What’s Your Purpose?

purpose porpoise2

(GIVEAWAY – GIVEAWAY- GIVEAWAY! In honor of the release of POOLE’S PARADISE, my generous benefactors at Bafflegab Books are awarding free e-copies of the novel (specify .pdf or .prc) to the first five people who correctly answer the following question: What do the words FACETIOUSLY and ABSTEMIOUSLY have in common? (Hint: the word MYUOPILEA has exactly the opposite quality.) Email your answer to john.vorhaus – at – gmail.com. HURRY! I mean HURRAH!)

So, yeah, my new novel comes out this week, POOLE’S PARADISE: An Imperfect Search for Purpose, and as you can probably guess from the subtitle, it has something to do with “purpose” –  what that is, why it’s important, how it’s defined, and how we go about finding it. Our hero’s just a college kid, and can thus be forgiven, due to a case of extreme youth, for not having his sense of purpose dialed in. We, though, you and I, we are experienced writers, and it’s worth thinking about what our purpose is, and how to go about aligning our actions with our goals.

For a long time, I thought that my purpose was pretty simple: Sell More Books. Upon close inspection, however, I realize that that’s not purpose at all. It’s just a means to an end: the opportunity, freedom and financial security to… well, to do what? What is the end that my means so assiduously seek to serve?

There are all kinds of purposes that writing a book can serve. Continue Reading »

Becoming a Better Writer in 2015

My friend and I always spend a weekend in December creating vision boards for the new year. This is not like making New Year’s Resolutions. It’s a

Written Words by Sophia Louise

Written Words by Sophia Louise

process that requires a lot of time and thought. We ask ourselves what this year has brought and how that feels, and what we’d like to see the new year hold. Then we make boards that hold our intentions, with photos and words (she uses more words, I use more pictures) and put the board somewhere it can be seen.

I’ve been pulling together my writing schedule for the next year and it occurred to me that this vision board process might be great for the writing life, too.

What would you like your 2015 writing life to hold?


Often writers will make quantitative goals: “I want to write 100,000 words this year,” or “complete my novel.” Those goals are great, and I always include them in my planning. It is much more difficult to achieve a goal that has not been articulated.”

There are other goals that are more interesting to me. One of the reasons that writing is so engrossing as a life pursuit is that it is impossible to master it. It’s possible to always learn more, go deeper, find new insights about old ideas. One can always be better at writing. Always.

If I apply the vision board idea to my writing life, I’d include quantitative goals, and I’ll include monetary goals because I’m a positive thinking person and better to aim high than low.

But now that I’ve had this revelation, I’m going to come up with some other goals, too. Maybe one is that I’m going to write about things that scare me, or things that are secret. I might only write those things for myself, as an exercise, but maybe I’ll write them into the work of my novels, too.

I am going to choose a particular aspect of writing to study, too. I’m not sure what it will be, but I can see what shape it might take. If I choose to study character development, then I will study some of my favorite writers to see exactly how they build character. If I choose to study wordsmithing, I’ll really study poetry and download some study guides. Continue Reading »

High School: The Tattoos Your Characters Can’t Conceal

TomTatt small

This guy was in the Hillbilly group in my high school

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” Alas, in looking at the short-sighted, petty gyrations of our politicians, “terror” doesn’t quite capture the dystopian menace. But I want to use Mr. Vonnegut’s subtext here to illustrate some thoughts about characters in your stories.

High school was a yeasty time: a time of turbulent yearnings, of bad complexions, of emotional cliffs, of hormonal bombardments. Enemies were defined and reviled, friends formed and clung to, selves agitated and supplanted. An overheard compliment might make you Zeus for a day, but a single smirk the next would fling you to some dark hall of Hades.

Terrifying as those times were, their living imprint aligns with Vonnegut’s terror. Or maybe Faulkner’s, when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I think we carry a lot of high school with us, for better or worse. But as writers, we have a little trick to exorcise time’s weights: we can inflict our characters with some of those emotional roilings, no matter if those characters are sixteen or sixty. Because, even if they are deeper under the skin, the tracks and tracings from those emotions aren’t really past.

