t connect with that particular editor or venue at this particular time.

Technically, you can choose to fix a story in any of those three scenarios but first, you need to ask yourself:

  • Do I want to? Is there something about this story that I still feel compelled to express? Does it still spark something in me? Do I still believe in it?
  • Is it worth fixing? By “worth,” I mean whether you think that you have the skill to fix it and a good place to sell it after you do.
  • Do I know how to fix it? Sometimes, you know exactly what’s wrong. Other times, you have no idea. Sometimes, a fix means changing a few words or a scene. Other times, it means starting a whole new document and salvaging the twenty good words from the last one.

For me personally, it’s fairly rare that a story meets all three of those criteria. A notable exception is the novella I just finished that started as a short story, became a novel draft, became an MFA thesis, became another novel draft, and finally became a novella after I started over from scratch.

In that case, I felt the idea was special to me and my experiences, and it seemed a waste to let it go for someone else to write.

(I have a suspicion that stories float around and find people to write them. If you let one pass by, it goes to someone else. I swear to God I was writing a short story about FBI agents investigating strange phenomena the year before The X-Files came out.)

The risk of picking over your rejected stories is that you’ll never stop. There’s a certain fantasy in refining a work over and over again that you can finally get it “right.” This fantasy is even stronger if a rejecting editor or workshop group gave you some vague and well-meaning advice on how to fix it. You can chase that around and around forever.

You make up for feeling bad about losing a single story by writing a lot more to take its place. Your chance to get it right comes with whatever’s next, not what came before.

Unless, of course, there’s that nagging idea that won’t let you go…

Why Hooman Love Write More than Me?

Quoth Tyler: My hooman is normally quite considerate. But there are these times when he begins writing and forgets it is treat time! I stride into the room and he ignores my efforts to remind him of his sacred duty–I bump his leg, I stretch up to tap his arm, I even mew, but the end result is rarely a full belly. Please help!

Thank you for your question, Tyler. I’m going to assume that you’re a cat and not a severely mentally-ill child, but really, the advice would be exactly the same so you do you.

Let me answer your question this way.

Think about your good standard Stare, right? Once or twice a week, you sit down or crouch while watching a section of wall or corner or ceiling without blinking for half an hour. The work is extremely necessary for the fate of all mankind, but it’s not completely visible to the hoomans around you so they don’t know that.

Yes, exactly like that.

The thing about a good and important Stare, of course, is that the first five or ten minutes of it produce no apparent results but are nonetheless crucial for the rest of the Stare. Without that seemingly fruitless groundwork, you can’t ascend to the state of transcendent perception required for the ghost or trans-dimensional portal or past-life flashback to manifest. 

That’s why it’s especially frustrating when a hooman trips over you at those moments or snaps, “What the fuck are you staring at?”

The answer which you cannot give is, “the dream-state beyond time.” Nor can you add, “And now I’ve lost it, asshole.”

Here’s where I blow your mind:

Your hooman ALSO gazes into the dream-state beyond time.

He too needs those minutes of seemingly fruitless meditation to shut out the chattering of the world and his own brain. Instead of staring at a wall, though, he’s staring at a white light box or a sheet of paper you’d rather use for ass-blotting.

Now it’s tempting to leap in and fuck up your hooman’s dream state in revenge for all the times he’s done it to you, but I beg you to consider this: you’re better than that.

In your heart are the memories of a thousand lifetimes on this and other worlds, and you know how fragile they can be. Your hooman can’t access them as easily as you can, but he’s trying, and there’s a certain nobility in that. Not your level of nobility, but still.

You’re lucky that he even wants to try. So few hoomans have a Thing beyond themselves to which they’re looking, something they can take an active part in making real. As you know, that’s fragile because everything on Earth wants to stop that kind of connection to the universe. That’s why there are cars and volcanoes and fleas, to make it all the harder to focus on what’s real.

