New Craft Book – Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Post cover image showing Story Genius.

Getting back into the blog swing slow and easy after returning from vacation – more meaty stuff coming next week as I get back into my Engineering, School, and Writing series. So starting back in with some thoughts on the current craft book for writing I’m working my way through, Story Genius by Lisa Cron.

So far, I quite like it, sort of a lighter version of John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story in a lot of ways, as least to me. Lots of focus on character (particularly the protagonist’s change) with mirroring between Truby’s “ghost” and Cron’s “past context”, the idea that all elements of story should flow from the protagonist’s change and journey, a rejection of “structure” as the means of finding story, and discussion about how the writer should spend time turning inward and querying themselves about what any one story means to them.

Cron’s work so far (I’m 3 chapters in) is less regimented and a bit less self-congratulatory or off-putting in the way the Truby’s early chapters could be – less shouting down of other approaches or being insensitive to a writer’s past beliefs. But I’m not sure how far Cron’s continued connection to “brain science” can really be carried. I am not a brain scientist, so a lot of what she says seems reasonable. But neither is she a brain scientist, and her list of citations at the end supposedly showing how story is an evolved mechanism and directly connected to things like the flight/freeze/fright response and the drive for procreation is paltry at best. So…yeah. I think I’d be using the advice and teaching here more for it’s merits alone than because it’s somehow illuminated by current neuroscience. By contrast, at least Truby’s denouncement of other methods or approaches is centered in his examples showing why they don’t work, not in trying to appeal to a neuroscientific connection which may or may not be accurate.

I do like that Cron is centered almost exclusively on novels/written works. Truby tries to use his methods with novels and, while it mostly works, it’s harder when 80% of his examples are film and screenplays. As screenwriters are his primary audience, this is very understandable, but is abstracted from novel writing – a craft where we don’t have the benefits of things like an actor’s take on a particular scene, a cinematographer who captures a very compelling shot, or a soundtrack timed to perfection with the action on screen. Many of the examples of “good story” he uses have other things going on in the background that might take a decent story and elevate it beyond what was actually written by the screenwriter. It also doesn’t help that film is far more a community creation then that of any one writer (in general, and in particular for all of the examples he cites) so how much does the writing really contribute to the overall success of a film? A lot, but maybe not quite as much as he would content. So having Cron’s focus on a what a single author’s work can achieve may be more useful.

I’ve almost finished the first “homework” and it’s been instructive. I’d be curious to see how useful it will be when starting a new story. Hopefully if it covers the same kind of ground as Truby (my current favorite) in a faster and less cumbersome way, I’ll have a new favorite. More updates to follow.

Solutioning: I Do it All the Time

I said back in my SITREP:June post that I was going to get back into regular posts, though how regular that will be remains to be seen. So this post marks the first of new series I’ve wanted to do for a while.

Welcome to the Engineering, School, and Writing Series, which is going to be about me reminiscing on the time spent in school and in my job, taking the lessons I learned there, and examining how those lessons affect me today as a writer. I have no idea if this will be helpful to anyone else, but one thing I have learned through the power of the internet is that unique ideas are hard to come by, so I’m quite certain I’m not the first person to think of these lessons in this way. But I suspect there are plenty of writers out there who could benefit from these musings, if only because it may put into words something they have been feeling for a while.

So, today is Post #1 in that series. I hope you find it interesting.

Continue reading “Solutioning: I Do it All the Time”

The Sea of Inventory and Writing

A quick random thought that I had tonight as I work thorough line edits on Betrayed. I just completed my 10% cut last month and once I started working on my synopsis document, I realized that my prose showed the scars of all the chopping I had done. Which wasn’t surprising – while I had tried to fix as I went, the priority was on killing words, not being pretty.

So, I started a rapid line level edit fixing bad words, making sure the scenes flow nicely, correcting pacing, and doing some general prettifying of words.

I’m less than four chapters in and I’ve already cut another 600 words. In the grand scope of things, at that rate, I’ll cut another 2% or more. It was murder to cut 10% and now, without almost no effort, more is flying off.

