The latest at Always Be Publishing

If you’re a writer and not checked out my Substack newsletter, Always Be Publishing, you might give it a go. Since I last wrote about it here, I’ve released a few more posts on writing and publishing in the digital age.

Recent topics include

You can find a list of the posts I’ve made so far at the archive. If you’re interested in a free subscription to receive new posts straight to your inbox, here’s where you can start.

“Always Be Publishing” at Substack

I recently started a new site at Substack, a blog platform with email subscription service. I call it Always Be Publishing.

What’s it about? Why did I start another blog? Some answers are in my introductory post:

Always Be Publishing is about the business and practical side of being a self-publishing writer.

Six years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed about offering advice to anyone about self-publishing, other than “You might look into it.” Today, I feel more confident about what I know and what I don’t know. I’ve also learned from the various mistakes I’ve made.

That’s why I started Always Be Publishing. It’s for people interested in the independent publishing revolution, but don’t know where to start, writers already self-publishing and seeking perspectives on how to grow their readership, and people who are looking for encouragement to keep writing and not give up…

You can find a list of the posts I’ve made so far at the archive. If you’re interested in subscribing, here’s where you can start.

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive”

Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert

One bit of writing lore I’ve heard many times, and always attributed to Gustave Flaubert:

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive.”

I’ve written before on my skepticism of writing lore. It often follows a pattern: Some nugget of keen insight for writers to follow closely, attributed to a big-name writer to burnish the saying with a little authority. Certainly this pattern is being followed with the “three senses” quote.

In this case, though, my skepticism is firmly tucked away. This is one bit of writing advice that’s well worth following (and not because Flaubert supposedly said it).

“She had learned from Flaubert”

Let’s start with that “supposedly” qualifier. I’ve been unable to locate a direct quote of Flaubert making the three-senses pronouncement in any variation. All roads in my search lead to an essay by Flannery O’Connor titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.

Already the lore around the three-senses maxim is being chipped away. It’s not make a scene come alive, it’s make an object real. The three senses are described here as “three activated sensuous strokes,” an odd phrasing. It could be construed as indicating the object’s three sensory details do not have to originate from different senses. (For example, an old beat-up table might be described with three different sights: the paint color, the length of its legs, and the shape of its surface.) And notice how the unnamed writer “believes” the three sensuous strokes are connected to the five senses—in other words, she is reading into Flaubert’s maxim rather than paraphrasing it.

If he uttered the maxim, of course. A Google search for Flaubert and the original “three sensuous strokes” phrase always leads back to this passage by O’Connor. As mentioned, searching for Flaubert and other variations of the quote, including the most famous version above, don’t pan out either.

What’s more, O’Connor’s unnamed writer friend “learned from Flaubert” this bit of wisdom. There’s some ambiguity here. It could be read as saying the writer had discovered this technique by studying Flaubert’s work, rather than receiving it directly from him via an interview or essay.

And that’s probably what happened here. The unnamed writer is most likely Caroline Gordon, a Southern novelist and critic who tutored Flannery O’Connor. Gordon’s How to Read a Novel returns repeatedly to Flaubert and his techniques for making a novel come alive, which she calls “Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”:

Flaubert never told you what a flower, for instance, was like. Instead, he tried to give you the illusion, by the use of sensory details, that you could not only look at the flower he was presenting for your admiration but could smell it and feel the texture of its petals.

Caroline Gordon

She continues with effusive admiration for Flaubert’s techniques, particularly his use of narrative distancing: One passage away from his characters to observe their situation, then moving in close for intimate details, and then moving into their interior to plumb feelings and thoughts. Gordon plainly admired Flaubert’s writing. It makes sense she would have passed on the “three sensuous strokes” observation to O’Connor.

In other words, the advice “Use three senses to make a scene come alive” may not have sprung from Flaubert or O’Connor, but Caroline Gordon. What’s more, she was discussing objects and not scenes, although I think the generalization is forgivable.

As much as I believe in the three-senses maxim, this is why writing lore—and lore in general—deserves questioning.

Why it works

Provenance aside, I’ve taken the accepted maxim to heart in my own writing. Unlike other writing lore I’ve come to question, the three-senses maxim has served me well, both in making scenes come alive, and in making objects seem real.

I first heard it over twenty years ago—attributed to Flaubert, naturally—during a writers conference at Foothill College. Those years have given me time to take advantage of this advice and ponder why it works so well. Why three? Why not two, or four, or all five senses?

If a story limits itself to two senses, it will likely focus on sight (the most dominant of the human senses) and sound (because sound—dialogue—is our primary means of communication).

