Your first draft is going to suck

Read Barbara Kingsolver and you’ll be swept away by the poeticness of her writing. Her writing is so fluid and lyrical that it seems as though she painstakingly chose the placement of each and every word. As an author, one has to wonder how long it takes her to write a manuscript because her writing is just that epic. I once thought that her prose flowed right out of her brain, through her fingers, and onto the paper. Everything was close to perfection on the first shot. However, I could not be any more incorrect.

In this short clip, Barbara Kingsolver discusses her writing process and, shockingly enough, it was not what I expected. Her discussion made me realize that even a New York Times best selling author is going to have terrible first drafts. And that not all of her sentences first appear as gold.


The “Iceberg Theory” of Writing

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.  —Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon

Ernest Hemingway coined this theory when he determined that by omitting parts of a story, details that the writer and reader both inherently know, the story’s prose will the shortened and strengthened. He believed that writing in this fashion forms a stronger bond with the reader because the author has confidence that the reader is knowledgeable and intuitive enough to pick up on the pieces that were omitted. This led Hemingway to feel that the true meaning of the story should not glisten on the surface, but rather be found inherently embedded within the structure of the story.

The “iceberg theory” describes that only 10-20% of the story is directly revealed through prose. In comparison to an actual iceberg, that is usually the portion of the floating ice mountain that is visible above water. The other 80-90% of the story lies behind the scenes and is integrated in the structure of the story.  This is akin to the remainder of the iceberg that is located underwater: the part that is not visible on the surface of the sea.

(c) AlexandreHenryAlves

(c) AlexandreHenryAlves

While this is a brilliant theory, it must be used with caution. As a writer, you must instinctively understand where to draw the line in the story of what your readers inherently know and what does not warrant to be repeated or drafted into detail. A writer cannot cut apart his or her story with a sharp knife, omitting all details. The story will lose its structure, its value, its poetry. A writer needs to balance how much detail to give the reader and how much to withhold, ingraining the omitted details within the story’s structure itself. A bond must be forged with the readers and then, and only then, can the writer determine how much to give to the reader superficially and how much to bury deep within the text.

Hemingway said that only the tip of the iceberg showed in fiction—your reader will see only what is above the water—but the knowledge that you have about your character that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravitas.  —Jenna Blum in The Author at Work, 2013

In The Art of the Short Story, Hemingway was quoted, “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” In other words, the reader will feel a deeper connection to the story because they had to use their knowledge to understand the items that were omitted. This, in turn, allows the reader to trust the author because the author knows their readers are smart enough to comprehend the work and not have every little concept spelled out in detail.

As an author, play around with your stories and understand the balance to your prose. Too much omission will leave a story weak and difficult to understand or to see the whole picture. Too much detail will bore or irritate the reader. The author must find the balance of the perfect level of omission to keep the “iceberg” from inverting.

What are your thoughts on Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” of writing?



Establishing and Maintaining Good Habits

(c) jppi

(c) jppi

I once had a habit of eating two bowls of ice cream before bed time. Then I hit 30 and my clothes never forgave me. With each spoonful that I ate, immediate satisfaction came. The stress from the day disappeared. Yet, once the bowl was empty, the “happiness” that I felt while eating the ice cream melted away. A second bowl would ensue with the same outcome.

Bad habits give nothing but instant gratification. Once the experience is over, the rush is gone and we look forward to the next hit. It is a vicious cycle that is hard to break. Bad habits are easier to stay on the wagon with because the satisfaction is instantaneous, while good habits have rocky beginnings and everyone struggles to maintain them. Good habits have delayed gratification as they take hard work and endurance to make it through. However, when the goal from a good habit is reached, the happiness from sustaining through the habit usually lasts a lifetime.

Step 1: Identify good habits

In order to kick your bad habits to the curb and start with new and good ones, you must first identify what you want to cultivate. Here is an example:

  1. I want to be more productive with my writing
  2. I want to be more motivated with my writing
  3. I want to have a set writing schedule
  4. I want to ignore unimportant distractions that take away from my writing time

To make these habits more impactful on your end goals, start your list with “I want…”. You should aim for a goal of at least 3 good habits that you want to change in your life. If you are first starting out with understanding your habits and defining new ones, it is best to not have more than 5. Having too many habits at one time can make long term goals unclear as there will be too many habits to focus upon. Also, try to start out with habits that have a similar context and reinforce each other. It is easier to establish habits when there is similarities with goals.

Step 2: Know why your previous habits didn’t stick

Everyone has tried to establish good habits at least once in their life. I am sure that almost everyone has failed at one point in making a good habit stick. Reflect upon that habit and understand where the failing point was. Use that failure as a learning example of what to do differently with the new habits.

To understand the failures, ask a lot of leading “why” questions:

Why can’t I focus on writing?

