email (and advice) to a young aspiring writer

Okay, as far as blog posts go this is a bit of a cheat. This is from an email I wrote a few months ago to a charming sixth grader who emailed me and asked for writing advice. I found this a very interesting assignment, and gave it some thought (see me in the photo, I’m thinking, thinking). This was my response. Let me know if there’s anything that I should have added.

Dear (incredible young person who had the fantastic taste to read and like my book and wants to be a writer):

Thank you so much for your email, and I am very sorry I took this long
to respond — my life has been a bit crazy lately. I’m delighted
that you enjoyed UNINVITED.

How fantastic that you identify yourself as a writer. I can tell you
this: once you have the desire, the ambition, to write, it never goes
away. I’ve met so many people who started writing when they were
young — and then put that desire away to do more ‘practical’ things
— only to come back to it ten or twenty or thirty years later,
wishing they had been writing all along and regretting that lost
time and development.

So my first advice (and probably most important): don’t stop!
Keep writing! Don’t let anybody discourage you. Find the people who
will support you and help you grow as a writer — and listen to
*them*, not to anybody else. You have a huge advantage because you’re
starting out so young, so make the most of it. The more time and
practice you put into your craft, the better and better you will
become. Not to mention, you are growing up in an era where
storytelling and communication will be more important than ever, and
not just for writers — for everyone and anyone who wants to get a
message across that will reach people on an emotional as well as
intellectual level. Anyone can get facts off the Internet. But not a
lot of people will be able to frame those facts within the kind of
context that can persuade people, keep their
attention, and create actual change in the world. So your creativity
and your ability to reach out to people will only become more
important as time goes on.

I’m sure you already know this, but reading is incredibly important.
Read as much as you can, as often as you can, and follow your
interests wherever they lead you. Read what you want to read, and not
just what you think you ‘should’ read. Do that, and you’ll already be
ahead of the game — most aspiring writers don’t read nearly enough.

Find teachers and mentors who can give you constructive criticism and
help you improve. Writing truly is about revision. It’s fine if the
first draft is lousy — the first draft is just about getting it down.
Revision is about fixing it and making it better. You can
always make it better, so don’t be afraid to write badly. Just get it
down, and then revise.

Try to finish most of what you begin. Nobody finishes every story they
start, and that’s okay. But try to finish most of them.🙂

Develop some passions other than writing — so you can write about
Learn about history, philosophy, science, art, pop culture,
travel, psychology, vampires — whatever interests and excites you.
Cultivate a deep curiosity about the world. Learn about people.
That’s how you’ll get your ideas. Originality happens when you
combine different ideas, mix them with your own personality, and come
up with something new.

A writer now is expected to have an online platform — to blog and
Twitter, etc. Publishing is changing very quickly now, so pay close
attention to what writers do online — what works, what doesn’t. Read lots of
blogs, and expect to be blogging one day yourself. It takes a long time
to develop an online platform, so this is another area where your youth is a
great advantage. Plan to learn about social media and online marketing and
personal branding. Think of yourself as not just a writer, but a creative
entrepreneur. Your writing will be your business (as well as your
art). You are an artist *and* a businesswoman.

The most important thing is to have a fresh and distinctive ‘voice’.
The more you write, the more your ‘voice’ will emerge and become its
own original thing. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different
styles, or imitate writers you like. Your voice will emerge from that
mash-up of influences. Take chances. Be bold!

As you get older, try to find another job or career that you can do
as well as write (remember, never stop writing). You will have to
make a living, at least until you can support yourself with your
writing (and no matter what anybody says, it *is* possible). But
work is good for other reasons too, not just economic independence —
it keeps you connected to the world (writing can be very isolating)
and it gives you life experience and stuff to write *about*.

And keep reaching out to writers, the way you did with me. Writers
for the most part want to help other writers, because we know how
tough and lonely writing can be, and we’re always excited to find
the members of our farflung, scattered tribe. So you’re also likely to
make some good friends that way.

I hope this helps you. Let me know what you think, and how your own
writing develops.




Filed under developing your craft

how to think more creatively and come up with better ideas


There’s a show I like to watch when I’m on the treadmill called A WORK OF ART. In the same vein as TOP CHEF or PROJECT RUNWAY, it’s about a group of artists who complete an assignment each week. Their works are put on display and critiqued by the judges. One of them is pronounced that week’s winner and one of them is eliminated.

My favorite is Miles, a talented twentysomething who is puppy-cute and has OCD (as soon as I learned he had OCD I figured he’d be one of the top contenders, because no one else in the group is likely to be as obsessed as he is, which means they probably haven’t put in the same kind of intense and deliberate practice). Miles, overstimulated by his new environment and the abrupt change in routine, is having trouble sleeping. In two out of the first five episodes, after the artists are presented with their assignment and given a half hour or so to think up an idea, Miles finds a place to curl up and take a nap. His peers can only shake their heads and question his judgment.

The irony is that Miles is probably doing one of the best things he can do to shift into creative thinking. Sure enough, he wakes up with an idea, gets to work, produces a successful piece and places near the top of that week’s competition.