As I sat marveling at how this was happening I was reminded of a concept I learned from my Lean Implementer course. Background: Lean manufacturing/business principles grew out of the Toyota Production System that transformed them from small Japanese car producer to the largest car manufacturer in the world.

One of the principles taught in the course was the idea of the Sea of Inventory.

The Sea of Inventory posits that if you overproduce, you get so concerned with the product  you are mired in that you can’t see the wastes in your process. So one of the first goals of any production system is to eliminate overproduction and reduce the depth of your “sea”. As you do, your “rocks” of waste become more and more obvious and can be targeted easily. And the more you reduce overproduction, moving closer to just-in-time production, the more waste you expose.

Image showing an boat floating on water representing level of inventory, over hidden rocks representing various types of process waste, such as breakdowns, rejects, supplier delays, transport delays, etc.
I told you it was hastily drawn.

The reason producers tend to keep the sea high is because when we see stuff, we immediately assume that all must be fine – wastes are out of sight and therefore out of mind.

In writing, I think this idea can be a big side benefit of doing a 10% cut. Yes, there are craft reasons for doing the cut practice such as the creation of better habits which I believe almost any writer could benefit from. But a byproduct of the cut is that it reveals wastes in your writing – you lower the Sea of Words and now the weak word choices, bad pacing, redundancies, and sloppy sentences become more obvious because there is less padding around them. You expose them to your internal editor’s scalpel.

And thus the cutting continues.

How I Use the Pomodoro Technique® – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

At heart, Pomodoro® is nothing more than timed focus. But in a world filled with constant  distractions – from phone calls to notification to people randomly asking you stuff – being able to deeply focus on a task can feel like a superpower.
Like many of the techniques and tools I’ve been exposed to over the years, I first heard about the Pomodoro Technique® , created by Francesco Cirillo, through an article on Lifehacker. Follow the links for more info if you’d like more background.

(Disclaimer: Note that this blog post is not affiliated with, associated with, or endorsed by the Pomodoro Technique® or Francesco Cirillo and the Pomodoro Technique® is a registered trademark of Francesco Cirillo.)

How to Use

The Pomodoro Technique® is quite straightforward. At its most basic:

  • Choose a task on which to you’d like to make progress
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes
  • Work on that task for the 25 minutes without distraction, interruption, or breaks
  • Then repeat

There is definitely more to it than what I’ve described and if you’re interested in seeing how to use it in a more complete fashion, I recommend you can visit the creator’s site at

My Usage in Writing Fiction

Where I really find the Pomodoro Technique® useful is in helping me remind myself that I have a superpower – the ability to focus deeply in a single task. When I find resistance cropping up in the form of tiredness, apathy, boredom, impostor syndrome, or whatever, this – more than almost anything else – gets me through it or past it to the creation on the other side.

If I’ve scheduled time to write, but the day has been buzzy and distracting, it can be hard to get traction to start creating. If I can’t get going on my own, out comes the timer and I try to do at least two rounds of Pomodoro®. Amazingly, once I get into the project again, the creative juices take over. This goes hand in hand with that other “mind trick” I use and Just Open the File. If I can just get started, the engine catches and I can keep it going.

The other scenario I find it helpful to use this technique is when I’ve run into a block. Something about knowing that if I can get some words down during one of these sprints gives me the confidences to break through to the other side.

Applications and Apps

All of the above applies to drafting prose for me particularly, and to editing and revision work.  Since I work in the realm of novels, that’s usually working on scenes or parts of scenes.

Consequently, I have also found that I can’t use it when I’m outlining or for other pre-writing activities. For those, once I get going I don’t want any artificial clock stopping me. Further, motivation isn’t an issue because a new project is by definition new and shiny. So less useful a technique in those cases.

As for apps, any timer is works. I’ve used Google’s built-in countdown timer (just do a search for those terms) and my watch timer. The original used a kitchen timer. Simplicity is a big part of why this technique works, so no need to overthink it. Get a timer, use it.

