rsz_batmanisadick26lx_3766I've always considered myself a feminist. As someone who makes up stuff out of thin air, I'm concerned with how I portray women in my stories -- to do so in a way that is honest and fair and responsible, to create stories that offer compelling characters, both male and female. I want good stories, and I believe this is EASIER to accomplish when you approach narratives as an intelligent, compassionate human being.

However, having been raised on a steady diet of male-oriented genre fiction, a writer can fall into one of the many tired, sexist tropes that besiege modern storytelling: damsel in distress, stay in the kitchen, double standards, slut shaming, and many more. These tropes exist because of lazy one-dimensional writing. Writers use the female characters to merely support the male characters.

Out of curiousity, I wanted to see how I fared against the Bechdel Test. What is the Bechdel Test, you say? To quote Ashe Cantrell at

"The Bechdel Test, if you’re not familiar with it, is a benchmark for movies developed by Alison Bechdel in 1985. For a movie to pass The Bechdel Test, it must contain just one thing - a scene in which two or more named female characters have a conversation (that is, back and forth dialogue) about anything at all besides men. Anything, even if it’s something stereotypically feminine, like shopping or shoes. It could be about dog poo. It doesn’t matter."

After a quick read through my comics, here's how I stand.

Lengthy projects -->

Astronaut Dad: PASSED Karma Incorporated: PASSED Emily Edison: PASSED Antigone: FAILED (Technically, Sophocles failed. It's adapted from his original play. There's Antigone and Ismene, but they only talk about their brother Polynices.) We've Never Met: PASSED Souvenir of Dallas: PASSED (Barely, these one-pagers don't have much in the way of conversation. Plus, since these one-pagers center around the misadventures of Fictional Paul and Fictional David, there aren't many women. However, one comic "Real Housewives of Dallas" does fit the criteria.) Some Other Day: PASSED One Night Stand: PASSED Mine All Mine: PASSED

88 percent.

Short stories -->

"Productivity" from Boo! Halloween Stories #1: FAILED (There's only two characters in this short story, a man and a woman.) "From Geek to Freak to Emergency Room" from Jam! Tales from the World of Roller Derby: PASSED "Judge Roy Bean" from Outlaw Territory Vol. 3: FAILED (Four characters in the story, all men.) "50 Miles to Marfa" from PopGun Vol. 3: FAILED (Three characters, only one girl.) "Virginia 1939" from Bradley Boys Adventure Magazine: FAILED (Only one woman in the short story, on the last panel, and she doesn't say anything.) "Betrayal of the Man-Eating Cow Clones" from The Tick's 20th Anniversary Special Edition: FAILED (One page story, no female characters.) "The Stranger Waits for Me" from Western Tales of Terror #2: FAILED (No conversations in this story. Mostly the narrator.) "CFI: Silent Forest" from Silent Forest Television Parody Special: FAILED "The Sparrow" from Dead@17 Rough Cut Vol. 2: FAILED (There's no dialogue in this story at all.) "Fight to Live" from Dead@17 Rough Cut Vol. 1: FAILED (Only one female character, she doesn't talk. Too busy being resurrected.) "Siren Song" from Dark Horrors Anthology: FAILED "Fighting David Parrot" FAILED "DangerZone Dave vs. the Realistic Dolphin" FAILED "The Happy Bullets Present an Illustrated Companion Pamphlet for the Album Hydropanic at the Natatorium" FAILED

7 percent. Clearly, my short stories don't stand up as well as my longer stories/projects.

I don't know if the Bechel Test exonerates or condemns. But it does create an interesting starting point for a conversation about gender in fiction. (For instance, the original Star Wars trilogy fails the Bechdel Test miserably. There are only three named female characters with speaking roles--Leia, Aunt Beru, and Mon Mothma.)

I would encourage other writers to test themselves. But more importantly, I encourage us all to go beyond this simple, low-bar benchmark. No more lazy stereotypes. No more sexist tropes. Simply creating a "strong, female character" is not the same as creating a female character worth caring about. I'm confident that my best work is ahead of me, and you'll notice it, because the characters will breathe real air. They won't come out of the box as pre-packaged genre fiction crap. But in order to do that, I have to think intelligently about how I approach my characters.