A nap is a powerful thing. Studies have linked napping to an increased boost in creativity (when Einstein was troubled by a problem, he would lie down and take a long nap). Although the most effective nap seems to be at least 90 minutes and containing REM sleep (dream sleep), even a quick doze will relax your body and alter your brain rhythms and allow you to access the more creative, freewheeling part of your mind.

If you can’t nap, zone out and daydream. Mental wandering might not seem like a productive use of time, but that’s when creative thinking is actually taking place. Your mind is free to roam through all its memory banks, including places that your conscious mind can’t get to, and to pick up odd snippets and fragments. This is when you’re likely to make those unexpected connections or insights that will solve that problem you’ve been mulling over all week. A recent study at the University of British Columbia has demonstrated that, when daydreaming, the brain is actually recruiting complex regions of itself including the “executive network”, the command-and-control center of your mind that gathers all the streams of information coming in from various sources and evaluates and interprets them.


What is an idea, anyway?

James Webb Young says “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements”.

Jack Foster, in his book HOW TO GET IDEAS agrees: “everything I’ve ever read about ideas talks about combining or linkage or juxtaposition of synthesis or association”.

In her book THE CREATIVE BRAIN, Nancy C Andreasen presents studies that demonstrate how the myth of the tormented artist might not be just a myth. A significantly higher percentage of artists and writers have close relatives with schizophrenia than does the rest of the population. (Quick note: I’m a writer and one of my own uncles had schizophrenia.) It’s been suggested that the brain of an unusually creative person doesn’t filter incoming stimuli in quite the same manner as a more “normal” brain: instead, information jostles around in a way that encourages freewheeling and associative thinking, linking disparate elements in unexpected relationships. When this process is coherent, what might result is a new play or symphony or artistic technique or scientific theory. When this process breaks down, what might result is mental illness. So perhaps unusually creative people do live a little closer to the edge of sanity than the rest of us, and some might even cross it now and again (John Nash, the subject of Ron Howard’s film A BEAUTIFUL MIND, is one example).

Which doesn’t mean that you need to go insane to come up with good ideas.

But it’s important to recognize that in order to be creative you need to train your mind to go beyond the patterns of everyday routine. As Tim Hurson puts it in his book THINK BETTER, “Human beings are far more skilled at following old patterns than at thinking new thoughts.” Although it’s almost impossible to escape from our patterns of living and thinking – which influence us in ways we’re not always aware of – it’s possible to think through them.

One way to do this is by brainstorming…but Hurson makes the point that most people brainstorm badly. Most people will list some ideas, say “yes” or “no” to each idea as it gets jotted down, and then stop at the first idea that seems “right”.

Good brainstorming gets rid of the binary. Each idea isn’t met with a “yes” or a “no”…but a maybe.

Good brainstorming separates critical thinking from creative thinking. The two cannot co-exist; you’re either thinking one way or the other. So to immediately judge your ideas is to limit the quality and quantity of the ideas that you can come up with in the first place.

Good brainstorming lets the creative side of your mind have full reign. No criticism is allowed. The crazier and wilder the idea, the better; as Hurson says, it’s always easier to tame down an idea than it is to wild one up.

Good brainstorming also makes it a point to generate a long, long list of ideas. Hurson talks about “the miracle of the third third”: the best ideas, the most innovative and interesting and gamechanging ideas, come in the final third of the brainstorming session.

Studies have shown that…the first third of the session tends to produce mundane, every-one-has-thought-of-them-before ideas. These are the early thoughts that lie very close to the surface of our consciousness. They tend not to be new ideas at all but recollections of old ideas we’ve heard elsewhere….

…the second third of a good brainstorming session produces ideas that begin to stretch boundaries. These are the ideas that are often still constrained by what we know but are more than simple regurgitations of what we’ve heard or thought before.

The third third is where the diamonds lie…These are the unexpected connections…In bad brainstorming, we never get to the third third. In good brainstorming, getting to the third third is the point.

(The more ideas you come up with, the more good and useful ideas will be among them. Then you can sift through the ideas, refine and develop the ones you like best, or combine some of them into still other ideas.)

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, wrote: “The problem is never how to get new innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Ever mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.”

The Greeks have a word called kenosis, which means “self-emptying.” You must empty yourself before you can fill yourself again.

Remember this the next time you brainstorm. Think up ideas until you get to the point where you don’t think there are any ideas left in you.

Then go on and think up some more.

Hitting that point of frustration – that “there are no more ideas in the world” point – is a good sign. It means you’re empty. The real fun can begin. You’ve entered the “third third”, and it’s a place where not a lot of people know to go.


Hollywood is known for the “high concept idea”. High concept means that the idea has mass appeal, is familiar yet new, and can be communicated in a few words – “snakes on a plane” – that nonetheless conveys the sense of the entire movie on an immediate, visceral level.

Putting aside the fact that these films tend to suck – note to Hollywood: a good movie requires a skill, depth and flair of execution as well as an idea – it’s worth taking a look at how the concept of high concept might be of use to novelists. You might or might not be writing for the masses, but high-concept forces you to know what your story is in a way that can be easily communicated to people…which means that they can turn around and easily communicate it to others. Your novel doesn’t just get pitched once…it gets pitched over and over again. Editors have to pitch their colleagues on your project in order to drum up enough in-house enthusiasm to buy the manuscript. Sales people then have to sell it to the bookstore buyers. If you’re lucky, bloggers will want to pitch it to their readers, who will like it so much they’ll want to pitch it to their friends.

