Tag Archives: Advice

Diving Into Polls

© Arbi Babakhanaians | ID 6533043

By Chris Hutton

          This week, we’re taking a break from my 7 Lessons Learned series to announce a new feature on the site… or, perhaps more appropriately, a new feature that I am exploring for my author’s platform. If you haven’t already noticed, I’ve created a polls section on the main navigation. Periodically I will be pushing new polls onto the page. My intention here is to provide the opportunity for my readers to more actively engage with the content creation for this site.


          To that end, I will be asking about such topics as:

          Upcoming Story Types:

          My first poll provided the option to vote on one of my upcoming stories and whether it should be horror or science fiction and how long of a story you as a reader would like to see.


          In the near future I intend to request story prompts, whether a line of dialogue, a title, or a phrase. After I collect a set number I shall post my favorites in a poll on which my readers can vote to choose the prompt for an upcoming story.


          What genres do my readers prefer? What story lengths are most suited to their reading style? What content engages you in social media? Basically, I may poll about general preferences to better understand what my audience enjoys.

          Getting to Know You:

          Quick polls on topics such as preferred authors, favorite books, films, etc.

Why, Why, Why?

          Every time I think that I have begun to understand social media I slip just a littler further down the rabbit hole. That doesn’t quite answer the question, does it?

          I started looking into social media polling with one simple goal: engage my audience. I wanted to encourage a back and forth communication between myself and my readers and to help generate a sense of community. Polls seemed like a great way to do this. I could ask a reader what type of story they wanted to read next or if they enjoyed some types of content more than others. Essentially, I could allow my readers, you, to have a voice in what content I create.

          Sounds good, right?

          Well, it doesn’t work unless you can get your readers to take the survey. Or find your readers. I have a lot of followers, but that doesn’t mean I have a lot of readers. I wish it did. I’d be ecstatic to have some 3,000+ readers. Hell, I’d be ecstatic to have 100, or even 10 that I don’t know. I have plenty of followers, but very little evidence of how many people are actually reading my work.

          One kernel of advice that I came across recently suggested that it is better to have 100 engaged followers than 1,000 inactive followers – or something to that effect. I’ve seen this same sentiment in so many permutations in various blogs now that I’ve lost count. The point is that in building a community of actively engaged readers, you create a lifetime audience rather than a passive reader that maybe checks your site once or twice and then never again.

          Hell, I came across a whole article on how to get your first 500 engaged twitter followers (though coincidentally that had nothing to do with polls). Yet the point stands. Engagement is key. Polls are one way I am seeking to create that engagement.

          Is it working? Well, I just started so I can’t really say yet.I can, however, say that I am currently lost in a sea of polling apps and articles on online surveys and marketing. Personally I’d love some advice to cut through the noise. I barely know where to begin. So I guess, if you’re reading this, hopefully you can learn from my mistakes, and/or my progress depending on how this goes. Also, if you happen to know of a polling app that embeds polls directly in social media posts and websites across Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress, while sharing votes across all platforms, please let me know. That’s the current Holy Grail for which I quest.

Should I care?

          That’s all good and all, but why am I telling you this?

          That’s a fair question. I could have simply started a poll on my site and left it at that; but that doesn’t guarantee my interested readers would know about it. How often do you check a site’s main navigation to see if it has been updated? If you are like me, probably not too often. You look for changes on the front page (which I am still exploring), and you read the new content. So, dedicating a blog seemed like a good way to get readers aware that I had begun polling and why I was doing so.

          Plus, I tried to post it under the radar, but, well, it remained under the radar. I put out my first poll and received two votes (technically four, but two were me testing the polling system, so I don’t think that they count). The point is, my first week of polling did not go so well, and I thought that a blog post might at least raise some awareness.

Quick Resources on Social Media Polling

          That being said, if you’re interested in increasing your own social media engagement for your author platform, my primary advice is to do your own research. I’m just getting started, so what do I know? However, if that doesn’t sound so appealing, feel free to piggyback off of some of mine. Here are some articles for you. I’ll update this blog entry in the future as I explore the topic more.

4 Facebook Tools for Your Social Media Strategy

Focused specifically on Facebook, the article provides a brief argument in favor in polling then jumps into reviews on 4 different Facebook polling tools.

5 Reasons to Include Polling in Your Social Media Strategy

This one is more relevant to companies and brands, but most of its takeaways can still be applied to writers and bloggers.

11 Ways Marketers Use Twitter Polls

Quick callouts to different uses for polls and clear examples of each. I wasn’t convinced I’d find it useful when I clicked the link but after reading through it, I am already rethinking my polling strategy. I even just posted my first Twitter poll, so there we go. And in ten minutes I’ve had more engagement with the twitter poll than the one on my site had in an entire week. That’s something.

How to Use Twitter Polls to Engage Your Audience: 13 Examples from Real Brands

Another article on effectively using Twitter polls to engage your audience. Huh. There’s that keyword, again: engage.

How to Supercharge Your Social Media Presence with Online Surveys

An article reviewing the pros of engaging your social media audience with surveys.

          Anyway, I hope that this is useful to someone.

          Happy Writing (and Polling), All!

Want to Write? Read!

© Photographer: Ginasanders | Agency: Dreamstime.com

By Chris Hutton

          This whole post could be as short as this. You want to write, read. There blog done for the week. No…

Okay, a bit more then.

          If you don’t read novels, don’t write them. Don’t read short stories, don’t write them. Don’t watch tv, don’t write television. Or….

          To put it in a more positive light:

          If you want to write novels, read novels. If you want to write short stories, comics, or for film &/or television, read short stories and comics and watch tv and film (and better yet, read teleplays and scripts).


