Giant typewriter and how to write more by starting small
Self Management

How to Write More by Starting Small

There’s a meme on that social media platform old people use (Facebook), which goes like this:

  • Start by doing 1 push up.
  • Start by drinking 1 cup of water.
  • Start by paying toward 1 debt.
  • Start by reading 1 page.
  • Start by making 1 sale.
  • Start by deleting 1 old contact.
  • Start by walking 1 lap.
  • Start by attending 1 event.
  • Start by writing 1 paragraph.
  • Start today.
  • Repeat tomorrow.

You might be a binge-writer, or you might be more of a steady plodder. As someone who writes both ways, I have discovered that each approach involves starting small.

Q: What’s wrong with starting big?

A: It makes things harder than they need to be.

Slamming full bore into a project is like trying to go from zero to seventy MPH in three seconds–it’s great if you’re on the Aerosmith Rockin’ RollerCoaster at Disney World, but if your life is even a little bit complex, it’s unsustainable.

Personally, when I make things harder than they need to be (which I do a fair amount) there is some part of myself that calls bullshit, and that knows it’s fake. I don’t need to exercise for two hours a day seven days a week to see results; in fact, jumping into two hours of exercise a day without starting smaller is counterproductive because I’m going to get sore or hurt myself, and I’m not going to be able to keep it up.

Starting small works because you won’t disappoint yourself early on.

Q: Why do writers start big?

A1: Impatience, sometimes.

If you haven’t been working on a novel you had the idea for five years ago, when you finally do start working on it you want to get it done in the same timeframe as if you hadn’t dicked around for five years. That means getting it done fast, and that means taking on a punishing schedule to make up for all the time you lost.

A2: Or comparison.

Binge writer Georges Simenon

We can compare ourselves to others or to our former selves. What about the time we binge-wrote a novella in a long weekend? What about Georges Simenon, who wrote each of his Maigret novels in a couple of weeks (and a grueling, punishing schedule it was for those two weeks–he basically locked himself in a room and pulled them out through his nose).

What we’re not doing is comparing ourselves to ourselves the last time we did a difficult project. I always think I’m going to write a novel’s first draft in a year. And I always spend at least six months avoiding it and working on other stuff, then a month or so on figuring out the story to a certain degree, then I write the first fifty pages and realize I don’t know enough (especially when it’s a historical novel), so I stop for another six to twelve months to do research (sometimes this includes traveling to another country). Then back to the writing and the plotting. Anywhere from one to three years after I tell myself I’ve started, I actually start. It’s terrible. I’m trying to change. But if you won’t admit where you’re at, change is difficult.

A3: Or ambition.

We plan to write a novel a year, or one every two years. Maybe we just finished one and it took us three years. To stay on track we need to start the next one immediately and work faster, so we give ourselves a more ambitious schedule in hopes that it will help us measure up to the pace we just know we’re capable of.

I was doing research in Chicago when I realized this was happening, and so I decided to make one change. Focus on one change at a time. The change I focused on was time. For fifteen minutes a day I would work on this project–whether it’s writing, planning, or researching.

Did that work for me? I’ll tell you later.

How to Start Small

First, look at your track record for finishing projects and accept reality. So you didn’t write that novel five years ago. You’re not finished now. You haven’t just emailed it to your agent and gotten back a “WOW. AUCTION!” (Not that agents would email that.)

The present situation is that you are starting now. You need a bulletproof “why” (why you, why this novel, why now). If you’re a plodder, you need some systems, and then you need some persistence and consistency day after day after day. If you’re a binge-writer, you need to know that you can binge-write your way to completion, which takes a different kind of persistence and a Teflon attitude toward self-doubt and despair.

You don’t need an ill-conceived superhuman push that can’t be sustained. That will leave you even more demoralized and disappointed in yourself than you were before.

PD James, steady worker

The inimitable PD James, who worked full time in demanding jobs, first in hospital administration and then in the Department of Home Affairs, while she raised a family and looked after her ailing husband while writing numerous complex and interesting novels.

How to start small if you’re a binge writer:

In binge writing, the small steps are part of the preparation.

For example: writing a 25,000-word novella in three days starts several months out, with making sure the calendar is clear over the Labour Day weekend.

Then because I respond well to external pressure, I register for the International 3-Day Novel Contest and pay my hard-earned fifty bucks to participate.

