So You Wanna Write Part 5: What to Write

Keyboard-fingersSo we started this series off with a blinking cursor.

We’ve learned that writing can be a chore, there’s a difference between writing and storytelling, we’ve figured out  why we want to write, and we’ve bragged to everyone we know that we’re gong to write a book.

Only to be brought back to that blinking, taunting cursor.

Blink, blink, blink…

What do you write? It’s like when you were in grade school and you had one sheet of paper and a Crayon. What was it you asked yourself or those around you? What should I draw? 

That was the big question of your young life.

And now as you sit before a blank Word document, you’re constantly asking yourself, What should I write. I love this comment Tylowery of the blog, “Secrets in the City” wrote in a previous post:

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 7.50.33 AM

You’ve heard it said to write what you know.

That’s true. But that also kind of stinks. Because what I know isn’t really all that exciting. I grew THE WONDER YEARSup in suburban America where I spent my time mountain biking and playing roller hockey just like every other boy in the country. And The Wonder Years has already been told.

And back when I was developing my first novel I worked as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble.

Nothing much exciting there.

Not to downplay my life – I love it, actually. But not much to write home about – or write a book about, for that matter.

So sticking with the theme of write what you know, I wrote about how I felt about my mundane and anti-climatical existence.

I created a character, Robbie, who’s just like me but about fifteen years older and still stuck in the same uneventful life I felt I was in.

And I gave him an out.

I provided him with a box that he could climb in and appear in a fantasy world of his making anytime he wanted. And honestly, my book became my box. I would escape to it when I needed a break from reality. (Luckily the characters didn’t start crawling out of my book and threaten to kill me and my wife like they do from Robbie’s box.)

dead-poets-society-04But here’s the thing you need to walk away with. Yes, write what you know. But make it interesting. Flip things on their head. Look at life from a different perspective. Or like Mr. Keating says in Dead Poets Society, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

How did I come up with the idea for The Man in the Box? 

Well, as I said before, I worked at Barnes and Noble during the time. I was the head of the children’s department. And throughout the day I had to go back to the shipping room to retrieve more books to carry out on the floor.

I read a lot of those children’s books while I stood back there waiting for customers to walk past. So I was constantly diving into fantasy worlds during my dull job. And the shipping room was constantly full of boxes. So I put the two together.

Twain wrote about what he knew about the deep south. Dickens created fantasy worlds out of the slums of London. And I can’t imagine any scene duller than Depression-era Salinas Valley California, but Steinbeck used it in many of his beloved masterpieces.

If you’re creating a fantasy world that’s set far from our world, make absolutely sure to relate it tour world. Tie your personal life, feelings, emotions, to that world so that we can relate to it.

Write what you know. Take this advice with a grain of salt, then run with it. Don’t be afraid to simbatweak what you know. Simba only knew life in Africa. But watch the scene in The Lion King when he sings “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” All the colors change, the style is dramatized; it’s a completely different, unique, and interesting world, because it’s Africa through his cub-like eyes.

Show us this old, tattered, familiar world through your eyes. How do you see life? What’s a hero to you? What makes a bad guy bad? What’s your biggest fear, and why should your readers be afraid of it, too?

If I may, think outside the box.

(Like my book The Man in the Box on Facebook for updates on the upcoming second edition, and earn a chance to win a free autographed copy.)


So You Wanna Write Part 3: Why Write?


People write for many different reasons. Sure it’s romantic to say we’re all in it for the art or the love of the craft, but that’s just not so for most of us, not even for me. Now, you do have people like Katherine Rebekah who has a genuine love of writing and will likely carry on with it through thick and through thin. Take a look at her comment from part 1 of this series: “Let’s be Real”:

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I applaud writers like her.

As I’ve stated, I write to tell stories. I take the craft of storytelling very seriously. So seriously that I watch audio commentaries of many movies I own to get a glimpse into the minds of the guys who created the stories that I love. (For a great experience and wealth of knowledge, I highly recommend watching the audio commentary for all the Pixar films, an activity my wife introduced me to).