And because I so much like to talk about myself, and no one is in the room to shush me, I’ll draw on my own high school squirmings as the basis for this exploration into character and motivation. Continue Reading »

Take Five: John Vorhaus on his latest novel, Poole’s Paradise

Poole's ParadiseWe’re thrilled to have John Vorhaus with us today to tell us a bit about his latest novel, Poole’s Paradise!

Q: Please describe your book in 104 words or less.

JV: POOLE’S PARADISE tells the story of earnest young Alexander Poole and his imperfect search for purpose. As a college sophomore in a small New England town in 1974, Poole craves purpose. He doesn’t know what it is or where to find it, but he’s determined to get him some. Unfortunately, his search takes him into the louche underworld of the local townie community, where college kids like Poole get messed with every day. By roundabout and utterly unexpected means he discovers his purpose and the essential truth that – spoiler alert – when you don’t know your purpose, your search for purpose is your purpose. (That’s 103 words, including “louche,” which means “disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way,” and not including these ones here.)

Q: Is it autobiographical?

JV: It’s emotionally autobiographical. The things that happen to Poole never happened to me, and I couldn’t have handled them with the honesty he does. But his heart rests on mine, and what he wants I wanted, too. In fact, a big impetus for the book was my desire to create a different sort of college experience (a frankly transcendent one) from the satisfactory but not spectacular one I had. Of course, having lived through the ‘70s helped me manifest the world of my story – its idiom and culture – but so did Google, so there you go.

Q: Who is this book for?

JV: It’s for “young seekers and old geezers.” Younger readers, especially those who seek a deeper understanding of life, meaning and “the isness of it all,” will appreciate the lessons Poole learns. They will find it, I think, much like ZEN IN THE ART OF MOTORCYLE MAINTENANCE, though a good deal shorter and easier to read. Oldsters – people of my generation – will really dig the 1970s references and resonance. For those readers, I intend POOLE to be a trip back in time to when life was simpler, phones had cords, and a bag of weed cost twenty bucks an ounce.

Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?

JV: Since the book is set in the ‘70s, I had to leave behind everything I knew about the modern world – and it’s amazing how insidiously pervasive that knowledge is. I’m not just talking about obvious things like CDs and DVDS. I’m talking about today’s mindset, where knowledge of any subject is assumed to be at our fingertips. People lived in much smaller mental spaces back then, with worldviews defined by ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITTANICA and the 6 o’clock news. The ‘70s had a special innocence – an innocence since swept away by the tidal wave of the information age. Also, the events of the book take place exactly in the fall of 1974, so I had to police my references and make sure I never talked about events that hadn’t happened yet.

Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?

JV: Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. For fourteen of the fifteen months I worked on it, I really kind of hated it. I just wasn’t telling the story in the lean, clean, “humble in service of the work” way that I intended. But I kept my faith in it (even when that faith seemed unfounded) and kept peeling back the layers of self-indulgence until what remained served the purpose I’d set for myself. It’s a short book – a fast read – and I doubt that the reader will see the levels of complexity which informed my earlier drafts, but ultimately had no place in the work. That’s fine. I’d rather have the reader think, “He made that look easy,” or better yet not have the reader thinking about me at all. This is Poole’s story, not mine. Once I understood that, everything fell into place.

Q: Bonus sixth question – what’s the best piece of advice you can give to new writers?

JV: Make the music you make; keep giving them you until you is what they want.

Readers, you can learn more about Poole’s Paradise HERE. Enjoy!

The Online Presence That’s a Natural Extension of Who You Are and What You Do. (Is It Just Fantasy?)

Express Monorail via FlickrI’ve been reading with interest (and sympathy) the comments on Porter Anderson’s Unboxed post last week, where we see the familiar Sturm und Drang of writers grappling with the demands of online marketing—or how to be publicly communicative and chummy when it’s against our nature, perhaps even against our work.