So far, each act has taken maybe five minutes.

A couple of months out I check in with an online forum of contest regulars and say hi, talk about snacks, setup, privacy, and all the stuff that needs to be arranged for the long weekend of writing. We schmooze, we shoot the breeze, in small time investments of brief bursts a couple of times a week. This increases my motivation.

About three weeks out I remember to tell my kids that I will be shut up in my bedroom all weekend and they can set themselves up for a 3-day session of binge-watching movies and ordering takeout. This brings in witnesses I can’t then disappoint.

A couple of weeks before Labor Day I post on social media that I’m doing it. This also creates the face-saving need to actually write the novella.

The Thursday night before the contest starts, I bring home a fresh pack of dollar-store index cards for desperate plotting when I get stuck, which I know I will, and I go shopping for snacks and beverages. I put batteries in my voice memo recorder, set up my laptop, clean up my room, and sometimes make a sign for the door to remind my loved ones that their random meaningless problems are not welcome because I have actual REAL problems I’m dealing with (admittedly, involving people who don’t exist doing something that never happened).

Then at 0:600 Saturday morning, I open up the laptop and start binge-writing for 3 full days, finishing at 11:30 pm (or so) Monday. I excrete a complete novella in this time, taking breaks only to eat, exercise, go for a walk, or bathe.

The binge writing is possible only because of the lead-up system that gets me primed. And the lead-up system that gets me primed is made of small steps.

The same principles apply to plodders. You take small steps that will force you to perform the work, which leads to you actually performing the work.

How to start small if you’re a plodder:

Small steps for plodders require knowing yourself and removing obstacles to the work on a daily basis. These steps are quite individual, not as easily described as the binge-writing preparations. Personally, I know that I have to keep the project externalized physically (I’m talking about a folder or a binder with pages in it), and easily accessible. That helps me remember that I’m actually working on something. Then bit by bit I follow a particular system to get it done.

Remember my Chicago epiphany about spending 15 minutes a day on my project? As it happens, it didn’t work for me. What worked was going to bed earlier, getting up earlier, and getting to my office earlier five days a week so I could write for a couple of hours before work.

Once I got back to doing this I remembered having written four bad novels and my MFA thesis the exact same way. I find it relatively simple and sustainable. Nobody cares if I go to bed before my teenagers do on weeknights. Netflix REALLY doesn’t care if I doze my way through every second episode of Blacklist.

I know myself. I know what helps me write. But I also forget myself sometimes, for reasons I haven’t quite deciphered. That’s OK. I remember how to start small.

Half of the writing life is managing yourself, so make a commitment now to figure yourself out and give yourself what you need to do your work.

Start small and be consistent. The past is gone, the future’s just an idea. The present is all you have.

Post Title
Project Management

7 Project Management Principles for Writing a Book

Writing is a “learn by doing” thing, and the only way to learn how to write a book is to write one.

This is problematic for many reasons, the main one being that writing a book is confusing, difficult, and almost always optional.

Several years ago I borrowed a bunch of money and went back to school for an MFA. I was on the third draft of my fifth novel and was getting very tired of not knowing what the hell I was doing, writing multiple drafts that were really just poking the misshapen beasts into a different shape. But I was finishing novels, that was for sure. They were in a box under the stairs. I could look at them any time I wanted to.

The MFA was great. My writing improved exponentially. I met some terrific writers.

A few months into my two-year MFA program I realized that many of these talented writers got irreversibly stuck on long projects.

They weren’t so in love with the short form that they didn’t want to write a book. Many of them had started one. They just couldn’t seem to get to the end.

I could. I’m not saying it was easy, but I could do it consistently—hence the five finished novels under the stairs.

So what made the difference?

After long reflection I have realized that it was the influence of my career as a project manager in the international conference industry. With every novel I wrote, I was applying project management principles to my writing life.

7 project management principles for writing a book

  1. Know your why
  2. Define the project
  3. Know that it can’t all be done in a day
  4. Enjoy the play aspects
  5. Don’t spread yourself thin
  6. Give yourself what you need
  7. Do the unpleasant stuff

1. Know your ‘why’

You are the only person on planet Earth who can write this book, but that doesn’t mean the world needs it. This will become apparent to you many times over as you work your way through the first draft and then (conceivably) multiple subsequent drafts. So you have to ask yourself: why?