427110_10150645139076802_1938552693_nI had a former student email me a few days ago, asking about how I got into comics. He was seeking advice on what to do. There's no singular way to get into comics. There's no path except the one that works, and then it usually only works once and under precarious, fleeting conditions. A few things have worked for others, and any combinations of these tactics (listed below) would be better than doing nothing.

  •  In the words of Steve Martin, "be so good they can't ignore you." People like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison were always going to be successful, because eventually someone, somewhere would see the genius. The shine was too bright.
  • Find a job where you can hide away or slack off while you actually write.
  • Be homeless. You can access computers at the public library. You can spend your time writing while sleeping in a shelter somewhere in the evenings. I don't know if this works.
  • Take out loans, live under crushing debt, start your own small press company, and attend every major comic book convention as a publisher. You may eventually go bankrupt. However, by that time, you may be well-known enough to get some gigs elsewhere.
  • Start a shitty web comic and self-publish your own projects.
  • Find one small press company and befriend them. Intern. Run errands.
  • Write about comics. Start a podcast or a blog, or both. Be a resource to others. If you can grow as a pop culture authority, eventually, someone might trust you to write for them.
  • Find work as an editor, be really good, and then shift into writing.
  • Pay an artist to work with you on a larger project. I paid someone to illustrate my first 24 page comic. Nice guy. From there, I started getting more breaks.

taught for several years, and that gave me spare time in the evenings, weekends, and summers to write. I started by writing mini-comics, occasionally co-hosting Fanboy Radio, and contributing short stories to anthologies. I met people in San Diego and elsewhere. I always had about two or three things in the works that I could share at a moment's notice, and I wasn't afraid to throw away a project that clearly wasn't working.
If your ideas have a commercial appeal and you can skillfully execute it, someone should be interested somewhere. Make sure you can explain your idea concisely in one sentence. It needs to be interesting, a variation on a theme, with a clear market in mind.
The "how to break in" question is an odd one. Nothing will happen if you aren't clearly better than your peers. So, keep writing and keep writing and keep writing. Being a creative professional requires a certain degree of ego, swagger and deluded sense of worth.
What advice would you have? Feel free to post in the comments.

[tweet "Advice on breaking in: There's no path except the one that works."]


I'm doing research on the trains that run through Arlington. It's for a feature that will appear in the Fall issue of UT Arlington Magazine. UTA librarians Evelyn Barker and Lea Worcester, also the authors of this book, have been tremendously helpful with the historical research. They gave me a story from the Fort Worth Daily Democrat (July 20, 1876) about the first train that went through Arlington. Here's the lead sentence:

Yesterday morning, at twenty-three minutes past eleven, Engine No. 20 of the Texas & Pacific railroad, Kelly engineer and Beal conductor, uttered its shrill scream within the corporate limits, arousing the 'panter' from his lair, startling the birds from their nests in affright, and carrying joy to many anxious hearts who have waited long and patiently for the sounds that then for the first time reverberated through the hills and valleys around the beautiful city of Fort Worth.

Now that is a sentence! It meanders a bit, but I follow every twist and turn. Unfortunately, no byline. And also unfortunately, I doubt I will ever read a sentence like this in a contemporary newspaper.

By comparison, let's look at the New York Times--arguably the greatest and most important newspaper in the United States. From today's front page, I found:

"Renewed sectarian killing has brought the highest death toll in Iraq in five years." (link)

Important news, but hardly "startling the birds from their nests in affright." Newspapers just aren't willing to write exciting sentences anymore. It's not that today's writers aren't capable of such sentences. This is more a matter of "won't" than "can't." In their efforts to make the news sound like news, they have sacrificed a lot of heart and personality. I'm not the only person to suggest this. I first came upon similar accusations in Bob Cauthorn's talk at UC Berkeley. His message "The Changing Rules of Journalism" is available on iTunes U (Journalism & Media), and you should listen to it if you care at all about the future of newspapers.

Yes, the first sentence of this post isn't "carrying joy to many anxious hearts who have waited long and patiently." But even without the structural acrobatics of the Fort Worth Daily Democrat's lead sentence, I still sound more like a human than a news-churning robot. I'm also not charging money for you to read my blog. In theory, newspapers want you to spend money on their words. Let's make them be worth their weight.