There are too many distractions

Why are there distractions?

Because there is a lot going on in my life now

Why is there a lot going on?


These questions are to build off each other and through this practice, you will come to exactly understand why you were not able to sustain previous good habit.

My failures are due to distractions. I constantly allow personal life issues to come in the way of my writing. Today I am fully aware of this and am trying to figure out how to balance those creeping issues against the time that I need to spend devoted to writing.

Step 3: Understand your place in life

In order to start establishing a good habit, you need to know where your life is at this moment in the context of the habit. How will your life, at this given moment, impact this new habit? What is the expected outcome? How can you change your current situation to make a more positive environment that will enable you to maintain a good habit?

In addition to having a very distracting life at the moment, I am also in the mode of dreaming.  The “I wish I was writing this, I wish I was writing that” phase.  I constantly envision all the things that I can do, which is more rewarding easier than physically doing it.  You know the old phrase life is so much more interesting in my head.  No effort is needed to see myself as a published author.  Just close my eyes and *bam* I am #1 on the NY Times Best Seller List.  While having an end goal in sight is a must for a writer, a writer is not going to reach that goal through a figment of imagination.  Dreams are for dreaming, not doing. I need to change my place in life and shift my focus to a good habit of being more productive rather than dreaming.

Step 4: Plan your habit

Every night, write down a task list of what you need (not: hope to) to accomplish on the following day. When the sun rises, motivate yourself to follow through with those tasks. If you want to be more proactive, plan these tasks out days, weeks, months in advance. Utilize calendars (e.g.; gcal) or free software project management systems (e.g.; Asana) to help track these tasks and goals. Be rigid and stringent with your schedule–and stick to it. Once you fall off track, it is can be hard to get back on. You may very well have to start from the beginning (and no one wants to ever do that).

Step 5: Keep ahead of the game

Do you know what the best feeling in the world is? It’s when you have a plan and you are actually ahead of schedule. In order to stay ahead of schedule, one must be agile with their task boards. Everyday, spend 10 minutes (preferably first thing in the morning) reviewing your daily plan. Look at each task and determine:

  1. This task can be done today– I can knock it off the list, no problem!
  2. This task needs to be done today, but is going to take more time than planned– I can swap out other tasks to give this task more attention.
  3. This task won’t be done today and it isn’t urgent– I can de-prioritize it and do it on another day

A good project manager will review their plans at least once a day and reprioritize tasks based on what can / can’t be done and by importance. A plan that is reviewed everyday will help you stay ahead of schedule.

Step 6: Keep tabs

Watch how your habits grow and evolve. With each passing day, if you stick to your habit plan, you will become closer to your goal. Not only is keeping tabs on your habit good to see your progression, but you will also receive some gratification knowing that you are sticking with your habit.

There are several ways that you can track a habit’s progression. The simplest is by either a spreadsheet or a whiteboard, where you write down the daily tasks that you have completed. There are also several habit tracking apps that you can download. Some examples** are: GoalsOnTrack, LifeTick, Rootein.

If you use a project management tool (like Asana) to track your plan, you can also set up your habit projects to see your progression of completed tasks.

Step 7: Have a buddy

Let’s face it, keeping on track with a habit is hard. Studies have shown that people tend to stick to habits better when they have support from their peers. Forging habits is not supposed to be a lonely road. Ask your friends to make you responsible in sticking to your plan. Allow them to reprimand you when you fall off track. Accept their help when they assist you to get back on the right path.

I could not get back on track with my good writing habits without my writing coach, Robyn LaRue. She definitely keeps on me in line when she starts to see me waiver!

Step 8: Reward yourself

Once you have reached the goal of your habit and you are able to sustain it, give yourself a little reward. Sticking with a good habit is hard work and you have done a great job! Now go out and get yourself something nice!

If you would like to see other ways to help your good writing habits, read Robyn LaRue’s Making Time series and specifically her post Making Time to Write: Forming the Write Habits.

**The Sarcastic Muse does not endorse these apps. These are merely suggestions


Comparative Reading for your Writing

While watching this Ted Talk video of Lisa Bu speak about how comparative reading gave her a new path to happiness, I found myself agreeing that comparative reading not only expands your knowledge, but it also has a positive impact on your writing.

Reading and writing go hand in hand. They are regarded as related language processes, where better readers tend to be better writers and vice versa. A writer first learned to read before they were able to write. The learning process began as reading a single simple letter and then, with practice and time, transcribing that letter over and over again until the correct formation of that letter is learned. When one letter is learned, then the next is studied, so on and so until the entire alphabet is consumed. The next step of this knowledge process is to read a sentence. Children first read and comprehend sentence structure, grammar, and syntax before they begin to write their own. Once this is assimilated, a child can evolve on to script out beautiful worlds of fantasy, haunting realms of horror, quizzical lands of mystery, and other far reaching places of wonder. When the basic concepts of reading and writing are mastered, an author is born and their path to storytelling becomes limitless.