In the international conference management industry, the ‘why’ is usually related to the organization’s goals. Government printers meet to talk about passport security and improvements in anti-counterfeiting paper because they want their identity documents to be secure and their money to remain valuable.

What’s your reason for writing a book-length work? Maybe you have a contract for it. Maybe you have a particular niche to fill. I wrote a non-fiction book recently and the ‘why’ was twofold—to demystify my day job (editing) for other writers, and to make a bit of money on the side.

Whether it’s a novel or a non-fiction work, dig deep for your reason: Why this book, why now, why you?

Your why has to matter to you, but it doesn’t need to make sense to anybody else. Maybe you want a novel published so you can teach at an MFA program, and you know that to get one published, you have to write it first. Personally, I write novels because I get an idea and I want to fool around with it. I can’t imagine not writing the book. I consider writing fiction integral to my own operating system. I write the book to get rid of it and make room for the next one, if you will.

2. Define the project

As GK Chesterton said, “Art is limitation.” You can’t make a sculpture of everything, after all. You have to choose.

Every writer I know who isn’t a hobbyist thinks in terms of projects. They might not know immediately what type of project an idea will be, but at some point they make the decisions that must be made to define what they’re working on.

Fiction’s long forms are novels and novellas. Nonfiction takes many forms: how-to, memoir, self-help—you can actually look up how books are categorized on the Book Industry Study Group’s website, which lists the many BISAC (category) codes under which book-length works might fall.

With novels, my project definition is much looser than a BISAC code, at least initially, because frankly, sales are the least of my worries. If I don’t write the novel, I’ll expire (see #1). So I take whatever my initial impetus is (often an image, like a sad man on a train) and slap an arbitrary scaffolding on it. “OK, it’ll be 80,000 words, it’ll cover a five-week period, it will be set in France, and it will involve a bereaved man.” The scaffolding will change as it develops, but that’s not the point. The point is to have a shape in mind so you can find a place to start.

3. Know that it can’t all be done in a day

The international conference industry is kind of like showbiz. You work with interesting people from all over the world and, as with movies and Broadway shows and the Olympics, you start planning years in advance. These international events cost millions of dollars. They have a start date and an end date, and they happen in that period whether or not everything’s ready. But (because millions) everything had better be ready.

To make sure it’s ready on time, each member of the organizing team works at the project regularly. You can’t just block the conference center dates and do nothing for two years, then start working on it a week before everyone arrives.

The same goes with writing a book-length work. If you are not prepared to do it bit by bit, it will rarely get done at all.

Project managers use critical paths, a handy tool that breaks each element down (signage, speakers, etc.) and assigns deadlines and deliverables. Writers can do this too. Writing down everything you might need to do—research, the actual draft writing, deep revision, lining up beta readers, polishing, putting together a submission list—will show you the enormity of the task. You will see that writing the book is only part of it. You won’t delay starting because you will see that this thing’s going to take a while, and that the best time to start is right now.

A side bonus of breaking a book project down into bite-sized tasks and working at them regularly is that, in addition to steady progress in each area, you will also get periods of exceptional work because the project is on your mind.

4. Enjoy the play aspects

In conferences, sometimes you’re dealing with serious issues and sometimes you’re doing fun stuff, like sampling menus or picking out tote bags. Writing is much the same. As novelist David Mitchell says:

Writing describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields—writing new scenes—demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages—that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours.”

Source: Paris Review interview by Adam Begley

So relax into whatever schedule and systems you’ve developed (see #6) and don’t try to rush your way through the writing itself. Use your writing time to play. If you need to get back to kindergarten and cut up pieces of paper to diagram where your characters are, as playwright George Bernard Shaw was reputed to do, then let yourself do it.

Conversely, some of writing is really just thinking, and you don’t have to do it at your desk. While walking through the city I have dictated entire paragraphs of deathless prose into my digital voice recorder—things that I couldn’t have written at my desk in a million years, because the light hit something in a certain way or I had a great idea for the scene I was working on. Walking connects both halves of your brain, birthing new insights.

5. Don’t spread yourself thin

You will rarely find international conference teams working on several shows at once, especially as a big event’s run dates approach. Similarly, it is not productive to keep too many long manuscripts going at once. This is partly just mathematics: twenty actions on two goals get you closer to the goals than twenty actions on twenty goals. It’s also got to do with morale. Finishing something is encouraging, and focusing on one or two projects lets you finish things more often.

