Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Lesson on Story Worthy Problems and Latest Update on Amazon

Hi folks,

I received the following question from one of the writers in the Skype class I co-teach with Jenny Milchman for the New York Writer's Workshop this afternoon and thought perhaps the answer I gave may be of some value to a few folks. Without further ado, here's Todd's question and my reply:


I was reading your comments on Stephen's work and a question occurred to me.

You described the story-worthy problem as the "spine" of the novel. I know I overdid it with the eyes stuff in my last attempt, but how often should the writer be reminding the reader of the SWP after the inciting incident? I'm guessing it's not nearly as much as the character's surface desire. When I was in inciting incident hell you referred me to Allan Leverone's novel PASKAGANKEE, and it was extremely helpful seeing how the SWP (redemption for guilt) was just hinted at in the beginning, but the character's surface desire (to find the killer) was always on the page in some form or another. As surface problem and SWP are joined at the hip, does the character remind the reader of the SWP simply by striving to solve the surface problem, or should there be some more direct attention called to the SWP so the "spine" of the novel is always visible.



Great question, Todd! The answer is pretty simple. The story-worthy problem shouldn't be evident to the protagonist until almost literally, the final scene. It's really what the final epiphany is all about. It takes the entire struggle to resolve the surface problem to reveal to the protagonist what his or her "real" problem is. In T&L, this is crystal-clear. Up until the moment where they're at the edge of the Grand Canyon, Thelma's been focused on her surface problem. Now, the surface problem has grown into a much bigger beast by that time... but it's still a surface problem (meaning still somewhat superficial). Look at how it’s evolved.
1. Surface problem begins with Thelma wanting to escape her husband Darryl’s small-minded tyranny. At this point, she thinks that’ll take the weekend. She’ll defy him, go on the weekend camping trip with Louise and come back. She probably hasn’t even thought much about what will happen when she returns. Probably has a kind of fuzzy image that she’ll get back, they’ll hae a major knock-down fight, and the marriage will go on. Or not. She does know the relationship will have changed and for the better. She’s taken a big step by defying him and she knows the dynamics have been changed forever. Is that in the script? Nope. But, I’m in intelligent human being and that’s a fairly solid conclusion and one the author (Callie Khouri) most likely was aware of—after all, she wrote the story for smart people.
2. But, emboldened by her new-found courage, she takes it a step further and wheedles Louise into stopping for a drink. The day before the inciting incident there’s no way she could have and the stakes are raised by her new-found freedom in drinking.
3. Further emboldened by deciding to drink and the rewards (freedom she hasn’t experienced before) and almost giddy with having fun, she takes it another step forward and dances and flirts with Harlan. Another step toward raising the size of the problem and the stakes.
4. Her flirting actions and unaccustomed drinking lead to going out to the parking lot with Harlan and his attempted rape. See how every single step keeps increasing the size of her surface problem.
5. When Louise shoots and kills Harlan, the stakes are raised in a HUGE way. And, they’re raised as an organic consequence of her attempts to gain her freedom. But, it’s still the same surface problem. Just a few extra elements added. Now, besides escaping Darryl’s dominance, she has other men trying to enslave her (by capturing her and sending her to jail).
I won’t go through all the subsequent plot steps here, but do you see how each action she takes to resolve her surface problem keep increasing the size and scope of the same problem? Every single step is organic, meaning it is birthed by her latest action (failed) to resolve the surface problem. When they decide to escape to Mexico, it’s still the same form and same problem (albeit bigger) that it was when she began.