This has remained a problem for a long time now, hasn’t it?

One of my favorite thinkers is Alan Watts, who once said, “Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.” [To be properly introduced to Alan Watts, check out this post from Maria Popova.]

To begin to inspect this problem—and a beginning is all that’s possible for this blog post—I’ll discuss a few writers who exhibit the following qualities:

  • Their writing work is clearly central to everything they do. Or think of it as: writing as guiding star (as it should be).
  • Their voice, online or off, is authentic.
  • Their online presence and engagement is unique to them and, at least from my POV, sustainable and meaningful.

Roxane Gay

If you’re active on Twitter, you’ve probably seen Roxane Gay in action, even if you don’t follow her. She’s funny, sharp, personal, challenging, and unstoppable.

Most of us could never do what she does. She live-tweets Ina Garten in the afternoon, battles sexism and racism in the evening, and rebuffs trolls on the hour. She’s approaching 100,000 tweets. (For comparison, I haven’t even reached 15,000.)

Gay released two books this year (a literary novel and a book of essays on feminism), and she’s been out there writing for a long time. I met her in person at the Midwest Writers Workshop, and she is a shy introvert like many writers I know. We sat together on a publishing panel, and she knew what writers needed to hear: Just calm down and write, okay?

In a blog post after the conference, she wrote:

You will hear a lot of mumbo jumbo about being a writer and maintaining an online presence. Do it if you want, don’t if you don’t. There are successful writers who have little to no online presence, though I don’t recommend going that route.

Continue Reading »

Outlining: Why I Made the Switch and Tips for Trying It

By Flickr's Thiophene_Guy

By Flickr’s Thiophene_Guy

Our guest today is Elizabeth S. Craig who writes the Southern Quilting mysteries for Penguin/NAL, the Memphis Barbeque mysteries for Penguin/Berkley, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently. She shares writing-related links on Twitter and curates links for the free Writer’s Knowledge Base. Her most recent book is Death Pays a Visit. From ForeWord on Myrtle Clover: “The treat here is Myrtle’s eccentricity, brought to life with rich humor and executed…with breezy skill.”

If there are other writers out there who start doubting their writing process, as I did, I want to encourage them to experiment. The results can make a tremendous difference.

Connect with Elizabeth on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Outlining: Why I Made the Switch and Tips for Trying It

I was a mystery writing pantster. I was rather proud of it.

This approach worked enormously well for me. Until, one day, it didn’t.

I was on a deadline and realized the book had several huge plot holes that I’d not seen until close to the end. I pulled some all-nighters and initiated a writing schedule that made NaNoWriMo look tame. I hit my deadline, but it was enough to shake me up. It shook me out of my complacency.

Around this time, I was signed to a new series. My editor liked reviewing outlines before the books were written. I had two books to write that year and one I wanted to put out myself. I realized I’d have to outline for the one editor anyway, and I’d either have to be super-organized and not make any mistakes to get the other two out…or else I could try outlining all three of them.

I became a reluctant outliner.

This is what I discovered

The Pros

  • I’m faster. Definitely faster. There was less mulling-over happening during my writing time.
  • The drafts are cleaner.
  • There are fewer plot holes because I can spot potential problem areas.
  • I have better woven-in subplots and theme, if I use theme.
  • Fewer character inconsistencies.
  • More complete character development right off the bat. I have a better sense of who the characters are before starting the draft.
  • If I must leave the manuscript alone for a while, I jump immediately back into the story with no problems. The outline basically states: “Here’s what you write today.”
  • Cover designer and copywriters can create back cover copy and covers (for both traditional publishing and self publishing) before I’ve even finished the book.  On a couple of occasions before I’d even started the book.

The Cons

  • Less creative energy except during the initial brainstorming process.
  • I write shorter. Sometimes too short.
  • Sometimes my writing can sound stilted or flat after outlining and have to be fluffed up later.
  • Outlining takes time. A couple of outlines have taken over a week to complete.

