On Writing in 2018 – AKA If 14 Million People Have Read The Grapes of Wrath, and the World is Still this Fucked, What am I Doing?

An old man is sitting with a large book from which he reads with a younger manEvery day I read the news and I cry and I think about John Steinbeck.

I read The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago, and it changed me. It was funny and beautiful and engaging, and it made me want to be a better person. I thought, yes, finally a book that inspires while still using language in a beautiful and engaging way. I read The Grapes of Wrath, and I said THIS is the kind of book I want to write.

And then 2016 happened. And 2017. And 2018.

As the news got worse and worse, I held onto The Grapes of Wrath. I told myself, if I can just write something like this, something beautiful and smart and funny that reminds people that we’re all just people and we have to take care of each other, then maybe I could make a difference. I thought maybe I could put some compassion, patience and understanding where there’s been so much divisiveness and radicalism.

Maybe I was naive. Maybe I was trying to delude myself into thinking I was making a difference in a shitstorm of events that seemed so wholly outside my control, but eventually I realized something: The Grapes of Wrath has sold over 14 million copies. If 14 million people have read The Grapes of Wrath, and the world is still this fucked, then what am I doing?

A fight with birds

There were some tough times ahead. I spent two weeks joylessly working on stories about hope and compassion and understanding while wrestling with the conviction that nothing mattered and there was no reason to work so hard on something so futile. Yet for some reason, I was still writing.

I kept going back to my pal Steinbeck and his 14 million readers. I kept thinking about the way I saw the world after reading The Grapes of Wrath, how every person seemed more precious, and how the struggles of the people around me seemed to matter so much more.

There was no denying that reading The Grapes of Wrath sparked something in me and made me want to be better, and obviously I wasn’t the only one.

I started thinking about these little lines of hope and compassion that writers and artists and people who donate to charities and smile at strangers and volunteer at soup kitchens put into the world. I started thinking about these tiny matchsticks of optimism stacked against a raging flood of indifference and anger and divisiveness. I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t that 14 million people reading The Grapes of Wrath hadn’t done anything, it was just that there was so much to be done.

It’s easy to see what the world looks like now. It’s easy to see that it’s fucked up and scary and bad for just about everyone despite the millions of people earnestly trying to care for one another and act with compassion and understanding. What’s harder is to imagine what the world would look like if we didn’t have those millions of earnest people trying their best.

It’s not that these hopeful words and actions don’t work. It’s just harder to see the work that they do.

As a millennial, I’m used to sending a message and getting a response instantly, ordering something online and it arriving at my door in a day or two, but I am trying to be patient.

Well of BolonchenI am tired, but I am trying to keep going. I am writing to my members of parliament and volunteering at bake sales and continuing to write stories that are hopeful and funny and compassionate. I am writing stories to tell people they are not alone and they matter and we are better when we are together.

It’s not easy, but I think it’ll help. I think if it’s my matchstick, stacked with your matchstick and your neighbor’s and your friend’s then maybe we can build something.

It’s okay if you’re tired, if you need some time to regroup and care for yourself, but when you’re ready, come back. We’ll be here, and we’ll start building again.

Plot Anxiety and How to Avoid Over-Plotting

monstre-balloon-768You can watch any show or movie or play  any game on the internet in a matter of seconds. Why would anyone ever want to read a book again? And even if some asshole with an espresso monocle and a top hat made of port did want to read a book, there are up to one-million books published every year in the North America alone, who’s to say that that beard-stroking leather-sniffing asthmatic would want to read yours?

You’ve got to make your book good. REALLY GOOD. Why not add in a few explosions? A murder? Incest? Maybe that mysterious man on the subway platform is the exiled president of Bulgaria who ends up falling in love with and stalking your main character.

You could, but then you’d be a victim of PLOT ANXIETY (cue spooky music).

All writers, regardless of their level of experience, have had moments where they sit in front of their story and go, OH NO THIS IS TOTALLY BORING AND NO ONE WILL EVER WANT TO READ IT. I know for me when my fear of being boring takes over my first impulse is to shove in a whole bunch of plot twists and extra scenes to add a little spice to my burrito if you know what I mean (I don’t even know what I mean, but humor me).