And what is a high-concept idea but, like any other idea, “a new combination of old elements”?

At his blog STORYFIX, Larry Brooks defines high-concept as

a story idea that delivers more originality — and thus, inherent appeal – than what is usually found in that story’s genre.

High concept is not character focused or driven, it suggests a dramatic scenario or device – be it clever, unexpected, unseen, frightening or just plain brilliant – that becomes the landscape upon which characters will reveal themselves.

Story is not character, story is conflict. And high concept implies that conflict.

(Quick note: I would add that conflict is character and character is conflict, because conflict reveals character and character drives conflict. It can be big conflict, or little conflict, blatant conflict or subtle conflict, but there’s gotta be conflict. Do we get insight into your character’s true nature when he’s whistling on his happy walk to Starbucks? Not so much. But what about when he starts arguing with the barista because she doesn’t make his drink fast enough [and refused to sleep with him last Friday]? Conflict fascinates us because it shows us who people are, pushes them past their limits and forces them to change. But I digress.)

Let’s go back to that first bit: a story idea that delivers more originality – and thus, inherent appeal – than what is usually found in that genre…

So what is originality? In my previous post I compare originality with soul and quote Donald Maass:

Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. They enact the author’s concept of what their novel should feel like to read rather than what their inner storyteller urgently needs to say.

Finding the power buried in your novel is not about finding its theme. I would say, rather, that it is about finding you: your eyes, experience, understanding and compassion. Ignore yourself and your story will be weak. Embrace the importance of what you have to share with the rest of us and you have the beginning of what makes novels great.

Finding a high-concept idea, then, means coming up with an idea that is a distinct and unique reflection of you. It lives at the crossroads of your own interests, life experience, passions, obsessions. It fleshes out your personal philosophy, your worldview. It is a combination of the elements of you. Which means that even if someone else stole it, they wouldn’t be able to execute it the way that only you can.

James Bonnet breaks down the “high concept idea” into four parts: fascinating subject matter, great title, awesome inciting incident, sweet hook.

What are the subjects that fascinate you? Make a list. Identify the two or three that compel you the most. How could you combine them into one story? New genres knit themselves into being through the combination of old genres: chick lit + vampires + noir, for example. My own novel-in-progress combines my interests in true crime, abnormal psychology and reincarnation (and of course the love and the sex).

The inciting incident is the story event that sets up the central story problem that needs to be resolved. Everything that happens after the inciting incident happens in some way because of that incident, in one long chain of cause-and-effect.

The ‘hook’ is what makes your story problem unique, fresh, you. It takes a familiar plot (boy meets girl, coming of age, search for a serial killer, vampires in love) and gives it a twist, an unexpected reversal, special circumstances. It raises the stakes and increases interest (perhaps the serial killer is the detective’s brother. Or ex-lover. Or father. Perhaps the coming-of-age is of a brilliant young bisexual artist in Paris during the French Revolution.)

Think about your subject matter, your story problem, your ‘hook’. Try some proper brainstorming for each and all of them. How can you create a story problem out of your combined subject matter? What could be your hook?

Push yourself to find an idea that resonates, that not only seems “original” but sparks a slow-burning fire in the pit of your writer-core and makes a person’s eyes light up when you tell it to them.


Most of all, don’t stress out. Don’t get frustrated. Push yourself, but don’t get down on yourself. Keep it light and enjoyable. Negativity is death to creativity.

Creative thinking is fun and playful thinking.

Paul Valery once said, “Serious people have few ideas. People with ideas are never serious.”

For as Arthur Koestler and Jack Foster point out, “the basis of humor is also the basis of creativity – the unexpected joining of dissimilar elements to form a new whole that actually makes sense.” It’s that sudden left turn when you were expecting to go straight. And takes us to all kinds of cool places.




Filed under developing your craft

5 ways to put more ‘soul’ into your writing

What does it mean to write with ‘soul’?

‘Soulful’ gets defined as the “expression of profound emotion”.  But it’s not enough to express it: you need to invoke it in the reader.

Fiction – and some forms of nonfiction – require that you put the reader through a well-crafted emotional experience.

You can also define soulful writing as writing that draws from what is distinctly and uniquely you.  Donald Maass in his book The Fire of Fiction talks about original writing as soulful writing and says that most manuscripts aren’t nearly original enough:

Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. They enact the author’s concept of what their novel should feel like to read rather than what their inner storyteller urgently needs to say.

Finding the power buried in your novel is not about finding its theme. I would say, rather, that it is about finding you: your eyes, experience, understanding and compassion. Ignore yourself and your story will be weak. Embrace the importance of what you have to share with the rest of us and you have the beginning of what makes novels great.

This is easy to say, but the truth is that even the most accomplished writers can struggle with the concept.  Soulful writing is part technique, part art…and the willingness to make yourself vulnerable.  It’s the ability to “go there”, to “put yourself out there” in ways that feel counter-intuitive.