          Because it makes you a better writer. Beyond writing itself, there is no better training ground for the craft. Read great works, read crap works, just read. From the greats you can pick up on what it is you like so much, and what they do so well. Even more, from the not so great work, well, you can pick up on what bothers you. What techniques drive you up the wall? Do you hate adverbs? Does passive voice grate on your nerves. Do cliches, like those littering this paragraph, make you want to scream (see what I did there (twice)). I once had a professor that told me there was never an excuse to starting a sentence with ‘it.’ It’s not advice with which I completely agree, but I imagine that he picked that up from one too many sentences starting with ‘it’ in something that he read.

          Of course, the items entailed so far are more grammatical than anything else, but there is so much more to be learned. What stories excite you? What stories bore you? How do you feel about starting in the middle of the action and then flashing back? Personally, with rare exceptions, I prefer the straightforward narrative, What about the types of work you like? Do you want your horror pumping with gore, or exuding dark psychology? Both? What about your science-fiction? Perhaps you prefer slow tales of humanity at its limits, or maybe you want hordes of aliens and laser fights around every corner. Reading will let you know what you love and what you hate. In the end, I hope that we are telling the stories that we love, not the ones that we hope will impress. I could try to write some piece of modern literature, but I don’t read it. I read King and Hill and Cutter and horror and James S A Corey and near-future science-fiction. And if that is what I read, that’s what I write.

But so many reasons…

          I get it. For those of us who want to write, it can be hard enough to find time to put pen to paper. Now some nobody with a blog is saying you have to read as well. Jerk.

          There are a million reasons why we don’t read enough, although perhaps the crux of the dilemma is the usual culprit for so many of the things we don’t do – time. There just isn’t much of it. Again, I get it. I do. I want to read a lot more than I do, but I can’t make the time; but I do make some time, even if only a few pages a day I make sure to read. Usually I aim a bit higher, but the point is, when you find yourself having no time, exhausted from the stresses of everyday life, try to push through even just for a page or two. Make that effort.

          Beyond helping you become a better writer it is a matter of respecting your audience. If you don’t enjoy the medium enough to spend your time on it, how can you expect anyone to spend their time and hard earned money on your stories? You can’t.

          Oh but, beyond time, I frequently hear one other excuse – one for which I have far less tolerance: I don’t want to be influenced.

          To that I say, “Well, that’s just ridiculous.” If you are going to write, you need to know what has been done and what hasn’t. You need to know what works and what doesn’t. You need to know the craft and you can’t know that if you’re not reading.

Not just words…

          And lest you think that I am talking out of my ass, here is a rundown of what I have been reading over the past six months.

Marguerite Bennett

  • Animosity, Vol. 1

Ed Brubaker

  • Fatale, Book 4
  • Fatale, Book 5
  • Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 1

Jonathan Hickman

  • The Black Monday Murders, Vol. 1

Joe Hill

  • Locke & Key, Vol. 4
  • Locke & Key, Vol. 5
  • Locke & Key, Vol. 6

Zack Kaplan

  • Eclipse, Vol. 1

A.J. Lieberman

  • Harvest

Jeff Lemire

  • Descender, Vol. 1
  • Descender, Vol. 2
  • Descender, Vol. 3

Michael Moreci

  • Roche Limit, Vol. 1
  • Roche Limit, Vol. 2

Rick Remender

  • Black Science, Vol. 1
  • Low, Vol. 1
  • Low, Vol. 2
  • Low, Vol. 3

Scott Snyder

  • Wytches

Charles Soule

  • Letter 44, Vol. 1

Michael J. Straczynski

  • Midnight Nation

Brian K. Vaughan

  • Paper Girls, Vol. 2
  • Saga, Vol. 4

Joshua Williamson

  • Nailbiter, Vol. 1

          *includes only trades that I read during this period

Dathan Auberach

  • Penpal

William Peter Blatty

  • Legion

Michael Crichton

  • Sphere

Michael Connelly

  • The Concrete Blonde

James S.A. Corey

  • Caliban’s War

Sara Gran

  • Come Closer

Joe Hill

  • Horns

Michael Koryta

  • The Ridge

David Wong

  • John Dies at the End

Currently Reading:
Ania Ahlborn

  • The Pretty Ones

Isaac Asimov

  • Foundation

Michael Phillip Cash

  • Stillwell

Blake Crouch

  • Pines

Nick Cutter

  • Little Heaven

Lily Brooks-Dalton

  • Good Morning, Midnight

Arthur C. Clarke

  • Childhood’s End

Lev Grossman

  • The Magicians

Joe Hill

  • 20th Century Ghosts

Stephen King

  • 11/22/63

Scott B. Smith

  • The Ruins

Ian Whates

  • Solaris Rising 2

          If for some reason you take pleasure in long lists of what I am reading (like this one), you can follow me at goodreads and keep tabs on my reading progress. Not sure the benefit there, but hey, transparency.

Don’t just trust me

          What do I know? Hell, you don’t know me. I could be a gigantic liar. So now that everything I’ve written is called into question, let’s throw some quotes at you from people you might trust (if I’m not making them up).

“If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source.”
– Natalie Goldberg 1

          Over the years, I have read many books on storytelling and writing. Many are forgettable, others like Natalie Goldberg’s (quoted above), not so much, but I take all with the proverbial grain of salt. Yet of all the books I’ve read regarding the craft of writing, Stephen King’s On Writing is my most cherished. King, as always, doesn’t mince words or attempt to fancy up the process to sound more profound. He tells it simple and straight. The book has a few basic sections, CV (his personal journey as a writer), The Toolbox, On Writing, and On Living: A Postscript. In that third portion (On Writing) King delves into the importance of reading to a writer, and every time I glance through those pages I imagine the title Read, Damn You! sitting above the text instead of the simple – 1 – that actually acts as the header. The quotes that follow are taken from that portion of his book and are some of my favorites among many.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
– Stephen King 2

          And although King mentions that his reading is done for pleasure, not specifically learning, and entails an incredible 70-80 books a year, he admits that even when reading for the fun of it, we are learning.

