Lean Writer, Fat Word Count? Engineering Your Environment for Default Success

fruitIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good premise must be in want of a functioning brain with which to execute it. Said brain is best nourished by blood pumped by a healthy heart contained within a healthy body, yes? Unfortunately, we Westerners live in an environment which discourages activity and encourages overeating. Indeed, some have gone so far as it label it “toxic”. The result? More than 70% of us are losing the battle to stay trim and fit.

On WU we’ve had several conversations about staying active and reducing sitting time. (Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down and Becoming a Stand-up Writer.) That’s excellent. Unfortunately, it’s also insufficient. It takes me 15 minutes to consume a grande Carmel Macchiato with soy milk, but 1 hour and 10 minutes of brisk walking to work it off.

In the hierarchy of lifestyle medicine, this is why diet is proclaimed king to exercise’s queen.

Hope for Science-based, Simple Solutions

We all know that diets don’t work. We can talk about the science of this in another post, but willpower is a finite and easily exhausted resource. Turns out it takes as little as 15 minutes of mental effort to diminish the brain’s supply of glucose, thus undermining the part of the brain which weighs the desires of our future self against the present-day temptation.

Nor does it help to frame food choices as a moral decision (i.e. apples = good, chocolate bars = bad). If we do, it’s not long before we:

1) brew an outright home-grown rebellion or
2) deal with the Healthy Halo Effect—having made the morally superior choice to eat a salad, we feel entitled to eat the burger and cookie, thus consuming more calories than we would have otherwise done, all while living in denial about the outcome.

So if white-knuckling doesn’t work, and morality-based decisions backfire, what can move us forward?

If only it was possible to tweak our environment so that healthful food choices could be made by default. If only there was a research team dedicated to disseminating science-based recommendations on how to mindlessly reduce caloric intake on an incremental basis.

Happily, there is such a group. But before we pay them a quick visit, care to take a brief quiz on your food-environment literacy?


  1. The maximum size of my dinner plate should be ___ inches.
  2. Assuming two glasses have the same volumetric capacity, which shape encourages me to pour less liquid: short and wide, or tall and skinny?
  3. What object should be given a prominent place on my kitchen counter?
  4. True or false: When asked to estimate the calories contained within a specific meal, heavy participants are less accurate than their skinnier counterparts?
  5. In a kitchen designed to facilitate slimness, the freezer will be in which position on the fridge: top, side, or bottom?
  6. My fridge should contain no more than ___  juices or soft drinks (diet or regular) or energy drinks in single-serving containers.
  7. On average we control what percent of our family’s nutrition?
  8. What item should be placed in the front center of a breakfast cupboard?
  9. True or false: When it comes to measuring out food portions, food researchers and professional cooks—the experts—are able to compensate for cues like bowl size, spoon size, etc.

What Is in the Drinking Water of Upstate New York?

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Deconstructing Micro-Tension


If you had to guess, what portion of the hundred-thousand-mile journey to basic fiction-writing competence would belong to the pursuit and mastery of micro-tension? Ten percent? Thirty? I personally don’t have a clue, yet I’ve been persuaded of its necessity since first being introduced to the concept by WU’s Donald Maass. Accordingly, I’ve done my best to read everything he’s had to say on the subject, several times. I’ve picked apart books that demonstrate micro-tension. (How about that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which has sold a reported 6.5 million copies due to unsettling lines like this opener? When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.)

Despite this, my understanding still feels distant and intellectual. I’m like a medical student who can quote chapter and verse on state-of-the-art brain surgery, yet who walks into the OR and forgets her booties and mask.

Is there a solution for people like me? Maybe. As I was writing this article, I thought of what I already knew about tension at the experiential level and tried a reverse engineering exercise. It helped. The proof will be in my future writing, of course, but micro-tension seems closer, attainable. Care to see if the procedure works for you?

When we’re done, I’m hoping Don and/or you other craft nerds will have time to chime in with your thoughts on the process and conclusions.

First, here are a few quotes from Don to make sure we’re on the same page.

Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether: Micro-tension. That is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen-not in the story, but in the next few seconds. ~ Donald Maass from The Fire in Fiction

Tension” sounds drastic, but it can be simmering under the surface, it can be questions raised or false confidence, it can be so many different things. The Fire in Fiction contains an entire discussion (Chapter 8) on building tension and how it works — how a writer can make a riveting passage when absolutely nothing is happening. ~ from an interview with Pikes Peak Writers blog

Next, think back to a time in your life when you were on the edge of your seat throughout a relatively commonplace, ostensibly non-threatening activity — the more ordinary, the better. Have you got your example? Have any preliminary ideas about what made the situation so fraught?

