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Do Not Actually Kill Anyone or Smoke Opium. (advice to writers)

Actual novelist, hard at work, pre-outline

We got mail! Say it like the AOL guy.

MAIL SAYS: A couple of months ago I finished a draft of my first novel. I printed it out and put it in a drawer. I even gave it an encouraging pat. I let it sit there for six weeks before taking it out to begin revising.

I’m on the third read-through and it is stinky.

It’s obvious the story lacks tension and conflict. Not enough happens to pull the reader to the next scene.

My question, besides the obvious (“I sit down and I do it,”) is how do you write?

Me: Inefficiently. I stagger around word slinging and have to go back and rewrite a thousand times to find my way to the story I want to tell. I cannot recommend my method, except that….it works. I know a lot of writers who are just as inefficient, and they say it works. You have to hold the whole thing in your head like a big chewy goo ball and squash it around until it has the shape you want. We are called organic writers and we are a messy tribe with poor organizational skills. We write by smell. You have to decide if you are one of us.

Mail: Do you storyboard or outline?

I am quite sexy, even when I play Snape, and I will be important to this entry later.

Me: Nope. You may like to have one though. If so, let yourself have one. You may be one of those writers who thinks it all through first, so that the hideous mess and struggle happens INSIDE you before you ever face the white, blank page. I know many writers like this, just as mentally ill as us organics. Just with a different methodology. And why not TRY it? You may even abandon it, but it could force you to experiment and walk your fictional friends down paths that scare you.

Me, I can only see two scenes ahead, most days. I have TRIED to outline before, because of the inefficiency thing. But good LORD, it ends up being more inefficient because I put all this work into the outline and then I do not follow it. If I am on my game, then somewhere within those two scenes, someone is going to do something I haven’t planned, and send the manuscript careening off into the brush like a drunken bunny with his tail on fire.

If I am not on game? If all my characters do politely as I say so that the story doesn’t go careening off: bunny, drunk, tail-fire, etc, then what I am writing will probably all be thrown out, or pared down to three sentences and tucked in as a flashback, because the story hasn’t started yet. Sometimes I have to write my way into things…

Mail: I’m not sure if I’m starting the book in the wrong place – way earlier than it needs to

Me: Possibly. I haven’t read it, of course, but ask yourself:


How is today different than every other day? What changes, internally or externally, for the main character? If the answer is something like, “Well nothing, but I have to SHOW you how their marriage is and what her relationship with her dad is like and tell you his history as a golf-and-sex addict before I send in the possums with the bombs tucked in their marsupial pouches…”

Then I say, “No. No, you don’t. This is why God made context and back story and flashbacks. PAGE ONE! CUE THE POSSUMS! GO! BOOM! YAY!”

Then Mail said: What if I just like the characters and want them to be all happy so I don’t let anything bad or unpleasant happen. I think that may be it, and it makes for a boring story.

Me: Listen, kill someone. Just do it. Kill someone you love. (It’s better of this someone is fictional, because then you don’t wreck your whole life and go to prison.) Step in and shoot someone you JUST adore in the face. BANG! It’s very liberating, because then you can flip to a new page and say, “But then angels came down and resurrected him, twice as beautiful, and they gave him candy and then he became real and we TOTALLY MADE OUT BECAUSE HE SUPER LIKED ME THE WHOLE TIME AND I BET ALAN RICKMAN PLAYS HIM IN THE MOVIE VERSION BECAUSE YUM.”

You can do that, because you are the writer. Nothing you do can’t be undone. ANd now we have a segue that allows us to imagine Alan Rickman quoting the Faerie Queen in Sense and Sensibility

For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.

I think what Alan Rickman means is, he has long been secretly in love with me. (POOR Alan — I am happily married. But its kind of charming, how he pines for me all UNREQUITED and stuff!) But if not, then probably he means it as advice to fiction writers. Alan is saying, “Set someone’s life on fire, see what happens. YOU CAN ALWAYS TAKE IT BACK. It’s not like life, you get do-overs, and they ALL forgive you in the end.”

I drowned a girl I loved once. I fought the scene, looked SO hard for a way out for her—Nope.

In the end, she said it was okay.

“You couldn’t help it,” she told me. “I was a Christ figure. If you don’t have the spine to kill Christ, how do you ever get to Easter?”