Unfortunately, along their path some writers lose focus of reading. I have heard from several writers that they are too busy with their craft to read anymore. That fills me with such sorrow as reading is the basis on which their writing craft was established. In order to become a better writer, one must continually read!

For the writers who are able to find time to curl up with a good book, you must utilize your time reading to strengthen your writing. One such tactic is comparative reading.

Comparative reading is taking two individual texts with moderate similarities and analyzing the difference between the them. The texts may or may not be in the same genre. For example, you may have a plots that builds a coming of age story. This type of story can be found in several genres, such as fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and even horror. So pick one book from two of those genres and analyze both texts. You can also choose two texts with similar stories within the same genre, for example, Alison Croggon’s The Naming and Robyn LaRue’s Shadows Wake.

When you read, pay special attention to the structure of the books, especially if they are from two different genres. Look at the dialogue, themes, character development, literary elements, conflicts, plots, settings, and all the other little mechanics that make up a story. Absorb how each author portrays their ideas and integrates their creativity. Ask questions:

  • How do these components make both stories feel the same?
  • How do they make the stories different?
  • What does each author do to make their story unique?
  • What makes one book more successful than the other?

In performing a comparative analysis of two texts and perceiving what other successful authors are doing (and doing well), you will gain knowledge on what you need to do to strengthen your writing craft.

Want to up the ante on your writing with comparative reading? Pick two complementary books outside of your typical reading and writing genre. Analyze the components of those books and compare it against your own writing. Is there anything that you can pull from outside of your genre-of-interest to help better your writing craft?

Remember to read as much as you write. We can only become better writers if we become better readers.


Your Hero Has Two Brains

Your Hero Has Two BrainsHow many times have you read a novel and been annoyed because one of the characters makes a stupid decision? You know it’s stupid. The author knows it’s stupid.

But the character doesn’t know it’s stupid. She thinks it’s smart. She reasons it all out using horrible logic and comes to a stupid decision, because the author needed her to make a stupid decision so as to add some plot twist to the story.

What’s gone wrong is that the author got lazy. He knows that people make bad decisions all the time. He needs a bad decision to get his character in trouble.

And he lets the character use bad logic to reach that bad decision. He makes the character be stupid.

But that just makes the author look stupid.

It’s the wrong way to make the right thing happen.

Yes, you absolutely must throw your characters into danger. Over and over. Your characters must do stupid things.

But they’d better do them for the right reasons.

And yes, there can be a good solid reason for behaving irrationally.

I’ve just finished reading an amazing book on what makes people do stupid things. The title of the book is THINKING, FAST AND SLOW.

The author is Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who never took a single course in economics, yet won the Nobel prize in economics in 2002.

Kahneman has spent his long career studying why people do things. Why do they sometimes make irrational decisions? (The conventional wisdom among economists for many years was that people act in their own best interest. Kahneman and his collaborators showed that people often don’t.)

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in the past year. If you’re a novelist and you care about how people think, you need to read this book.

It’s a long book, but it’s not hard to read. Prepare to be astonished.

In this article I’ll give you a few (a very few) tidbits from the book.

Your Intuitive Brain

Let’s switch gears for a second. Here’s a simple math problem for you:

Suppose you’re at the store and you see a baseball bat bundled with a baseball. The price for the ball and bat together is $1.10. You ask the clerk how much the bat costs all by itself.

The clerk grins and says, “The bat costs exactly $1.00 more than the ball.”

Quick, how much does the ball cost?

Have you got the answer?

If you’re like most people, your mind’s first reaction, almost instantaneous, is to say that the ball costs 10 cents. That’s your intuition speaking.

And your intuition is wrong. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05.

If you work this out with your rational side, it’s an algebra problem that takes a couple of seconds.

But your intuitive side instantly barrels in, suggesting the wrong answer much faster than your rational side can do the algebra. Unless your rational side intervenes and insists on checking the answer, you’ll get the problem wrong.

More than 80% of US college students get this problem wrong. Even at elite universities like Harvard, more than half get it wrong.

The human brain is a funny thing. Your intuition is incredibly fast, but it can lead you astray without you knowing it. And this, I think, is a useful thing for a novelist to know when he needs to get somebody in trouble.

Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, gives hundreds of examples of the strange foibles of the intuitive side of the brain.

Would you rather receive $3400 right now, or $3800 a month from now?

Most people would take the money now. Their intuitive side wants the money right away, even though it’s rationally better to wait.

Your Risk-Averse Brain

Would you bet $100 on a single fair coin toss if the payoff for winning was $110?