A novel of nothing but sight and sound may be compelling in subject matter, but readers will feel locked out of the book’s world. (“You almost aren’t present.”) Scenes will play out as heads talking to each other. Objects will be nothing but photographs displayed from afar for the reader to observe. A very short story may be able to sustain this, but it takes a special kind of novel to keep this up.

By employing three senses, the dream-vision of the story becomes less boxed-in and more nonlinear (“Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”). The other senses—taste, smell, and touch—have less communicative power, but are evocative to the reader. They’re not as cerebral and more bodily.

Naming a paper bag of popcorn identifies the object. Allowing the reader to smell the yeasty aroma, or taste the melted butter, or feel the heat of the kernels through the paper like small coals: These details inflate a flat object into a tangible thing. Imagine the possibilities of foiling expectations with sensory details: The popcorn smells of cigarettes, for example, or tastes soapy for some reason.

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

This is why I think the three-senses rule works: It almost always forces the writer to break away from sight and sound, which dominate the story’s telling, and activate the other senses. The story evokes an experience rather than catalogs a series of events.

While I don’t think four or five senses in a scene is necessarily too much, doing so consistently will over-inflate the story with picayune details. I’ve tried it on occasion, only to cut much of it later as excess fat weighing down the scene. Three senses seems to be the sweet spot.

Flannery O’Connor saw all these problems when she wrote “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”. After mentioning Gordon’s lesson on Flaubert, she cautions,

Now of course this is something that some people learn only to abuse. This is one reason that strict naturalism is a dead end in fiction. In a strictly naturalistic work the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work. In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement. [Emphasis mine]

Keeping the number to three helps limit the writer to selecting only the most essential details, rather than flooding the reader with a surplus to create a sensory shotgun effect. It’s “the essential that creates movement.”

And, yes, there are exceptions to all of the above I’ve discussed. Fiction writers who seek hard rules to follow militarily will soon discover surprises and disappointments. Familiarity with proven techniques, and knowing when to deviate from them, is what separates art from assembly-line manufacturing.

O’Connor’s caution also reminds that the purpose of sensory detail is to invite the reader into the story rather than have them observe it. Sensory details are not the story itself. They are subordinate to the characters, their motivations, and their decisions. Use three senses to make the characters’ world come alive, but only alive enough.

Crappy cover letters

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott (Zboralski, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Anne Lamott is the author of nearly twenty books and numerous short stories, but she’s best-known among writers of all stripes for her essay “Shitty First Drafts”. Her pitch-perfect rumination on the writing process captures the messiness of penning books, short stories, plays and scripts, all of which start with a shitty first draft:

This is how [writers] end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. … Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.

If I might borrow some of Lamott’s magic, I’d like to a coin a corollary to her term. If the story-writing process starts with a shitty first draft, it ends with a crappy cover letter.

To bust ass to write a great story and then summarize it in a paragraph or two is the tragicomedy of the author’s endeavor. It’s reaching a marathon finish line and having the judges inform you there’s one more mile to go for good measure. As with Lamott’s first drafts, my cover letters are initially shitty, but they are so insubstantial I prefer to view them as merely crappy.

A one-page single-spaced cover letter has to satisfy seemingly a half-dozen tasks at once: Introduce the work, summarize its contents, establish the writer’s bona fides, suggest the writer’s past successes without dwelling upon them, demonstrate the writer is committed to the craft but is someone the editors can work with when revision time rolls around, and most of all, that the work being submitted is perfect for the publisher’s needs and will sell like hotcakes (if that’s their goal; it’s not a given.)

Hence as I’m writing a crappy cover letter to an editor, a voice in the back of my head whines: Can’t you just read my manuscript?

This is my theory why writers generally loathe to tell strangers about their work. (“Oh, you’re a writer? What do you write?”) Standing before someone and explaining a book in twenty seconds is essentially ad libbing a cover letter in audio-book form. When I’m telling a person about my work the same voice in the back of my head whines: Can’t you just read my books?

Whether submitting to a major New York publisher or a twee not-for-profit literary magazine, cover letters don’t merely summarize—the writer has to sell the story in one or two short paragraphs, even if the intention is for no one involved to make a dime. By and large writers are horrible salespeople, hence, crappy cover letters.

(This may be why so many writers love Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s a peek into a bizarre alternate universe no writer would want to inhabit—but damn is the dialogue sharp and the situation taut. Always be closing.)

I recall one published writer whose counsel for success was Write your cover letter first. His bright idea was to make sure your novel can be summarized in a sellable way before writing the novel itself. (Is your cover letter crappy? Write different letters until one is good, and then turn it into a novel.)