Unfortunately, what starts as a really great surprise element that readers will for sure find irresistible usually ends up seeming gimmicky, distracting and A GIANT MESS!!!

It’s okay to have a murder or an explosion or a car crash or any other huge and dramatic event in your book if that is what your book is about, but if you’re just stuck or worried about your story not being dramatic enough, you’re probably just having a moment of plot anxiety. Go for a walk, have a shot of whiskey, maybe take a nap or read a poem, and if you’re still thinking of adding in something 5386262919_8047ce76dd_zDRAMATIC ask yourself:

  1. What is this book about? Is it about the dramatic event? Yes? Then go for it?
  2. Can this dramatic event be a book in itself? Yes? Then why are you writing two books into one, dummy?
  3. What does this dramatic event distract from with regards to the direction of the story? Nothing? Are you sure? Are you REALLY sure?
  4. Can the emotions and results achieved by this dramatic event be achieved in a less dramatic way? Then maybe choose something less dramatic. A lot of times, a car crash or a hurricane is a lazy way to make your main character cry or dramatically change her ways. Readers will be able to see through that, and you can be a better writer than that. Challenge yourself.
  5. What in this book has lead up to this dramatic moment? If you’re going to have a dramatic moment in your book, you’ve got to earn it. If you drop some huge bomb in to your plot loosey-goosey readers will feel jerked around and tricked. Yes, you’re writing fiction and anything can happen, but you’re also creating a certain internal logic within the story. If there’s no mention of fault-lines or practice evacuations and then an enormous earthquake destroys a city on page 122, it’s going to feel false. Readers don’t have to believe that your story could happen in real life, but they do have to believe that the events your story could happen within the world you’ve created.

Similar to what I said with regards to setting, I like to imagine a good story is like rope. Each element of the story works together, winding tighter and making the rope stronger. If there’s a part of the rope sticking out and not fully connected, the whole thing starts to unravel.

Instead of adding a huge and dramatic event into your story to add some excitement, work within the world of the story you’ve already created to include something that fits best with the direction your story is already going in. Write a shitty first draft of your book and then ask yourself what elements are actually adding to the story you want to tell. Cut everything else out and have confidence that your story will be better for it. You read books that don’t have a bombing on every page (if you don’t might I suggest you start with this one), other people do, too.

All I’m really saying is chill, home girl, chill. More plot isn’t always better plot. Stick with a few main events and then dive deeper into them. Focus on your character’s emotions because of these events and the effects of these events. How will I care about the story and your character if she’s too busy running from the tsunami relief camp to the morgue to identify her stabbed step-mother to the circus to find her long-lost brother for me to get to know her?

WRITING EXERCISE:26773249202_d5d06eddf8_z

Assuming you didn’t murder anyone or narrowly escape a hostage situation, write about the most interesting thing that happened to you today or this week. What were the events leading up to it? How did you feel before and afterwards? Why was it so interesting? How are you going to write it so that it’s interesting for readers as well?


Setting and How to Get the Most out of Your Scenery

4683806652_0e63c2e107_zFor some, Disneyland is where rainbows shoot out of assholes and dreams really do come true. For others, it’s grinding machines, endless lines and screaming children who are always trying to get their pudgy sticky hands all over you.

The thing about setting is that it’s less about the actual place and more about the characters looking at the place.

No two characters are going to see a place the same way, and in fact, each character’s interpretation of a place will be different depending on his or her mood and the situation that led him or her there. If a character’s father has just died a beach may look one way whereas if she’s been shipwrecked and finally washed up on shore, the same beach may look very different.

Setting grounds us in the world of the book and provides an atmosphere for the story, but that shouldn’t be the only thing it does.

Sometimes when I’m writing I like to picture myself as a high school gym teacher. The kind with a buzz cut and a name like Tanya or Barb who, when you see her at the end-of-year athletics banquet where she’s wrangled her hulking body into a dress, looks so strikingly like a honey badger in drag that you keep at least six feet away from her all night in case she lunges and takes a bite out of your face.5122267308_963251d689_z

I imagine myself with grey sweatpants
and a silver whistle screaming at the individual aspects of my story from the sidelines:

“You can work harder than this.”