“[T]here is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”
– Stephen King 2

          Beyond that, he makes a strong point about the encouragement we can feel from reading a bad book.

“What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff? One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose – one [bad] novel… is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.”
– Stephen King 3

          And to my earlier point regarding the importance of quality reading, he has this to say:

“Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling… Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened in fact – is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
– Stephen King 3

          I could spend a whole blog quoting just this one section from King’s book, but that seems vastly inappropriate, so I’m going to leave it at this overabundance of quotes and just encourage you to pick up the book yourself (Look, you can find it here). It’s worth the time.

          My apparent love affair with King aside, he is not the sole voice on the importance of reading to the writer. A quick Google search will turn up a plethora of quotations.

“Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out.”
– William Faulkner, interviewed by Lavon Rascoe for The Western Review, Summer 1951
Found in Writers on Reading: 12 Quotations on Learning to Write by Reading

“Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.”
-Neil Gaiman
Quoted in Donalyn’s Miller’s Reading in the Wild
Found in Buzzfeed’s 17 Writers on The Importance of Reading

          Or check out yet another blog on the importance of reading to the writer. Try this one:
Sneak Peek at “10 Core Practices for Better Writing” – Read More and Write Better by Melissa Donovan on WritingForward.com.

Wrapping her up

          Still don’t take my word for it? That’s probably wise. Don’t. Make your own call. But if you do believe me, then just read already. I have some short stories you can start on. Try my free reads if you’re desperate for some material, but no matter what, if you’re a writer and you want to excel, then read. Read anything. Read everything. Read as much as possible. No ifs, ands, or buts.


          Happy Writing (and Reading) All!

1Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p54.
2King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p145.
3King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p146.

Back to 7 Lessons Learned

Fall Down. Get up.

© Flynt | Dreamstime.com – Falling down the stairs

By Chris Hutton

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

          At some point everyone stumbles, everyone falls. The key to success, at least so I’ve heard and believe (though admittedly using anecdotal, and therefore questionable, evidence) is not who doesn’t fall, but who stays down and who stands back up.

          Recently I disappeared from my blog for over 3 months. This was a huge misstep. My writing trickled from a steady 3-4 times a week to nearly non-existent. I had my reasons. We all have our reasons. I went on vacation, got back with a flu that evolved to strep throat that evolved to a sinus infection that devolved to a flu that ended in an ER visit. Suffice to say, I had a fun few months (and way too many visits to the doctor).

          The point is that I fell. Now I am standing back up. That is what has to be done if you want to write. You will lapse… you will slip, but hopefully you will also get back to that keyboard and jump back to your writing.

          This falling and getting back up is all about the long game.

          When I came to Los Angeles for school (yes, I am a former film student) one of the first bits of advice that I was offered, beyond always take Fountain, was to give yourself ten years. Each overnight success in this town could easily take ten years.

          Mind, that’s not ten years of sitting on your ass hoping to make it, or piddling at your craft but never putting in the big effort, but ten grueling years of working your ass off, making connections, and honing your craft whether you are in the mood to do so or not. I don’t know if the theory is solid (there may be better paths), but there is some grain of truth to it. Time and again I have witnessed people arrive here with huge aspirations only to leave after a few years and move on. For some they realized that they had different dreams. Some became jaded with the industry, others realized they didn’t love it or it wasn’t for them. Some loved it but relocated and continued the fight from a new home base.

          But everyone that I know that succeeded, they fought for it. Whether they stayed in LA or fought the good fight from afar they kept writing, kept competing, meeting, networking, and above all working until they reached their aspirations.

          In my time here I have fallen. I’ve landed in jobs that didn’t leave time or energy to write – jobs where I worked 60, 70, 80 hours or more a week; jobs where I returned home to eat, sleep, rinse, and repeat. My life has changed and rerouted down many new paths.

          Yet after every adjustment, I have pushed myself back to the keyboard. My ten year mark approaches and I refuse to give up. Rather than take each misstep as a failure I stand up and learn from them, hoping to carve some modicum of success from those stumbles.

          Some of those deviations led to numerous connections within entertainment, helping me to build a network. Others introduced me to project management, entertainment marketing, web and print promotion, and social media management. Now my skill sets here vary, but strengthening each of these areas, focusing on what I have learned rather than dwelling on perceived failures, has allowed me to keep looking ahead with a positive light. I work with my connections and apply my knowledge of marketing to move forward with a stronger plan, one that has hope of getting my writing out there and in the hands of the most important people in the process of storytelling – the audience.

          Even with this most recent fall, I learned. I learned the value of a backlog and am now hard at work generating that glut of content before pushing forward, so that the next time unforeseen illness strikes everything doesn’t come crashing to a halt.

          My point here boils down to this: everyone stumbles, but we can learn from our failures, and if we stand back up rather than dwelling on our mistakes, then and only then does anyone have a chance of succeeding. So while I took a misstep and allowed my blog to lapse, I am now picking myself up and moving forward with hope.

          Thanks, and Happy Writing!

Be Lenient

© Alexander Raths | Dreamstime.com – Vintage typewriter

By Chris Hutton

          You have a right to fail. Dwell on that for a minute. Sometimes as writers we forget that we will fail and that failure is okay. It is just one stop on a very long road.

          Now by failure I don’t mean that all writers are destined to the status of eternal starving artist, but that all writers will hit stumbling blocks. We will miss a deadline, lapse in our writing, or just write something plain awful.

          Expect this failure. Accept it, and take solace in knowing that you can find successes after the fall. If you expect perfection that’s just a sure way to never finish anything. Admittedly this is a superlative statement and thus somewhat questionable, but the essence boils down rather simply. Seeking perfection we will dwell too much on every detail and in so doing impede our momentum and our ability to move forward with a larger whole. The strain of that task shall become too great to bear.