Ways to combat the cons

I give myself permission to veer off the outline, if I’ve got a great idea. Continue Reading »

Foolproof Strategies for Staying Creative During a Writing Slump

CreativeSlumpWUFor the last two weeks, my four children and I have been stuck at home trying to extricate ourselves from the evil clutches of the dreaded “stomach flu.” One by one we came down with it, and its effects have been long-lasting and producing vast quantities of laundry. We are bored with television and lazing on couches. We are weary of toast.

Thankfully, at this point in my life, I don’t hold down a typical nine-to-five career, which means I don’t have to take sick leave when we’re unwell. But as a writer and editor I still have commitments to keep up with, even if there’s flexibility in terms of timing.

When life gets (literally) messy, I’m exhausted from sleepless nights and struggling to even manage the basics, I still try my best not to give in to the temptation to let everything go. It’s not about pushing through the pain and forcing myself to continue being productive; it’s about acknowledging that I feel worse if I don’t maintain at least some level of interest in my writing.

For accomplishing that, I have a few strategies I’ve used over the years. I call them foolproof because you simply can’t mess them up. There’s no right or wrong. Even if they take you absolutely nowhere, they still help you maintain your creativity—with very little effort.

Jot down keywords.

My husband always says I have more notes—both handwritten and computerized—than anyone he’s ever met. True, but I also never run out of ideas. No matter how bad things are, if you can commit to writing just a few keywords for every creative idea that pops into your head, you’ll know those brilliant ideas will be waiting for you when you feel better. Use a notepad, a note app on your handheld device, or a virtual sticky note on your computer to record keywords for short stories, poems, articles, novels, revision ideas, and so on. For example, if your idea is to write a post like this one, you might write the keywords STRATEGIES CREATIVE SLUMP. Without going into any detail about how you’ll flesh it out, you’ve at least held on to it so you can develop it later. Continue Reading »

The Gate We Should Have Kept: And Was Mystique That Bad?



One of the most perceptive regulars in #FutureChat, The FutureBook digital publishing community’s weekly live discussion, is Carla Douglas of BeyondPaperEditing.com in Kingston, Ontario.

And in a recent doing of the discussion, Douglas pointed out that writing, while once among the most isolated and solitary of careers has been made one of the most social by digital communication.

Douglas is always more graceful than I am in these insights of hers.

My iteration of her comment would be that the imperatives of self-promotion through social media — that inexorable drive to be communal, communal, communal about every last thing — simply has blown the roof off the artist’s garret and left us unable to make a single sausage unobserved.

Something about the enabling force of the digital dynamic is causing us to want to expose our guts to all comers. Something about instantaneous global communication (my tweet is faster than your tweet) is making us tell all, confess all, reveal all.

We just can’t shut up. Yakking is the chronic condition, and we seem to be incurable.

Look, I do honor and cheer the mighty millions of Wattpad who seem to want to “share” (boy, am I sick of that word) their every written word with every last human being who will look at it on any minute of every day. Me, I have no need to crowd-source my damned grocery list, but if they want to be sure that broccoli and sprouts have the approval of their peers, then, by God, I want them to have that approval.

But grocery lists will never be the same. No, let me rephrase that: grocery lists will be the same. And that’s the problem with all this.

Homogeneity — in the overused name of “diversity,” no less — is impossible to avoid when the trend-tracked hive-mind of “shared” creativity becomes life-by-committee and expression by critique group.

And I regret it.

That’s my provocation for you today. I’m not saying that you should stop or change anything you’re doing. It’s not as if you or I can stop or change anything the culture (a term used so loosely) is doing. And doing. And doing. Good God, we are doing so much. So much.

No, do carry on. You must. We must.

But I’m here today to say that even as we hurtle forward on this industry-wide crash course in the digital dynamo, I’m glad I didn’t have to see Emily Dickinson conduct #PoetryChat every Friday at 11 a.m. Eastern.

Continue Reading »

Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?


Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for November 16, 2014. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling? Reminder: “compelling” is much different than “interesting”—it means that you are irresistibly urged to turn the page by what you’ve read. Following are what would be the first 17 lines of the prologue.


Los Angeles

The horror was in the waiting— the unknown, the insomnia, the ulcers. Co-workers ignored each other and hid behind locked doors. Secretaries and paralegals passed along the rumors and refused eye contact. Everyone was on edge, wondering, “Who might be next?” The partners, the big boys, appeared shell-shocked and wanted no contact with their underlings. They might soon be ordered to slaughter them.

The gossip was brutal. Ten associates in Litigation terminated; partially true— only seven. The entire Estate division closed, partners and all; true. Eight partners in Antitrust jumping to another firm; false, for now.

The atmosphere was so toxic that Samantha left the building whenever possible and worked with her laptop in coffee shops around lower Manhattan. She sat on a park bench one pleasant day— day ten after the fall of Lehman Brothers— and gazed at the tall building down the street. It was called 110 Broad, and the top half was leased by Scully & Pershing, the biggest law firm the world had ever seen. Her firm, for now, though the future was anything but certain. Two thousand lawyers in twenty countries, half of them in New York City alone, a thousand right up there packed together on floors 30 through 65. How many wanted to jump? She couldn’t guess, but she wasn’t the only one. The world’s largest firm was shrinking in chaos, as were its competitors. Big Law, as it was known, was just as panicked as the hedge funds, investment (snip)

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Continue Reading »

The Point of Writing

Flickr Creative Commons: Jason Eppink

Flickr Creative Commons: Jason Eppink

There’s a lot of talk these days about getting yourself a presence on social media, upping your profile, selling yourself, marketing your work, using every angle and every connection in order to “get out there,” hustle your product, hit the bestseller lists, make a splash.

This post is just to remind you that none of this is what writing is about.

Writing is about finding out who you are, what you have to say that is not the same as what everyone else has to say, and how to express it in the strongest possible terms.

The point of writing is to tell a story with your insight, the perspective that only you have.

The point of writing is to think deeply and to inform, entertain, communicate your insight with your readers.

The point of writing is to seek truth.  And it doesn’t matter how you do that, or whether you’re writing thrillers or detective stories or comedies, or picture books for children.  Truth is what will give your work resonance and power and make it worth reading long after you’ve spent the money that someone may or may not have paid you for your work.

Writers are not marketing experts or salesmen.  Although these qualities are required of nearly all writers these days, it is vitally important not to forget that the job is to write, not to get a high score on Goodreads.

What does this mean? Continue Reading »

Everything I Need to Know About Character, I Learned From Buffy

buffyvampWhich is more important, plot or character?  It’s one of life’s great dichotomies, like the question of nature vs. nurture or Coke vs. Pepsi.  And like most great dichotomies, the answer is:  all of the above.

So it didn’t surprise me when last month’s column on Joss Whedon’s gifts with plot triggered a discussion that quickly strayed over into his gifts with character.  I thought the question deserved its own column.

To recap for those of you unfamiliar with the Buffyverse, Buffy Summers is the Slayer – a young woman chosen to fight against vampires and other creatures that go bump in the night.  The slayer is given enhanced strength and agility and is supported and mentored by the Watchers Council.  In addition, Buffy gathers a group of friends and allies around her, not all of whom are human, who call themselves the Scooby Gang.  Like much in the Buffyverse, the characters in the Gang are sometimes a little over the top.  Yet they remain coherent, always interesting, and often beloved.  If you’ve never seen the series, you have a treat ahead of you.  But if you want to avoid spoilers, I’d stop reading this article now.

