Category Archives: distraction

How to Write a Novel

(This quick piece originally appeared on the website of the Indiana Authors Award, where I am privileged to serve as a panelist this year)

One of the new and joyful things about my life since moving to Indy a couple years ago is getting to hang out at Butler, where I have been privileged to work as an adjunct professor in the MFA program in writing. It means I get to pal around with cool novelists like Dan Barden and Mike Dahlie and Allison Lynn, but also that I’ve had to think seriously about a very hard question, which is how do you teach people to write?

Don’t get me wrong. You can learn to write. In fact, you should—writing is not, I repeat not, a magical inborn gift that grows inside the lucky few, or that only emerges when the muse deigns to descend from the heavens and blow her golden trumpet or blah blah blah. Nothing drives me so bonkers as the romantic gauzy idea of the writer as conduit, rather than creator, as if writers (especially fiction writers and poets) just lounge and loaf, Whitman-like, under shady trees until the words appear, illuminated and glistening and syntacticly impeccable.

Nonsense! (As Agatha Christie would say: jiggery-pokery!) Writing, like all things worth doing, requires skill and training and practice.

But then how do you teach it? There is no secret to writing a book.

Or, rather, there a thousand overlapping and interlocking secrets, including “come up with a good idea,” “make a good outline,” “know when to ignore your outline,” “get a good night’s sleep,” and “stop checking your email so much.” Also “trust your instincts,” “know when your instincts are misleading you,” “conflict is the engine of narrative,” “don’t worry so much about what other people think,” and “stop checking Facebook so much.”

See? There are a lot of things to learn. One can never finish learning all the things there are to learn, which means you should probably just start writing and find your way forward—which is another not-too-shabby piece of advice. But the best—the very best—piece of writing instruction I think I’ve got is to learn to read. And I don’t just mean achieving functional literacy (although I am a big, big fan of achieving functional literacy, which is why I love Indy Reads), I mean learning to live inside a piece of fiction. Love a book or hate it, you need to learn to see how the writer built the thing—to walk around in there and see where the beams and the posts are, see where the stairs creak and why, see how many windows there are and how the light comes in.

A lot (most?) of what I know about being funny in fiction I learned from Charles Dickens; a lot (most?) of what I know about the slow build of suspense I learned from Patricia Highsmith. What I teach my students (I hope) is to learn occasionally from me; frequently from their fellow students; and most of all and always from books and authors.

That’s why you always see writers at libraries. They want to be surrounded by books and authors, like pandas want to be surrounded by bamboo. Go to the Central Library in downtown Indy, on any given day, (or any other library or any other day) and you’ll likely see them, hunched over tables, pecking away, surrounded by the stacks—the writers in their natural habitat. Don’t get too close, or they might get spooked and spill their coffee. One of them will be me.

Clancy and the muse

I keep drafting blog posts that start with “sorry I haven’t posted in so long,” but it always seems such an internet cliche to start a post like that, and as a writer I am professional antagonistic toward cliche.

Also, just vis a vis the internet, I can actually measure my success at getting real work done in inverse proportion to how much blogging/posting/updating I am doing, so a long stretch of no blogging, while perhaps detrimental to my hit count, I know also means I’ve been doing a ton of writing, which I actually have. The second half of the third Last Policeman book (as-yet-untitled) is to my editor, and I am pleased—and starting to get a bit of anticipatory sadness about being done, soon enough, with Hank and his world. That’s the business, I guess.

I’ve also completed the third book in the Literally Disturbed series (my scary poems for kids, with great illustrations by Adam Watkins; the first one is in stores now & the second one comes out in the spring, I think), and I’m working on a short story for an anthology I’m extremely excited about, though I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to talk about it yet.

But the reason I’m breaking blog silence is actually to note with sadness the death of Tom Clancy, who I commend to the ages on the strength of this quote:

“[Y]ou learn to write the same way you learn to play golf…You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s hard work.”

Hard work. Yes. Off to write more.


This just in from Luddite Land

So let me just add, further to my post about the Puddy Principle, that my antipathy to the internet, as distinct from all the other forms of distraction that plague writers, is founded on more than a recognition that by its natural depths—links leading on to links—it has a special power to pull us further and further from our work.

There is in addition an insidiousness about the internet that is easy, at this point, to forget about, because we have all so thoroughly integrated it into our lives. The insidiousness I’m referring to has to do with the simple fact—positive, negative, or neutral—that much (most?) of what you see online is backed by capitalist interests: whether it’s the website of the New York Times or someone’s blog about vegan cooking or a site using pictures of attractive women to sell funny t-shirts, someone stands to make money every time you click on the site. A site is more or less successful, more or less valuable to potential advertisers, depending on how often people look at it.


I told you there was a bear with me.