A man named Edgar Allan Poe once wrote a poem with the line, “Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” You, of course, are one of those who dream by day. So is your hooman.

My advice to you, then, is this: let your hooman stare as much as you can. Yes, sometimes treats take precedence. Yes, sometimes the litter box is a little too thick for comfort. But as much as you can, as often as you can, grant your hooman the chance to glimpse but one thousandth of the visions you see every day.

But if you jump on his shoulder and see pictures of fur-less hoomans wrestling on a bed or in a rest stop bathroom instead of lines of text, go ahead and interrupt.

Should I Major in English?

Quoth at least five students from every semester I taught: I want to be a writer. Should I major in English?

(Or, the heartbreaking variant, “I switched my major to English because of you!”)

Despite what generations of angry blue-collar fathers have told their first-generation college children, a degree in English isn’t necessarily a vow of poverty. I’m doing okay with mine (though I supplement it with skills in programming and design), and I know plenty of people with STEM degrees who are struggling to find work because physics is even less relevant than literature for most businesses.

The days of a one-to-one correspondence between a degree and a job (with a few exceptions like medicine, law, and accounting) are long gone, if they ever existed. Now your main hope is to convince a potential employer that you chose your degree intentionally to train yourself for a grand, specific, and most importantly profitable purpose.

“Yes, I selected my major in English because I’ve dreamed all my life about writing mortgage software documentation, and my ability to parse The Faerie Queene serves only the purpose of better understanding Truth-in-Lending statements.”

(I think English majors are better at that because they’ve read and written a lot more bullshit. STEM people are all hung up on the truth.)

But 99% of the students who asked me this question didn’t care if the degree would make them attractive to employers. They wanted to know if it would make them better writers.

And the answer is it probably won’t.

What will make you a better writer:

  • Writing a lot, particularly on demand without waiting for inspiration or even something to say.
  • Receiving feedback from competent people.
  • Deliberately analyzing your own writing weaknesses and correcting them with practice.
  • Reading the kind of books or stories you want to write. Not, as in my case, 17th century Restoration drama, which I somehow took two courses in at UF.
  • Demystifying writing as something that is made by deliberate action, something that can be practiced and hacked, not granted by the gods or solely the result of “talent.”

Whatever you study (either formally or not) needs to put you in the way of writing…but not just any writing.

You have to be careful with studying English because often, you’re learning about literature instead of writing, studying the circumstances in which it was made or the socioeconomic conditions it represents or the psychological issues it shows or the vagaries of accidental meaning it performs.

You can’t, alas, take apart a story and learn to write it by analyzing its conditions of creation any more than you can reverse-engineer a Porsche by studying Weimar Germany.

Even if your literature degree requires tons and tons of writing as many do, the type of writing is very different than what people ordinarily want to read. A well-written academic paper (probably 10%) is structured more like a legal argument, providing evidence and drawing conclusions from the text instead of using the text to prove some pet theory of culture.

If you like to approach literature with a scientific curiosity and open-mindedness without an ax to grind, then the academy definitely needs you.

It’s possible, of course, to major in creative writing. That will put you in the way of writing things that are closer to an audience, but even then, many programs and professors make writing into something precious and dramatic and important, which is the last thing you need.

What you need, more likely, is a cigar-chomping editor who thinks that all words can be summoned and rewritten nearly on demand. You’re more likely to meet that kind of person in a journalism or communications program.

You have to make writing something that isn’t mysterious and strange to you. It has to lose a little of its magic so you can imbue it with your own. That’s the tightrope you’ll walk, taking it seriously but not too seriously, loving your words but not too much.

Many of the English majors in my classes were too paralyzed by creating LITERATURE to be loose enough to get conversational on the page; they knew too much about how hard it is and how much every word means…all things you shouldn’t think about until later.

The other majors tended to approach fiction with a beginner’s mind, sort of flouncing through on a lark.