I’ve never done this so I can’t advocate for it. Personally, I think it’s kind of crazy. I have to write a novel before I know what I should have written.

I have scant advice to offer a writer confronting the challenge of whipping up a cover letter for their latest story. Know that you’re not the only writer who hates this final mind-numbing step. One option is to limit your cover letter to your credentials and pray the editor reads your story cold. (I’ve done this with short stories to mixed success; I sincerely doubt it would work for a novel.)

Like Lamott’s first drafts, your first stab at a cover letter will read like crap. So, walk your cover letter through a similar process as any short story or novel: Take your time writing it. Put it through several edit passes. Ask your writer friends to critique it. Hell, pass it out at your writing workshop if they’ll allow it. Remember, writing is an iterative process.

And when you think it’s ready to send…let it sit on your computer for a week or two. Trust me, when you return to it fresh later you’ll spot all kinds of problems you missed before.

Revision is where the magic happens

“Yorkshire Sculpture Park” (scrappy annie, CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Recently on Twitter I wrote: “Revision is where the magic happens.”

I’m not trying to be mysterious here. I truly believe revision is where a story is honed, sharpened, and distilled. Revision is where the writer’s vision and passion surface after cutting away the dead weight and dead prose. The act of revision is pruning back a bush and revealing the topiary within. Revision is cutting away the stone block to find the sculpture trapped inside.

My tweet was in response to a question (“What’s your favorite part of the writing process?”) which was followed by a warning (“If you say revising I will have a hard time believing you”).

What can I say. Every stage of writing is difficult. There are no moments of pure pleasure for me. Even calling a manuscript finished and walking away is painful. The satisfaction is in the sum of the parts (akin to “work is its own reward”) as well as pride in the finished work.

One response to the question said something to the effect of “getting paid is the best part of writing.” That’s not part of the writing process, no more than collecting the bill is part of the cooking process in a restaurant. Even if you’re earning enough from writing to keep the lights on, great, but that’s not the writing process.

Make your phone your digital writing notebook

A smart phone and a writing notepad.
r. nial bradshaw (CC BY 2.0)

Last week, I finished my fourth novel. I used my phone throughout the entire writing process: developing, researching, outlining, plotting, and revision, all the way to my final draft. For all purposes, my phone was my writing notebook for this novel.

I didn’t write the novel on my phone. I’ll probably never do that. When I’m writing I want the full typewriter experience, real keys designed for human hands, the tactile sense physical buttons offer, the whole shebang. And I need a screen display that at least approximates the size of manuscript paper, and not one the size of an index card.

But planning and revising a novel on your phone is certainly possible, and my latest book is proof of that.

In the past I’ve relied on paper-and-ink writing notebooks. A writing notebook is a tool I evangelize to anyone who will listen, mostly because I believe it functions as a kind of “inspiration laboratory” for writers. However, towards the end of my previous novel (Hagar’s Mother) I found myself turning to digital note-taking tools during the editing process.

In the final stretch of editing a novel, a torrent of small details begin erupting. The only way to keep the problems and details organized is with a writing notebook of some manner. When the edits are coming hot and heavy I find removing my hands from the keyboard to be a distraction, so I began using a free note-taking software packaged with my MacBook Air, Apple Notes. Rather than reach for a pen and my trusty notebook, I would ⌘+Tab to Notes and add a bullet point to a little checklist I kept. As I kept working, I would periodically consult my checklist and be sure the appropriate changes were made.

Well, Apple Notes is also available on my iPhone. Thanks to the Internet, at all times my writing notes were synchronized between my computer and my phone. That meant I could review my notes while at work, on the bus, even in bed. It also meant I could add more ideas at any time. Later, when I returned to my computer to resume writing, they were there waiting for me.

That’s the hard reality I faced, one I’m certain other writers face as well: While I sometimes leave the house without my writing notebook, I never leave without my phone. These little devices are simply invaluable to us (which is why I encourage writers to keep them in mind when writing their own fiction).

After Hagar’s Mother, I decided to try an experiment and use Notes as my primary writing notebook for my next novel. I told myself if I had the slightest of problems I would bail out and revert back to my old paper-and-ink notebook. It seemed a risk-free experiment.

Well, I finished my novel and I’m here to tell you: I’m sold. Yes, you can plan, write, and revise your next novel using your phone as a notebook. What’s more, you don’t need to spend an extra dime on additional software so long as you’re using a reasonably up-to-date computer and smart phone. The note-taking software already installed is probably good enough, and if it’s not, there are free alternatives available.