Because we’re programmed not to do this.  Some of our most powerful psychological defense mechanisms involve rationalizing and intellectualizing in order to protect ourselves from the hard raw work of emotion. But when we write like this, we remain stuck on the surface of the narrative and fail to engage the reader.

The reader is looking for a full-blooded engagement. The reader wants you to shake him up, move him, show him something new, blow the top of his head open (not literally).  The reader doesn’t want you to protect him, he wants you to transport him.

And vulnerability – as Ori Brafman points out in the book CLICK: The Power of Instant Connections– is what draws people in (assuming that your disclosures are appropriate to the context at hand).  Reveal yourself, put yourself out there on the page in order to be ‘found’, and you forge a powerful connection with someone who can now envision the world through, as Maass puts it, “your eyes, experience, understanding and compassion.”

Vulnerability is not the same, in my mind, as oversharing or being self-indulgent.  Oversharing is about telling the reader stuff he doesn’t care to hear; self-indulgence is about writing hollow prose that doesn’t mean anything to anybody except the writer (and maybe the writer’s mother).  When you overshare, when you self-indulge, you’re skating the surface.  You’re telling the reader what to feel instead of drawing her into an experience.  If soulful writing invokes genuine emotion, sentimental writing tries to coax an emotional reaction through surface manipulations, stereotypes and clichés.  Sentimental writing doesn’t “go there”, and as a result it comes off as contrived. And fake.

Some tactics to help you put more soul into your writing:

1. Write from the body.

Stay grounded and focused on the physical:  what the character hears, sees, smells, thinks, and feels.  It’s easy to get so lost in the character’s inner musings, philosophizing and monologues that the reader gets lost as well…and not in a good way.  (Remember that intellectualizing is a defense mechanism that is specifically designed to reduce or eliminate emotion.) Make sure the reader is rooted in a concrete feeling of space and time, and let the reader experience the storyworld through the character’s physical experience of it.  This will make things more immediate and vivid for the reader.

2. Identify the powerful moments in your narrative.

Life is a series of moments, and fiction is a series of interrelated moments with the boring stuff cut out.  Identify the true moments that move your narrative forward, and make sure you write out those moments as full-blooded scenes.  Don’t summarize.  Don’t tell.  Don’t get abstract or philosophical.  Show.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt makes the point that when she was working as a film analyst, she noticed that

A level movies had approximately 10 to 20 scenes total and B-level movies had 35-60 scenes total.  This happened in every single case.  Some A-level movies are now three hours long, but even so, the better movies just don’t have as many scenes as the lesser ones do.  The writers of the B movies were trying to do too much, switching scenes to try and make it seem as if there were a lot of action or drama taking place.  They didn’t use the scenes they had to full effect.  They didn’t use the opportunities for action and drama that were right in front of them.


3.  Explore those moments.  Drill deep.

Ask yourself, how can you go deeper into the scene, plumb it for all its action and drama?  How can you raise the stakes, reveal more about the characters, or hit on some new revelation or insight?  Drill down through the layers of your characters’ motivations.  Examine how they really feel about each other, or what they want from each other, or what they have to lose.  Then experiment with ways of conveying this through action and dialogue.

Searching the souls of your characters is a way of searching your own soul, drawing on all the knowledge and self-awareness you possess (a good writer is by necessity a student of human nature, including her own).  When you’re “writing deep” — when you’re writing from that soulful, subconscious place — you might be surprised at what you find, and the added complexity and vulnerability it brings to your fiction.

4. Try timed writings.

Give yourself 20 minutes to write the scene…and go!   When we did timed exercises in my Writers On Fireworkshop, we were often impressed with just how strong and powerful and, yes, soulful the results were.  Some of the best writing we saw in that workshop came out of those exercises.

I think the reasons for this are twofold.  When you know you have such limited time, you’re forced to cut to the chase.  All the superfluous stuff gets junked and you head straight for the meat of the scene.  At the same time, you’re forced to bypass the censor in your head, who wants to keep everything nice and rationalized and contained.  You dive into the subconscious, which is where you find all the cool stuff.

I’m not saying that an important scene should be written in nothing more than twenty minutes.  But by experimenting with this approach, you can discover new things about the scene, and the characters, that enable you to go there and bring an added emotional richness to your story.

5. Read really good stuff that “goes there”.

A funny thing happens when we give ourselves permission to be vulnerable; we enable other people to permit themselves to be vulnerable.

Make this work for you.  Seek out fiction or nonfiction that is searing, emotional and raw. That gets under your skin and truly moves you.  Let that writer’s ability to be vulnerable inspire some vulnerability of your own.  (One example of a memoir that inspired me this way is Rachel Resnick’s LOVE JUNKIE.  An example of a novel is Siri Husvedt’s WHAT I LOVED.)

Give yourself permission to invite the reader into your soul, and that reader could be yours for life.



Filed under developing your craft

the ‘how to write a creative manifesto’ manifesto

1. Writing a manifesto is ideal for our creative work and promotional use of social media because it’s about defining the path and the way.

When we are on the path, when we commit to the path, we win.
The fun is to win everyday.

Creative work is a practice.

Social media is a practice.

We must design our path so that we love the practice. Many roads may lead to the same place, but that doesn’t mean they’re all equally effective or enjoyable for me or for you.