“Come on, be a team.”

“You’re better than this.”

“Don’t let the rest of the players down.”

EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR PIECE SHOULD WORK TOGETHER TO TELL YOUR STORY. Not just the plot and the characters, but the language, the pacing and, yes, the setting.

You can do more with your beach setting than just outline the lifeguard chair to the right, the logs washed up on shore and the children chasing the dog. Ask yourself how and what your character is feeling and what she might notice about the setting because of these feelings. You can also take into account her personality, her past and the reason she’s here. Describing your setting with this in mind will show not only where your character is, but also who your character is and how she feels about where she is.

Yes, she is on a beach. We know that there’s water and sand and trees, but maybe your character is having a bad day and so she notices a used condom and some cigarette butts buried in the sand, or maybe she’s feeling nostalgic and sees a pink doll’s shoe forgotten beside the sink in the changing room.

This isn’t the same as saying, your character’s upset and so have huge storm blow in to match your character’s mood – you are not Shakespeare and your character is not King Lear. It’s about adding in specific and unique details about your setting to show your character’s mood, personality and current situation as well her surroundings.

WRITING EXERCISE:8619595354_359c419bd6_m

Describe the room you’re sitting in through the eyes of pilot whose best friend’s plane has just crashed and then again through the eyes of an eight-year-old who’s about to go on a much-anticipated fieldtrip to the Science Center.

What are specific things that each character might notice? How might he or she describe them?

Writer’s Block and How to Shoot Your Way out of It

One minute you’re typing away on your vintage Underwood, smoking your Belmonts and blowing holes right through the elbow patches of your cardigan, and the next minute you’re banging your face against your typewriter so vigorously that you’ve got the letter J stuck in your eye socket and you don’t remember where you left your feet.6455128663_a6e60bd1eb_o

Writer’s block happens to all of us. It doesn’t mean that your story is bad or boring or headed in the wrong direction. It just means that you’re trying to write a book which is hard work and sometimes an extremely unpleasant thing to do.

When you’re writing a two-hundred or three-hundred or six-hundred page novel and trying to keep in mind where your characters came from, where you want them to be at the end of the book and how you’re going to get them there, a paralysis can take over making everything seem impossible.

When I get stuck on a scene or a story, one thing I like to do is pull out my gun and fill the page with bullets, that is, bullet points (see what I did there? – I know, sometimes I can’t believe people pay me to write either).

When I’m stuck, I ask myself, what is the very next thing my character will do? This doesn’t have to be something noteworthy or that will be added into the actual book. It’s just a personal check-in on the characters to keep them moving and to fight off that plot paralysis. For example, it’s just after the big fight scene between Molly and Andrew, Andrew has stormed off leaving Molly alone in her apartment. Now what? The entire story has been building up to this fight, but now that it’s happened, I have no idea where to go.

Instead of trying to picture the entire novel and what will happen to Molly in the next five years of her life, I try to imagine what will happen to her in the next five minutes of her life. Maybe Molly watches Andrew out the window for a minute, and then she has to pee.

And so in bullet points after the fight I write:

  • Molly watches out the window
  • Uses bathroom
  • Sees mascara running down her face
  • Washes face
  • Dries her hands


Ok, great, but then what? How is this going to lead to her eventually healing from the emotional trauma of her childhood? – DON’T THINK ABOUT THAT YET. Stay focused on the immediate. Maybe Molly’s hungry, and so I write:

  • Molly rage-eats the last piece of Andrew’s birthday cake
  • Washes dishes
  • Stubs her toe on kitchen table
  • Swears and hops around
  • Pets her cat
  • Tries to watch a movie
  • The internet is too slow
  • Takes a shower
  • Gets into bed
  • Tries to masturbate but gives up
  • Falls asleep
  • Dreams about her family eating a dolphin for Christmas dinner

Obviously most of this stuff is boring and won’t end 1st Female Deputy US Marshalup in the final draft of the novel, but the point is to keep your character moving. Instead of getting frustrated and punching the life-sized crystal penguin figurine you keep on your writing table or staring at a blank page and muttering to yourself for the next four hours, take baby steps with your characters. Follow them through the mundane habits of their daily lives until they start doing something interesting.