6. Give yourself what you need

I personally believe that you can’t manage time—it’s just a silly human construct! But you can manage your environment, access to work, and support.

This involves knowing yourself. If I have a project buried in my computer I tend to forget about it—weeks can go by before I remember I was actually thinking it would get done soon.

So I externalize projects, put them in binders, schedule time on my phone, set deadlines to swap work with other writers, etc. I get to my office two hours before anyone needs me and work on my own stuff in that time period. I have actual checklists and systems that I know work, especially for the revision phase.

All of these needs I have are not very sexy, but that’s OK, they are tremendously helpful when I veer off into the rhubarb and need to steer myself back on the path to THE END. And they let me relax and have fun with the writing itself (see #4).

7. Do the unpleasant stuff

I hate submitting. I find it difficult and demoralizing. I tell myself that I don’t have time to read all the literary mags to find out which ones publish work like mine, or comb through the Internet to see who takes novellas.

I have admittedly avoided submitting for years, except when I wanted to get into a residency, wanted an agent, or wanted a government grant (no soap on the third one, so far). But it has to be done.

Likewise, there are awful aspects of international conferences, often related to political issues, handling giant egos, or managing the fallout from an act of God. But these things must be faced.

So I have begun submitting at least once a week, on Tuesdays, for an hour. First benefit: I realized that it’s not that bad. What on earth was my problem, all these years? Second (unexpected) benefit: It’s kind of fun, the feeling of having a few balls in the air.

Every book project will involve aspects you don’t like, but that’s just part of the deal. If you mix those bits in with parts you do like (see #4), give yourself systems and support (#6), and break them down into bite-sized tasks (#3), you will hardly notice your doing them and who knows—you might even discover they’re fun.

An unfinished project is a millstone around the writer’s neck.

These project management principles have saved my own writing life. If you try them, I’d love to hear how it went—contact me here.

Writing Craft

How to Change Your Story’s POV–and why you’d want to

In my editorial experience, writers go through more trouble nailing point of view (POV) for a piece of fiction than almost any other topic I’ve come across.

The only real test of POV is whether it works. By “works,” I mean whether it is basically invisible to the reader and gives them the experience you want them to have.

Anything that jars the reader out of the experience, that makes them start thinking about the black marks on the page instead of about the world of your story in their head, means that you should take a look at POV.

POV 101

First, a quick primer. POV is not the same as “voice,” although they’re related. Voice is how the story feels to read, while POV is about how we’re experiencing the events–through the eyes of which character(s) in the story. There are three basic possibilities:

  1. First person singular, “I”
  2. Second person singular, “you”
  3. Third person singular, “he/she”

Most stories are written either in third or first person–though there are certainly some great ones written in second person, like Joshua Ferris’s novel Then We Came to the End and or Mavis Gallant’s short story “Mlle. Dias de Corta.”

First person is seen through one character’s point of view. “I went to the store and all hell broke loose.” It’s pretty simple in theory, as all writing is.

In first person you can provide exposition of things the POV character would know, information like “the store was three blocks from my house,” (if you wanted to) because that’s the kind of information the character has access to. But if the entire novel is from their POV, you can’t move away from them and show another character eating a burger in his basement suite.

Third person has gray area—these are general approaches rather than rigid categories:

  • full omniscience: we get into any characters’ heads at any point the writer chooses
  • limited omniscience: we get into only some of the characters’ heads—hence the ‘limited’—at any point the writer chooses
  • limited third person: almost the same as limited omniscience—we get into some of the characters’ heads—the difference is that we stay in their head for the whole scene or chapter. It’s very similar to…
  • rotating third person: we get into some of the characters’ heads in a regular way—for example, alternating chapters for two POVs
  • objective third person: we get into nobody’s head, ever, but see what they do. Dashiell Hammett writes his detective novels this way, and Hemingway does it too.

Although these categories allow us to talk about POV, on the page there is a lot of fluidity and it’s not so cut and dried.

In any of the above ways of writing third-person POV (except objective), you have the option of zooming in or out of the character’s thoughts. So POV is related to ‘psychic distance,’ which is how close the reader feels to a character: are we a block away, an arm’s length away, or inside the character’s head?

