Hemingway is claimed to have written the world’s saddest six-word novel.

He’s got nothing on mine:

I spilled water on my MacBook.

Beat that for sub-seven-word tragedy.

I’m also traveling, so this comes to you thumbs-on-iPhone. Hence, brevity. A quote from The Art Spirit I read every day before I start writing:

There is nothing so important as art in the world, nothing so constructive, so life-sustaining. I would like you to go to your work with a consciousness that it is more important than any other thing you might do. It may have no great commercial value, but it has an inestimable and lasting life value. People are often so affected by outside opinion that they go to their most important work half hearted or half ashamed.

Go to your work because it is the most important living to you. Make great things—as great as you are. Work always as if you were a master, expect from yourself a masterpiece.

OK? Do that while I go to the Apple Store.



I love to see people being dangerous

Subject line courtesy of David Bowie:

If it’s wearing a pink hat and a red nose, and it plays guitar upside down, I will go and look at it. I love to see people being dangerous.

From a 1999 interview with the late master in Rolling Stone. It sums up my attitude toward books, toward all writing, toward the making of anything. (Except cars. And planes. Bridges…) Take risks. Throw on a pink hat and play your guitar upside down—with your writing.

All of us—myself included—play it safe far too often. So much of what I read every day feels the same. Honestly, even New Yorker essays, as lovely and fascinating as they can often be, stultify with their homogeneous consistency. Surprise me, people‽ (You weren’t expecting an interrobang there, were you? Surprise.)

It’s always an internal battle to take a risk in front of others, even if you’re writing for a readership of one. You have to fight this battle if you want to stay alive as a creator, but you have to accept that you will often lose. I’m not sure you get better at it with practice, either. If anything, taking risks gets harder as you progress in your career.

Risk-taking must have been a battle for Bowie, too—he was a human being, however extraterrestrial—but he won more frequently, and for longer, than just about anybody.

This week, I joined my fellow young Americans to spend a couple of hours at the traveling David Bowie exhibit, now at the Brooklyn Museum. I left that labyrinth—no scary monsters, thankfully—and went outside feeling hunky dory, if a bit low. In reality, I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone interested in the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust. Don’t be a heathen. Go tonight. Spread the word about the exhibit and you’ll be heroes. Um, blackstar.

Like many postmodernists, Bowie employed collage. He would assemble chunks of text from various sources, cut them up, and rearrange them to forge lyrics with surprising and memorable combinations of words, images, ideas. Eventually, a programmer friend wrote software to help. Here’s video of Bowie showing Verbasizer in action.

(That’s a clip from Inspirations, by the way. It’s a 1997 documentary directed by Michael Apted, director of the Up series, which has taught me more about life than anything else. Inspirations itself isn’t streaming so I bought the DVD on Amazon.)

As I wrote last week, my college playwriting professor Len Berkman always astonished me with his endless array of story scenarios. He began every class with a skeletal plot for us to build a scene around: “A owes B money, but little does B know that A doesn’t intend to pay it back…” I always planned to save Len’s scenarios for my future writing projects like a squirrel hoarding nuts, but I never got around to doing it, something I’ve always regretted. Until now.

Author Madeline Iva reads the Maven Game and also happened to study with Len:

One weekend I went to see The Talented Mr. Ripley, and then the next week in class Len started off:  “R meets D but R is not exactly who R says he is…”—it was pretty obvious. 

Well, mystery solved. Thanks for ruining the magician’s trick, Madeline. I guess I can steal plots from Matt Damon movies just like Len did. Still, he was an amazing teacher. (Bowie: “[I’m] a tasteful thief. The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” Also Bowie: “It’s not what you steal, it’s how you use it.” He stole the latter from Picasso.)

Speaking of idea theft, someone I would happily steal from on a regular basis is Jane Friedman. Nobody knows writing, books, and book publishing like Jane does. Whenever I have a question myself about how some aspect of publishing works, Jane’s site is the first place I check.

Thankfully, Jane shares everything she knows freely, so instead of stealing from her, I can just point people there, whether they want to know how to get their book published or how to write a book proposal. This saves me so much time. Freelance writers and editors everywhere should contribute to support Jane the way traditional publishers dole out for Nielsen BookScan and Publishers Marketplace.

Jane has a new book: The Business of Writing, offering “the business education every writer needs.” Go.

One last bit from Bowie: “Trust nothing but your own experience.”

stop outlining, start inlining

I often wonder: should I write these as bulleted lists?

Lots of people send bulleted lists—bullet-letters?—nowadays. I read a bunch of bullet-letters myself. Some newsletter people have even started additional newsletters on top of their already popular newsletters just to offer bulleted lists. It’s like there was this big, pent-up demand for bullets that everyone noticed all at once. Maybe it’s because of the sense that many of us are turning away from Twitter and Facebook. All those little bits and pieces we want to share need a new home. For example, this piece at Medium on how not to be a crank. Or this tool for turning off all retweets on Twitter. Where do I share things like that now?

No, I’m not starting a bullet-letter. What can I say? I like paragraphs. I think in paragraphs. I organize information in paragraphs. I’ve never been too good with bullets or outlines.

When an idea percolates for me, when it really starts to floresce—it’s a word if I say it is—I find it harder and harder to keep track of all its loops and branches. In the past, I’d reach for OmniOutliner or MindNode at this stage. The problem, I’ve found through long experience, is that outlines and mind maps kill my big ideas. They get bigger and bigger and nest deeper and deeper … inevitably I just can’t grok it anymore. Converting a big, messy outline into an actual useable sequential draft of some kind becomes impossible. I’ve lost the thread.

