What I Learned This Time

This morning I delivered my latest novel, The Texas Twist, to my publisher, and then I stopped writing – for about twelve hours. Now I’m back writing again.

Every novel I write teaches me something, and the big lesson of this one was let the crap be crap. In the midst of the first draft – what I call all the work that happens before I see the words THE END for the first time – I became aware that I had all sorts of loose ends, unfulfilled promises, pointless red herrings and other strange or random or useless ideas there on the page. I kind of freaked out a little. I wanted to hunt down all those mistakes and kill them, but I swallowed the urge, because I knew I’d never get to the words THE END even once if I didn’t stop fussing with the middle. I trusted myself that I could clean up the mess later and made myself be okay with that. I knew I couldn’t solve the puzzle of this novel until I had all the pieces, including the ending and the superfluous pieces that didn’t fit.

If writing a novel is like creating the puzzle and solving it at the same time, things are bound to get confusing. So for me, I break it down into steps, two to be exact: 1) create the pieces, 2) see how they fit. Simple, right? And I think I’ve always known that I can’t do both at the same time (I think most writers can’t.) What I got out of writing The Texas Twist was a better understanding that it’s okay to create pieces that I know don’t fit. They can always be made to fit – or thrown out – later. But if my expectation is that I’m going to get it all right on the first pass, well, then I’ll get caught up in fussing and I’ll never get to THE END.

My goal is to get to THE END. To me, that’s a precious destination. See, dummy that I am, I don’t work from an outline. I have found that if I know too much about how the story’s going to go, I lose my excitement for writing it. So I wrote The Texas Twist much as the reader reads it – wondering what’s going to happen next. Okay, that’s fine as far as it goes, but along with the curiosity comes the fear. What if I can’t figure out what happens next? What if it all falls apart before I get to the end? What if I don’t create enough pieces? What if I lose?

But when I get to THE END, my fear goes away. At that point I know I have some kind of draft, and now it’s just a matter of making it good, if I can. In the upshot, I write my first draft in a certain state of anxiety, but I do all my edits in a deep sea of tranquility.  No wonder I’m so eager to see those words THE END for the first time.

Here’s another big take-away from this engagement. You could say it’s the whole secret of story: “Story isn’t hard. Just never have things go as planned.” Whenever I found myself wondering what should happen next – and fearing that I wouldn’t find it – I just asked myself two simple questions. First, what can my characters reasonably expect to happen next? Second, what could happen instead? Again, this is a pretty self-evident fact of storytelling. We all know that when we spit our words on the page we should expectorate the unexpected. What may not be so self-evident is how agreeably logical this process can be. Once you eliminate what’s likely to happen, virtually anything else you think of will be unlikely, and will therefore drive the story forward.

How do I know I’m writing the right story? I don’t. I never do. And I also don’t care. I don’t believe in “the right story.” I believe in “a story that works.” Like the sign says, “The ocean is blue and it’s also wet.” There’s always more than one right answer, always more than one successful path through the material – and probably never any one “best” path. In writing this novel, I detached from the need to find the best path and focused instead on following one of the many intriguing paths that presented themselves.

Next lesson: never lose the whimsy. A couple of paragraphs back, I shoehorned in the phrase “expectorate the unexpected.” That was a goony self-indulgence, but like the sign says (lots of signs around here tonight), “Self-indulgence is its own reward.” In writing The Texas Twist, I often found myself thinking, “Well, that’s certainly a silly choice.” Then I would go ahead and write the silly choice just because it was a silly choice. I served my whimsical nature, and in the end it worked out well. Many of my choices are silly, but they hang together in a silly whole. And anyway, they helped me get to THE END.

Having gotten to THE END, I then went back and started fixing the mess I’d made. It took four full passes through the manuscript before I felt like I’d tucked in all the corners, removed the dead ends and red herrings, and created a story that was internally coherent and (one hopes) fulfilling to the reader. With each pass my focus became finer. On the first edit, I was fixing major story problems and making big changes. By the final pass I was focused on small stuff, like, “How many times have I used the word ‘whimsy?’ Is it too much?” So this was another big lesson: my editing task gets smaller and finer with each pass through the material.

Now the book is in the hands of my publishers, and I look forward to getting their notes. They will know something I can’t possibly know: how the book reads to someone other than me. I will look to them to tell me whether my plot logic and story logic hold up. If you don’t know, plot logic is what happens because the author needs it, and story logic is what happens because the characters need it to. In a well wrought story, both types of logic will be served. But never fear! If they’re not both being served in the current draft, that’s a problem that can be fixed.

Do you doubt that there are many fine paths through your story? Do you doubt that all the problems can be solved? Do you doubt that you can arrive at a fulfilling, satisfying telling of a tale? Me, too. But guess what? We’re wrong. All it takes is a little whimsy, a little willingness to make a mess on the page, and a lot of faith that we can clean up the mess we made. I’ve just finished my… counting on fingers here… seventh novel. Every single one was a mess at some stage. Every one turned out all right.

So, yeah, I learned a lot writing this novel. Mostly I learned that I can’t stop writing. Good thing I love it so much.


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!