And, all the way up to the final scene, she doesn’t realize what her story-worthy problem is. It’s only when she’s cornered at the Grand Canyon, and it’s only when the full import of what she’s gone through, finally hits her with the full realization of what her real problem really is. It’s Darryl… but it’s far, far more than just Darryl. It’s Harlan, it’s the state trooper, it’s J.T., it’s the tanker driver, it’s even the antagonist Hal who only wants to save her and Louise, that’s her much, much deeper psychological problem. Her story-worthy problem is that she’s a total prisoner in a totally male-dominated world. But, she can’t achieve that final realization until she goes through everything she did to resolve her surface problem. So, the protagonist cannot know what her story-worthy problem is until the final scene. It’s that final scene that, with a good writer, that both the surface and the story-worthy problem are simultaneously resolved. They’re really one and the same.
This doesn’t happen in all stories. Only in stories by the best writers. Lesser writers don’t plan well enough or just aren’t talented enough to make that happen. Which is why we see epilogues and crappola like that. From writers who aren’t as good or talented as Khouri. But, why use those writers for models when we have the best available?
The protagonist can’t possibly know what the story-worthy problem is until that final scene. Once she knows it, she has to resolve it. And, once the story’s resolved—it’s over.
But, the author needs to know what the surface problem is, and he/she absolutely and irrevocably has to know what the story-worthy problem is. If he doesn’t, how on earth is he going to create a plot that leads his character to that point? The answer is, he can’t.
And, you’ll run into people who say they never outline and claim they never know how their story will turn out. The so-called “pantsers.” They’ll even quote people like Hemingway, who claimed he never outlined. Only, he did. Except Ernie’s outlines were 80,000 to 100,000 words long and not the 15-20 word version I ask you guys to create. And, he didn’t call what he did an outline. He called them Draft #1, Draft #2, Draft #8 and so on.
Creating a story isn’t writing down real life. It has to be better than real life. It also has to make sense and life doesn’t. Stories are kind of hard to do if you don’t plan it out. Just throw a character out there and follow ‘em around—see where they go and what they do. One can do that, but I strongly suspect that’s a writer who writes lots of “drafts.”

Hope this answers your question, Todd. Actually, I’d like to use this for a blog post. Is that okay with you? (He gave his permission.)

Blue skies,
P.S.  JUST LIKE THAT is kicking butt! Here’s the latest rankings:

·  Amazon Best Sellers Rank:

 #15 Free in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Free in Kindle Store)

Thanks to everyone who glommed onto a copy. Please let your friends know about the freebie and see if it might hit Number Uno!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Hi folks,

MEGA UPDATE! JUST LIKE THAT keeps moving up! Just checked the rankings and here's where it is now:

Thanks, folks! It would send me into orbit if it hit #1 on either list!

UPDATE! Your support has been overwhelming! Just checked Amazon's stats and here's where JUST LIKE THAT is right now:

Keep it up, please! My understanding is that if a book cracks the top 100 Amazon itself begins promoting it once it goes back for sale. Also, if you'd click on the "Like" button I'm told it helps. Again, THANKS!

There are a couple of blog posts that came out today that you may find interesting. Both are by Jed Ayres, the really cool writer who hosts Noir @ the Bar in St. Louis where I was recently privileged to appear and read at. Jed and I struck up a friendship and he wanted to know which books and movies I thought portrayed prisons accurately. Since I’m not aware of many, I talked instead about why I thought most got prison life wrong.

Lately, I seem to have gotten my needle stuck on railing against the many inaccuracies about prison in books and movies. Mostly, that’s because I’ve just had it after reading book after book by writers who don’t have a clue and keep perpetuating out-and-out falsehoods. I’m kind of old-school in that it was always drummed into me that a writer needed to be accurate. That the second-worst thing that could happen to a writer was that an editor found a factual error in a manuscript. The single-worst thing is for a reader to find such an error—that meant the editor missed it and that kind of makes ‘em angry.

But, like many things, it’s apparent to me that standards have slipped in the last generation. I may be wrong, but I see substantially more and more writers who don’t give a damn if they’re accurate or not. Not even a consideration. That, to me, is simply evidence of one thing. Laziness.

