The Craft: How to Know You’re Ready to Write Your Story

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

Has it been 2 weeks since my last post? Man, time flies. Pebble Ready

So…A couple of posts ago, I talked about rejection. This time, let’s talk emotion. Let’s talk where I’m at in my writing right now. No retrospectives, no looks  at other writers or other writers’ work.  I just want to answer: Where am I at? And where’s my writing at?

I think I’ve made progress in one small area: story selection. I’ve written about this before too. You know, the difficulty of discerning which story to work on next. It’s not easy. Here are just some of the considerations:

  • Is the underlying idea any good?
  • Do the characters seem like living, flawed people, not…(ahem)…characters?
  • Is the story idea mature? That is, is it fleshed out enough to carry the whole story?
  • Are you fired up to write it?

Let’s take these one by one. I think I’ve developed some ideas about how to test whether a story is ripe.  

Is the underlying idea any good?
If you’re not sure if a story idea is any good., there are a couple of ways to find out. First, put away your prewrite or notes on the story. Let it sit. For a week, two weeks, a month. Don’t open or revisit the notes at all. That part is key. Then, take a good long look at them. Read them from start to finish. Does the idea still strike you? Be honest with yourself.

Half the time I’ve done this, I’ve thought. “Oh man, this sucks. This idea is no good.” I have to admit to myself that the enthusiasm that accompanied the first capture of this idea was misplaced. But I archive the idea, in case it pops up in the subconscious later.   

The other half of the time I look at the notes again and think “This is good…Yeah…Yeah…Solid…This works.” And usually, at that point, I find myself adding to the notes and fleshing out the plot as I go. That’s a winner. Time to dress it up and write the first draft.

Do the characters seem like living, flawed people?
My best characters haunt me. I try to put them down, forget about them until I’m ready to write a piece, but they’re always there, popping up, nagging me. I might be at a noisy bar or at the grocery store or in a long, boring work meeting. My mind drifts. I’m brought into their world, the world of their story. And suddenly, they’re there acting out a favorite scene or, perhaps, a new one. They say the most interesting things. All the other characters in the scene turn to them, enthralled. And I feel that I’m simply another minor character in that piece, watching them emote. The scene continues for a moment and then. Poof! They’re all gone. And I’m back at the bar, the store, the office. But the scene lingers in my memory. I’ll often write down what they said on my phone or the shopping list or my notepad. It’s sad to seem them go, but I know they’ll be back. They’ll come around again. They always do.

It’s only the flawed characters that do this. The ones who are basically good, but are messed up or arrogant or conflicted in some way. People, like characters, are only interesting when they have scars. Those who have things too easy, often have little to offer. Only under pressure and with tough choices to make, is one’s true character revealed. They may triumph or fail under this pressure, but the interesting thing comes in seeing them try. So, take that perfect character, give them a back story, give them scars. And then give them a struggle, force them to make tough choices. Perhaps even a situation with no right choices. And, suddenly, you’ll have a story on your hands.

(The funny thing I’ve noticed: The characters do go away once you write their piece. Somehow, they seem to drift away once they’ve been en-souled in a story. Like a ghost, they’re vindicated, they fulfilled their destiny and can drift off.)

Is the story idea mature?
This is a tough one. Haven’t figured it out yet. A story’s not ready, I think, if it’s just a few lines and a character or two. You have to flesh it out a bit more. Maybe write down some major plots points, but you also don’t want to overdo it. If you outline the whole thing, you may not want to write it by the time you’re done. It may seem too predictable or rote to write out. In fact, this recently happened to me. I wrote out a detailed outline of a story, so when it came time to write it just seemed stale and obvious to me. Dead, in a way.

Somehow, you have to sense when the time is right to put down the pen on pre-writing and just launch yourself into the story. It’s never too easy to tell when precisely you should start that page 1, but you have to put away the notes at some point and begin.

Are you fired up to write it?
This should really be first in this list. I wouldn’t have said that even a year ago. But I’m starting to realize that in writing, the heart comes first, not last. You have to lead with your emotion, led it lead you, but guide and temper it with reason.