Personally, if I had it to do over again, I might consider studying advertising or marketing because those are forms of writing that require an awareness of audience that I think is lacking in most writing and literature programs. Say what you will about the ethics of those professions, but they are certainly focused on obtaining an effect from people.

Which at the end of the day is what writing is all about, even at its most self-expressive.

My English degrees taught me a lot about Gothic literature, the 18th century, the 19th century, critical theory, Edgar Allan Poe, the Harlem Renaissance, and Oscar Wilde…all of which I’m deeply grateful for, though I didn’t have to pay for those experiences. My friend William has read more Shakespeare than I have (almost all of it) and he works in a convenience store.

The real risk of an English degree is knowing more about the documenting of life than the living of it. With the right attitude, you can graduate knowing both, but you have to be the captain of your own education.

Which you’d have to do with any other degree.

Seriously, just major in whatever you want, write what you want, read a bunch of it, and sometimes type in a chapter from a book you love and notice how it works.

That’ll put you ahead of 90% of English majors, including me.

How Do I Stick with a Story Even When It Seems to Suck?

Quoth “Serling”: I have long struggled with committing myself to any one idea. I’ve finished some stories but most were long ago. Ideas are not a problem; but as soon as I start working on one my enthusiasm dwindles and I abandon the tale for another. So I never accomplish much. How can I remain devoted to seeing a story through from start to finish?

Oh, Serling. Any writer who DOESN’T have a folder of abandoned titles, first lines, character sketches, first chapters, half-starts, or entire works is a sociopath. Perhaps a literal one, someone who thinks their every word is gold because they have no empathy for an audience.

The likely source of your problem is that you have an excess of this empathy, a sense of literary taste, which you are applying too early and too broadly.

To diagnose what’s going on here, I think you have to listen for the cause of your dwindling enthusiasm, which will likely be different by story. My dwindlers tend to be these:

  • I have no idea what to do next in this thing” is the most common for me because I’m an exploratory writer. My remedy is usually to write “What would be the next interesting thing that could happen in this story?” and talk myself through the plausible possibilities.
  • This story has gotten boring to write” is the second most common issue I have personally, and it usually comes when I forget (or lose touch with) what interested me in writing the story in the first place. This, too, I tend to solve with talking to myself in a journal, asking “What was the original appeal of this idea? A character? A situation? A setting? A feeling? How can I put more of that into the work?”
  • Something doesn’t feel right” is another thought that haunts me, and usually I track that down to fearing the inevitable stage of any creative work where it feels thin and flimsy, like only the skeleton of an idea. That’s a completely natural feeling, and it can only be cured by continuing to throw words at the story until you reach a critical mass of detail and feeling.
  • This story won’t be any good so to continue is a waste of time” comes up less often than it used to because of four quasi-Zen ideas I’ve been clinging to lately in my work:
    • This story will only suck if I decide to quit while it still does. I can fix almost anything, even if it means deleting everything but the three good words out of 10,000 that I’ve written so far.
    • Every story feels like a mess until a sudden shiver of recognition about 98% of the way through writing it.
    • My professional judgment about the whole story is suspect because I don’t have a whole story yet to judge. I just need to do the next good thing and rip out the previous bad one.
    • Who cares if I “waste” my time writing a story that doesn’t sell? It’s not like I’m neglecting dying children in my charity pediatric cancer practice for my writing.

There’s a lot of self-talk and journaling here, and I’m sure some tougher-minded professionals would scoff at that. They get their feedback from their peers or editors or agents or a bottle of gin, and I get some of mine from there, too.

(Not gin because I’m not an elderly man in the 1920s. Jameson’s.)

But when something goes wrong in my work, it is almost always a deviation from MY original intention or love, and another person can’t really help me with that. I have to go back to the source, spelunking down to the shriveled little weirdo in the center of my heart who sent this idea up to my brain in the first place.