I often write five to ten pages of points-form notes about my characters making chicken soup and looking for their slippers. Eventually I’ll find them organically doing something that’s actually worth writing about and furthers the plot and character development without me having to shoehorn in a plane crash or someone falling into a coma just to get the action going again. I’ll erase all the bullet points and pick up the story three days later when Molly finds herself shoplifting avocados at Whole Foods.

Writing is hard and it takes time. It’s okay if you can’t sit down and shit out a Pulitzer winner. Work hard, but don’t try to rush anything. Lots of people write books, and you can, too.


Go back on something you started and gave up on, it can be a story or even a one page exercise you kind of liked and then went in a weird direction. Make a few pages of bullet points following what the character does next and see if they lead you anywhere unexpected.


Try this technique with a tricky scene you’re working on. Start at the beginning of the scene and follow the character in point-form through their every action. Try to let the character guide you instead of pushing your character to serve the purpose of the scene. Do they do anything differently? Do they end up in a different place? They may surprise you.

Getting Started – Tips for Writing the First Draft of Your Novel and Accepting that You Suck

6455128119_91ce755411_oEverything you write is going to be terrible. You will feel like a failure, and you will never want to pick up a pen again. Every page you write will be worse than the page before, and at the end of the writing day you will look down at your pages and pages of scribbles and ask yourself, what pile of demon diarrhea have I just created? But listen, at least you have something.

No one writes anything good in their first draft. If anyone tells you that they do they’re probably not a very good writer or else they’re lying to you – probably just to get into your pants. Don’t fall for it. Even Jack Kerouac, who claimed he wrote On the Road in three weeks in a drug-fueled frenzy, typing non-stop on a 120 foot scroll, actually did as many as six drafts of his book before it was picked up by publishers, and then it was edited some more!

I find the best way to approach the first draft of a novel is to assume that it’s going to be terrible, and it’s going to stay terrible for a very long time. If you try to write something good right away, you’ll be stuck on chapter three deciding if the golden retriever’s fur should glisten in the sun or else should be blown around by a gentle breeze. Chances are, on draft six of the novel you’re going to decide that that golden retriever should actually be an asthmatic turtle and you didn’t need to worry about its fur was glistening or blowing anyway.

The important thing is to WRITE SOMETHING.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that if you don’t get the first chapter perfect, the second chapter will go in the wrong direction. The third will be off-kilter from the second, and when the book is done you’ll end up having to rewrite half of it because the characters keep changing personalities and the plot doesn’t flow together as well as you want it to.


6422677131_d5ec279d94_oNovels tend to have minds of their own. Characters you’ve created will surprise you, and plots will go in directions you never expected. Until you’ve got a first draft down, you won’t know if the fight scene in chapter two is relevant or if your protagonist’s habit of eating marshmallows in secret is a little too on-the-nose. Even if you spend fourteen years painstakingly crafting each sentence of your first draft, it’s still going to suck and you won’t know until you have the full picture before you.

Writing a first draft is kind of like ripping off a Band-Aid. Regardless of how you do it, it’s going to hurt and all you’ll be left with is a gaping bloody thing that you don’t really want anyone to see.

So save yourself the years of agony. Right now, take a long hard look in the mirror and say, I suck and I’m going to do it anyway, and then GET TO WORK!


Set a timer for thirty minutes and write with an old-fashioned pen and paper until the timer goes off. No crossing anything out, just world-vomit your draft onto the page.

I find writing in a notebook takes away some of the pressure to get a piece right the first time. I know I’m going to be typing it up anyway, so it doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. Plus, writing away from a computer makes it harder to accidentally watch videos of old men getting puppies as presents when you should be working.

Do your 30 minutes of writing now, and you can watch this video afterward as a reward.