(And if it’s not enjoyable, it won’t be effective for very long, because you’ll be sitting in a corner somewhere poking your eyes out.)

2. Our manifesto is our way of announcing not only where we are going (your open-space, ultimate horizon dream) but how we are going to get there (the small, measurable actions you take on a near-daily basis) and also why we want to get there: the beliefs and principles that connect intellect to emotion.

Intellect and emotion: the one-two punch that powers motivation and keeps us going.

We take ideas and inspiration from wherever and whomever we find it, but in the end must build out our own unique road that plays to our individual strengths and neutralizes our weaknesses.

3. Social media is an ongoing conversation. Conversation is how we riff off of each other. It sends out sparks of electricity and magic. It is the grand arena in which ideas meet and mingle, cross-fertilize and combine; where people deposit bits and fragments of knowledge that build and open out into new dimensions of insight.
Social media embraces those who bring something to the conversation. Nobody wants to keep talking to some dude who is constantly promoting only himself. It is much more interesting when we promote others. It is much more interesting when we promote a cause.

Promote only yourself, and you are hitting the same note over and over again. When we promote other worthy people, when we link ourselves and our work to a larger social framework, our conversation becomes much more inclusive, relevant, wide-ranging and multidimensional – while still unified by the message, the vision, at core.

4. The challenge in building an ‘online platform’ for our creative work is finding a way to promote that doesn’t just flash things at people but engages them

intrigues and draws them in

and makes them part of an ongoing conversation that is relevant to our work, but also rich and deep and flexible enough to keep a lot of people engaged over a sustained period of time. Our creative work offers value, but so does our conversation. Which is why our conversation has to be passionate, sincere, and, yes, authentic enough so that people know we’re for real — and this they can trust us with their attention, their time, their love and their cash.

We build out our art through the art of conversation. Our creative work and our social media become two halves of the same larger whole. Suddenly we’re no longer marketing…

we are unmarketing, which is way way cooler.

(Find the cause in your creative work, the message you want to give the world, whether it’s to end genocide or celebrate family and relationships or be a career renegade or sacredly self-actualize or whatever.

Your manifesto is your vision, but it’s also your point of view.)

5. There is no place for spam in our practice. If it doesn’t offer value, it is spam.

6. If it is spam, then it must get the hose.

7. In our creative work, and our use of social media to promote said creative work, we must be passionate. We don’t always start from passion: we start out with glimmerings, hints and hunches. Through trial and error and study and hard work, we build upon those glimmerings. We become better and better at whatever it is we do, and through our own growing mastery find our way to passion. So those glimmerings are our guide.

(Pay attention to yours. Organize yourself and your work around them.)

8. We must be sincere, in that we do what we do because we want to do it and not because it’s what we think we should do (and then do in a half-assed way…or decide to poke our eyes out instead. Or watch The Bachelor.). We must seek the sweet spot where our beliefs and talents and the needs of our audience overlap. We must give the people what they want and need whether or not they know they want and need it. Chances are that if you need it, someone else will need it too. We may each and every one of us be a unique and individual snowflake – but, in the end, we’re all freaking snowflakes, and tumble down from the same freaking sky.

9. We must think big. We must be gloriously delusional. People want to be inspired, and they are not inspired by small and modest aims whose sole function is to stave off disappointment.

(Create a vision for yourself and your work, and turn that vision into a cause that other people can participate in and find meaning and value in.)

Social media gives us the tools to reach and teach, enable and empower.

Make the most of it to make the world a better place. This earns us trust and influence, the most powerful forms of self-promotion – which can be neither purchased nor faked.

10. We must have (or work to develop) the substance to back up our style, the steak to flesh out our sizzle. If people are going to pay for content, it must be Damn Good. The content we give away for free is how they learn to trust that what they buy will be Damn Good.

11. If it is half-assed content, then it must get the hose.

12. Know yourself. Investigate yourself. Search through your soul and your work and your interests and your role models and your personal heroes to find the themes and obsessions that inspire and compel your creative work. Look to what inspires you. Follow your strengths: those moments and activities that make you feel strong, energized and most like yourself. Brainstorm. Journal. Think up 100 questions to ask yourself about yourself and answer every single one of them. Carry a memo pad around with you and jot down every article or news story that catches your interest. Examine your bookshelves. Ask your parents what you were like as a child, the subjects you couldn’t stop talking about at the dinner table.

Investigate the magic and the mystery of You.

Then gather this information and sift through it for clues, for glimmerings. What is that you are here to do, and make, and give the world? What do you want to accomplish as a creative? Give your work a voice: what does it want to accomplish in the world?

13. Give your work some goals, some big hairy goals, some open space goals that have no real ‘trophy’ or end point — there’s a difference between “lose twenty pounds” and “be fit and energized for life”. Break those open space goals into process goals, the small incremental measurable things that when done everyday will move you and your work toward the stunning horizon of your ultimate dream. The point isn’t the destination. The point is the journey, the process, the practice, what you do on a day-to-day basis that fulfils you, that demands the best and fullest use of your soul, your talents, your self. Remember – when you’re on the path, when you practice the practice, you already win.