So far in this series we’ve talked about how writing is not romantic, and that there is a difference between writing and storytelling. Now let’s discus why we write – or why we tell stories.

Many people commented in my last post that they are storytellers but want to be better writers.

Like GDR from Altered Egos:

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Others stated in some ways that they are writers. Sort of. Like Christopher Kokoski, Author and Speaker:

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All of them want to be authors, or better authors.

But why?

To make money? To get your name on the New York Times Best Seller list? Bragging rights? (None of these are bad reasons, by the way. Okay, maybe bragging rights is a little narcissistic, but otherwise you’ve got to get food on your table somehow, right?) But the thing is, these aren’t realistic, and deep down you know that.

Sure, it’s my goal to see my book The Man in the Box on the New York Times Best Seller list, but I know that’s not going to happen anytime soon. At least not with a lot of work and a plan set in place (which I’ll discuss in later posts – for instance, Like it on Facebook for a chance to win a free autographed copy).

Don’t fool yourself into thinking your award-worthy book is going to sell. Despite my almost-perfect star rating and raving reviews, and respectable sales, The Man in the Box hasn’t brought in a single penny to my bank account after having been out since November 2012. Which is why I’m re-releasing it later this summer (more on that later, as well).

So let’s be real. You and I aren’t writing for monetary gain (at least not off the bat). So, why are we doing it? I write this blog to inspire people, to inform, and, honestly, to build a fan base for my upcoming novels. (Is it working?)

One of the times I teared up most in the movie Saving Mr. Banks was when Walt Disney explains to P.L. Travers why they, as storytellers, tell stories. “We [storytellers] restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”

I cried at hearing this because there is a deep truth to these words. That, at least, summed up why I wrote The Man in the Box. I spent literally the entire book devising ways to tear my protagonist’s life apart one shred at a time only so I can build it back up again in the end (it’s not as predictable as it sounds). Because I wanted to show readers that no matter how far down the wrong path you’ve gone, no matter how hopeless your life is, hope always remains. Or, as my pastor says, “There are no hopeless situations, just hope-less people.”

Many people write for different reasons. Some to excite, to thrill, to impress, to scare, to inspire, to experiment, to humor, to captivate, to fulfill, to provoke, to challenge… and these are all very good things.

But others write for the wrong reasons. Such as E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy) and many of her wannabes. Don’t write to seduce or “awaken passions and lusts.” Just don’t. There are literally thousands of cheap romance books that have already been written; the world doesn’t need another one. It’s disgusting, degrading, and just plain stupid. I mean, really, are we all still in junior high, trying to get worked up over page 63?

There’s no talent in that kind of writing. We all know how it all work – we don’t need to read about it.

If that’s the reason you write, turn off the computer, and reevaluate your motives. If you’re not comfortable with your grandma and your ten-year-old reading your work, then maybe you need to pick up a new hobby. I’m not trying to upset anyone here – I’m trying to help. If you can write something that both your grandma and your ten-year-old can both relate to, then you’ve achieved a higher call in writing than most people can only dream about.

Respect the craft. Honor the great storytellers before you by carrying the torch they’ve passed on. They’ve left us with big shoes to fill, and our audiences are craving more than just cheap flings and seductive vicars.

Now it’s your turn. Share with us all why you write.

Find this helpful? Retweet @atoy1208 

So You Wanna Write? Part 2: The Big Difference


I stated in my last post that I love storytelling but I hate writing. Think of it this way: I love my loft – it’s cathedral ceilings with floor-to-celing windows, its open living room and dining room – and I love living in it with my wife, daughter, and dachshunds.

But ask me to build one, and that would not appeal to me in the least. The only things that can make me turn my head and run faster are shopping malls, HGTV, and snakes.

However, if I did build a house, I’m sure the rewards of a finished project would be gratifying (just don’t enter through the front door because the roof might collapse on you).

Such as it is with writing. It may seem like a chore to tap endlessly on that keyboard, but the satisfaction of a completed book or chapter (or sentence, in some cases) is very fulfilling. But without a lot of money and a film crew (which most of us don’t have), really writing is the only way to tell stories.