          Take one of my favorite examples. In Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he discusses writing his first novel, Carrie. At the time he started the novel he had been aiming to write a short story for submission into a men’s magazine. Very early on he decided to abandon the story altogether. It didn’t move him, he didn’t like the lead, he wasn’t writing what he knew, and he knew the story would be too long to be accepted for submission. In one sense you could say he had failed in his goal. He’d gone over the word count and found himself disliking the story that he was telling. That being the case, he literally threw the pages away. If his wife had not discovered the manuscript in the trash and encouraged him to finish it, if he had accepted it as a failure and left it behind, his first novel as we know it never would have come to be.1

          Looking at my own writing, when I push through the first draft of a story I can dwell on crafting the perfect sentence or I can push forward with the larger story. If I focus sentence by sentence I may have a few well-crafted lines at the end of the day, but my story will have barely progressed. This approach kills my momentum and I am likely to never reach the end of the story, the slow-pacing of focusing on the minutia dragging beyond the limit of my inspiration. If, however, I allow for imperfection, then I can push through that initial draft of the story, mapping out the overall movements, and fine-tuning sentences and editing in subsequent drafts. The short stories featured on my web site for instance are first draft stories. I push straight through not allowing myself the benefit of a second draft. I do this to meet the time constraints of weekly postings, but also to force myself to complete the stories rather than to hold on to them and fine-tune them over the course of years (which I would do without the promise of an imminent audience).

          Even if you do strive for perfection in a rewrite, you can once again find yourself stuck never finishing the rewrite process. There will always be more that you can do to perfect a story, but at some point you just have to call it finished.

          Again looking at King’s On Writing, he describes his own rewrite process and his limit on drafts, holding himself to a strict two drafts and a polish. Conversely, as King also mentions, Kurt Vonnegut rewrote every page of his novels until he had them perfected, sometimes only covering 1-2 pages a day.2 To each their own. No rule is universally applicable.

          In my own work, I first started my teleplay for Dream Walker in the fall of 2006. I continued tweaking that script through 2012. To this day, however, I could still return to that script, but factoring for diminishing returns at some point you have to move on.

          Natalie Goldberg described the art of writing as practice in her book, Writing Down the Bones. Here she detailed the story of how her writing students could set too high of expectations for themselves, deciding to “write the great American novel,” and not writing “a line since.”3 As she describes, setting that expectation of perfection, of greatness, writing becomes a “great disappointment,” and furthermore “that expectation would also keep you from writing”.4 If we refuse to bend, to accept our own failures, then every act of creation becomes too burdensome and impossibly Herculean.

          So next time you find yourself daunted by the prospect of perfection and your inevitable failure, remind yourself in the words of Natalie Goldberg “I am free to write the worst junk in the world”.5 It is extremely freeing, and you just might actually get something finished.

          Happy Writing, All!

1Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p76-77.
2Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p209.
3Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p11.
4Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p11.
5Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p11.

7 Lessons Learned

© Freerlaw | Dreamstime.com – Check list


By Chris Hutton


My multi-month absence now draws to a close. As mentioned last week, I am officially back.

You may have noticed that I have been transitioning into my usual activity for a while now. In mid-April my social channels returned with 1-2 posts a day across Facebook and Twitter regarding recent news in science-fiction and horror. The first week of May, my social channels resumed their usual speed, with a mix of science, sci-fi, and horror news, along with media recommendations on Tuesdays, comic releases on Wednesdays, sci-fi and horror movie releases on Fridays, a mix of additional topics, and the return of my Instagram account. The second week of May (last week), I announced that my blog was returning, and now as we enter the third week of May I present this, my first new blog on writing for 2017. Next week, I resume posting short fiction.

This staggered approach has been intentional. While I was away and my absence from this forum plagued me (which it did daily), I pondered the causes of my long absence and how to best resume without making it a Herculean task. This contemplation led me to the subsequent conclusions – the few lessons of my absence, which I would like to share. Each lesson is listed in brief here, but there is likely much more to be said. Rather than make this an incomprehensibly long post, I will give the Cliffs Notes today and share the longer version of each in the weeks ahead.


1) Be lenient.

You have a right to fail. And you will. Expecting perfection is a sure way to never finish anything.


2) Fall down. Get back up.

We all fall, but standing back up is key. Don’t just move on, but also learn from your mistakes to move forward all the stronger for each misstep.


3) Want to write? Read!

Novels. Comics. Scripts. Know your medium. and not just the rules, but what you like, and what you don’t like. Consume as much as possible.


4) Be consistent.

Set a plan and follow it. Marketing plans are a must. Consistency from week to week helps establish your brand. In doing this, however, be sure to provide your readers with expectations that you can meet. Otherwise stumbling is likely.


5) Have a plan, but not ironclad.

As mentioned plans are a must, from marketing to story outlines. At the same time, malleability is key. An ironclad plan is one more route to failure. It will break you, whereas a little flexibility allows you to bend and move forward without snapping.


6) Create a backlog.

Don’t want to stumble? Stop rushing to post when you’re not ready. If you have plenty to say, then you might as well write as much of it down now and generate a glut of content before moving forward. See my staggered approach in the opening of this entry. That staggering was intentional. It allowed me to generate a backlog while easing back to full speed. And by the way, backlog everything.

  • Social Media Posts
  • Blogs Entries
  • Short stories

Any content that can be pre-planned, do it. This post is a prime example. I drafted it on April 22nd.


7) Strike while the iron is hot.

You have an idea? Write it down. You’ve started that story. Finish it, now. The longer you wait to act, the less likely that idea or story will every be realized. I generated the plan for phasing back my writing presence on April 12th while getting ready in the morning. I immediately jotted down these seven notes before progressing with the day and had temped in April’s social media by the 14th, and begun in-depth social media for May and June by the 16th. Had I not done that, I doubt this post would be here or that my blog would be live again.