To do this kind of inner dialogue means being a good writing friend to yourself. It means going from “This sucks and I’m a terrible writer” to “Huh. I wonder why this sucks and what we can do about it.” It means not taking any particular sentence or paragraph or even scene too seriously. It means seeing your work as an experiment you’re running instead of your last chance to be loved.

It means, most of all, telling yourself that the only way to fail at writing is to browbeat yourself out of doing it. 

One last idea I’ll leave you with is that all art in process makes a tremendous and terrifying mess. Go into any sculptor’s studio or baker’s kitchen and witness the excess required to make something beautiful.

This computer was designed by a genius and is the prototype of some of the most elegant machines ever invented. It’s in the Smithsonian now.

Writing is no different, and I would estimate that I’ve written about 10,000 earnest words of fiction for every one that’s been published. That’s not counting logs, journals, essays, blogs, letters, and hoaxed emails at work.

The novella I just finished is in its eighth version, counting a short story, a novel, a Master’s thesis, a revised novel, and a complete reboot. 

That’s just the cost of doing business. There are always second and third and fourth chances, and nobody has to see them until the one you like.

You just have to lessen the pressure on yourself until you get there.

What Level of Detail is Enough for Fiction That Feels Alive?

Quoth Anonymous: When I write fiction, it feels too thin, more like the outline of a story or a script of one. How do I know how much detail to put in so it feels more like a real story?

When I think of detail in fiction, I remember the model railroading books I liked to read as a kid.

Some people run a loop around a Christmas tree with a garish locomotive and shiny plastic cars, and they call it good. Others paint a sheet of plywood green and put out a few wooden block houses.

And then some go all out with miniature trees, tiny people, gravel under the tracks, and dust on the boxcars.

What fascinated me as a kid about model trains was this level of detail that felt almost impossible for me to achieve with my limited patience, ability, dexterity, and funds.

When I write fiction, I almost always have to go back and add more detail because I write first drafts so quickly and with a sense of relief to have finished them at all. One of my editing passes, then, is to add more details:

  • Setting paragraphs at the beginnings of scenes so readers have a sense of where they are: “Out beyond Route 91, the orange groves give way to vast fields of yellowed grass and palmetto bushes.”
  • Physical descriptions within the text itself, usually based on what the characters would likely perceive: “What I noticed first about him was that he had a tattoo of my wife on his arm, and she was shirtless.”
  • Emotional perceptions, including judgments about the environment: “Grandma’s house was always a hellhole growing up, with fleas surging at your ankles from the puke green carpet like they wanted you to rescue them.”
  • Emotional reactions: “So that’s what she thought, that I’d abandoned my son?”

When we talk about detail in fiction, it usually means some critical mass of specificity when the prose lulls the reader’s brain into experiencing the events you’re describing instead of just hearing them as a checklist. (John Gardner calls this ‘the fictive dream.’)

That critical mass is different for different readers, but the good news is that it’s actually lower than you might worry; we really just need enough detail to get our brains filling in the rest. That threshold depends upon a reader’s experience with the time, place, or subject.

If I want to simulate, say, a dorm room at the University of Florida, I can do that in several ways depending upon the reader’s experience:

  • For my sister who lived in South Hall eight years before I did, I can say, “a room on the third floor facing the Mudfest field,” and she’ll get it.
  • For a UF student (likely of the past), I might have to add a little more: “one of those old brick dorms from the 60s across from the O Dome on Stadium Road.”
  • For other people familiar with dorms or even governmental buildings, I might go a bit further and say, “The dorm could have been built anywhere from 1940 to 1970, with its interior concrete block walls thick with layers of institutional white paint, floors of speckled linoleum, and furniture build by IKEA’s prison labor division from a soft blond wood.”

How much is too much? That’s harder to say than how much is too little (where nobody can quite see or feel what’s going on), but one good way to know is by the perception of the characters. What do THEY notice about it? What do they interact with every day? What annoys them, touches them, sparks memory in them, or represents something to them?