There is a difference between writing and telling stories.

People write notes all the time, and school papers, and cooking instructions. Now, you can be annoying and insist that there’s a story to be found in each one of those elements, but don’t. We don’t live in a Dick and Jane world anymore. A story nowadays has to include characters, depth, emotion, layers, plots, ethos, and much, much more.

This blog post is not a story.

Writing can be tedious (i.e. papers, memos, accident reports), or it can be fun (love letters, to-do lists, list of potential baby names).

And storytelling can be the same way. Some stories are difficult to tell, like post-9/11 articles, or the dangers of kids playing too close to the pool. But more often than not, storytelling is a wonderful adventure.

You’ve read many books by storytellers, but likely very few from writers.

Everyone who writes a book is an author, but very few are writers.

Take John Grisham for example. Back in his glory days, he told great stories, gripping and fast-paced. But if you get down to it, he’s not much of a writer. Not compared to the likes of Dickens or McEwan.

There’s not much symbolism in his novels (nothing wrong with that), nor flourishing sentences that could be elegantly quoted at your next dead poets meeting (nothing wrong with that, either).

Few people can blend the two, most of us are good at one or the other. I’m a storyteller, because I’d rather my readers walk away with an experience rather than a newly-worded thought.

So, decide for yourself what you are. Are you a storyteller or are you a writer?

Figuring this out will ease the road paved before you toward becoming an author.

So You Wanna Write? (Introduction)

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 8.13.23 PMWriters, I’m sure you’ve been there. You wake up and you say, “Today I’m gonna write 15,000 words!” You jump out of bed, eat your Cocoa Puffs, switch on the computer, and ten minutes later when it finally powers on and the curser beckons you in a blank Word document, you blank out.

Hmmm… maybe some music will help. So you go to your iTunes playlist and play the one called “Inspirational Songs.”

“The Call” by Regina Spektor starts playing. Then you start wondering, What movie is this song from? So you google the song and come to find out that it’s from Disney’s Prince Caspian. Then you’re wondering if that’s a Narnia movie or a Lord of the Rings follow-up. So you google Prince Caspian and find out that it’s the second movie in the Chronicles of Narnia. Then you start wondering, Who played Prince Caspian, and whatever happened to him? So you hop on over to IMDB and type in Prince Caspian and find out that the title character is played by some guy named Ben Barnes and see that his filmography is filled with a bunch of movies you’ve never heard of. Killing Bono? What’s that? you wonder. You click on it and don’t recognize it one bit, but you notice that the director’s name rings a bell. So you click on it. Nope. Don’t recognize anything he’s done, either. Just a mistake. By this time “The Call” ends and the next song starts. “Well I fell down, down, down, into this dark and lonely hole…” The song makes you well up, so you figure if you’re going to get emotional, you might as well throw open the floodgates. So you Youtube the guy who’s singing this song, Zach Sobiech, and watch the 22-minute video for the fourteenth time. Next thing you know you’re in the bathroom using the last of the tissues and now you don’t even know what you got up so early for on a Saturday to begin with.

Meanwhile that curser is still blinking off and on behind your Youtube, Google, IMDB, and email windows.

Blink, blink, blink.

And it’s just waiting to hear tap, tap, tap from your keyboard.

And then when you collect yourself, sleep for a few more minutes, you return to your computer only to find yourself scrolling so far down your Facebook feed, Romney/Ryan campaign pictures fill your screen.

But when you finally get around to closing all your windows (by now you’ve digested your dinner), you’re met with that blink, blink, blink once again.

Blink, blink, blink goes the cursor.

Blank, blank, blank goes your brain.

The numbing drug-like effects of surfing the Internet all day has worn off. And now you’re met with resentment and bitterness for not having even come up with a synopsis or a one-page outline for your bestselling, Pulitzer-worthy, all-American novel (twelve-million copies sold).