She was RIGHT. I wrote the whole book to get to Easter… And you know what? She came back. In this new book I just finished, I found my dead girl lurking in the guise of a new character. She looks a little different, but I recognized the substance of her. She was exactly herself, without the symbolism. Reader, I SAVED her. She gets SO saved in this book it isn’t even funny. She gets the love she was so hungry for in the other book, too, in a little aside I tucked in there all for me and her and you, too, beloveds, if you have been paying very close attention, you will know her. OH, it felt SO good to give the scene to her, at least, at last.

And sometimes you get to take it back IMMEDIATELY….In the first draft of Between, I killed darling Genny in Act 1 Scene 1—-had mean junkyard dogs chase her right into an old fridge, where she smothered.

It was a bad idea, and as I started to SEE who Genny was inside that fridge, and I needed her back. PING! Select all, delete, and two weeks later I had a new Chapter 1 Where Genny only gets the tiniest bit mauled ALMOST to death. Heh.

Told you. Now shall I quote more poetry for you in my rich, velvetty voice?

But I had to write my way to it— I got to know Genny so very well while I took all her oxygen away and decided what thing she would think very last, if it came to it. When I brought her back, I found I had resurrected a character I knew to the bone.

Kill them all, I say. I get that you love them. You want what is best for them. Shoot them anyway. It builds character. Yours and theirs, both.

Mail: I see what’s wrong with it without quite knowing how to tighten it up and ratchet up the tension.

Me: You should read this memo David Mamet sent to the writers of The Unit. Dominic Stansberry, the awesome noir writer, gave it to the students in a workshop we co-taught. About 20% of it applies only to screenwriting. The rest is soemthign novelists should tattoo on our eyelids.


If the memo doesn’t help, there is nothing for it. You will have to smoke Opium until Possum Bombs actually sound like a GOOD IDEA.

Hey, it worked for Coleridge.

16 comments to Do Not Actually Kill Anyone or Smoke Opium. (advice to writers)

  • Bridget

    Love the image “a drunken bunny with his tail on fire” conjurs…

  • I love this because I AM an organic writer. I’m not published. I’m not professional anything except Mommy, but when I write, which is every chance I get, I cannot, CANNOT, outline or storyboard or list my ideas on notecards. I, most of the time, don’t even know what my final destination is with whatever character I’m currently learning about. Yeah. So, organic, that’s me and for whatever reason, I feel a bit of validation that I am not alone in this.

  • You ARE da bomb. Or what ever is the current description of the best.

  • I star, starred, and triple starred this post.

  • Brigitte

    I was quite surprised to see my love Alan on your site. But I just know he is truly secretly pining for ME and would never betray me with you. Neener, neener, neener. ;-D

  • Cue the possums. I am cutting out that possum picture and pasting it smack-dab over my desk. Dude is scary enough to kill all sloppy writing. Plus, I am grossed out by possums.

  • I remember at the SCWW Conference, you called what you do “stew-potting” and I thought it was one of the best descriptions I’d ever heard. One of the great things about writing is there is no one way, no right way, to do it.

  • Marjorie

    Great post. I’m in revision stage now too and need to add more tension. I guess I have to go kill some characters today :). What’s disturbing about that possum picture is 1) it looks like it is standing on someone’s leather sofa; 2) those toes look like human fingers in hair gloves with the tips cut out; and 3) I have a picture of one of my dogs yawning and he looks like this.

  • Leslie Noon

    I’m gonna make my husband read this blog post. He is a very good technical writer and once in awhile he writes a short story just for me. One day he told me the plot of a novel he thought he might write. And I said, “But no one died! Someone should die, at least in the explosion!” And he cried, “NO! I like all my characters! The engineer will save them!” “And I explained that in novels, something bad has to happen to the characters. He absolutely refused. So then I said, “Well, at least someone should have sex!” And then he ran from the room with his hands over his ears. I don’t think he’ll ever write that novel for me.

  • Aimee

    I’ve read that Mamet memo before, and the dude knows whereof he speaks.

  • Lulu


    Best flash fiction, evah!
    Yer brilliant. Alan understands that, I’m sure.

  • Did Coleridge have the possum bombs before the opium? I thought possums were a New World thing. Or maybe he used something equivalent to possum bombs…

  • Lainey

    It sounds like Alan’s rich, velvetty voice offers hope for the sacred paper calendar…

  • elswhere

    This is one of my favorite posts of your ever.

  • elswhere

    of YOURS ever. YOURS. Gah for the un-editability of comments.

  • “careening off into the brush like a drunken bunny with his tail on fire.”=BRILLIANT. And is it just me, or was that possum wearing Mickey Mouse ears?

    Love the post. Love. Love. Love. Just sayin’. (love)