14. No creative person, no creative work, exists in a vacuum. Link those goals to your community, society, the world at large. Why does the world (or at least some part of it) need you to do this work? Why should we care? Find the reasons. The difference between art and simple self-expression is that art takes the raw materials of your life, your mind and personality, and weaves meaning from them in a way that has relevance for others as well as yourself. It doesn’t have to have meaning for everybody. But it has to mean something to somebody other than your mother.

15. Originality happens when we take familiar elements and combine them in new ways. Take these elements – your goals, your ambition, your self-knowledge – and combine them into an overarching vision about who you are and what you’re here to do. This doesn’t have to happen overnight. Mull it all over for a while. Put it out of your mind for a while. Give things time to gel. Let your vision come to you in flashes of insight. This is your cause, your mission, your point of view, the rallying cry for your tribe. Remember that you will continue to develop and refine it over time. It will evolve as you evolve.

16. Who do you want to reach with your message, your work? Who do you want to include and participate in your vision? Where do you think they are online – where do they live, what spaces and niches and communities? Where do they visit and hang out? What are the best ways to reach them? How can you best use social media to do that? What are the social media tools that will best serve them, and thus you? Play around with these questions. Play around with your answers. Whenever you feel a glimmering – an inner surge of excitement, a mental yawp, a Yes – see if you can weave that into your manifesto.

17. Your manifesto, remember, is a declaration of your principles, beliefs and your intentions.

Write in strong dramatic declarative language.

Write in present tense.

Write out a blend of vision, dream, philosophy, and the best practices and habitual next actions that move you in the direction of your dream. You can mix these ingredients in whatever proportions you want. After all, it’s your manifesto. The important thing is the heat the manifesto generates in your heart, gut and soul. If you don’t feel that primal, visceral, emotional connection – then stop. Play with the ingredients again. Toss stuff out and bring in something new. Mess around. Have fun. This should be fun.

18. Maybe you’re not a writer. Maybe you want to use images instead. Or music. Or video. Or cartoons. Or all of the above. Go ahead. Go wild. Do what you need to do. You are master and authority. This is the universe according to You.



There are no rules except the rules you set. Or break.

20. A manifesto is a public declaration – so, if you’re ready, when you’re ready, make it public! Post on your blog or your website or your Facebook page. Post it here, in the comments.

Not everybody has to agree with you. Not everybody has to ‘get’ whatever it is that you’re doing.

Besides, you don’t want everybody. You want people who will love and adore your work – and you. You are communicating your manifesto to them. Everybody else can go stuff themselves. (Or watch The Bachelor.)

Remember — when we are on the path

when we commit to the path

we win.

The fun is to win everyday.


Filed under the creative life

why writing a manifesta can help you develop a creative vision (and sell more books and maybe even change the world)

(note: I’m using ‘manifesta’ instead of ‘manifesto’ because I like the womanly sound of it. indulge me.)

One of my favorite bloggers, Kelly Diels writes a bang-up post about what she would do if she was a new writer named Dorothy who’d just published a book about her adventures on the yellow brick road:

So this book should sell. It needs to sell. Dorothy wants it to sell.

Even more than that, Dorothy wants it to be read, to land, to take root, to grow, to inhabit, fertilize and animate our popular imagination.

If I was Dorothy – and I am – I would start a blog before I even started writing the book. I’d go all Seth Godin and build a tribe on Twitter. I’d find my people. I’d give them somewhere to find me. I’d get on the cluetrain. I’d Oprah. I’d firestart. I’d listen to Leo Babauta when he says he doesn’t believe in SEO. I’d make friends. I’d work the aich-ee-double-hockey-sticks out of ProBlogger and spend serious time with Outspoken Media. I’d figure out the lessons learned by our pantheon of blog gods and best-selling writers. I’d figure out the mechanics of demand and distribution and audience and I’d build it and they would come. And if they didn’t come, I’d go get them and then hug and pet and feed them because that is the purpose of promotional tricks and lassos and rodeo ponies and hoopla.

But I would only do that if, like Dorothy, I had something wizardly to offer: the journey. The passion. The learning. The love. The living. The lessons. The magic. The really, really great content. Please.

Often, when we talk about writing, we talk about how to write and go about the business:  how to structure a novel and frame a scene and create characters and dialogue and find our theme and write our query letter and approach agents, etc.  And now, with the shifting digitalscape of publishing, we talk about platform and brand and how to blog and Facebook and Twitter and hang out in forums and make book apps and podcasts and video trailers and ebooks. We talk about giving stuff away for free and generating multiple streams of revenue.  We talk about True Fans.

We talk about what to do with the content.

We don’t often talk about the content itself.

It’s not enough to know how to say it.  You have to have something to say.

Writers now have to market their content (their books) with more content (everything else they do online).  Nonfiction writers have a clear advantage over fiction writers: if I’m marketing — or more specifically, unmarketing— a book about the Civil War, or how to develop your psychic powers, or how to breed and care for purple hamsters, then I can blog and tweet about things related to the Civil War or psychics or hamsters.

This is why nonfiction has always been easier to promote than fiction: a nonfiction writer could go on talk shows and radio shows and discuss the book with hosts who hadn’t read the book by providing intriguing and educational information about the subject matter that would make listeners with similar interests want to buy the book.  That’s ‘content marketing’ in action.  The marketing is done through content that in and of itself provides value: it entertains and informs.  The listener takes away some informational nuggets about purple hamsters and is a better person for it.