Won’t you join me for the next few weeks in dissecting the difficulties of writing and how we can overcome the challenges of procrastination, distractions, and wrier’s blocks? I’ve written two books so far, and I’ve got two more in development, and I plan to write many more.

I want to teach you some rather unexpected tricks I use to accomplish my writing goals. I’m not saying I’m perfect and that I don’t get distracted (just ask my wife). But I have met goals, and I have learned quite a bit about the tedious craft of writing (all this from an easily distracted child of the 80′s.) And I want to share some of my tricks with you. See you in the next few posts.

Blink, blink, blink.



Somewhere Between Realistic and Noteworthy


I edit many books throughout a given month. Some are from established publishers, and some are manuscripts from author hopefuls. Some are rather enjoyable and I can foresee the author making a good career out of writing. And others? Not so much.

What’s the difference between the good and the bad?

What separates the talent from the terrible?

One word: Limitations.

Both in fiction and nonfiction I find people trying to break the boundaries of their genres or subject matter.

When you’re writing fiction, you’ve absolutely got to know your plot and your story.

Nothing irritates me more as an editor when I read pages and pages of material that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. No one wants to read a page an a half of two people talking about dinner plans. Just skip that and get the couple to dinner already.

When writing, you can safely skip any ordinary event that happens in real life. Your readers will get that your characters have to go potty a couple times a day; you don’t need to remind us.

Some writers, it seems, just want to up their word-count.

One of the greatest movies ever made is only 81 minutes long. No one would want a single frame added to it, because it’s perfect just the way it is. (Can you guess what movie I’m talking about?)

If the writer isn’t breaking the limits of mundane and plot-driven scenes, then their breaking the limits of natural order. 

Here’s an example.

Ever heard of the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind?

It’s okay if you haven’t. To really appreciate this story, you must know that I am a Nazi when it comes to finishing books. If I start a book, no matter how terrible it is, no matter how long, or how dull, I absolutely must finish it even if we were on the brink of the apocalypse.

I actually suffered through all of Swiss Family Robinson - that’s how dedicated I am.

So back to the Sword of Truth books. These are fantasy books that are over a thousand pages. I read the first one, and enjoyed it enough to pick up the second one.

But the rules of nature and reality were being broken left and right. I’m not talking reality was compromised because no one can find a secret world in a wardrobe, or it’s impossible to fly, or other worlds don’t exist. Those kinds of rules are okay to break because there really could be a secret world in your closet, and with the right amount of pixie dust and happy thoughts, you really can fly (can anyone point me to a happy thought, please? Just kidding, honey).

But when the main character is being tortured beyond endurance for over 400 pages and he’s still able to sword fight just because the author says so, it really makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.

So, in this thousand-plus page book, this book-completing Nazi closed it, and set it down for good – at page 989! I couldn’t take any more of it. I couldn’t read one more sentence about how Richard screamed at the top of his lungs in pain when in reality, he should have been dead by page 472.

I read it many years ago, and from what I can remember, there was nothing magical or fantastical that was keeping him alive, except maybe his love for the heroine (the girl, not the drug… or maybe he was on heroin…).

At any rate, embrace the laws of nature and use them to propel suspense in your stories. Don’t allow your characters to live just because you want them to. If someone gets decapitated by a semi, start writing that character’s obituary.

Know your genre and stick with it.

Know the story and stick with it.

Know what’s real and not real, then start breaking the rules. But please, keep it realistic, no matter how fantastical it is, but not so realistic that I feel like I’m reading a minute-by-minute account about my own mundane non-eventful Monday.

Does that make sense?

Need an editor? Hire me.

Dancing to Ideas

blank-paperYou writers and creative-types – you’ve been there. It’s a hellish place, for sure. A chasm of fear, doubt, agony, frustration…


It’s worse than a writer’s block because with that, you can at least skip ahead. There’s nothing to skip ahead to if you’re idea-less.

But take heart. Your idea is out there. You might feel like Horton standing at the edge of the field of pink clovers looking for that one tiny speck that’s out there calling your name.clovers6

“We are here, we are here, we are here…”

Sometimes you can just feel it, can’t you?