Ways of note-taking

Let me get this out of the way: I’m not a shill for Apple. I’m happy with Apple Notes and how cleanly it intersected with my creative process. That doesn’t mean you should use Notes if you don’t own Apple products, or if you want to try something else. (I list some alternatives below.)

Looking back over my notes, I see three “types” of pages I developed, each representing a period of time in the novel-writing process.

The earliest pages are scrapbooks of ideas, thoughts, and research. Random notions fill these pages alongside bits of dialogue, descriptions, even character names. (With my fiction, I try on character names the way I would try on a pair of pants.) For every novel I will read up on related subject matter to ensure I’m getting basic facts and terminology correct. Using my phone’s Share button I could add any page—Wikipedia, a news article, even a word in my phone’s dictionary—to a note. Although the foundations of the book are laid here, much of this primordial stew didn’t wind up in the final draft.

Later in the writing process, the pages start becoming more organized and less free-form. Here I was thinking about scenes I was developing. Dialogue and descriptions on these pages often reached the final draft. I also began roughing out timelines in these pages, primarily to flesh out the backstory of the main character.

The last note pages are highly organized. The novel was gelling; the big ideas are down on the page and I was more concerned about the small details and tightening up the narrative. In this stage, my note pages are mostly checklists of changes to be made. The pages are broken up into sections: Characters, Details, Terminology, Important, and so on. When I made the edit, I would check off the item.

This stage is where I wrote a final character list (to keep track of names and relationships) and lists of terminology and spelling (useful in a novel with imaginary technology). I also built a final master timeline which incorporated the chronology of the novel into the backstory—useful to avoid the problem of a character is talking about an event as happening the day before when it actually occurred two days before.

A few points here. First, notice the pages are structureless because the process is structureless. Even the later page’s organization is more-or-less free-form. The notebook met whatever need I had at the moment. It never imposed a system on me. Some writing software wants to guide you through steps or categories for organizing your work. I’m not sold on that idea. I could use the digital note pages for anything I wanted to preserve for later. Make your writing notebook a tabula rasa.

Likewise, avoid reminder or to-do style software. Yes, I use checklists in my writing notebook, but I also used it for so much more. Task software imposes organization on your creative output. (“Mark this task High, Medium, or Low?”) That’s not what you’re looking for with a writing notebook.

These notes did not happen in concerted bursts. They represent hundreds of points in time, some slivers of seconds used to type out an idea. At any point in the novel’s progress, I was adding notes on the bus, at work (shh), in my easy chair, even at the gym, sweating and madly tapping a thought that came to me on the treadmill. The phone was always there. Losing even a single story idea to the frailty of human memory and our shortening attention spans is a loss.

Before you start

If you’ve read this far, you might be excited to start using your phone for your next big writing project. There are downsides to keep in mind.

First, be aware you’re entrusting your precious creative output with a third-party corporation. Apple (or Google, or Microsoft, or whomever) could, at any time and with no warning, discontinue the software, discontinue their services, or even go out of business. Whatever software you work with, be sure you can export your data, even if it’s nothing more than printing out your notes or saving them as a PDF. You absolutely do not want to wind up in a situation where a corporation has your precious creative output locked up—or has deleted it.

Just as you protect your word processing files, make periodical backups of your notes in case of disaster. Most modern note-taking software has some method of doing this in such a way that the backups can be restored later if necessary.

Do a little research into your software’s data security practices. While you’re at it, make sure you’re using a strong password. No, I’m not worried about another author “stealing” my ideas, but I do worry about unknown persons accessing my notes without my consent. My writing notebook is a creative and freeing place. Part of that freedom rides on an expectation of privacy.


If you’re curious or excited to start using your phone as a writing notebook, your first step is choosing your software. My checklist for baseline features it should include are:

  • It should run on your phone and your writing computer. While you could turn to your phone while typing on your writing computer, I found it invaluable to be able to read and update my notes without leaving the screen. Being able to Alt+Tab to my notes and Alt+Tab back to my word processor was invaluable when the story was flowing and I couldn’t type fast enough.
  • Your notes should synchronize between every computer you use. In the 1990s synchronizing data between computers required specialized software and arcane cables. These days synchronizing should occur across the Internet, all-but-invisible to you.
  • Your notes should be available on the Web. It’s handy to be able to access your notes from anywhere. In the case of Apple, I can login to Your software should have this feature as well.
  • …but you should be able to access your notes without being connected to the Internet. As I’ll explain in a moment, it’s quite useful if your note-taking tool has it’s own app and doesn’t require using a Web browser.