What allows writers to get lazy is that no one calls them on these things. Most inmates are poorly-educated and don’t read all that much. Not to mention that most prison libraries are abysmal. The one at my alma mater, Pendleton, consisted mostly of Zane Grey paperbacks witht the covers torn off for their fiction offerings. (Never figured out why an inmate wanted those covers but they do.) Not only don’t inmates in any appreciable numbers read crime or prison novels, it’s not like they’re regularly invited on Good Morning America to set the record straight. Not much of a forum for us ex-cons to let the public know that Mr. Megaseller is a phony and wouldn’t know a criminal from his dentist. So, writers creating prison scenes pretty much have carte blanche. And that’s why I guess I’m talking about it these days. If a heart procedure appears in a novel and the surgeon uses a soup spoon to open up the chest cavity, you can be fairly certain a number of white-coated folks are going to be on TV and talking to reporters about the moron who wrote the medical thriller with the spoon. However, nobody’s asking us ex-cons if anyone in a real-life joint ever actually used the word “shiv” in actual conversation. (They don’t. It’s almost always exclusively “shank.” Or… ready?... knife.) If I ever heard an actual inmate use the term shiv, I’d know instantly this was a young kid who’d never been inside and got his knowledge of prison lore from bad movies and novels and was most likely headed for a bad ending as everyone would know this was a guy who’d be easy pickings—he’s just revealed he’s an innocent and cons eat guys like this alive. Whenever I see this particular word, it always sets my teeth on edge.

Anyway, check out Jed’s blogs. I’d begin with his Barnes & Noble newsletter for the first part of our conversation at

and then go over to his Noir @ the Bar blog at for the rest of it. BTW. Jed chose to lead this off with a photo of Nicholas Cage in RAISING ARIZONA, and his character in this black comedy as well as his rappies' characters are fairly accurate depictions of ex-cons... Good choice, Jed.

Please know that I'm not advocating that only those who've actually been in prison write novels about prisons or that include prison scenes. Not at all! I don't expect only surgeons or nurses to write medical thrillers. Just make an effort to be accurate. There are probably at least 7-8 million ex-cons walking around, most likely a few even in your neighborhood. Just ask some of us to vet your book. At least make an effort to get it right.

And, if anyone wants an accurate portrayal of the criminal mind or an accurate account of a prison, for the next three days, StoneGate Ink is offering free copies of the ebook version of my autobiographical novel, JUST LIKE THAT. (The paperback version isn’t included in the freebie offering.) This novel is about 85% ripped from my own life and I promise you it’s spot-on.

If you grab a copy, please consider hitting the “Like” button or even leaving a review—it’d be much appreciated.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about writing a guide for writers (and other interested parties) on prison life. Any publishers out there who think this might be something worthwhile to pursue, please get in touch!

Blue skies,

Monday, May 28, 2012


Hi folks,

Still trying to get over this pneumonia/bronchitis deal! Not fun!

Couple of things--Pam Asberry ;just wrote a post over at Petit Fours and Hot Tamales (great name!) on my book, FINDING YOUR VOICE. Thanks, Pam! Check it out at

Go here if you'd like to glom onto a copy:

And, then, my publisher Aaron Patterson just told me that he'll be offering my novel, JUST LIKE THAT, as a freebie for three days, from Tuesday through Thursday. That means you only have today to be able to buy it instead of getting it gratis... Here's the link for it:

The webcast at the Boulder Writer's Workshop was a hoot! I really had a lot of fun, meeting new writers and gabbing with old friends. Lori DeBoer has created a truly dynamic group of writers together.

Gotta go take my meds... Hon? Can I get some ice?

Blue skies,

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Hi folks,

Been down lately! When I returned from Noir @ the Bar, I found I'd been suffering from bronchitis for a couple of weeks. Just got that cleared up and it returned, along with pneumonia. Been hard to do much work, but fortunately I've got a great bunch of writers in my online workshop and they've allowed me to skate quite a bit! Same with the folks I'm privileged to work with in the Skype class I co-teach with Jenny Milchman--just very understanding people! Now, I've got the "old man's lineup" of pills facing me every day and it's a bear to remember when to take this, how long until I can take another, what to eat, when... yadda, yadda, yadda... Getting old ain't much fun, kids!