A 2009 New Yorker piece written by Louis Menand ("Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught?") has a cynical and comical view of creative writing programs.

Creative writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers.

It's a good read for anyone who wants to teach writing or anyone who wants to dump money into a writing program. However, at times, Menand offers a limited view of how creative writing classes operate in order to prove his point--until eventually coming around to defend a rather flimsy reason for such programs, i.e. "I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make."

Several questions are raised. For instance, do writing programs actually make writers great or are they simply attended by great writers? To my knowledge, after almost a decade of teaching creative writing, the only professional writer to come out of my class... was me. Hardly a prestigious alumnus. But then, the other question: is the point of a creative writing program really to produce professionals? Is it publish-or-perish?

I believe my class made good writers better. The great writers didn't need me; they'll figure it out on their own. And as for the terrible writers, if I made them slightly more conscious of the clutter in their work, I'll take that as a win. In my class, we didn't "workshop" much at all. For my high school students, I wasn't interested in the "ritual scarring/twelve-on-one group therapy." They already get that enough simply being in high school. I focused on clarity in their work, using Zinsser's ON WRITING WELL as a foundation. And I talked a lot about story structure. I did this to address my two biggest concerns about young writers. (1) Students have been tricked into overvaluing adverbs and adjectives. They're rewarded for convulted sentences. (2) Students have lost the ability to tell a story. It all comes back to my mantra (which I discovered here): "No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand" and "Nobody has to read this crap."

For my UIL Ready Writing team, I had a smaller group of students to work with. Instead of 30 teenagers in a classroom, I sat with four or five at a table in the library during lunch. They were gifted and hungry. Some of them already took my creative writing class. We moved from Zinsser to my favorite book on writing, A WRITER'S COACH by Jack Hart (Amazon | Kobo). We also workshopped like hell. It was easier to do with the UIL Ready Writing contest. They had a singular task: In two hours, write an expository essay based off a prompt that included an excerpt from literature, publications, or speeches. It was easier to show them good examples, and we could be more systematic in our efforts. There was a formula. My last year as the writing coach, we kicked ass. We placed (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) in every single tournament. And all my writers were in the top ten, every time. I told them the goal wasn't to win, even though we did, the goal was to be better writers. Honestly, I just made them more confident and a little more self-aware of their process.

How does anyone make someone great? I think you have to find "great" on your own. I'll settle for better.

[tweet "Do writing programs actually make writers great or are they simply attended by great writers?"]


Yesterday, I hosted a comics scriptwriting workshop at Eastfield College as part of their Literary and Fine Arts Festival. Eastfield was a gracious host--providing a great facility and sandwiches. The students were wonderful. (Thank you Iris for inviting me.) Unfortunately, I didn't do a good job keeping track of my time. I went over, which meant we had to skip the writing exercises (the thing that made the workshop a workshop). I could've easily gone another hour. Fortunately, it makes the audio more tolerable, because there isn't an extended period of nothingness while everyone is busy writing.

Let me know what you think. There's some useful information here. I'd recommend listening to the lecture and following along with the power point (saved as a pdf). I could revise and improve upon some areas of the workshop, and it would be exciting to adapt this into a longer seminar or series. But right now, I'm sharing it with you. Enjoy. Post in the comments section if you have any questions or feedback.

LECTURE [podcast][/podcast]
Download the mp3

POWER POINT Download here

[tweet "Listen to this workshop for comic book writers #writingtips"]


My Dallas Observer story ("Larry Brown Just Can't Stop") took three months to research and write. The story should have been about 4,000 words. I overwrote the first draft by 2,000 words. As a result, a lot of stuff was cut in the name of focusing the narrative. I understand, but it's also a shame because I liked some of the deleted material. And then, I remembered that I have a blog, and I could post all the unused bits and pieces. Here it is, in its unfinished glory.


Interview with Rick Carlisle:

“SMU pulled a coup at being able to get him here. He’s a friend of mine. I’m really thrilled that he’s here. There’s no doubt that he raises the profile of SMU basketball with his mere presence.”

“He’s a very unusual guy. The depth of his experience and the diversity of his experience is very special. It’s going to bring a lot to this city and to the SMU program.”