  1. says

    Sounds a lot like my writing process. The first draft is where I discover the story and then I go back and make it coherent. For pantsers like us the revision process is crucial to success. There is a lot of effort that must go into this phase of the process. The writer must be able to recognize the essence of the story as well as those passages that do not work. You have a sound system for identifying and then polishing your story. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  2. says

    Most encouraging, John. My process is somewhere in between; I block out scenes but violate them if the story is going somewhere interesting driven by characters and their events. I correct sentences and spelling as I go along but push the story and follow the characters. Serious editing comes after The End. I like your free range style. It lets serrendipity happen.

  3. says


    My favorite nugget: “First, what can my characters reasonably expect to happen next? Second, what could happen instead?”

    The expected cannot wake readers’ imaginations. Only something fresh and unexpected can do that. That’s as true of a character’s emotions as it is of story events.

    I was chatting the other night with a novelist pal of mine who struggles daily to get the words right. I suggested that he stop concentrating on his words and instead let his POV characters narrate in their words.

    It’s about surrendering control in order to let the writing flow. You’re saying the same thing, I expectorate.

    • Denise Willson says

      Great point, Don. I suspect this is why it took me 8 weeks to write the first draft and 3 years to edit. So much to learn.

      Now, my dear Yoda, it’s in your slush pile…. :)

      Denise Willson
      Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  4. says

    It’s always helpful to be reminded that all is well with this natural (for me, anyway) process. I just keep telling myself, “of course you can make it work, you’re the one writing it.” Or, when I feel stuck: “just make something up…”

  5. Denise Willson says

    You always have such a positive, happy-go-lucky feel to your posts, John, and I assume this rings true with your writing. What a wonderfully inspiring attitude to have.

    Kudos on submitting your latest.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  6. says

    I hate that, you know, when I can’t stopping fussing around the middle and never reach the end? It’s an occupational habit, a hazardous habit. Thanks for the reminder. Yesterday I went one worse: I fussed about the first paragraph. For hours. Still haven’t seen the words THE END. I promise I won’t do that anymore. At least not until I forget again. Like tomorrow.

  7. says

    Thanks for this witty, informative post, John. Right on target for my work today. For me the 2 most resonate points are figuring out what could happen instead and whimsy. I’m pretty sure the 2 are related. Being whimsical, allowing the silly to emerge, often opens the door to new ideas.

  8. says

    Thanks for a great post, John. I’ve already passed it to friends. I followed this same process with my current WIP, although I had the bones of an outline, and am finding the editing less painful than I thought it would be. I know it will get harder, but it’s refreshing to hear others with similar thoughts. Appreciate your time…and timing.

  9. says

    So many little gems popping from the page, John! The one that smacked me in the face was, “All it takes is…a little willingness to make a mess on the page, and a lot of faith that we can clean up the mess we made.”

    That’s how I write. And I always felt a little — okay, let’s just say it — guilty/disgusted/nasty to be writing that way. Like I should know of a better way…a more organized way…a more civilized way of breathing life into my characters and their story. I’ve tried a few of those other ways, but they always felt like chains around my hands and my brain. So glad to know I’m not the only one who employs the ‘mess’ method. Thanks for sharing!

    Off to continue messing up my pages, a smile on my face, and leaving the guilt/disgust/nasty baggage in the trash.

  10. says

    Hey John,

    Although I’ve been a writer for years, I am new to fiction writing and this post has made me realize that I can stop fretting and just keep writing. I have published a couple of non-fiction books and my publisher, who also does writing workshops, always says ‘just get that shitty first draft done and then take it from there.’

    I’m happy to follow the advice of the professionals.


  11. says

    “Expectorate the unexpected” – that is gold! Writing is proof that we never can and never will stop learning about craft. Thanks for sharing these well-earned gold-nuggets of wisdom. And congratulations on finishing your novel!

  12. Tristi Mullett says

    Beautimous! Such a wonderful post that’s well timed for my writing life. I’ve a first draft that’s giving me fits but I know where the problems are and can fix them in edits. There’s plenty of time for fixing things after you’ve got the bones of the story in place.

    Keeping track of this one…


  13. says

    Hi John,

    I’ve been a writer for almost 20 years now and only just embarking on my first book which despite my experience is a daunting project.

    I find myself knee deep in crap too (I think that’s a good way to describe it) and have been going back over material to edit rather than getting my head down and actually getting to the end.

    I think it’s time for a change of tactics. The poster above said, “there’s plenty of time for fixing things after you have the bones of the story in place.”

    All this sounds like good advice.

  14. says

    I outlined my plot to the third degree, then wrote the first draft in 6 months. At some point along the way, the characters did not like the path I had sent them on, and so the story started to change. However, I was determined to conclude as I had originally conceived the story and, consequently, shoehorned the unlikely and unsatisfying death of my protagonist into the last page.

    Your advice re. the unexpected actually targets me because, revision after revision, I am finding scenes and sub-plots and new characters that never appeared in the holier-than-thou outline, but have managed to squeeze their way onto my computer screen. And, oh, yes, I listened to my gut, instead of my outline-loving brain, and changed the ending.

  15. says

    I also go through this phase, but also through another one: panic that things are not complicated enough and the reader will feel like the plot is flat. So, sometimes I start adding threads to the story and when they get too convoluted, then I panic because it is too much and I start taking out stuff. Eventually I wind up somewhere in the middle, but I actually think that the panic helps :)

    Thanks for the article.