The stuff that I’ve written recently that I think is best, came from an emotional need to get the piece out, to get it down on paper. It’s that whole “Write What You Love” thing. The best stories are those that are “burning in your belly,” not the one you think will win an award or get accepted by a magazine or that your friends will like. Here’s something from Mike Long, a speechwriter and playwright.

If you write what you think will sell instead of what you’re passionate about, it’ll come through in the form of lesser quality. Why? Because you write better when you care.

I don’t know why that is, but I can verify it’s true. I write better when I’m passionate about something. If you feel strongly about a piece, and all the other things above check out, it’s probably time to sit down and start banging out the first draft.

Those are just random thoughts on writing fiction. And I’ve only found they work for me at this point in my career. They may not work for you. But they might. The only way to find out is to give them a shot.

If you feel you are ready, I wish you the best of luck. The world could use some great writing right about now. 

Good luck,



…And I’m Back/Hotel Illness

Just made it back from Peru and want to let you all know I’m still alive. And still writing.

The trip to Peru was great, but challenging. I was able to see a good portion of the country, but managed to get a parasite whilst traveling on Lake Titicaca. On the upside, I made it to Arequipa, went hiking in Colca Canyon, sea kayaked on Titicaca, and hiked Machu Picchu. It was epic despite my inadvertent tour of the (bus, hotel, rest stop and airport) restrooms. If you haven’t done Peru, I highly recommend it, just consider bringing antibiotics and watch what you eat.

As far as literary aspects of the trip, here are a few highlights on that score:

  • Arequipa seems alive and well as the literary capital of Peru. There was a small collection of bookstores downtown and they were all well-stocked. And over 120,000 people visited their recent book fair.
  • The selection of the bookstores seemed to match up with what I’ve encountered in other bookstores in South America. Lots of magical realism, fantasy, bizarre and experimentalist fiction with a good helping of comedy and satire. Back in the USA, we seem to group books into “serious” literary fiction and “fun” genre fiction. It was nice to see bookstores where these things are mixed up on the shelves without a clear demarcation between the two. I’m just beginning to learn about Latin American fiction and magical realism, but the in-store selection seems to indicate Latin American has a sophisticated reading public that relishes literary experiment, invention and fun without boundaries.  I really like that.
  • 1 bookstore had a beautiful,  leather-bound edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s collected works. It was about $100 US.
  • A newspaper item in El Comercio, noted that Arequipa is preparing to change one of its old residences into  a museum housing, local-boy-done-good and Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa’s personal library. Across town, the place where he was born will also be a museum, apparently. It’s great to see the “Republic of Arequipa” feting a worthy local writer.
  • Llosa’s latest book, The Discrete Hero, could be found in almost every book store I visited in Peru, from the Lima airport to Aquas Calientes to Arequipa. It was great to see a native son’s book become a literary event. It was also the best-seller at the Arequipa book fair.
  • I still love the cover designs of Latin American books. They are simple, direct, uncluttered. Wish more NorteAmericano books had the same simple design.
  • I didn’t write anything or even think about writing the while I was travelling.  But a great idea forced itself into my head when I was lying sick in my hotel bedroom, thinking about the Aymara legends our guide had shared with us and the Inca mummies left in the high Andes. The vision of a female mummy couldn’t leave my head, she crept into my room, as it were, and asked to be written down. I promised her that as soon as I finish my Southern comedy-horror novella, I’ll get cracking on her tale. The drugs, the boredom and the subconscious conspired to give this character motivation, a plot, a setting and other characters to struggle against. Praise be to Pachamama!
‘Hotel Illness’ live.
  • Two other story ideas also occurred to me during these hotel illnesses and I’m trying to flesh them out now with plots and see if they’re worth writing down. One is stronger, more mature, than the other and might be ready for a full  treatment. The other is the barest of ideas and needs to mature more in the cellar of the subconscious. I think I’ll let it stay there for now.
  • I submitted my Orientalist Horror story, “The Ghul of Yazd” to a magazine just before I left. It’s been there just over three weeks, I’m anticipating a rejection letter in the next couple of weeks, and I will  let you know what happens. I will tell you guys a little more about the story in the coming weeks, but not too much, because it hasn’t been published anywhere yet. But I will keep pushing until I find a place to publish it.

That’s about all for now. The blog will return to its regular programming soon.