“Larry’s a guy who has always had great love and respect for the game, and a great enthusiasm for the game. I think this was a great opportunity for him to jump back in with SMU going to a new league, which is exciting and challenging. And they were able to put a great staff together over there too. It’s a really terrific working environment. And it’s a great city to live in obviously.”


January 12, 2013 – The entire game against Tulane is being played on the ground. Players are diving, clawing around for the ball. Tulane’s sophomore guard falls, having hurt his knee. He’s rolling in pain and pulls his jersey over his head so no one can see him cry. It’s an ugly game.

During a time out, Larry Brown’s face turns a darker shade while talking with his players. Veins pop from his forehead. The whistle blows to resume the game and his normal color returns.

With nine seconds remaining, Brown winces when one of his players goes for a showy dunk when he should have run time off the clock. To prove the point, during the final possession, Tulane hits a three pointer. What had been a 14 point lead by SMU was reduced to a 6 point lead in the end. SMU still won, but not in the way Larry Brown wanted. Brown appeared more frustrated by this win than the two losses to Tulsa and Houston.


Brown is pleased with another player, one of his bench guards who finally played defense. Brown opens his arms to the sheepish freshman. “Give me a hug!”

The move is thoroughly, embarrassingly dad-like. And when the player pretends to be unsure about the hug but yields anyway, it’s the playful dynamic of a million fathers and sons. For Larry Brown, basketball is not warfare. The court is not a battlefield. Basketball is family. Basketball is love. Basketball is devotion. Larry Brown, the young kid from Brooklyn who lost his father and was raised by a collective of men on his mother’s side and coach after coach, loves his vocation because he extends the definition of “family” to his wayward players. His love is so genuine. It spoils any attempt to be cynical about a season that’s slipping away from them.


Dean Smith hired Larry Brown to coach the freshman team. On Brown’s first day, he told Larry Brown and his associate Charlie Shaffer they need to cut the team down and to do it quickly, so they could focus on the recruits.

Brown and Shaffer took the baskets down in the gym and made the players run drills until they collapsed. It had the intended effect.

“Coach wasn’t an early riser,” Brown says, “but he came in early that next morning and said, you wanna hear the good news or bad news? I said, well, tell me the good news. We’ll probably only have about 30 kids at practice this afternoon. And I said, well, what’s the bad news? He said, I think we’re losing every scholarship kid. They all want to transfer.”


February 6, 2013 – The theme is to “white out” Memphis. Everyone is supposed to wear white in solidarity, but the concept is missed on the fraternities who opt to wear their Greek shirts to the game instead. In the lower section, a few students wave oversized Xeroxed heads of Larry Brown… and Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. A student passes around a box of pizza to the others in his section. The two painted fans have returned.

The game is close. With a little less than five minutes left, Jalen Jones drives to the basket. Desperate for points, Jones goes for a dunk. A 6’9” forward from Memphis fouls Jones hard. The forward hits Jones at such a velocity, his arm sweeping across, that Jones is knocked head over heals. The crowd is on its feet before Jones hits the ground. Jones hunches his back to avoid landing on his head. The “thud” is heard throughout the coliseum. Jones rolls on his side in pain. Shawn Williams gets in the face of the Memphis forward. Nick Russell checks on Jones. Larry Brown looks terrified, angry, and concerned, reacting as a father might. Brown is on his feet, making sure none of his bench players take to the court, but his eyes stay on Jones who is still on the ground.

The Memphis forward is ejected from the game.

Jalen Jones gets to his feet. He is in pain and takes a few steps collect himself. Jones then walks to the free throw line to take his shots. He misses the first. Takes a deep breath and refocuses on the basket. He makes the second.

SMU loses to Memphis. Their winning record, from early season success, has caved against the other conference teams.


Larry Brown leaves the conference room to begin practice—down the stairs to the secret underground practice gym. His players are already there. Jalen Jones, Shawn Williams, Nick Russell, and everyone else, they’re running drills back and forth across the court. Going hard, preparing for the final games of the season, waiting for Coach Brown to make them great.