If you want to use an app for continuous sessions, I can also recommend the ClearFocus for Android. I like the layout, colors, and the way the app automates rest periods and longer bouts (stringing multiple sessions together over a couple of hours).

Who It Might Not Work For

If you deal with anxiety or if timed anythings set your teeth on edge, then the Pomodoro Technique® likely won’t make creating easier. I know a lot of people can’t stand the idea of creating to a clock; since that’s the whole point of this technique, it will likely not work for you.

Additionally, some types of creation just don’t fit well into 25 minute chunks, nor with the idea of deep focus. Some people can create just fine flitting from flower to flower in their garden of ideas. If you work 10 minutes on one scene, then 15 more on a character bio, then 5 minutes searching for a good inspirational background image, and then back to writing a scene, you might get annoyed when the timer goes “bing” right in the middle of your flow.

If you work in those kind of chunks, you could try it, but I really think 25 minutes is a nice sweet spot for getting deeply focused and then letting yourself have a break. If that isn’t how you work, you could modifying, but I’m not sure this style of technique would work.


If you’d like to learn more about the technique, and there is more to it than just what I’ve talked about, you can visit Check it out there.

So, what questions do you have? Have any of you had good success with this technique? Please share in the comments below.

Achieving Flow – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

Have you ever found yourself so invested in an activity that you forgot to eat? Hours passed in what seemed like minutes and during that time you find that you’ve completed a whole lot of whatever it was you were working on? According to my university choral conductor where I first learned about it, and to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who has done the research on the topic, you’ve experienced a bout of flow.  And I’m convinced it’s a trainable mindset that can be invoked when needed.

For a bit more clarity Wikipedia defines it thus:

In positive psychologyflow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

History (a new section I’m adding for this article)

At Brigham Young University, I had the chance to join the BYU Men’s Chorus, an auditioned choir that – during my first year – was being newly directed by Rosalind Hall; a 200+ male voice choir with a wispy, effervescent Welsh woman as conductor whose accent took me completely off guard the first time I heard it. She quickly became one of my favorite people in the world.

That was the first of 6 years in the various choirs at BYU, many of them directed by Sister Hall. But it was during that first year that she started talking to us about flow. The way she described it, she wanted us to focus on the music, on our production of it, on her direction, on blending with our neighbor, on finding the right emotional connection, on anticipating tempo changes, and on and on.

And all that was too much she would say – too much to try to be actively focusing on if you were constantly hoping from thing to thing in your mind – am I blending? did I stick out too much on that note? did I cut off on time?

Instead, she encouraged us to work towards getting into flow, where the business of life and the business of creation both fell away and left you in a state of deep, satisfying engagement. You weren’t worried about what the final song was going to sound like or or if you were going to have it memorized. Rather you just rehearsed, in the moment, fixing what needed fixed right there.

She’d have us take a moment at the beginning of rehearsal and clear our minds, setting aside anything that was distracting – an upcoming test, anxiety about a date, homework problems still undone – and for that hour let ourselves be subsumed by the music.

After 6 years of practice, it’s a state I can drop into at will, especially for performing music, but anywhere else I want as well.

How to Use

The Wikipedia entry states that Csikszentmihályi’s Flow theory has three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.

The first item to me seems self explanatory.

As a solo writer, #2 is an interesting one because that immediate feedback seems to indicate that another party must be involved. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. For me, this means that whatever I am working on has visible results that I can critique or modify – words actually appearing on page. That’s part of why I prefer to type my fiction instead of hand write – the length of time required to write by hand means that my brain is already off to the next sentence while I’m working on the current one, or visa versa in that I have to spend so long on the current sentence I don’t remember where I’m going next.

I’ve heard that some poets prefer type writers or hand writing their work for specifically this reason – it slows them down so that they can choose the right word.

The last condition is also an interesting idea – being able to do something and being able to be confident to do it. I have found this to be true as well in order to be able to get into flow.

