The Craft: It’s a Great Idea, but Does It Have a Plot?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Man, have I been busy. Life has really been creeping into my writing and blog time. Since I last posted, I’ve moved house, been best man at my brother’s wedding and now I’m prepping beets and onions for the Thanksgiving feast with some Dutch friends. So, today, I’m going to give you a small treat instead of a full meal.

Before we dive into the meat of today’s post, a quick overview of a what a plot is. You’ve probably seen this before, if you’ve ever tried to write fiction. It’s what I like to call the plot arch, but others call “dramatic structure.”


Basically, you have the setup, rising tension/action, the climax and resolution. Wikipedia attributes this to a German guy, Gustav Freytag, but that’s the first time I’ve heard that. Anyway, that’s not the point.

The point I want to make is simple: just because you have a great idea, doesn’t mean you have a great story. I felt my novel, The Library of Lost Books, had a great idea behind it (a library where all the great lost books are gathered), but one thing that I could have done better was the plot. So, now whenever a great idea comes to me, I think about a plot to go with it. Usually, I do this in layers. I start with the idea and I add characters. The key here is to add characters that “burn, burn, burn” like Kerouac said. You add enough of those types of people into the same place (setting) and you’re almost certain to have conflict (plot). Think about every day life: passionate people usually come into conflict with one another. Suddenly, I have all the essentials of a great story: setting, characters, plot and a GREAT IDEA.

One thing I’ve learned lately is to be more patient when it comes ideation. I have the flash of insight, the core idea. I play with it in my head, maybe write it down. Then, I try to think of a plot and characters to present the idea in a compelling manner. Sometimes, that doesn’t come, it’s just a mystery of the subconscious. I capture the idea on my PC and I wait. Sometimes, I try to force it, sometimes I don’t. Usually, I notice that it all comes to me in a rush: how to take that great idea and wrap it up in a compelling plot with unique characters. (It’s usually when I’m occupied with something totally unrelated to writing. The bike at the gym is a great fountain of new ideas, for example.) Once I have the bones of the story, I usually do a formal prewrite, (which I call a CSP+K Prewrite). I keep adding stuff into the CSP+K matrix—bits of dialog, random scenes, character backstories—until I feel I can start the first draft.

It’s not unlike the process of cellaring wine (wine is another obsession of mine). The grapes, the ideas, are ready for harvest according to the dictates of nature, so you harvest when you must. But once the grape juice is inside the cellar, the craft begins. How long do you keep the grape juice in oak? Do you store it in oak at all? Do you blend it with other wines or just use one type of grape? How long do you cellar it in the bottle? That’s the craft of winemaking. It’s not unlike the craft of writing. You have to strike fast to capture the idea. But once you have the idea on paper you have to know when to back off, to let the idea mature and gain complexity by layering it with plot, character and setting. That’s not only the secret to making great wine, it’s the secret to writing a great story.

Speaking of wine, the Riesling is chilling and the Pinot Noir needs to be breathe. I’m off! Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! And feel good about your down time this Holiday, you might just be giving your brain the break it needs to come up with something truly epic.

Until next time. Keep reading, keep writing.

PS…I’ll continue to be very busy this coming week. Look for my next post on Friday, Dec. 6.


Grab bag: Giveaway, October Reading List Update and More

Time for another edition of Grab Bag. This is one of those posts I write when everything stacks up and I have to take on a whole bunch of things at once. So, reach on in and let’s see what we’ve got.

Giveaway MWRFG_Kindle

First, there is a giveaway today and tomorrow (Nov. 15 and Nov. 16) of my historical novella called “The Man Who Ran from God.” The story is set in 800 B.C. in the Assyrian empire and Judea. Stop by the Kindle store and get it for free while you can.

October Reading List Update
Damn, I’m a slow reader. I have to underline, write notes and analyze everything I read. So, it takes time. Having a full-time job, writing fiction and blogging don’t help either. Anyway, I’m making headway on my October reading list. Here are my thoughts on the works I’ve read so far.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving.
Despite its rather dated language, I really enjoyed this tale. It’s a quick read and is a sort of celebration of autumn in the New York countryside. There’s also nice little tidbits on the culture of the Dutch settlers of the Hudson valley. One thing it clearly focuses on is the competition between Ichabod, the protagonist and his nemesis Brom Van Brunt (who was “always ready for either a fight or a frolic”) for the hand of the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, the “daughter and only child of a substantial Dutch farmer.” Ichabod is a sort of itinerant school teacher and Irving’s description of his favorite past time (collecting ghost tales) gives a good feel for the tone of the work:

Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was, to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvelous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him. He would delight them equally by his anecdotes of witchcraft, and of the direful omens and portentous sights and sounds in the air, which prevailed in the earlier times of Connecticut; and would frighten them woefully with speculations upon comets and shooting stars; and with the alarming fact that the world did absolutely turn round, and that they were half the time topsy-turvy!