[tweet "Deleted scenes from my story on Coach Larry Brown #SMUBasketball"]


As you might have seen on Twitter and Facebook, I've been going on and on about my feature story in the Dallas Observer: "Larry Brown Just Can't Stop." In fact, @TheKobeBeef told me to chill out ("Calm down, we'll read it"). Okay, point taken. I can't apologize for my enthusiasm. I've been working on this story for a little over three months. I'm glad it's finally in print. Three months. Enough time to get everything perfect, right? Two and a half months were spent attending practices and games, taking lots of notes. I interviewed players and a few other coaches, but I wasn't able to interview Larry Brown until February 13th. And at the time, I was juggling another feature with UTA Magazine and two stories about DFW Airport. Not an excuse. I'm just trying to set the scene. I was stressed. I overwrote the first draft of my Larry Brown story. What should've been in the 4,000 word range was almost 6,000 words. I worked on a new outline with my editor and then spent the weekend writing a second draft. By the third draft, we were really cutting it close, but I was happier with what we had. I appreciate the encouragement of Mike Mooney (name dropper in the house!) who reminded me to not give up towards the end, that those final rewrites are crucial. If my editor thought I was crazy, it's Mike's fault.

In the haze of editing and rewriting, I should've done a better job with the fact checking. And that's my fault entirely. I wrote, "A mere seven SMU alumni have gone on to play any sort of professional basketball." That's not true. Herman Hudson, SMU's athletics PR person, called to correct me on it.

Herman has been extremely helpful these three months. I should have gotten a media guide from him. Hell, I could've tried calling or texting him a few more times. Instead, I went with a fairly reputable stat site (i.e. not Wikipedia) and didn't double check. My mistake.

When you count the NBA, ABA, D-League, and the international leagues, there have been 30 SMU players in the pros. If you only count the NBA players, it's 10. There are other players who were drafted, but did not play.

To Charles Beasley, Brad Branson, Adrian Caldwell, Willie Davis, Papa Dia, Bamba Fall, Mouhammad Faye, Rick Herrscher, Denny Holman, Carroll Hooser, Bryan Hopkins, Jon Koncak, Jim Krebs, Gerald Lewis, Myles Luttman, Collin Mangrum, Tim Mason, Carlton McKinney, Robert Nyakundi, Ike Ofoegbu, Gene Phillips, Jay Poerner, Glenn Puddy, Roy Pugh, Jemeil Rich, Quinton Ross, Jeryl Sasser, Patrick Simpson, Ira Terrell, and Derek Williams, I apologize. While the idea that SMU's basketball program has been "mired in mediocrity" holds true, accuracy matters. And what sort of modern journalist would I be if I didn't post a long-winded retraction?

Thankfully, everything else is solid. I'm proud of this story. I'm proud of the work that Joe Tone (editor) and I put into it. Mark Graham took some great photos. I loved spending time with the team and Coach Brown. Great things await them.

And you should read the story... right here.


The talented Lyndsay Knecht wrote an article for KERA's Art & Seek blog about my experience with the Oral Fixation Show (click here to read it). The article also includes audio of me rehearsing "One Request Before You Leave." You can hear Nicole Stewart laughing in the background.

David is that universally known writer type, charmingly self-depreciating from his first email. He wrote that I’d know his house by the overgrown lawn in front. He wanted to tell his story on merit of its anti-drama.

“People have often complimented me on my divorce which feels really weird, that someone would say, ‘Wow, you had a great divorce.’”

He laughs, and then I get a glimpse at the story behind the story. “It’s like, ‘Thanks, I’m good at failing,’” he says.

Nicole’s early exchanges with David via Skype go something like this:

Nicole: You get to saying that your first baby step was acknowledging that [your wife leaving you] was happening, and I want to make sure that I see you before you acknowledged it.

David: Okay.

Nicole: Like right now, I see you as lonely, unloved and unable to provide –

So here’s David, sitting in his home office, being asked by a relative stranger on a computer monitor to take himself back to the couples counseling appointment when his wife said she no longer wanted to be married to him.

Continue Reading...