You know how I find my ideas? It’s embarrassing, and no one has ever seen me do it, except Sarabeth when I thought I was alone or I got carried away.chandler

I dance.

I talk out loud.

I sing.

I act.

And I’ve yelled.

It’s humbling, but true. I imagine myself standing before the heads of Universal or Disney Studios and I’ve got five minutes (I’m generous) to pitch them my idea.

napoleon-dynamite-danceSo I yell, I act, I pitch like a storyboard artist convincing the director that my idea is the only thing that will work. I talk aloud about something that I believe in.

I might not yet have an idea to believe in, but I believe that I will find one.

I’ve found several this way.

When I worked in retail, I would often disappear to the shipping room when it was empty and I would plot my book out loud, pacing, lost in my imagination. 

“So this guy Robbie,” I would say, “he wants to be a good father and husband, like most men do. That’s relatable. But something keeps him from that. I want there to be action, but not much action happens in today’s reality… so he finds a fantasy world! In a… wardrobe! No, on a star! No. In a… in a…” I glance around the shipping room and I notice that I’m surrounded by – “In a box!”

Thus, The Man in the Box was born.

Working from home makes it really easy to do this on a regular basis. And if you are stuck in a creative rut, I encourage you to give this a try. Crank up some Fun., or Owl City, or Delta Rae on the ipad and dance.

Yes. Just start dancing. Let your body go. It sounds zen-like, but just release the stress of michael scotteveryday life. The last thing you want weighing you down when you’re trying to be creative is the rock-hard facts of  life that your readers are looking to escape from.

So… escape.


And talk.

And then ask yourself later, What did I talk about? Anything interesting? Jot it down.

And keep writing.

And then get yourself a birthday cake for your idea’s birthday.

How do you  come up with ideas?

(Before you share your thoughts, Like my suspense/adventure novel The Man in the Box on Facebook for updates on the up and coming revised edition!)

A Message From My Daughter

photo-16Hi. My daddy’s taking a nap.

I’d be crying right now just to see how long I can keep him awake, but my throat’s a bit sore, so I decided to hack into his blog and write a secret post without him knowing.

(By the way, I feel like I should be named James… I’ll see if I can get him to explain that some time.)

Here’s the thing. My daddy’s too proud to admit it, but he’s a  little stressed right now.

You see, he’s got over 10,000 people following his blog, but only 333 people have liked his book’s Facebook page. 

And that makes him sad.

His book’s been published by a local publisher, which is good. But bigger publishers, like Random House or Harper Collins won’t buy it if there’s not enough generated interest in it.

And 333 likes on Facebook is hardly enough interest to get them to publish his book.

He just turned in the final revisions for the second edition yesterday (he said he had made the classic first-time-author mistake of rushing it through the press too quickly). But he’s spent the last five months fixing it up and making it 100% better, and bestseller-worthy.

Which is weird because it already has an almost-perfect rating on Amazon and Goodreads.

I guess my dad’s a sort of perfectionist. I wonder if I’ll get that from him.

My mom is too, so I probably will.

Anyway. My daddy really believes with all his heart that his book can be a major bestseller.

(“I know all writers say that,” he insists as he paces around the house. “But this is seriously one of the best fictional books since… I don’t know… Jurassic Park!”) 

And if it becomes a bestseller, then that’s good news for me, because then I can brag to all my friends in the church nursery that my daddy’s a bestselling author.

Then they’ll say, “Well I’m too young to read his book. It’s too suspenseful and action-packed for someone my age.”

Then I’ll say, “Don’t worry. He’s working on a young reader’s novel that you’ll get to read in a few years.”

So please like my daddy’s book on Facebook. (I looked it up: it’s not enough to just “like” this post. You’ve got to actually click on THIS LINK.)

Plus, I hear there’ll be a drawing for 10 people to win a free autographed copy, so what do you have to lose?

He wrote up a book trailer a couple of days ago, so go check it out to see what it’s about. It looks too intense for me, but I’m sure you’ll like it.

Love, Baby A.


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