So great content has to be promoted with more great content.

But what should fiction writers blog, tweet, and content-market about?  Or what happens when that nonfiction writer comes out with a book that falls outside her established ‘brand’ (and never wants to look at purple hamsters again)?

This is where a manifesta comes in handy.

A manifesta is “a public declaration of principles, policies or intentions.”  In this case, it’s not of a political nature but an artistic one.  It is what you stand for and want to accomplish as a writer and blogger.  It is your creative vision presented as a set of ideas that will attract like-minded people (a.k.a. your “ideal readers”) and power the conversations that you have with them and they have with each other (since you won’t always be around).


1. It forces you to soul-search and think strategically.

Media coach Susan Harrow said, “Words are the ambassadors of our intentions.”  Just the act of composing your manifesta forces you to examine what those intentions actually are…and how you want to make them manifest.

There is a real power in writing things down.  (Here’s an entire book about it.)  It orients your mind to the future and acts as a filter for incoming stimuli so that you zero in on the things and events and people that can help you move forward.  Suddenly you’re writing and working with purpose and strategy.

And this includes your time online.  As anyone who engages with it quickly learns, social media can be a massive timesuck with little to show for it if you don’t know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.  To be truly effective, social media requires a strategy. Your manifesta helps you look beyond the tools and technologies to the principles behind them and how they might serve your vision.  Your manifesta cuts a path through the social media jungle. This makes social media itself less overwhelming.

2. It establishes your brand in your own mind and in the minds of others.

A few words about ‘brand’.  You might be thinking, This is the kind of thing that makes me despair utterly because you, after all, are you.  You are not a pair of sneakers.

But in the online world, a brand is your identity.  It is the shared mental imprint that others have of you.  It is their sense of your personality and set of values. Picture a much more complex and sophisticated version of your icon or gravatar that walks around the ‘Net and grows or shrinks according to the conversations that people have about you (or if they’re having conversations at all).

A good brand allows people to feel that they know you, and online, this is a good thing.  After all, anybody can say they’re anybody on the ‘Net — at least initially (you can only hide behind another identity for so long).  The more you reveal yourself online — with care and intelligence, of course — and the more transparent your brand becomes, the more people will trust that you are who you say you are and do what you say you do.  If they trust you, they pay attention to you.  If they pay attention to you, you have influence.  This is a very good thing.

In the old, offline world, a brand was a fixed controlled message beamed out to the masses in a one-way direction from the television and the radio.  In the new, online world, the ‘message’ of a brand is neither fixed nor controlled.  You can’t control the conversation that other people have about you.  You can only hope to steer it in a certain direction….

3. It steers the conversation

…and a manifesta helps you do this. When you know your manifesta, you’ll know what you want to write about and the kinds of conversations you want to have.

4. It helps you develop your brand in a natural and organic way.

Conversations are not static, so your brand isn’t either.  Through engaging and interacting with people — and through listening, listening, listening — you can ‘grow’ your brand in new dimensions. This is the idea of the brand molecule: one idea growing naturally from another idea. The brand molecule can become complex and multifaceted while still retaining that core sense of identity or ‘message’ that unifies everything into a whole greater than the sum of its parts — instead of just a random collection of parts.

For example, a key part of my own manifesta (which I’m still working on) involves making the world a better place for girls and women (which makes the world a better place for everybody).  I plan to one day fund a school for girls in Cambodia (and write and blog about the experience).  This might not seem like it has anything to do with my published novels and short stories, except one thing I hope to accomplish in my fiction is the creation of strong, complex female characters who wrestle with issues that other girls and women can relate to (even if their own lives don’t involve magic and fallen angels and the god of the underworld and that kind of thing). So my manifesta connects these two different ideas — my dark fantasy novels and the education of girls in developing countries — and shows the relationship between them.  My writing, my activism, and my use of social media, my ‘unmarketing’, can all be different parts of my brand molecule and work toward the same overarching goal.

5. It galvanizes you and pulls you forward.

Developing a successful writing career is a long and arduous process with no guarantee of success (far from it).  You’re required to develop your craft and your platform.  Both these elements demand a heavy investment of time, emotion and energy.

You will get rejected.

You will make mistakes.

Not everyone will like your work or your ‘brand’ — some might even loathe you and everything they think you stand for.  You’ll get bad reviews.  You’ll find negative comments on your blog.  There will be moments when you’ll want to say “to hell with it all” and curl up in a fetal position.  You might start to think about law school.

So how to stay motivated?

In his book DRIVE: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel H Pink states that we are actually not all that motivated by external awards (the whole carrot and stick approach).  Sure, we want that raise, but what powers us in the long-term and is the real key to high performance and satisfaction

is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

You’ll know your manifesta is on target when you feel that deep sense of excitement in your core.  Your manifesta is ultimately a statement about passion.  Reviewing it when you’re low or discouraged can help you reconnect to that sense of passion and purpose that compelled you to start doing what you’re doing in the first place.  It can remind you that Rome wasn’t built in a day — or a year — but the damn thing did get built.