If you’ve never gotten around to reading it, I highly recommend it. It was refreshing to finally read the unadulterated tale after seeing the Disney adaption as a kid and the highly entertaining Fox show which brings a British Ichabod (he was American colonial in the original) into the 21st century. If you’re following the show, I especially recommend reading Irving’s original to see how the two compare.

“The Thing on the Doorstep” by H.P. Lovecraft.
I loved this one. From what I’ve read of Lovecraft so far and what others have said, it seems his stories vary widely in quality. Well, this one definitely hit the mark. It’s a cautionary tale (this one, a warning to those who dabble in the occult). Again, for a taste of the tone of the piece, here is Lovecraft describing the main character, Edward Derby.

What he did do was to become an almost fanatical devotee of subterranean magical lore, for which Miskatonic’s library was and is famous. Always a dweller on the surface of phantasy and strangeness, he now delved deep into the actual runes and riddles left by a fabulous past for the guidance or puzzlement of posterity. He read things like the frightful Book of Eibon, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, and the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, though he did not tell his parents he had seen them…

It was a great read, full of demonic metamorphoses and possessions. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re new to Lovecraft and looking for a strong short piece to start with.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” by Edgar Allan Poe.
I’m struggling through this one. So far, it’s been a bit of a disappointment. It’s Poe’s only novel-length piece of fiction, so I went in with big expectations. I’m a little over half-way through and I’m finding it very slow going. Unlike the other two pieces here, the pacing is slow, the digressions are long and don’t build  the plot. I will get more into my what I think the reasons for this are when I finish it. Suffice to say, I feel that Poe felt pressured into writing a longer piece and didn’t quite know what he was doing. His short stories are crisp, well-paced and tight. This feels (so far) long-winded, unfocused and unnecessarily long. But enough for now! I will address this once I finish the piece.

Also, I still have to read “The Dunwich Horror,” but will share my thoughts when I’m done with it.

UnRejectionable Ghoul Update
As promised earlier, I’m keeping you updated on my latest story’s progress. Right now, “The Ghul of Yazd” continues to wait for acceptance/rejection. He’s been persistently haunting (moaning, scratching at eyeballs, etc.) the editors of his latest magazine for 16 days now. Actually, he’s probably just lurking in their email inboxes and slush piles. No word on whether he’s made it out yet. But he’s a tough, persistent bastard, so he’s got a good chance. Good luck, buddy.

New Visitors
In a continuing sub-series, I’m mentioning each time viewers from a new country visit the blog. This past month the blog had its first visitors from:

  • Egypt. (This is a special one for me because Egypt was the first country I ever travelled to, outside the USA and Canada. It’s great to see a visitor from Masr.)
  • Bahrain.
  • Finland.
  • Bangladesh.

Welcome to the blog, everyone!

Editta Sherman and the Lost Bohemia


Well, I was going to write about something quite different today, but circumstances have changed. I was reading the NY Times obituary page this week (they have the best obits in the world, I think) and learned that Editta Sherman had passed away. And well, it made me sad to hear it and I had to write about it.

I had seen Editta in a documentary film a little over two years ago called “Lost Bohemia.” Now, I’m not normally one to be sentimental about art or to wax lyrical about the creative process. But the movie somehow struck a cord.

Images from a lost world.

It’s about an artistic community that lived above Carnegie Hall. There were artists, photographers, acting coaches, dancers, you name it. Most of those depicted in the film were elderly and had been living in apartments there since the 1940s and 50s. A dispute arose with the property owner, Carnegie Hall itself. Eventually, the Hall made moves to evict the residents from the building so it could convert the space. As you can see in the trailer, Carnegie Hall eventually got its way. The whole last part of the film you get to watch as the guts, literally, get ripped out of the building. You get to watch as artist’s studios with huge South-facing windows, dance studios and work spaces get ripped out and turned into, essentially, cubicles. (The Times obituary called them “educational and rehearsal spaces.” O.K. Fine, whatever.) Eventually, the artists are moved out.