How to Rewrite a Novel from First Person to Third Person POV

First, know why you’re doing it.

You might have started in first person but now want to switch to third. Why?

Is it because of the limitations of first person, in which the reader can only experience what the character experiences or learns first-hand?

Do you want more flexibility in showing other character’s situations and perceptions as the story moves along?

Or is it just that there’s something wrong and you’re wondering how it will feel to change POV.

Maybe it’s as simple as chronology–you want to show something outside the story’s original timeframe, something that the “I” couldn’t have been around for or know about.

Third person gives more flexibility—even close third person. With it, you can stay out of the POV character’s head sometimes, and in moments of high drama or importance, you can dive right into it. You can also give more information in straight third person. The downside is that third person also creates more distance, even if all you do is replace the “I”s with “she”s.

Second, decide which POV you want to explore

This means understanding your own skill level as a writer, as well as what you think the story needs.

If you want omniscience, be prepared to study how it’s done, because it ain’t as easy as it looks. Rotating third person or close third person with one character does not require the same level of technical skill, but there are still decisions to be made, such as when and why you will move from one character’s POV to another’s.

If you haven’t figured out how to pass what writer Richard Russo calls “the narrative baton,” it can be easy to head-hop unintentionally. Head-hopping is unmotivated changes in perspective during a scene, and readers find it jarring.

Think about genre, plot and pacing, as well. The advantage of first person and close third person is that you can dive deep into a character’s experience. But maybe you’d rather write a Dashiell-Hammet style noir detective novel, where we’re just guessing at how the character feels by what he says and does.

Third, be prepared for how changing POV will change the story

You wouldn’t be rewriting the POV if you didn’t want the story to change, but be prepared for just how big the changes might need to get.

There are the obvious changes when moving from first to third, like having to make more decisions about who sees what, and when, and having to really understand which scenes matter for plot.

But there are also surprisingly subtle changes. Having rewritten entire novels from first to third person and vice versa, I was surprised at the tiny revisions I made—taking out some thoughts and observations and descriptions, and putting in different ones. They’re tiny on an individual basis, but in the aggregate they lead to a completely different book.

Fourth, read other novels just for POV

Pay close attention to other novels and take a good look at those writers’ POV choices and how they handle them. Note how first-person novels deliver information the character hasn’t gotten first-hand, in scene, and see how third-person novels still allow the reader to feel firmly attached to a character–attached enough that they care what happens.

Fifth, read craft books on POV

Craft books can be extremely helpful if you’re just trying to understand a particular technical aspect of the writing craft. Here are three of my favorites on POV:

Wayne C. Booth. The Rhetoric of FictionThis book is particularly illuminating regarding narrative voice, the spectrum of narrative modes, and the tools great authors have used to control narrative distance.

Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for people who love books and for those who want to write themThis is one of the most useful books for anyone who is interested in the nitty-gritty of writing. Chapters are organized by their topic, for example, “Narration” addresses POV. Prose has a magical ability to show how close reading can light the way for writing.

Dorrit Cohn. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. This heavier, more academic text rewards persistence with its clarifying views on how novelists present characters’ thoughts and feelings to the reader. Cohn uses examples from Joyce, Woolf, Mann, Proust, Dostoevsky, Kafka and many others to illustrate her classification of narrative modes into typological distinctions, focusing her analysis on basic grammatical forms (especially tense and person). This book helped me understand how novelists play with narrative distance in conveying a character’s inner life, in both third person and first person contexts.

Last, but not least, trust yourself and give it a try

POV really does make a difference. And as with all writing, the best way to find out how is to give it a try. So trust yourself and plunge in. You’ll get a natural feel for it as you work your way through the story.

That being said, if you get partway through changing your story’s POV and find that it’s not working or it’s too complicated, you can always change it back. Reverting to an earlier decision is not a sign of defeat. Whatever works, works. You will know more for having tried.

Self Management

Living with Uncertainty while Writing a Book

One of the terrific life-enhancing challenges (effing growth experiences!) of writing a book is that it creates a long-term and continuous state of uncertainty in the writer’s psyche. While you write the first couple of drafts, the following questions are always present:
• Is it worth writing?
• Can I write it?
• Can I write it well enough that someone will love reading it?