You’ll notice that the above three points revolve around a single convenience: access. The key to my success with note-taking software was that I could access it at any time. You never know when or where inspiration will strike. Recording inspiration and returning to it later is the entire reason for keeping a writing notebook.

The reason I like accessing my notes outside of a Web browser is simple: I turn off WiFi when writing. Disabling Internet access is a great way to avoid temptation and whittle away the day surfing around. Disabling your WiFi also removes distractions while writing, such as new email, social media alerts, and so on.

(While I’m on the topic, I also recommend looking into how to turn off all notifications on your phone and computer while writing. Disabling WiFi doesn’t disable your phone from receiving text messages, for example.)

Those are my top-tier must-haves for a digital writing notebook. Features I think are desirable include:

  • Checklists. It’s great to be able to add checkboxes next to the edits I need to make. It’s even better to check them off when they’re done.
  • Scrapbooking. Surprisingly, I found myself harvesting ideas from Web pages more often than I expected. Being able to store links, photos, dictionary definitions—even maps—was invaluable.
  • Folders & note organization. Eventually I would fill a page with so much raw material I needed to create a second page to continue, and subsequently a third. Organizing all these pages into distinct folders is invaluable.

Other features to look for:

  • Drawing or sketching. If you like to doodle in your writing notebook, you might seek out software that supports drawing. (Alternately, you could use a separate sketchpad app and add it to your notes.)
  • Audio notes. Some note-taking software can attach voice memos to a note. It’s not how I work, but it might be yours.
  • Searching. It’s surprising how many times I remembered a keyword but could not find the exact note for it.
  • Collaboration. Some software allows you to share your notes with one or more people. If you’re collaborating on a novel with another writer (or illustrator, or editor), this might be a real need for you.

If you’re not an Apple user or seeking alternatives to Apple Notes, there are other options you can investigate. I’ve not had a chance to use any of these but they seem promising:

Good luck!

Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes, writing with style, and running experiments

Recently I picked up Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, part of the Literary Conversations Series from University Press of Mississippi. The collection offers interviews and profiles of Vonnegut published between 1969 and 1999. The first comes shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The subsequent rocket ride of literary stardom Vonnegut enjoyed—or endured—follows.

The collection seems rather complete, culling all manner of sources, right down to a softball Q&A with Harry Reasoner for 60 Minutes. The collection is enjoyable if light reading, much like many of Vonnegut’s books, but it still held a few surprises for me. (Apparently after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut contemplated throwing out Breakfast of Champions when he realized he could now sell any book he wrote no matter its quality.)

The more I learn about Vonnegut, the more I’ve come to see how pragmatic he was when it came to the craft of writing. Vonnegut often lists Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his favorite authors because, as a boy, he was “excited by stories which were well-made. Real ‘story’ stories…with a beginning, middle, and end.” His essay “How to Write With Style” is advice of the roll-up-your-sleeves variety, featuring watery chestnuts like “Find a subject you care about” and “Keep it simple.” More interestingly, while teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he led a course to help students make a career out of writing after graduating—teaching, technical writing, ad copy, anything to put bread on the table. Apparently the course was not well-received by other faculty.

One popular meme is Vonnegut’s lecture on the shape of stories. The audience chortles as he chalks out curves and lines graphing a set of basic story structures. (Maya Eliam’s infographics of these shapes are lucid and wonderful.) Most likely many in the auditorium thought he was satirizing when he said story forms could be graphed mathematically or analyzed by a computer, but his lecture is in earnest. This was his master’s thesis in anthropology, after all.

In a 1977 interview with Paris Review—the most in-depth interview in the collection—Vonnegut drops a mention of his story shapes:

Vonnegut: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way…

Interviewer: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

Vonnegut: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.

The last sentence may be the most plainly spoken argument against the avant-garde I’ve read.

Vonnegut even compared writing novels to experiments, which I’ve explored myself. He felt experimentation was in his nature due to his education as a chemist and an engineer. (I believe this is the first time I’ve read another fiction writer describe creating fiction as a kind of experiment.) Here he talks with Laurie Clancy about Breakfast of Champions (still unpublished at this point):

Interviewer: Could you indicate what direction your new work is taking?

Vonnegut: It’s in the nature of an experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to come out or what the meaning’s going to be—but I’ve set up a situation where there’s only one person in the whole universe who has free will, who has to decide what to do next and why, has to wonder what’s really going on and what he’s supposed to do. … What the implications of this are I don’t know but I’m running off the experiment now. I’ll somehow have a conclusion when I’ve worked long enough on the book. … Regarding [God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater], I said to myself “Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?” So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could.

The Clancy interview is one of the best in the book. Vonnegut is engaged, thoughtful, and revelatory.