Sunday, May 30, 2021

Three Good Ideas

In The Way of the Writer, Charles Johnson suggests that a successful narrative requires three good ideas.

The first Good Idea is the ground situation. It's what most of us think of when someone asks us what a story's about. Here's how Johnson describes it:

In this sense … plot and character are perfectly united, because character is the engine of plot. The conflict, or 'ground situation,' arises from the specificity of this particular individual, and it is the first good idea the writer has, the one that sets everything else into motion.”

Johnson goes on to say that at this stage the writer is working in the realm of possibility. That's part of the reason I think there's so much excitement and energy in sitting down to write a new story. You've got a great hook, a scenario that seems charged with interest and conflict, and it feels as though anything could happen. It's the fuel a writer needs to blast off the launch pad.

While this first Good Idea might not be “easy,” it's a cinch compared to the brick wall that comes after.


The second Good Idea is more difficult to conceive early on because, by necessity, it has to flow from the first. Here's how Johnson describes it (I've made a few elisions for the sake of brevity):

...the protagonist attempts to resolve his (or her) problem … the writer's job is to constantly frustrate him. … We are now in the middle of the story—in the realm of probability—where all the details and decisions the writer made in the beginning create a causal connection … that we, as readers, feel is logical and inevitable based on all that has come before. Here, in the middle of the tale, it is crucial that a writer comes up with a second good idea, one that deepens and further complicates the actualization of the potential contained in the story's premise. For a reader (and often for the writer) this second good idea is never experienced as predictable—we never feel, there in the middle of the story, that we saw this new series of developments coming. … Most likely, the writer himself didn't fully see the events in the middle of the story until he got there.”

I've had this experience as a writer, and I've also had the experience of not having that second good idea. I've also gone through the frustration of trying to get at that Second Idea by means of an outline, only to realize, once I'd written my way to that point, that it no longer made any sense.

Sometimes the narrative works, and sometimes it doesn't. Why is it so hard to predict which one you've got on your hands? This is where things start to get a little woo-woo. Even Johnson, who is a deeply methodical and rigorous thinker, makes gestures towards the fact that sometimes we just have to live with the mystery:

As writers, we live for the moment when the Powers That Be hand us a story so rich that exploring it becomes the most legal fun we can have.”

Handing off agency to the Powers That Be makes about as much sense as suggesting that writers, even very successful ones, don't always know what's going to work and what won't. Sometimes you go charging into a story you feel great about and the whole thing dissolves in your hands. Other times, what seems like a mediocre idea resolves into a piece that's better than you would have dared hope.

I still like the way Bonnie Friedman framed this tension in her essay Glittering Icons, Lush Orchards:

"I live in dread that the story I am currently writing resembles those that have been rejected. They are bad, I think. When I recognize emerging on the page a rhythm similar to the rhythm of one of these 'bad' stories, or when I recognize a character that turned up in one of them, I am appalled. I want to cross it out. I want to put away from me forever everything associated with those 'bad' stories because frankly I do not really understand what was wrong with them. Something was probably wrong; one must be realistic enough to admit it. Yet it feels as if my new writing comes from the exact same place."

It's hard to know sometimes what's good and what's bad, especially when you're in the thick of the writing. But although Johnson makes nods to the mysterious forces behind the creative process, he does still offer some clues for how to achieve that great second idea. To achieve it requires careful attention:

...if the writer is faithful to the minute details he has established in the beginning, if he is tracing carefully every nuance of character and situation … then he will be continually surprised by how the actors in his stories are behaving. … If he's not surprised, he's not asking enough hard questions.”

What he's getting at here is that it's faithful attention that renders surprise. If the surprises aren't coming—if the writer never catches themselves off guard—it may be a sign that they need to look closer. To quote Bonnie Friedman again:

Transcendence is not fleeting, not an absence, but a most attentive presence. To write well is to sink into the silt of the world.”

Do that successfully and you'll find your third Good Idea.


Here, as the writer moves toward the end of the story, they should feel like they're on the slope down. This is where you're rewarded for making it through the brick wall. From Johnson:

At this point, the story has entered the realm of pure necessity, where events play themselves out with all the rigor of a logical proof. Here, at the end, the writer is more like a witness or a reporter than someone who is 'trying' to tell a story—all he's doing now is transcribing what he sees unfolding before his mind's eye. The only things that can happen are things predestined by the decisions the writer made in chapter one. This final phase of the story also requires a third and last good idea to wrap things up, but by this time—after all that has transpired—the writer should be able to find that idea with ease.”


For more, check out The Way of The Writer.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Notes & Quotes

Last weekend I stopped by the book launch for The Indianapolis Anthology, part of an ongoing series from Belt Publishing. Specifically I went to see my friend Jackie Lutzke, who read from her micro-memoirs/flash nonfiction about life on the east side of the city.