I can’t say how much anyone else will learn from this, but these lessons really are vital to me and my ability to successfully maintain a blog or any form of public, open writing. If you’re looking for tips to help with your writing endeavor, whatever it may be, I hope that you find these useful.

Either way, Happy Writing, All!

Before Page One: The World Of Your Story

© Elena Schweitzer | Dreamstime.com – Desert

By Chris Hutton

          Two weeks ago, when discussing the blank page, I touched upon how I move from inspiration to detailing out an idea. This was in a brief segment, which you can find replicated below.

Beginning the Outline

          Let’s say you have an idea. It’s great. It’s an amazing idea. Now you want to write it. How does it begin? How does it end? Who is the main character? Where is it set? What is it about? What’s the plot? The themes? How do all of these elements tie together? How do you sequence this out to tell your story? That’s a lot of work to start. As long as the page is blank, the outline hasn’t begun and once again it becomes easy to say, ‘You know what, it’s late. It’s 12:30 am and I really need to get some sleep. I’ll start this outline when I wake up.” After finishing my work day on October 27th, (a few hours before this very moment mid writing this post), that seemed like a valid excuse. I could have ended it there and put this off until tomorrow. Instead, I sucked it up and drafted out the basic ideas of what I wanted to express. Why? Because once I start typing, the blank page is gone and I can move forward. As long as I mull it over and keep it blank, it is so very easy to stop before starting.

Detailing This Out

          This week, I’d like to expand upon what I only briefly discussed prior. First, the segment above really hints at two processes – 1) drafting the world of your story and 2) outlining. We’ll be focusing today on that first process. Before I start writing any of my longer works of fiction, I try to make sure I have a basic understanding of the story that I am planning. This isn’t outline detail, but its key aspects of the story that help ground me before I write. I’ll step through each portion of the process that I hinted at last week in the featured segment.

1) The Beginning & The End

          Usually, when I’m writing, I start with these two elements firmly in place. Even in my short work, these are the cornerstone upon which I build everything else. Typically for me, my work comes largely from dreams, everyday events, or what if scenarios upon which I’ve deliberated and each of these sources typically provides me a beginning point. For Last Call, for example, I came up with the idea, logically enough, after I woke up with a hangover. I realized immediately that’s where that week’s story had to begin – in the thick of an early morning hangover. Then came the deliberation. How did the story end? I paced. I ate and sipped some water and did what I needed to do to mitigate the worst effects of my previous night’s excesses. Then, at last, the image came to me: the thing responsible for the horror of that story birthed itself as I contemplated my pounding headache. I won’t say more than that about the end – as I hate spoilers – but with those two points locked, I knew the trajectory of my story and the real work could begin.

2) Note Taking

          Now comes the data dump. I jot everything down: every thought I have on the story, any lines of dialogue rattling around in my head, and scenes that I want to play out, etc. I write down anything and everything related to that story that is even remotely being considered. This usually provides hints at what is to come. The first inklings of my characters, my setting, my themes, all bubble up in this process. Of course at this stage, they are a jumbled mess, a mass of word vomit, and still need to be sorted out. The ideas need to be rewritten in a structure that makes sense.

3) Logline

          If I have drafted out enough details, I should be able to pump out a 1-2 sentence logline around which I will base the remainder of my work. This may get altered later, after I actually write the story, but having this up front gives me a guide to help craft everything that follows. Still, loglines are an art in and of themselves. Back in 2015 I entered numerous screenwriting contests, seeking exposure for my current scripts. During that process my werewolf pilot, The Cage, took honorable mention in the appropriately named Screenplay Festival. After that placement I received some advice on crafting loglines, which I have been using ever since. It boiled down to covering the following elements:

  • Hero
  • Hero’s Flaw
  • Opponent
  • Ally
  • Life-Changing Event
  • Hero’s Battle

          Now every time I’m crafting loglines, I keep this in mind. It allows me to ground the story in my protagonist, the prevailing forces helping and hindering that protagonist, his or her character flaw that needs to be overcome (seeking to move beyond just plot points, but focusing on three-dimensional characters), the event that sets everything in motion, and the battle that the protagonist must fight (which is usually more than just a plot, but something core to that character). Here’s an example from The Cage with the elements above highlighted:

The Cage – One Hour Drama – Supernatural

          A struggling father (hero) riddled with self-doubt (flaw) crosses paths with a local sheriff (ally) as a pack of werewolves(opponent) wreak havoc (life-changing event) in a small Minnesota town and is forced to find strength and faith within himself if he is going to survive for his family (battle).

          It’s not a perfect logline, and I’m always adjusting, but it’s a good model for capturing all of those details in a succinct way. Of course, rigidity to any writing advice can be detrimental, so I allow for wiggle room if a logline flows better without strict adherence to these steps. An example of a more loose logline can be seen with Last Call.

Last Call – Short Story – Horror

          Teagan (hero), a foul-mouthed, rock enthusiast (flaw – not really), and her boyfriend (ally) find themselves hungover, struggling to remember the night before, and unable to reach their friends (life-changing event). But as flashes of the previous evening bubble to the surface, Teagan begins to suspect that something may be very, very wrong.

          As you can see, I am missing the opponent and the battle on this one, which I have eschewed in favor of a little mystery that hints at the danger. For this story that seemed a better path, avoiding spoilers. I also provided a character trait more than a flaw for the main character. These traits define her perspective in the story, but I don’t find them to be an inherent issue needing to be overcome. Were this for a novel or longer work of fiction, I likely would have set out establishing a longer character arc in my notes and thus called out a flaw in the logline. As is, I feel it does its job.

3) Setting

          This step, and steps 4, 5, and 6, are highly integrated for me, usually being developed simultaneously. It is key to me that the setting reflects the same themes that play into the protagonist’s emotional arc and that it fits within the tone & style (typically determined by theme). So as I draft out setting, I contemplate a place that emotionally resonates with a theme, which is critical to the protagonist’s journey, and matches the tone being established.