One thing that makes Whedon’s characters so memorable is that he doesn’t shy away from moral ambiguity.  Even his darkest characters have balancing characteristics that make them interesting and often redeemable – the Scooby Gang has included at times two vampires and a demon.  D’Hoffryn, for instance, though a Lower Being and Lord of the Vengeance Demons, is always unfailingly polite.  Once, on being summoned by Willow (one of the Scooby Gang who is a powerful witch), he greets her with, “Behold D’Hoffryn!  Lord of Arashmaharr, he that turns the air to blood and rains death upon – Miss Rosenberg, how lovely to see you again.” Continue Reading »

Lessons from the UnCon: I Surrender. I’m Finally Ready to Be Naked

Method Writing (and Eating) with Brunonia Barry at the Witch's Brew Cafe

Method Writing (and Eating) with Brunonia Barry at the Witch’s Brew Cafe–photography credit Mike Swift

If you attended the inaugural UnCon in Salem, this post is an attempt to recreate a bit of its inherent magic. If you couldn’t attend, this is one explanation of why you’ll read reviews like this paraphrased quote: “What have you people done to me? I’m forever changed and so is my writing.” 

Several decades ago, an excessively young, naïve, and nervous version of myself began working as a first year medical resident in the Cardiac Care Unit (CCU) of a major city hospital. It promised to be a grueling month, in part because there were only two of us to share the call schedule. I’d be working for 24 hours on as the sole resident attached to the Unit, then I’d remain long enough to transfer my patients to the other resident. In the roughly 22 hours of free time remaining, I would commute, shower, eat, sleep, study up on whatever had arisen in the previous night, whereupon I’d return to the hospital and begin the cycle anew.

My duties meant I’d be the first one called to handle admissions through the emergency room. I’d be the first on-scene “doctor” if a patient crashed in the Unit, and if a Code Blue was called anywhere in the hospital, it would be my sorry ass expected to run the resuscitation protocol. (Doesn’t that make you feel safe?) To be sure, the experienced nurses would help and if the staff cardiologists happened to be around they’d back me up, but the primary responsibility would be mine.

How did I handle this, you ask? I neither was nor am a religious person but during my first shift on the CCU, I located the hospital chapel and began to memorize the Psalms.

Your Voice in the Workplace

We have a voice in any vocation we pursue and, as with writing, it’s a critical component of our success or failure. Consider, for instance, two social studies teachers’ approach to a standardized curriculum. Were you to scramble their students – have them attend the alternate classroom for a few sessions – do you believe they could mistake one instructor for the other?

The same principle applies to doctors. Each time you meet a physician you absorb their professional voice – their way of being in the world – from minute details such as whether they invite you to address them by their first name, whether they wear a lab coat, their office’s decor. In their presence will you be permitted to laugh at your own cancer? Will you feel foolish if you cry at the birth of a baby?

At the CCU stage of my life, if you had pressed me to describe the story of my medical career, I would have said it was about the struggle to survive information overwhelm, sleep deficits, and responsibility, not to develop an independent physician-voice.

That changed the morning I met “Jim.”

A Paradigm Change 

He’d arrived overnight, been admitted by my colleague for a heart attack, and in the transfer meeting was said to be recovering uneventfully. But as I began rounds on the CCU, Jim developed a known complication – intermittent heart block, meaning that he went through periods when the top and bottom parts of his hearts were not communicating. He hadn’t passed out yet, but his EKG was deteriorating.

This is not the kind of problem which can be fixed with medication. Should Jim progress to complete heart block, depriving his brain and vital organs of oxygen, his life could only be saved by the emergency placement of a pacemaker.

Now I’d never inserted a central line before, never mind a pacemaker, so it was fortunate that a new-to-me cardiologist was on the unit at the time. As we collectively wheeled Jim into the attached OR and as we donned our sterile gowns and gloves, I became Dr. H’s assistant, more bystander than participant. I watched him prep the patient’s skin, make an incision, and prepare to thread the pacemaker through a vein into Jim’s heart.

That’s when things got interesting.

If you’d been told that your life hung in the balance while a team attempted to float a delicate mechanism into your chest, do you suppose you would remain motionless when specifically asked? While I’d personally be doing my best Hans Solo impression, Jim, who was a great shaggy beast of a man, wasn’t cooperating. No sooner would we get close to stabilizing his heart than he’d shift his body and we’d have to begin anew.

Continue Reading »