"Prizes are wonderful. They sell your books, they get you invited to places you would never be invited. I would never give mine back. But I know them fundamentally for what they are. They're just today's applause. They have no bearing on whether a piece of art or an artist will exist into the future. I'm more preoccupied with that. And I think that preoccupation frees your art in lots of ways." -- Junot Diaz


"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." -- Mark Twain

The September issue of D Magazine is available. Buy a copy for yourself and a few more for the special people in your life. I wrote a short piece The Last Wasteland of Arlington for the Talk section. It's about the Viridian community development in North Arlington. My wife suggested the story to me. She drives past Viridian everyday when returning home from work. "You know that's a landfill across the street." "Really?" "Does it smell?" "Oh yeah." And so the conversation went. I talked with Al Linley, Chief Operating Officer, on the phone. And then, I met with Elvio Bruni, Senior Vice President, who gave me a tour of the site. Both presented a compelling case for how Viridian would succeed where other projects in that area had failed. They did not dodge the issues, and they spoke directly about the solutions. Huffines Communities is big enough and smart enough to make this thing work. They're working closely with the city, and they have a solid long-term plan for growing the community. But it's still a housing development across the street from a landfill and along the Trinity River. If I had the money (which I don't), I would get a house elsewhere. However, I've always looked at older, more established neighborhoods over the new developments. I like that Viridian is taking a balanced, mixed-use approach: retail and housing, development and preservation/conservation of natural wildlife, varied housing styles and price levels.

I delivered the story to Tim Rogers (this guy) at 472 words. He wanted me to add to and re-arrange aspects of the story, which brought it to 685 words, and then I cut it down to 437 words. Tim emailed me an edited version that came to 418 words. And then, when I read the final print version, I noticed a few more things were added.

Word counts interest me.

Sometimes I'll get a lot of this back and forth. Other times, I'll send it off and never see it again until it's in print. Either way, I'm thankful to have an editor. I learn something every time, and I become a better writer as a result. Occasionally, I have moments where I realize I'm not completely off base. When I first wrote the story, I had a favorite sentence in the first paragraph. It was my editor's favorite part too, and he moved it to the last sentence in the story. I'm most encouraged by these sort of "we're-on-the-same-page" moments--small victories that keep me writing. He points out an area of the story that's unclear, and I immediately see what he's talking about.

It's one thing to be a good writer. (I was a good writer in high school and college, compared to my peers.) It's another thing to contribute to a magazine filled with these incredible award-winning writers. "Good" doesn't seem good enough. I keep writing and writing, hoping that I can get just a little bit better.

This blog post is longer than the actual story (once again, read it here). It takes longer to write less.


Fareed Zakaria, well-known Newsweek/Time columnist and CNN host, committed the unforgivable sin among writers. He plagiarized. I read about it on Mediabistro this morning. The story was also reported on Newsbusters and, of course, the Atlantic Wire. All three links include samples of the plagiarism.

What really shocked me was how many people in the comments section (I know, I should never read the comments section... unless it's my own site. You guys are smart.) said that it wasn't technically plagiarism.

Yes. It. Was.

Here's my response on Mediabistro: "This is plagiarism, pure and simple, by definition. Zakaria went through the original text and changed the wording of each sentence. He did not write an original article. He copied and re-worded. You do not deserve to write for TIME Magazine with that sort of practice. He should lose his job. Any writers on Mediabistro who defend him should seriously question their own professional ethics. If you think this is okay, you should find another line of work. Writers do not steal from other writers. Never, ever. You cannot assert your own definition of plagiarism as a way to justify your actions." Yes, I just quoted myself on the issue plagiarism. Did that blow your mind?

After reading over my comment again, I admit I sound like an angry blogger. In fact, my fists are clinched as I type this. (It's tricky.) Real writers don't plagiarize! If some idiot college kid swipes an essay off the Internet, it's bad but understandable. I understand he's an idiot. Dogs eat their own vomit. And stupid people steal essays off the Internet. However, a writer places his/her entire reputation upon the originality of his/her own work.

And Zakaria, you stole from the New Yorker?! You realize that people read the New Yorker. It's kind of a thing.

I could rant some more, but it would get repetitive. So I'll end with a link to a good explanation of plagiarism for those who are confused on the issue.

UPDATE: "Newsroom responses to Zakaria plagiarism reveal lack of consistency, transparency" by Craig Silverman, Poynter

"We use words not just to speak but also to think. If the right words aren't there, the right ideas can't get through." -- Princeton Review, Word Smart 1993


Email from someone today:"I was wondering if you could help how to deal with writer's block."