Today, I'm excited to appear before the members of the Boulder (CO) Writer's Workshop for a webcam presentation with president Lori DeBoer. Sorry I can't invite folks, but I'll try to report how it went. Just saw that it's full, even for members, so I better take some more medicine--honey! Where did you put the Jack Daniels? Anyway, at 3 EST, I'll be over at

You might want to check them out and consider joining. They're a wonderful and vibrant group and offer all kinds of goodies to writers. Tell 'em I sentcha, okay?

I keep popping up in really cool places. Just had a great piece on some of my books over  at that you may find interesting.

And, then, a new interview just came up over at Luis Vera's new blog you may get a kick out of, at A blog titled "A Knife and Quill" has to be cool!

Should be seeing a new book from me from StoneGate Ink soon. It's a YA--yeah, I wrote a YA--wanna make something of it? Kidding, folks! Actually, I wrote it for my daughter Britney when she was a little tadpole and never thought of publishing it... until a couple of years ago when she brought it up and told me that it was four years after reading it that she could look into a mirror for more than 15 seconds. That's when I got the idea that if it scared her that much (and, believe me--Britney's fearless), that it might be publishable. And, Aaron Patterson of StoneGate agreed. It's about a teenaged girl who finds out she has a mirror twin and the twin talks her into trading places... but then won't let her out. It's titled... ready?... MIRROR, MIRROR. Don't know if it'll sell or not--there aren't any vampires in it nor any teen sex. We'll see...

Got some other stuff coming up. I'll be the fiction presenter at the Antioch Writer's Workshop in Ohio for the week of July 7-13. They have a terrific program for all kinds of writers and I'm pretty sure they still have openings available if interested. I'd love it if some of you guys showed up and we can meet in person! Check it out at

Then, it gets hinky! The day after I get back home, I'm driving down to Franklin,Indiana to appear at the Midwest Romance Writer's Workshop. I've done this one before and am always extremely impressed at the total professionalism the writers who gather there present. This is a group of writers who are more focused on the craft of writing than any other group I've been privileged to be around.

Well, gotta rest up and take some more "medicine" before showtime this afternoon.

Blue skies,

Monday, May 14, 2012

Update since Noir at the Bar

Hi folks,

Sorry I’ve been absent for some time, but have had a series of mishaps ever since I went to read at Noir at the Bar in St. Louis.

First thing that happened was that the day before I left, my brand-new desktop computer took an electrical surge and got fried. Right after that, my laptop took a surge also but I got lucky with it. The battery kept it from getting fried.

Won’t go into all the problems this has caused, but basically I’ve been without a computer up to even now. I teach an online class and a Skype class and it’s been pure hell to keep up. Thank God I have the most understanding students and also, in my Skype class, the most understanding co-teacher in Jenny Milchman, who’s been an angel in all this. As has been Maegan Sampson who facilitates my online class. Thanks, guys!

Since I can’t take the chance of plugging my laptop into an outlet at home until that’s fixed, I work on stuff from the battery for an hour and a half until it dies, then take it across the street to my neighbor’s to charge it… and she’s not always home. For my Skype class, I have to truck across town to my (wonderful!) mother-in-law’s house to use her outlets. Woke up the first day after St. Louis to over 400 emails to answer! Go down to the public library to work on those, which is difficult as we have one car and my wife Mary needs it to go to work so I wait until she gets home. Goes on and on…

We have an electrician coming over Wednesday to install a separate line for my computer and hopefully that’ll get things back to normal. Of course, I’m still without my brand-new desktop and don’t know when I’ll be getting that back. And, don’t know if it’s covered by warranty or not… Hoping, as I’m out of money…

St. Louis’ Noir at the Bar was fantastic! My mentor (and hero and publisher) Cort McMeel put us up at the Cheshire Inn and it was totally awesome. Mary keeps talking about the fantastic kingsized bed we had. Best night’s sleep we’ve had in years.