Jackie's work is often focused on teasing meaning from small,ordinary moments. That strikes me as a Midwestern instinct, a corrective for the constant worry that everything exciting is happening some other place. Jackie's work is an argument that what actually matters are the things that show up in the quiet particulars of the place and the moment at hand.


The New Yorker published an interview this month with John Swartzwelder, a legendary (and legendarily reclusive) writer on The Simpsons. There's a lot to love, and I especially enjoyed it on the heels of reading Tim Waggoner and Charles Johnson reflecting on their own careers as writers. I really can't get enough of this stuff.

The whole thing is worth reading, but here's one of my favorite exchanges:

Do you remember the first funny thing you wrote?

I do, mostly because the reaction I got to it was so startling. I had just learned how to form letters into words, so I decided to write a play. The only thing I remember about the play itself, except for the last two lines, is that it was hilarious. But, when I read it aloud to my family, it got no laughs! Just supportive smiles and nods. I didn't get it.

But then I got to the second-to-last line, which was supposed to set up the big joke at the end. The setup line was: “This play has been brought to you by the Trash Can Airline Company,” which—since this was Boeing country—got a huge, possibly undeserved, laugh. Baffled, but feeling that I finally had my audience in the palm of my hand, I leaned back and practically screamed the big finish: “P.S. It stinks!!!” More supportive smiles and nods. Plainly, there was a trick to comedy, and I didn't know what it was.

Do you know what the trick is now?

No. “P.S. It stinks!!!” should have gotten a laugh. I don't get it.


I don't read a ton of philosophy, but I do have a soft spot for Kierkegaard. His jacket copy, however, sometimes makes him sound a maniac. One of the blurbs on Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing calls it "The equivalent of shock therapy.” The translator's introduction strikes a similar tone: “He is prepared to be hard, to wound in order to heal, to use the knife.”

This isn't wrong, exactly, but I never feel bruised by Kierkegaard. He never seems to be writing from anger, and I never have the sense that he's jabbing a finger at me in accusation. Most often he just seems excited. He reminds me of a friend I had as a kid who was super smart and always eager to share his latest discoveries, but who also had the self-awareness to realize that sometimes you have to help bring people along.

There are times reading Kierkegaard where you can feel him holding back just a little, like he knows he needs to pace himself. But his work is also full of warmth and a wry sense of humor that I find kind of endearing.

Anyway, all this to say that I've been going back to his work lately and re-reading Purity of Heart. As always, certain things will jump out. This week it was this:

Whoever, therefore, wills this honor or fears this contempt, whether or not he is said to will one thing in his innermost being, is not merely double-minded but thousand-minded, and at variance with himself. So is his life when he must grovel—in order to attain honor; when he must flatter his enemies—in order to attain honor; when he must woo the favor of those he despises—in order to attain honor; when he must betray the one he respects—in order to attain honor. For to attain honor means to despise oneself after one has attained the pinnacle of honor—and yet to tremble before any change.”

Writers get caught in this trap a lot, I think (and probably so most people). When you write for an audience, of course you hope to win acclaim and avoid contempt. But the danger of making that your focus, or dividing your attention between the work at hand and an imagined audience, is that it's only the work that suffers for it. That's also the trap of success—if you do write something that wins some acclaim, do you move on and try something new? Or do you write the same story over again and hope that people don't notice?


More from Purity of Heart (this time without my blathering):

“In your occupation, what is your attitude of mind? And how do you carry out your occupation? Have you made up your own mind that your occupation is your real calling so that you do not have to make explanation hinge on the result, maintaining that it was not your real calling if the results are not favorable, if your efforts do not succeed? Alas, such fickleness weakens a man immeasurably. Therefore persevere. By God's help and by your own faithfulness something good will come from the unpromising beginning.”


Sunday, May 16, 2021


Author Tim Waggoner posing against a railing in a leather jacket
Tim Waggoner
Tim Waggoner's “Writing in the Dark” is one of my favorite blogs on craft, but this week's post was especially good. On the occasion of the blog's tenth anniversary, and Tim's fortieth as a serious writer, he wrote a retrospective on his career (so far) that I can't recommend highly enough.

Coming right after I read Charles Johnson's “The Way of the Writer,” which included an autobiographical section on his own path to writing, it was interesting to read Waggoner's account of his career. I don't think it's especially useful to try and compare the two. They're very different writers out to do very different things. If there is a lesson here, it's that there's no universal path. At best there are some practices that work for some people. As a student of the craft, you may find such practices helpful.

But even then, you have to test and evaluate what works for you, and watch out for how that might change over time. Part of the fun of Waggoner's retrospective is watching the world of publishing transform in just a few decades. 1982 to today is a long forty years in terms of technology. 