These are not small questions. It’s as if a cook wondered, with every onion he chopped:
• Is it worth chopping?
• Can I chop it?
• Can I prepare the meal well enough that someone will love eating it?

The problem with this analogy is that nobody needs to read a book, whereas people do need to eat.

But those of us who read books to sustain our mental lives—which some people sustain via TV, for example, or through solving basic survival issues—have more books on the “to read” shelf than we can swallow in a lifetime. Why add another one to the gigantic library of books out there? Why go through the intensive work of writing a readable book? Or as writer Annie Dillard puts it,

Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?

Given the number of books in the world, many unread by anyone except the author and her immediate family, it becomes clear that this first question is absolutely legitimate. It’s also completely fruitless. If you are writing a book that you intend to submit for publication, or publish yourself, you often need to write your way to the end of the first draft before you can tell whether it was worth writing. (Then revision allows you to make it worth writing—keeping in mind that, as Larry Brooks writes, sometimes revision is just another word for ‘starting over.’)

In that prolonged period of uncertainty, almost any reason to write the book is good enough. Your own emotional catharsis? Fine. Your wish to prove to yourself that you can handle a gigantic project? Great. An urgent need for money? No.

So you ignore question one while you write the first draft. The real question in that phase is “Can I write it?” This question hovers for months, even years. Writers live with this uncertainty as part of their natural state, while they go about their civilian lives and work their day jobs. They might look all right, but inside they are often flailing (or bobbing rigidly) in the frigid Sea of Despair. This is when craft books (those you’d find under “Writing” in the bookstore or library) can send out a lifeline.

The craft books that can help at this drafting stage are the generative kind: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, or Jerry Cleaver’s Immediate Fiction. These books tell you that it’s okay to not know what you’re doing. They reassure and inspire. They are helpful because this is the stage that separates the sheep from the lambs (or, if we’re going to be vulgar, the men from the sheep). They can help get you to the end of a draft.

Once you have gotten to THE END at least once, and have a complete manuscript to show for it, the third question comes into play: “Can I write it well enough that someone will love reading it?” Hovering over this question is the first question (it never went away; you just ignored it for a while): “Is it worth writing?” Because really, for a serious writer, the test of whether a book is worth writing is whether someone you’ve never met will love reading it. And in the end, that becomes whether they will pay to read it.

[If that smells too commercial, look at it this way: agents and editors must love it, and they pay with their time. Readers must love it, and they pay with cash. I’m not saying writers must write for money, I’m saying that at some point, and in some fashion, the reader pays to read your work.]

So, even after getting to THE END once or twice, the uncertainty is not over. The writer will read that first or second draft, and realize it’s not where s/he wants it to be. This is when a different set of craft books can send out a lifeline: ones like Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens, Larry Brooks’ Story Fix, or Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer. They help you take apart what you wrote and unearth everything that is stopping the reader from fully engaging with your book.

At this stage, two other lifelines will help: beta readers and great novels.

Beta readers help because they react specifically to your manuscript, and will tell you what works and what doesn’t work for them. Instead of wading through a craft book and applying its tests to your pages, you have a personal reaction from a real reader (if you are very lucky, this person will also be a writer). I suspect most great novelists have these trusted readers (in some cases it might be their editor at the publishing house, but many also have novelist friends who react to their first readable draft). One beta reader is worth a thousand hours of studying craft books, but craft books are still needed, because they will offer many ways to address a problem, while beta readers excel at identifying the problem to begin with.

The third lifeline—published novels you love—is also crucial at this stage, because you can take these books apart to see how they achieve a particular effect. If you want to write a good fight scene, I recommend Kent Haruf’s <em>Plainsong</em>, of all books, or Ben Percy’s <em>Refresh, Refresh</em>—each has a disturbing fight scene that will show you how specific detail must be in this type of close physical encounter. Or if you want to write a good opening, read a hundred openings, then take another run at yours. Solve your problems on the page by looking at how great writers have solved theirs. It won’t make your work derivative; it will show you how a better solution might be found.

As writers, we live with uncertainty for long periods. But if you can handle life in this state of ‘not knowing,’ at some point you will have a book worth reading, that you wrote, that other people will pay to read. Because the answer to the three questions—Is it worth writing? Can I write it? Can I write it well enough that other people will pay to read it?—is always “yes.” The challenge (effing growth experience!) is to give yourself the tools and encouragement to proceed.