Want to be a Writer? Don’t Have a Backup.

Tell your parents you dream of being a successful writer (or actor, artist, filmmaker, etc.) and, after they hopefully give some encouraging words, you’re bound to hear, “That’s great, but you should have a backup.”

We all know what that means. Few people make a living pursuing a creative career, they’re thinking, so you better have an alternative career path lined up when you inevitably fail.

But I’m here to tell you that you can’t fail at any artistic pursuit. Your first or tenth novel might never see the light of day, but if you keep honing your craft and putting words to the page, you’re allowed to put “writer” on your business cards. That means you don’t need a backup!

Now, I want to be clear, that doesn’t mean you don’t need another job. A backup is something you do after you fail at your first pursuit. A job is something that brings in money and other positive benefits while you’re a writer. (If it doesn’t, you should get a different job!) There’s nothing wrong with that. Many successful writers have held down other jobs. Kurt Vonnegut still worked as a car dealer after publishing his first novel. Philip Glass was a plumber while he composed music. Many successful writers continue to teach. A second job can provide community, inspiration, and interesting characters. It can keep you sane and get you out in the world instead of insolated in your home with your cat and laptop your only friends. Spending 40 hours a week writing is likely to make you crazy. You don’t want to end up like Jack Torrance, do you?

So, when you’re working on a report for your boss, serving up coffee at Starbucks, or suiting up as a professional wrestler instead of working on your next book, embrace your situation. Your job isn’t a backup, it’s a lifestyle choice.

Happy Writing,



The Importance of Raising the Stakes in Your Story

I’ve been reading a lot of independently published romance lately. I’ve noticed a common problem – not much happens in too many of these novels. That’s not to say nothing happens. Girl meets hot guy, they get together, something keeps them apart, but they end up living happily ever after. The problem is, there’s seldom much at stake for the hero or heroine. If she doesn’t land the guy she may cry a little, but she’ll be fine. Instead of these books keeping me on the edge of my seat, they make me nod off.

Stakes are all about your main character having a goal, and what she has to lose if she doesn’t achieve it. In romance, that goal always includes a guy. (Or sometimes another girl.) If the main character doesn’t have a goal, whether it’s getting laid, getting married, or saving the family farm, the reader has little reason to stick around and see what happens. And if there’s nothing standing in the heroes way, then scenes become about as exciting as figuring out what to make for dinner.

Stakes are relative. Your heroine doesn’t have to save the world from an incoming asteroid to make for dramatic reading. Marty, the classic 1955 film (based on the 1953 teleplay) is a perfect example of this. Marty meets Clara one night at a dance. He likes her. She gives him her number. But when his mother and friends object to her, he decides not to call her.


Imagine if Marty was your typical romance hero. He’s good looking, with smoldering eyes, a confident swagger, and an interesting job. If he doesn’t call Clara, it’s no big deal. We know it won’t take long for him to find another girl.

But Marty is the complete opposite. He’s a butcher, not very attractive, and at 34, likely to be a bachelor for the rest of his life. The stakes for Marty are very high. We want to jump out of our seats and thrust the phone in his hand. We want to tell him he’s found a kind, sweet, wonderful girl, and he better not louse things up. It’s a simple story, but it’s great drama. That’s why it won four Academy Awards.

Try this. When you’re rewriting your novel, look at what your hero has at stake. Then sit down and write 25 alternative possibilities for what she might risk if she doesn’t achieve her goal. You might find a gem in there that will elevate your novel from so-so to something readers can’t put down. Don’t be afraid to go all-in. You won’t regret it.

Happy writing,


In Romance, Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid

Towards the beginning of Todd Hayne’s new film CarolTherese (played by a sublime Rooney Mara) is watching a movie from a projection booth with her frustrated boyfriend Richard and his friend Dannie. Dannie is furiously scribbling notes. When asked why, he replies, “I’m writing down when a character’s actions are different from what they say.”

That sums up how the film approaches the love affair between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese. Obviously, given it’s the early 1950s, these women live lives where their words and actions are often diametrically opposed. They are forced to pretend they’re “normal” (i.e. heterosexual). They must hide their passion for one another.

But as they fall in love, Carol and Therese also speak to one another in actions rather than words. They seldom express their feelings directly, instead displaying them through subtle gestures – the way Therese meets Carol’s eyes while standing behind the doll counter at the department store where she works, how Carol brushes her hand across Therese’s back while she’s playing piano, the air of mystery and fragility Therese captures in the photos she takes of Carol.

Carol and Therese’s love affair is so moving because they don’t reduce it to words. They don’t need to. They both know what they feel about one another and we do too. We often see one or both characters obscured by dirty, rain streaked or light reflected windows. They’re hidden, and yet we understand the deep emotions inside them.

Therese rarely speaks her mind. Carol saves her emotional speeches for her battles with her husband, who is trying to take away her daughter because of “morality charges.” In fact, only one of these two passionate women ever says “I love you,” and it’s very late in the movie. Because we haven’t heard such a direct expression of their feelings, it’s a powerful, moving moment. I had tears in my eyes.

PriceOfSaltI haven’t read The Price of Salt, the Patricia Highsmith novel Carol is based onbut I think there’s a lesson in Carol for romance writers. We can’t be visual in the same way a film can, but we can consider how much more can be expressed with actions rather than words. If our characters love one another, our readers will know it. Our job as writers is to explore the depth of their love and their pain. That’s best done with as little dialogue as possible. “See it rather than say it” should be our mantra.

If you haven’t already, hurry out and see Carol. It’s a beautiful love store, and an important lesson every writer should absorb.

Best Wishes,