You know that, of course, intellectually. But watching the progression from Waggoner's personalized rejection letters from Amazing Stories to the emergence of trolls on a proto-social media platform to the breakdown of traditional publishing and the rise of the indies, all of it feels much more visceral. In many ways Waggoner's story is also the story of publishing itself. Some things have been lost and others have evolved, but either way there's no going back.

I think that's why these stories matter so much. Charles Johnson's story is as singular as he is. So is Tim Waggoner's. It's both who they are as human beings and how they function as writers that shapes the course of their careers in unique and surprising ways. And because they're both such good, smart storytellers, they know how to write about the singular in a way that makes it feel universal. The worlds they grew up in may be gone, but other parts of their stories endure.

If one of the secrets of life is to learn how to love your fate, then I think that's where stories like Johnson's and Waggoner's are helpful. Read together, and alongside other creative memoirs by artists, writers, and musicians, it becomes clear that there is no ideal path to success, and there is no ideal time to get started. If you're fortunate enough to be working at your craft for more than a decade, the floor's going to fall out from under you. You'll make serious mistakes, you'll have personal crises, and the world you were prepared for by parents or schooling or mentors may have ceased to exist by the time you venture forth to go meet it.

You'd be forgiven for tasting some bitterness there, but the sweetness is that you get to create your own life. Your story, whatever it is, will have its own shape and contours. It will be as unique and singular as that of anyone else (even if that sounds like a contradiction). Retrospectives like Tim's are a good reminder of that, and of the surprises you may still find ahead.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Way of the Writer

Charles Johnson in his study, surrounded by a large desk, books, his grandson, and two dogs
Charles Johnson
A couple weeks ago I read China by Charles Johnson, along with an author interview, in the anthology 12 Short Stories and Their Making. Almost immediately I looked up other interviews with Johnson, hungry to get his perspective and insight on the craft of writing. Eventually I came across his book The Way of the Writer, and I couldn't order it fast enough.

I've been trying to figure out what it is about his way of thinking that got under my skin so quickly. It wasn't just that he's a great writer and impressive scholar (though these two descriptors fall far short of conveying the full sweep of his work). There was something else at work. As I read The Way of the Writer, I did so with a growing sense that the book was changing something fundamental about how I view the work itself. What is it about Johnson's approach to writing that has such a powerful effect?

I think the answer is rigor.

Big Magical Thinking

I've read a lot of books on writing and creativity. I think that's part of the responsibility you sign up for when you commit yourself to a craft. Your perspective has to be that of the eternal student, and that means being open to the possibility of learning from any teacher that crosses your path. 

Of course, that doesn't require you to forego your critical thinking. There's a lot of bad advice out there. There's also a lot of advice that's perfectly fine but might not work for you in particular. And then there's a whole sub-genre of books on writing and creativity that drifts into a kind of spiritualism, where “stories” are living entities that float through the ether, waiting to be seized by a fully self-actualized writer.

I'm sympathetic to ideas like this. Many of us no longer live in an especially religious culture, and it makes sense that the creative arts would become a stand-in for certain aspects of spirituality. I'm thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic here, which presents a kind of spiritual framework for writing as something that connects a practitioner to the great mysteries of the universe. And there's Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, which is unapologetically a book about spiritual warfare between our higher selves and a pernicious, negative force called Resistance.

I don't think either one of them is trying to sell snake oil. I think they're both accurately describing how writing feels. When you read Big Magic, a lot of it rings very true. Stories really do seem to exist independently of the writer. Even Stephen King, who must be one of the most workmanlike writers alive, describes the process in On Writing as one of unearthing a complete, pre-existing fossil. He doesn't say “Yeah, I build these stories from nothing, here's how.” He describes what he does as the work of discovery.

The downside of all this this is that these metaphorical frameworks only get you so far. While it is true that the experience of writing can feel deeply mysterious, it's not the case that “butt in chair” is the writer's only requirement. The Universe won't always rise up to meet you. Eternity will not always gift you a story. What, then, is a writer to do?

Deep Attention

Johnson's answer is simple but difficult: A writer is required to practice and pay attention to all elements of storytelling. There's a deep resonance here with his experiences as a Buddhist, and he draws the parallels easily. He seems uniquely qualified to understand what it means to experience the depths of mystery while also understanding that the way to get there is through focus and discipline.

How that applies to writing becomes clear as he walks the reader through his techniques. He suggests writing exercises of his own and those drawn from his teacher, John Gardner. He suggests studying a good dictionary to discover the words that best fit your unique perspective and best tell your story. There's a chapter of the 100 best opening sentences in fiction, which you are expected to read and consider. And there's a chapter on the painstaking process of revision, where Johnson shares that in the course of writing his novels he throws away thousands and thousands of pages.