A smudge on the wall at that dorm for one student is a reminder that this is worse than home, but for another, it means the spot where she painted a temporary mural with her best friend for spirit week.

So detail is really emotional specificity as much as physical specificity, perhaps more so. We see with our hearts more than our minds.

That means we see weird things.

In the first episode of Twin Peaks, there’s a moment that people thought was strange and absurd and pointless at the time where Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman go into a conference room at the police station and see a mounted buck’s head lying on the table because it fell off a wall.

“That’s so random,” people liked to say.

No, it isn’t. (Well, with Lynch, it might have been intuitively random.)

For one thing, that’s actually more realistic than a “normal” conference room in TV world because yeah, things fall off walls in the real world and people work around them.

For another, it says a lot about this place and its people:

  • Hunting (and perhaps by extension, the natural world) is important to them. Nobody’s weirded out or upset by a buck’s head.
  • Formality is not as important; it’s not odd to hang a trophy in a government office, nor is it odd to leave it there until someone gets a chance to hang it back up.
  • People there go with the flow of things instead of freaking out or demanding a repair or asking weird questions.
  • This police force may not be the big time where things like this wouldn’t be allowed to happen (or persist).

Why does this work as a detail? Because of Will’s Law of Detail:

Weird is normal. Normal is cliché.

Your mom doesn’t work in an office; she works in HR at the mannequin factory. Your dad didn’t go to the store; he went to Big Lots to buy a plastic colander to rinse out a motorcycle’s carburetor.

When you look closely at anything in the real world, you see that everything is weird. Everything is random. And it’s the random that’s realistic, not the planned.

What does a living room have in it? A couch, a loveseat, a couple of chairs, a coffee table, a TV. What does YOURS have in it? The remote for the TV that’s taped up because the battery hatch fell off. A water bottle drowning between two cushions soon to disappear forever. An end table with cat scratches across the top.

If you go with the weird and telling details that strike at a character’s emotions in the moment, you’re closer to the “right” amount of description than you’d be with a simple inventory.

There’s no such thing as typical in your life, and there shouldn’t be in your fiction, either.

What Tools Can Help Me Keep My Writing Organized?

Quoth Tom: How do you keep your larger writing projects organized? Do you use Word, notebooks, sticky notes, or some other tool, like Scrivener or Ulysses to keep everything straight (characters, plotlines, etc.)? My larger writing projects eventually turn into a tangle, which often become a chore, instead of a joyful, creative exercise.

Yay! A question about tools. I love talking about tools because every single tool holds within it the promise that FINALLY, writing will be easy.

Hunter Thompson might have had the right idea. Wrong stance, though.

I’ve tried writing in a million different ways, and what’s working for me now is this odd combination of things:

  1. Writing the initial lines, scenes, or even chapters of a work in Word, a plain text editor (like Sublime Text or even Evernote), or by hand with my twee fountain pen in a journal.
  2. Each time I return to that work, I read a little of what came before, tinker with a few things, and then ride that momentum a little further.
  3. In general, I try to write the story in order, though sometimes I’ll think of a dramatic moment and write it at the very end of the document.
  4. Eventually I get stuck, at which point I either write by hand in a journal or type in a blank document, “What the fuck is going wrong here?” and then I answer my own question until I feel a sudden spark of recognition and jump back to the main file.
  5. If a story grows beyond my ability to remember names or places, I’ll often create a secondary document (or a heading way at the bottom of the main one) where I list out things I need to remember.
  6. Sometimes, the sheer weight of stuff I’ve already written intimidates me so I’ll do the day’s writing in a file I call “workbench.docx,” working on the next small specific bit which I’ll then paste back into the main document.

That sounds really complicated, and at least one writer reading this is thinking, “But Scrivener can do all of that for you AND massage your [preferred flesh or appendage]!”

I’ve used Scrivener and done well with it, but I’ll admit that it feels very portentous when I open it, like somewhere I’m blasting a trumpet and crying, “TODAY I AM WRITING IN THE APPROVED TOOL FOR DOING SO!” That node structure on the side of Scrivener with all those folders and scenes and index cards and character sketches just looms in my imagination, even when I hide it.