          For this, let’s look to a previous pilot that I drafted – Forgotten. In this script my lead is a former detective with retrograde amnesia (Character). I’m exploring perspective, how our memory shapes our perspective and defines us, and how those things that have been forgotten impact our lives and alter that perception (Themes). I knew that I wanted high contrast with extreme brights and darks and a scorched feel steeped in grit, tension, and mystery, and all grounded in a realistic world with some light comedy (Tone & Style). Setting wise, the tone & style told me I needed to be in the desert, with a past set in large city (playing on extreme contrasts and the scorched and gritty elements). Furthermore, thematically I needed to deal with the idea of the forgotten, and thus chose to set the story around Salton Sea, in a town once planned to be the next big resort city, but whose path shifted as the salinity rose causing mass die-offs and leaving much of the development a ghost town. For a big city, the logical leap to match geographically with Salton Sea was Los Angeles. This duality of the Salton Sea and Los Angeles, of the desert and the big city, of a city that became forgotten and a protagonist suffering from amnesia, all provided for me the resonance I find critical in setting a story.

4) Themes

          For this element I look for items that resonate with my notes around the lead characters. What journey am I exploring? What emotional arcs do I wish to follow with each? What is the age group of my characters? Matching with this, I look at tone & style. Is this a light-hearted show? If so that is going to impact the style of themes I explore. Is a dark story aimed at mature readers? If so, again my themes will shift. We’ll stick with Forgotten to help see this out, as steps 3-6 are heavily integrated as I mentioned.

          In Forgotten I knew that my lead character had retrograde amnesia. This idea was central to the whole concept of the show. I also knew that I wanted a gritty tone with extreme contrasts and that I would be setting the story between Los Angeles and the Salton Sea. With these elements in mind it was easy for me to work out the necessary themes. This was a series about the forgotten (the title came later). I knew that I would be looking at cultures, histories, and people that have been left behind. The show needed to tell the stories of cities that have been forgotten, memories that have been lost, and mysteries that went unsolved. It would be about the world that we choose not to see, a seedy underbelly hidden in the middle of nowhere, and it would play with our sense of perception. Can the past be trusted, or even our memories? The viewer would be forced to question the perspective with which they are presented to weed out truth from biased viewpoints and in so doing the story could explore themes of the forgotten and hidden, the gaps of our own memories and how our perception of a past partially forgotten shapes our culture and our individual selves.

5) Tone & Style

          This element often pulls most strongly from the characters I have chosen to explore, though I perform a balancing act to make sure it matches as well with the themes and setting. Are my characters young or are they mature adults? This could make the difference between a light coming of age angle, or a dark and seedy tone. What about themes? What do I have in mind? If this is a TV series that could impact the network upon which I can air the show, which itself has some mandates on tone & style. If this is a book or a short story, what genre am I exploring. Much like a network that can have its own ramifications on tone. So now, back to Forgotten.

          My lead was a former detective with amnesia, so I already knew that this was a show that could deal with crime, murder, and mystery. The amnesia element had already helped me form ideas around exploring themes of the forgotten and memory and how this defines our perception of the world. Those themes meant I wanted a slower, thoughtful take on the story, and with the crime element, I knew I could take this dark. This made me think to aim for a FX-like cable network, or, with some loosening of the grit, shaping it for a USA style network. At the same time, if the idea of the forgotten was so central, than genre here became key. It needed to reflect on this concept of people, towns, and cultures that had been forgotten, which made me think to explore both the western and film noir. Now with my character age under consideration, a knowledge of my networks and genres, and a decent grasp on the slow and darker tones of my themes, I decided on a high contrast style of lights and darks (noir) with a scorched look (Western) and a tone steeped in grit (Western/FX), tension, and mystery (Detective show), all grounded in a realistic approach to the world with untrustworthy perspectives (themes) and some light comedy (USA network).

6) Central Characters

          Admittedly by this point so many ideas around my protagonist have been feeding into my themes, my tone, and my setting, that character has really become this ever evolving concept, birthing new ideas, then reabsorbing those ideas to shift and establish new takes on overall characters, which itself is now feeding back into those same three elements, until I have revisited this section over and over again. This is why it is the last of my four highly interconnected world-building elements. Until the previous three have taken final form, I can’t fully flesh this one out. Once that’s done, however, the dominoes usually fall into place pretty quickly.

          With Forgotten I always knew my protagonist was a former detective. But by the time I finalized steps 3-4, I also knew it was a show about contrasts. So my lead needed to fall. He needed to be on parole, which meant I had to have a parole officer. She quickly became my co-lead. I wanted to explore the Western, I wanted to examine other cultures, and I deeply value diversity in my stories, so I chose for the female lead and many of the characters to be Native American. Also due to the parole, I had to find a new job for my lead, which meant exploring his new town and peppering in local characters that helped define that setting and with the noir aspects to the story politics had to be involved. From these two strains, I evolved the co-lead’s brother, a shady politician and part of her own dark past, and the protagonist’s boss, an optimistic small town mayor firmly believing in second chances (for his town and for our lead). Crime would feature heavily, so I also needed a local sheriff. As a noir and a show about memory, this series had to delve into our lead’s past, which meant populating the Los Angeles portion of his life. As a detective he needed a partner that acted as his foil, other officers at the station, and a grounding figure, his fiance, who is no longer in the picture in the present, leaving him unmoored. We also needed a bridge character, someone tied both to past and present, someone to aid our protagonist but also be in constant friction with him. This birthed his ex-brother-in-law, who became a third lead, and established a central love-hate bromance into the series concept.