Step by step, Johnson invites the student to study the craft on every available level, from word to sentence to chapter to finished work. What matters is the close, painstaking attention to these elements, each one of which presents an inexhaustible topic of study. Johnson, despite his vast body of fiction, his critical scholarship, or even his MacArthur Fellowship, still presents himself as a student of the craft even as he's giving instruction. Doing so makes his arguments feel less like a demand than an invitation. He's saying, in effect, “Despite what I know, despite all I've accomplished, I'm still learning the craft. Won't you join me?” 

Who could resist saying yes?

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Fallacies of Cost

One of my goals this year is to be more productive. Productive in a creative sense, a “let's make a bunch of shit so we can see what works” sense. Overall it's been going pretty well. I've published some work, made real progress on queries and submissions, and worked out a new process for revising that got me through a backlog of rough drafts.

Yet the actual daily work of writing still presents all the same challenges. Sometimes it goes well and I write something that works, and other times what I'm writing feels like total garbage. In those cases, when I'm sure the work sucks, writing feels about as much fun as performing tedious dental surgery on myself with a chisel.

Lately I've been thinking about why that is. One answer is the intoxicating effects of a new beginning. When the work's going badly and you have a great new idea, few things feel as good as saying "fuck it" and opening a blank doc. 

But I don't think the impulse to quit is just about the high of the new. I think it also comes from bad thinking.

The Little Kia That Couldn't

There's something called the “sunk cost fallacy” that helps explain why people throw good money after bad. Here's an example from my early twenties:

One of my first cars was a silver Kia Rio. It was ugly and small, but I loved that little car, right up until the engine started stalling out every time I got on the road. I didn't know anything about cars, so I asked around at work and somebody recommended I try his mechanic. The guy called me a couple days after I dropped off the car gave me his best diagnosis. The price to fix it? An astronomical (to me) $500.

But what could I do? I needed that car. So I said yes, okay, go ahead. But after I picked the car up it started stalling again. I drove the car back and the mechanic took another look. This time, he said, he knew what it was. But it would cost another $500.

I wish I could say I stopped here and went to get a second opinion, but I didn't. I let him try again, then a third time, and finally a fourth. After each round with the mechanic my thinking more irrational. I'd sunk all the money I had, a couple thousand dollars, into fixing this stupid car. I couldn't give up on it now—not if the next repair might be the one to finally fix the problem and make it all worthwhile.

Reader, it never got fixed. When I finally told my dad about it and he took the car for drive, he came back and called it a “death trap.” The mechanic had done something wonky with the engine so that whenever it started to stall the engine would rev up to compensate. But since it was stalling when I hit the brakes, any time I needed to stop the engine would try to go faster. It was a complete mess. The car was unfixable. I should have cut my losses much sooner.

This is the sunk cost fallacy. I believed, against all odds, that if I just kept putting money into the car I'd eventually recoup what I lost. The harsh reality, though, is that sometimes what we invest is just gone.

So what does this have to do with writing?

The Fallacy of Prospective Cost

When it comes to writing, or really any creative endeavor, I think writers and artists are sometimes guilty of what could be considered the mirror image of “sunk cost fallacy.” Instead of doubling down on a bad investment, we misjudge the investment we have yet to make and prematurely declare it a waste.

Here's what I mean. The last week or so I've been working on a short story about a kid who goes to stay with his cousins. His parents are getting divorced, and while they clear out the house they've decided to send him away. The kid might be more broken up about this, but he's positive that he's actually adopted. So, after borrowing Dad's emergency credit card and ordering a 23andMe DNA kit online, he's decided to prove his hypothesis by testing himself and his cousins.

That's an okay premise, right? There's enough meat on those bones to build out a story. But after chipping away at it for a week I had no idea where it was supposed to be going. What was the actual plot​​? What was it all building toward?

I couldn't help but think I was coming up short, especially while reading the well-crafted work in 12 Short Stories and Their Making. (If you ever want to feel bad about your writing, compare your unfinished first draft to another writer's published work. That'll do the trick.) When I considered my own story, meandering and aimless with no end in sight, I hated the thought of investing even more time in an obvious failure. Better to cut my losses and move on to something new, right?

That's what I'm calling the “prospective cost fallacy.” It's the mistaken belief that you have enough information to deem a project a failure, and thus unworthy of a further investment of time. Nine times out of ten, I would argue, a writer just can't know based on an unfinished draft. That's why you can't just give up.

In my case, I committed that fallacy on a daily basis, but chipped away at the story anyway. Then, finally,  I hit a turning point: A scene in which the narrator starts to see what's really going on. The story's real pain, it's real driving force, and it's real chance for change. The story had finally revealed itself, and all that chipping away had paid off.

More often than not, these moments present themselves if you keep at it. You just can't always know when or how. I think that's why writers like Neil Gaiman repeat so often that you have to finish your stories. If they fail, at least let them fail whole. You can learn something from that. If they fail unfinished, you won't learn very much, except how to give up when you shouldn't.

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...