After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination (or not just the destination).  Your manifesta keeps your eyes on that magical skyline in the distance.  It gives you energy to navigate the roadblocks.  It helps you find your way back to the road if you should wander off somewhere (or get lured in the wrong direction).

6. It turns a random audience into a genuine tribe.

The Internet has changed the idea of what an audience is. No longer a passive vessel for the entertainment that you provide (or at least attempt to), the people formerly known as the audience expect to have a voice of their own.  It is their right to talk back to you and to each other.  Your content becomes the great connection point.  But it has to be a connection point: something that is worth their time and conversation.  The most powerful content of all is content that inspires people and impacts their sense of the world and their own place within it.  No small task, I know, but the good news is that if your manifesta inspires you — and if it doesn’t, it’s the wrong manifesta — then it will likely inspire others.

7. It organizes all your content into a unifying whole greater than the sum of its parts.

see #4

8. It just might change the world.

— next up: how to write a manifesta —




Filed under developing your author platform

the writer as seducer

Writers, like seducers, aspire to get outside of themselves and into the perspective of another person, to gather information they can use in their campaign.

They develop a ‘cool eye’: the ability to step outside of their own ego and exist within the moment, to see things as objectively as they can.

Storytelling, like seduction, is about the power of fascination.

It’s about getting inside someone’s head and under their skin. It’s about knowing when to step close and when to step away, and when to make them think they’re chasing you. It’s about mixing pleasure with pain. It’s about injecting the relationship with the right amount of doubt and uncertainty to create in the other person an obsession. It’s about engaging the senses en route to the mind. It’s about wrapping your presence in poetry and fantasy.

It’s about slipping yourself into someone else’s world…and guiding them slowly into your own.

It’s about stirring up the transgressive and the taboo.

And knowing how – and when – to make the bold move.

Whether you’re seducing someone, or telling a story, or creating a presence on the Web, you are using the pull of attraction. You don’t push yourself at your intended victim(s). You pull them to you through the power of your presence, your words, the husky melody of your voice.

To do this, you have to be an excellent student of human nature.

You have to be empathetic enough to understand the other person’s point of view…and calculating enough to gauge your process and revise your course when necessary.

A writer, like a seducer, has to be a kind of spy. You watch people. You gather information and store it for future use. You examine their motivations.  Harriet Rubin talks about “the 5 whys”: whenever someone asks you for something, or does something, ask yourself Why. Then ask yourself Why again. Then ask yourself that three more times. With each answer, you pull back another layer of motivation to get to the truth at the core.

The truth gives you power.




Filed under Uncategorized

why ‘write what you know’ can be very bad advice

Write what you know.

This has always been problematic advice for me. I started writing fiction when I was very young – I wrote my first novel when I was 14 and it almost, almost, got published several years later – and I could sense from my obsessive reading that writers were supposed to know a lot more than I did.

I was a sheltered, smalltown girl, and the only thing I thought I knew was that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I embarked on a quest to become Worldly and Experienced…at least partly so that I would have cool stuff to write about.

Except now I’m 37, and my life has been as interesting and surprising as my teenage self could have wanted, and I’m still haunted by the feeling that I don’t know whatever it is I should know in order to write what I want.

Write what you want to know.

We forget that there are different ways of knowing. We know things in our head and our heart and our gut. And I mean literally: scientists have discovered brain in our gut (over a hundred million specialized nerve cells that allow it to act independently, learn, remember and influence perception and behavior) and our heart (over forty thousand neurons and an intricate network of neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells).

We know things through intellectual reasoning, but we also know through intuition and emotion. Knowledge comes packaged in nonverbal as well as verbal forms. There’s the knowledge of the mind, but also the body and the soul. Sometimes it’s the mind that we need to kick out of the way.

And often we don’t even know what we do know. The subconscious part of our brain takes in everything, records and remembers everything. It processes our lives in its own mysterious ways, to rise up through the dreams of creative work.

So when we’re compelled toward a particular subject matter, a certain kind of story, maybe it’s that shadowy underground knowledge that’s driving us. It’s not knowledge, necessarily, in the way we understand it. There are gaps and holes. We need to do research. But that want to know is a kind of knowing in itself: what we need to explore in our own writing in order to move toward wholeness.

Write what you don’t know…but will discover in the telling.

Steven Heighton said this, and it might be my favorite piece of writing advice ever.

Writing is a skill, and an art, and sometimes a dark art: you’re never quite sure where it comes from. You write to discover the story as much as tell it. When you step outside your comfort zone, push at the limits of what it is you think you know, you go down into the darkness of your underground self to mine the vein of gold that you find there. You write a murder mystery and discover that it’s really about your relationship with your father. You write a dark fantasy about magic and demons and discover that it’s really about your disintegrating marriage.

So I think, in the end, you need to write what you’re driven to write, whether you “know” it or not. Writing “what you know” is one step away from writing the book that you “should” write, which is a trick and a lie of the mind. You need to follow the whispers of your obsessions, and that ache in your gut you can’t verbalize because it goes beyond words, into a kind of inchoate longing. That’s where you’ll find the book that needs to get written, the sense and the feel of it.

Sometimes, to write what we know, we have to go into the unknown.




Filed under the creative life