7) Plot/Story

          After I have laid out all of these concepts, I develop the story. How am I going to get from that beginning to that end grounded in this setting, exploring these themes, maintaining this tone, and building that progression from a place of character with the cast that I have created? Bear in mind this is not an outline, but broad strokes direction of the story. If it is a TV series I’m likely looking at some major act outs for the pilot, then logline level descriptions for the first six to ten episodes, along with end points for the first few seasons and the series. If this is a short story, I bare bones it with major elements that the characters are going to hit. Finally if I’m working on a novel, then I think about chapters. Here I look at which characters are point of view characters and determine a balance of pacing out chapters between each character. From there I think of each character’s arc, it’s beginning, it’s end, along with a few major beats along the way. Typically with a novel, I like to start with an idea of ten character beats, each defining a chapter for that character (more if my cast is smaller). Based on this information I draft out one to three paragraphs summarizing the story.

8) Finalizing

          Now, if I have been constructing this all in one document, I have a mini-bible for my story, or a pitch one to three page pitch document for a series. I make sure it is clearly articulated by section, I proof it thoroughly, I sit on it for a few nights, then I go back and re-examine it. Over the course of those few nights or a week, I can sculpt this down to its core, make sure all elements are aligned and proofed, and come up with a reasonable document that is the foundation for every element of the story moving forward.

That’s a Wrap

          And, well, that’s my world-building process. This is how I go from the inkling of an idea to the basis of my stories. But as mentioned its not an outline. So, before I put word to actual story page, I still have to hit the outlining process. That, however, is a post for another day.

          Hopefully this can prove helpful to any of you out there looking for tips on how to sculpt your ideas and mold them into something more concrete. That being said, I would reiterate that holding to any advice rigidly is a recipe for disaster. This is just one approach, one that is the basis for my work, but one to which even I won’t adhere every time. You have to be malleable, but you also have to have a framework from which to deviate. In the words of Pablo Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

          Anyway, Happy Writing All!

Blank Page Syndrome

© Tomert | Dreamstime.com – Open blank notebook over wooden table. ready for mockup. retro filtered image

By Chris Hutton

          Almost every writer that I know dreads it. It may be the most daunting thing with which a writer ever has to grapple – at least when it comes to the work of writing. It taunts you; it challenges you; it just plain gets under your skin.

          I absolutely loathe the blank page.

          Sure, it is rife with possibilities, a clean canvas upon which to paint your story, a journey yet to be begun, or some other green grass metaphor, but it is also a trap. It is the source of every so-called “writer’s block” that I’ve ever experienced. Now as to the actuality of “writer’s block,” perhaps that’s another story, as there are ways to push through. Then again, perhaps it is entwined with this one. Maybe you’ll see what I mean momentarily.

          When I think about the blank page, it is not simply the empty word document or the literal blank pages of a writer’s notebook that come to mind, no matter my choice of illustration above. The blank page is the starting point. It is the beginning of something new, whether it is time to dig for new ideas, the moment you sit down to outline a story, the first moments before drafting those opening words, or even the return from a narrative break.

          It’s also an excuse. When I’m at a beginning, I might as well be at a stopping point. The two feel as one and the same. Let me explain.

          I’ll start with the first example:

Searching for New Ideas

          As discussed last week, searching for inspiration for that next story can be a difficult task. Yes, it is the beginning of the story, but it can just as easily be the end. Tell me, which is easier: 1) to push through all the techniques that I mentioned in the Searching for Inspiration post, or 2) to say, ‘You know what, I’m not inspired, today,’ then take a seat on the couch and watch some TV. When I’m tired I guarantee you that option B is the easier route, and I work a full-time job, have a two-year-old daughter, am writing new story material, and am managing my online presence completely on my own. I guarantee you that I am tired a lot. Hell, I didn’t come up with the idea for this blog until October 27th, while trying to justify why it would be okay to skip one day. Guess what?

          It wasn’t okay.

Beginning the Outline

          Let’s say you have an idea. It’s great. It’s an amazing idea. Now you want to write it. How does it begin? How does it end? Who is the main character? Where is it set? What is it about? What’s the plot? The themes? How do all of these elements tie together? How do you sequence this out to tell your story? That’s a lot of work to start. As long as the page is blank, the outline hasn’t begun and once again it becomes easy to say, ‘You know what, it’s late. It’s 12:30 am and I really need to get some sleep. I’ll start this outline when I wake up.” After finishing my work day on October 27th, (a few hours before this very moment mid writing this post), that seemed like a valid excuse. I could have ended it there and put this off until tomorrow. Instead, I sucked it up and drafted out the basic ideas of what I wanted to express. Why? Because once I start typing, the blank page is gone and I can move forward. As long as I mull it over and keep it blank, it is so very easy to stop before starting.

Starting the Story

          Okay, you’ve nailed the idea, the outline is down pat, and now it’s time to start writing (which technically you’ve already started even if you don’t realize it). So how do you get going? That opening line seems too cliché. It is always a dark and stormy night, right? You need something original. Did you just begin your story with the word ‘it?’ That’s a no-no. Is that opening paragraph too long? It’s too short. It’s too dry. Too clipped. No sentence fragments.

          As you start your story there is an immense amount of pressure. In screenwriting the purported rule is that you have ten pages tops to catch your reader, probably less. In prose, the literature always speaks about the great opening lines, and how the writer captures the reader from the first sentence. Likely this source quoted A Tale of Two Cities. In either scenario, the alleged experts have laid down the gauntlet and its tough to accept that challenge. Moving back to this post, as 1 am rolled by, and I fixed my OS on my computer and could finally start putting words to Word document, I reminded myself that I’m sick, and that a good night’s rest was in order. I still agree with that, but I post every Friday. This post had to get done. So I pushed all thoughts of perfection out the window, and I set down to type.