I I believe learning some meditation techniques could be useful in training your brain to mitigate distractions which can help you get into flow. But this one is harder to give a lot of counsel on without actually knowing you and your situation.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

I find I can get into flow do most things related to writing unless I’m just really tired or distracted. Drafting is where I use it the most as it can be very easy to sit down and draft without breaking concentration. Fiction writing or blog posts are places where I find myself really falling into flow.

And revision – especially polish edits. I get caught up in the flow of my own story and find myself tweaking words here and there while I read along. I really like using it here because I can definitely tell when something in my writing pulls me out of the narrative. I suspect that readers are most annoyed with a story when it pushes them out of the flow they get when reading a good book.

Applications and Apps

Applications can be just about anywhere as I stated before. Any activity that could benefit from deep focus could benefit from achieving flow. But for me, I would say the best application is learning to make it a habitual mindset. The more often I can drop into flow, the more I can get done while also enjoying the process. And this is a lot of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about – that flow promote happiness.

I don’t necessarily agree with some of his assertions about how to achieve happiness in life, but I will confirm that I find myself happier when I finish a flow session. And I do think artists and creators who are able to be more productive and more creative by getting in flow will have more to be excited about in their work.

For apps or programs, I think it’s the opposite. Turn off notifications on your phone, close the email tab, and let people know not to disturb you. Flow can be hard to maintain if you constantly have things clamoring for your attention.

Who It Might Not Work For

If you deal with anxiety or if timed anythings set your teeth on edge, then the Pomodoro Technique® likely won’t make creating easier. I know a lot of people can’t stand the idea of creating to a clock; since that’s the whole point of this technique, it will likely not work for you.

Further, some types of creation just don’t fit well into 25 minute chunks, nor with the idea of deep focus. Some people can create just fine flitting from flower to flower in their garden of ideas. If you work 10 minutes on one scene, then 15 more on a character bio, then 5 minutes searching for a good inspirational background image, and then back to writing a scene, you might get annoyed when the timer goes “bing” right in the middle of your flow.

If you work in those kind of chunks, you could try it, but I really think 25 minutes is a nice sweet spot for getting deeply focused and then letting yourself have a break. If that isn’t how you work, you could modifying, but I’m not sure this style of technique would work.


If you’d like to learn more about the technique, and there is more to it than just what I’ve talked about, you can visit Check it out there along.

So, what questions do you have? Have any of you had good success with it? Please share in the comments below.

The Writing Process – A Blog-Hop Post

Tag! I’m it.

This post is about my current writing process and the work that my process is both forming and informing. The idea is courtesy of M. A. Chiappetta. She and the ladies at Purple Ink Writers started this blog-hop with the intention of getting some discussion going about the writing process and the things that we writers are working on right now. I want to thank Michele and company for tagging me as part of the hop and hope that it can provide some insight and exposure for me as I continue my work.

They came up with four questions to answer and explore for this post, so without further intro, let’s jump in. Continue reading “The Writing Process – A Blog-Hop Post”

Story Structure Analysis – (or How I Plan to Keep Learning)

I am continually looking for ways to improve my craft of writing.

One of the things I am most grateful for when trying to write is that I always have new ideas. They’ve even started coming in my dreams, which honestly I find very freaky as I’ve never really gotten anything useful out of my dreams except entertainment, but that might be another blog post. But it is becoming easier to come up with stories and easier to find ways to change little story seeds into stories.

And one of the things that I think has helped is slowly gaining an understanding of story structure and it’s impact on telling a good story.

Maybe it’s the old adage, “When all you have is a hammer, all the world looks like a nail,” or of finding an application for new knowledge, but story structure has become my new way of understanding stories that I like.

My craft learning goal is to spend some time actively deconstructing stories that I like into the story structures I’m more familiar with. Thus far, that’s the 7-point Structure (Dan Wells did an awesome presentation on this), Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, and the Hollywood Formula as related by Lou Anders on the Writing Excuses Podcast.