(I am a total fucking weirdo, though.)

I need as little as possible between me and the next blank page, and for 90% of my writing process, I’m happily chugging along in Step 2 above using Word.

Given the question you’re asking, though, I would say that something like Scrivener (which now has a Windows version as good as its Mac one) is almost certainly what you need. You can include images and notes and videos, and it’s all nicely organized.

My caution for you, though, is this:

The less that stands between you and the words on a page, the better.

In much the same way that you’d, say, treat someone’s cancer, I’d start with simpler interventions before going full-on chemo. Some of those simpler interventions might be:

  • Writing in a single Word document using the Heading 1 style to break it into sections or chapters. Then you can open View > Navigation Pane and go immediately to any heading. Maybe those headings could be “Characters” or “Maps” or “Random Shit I Don’t Know Where to Put Yet.”
  • Writing in one document for the prose and another for notes. That might also be a physical notebook or folder.
  • Trying a product with a similar idea as Scrivener but executed a little less like the cockpit of a 747, like Novlr.org. It’s cloud-based, has a simple interface, and gives you all the organization you’ll likely need. Dabble also looks interesting, and so does Living Writer.
  • And if you need it, by all means dive headlong into Scrivener. Sometimes you’ve got a big enough lawn to need a tractor, and there’s no question Scrivener is heavy duty.

(Someone at Literature and Latte is thinking, “So do we link to this as an endorsement or what? This fucker is all over the place.”)

The reason I propose this escalating series of tools is because it’s so easy to get mired in finding the perfect one or spending way too much time setting it up or mutating your work to fit the tool instead of the other way around.

As my friend and mentor Jeffrey Ford often puts it, “What am I, a fucking bricklayer?”

At the crux of it all is finding the tool that will get out of the way of your creativity while enabling it. That will require some experimentation and some open-mindedness. You may well work best with a deck of index cards or sticky notes.

Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in this heavily-fucked up Apple II. George R.R. Martin still writes in WordStar 2.0 in DOS, which seems to jibe with the modernity of some of his other views. Hunter S. Thompson gonzo-ed by spelling out each word with rounds from a .357 in sheets of plywood. Henry David Thoreau pontificated Walden in, like, sheep’s blood or Google Docs or something.

In each of those cases, they wrote until they get stuck and then found the simplest tool to get unstuck. Your instinct to follow what’s still fun and easy is a good one, and as you accumulate a large box of tricks to save your bacon, always choose the one that’s energizing instead of exhausting.

Scrivener can help! But then, so could amphetamines. Who am I to judge?   

How Can I Sell the 10% of My Soul I Don’t Use All Day?

Quoth Todd: What is your advice for good writer day jobs / careers that allow a fruitful healthy writing life? After transitioning into a “creative” career, my writing output dropped off. I find myself using that narrative energy at work instead of on the page. While I love my career, writing remains important to me—and I’m left wondering how to find a balance without having to go all in with one or the other. Is that even possible? Thank you so much!

Thanks, Todd, for the great question!

When I graduated with my undergraduate English degree in 1994, I was delusional enough to imagine that I’d go on for a Master’s and PhD for a life of teaching college literature with plenty of time and intellectual energy to dabble in letters at my gentlemanly leisure.

So the “day job” backup plan I had for writing was a career that was actually LESS lucrative and stable than writing.

For various reasons, I ended up in an office instead. For the first ten or so years of my working life, I was horrified that every passing moment in a cubicle was draining the lifeforce required to write vibrant, world-changing fiction. I often walked during my lunches or hunkered in the stairwell with my head in my hands, wondering if I’d ever escape. I worked in bursts of dramatic usefulness and skated by the rest of the time.