Of course, the Hall’s side of the story doesn’t really get told in the film. And Sherman did get moved into a subsidized apartment as part of her settlement, according to the Times obituary. So, in a certain sense it’s hard to feel bad for them, but the feeling I was left with, frankly, was of loss and outrage. It’s hard to be sympathetic as you watch a large institution move aggressively to evict/remove seniors from their homes.

Anyway, I saw the film when I was about two-thirds of the way through the process of writing my first book, The Library of Lost Books. I had reached a lull, but the documentary just clicked something inside, and that was it. I finished the final drafts of the book and I self-published it a few months later. The film reached inside me and made me realize that art isn’t free, that it always costs something. It made me feel as if art was a conspiracy that only a few of us know about and that it takes a tremendous amount of effort to resist, to go against the flow and create anything of artistic value. The film gave that sudden spur that I needed to focus and finish the work. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been the same since, because it made me realize that creating art (for me, fiction writing) is in an intrinsic part of who I am and that if I want to do it, I have to be willing to fight for it, to confront the forces gathered against it and emerge triumphant.

So, here’s to Editta and the rest of the residents of the “Lost Bohemia.” Just know this: your loss helped a new writer finish his first book and spurs me on even today to bigger and better things. Thank You.

Once more, Eddita’s Times obituary is here and her website also has a biography.

Eddita tells it like it is.

PS. John Turturro makes a short appearance in the film on the side of the residents. I always liked Turturro because he played Barton Fink. His appearance in this film made me love him.

Introducing the UnRejectionable Ghoul

Thought I’d mix things up this week. Crack open the door just a little wiGhoul 3der.

So, in the interest of getting you closer to what it’s like to be an aspiring fiction writer, I wanted to give you a feel of what it’s like to submit a story, to keep flogging it until it gets accepted somewhere. That’s why I’m introducing “The UnRejectionable Ghoul.” (I know ‘unrejectionable’ is not a word, but it works, dammit.).

To update, I’ve just submitted and got the first rejection for my new story, “The Ghul of Yazd.” I’m calling it an Orientalist horror story (a horror story with an medieval Islamic setting). As any good writer does, I made a note of it in my submission tracker of choice, Duotrope. And then, I resubmitted it. Because I believe in the story, and think it’s  solid as it is. I was thinking about this cycle of submittal, rejection, submittal and it struck me that it is a life-and-death cycle. In fact, it’s kind of like a monster from a horror movie (say, Jason of Friday the 13th) that keeps coming back. It’s also similar to a ghoul, not unlike my ghoul.

So, each time the ghoul story gets rejected (killed) I’m going to resubmit it (perform some dark magic, resurrect the ghoul and send him off to stalk the staff of a new unsuspecting  speculative fiction magazine). The story and the ghoul will just keep coming back.

There are a few rules here to protect the innocent and the writer:

  • I’m NOT going to share which magazines I’ve sent the story to or the rejection letters from the editors. That’s just bad form.  
  • I will share with you when it gets rejected, resubmitted and, hopefully, accepted. Look for updates on this blog and on my Twitter feed with the tag #unrejectionableghoul.
  • I’m going to keep sending out the manuscript until it’s accepted somewhere.
  • If absolutely no one wants the story, I’ll self-publish it on Kindle. The ghoul is “unrejectionable,” after all.

So, why am I doing this? The whole objective of this is to:

1. Keep myself sane.

2. Share the pain of rejection, thus minimizing it.

3.  Show aspiring writers out there how much rejection they can expect, if they plan on publishing. 

Hopefully, that last point will make you want to submit more, not less. It will help you realize it’s normal to get rejected. In fact, as I’ve noted before, it’s normal to get rejected a lot. My first traditionally-published story was rejected 8 times before finding a home.

Ben Franklin once said that every person can expect two thing in this life: death and taxes. Well, if you’re a writer you should add one more: rejection. “Death, taxes and rejection” is not a happy formula, but it is reality. Even the greatest writers have faced it. I hope this series of posts on my story will take away a little of the sting and fear of rejection, by showing it’s something we all face. When, it does, you just have to pull the dagger out of your heart, rip the lid off your coffin and dig out of your grave. Just like the ghoul.  

Until next time. Keep reading, keep writing.


Why is that music always seems to accompany my writing pieces and blog ideas? As soon as I had the idea of “The Unrejectionable Ghoul” the image of the ghoul and I driving down a deserted highway at night came flooding into my mind. I’m driving and I keep looking over and he’s there, the Passenger, my ghoul. Dark and silent, knowing and patient. I turn up the radio and this gem from Iggy comes on. 

“And I ride and I ride.”