There’s a better way. I recently received a new technique from editor and author Stephen Power, brilliant in its simplicity and power like all the best writing advice. To write a full-length novel of 80,000 words, forget the outline and just write the whole story out as simply as possible. Start with 5,000 words: “John met Linda for lunch. Some assassins shot at John and killed Linda by accident. John vowed revenge.” Etc.

Anyone can write 5,000 words, right? Starting here is much less intimidating. You end up with something a step above the plot description on a novel’s Wikipedia page. With your whole novel expressed in 5,000 words, you can easily read through it to make sure it hangs together and achieves your intent. Revising the overall story at this stage becomes a cinch. There’s the beginning, there’s the middle, there’s the end. Boom.

Once you’re happy with the shape of your 5K, double it. Expand everything with a bit more personality, a bit more texture: “John met Linda for lunch at a trendy Middle Eastern place famous for its hummus. Some assassins shot at John with high-powered rifles and hit Linda by accident, ruining the hummus. Clenching his fists, John vowed revenge.” Now you’ve got 10,000 words.

See where Stephen is going with this? 10K becomes 20K, 20K becomes 40K, 40K becomes 80K. Novel finished. And never once do you stop and wonder: where the heck was I going with that hummus side-plot? You’ll know.

I’ve decided to call Stephen’s technique inlining. (Do you mind, Stephen?) I’ve been using it with a novel of my own for the last couple of months and I already like it so much better than entangling myself in those crazy outlines.

I think inlining will work for any kind of book, fiction or nonfiction. It’s kind of how I write the Maven Game, in fact, often ruining the hummus.

the magic of write-by-numbers

Financial expert Farnoosh Torabi, host of the podcast So Money and author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women, among others, runs Book to Brand. It’s an intensive, two-day event designed to help experts write a book that will take their career to the next level.

“But Dave,” you exclaim, “that sounds an awful lot like what you do.” Indeed. That’s why I’m going to be there to help out!

Applications for the Spring event (May 10-11 in New York City) are about to close. If you’re serious about the author/speaker/thought leader route and you have the resources to invest, consider applying. There are a couple of spots left. Mention my name to get the Dave-a-rino discount. (Please don’t tell Farnoosh you want the “Dave-a-rino discount.” My name will suffice.)

Back at Amherst, the “five college” system meant I could take Len Berkman’s playwriting class, despite Smith’s women-only status. (This is great, I thought. I wish there were an entire industry where I’d be the only dude. Little did I know.)  

Side-note: It’s often said that the five colleges inspired Scooby-Doo: Amherst (Fred), Hampshire (Shaggy), Mount Holyoke (Daphne), Smith (Velma), and UMass Amherst (Scooby). As Wikipedia makes clear, the writers just plain ripped off Dobie Gillis. Mystery solved. (Zoinks!)

Side-side-note: The comparisons never even made sense. Shaggy is able to hold down a job—private detective—while adequately caring for a pet. Does that sound like any Hampshire graduate you’ve ever met?

Side-side-side-note: Just kidding, Hampshire students! If you guys never graduate, you can’t be graduates. D’uh. Now I’m making Amherst look bad.

Anyway, Len Berkman: terrific teacher. Every class, he’d fire off a bare-bones scenario: “A just got something he really wanted as a gift. B is A’s friend. B is jealous and will do anything to get what A has.” He’d just rattle these off as though from memory. Maybe he made them up on the spot. Regardless, we’d jot the scenarios down and start writing scenes. Playwriting-by-numbers. Afterward, we’d act the scenes out around the table. Immediately, you’d see what had worked and what hadn’t.

Rinse and repeat. This is how you learn to write, people.

When it comes to mastering the craft, nothing in my experience beats a live, simultaneous writing exercise like this. So why are there so few opportunities for writers to do them on an ongoing basis? I would happily pay for a regular opportunity to sit around and write, on the spot, with other writers. Not so that we could each fiddle with an existing project, but to tackle a single, new writing challenge, whether or not it’s for something. How else to learn from how different writers try to solve the same problem?

People attend conferences, retreats, and colonies to improve as writers only to immediately scurry off to some poetic windswept crag on the property wearing one of those fisherman sweaters. It’s like, “Now that we’ve all gathered in one place, let’s get as far away from each other as possible.” You don’t need Yaddo to finish a draft in complete solitude, guys. Just go to a Hampshire College alumni event: even the tumbleweeds have crickets.

Writers can usually be convinced to share their work for feedback, but they will do almost anything to avoid actually writing something new, on the spot, around other people. What makes this so uncomfortable?

There is only one possible explanation: Animals instinctively go off by themselves when death is near. For humans, nothing approximates mortality like a blank page. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Cogito ergo sum. Quo vadis.   

Thankfully, Len created a safe space for the work and even made it fun. Plus, his alphabetical prompts made it much easier to just start writing. Long after, I’d often wish I’d kept copies of the many scenarios he’d given us over the course of the semester.

Years later, I stumbled on Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. This gem, dating from the 1920s, contains 1,462 scenarios like the ones Len used to give us, organized according to the author’s own elegant logic.

“A, trusted butler in the household of A-9, is really a crook. A, using his position in the household of A-9 as a ‘cover’ to his black designs, loots the jewel box of A-9’s wife, B, and departs secretly.”

And so on. Not all of the scenarios are quite so Jazz Age, but you can make it work. Just replace “butler” with “TaskRabbit Supertasker” and “jewel box” with “Apple HomePod.” Good to go.