It’s a rational bet to make, but most people wouldn’t. Their intuitive side is terrified of risk. If they take the bet, they could possibly lose $100, and human intuition is designed to avoid losing. The typical payoff that makes a human’s intuitive side happy is $200. That’s enough to balance out the fear of losing $100.

Yes, the rational thing would be to take the bet if the expected win is positive. But your intuitive side doesn’t like it. The pain of losing is greater than the good feeling of winning.

This was one of the most surprising things I read in the book, because lots of people go to Las Vegas and gamble on bets that have a slightly negative expected payoff. Kahneman doesn’t discuss the psychology of this, but my best guess is that it’s related to the following fact.

The very strange thing is that people really like gambling when the payoff is huge, even if the odds are heavily against them.

Suppose you have a chance to win $100 million in the lottery. There are 200 million tickets, and each one costs $1. Would you buy one?

Most people would, even though the ticket costs twice the “fair” value. Why? Because the payoff is huge and the cost is low. Buying the ticket gives the possibility of radically changing your life. Your intuitive side loves possibilities.

Your intuitive side sees that you stand to gain $100 million and you stand to lose only $1. Your intuition doesn’t care a fig about the odds. The amount to gain is vastly bigger than the amount to lose. Decision made.

So why do people go to Vegas to gamble? Kahneman doesn’t say, but here’s what I’m guessing. Even though the odds of each particular bet are against you, it’s possible to have a long run of luck and let your money ride and come home with a big payday. It’s not likely, but it’s possible.

We’ve all heard stories of people who did it. So the trip as a whole has a possible big payoff, even though each individual bet is against you. And your intuitive side lovespossibilities.

In fact, your intuitive side is heavily swayed by the way possibilities are presented. Here’s an example:

  • Your surgeon tells you that the operation has a 99% survival rate. You feel highly optimistic, and you’re eager to have the operation. Because the doc focused on survival.
  • Your surgeon tells you that the operation has  a1% death rate. Oh my god! You have a 1 in 100 chance of DYING right there on the table! No, no, no! You’re scared out of your wits. Because the doctor focused on death.

Notice that the surgeon is giving you the exact same information in both cases. A 99% survival rate means a 1% death rate.

Your rational side gets this, but your intuitive side doesn’t.

Yes, your rational side can talk your intuitive side off the ledge. But only if you give your rational side a fighting chance. If your rational side is out of practice or it’s been misinformed or it’s dulled by alcohol or it’s shouted down by your intuitive side or it’s smothered by lust, then you have all the ingredients you need for a bad decision.

Your Associative Brain

Your intuitive side is also very strong on making associations between words.

If you play a word game and happen to see the words “Florida” and “forgetful” and “bald” and “wrinkled”, then for a short time after you finish playing, you will walk more slowly than normal. You will act old, even though you didn’t actually see the word “old.” Your intuitive side does that free-association thing and it affects your body.

When you read a sentence that uses a lot of long words in it, you tend to disbelieve it more than if it were written using short words. Your intuition tells you that somebody is trying to snow you.

If you read a sentence that has an internal rhyme, such as “Woes unite foes,” you tend to believe it. Somehow the rhyme gives it credibility. And that’s bizarre. What do you think? Is it really true that “Woes unite enemies?” But that’s the same thing as “Woes unite foes.” Even though your rational side knows this, the rhyme still rings more true to your intuitive side.

Your intuitive side is eager to accept the easy answer. But here’s a strange thing. Remember that baseball bat problem? If you read that problem in a font that’s nearly illegible, your rational mind will have to work harder just to read the question. And you’ll be more likely to get the right answer. Just because the font is bad. Just because your rational side is more engaged in the problem.

Your intuitive side loves to jump to conclusions. Your rational side is perfectly able to check those conclusions, but it’s way slower than your intuitive side. Your intuitive side requires no effort at all. It’s always on, always tossing out answers. Your rational side takes time and effort to work. If you max it out, your intuitive side may just step in and solve a simpler problem. And you may not even notice.

This means that your intuitive side can quickly and easily leap to a wrong conclusion. Your rational side will have to work hard to check the conclusion, and it’ll take much longer. So a lot of times, your rational side just doesn’t bother to check.

Most of the time, this doesn’t matter. The reason you have intuition is because it’s often right, or close to right. Intuition is good. It’s just not perfect.

The Lesson For Novelists

When you need your character to make a bad decision, you can’t afford to let him use his rational side. You have to do an end-run around that.

You need to appeal to his intuition. You need to find a way to get his intuition to cheat him.

How do you do that? There are zillions of ways. Read Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, and you’ll learn a few hundred ways.

And once you’ve absorbed a few hundred examples, your intuition will be trained and you’ll be able to easily invent a billion ways to defeat your characters’ intuition.

Yes, really. Your rational side can train your intuition to get other people’s intuition to do an end-run on their rational side.

If that isn’t twisted, I don’t know what is.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 7,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it,