I’m going to take a story or film that I enjoy and break it down using these elements to try and better understand what it is that I like about them. Hopefully, that will translate into a better ability to apply it to my own writing, both in outlining and revision.

Conflict – Scene/Sequel, No(and)/Yes(but), Internal/External

I’m adding a new area to the blog – I wanted someplace to keep track of writing techniques/craft that I have ideas about or that I learn. A quick-hits list, to remind me of things I need to watch out for or that I need to remember when I get bogged down.

So, first up is a thought I had this morning after a very successful writing session last night. I was really able to get into flow and the words came so easily. And it all had to do with a character vignette that I thought of on the spot dealing with conflict. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the character and it added a HUGE change to the way I perceive this character. But what I am most proud of is how I dealt with conflict – I had an external conflict trigger an internal one in the character which then got externalized with my main character. It just worked so nicely. But as I got thinking about it, the experience in isolation is not as powerful. I wanted to find a way to make sure I could reproduce this kind of flow in the future, rather than waiting on a moment of well-timed inspiration.

As I to thinking about the ways that I have heard conflict expressed and how it is used in story telling, I keep coming back to some things that I have heard on the podcast in the past. Mary Robinette Kowal’s approach of No(and)/Yes(but) has always appealed to me because it provides a very easy way to know if you are pushing the characters and yourself as a writer towards the meaty stuff. I also gravitate to Howard Taylor’s “scene”/”sequel” idea which pushes things into an action/reaction cycle. Then there is the advice that they’ve given in the past about internal vs. external conflict. Internal conflict is sometimes hard to see/identify because by nature, it is internal; so in story telling, anytime you can get a situation where an external event triggers the internal conflict to come out and be externalized, the moment is stronger, more emotional. That was what made last nights session so fulfilling for me – that’s exactly what I did, but I stumbled into is rather than plan is out.

My thought this morning was of a way to combine all of that into a simple idea – conflict in every scene. Now that’s not a new idea, but I had never figured out how to make it really work in practice. So this is what I plan to do. Every scene has to have conflict. Period. I’m not allowed to write something that doesn’t have an element of conflict in it. But I want to make sure that I get the right amount and right type of conflict. If you spend too much time on external conflicts, the characters can often appear flat and emotionless, hard for the reader to identify with. If yo have too much internal conflict, the action slows and the pace drops off, which can make the read bored. So to get the balance right, I think its a balance of methods.

Here’s how it would work – I’m planning a scene.

  1. Is this “scene” or “sequel”(from the Howard approach, i.e action/reaction)? Do the opposite of the previous scene.
  2. What type of conflict (internal/external) was the previous? Do the opposite of the previous scene.
  3. Use the No (and)/Yes (but) methodology to develop the action/conflict.
  4. If is the first scene (beginning of book/part), you starting point should probably be “scene”, external as a way to engage the reader rapidly.

So, an example. If I just wrote a scene with external conflict (character gets into fight with family member) and that was caused by a reaction to something in the plot did (“sequel”). The next scene (the one I’m planning) then needs to be internal conflict, “scene” – the opposites of the previous. The “scene” means it has to be a new conflict, something only tangentially related to the fight. Each “scene” contains a new conflict that we haven’t seen yet (or revisits one from earlier) while each “sequel” contains the reaction to that new conflict. If the conflict was external in the “scene” the “sequel” needs to contain an internal conflict. And visa versa.

This can be scaled up from working at the scene level to the chapter, part, book, series level. Say I have several chapters that cover the same external conflict (an ongoing battle), the scenes within that chapter still need to bounce, but within the overarching framework of the larger conflict. This is part of how TV/Cable series that have been successful use the episode conflict/season conflict to great effect.

I think this will work because it forces me as a writer to shift things around. The reader is kept engaged by being moved from external to internal to external; the get the chance for reflection with the scene/sequel format; and it is much easier to up the stakes using the No(and)/Yes(but) approach.