Who cares, right? You should, if you’re a writer, professional, quasi-, aspiring, or otherwise. Because your product—bear with me here—is not the work that you create, it is your focus & attention.

Ultimately, of course, you transform that focus & attention into short stories or novels or memoirs. But your natural resource, the thing which you possess which is worth money to you, is your ability to focus and get something done. You can tell me that the thing which you possess which is worth money to you is your ideas, but ask anybody on the street—ask a four-year-old—ask your mailman or the lifeguard at the pool—everybody has an idea.

The thing you possess which is worth money to you is your ability to turn your idea into a finished product, and that requires focus & attention.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger, what Internet companies are selling—keep bearing with me—are not the products you see advertised. What Facebook, for example, is selling, is your focus & attention. They are saying to other companies, “this person is going to spend forty-five minutes today on our site, and we would love to sell you that forty-five minutes.”

So let me put two and two together (and thank you for bearing with me)—you, writer or would-be writer, have a precious natural resource: your focus & attention. Your goal is to monetize that resource, by using focus & attention to turn ideas into stories, which you can then turn into money.

The internet’s goal is to take that natural resource from you and monetize it for themselves. 

In conclusion: don’t let them do that.


Counterintuitive truth of the day: have kids, write more

There is an unwritten rule that if you have three days to take a final pass at the copyedited manuscript of your newest novel before it is printed and any errors become permanent and irrevocable (sort of), then your daughter will vomit at school for no particular reason, and need to be picked up, so she can hang out in your office with you and promise promise not to be annoying, but she just wants to play on your computer for just, like, a half hour?

I’ve told the story before about how while writing The Last Policeman I had this huge, late-in-the-game revelation (i.e. that the novel should be told in the first person present tense, not in the closely observed third-person that I had been doing), started excitedly on what was going to be a huge difficult rewrite, and then my daughter (a different daughter than the one who is downstairs now eating toast and reading a mystery chapter book) was born the next day, somewhat delaying my progress.

But I can’t complain—I’m not complaining. When I was younger and single and childless, I would always tell myself, I’ll write later, because there  always was a later. After work—at night—I would drink a beer and stare at my computer for endless useless hours, pretending to be a writer. Now, with a busy family and endless calls on my time, I can little afford to let any spare minute lie fallow. Give me a random half hour, give me a full day (that never happens), and I will use it, somehow. That’s the gift that my beautiful children have given me.

Along with countless unnameable small joys and innumerable communicable illnesses.

the puddy principle

Asked by student writers for one piece of advice, I always say “turn off the Internet while you’re writing.”  To explain why, I invoke what I call the Puddy Principal.


Patrick Warburton, aka David Puddy

Those of us who were active television watchers in the Seinfeld era will recall Elaine’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, a saturnine dimwit named David Puddy.

In one of my favorite scenes, Elaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of course) has broken up with Puddy for the zillionth time, and is now sitting in her apartment trying not to call him. The scene is basically a short play that’s Elaine thinking in voice-over. She’s thinking about how glad she is to have broken up with Puddy; and then she thinks “oh, no, I think I left my glove at Puddy’s…I better call him”. And as she reaches for the phone, she goes—with a slight-but-obvious disappointment—“oh, there’s my glove.” Then: “That is so funny, I almost called Puddy about my glove, but then I found it!” Quick beat, then: “You know who loves funny stories?” [reaching for the phone] “David Puddy.”


A squirrel.

We’re all like that, now, with the Internet: try as we might to stay away, we take any excuse to return to go back. I’ll start in rough-drafting a scene, and I write a squirrel scampering across a lawn and I’ll think I better make sure squirrels are native to the part of New England where this scene takes place, and click on Safari. It’s insane, of course, the idea that I can’t proceed with my piece of fiction until I’m sure that I’ve got the fauna properly geolocated—it’s just that I’d rather be doing something easy (reading about squirrels on Wikipedia) than something difficult and emotionally draining (pressing on with my writing).

The real problem is that once you’ve given in and called Puddy—i.e. gone onto the web—you don’t just look up the squirrels and then log off. Of course not! You click on the full list of Woodland Creatures Native to Vermont, then you email your brother a fun factoid about beavers, and then you click on a banner ad about Funny T-shirts (because who doesn’t like a  funny T-shirt) and then suddenly it’s an hour and a half later, and you’re checking your Facebook status and your novel is where you left it, softly weeping, wishing you would come back and finish the part about the squirrel.

Bottom line: writing is extremely difficult, and because writers are human beings, we would prefer to do something easy to something difficult. The Internet is, for all its benefits, the greatest distraction machine ever built by mankind. And this great and terrible machine is not just in the room with you, it is the thing you write on.

So take Step One, admit you have a problem, because everybody does, and invest the in a netblocking program.

For the record, I use (and feel sort of in love with) a program called Freedom. It costs ten bucks.