We arrived on Friday (the reading was on Saturday night) and our host, Jeb Ayres, came down and took Mary and I out to eat at a club near his house. We all became instant best friends. Later, Mary went up to our room, and Jeb and I knocked back brews in the hotel bar and then Cort showed up around midnight and we continued to knock back brews. Turned out, Cort figured he’d grab a room when he got off the plane from Denver, but all the ball clubs were in town, plus some kind of mega science fair that drew over 30,000 kids and their families, so there wasn’t a room left in town. Ended up, he spent the night sleeping on our hotel room floor (in the room he’d paid for—what we writer types call “poetic justice” or some such term). Cort’s a truly tough guy—a former boxer—and claimed he slept just fine. This was the first time we’d met in person and we’d bonded over the years via the phone and internet and the instant we met, I knew I’d met my spiritual brother.

The next day we met Jenny, Jed’s wife and their two little boys, and Mary and Jenny instantly bonded. We spent most of the day with them and then grabbed a nap back at the Cheshire. And then, it was time to do the reading.

One of the single best experiences of my life! If ever Jed Ayres calls you and invites you to do a reading at Noir at the Bar, all I can say is I’d urge you to run with all possible haste and do so. This is the Valhalla of noir writers. A savage storm erupted just before the reading where a tornado touched down what seemed like mere blocks from us and hail the size of golf balls rained down. Really—no exaggeration—golf balls!

First, Cort read from his forthcoming novel, CAGEFIGHTERS, and then (a very funny) Erik Lundy read from his story “Shootout at the KY Corral” (don’t ask…) and then we all took a break and it was my turn. I read my favorite short story, “In the Zone” from THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES, and Cort told me I knocked it out of the park. Not to brag, but I agree.. We finished up with David James Keaton’s reading of his story “Three Abortions, which was maybe a little un-PCist... You know, people with no brains…

Then, a bunch of noir gods showed up, including Scott Phillips, Frank Bill, Matthew McBride and we started to get ripped. A bunch of us ended up going to hit the bar scene and the next thing I remember is getting up to meet Cort, Jed, Scott, Erik and others down at Jed’s café where the readers are held for breakfast.

Get this: Scott-frickin’-genius-Phillips came up to me and asked if he could read and blurb my next book, THE RAPIST! Did you catch that? He asked me! This is akin to Ted Williams  coming out of the dugout to wave his cap.

The word before the reading was that Frank Bill was going to drop by with country singer legend, Ray Wylie Hubbard, but while Frank showed up, alas, Mr. Hubbard was unable to as he was shooting part of a video for his new release.

For a more coherent account of the goings-on, hop over to Jed’s blog at where he tells what really went on. I think it was because he was more sober…

At the end of the reading, we made another plea for votes for my nomination of THE BITCH for the best novel award in the Legends category.

That didn’t turn out as I’d hoped… Yeah, Lawrence Block won. Who’da thunk? But, it was one of the biggest honors of my life to just be nominated. Next year… (I sound like a Cubs’ fan, don’t I…)

Even though I didn’t win, a lot of my friend did and I’m truly delighted they did. It was deserved in all cases. One I was especially happy about was Anthony Neil Smith’s win for his brilliant novel, ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS for best novel in the Rising Star category. Congratulations, Doc Noir! This was one of the best novels I’ve read in a long, long while.

When I got back, I was interviewed by Benjamin Sobieck for his blog and it turned out to be one of the best interviews I’d ever had. Ben is a master interviewer and asks the kinds of nasty, tough questions many don’t. Check it out at:

And, then, I got to do a fun interview over at Tony Black’s place, Pulp Pusher. A different take on interviews and pure-d fun. Check it out at:

Got some more stuff to report on, but just have a few more minutes here at the library computer, so will try to post again tomorrow.

I’ve missed you folks!

Blue skies,