There’s only so long that can go on, and I’ve been lucky to have two bosses in a row who “got me,” understanding that I need to be creative and entertaining to get work done. Once they got me, I kind of got me, too.

It turns out that I like entertaining people with flamboyantly amazing things, and I can do that with non-fiction during the day and with fiction at night. They feed one another in a strange way: doing big cool things at work gives me the confidence to do the same at home, making it normal, just something I do.

How can you get there? Here are some questions I wish I’d asked myself at the start of my working life:

  • Setting aside your artistic ambitions, does the day job you have suck even if you WANTED it to be your career? If so, find another one, end of story. If the job and the people are toxic, you aren’t getting ANYTHING done, much less art.
  • Do you get energy from working with people or from working alone? If you’re stimulated by people, a good day job would involve interacting with them. If you aren’t, you’ll need something more isolated.
  • What kind of writing would you like to do?
    • Is there any hope that a day job could RELATE to it in some way? A lot of my hoaxing stories come from writing ostensibly non-fiction corporate communications. I’m really good now at making absolute bullshit seem plausible.
    • If there isn’t that hope, can you find a job that uses completely DIFFERENT creative skills? Visual if you’re a writer, writing if you’re a musician, musician if you’re a sculptor, etc.?
  • How much physical work can you endure or enjoy? There’s definitely something to be said for the kinds of jobs that require very little expressive creativity, but many of them require hours of standing or lifting or steering a backhoe. Bukowski was a mailman. Could you write after sorting mail all day?
  • What kind of lifestyle are you willing to accept? Will you feel more free to create if you’re always hustling for the next gig, or do you think stability would be better? Neither is a wrong answer, just something to know. How much stuff do you want to buy? Do you need to own a car? Do you want to own a house? Just because society wants you to want these things doesn’t mean you have to.
  • What kind of social class are you willing to accept? A friend of mine has been an assistant manager at a convenience store for the last thirty years. He makes enough money to fund his interests, but not many people call him “sir.” Does that matter to you? To what extent does it matter or not matter? Be honest with yourself and don’t feel you’re not dedicated enough to your art if the answer is, “I want to be middle class.”
  • How do you define “a good job”? For me, that means it:
    • Accepts (even appreciates!) my weirdness and creativity.
    • Respects my talents in communication.
    • Rarely (but not never) requires long days to finish.
    • Places me in contact with interesting and creative people who want to do cool things.
    • Pays me some decent bank, as the young folks say.
  • On your best day of writing, how long REALLY could you write? Almost certainly not eight hours or even six, but probably more like four or even two or less…which is fine! It’s good to remember that a day job can’t steal your whole soul.

The answers to those questions will help you in seeking a new job or accepting the one you have, I think. After about a decade of thinking that an office was killing me, my answers to those questions led me to conclude that:

  • I enjoy the freedom to write whatever I want instead of endlessly hustling.
  • At my best, I only write two to three hours in a day anyway, and it’s still possible with discipline to get those hours in even with a day job.
  • I need more stability than I do adventure so I can have the adventures in my head.

The rest came down to adjusting my schedule to a working life. If you’re finding that your job is exhausting you, it might be worth writing BEFORE you go to work. (Several of my stories were written in conference rooms at 6am before my day started at 7am.) Now, I write in the evenings after dinner, usually for about ninety minutes and somewhere between 300 and 1500 words.

Really the only choices we have as artists in our current society is trying to evade the working life or adapt to the working life so it works for us, with all the effort each entails.

I think the first step is deciding what kind of life you want to live and what kind of art you want to create, and then build backwards what you need to get there.

Good luck!

Is There a Way to Stay Visible Online While Preserving My Emotional Health?

Livia asks:

I think it’s become mentally and emotionally burdensome to be a writer nowadays, what with the internet sort of shoving the details of everyone else’s writing journey in our faces while we’re struggling to stay true to our own unique pace and milestones as artists. One must always be online and commenting, or risk being seen as an unsupportive and selfish asshole. How do you maintain balance and distance between what seems to be required of us as writers nowadays (promotion! community! etc.) and what writers typically need (silence, space, distance) in order to create and evolve?