Returning from a Narrative Break

          Finally that story is underway, but then you reached a logical stopping point. You wrapped up your current narrative arc, saved the file, and shut down. When you come back, that page doesn’t look blank, but it is. You stopped before starting the next train of thought, and now you might as well be at a new beginning all over again. The best example I can give of this is when writing a novel. You finish a chapter and you close out. The next day when you return to write, you’re staring at the words ‘Chapter 2,’ but there is nothing yet written beneath that headline. You are once again at the blank page. For once, I have no scenario from this posting to provide. I’ve been pushing through as fast as I can, so no stopping point has presented itself, but I guarantee that had it presented itself, I would once again have found myself having to push forward.

Advice for Pushing Beyond the Blank Page

          And that’s all well and good, but how do you push forward when you’re on that blank page? Obviously saying that you’re going to do it is much easier than working up the nerve and plowing forward.

          In the end, I think it comes to will and desire. If you really want to write that story (blog, poem, etc.), you find the willpower and you push forward. But again, a few pointers can’t hurt. So here’s my advice, for whatever it may be worth.

Searching for New Ideas

          Be observant. Rifle through your everyday and your personal experience for ideas. Keep a dream journal, especially if you already have vivid dreams. List out what if scenarios off the top of your head and see what pops. Think about your favorite story types and what unique spin you might be able to offer on each. Try stream of consciousness writing. Whatever ideas you don’t use for that particular story, jot into an idea list for later use when confronted with an inspiration block, i.e., the blank page on ideation. See my longer blog post for more details on the above methods.

Beginning the Outline

          If the story hasn’t come to me with a narrative arc already set in stone, then I turn to drafting a bible (especially for longer works). In that bible I focus on these elements:

  • Basic Premise / Logline
  • Setting
  • Tone & Style
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Story Arc

          As I explore each in drafting the bible, the outline begins to shape itself. Looking at the premise I consider what setting might be a reflection of that premise or a natural corollary for that story. For instance, a story about a man with a forgotten past sets very well in a town that has itself been forgotten. With setting and premise locked, I think about what tone I want to use. If it is a series about a bunch of teenagers, do I want to aim for a CW style tone? If it’s a horror story of something beyond our imagining could I be looking for something more arcane and intellectual, something in which the prose itself is doused in insanity (a sort of Lovecraftian approach)? Once I lock those three aspects, themes often emerge naturally. Dreams manifesting in a town that is dying with a teenage cast and a CW tone? Maybe I’m looking at the difference between our dreams and our reality. I’m telling a coming of age story that compares the ideal world we hope to live in, and the reality or nightmare we face upon stumbling into adulthood. By the time I’ve moved this far into my process, my main cast has already begun to shape itself, I have an idea of where the story begins and ends, and then I can outline by determining major beats that I want to hit along the way.

Starting the Story

          Here I think one just has to let the idea of perfection go. It’s very easy to avoid writing caught in the impression that every line has to be perfect, especially those opening lines. They don’t. Writing is rewriting. Don’t trust me? Check out Jack Epps, Jr.’s book Screenwriting is Rewriting. He makes a valid case and offers up more suggestions for the process than I can here in the limits of this blog.

          The point that I hope you take from this advice, however, is not that you need to go read this book in order to write, but that it’s understood that your first draft is not going to be perfect. It will need to be rewritten, then rewritten again, then polished. Case in point, I’m currently rereading and editing this post at 2:30 in the morning. This is why writers need editors. So don’t get hung up on perfecting that first line right out of the gate – not at the expense of writing at all. Look back to your outline, push through those first couple of paragraphs, and get your momentum going. Once you do, once you have that forward drive, you can always go back and revise. Just don’t go back too soon. It’s good to seize that momentum while you have it.

Returning from a Narrative Break

          With this one, you could easily follow the same advice I applied to Starting the Story – just not getting hung up in perfection and reminding yourself that you can rewrite. That being said, there is an easier method. Don’t stop at a logical narrative break. Coming up with ideas, outlining, and starting your story are three steps that have an absolute blank page. At these natural breaks a writer will always have the temptation of avoiding the work and making excuses. But a narrative break, whether it is a chapter break or a scene break or whatever it may be, can be avoided. If you have your momentum going and you reach the conclusion of some narrative structural unit, then keep going into the next section. Ride that momentum through your next story beats. Don’t go far, but write just far enough that a new scenario has presented itself – that the next arc of your story has begun. Now when you return the next day to continue your story, you don’t have to face that blank page. You already have a few paragraphs or even just the first few sentences started. That can easily be enough to move you past the fear of the blank page, past the tendency to put off to another day, and on to writing.

Time to Draw This to a Close

          So yeah. That’s my basic advice. We are all faced with blank pages at the start of any new project, and at the logical structural breaks between the phases of that project. Each of those breaks is a blank page – one that taunts you and whispers in your ear that it’s okay to go off and get some sleep, or watch some TV, or do anything but move forward. You can’t listen to that voice. You have to be determined, and you have to seize on any method you can to move on and get writing, painting, composing – whatever your art may be.

          Though if I have any more advice to give, its just this. Work on your project every day. Even if only a little. As it applies to writing, write every day. At least jot down ideas. Outline. Rewrite. Do something. Keep yourself moving forward and avoid the negative writer brain telling you its not good enough. Don’t stop and give up, which most of us have wanted to do many times. Finish your story. If you do that, you’re already doing better than so many of us that get started, but don’t’ see the story through to its conclusion. Eventually, we too often succumb to that blank page and leave our work unfinished and unstarted.

          Don’t be that writer. Don’t let the blank page stop you, and don’t give in to excuses.

          On a side note, if you’re in a relationship, following any of the rambling excuse for advice given above is much easier to do if you have an understanding significant other. Thank you, Nicole. I realize it is 2 am right now (now 2:40 am after proofing) and I’m going to be very cranky in the morning and probably still sick, but hey… I finished my blog post.

          And that’s a wrap.

          Happy Writing