My response: It really depends. Writer's block can have several causes. The most important thing to keep in mind is that "writer's block" is not an issue of quality, but production. If you are writing and not happy with it, that's not writer's block--that's being critical of your own work (which isn't always a bad thing). Writer's block is about not being able to put any words on the screen (or paper). Often, the solution is a re-commitment to writing bad first drafts and being okay with that. Defer your greatness to the second draft.

If you've never been able to write, that's not writer's block either. That's a case where you haven't become comfortable with the creative process. You need to return to the basics.

Writer's block is: I could write, now I can't.

I'd recommend the book IF YOU WANT TO WRITE by Brenda Ueland. She is friendly and encouraging, perfect for the frustrated scribe.

Be leery of expensive writing conferences. They can feed on desperation.

If you need more personal help, I offer consultation and coaching at $50 an hour. However, I'd recommend you first honestly assess where the block is coming from (fear of failure? of judgment?) before you start throwing money at the problem.

I hope this helps. Good luck.


I'm working on a story for the May issue of D Magazine. It's about the incredible work done by CitySquare LAW Center. As is often the case, I have a few false starts until I eventually find my way. Rather than sending my rejected words into oblivion, I thought I'd share them with you. The paragraph below isn't necessarily bad. It's just heavy on the "first person," and this story isn't about me. It also buries the lead. (Note to my editor: I will have the story to you by Tuesday at the latest. Almost done.)

Over the years, I have had a few home-cooked theories about poor people. First. That guy standing on the curb begging for money probably had a three-piece suit and a BMW around the corner. He changed back into the suit and sped off after bilking people for hundreds of dollars every day. I had heard various iterations of this myth from people who knew someone who knew someone who saw it with their own eyes. My first theory evolved into a newer one. That poor people really need sandwiches. Instead of giving them money, which they will probably spend on drugs, if I just gave them a ham and cheese sandwich, this would better meet their needs. And if they refused my sandwich, it confirmed that they were probably not actually poor and just no-good drug addicts. I had many friends who proudly explained that they’d rather give out McDonald’s gift certificates than actual money to the poor. My third theory was that poor people just need an education. Smart people are completely immune to suffering, because they have an education that allows them to navigate around all bad choices. If they are poor, it’s probably their fault. If they didn’t want to be poor, they should go back to school. I clung to the bumper sticker wisdom: “Teach a man to fish and he’ll never go hungry again.” If only the fisherman’s problems were limited to fish. I’m not writing all this to set up some straw man argument against the uncharitable. All these theories expressed certain prejudices on my part on the issue of poverty. I believed that poverty couldn’t be as serious as it appeared. I believed there were simple solutions that could be applied universally to all poor people. And I desperately wanted to believe that it was a personal problem and very little could be done to help.

And then we transition to the actual story. See? Why not just begin with CitySquare? When in doubt, leave it out. My words are well-meaning, but it's "comments section debate fodder" and not really where I need to go.

Thus, you have just seen me self edit.

"The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne." Geoffrey Chaucer


Books on my shelf:A Writer's Coach by Jack Hart, The Anti 9 to 5 Guide by Michelle Goodman, My So-Called Freelance Life also by Michelle Goodman, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, The New New Journalism by Robert Boynton, How To Write A Sentence by Stanley Fish, The Associated Press Stylebook 2011, 2012 Writer's Market, Good In A Room by Stephanie Palmer

Magazines I subscribe to: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Writer's Digest, Columbia Journalism Review, D Magazine

Other subscriptions: Letters In The Mail (The Rumpus)


I have the privilege to work with some very talented student writers as their UIL Ready Writing coach. We meet every Friday during lunch to prepare for our next tournament. As something new, I decided to start a book club with them. We're reading A WRITER'S COACH by Jack Hart--one chapter a week. I'd highly recommend this book. I appreciate Hart's willingness to cut the BS regarding the writing process. He dares to suggest that writing is hard because you're not working hard enough. He puts the blame back on the writer, which I respect.

"Inefficient writers who barely produce and never make deadline usually delude themselves with the notion that writing is a mystical process and can't be hurried. They aren't in charge--their muse is. And she's a fickle, sensitive creative. That's just a comforting excuse for delay. You make inspired writing possible when you follow the natural progression of the writing process." (page 24)


"In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." Ralph Waldo Emerson