Wow, that amazing question hits me hard because I have nothing but mixed feelings about promotion and community.

The lifelong attitude that has all but doomed me to obscurity has been, “If I have to tell you I’m awesome, I’m obviously not awesome enough.” The corollary idea to that, “If I have to convince you to let me into your tribe, I obviously don’t belong there,” hasn’t done me any favors, either.  

Both of those are deeply neurotic ideas gifted to me by my scamming bullshit artist of a father. I’d rather not succeed than succeed by fakery…which I’m doing quite well!

I am, in other words, basically a cat: I want you to pet me, but I ain’t coming over there.

However, I do know enough anthropology to realize that all communities require a show of commitment to join and stay inside. I guess our ape-ish ancestors needed to know they could trust us not to bail when things got tough. Back then, that might have required, I don’t know, picking and eating a lot of nits and fleas.

Today’s equivalent is social media, but every time I post, I wrestle with the sincerity of it all: am I posting because I have something to contribute or because I want people to know I’m alive and buy my shit? I really don’t want it to be that, but maybe I’m cleverly fooling myself.

I go through this exhausting test of my soul every time I post.

My compromise is to behave like I do with normal meat-space friends and acquaintances, checking in on them at regular intervals and responding if I have something interesting to say. It means that my “footprint” and “reach” are expanding slowly, but then, why have a bunch of fake friends?

Here is the cascading list of priorities that has been working for me as a creator in the modern world:

  1. First as a fan and friend, I want you to maintain whatever level of mental health (or neurosis, whatever) you require to produce the weird-ass work that’s important to you. That’s your first job as an artist, to protect and cultivate that by any means necessary. There’s not much point in promotion or networking if you can’t get anything written that matters to you.

    The minute that social media threatens the mindset for your work, bail out for as long as it takes not to feel that way. The peanut gallery can wait.   
  2. When you DO engage on social media, I suggest engaging selectively by imagining your contacts in tiers:
    • Close professional friends, people with whom I have shared a meal while talking about things BEYOND writing, like murders).
    • Professional acquaintances, people with whom I talk mostly business and writing but who COULD be friends.
    • Assorted randos for whom I hope the best even though I don’t know them well enough for a seamless interaction.
  3. Set yourself a “social maintenance” schedule, though it doesn’t have to be that formal.
    • I check in on close professional friends probably a few times a week and comment on their stuff.
    • I check in on professional acquaintances maybe weekly or every other week, commenting if I have something interesting to say.
    • I let assorted randos come to me, when I choose the level at which I plan to engage.
  4. Post your own stuff when you think of something interesting or helpful to say. 
  5. Be okay with your audience growing a little at a time instead of sudden bursts.

The main thing for me at least is not to do anything solely for the purpose of advancing my career. I don’t post vapid compliments unless they are SINCERE vapid compliments, and I don’t contrive things to say so people know I’m still alive.

I know there are agents and publishers now who insist on a social media presence, and I have no idea if I have enough of one to count. All I can do is the same thing I do with my writing: be authentic and win my readers in ones and twos.

It would be exhausting to fake being someone else.

Am I Meant to Be a Writer?

Anonymous asks, “I feel sometimes that writing is harder for me than most other people who want to do it, and it makes me wonder if I’m really meant to be doing it at all.”

When you think about it, there are only four possibilities:

  • God has accidentally given you the desire to write but not the ability, which makes him an idiot.
  • God has purposefully given you the desire to write but not the ability, which makes him an asshole.
  • God gave you both the desire and the ability to write and you should make the most of it.
  • There is no God or other unifying intelligence to the universe and you might as well do whatever the fuck you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.

The upshot of all of those possibilities? Write, either as an expression of your deepest human potential or as a rebellious middle finger to a capricious universe.

Whichever works for you.