Though I experienced an alphabet soup of emotions during my time as a family doctor, including grief and terror, I can honestly describe this “scene” as one of the tensest of my career.

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“Visionaries on the Decks”: Storytelling


iStock_000003642265_Medium Bondarchiuk

“To Declare Your Story’s Intent”

There are things important to you. You hurt. You know stuff. I don’t. You see things that I cannot…You have everything you need, including the courage to declare your story’s intent.

— Donald Maass, Writing 21st Century Fiction

Not for nothing am I looking forward to the November 3-7 Writer Unboxed “Un-Conference” in bewitching Salem, Massachusetts. The final day, a Friday, as you might know, is given over to our good WU colleague Don Maass, who’s going to stand his 21st Century Fiction concepts on their feet and explicate them in a daylong seminar.

Don Maass
Don Maass

This material, which appears in Chapter 8, is some of the best of the entire book. For me, it’s the heart of what his subtitle describes as “High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.”

Your novel definitely is about something, and that something is sharply defined, it’s just that you’re not letting yourself see and commit to it…Take a stand. Decide what’s important, what hurts, what you know that your readers don’t, what it is that people (including your characters) urgently need to see. That’s your missing focus, the refining fire that will turn the ore into steel.

It’s a careful line Maass walks here. Partly an answer to the question of what has become of literary fiction today, 21st Century Fiction insists on, maybe demands, an author’s awareness of what he or she is doing in a book. But it never urges preaching, lecturing, haranguing, or — forgive me — “man-splaining” the work or its mission to the reader.

And this is not only difficult for even the most skilled and exacting of novelists, it turns out. It’s also fiendishly tricky for many publishing-community wonks whose pleasure it is to guess and predict and define and decry where the industry! the industry! is going in its sometimes unseemly stagger through the digital determination of its future.

This, too, is storytelling.

Debates in this community of pundits tend to break out, rash and rash-like. What seemed a productive day spirals down into a sighing scrimmage of comments on a blog post. Here come the opinion-slingers again — God forbid they sit one out — rather sadly advancing a tiny turf warfare that can keep them from seeing new techno land-grabs much like the ones they missed years ago.

Provocations image by Liam Walsh
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

But once in a great while, the debate turns on itself. The discussion is about the discussion. It can be in such moments that we learn the most.

When it happens, it’s a public edition of the private challenge Maass hands to the author who’s lost his way.

As we stumble into one of these moments in the community’s circular conversation, the digital diaspora of book publishing’s energies is clearer. It’s more worrisome, too, maybe. Clarity does that. In a world of arts gone to mobile devices and a tradition of letters gone to Reply All, obfuscation can be a comfort.

Nevertheless, yesterday, Thursday, just such a moment arrived. While many in the Writer Unboxed community dislike paying attention to the “high-impact storytelling” that goes on as their industry tries to redefine itself, I believe wearing those blinkers is a terrible mistake. I think you need to monitor and engage in the dialog of a field that now expects you to know what’s going on. If you want to be an author regarded as a business-savvy professional,  you can do no less. That’s my provocation for you this time.

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All Hail Dilemmas: Why Your Characters Need to Make Tough Choices

choiceLast month I began a series on story lessons learned or refined during my multi-day Story seminar with Robert McKee. (It was fantastic. If you get a chance to attend, I highly recommend it.) The first post was about cultivating the gap between reality and expectation, or Turning Points. This month, I wanted to talk about the necessity of giving characters agency, or setting them up to make active, well-structured choices in fiction. (Even if their ultimate choice is not to act.)

To illustrate the points McKee made, here’s a scenario to contemplate:

On the edge of a forested rest stop in southern California, two characters stumble across a scene of animal cruelty. A crowd of thugs has congregated in a meadow just south of the parking lot. They’ve nailed two dog leashes to a stump and, armed with pointed sticks, take turns poking at their terrified hostages.

One of our characters arrives by motorcycle and is taking a leak in the park when he overhears the sounds of canine distress. He’s wearing leathers and zips his pants with a hand decorated by crude prison tattoos. The last thing he wants to do is become embroiled in local conflict, what with the $200,000 in his saddle bag, the arrest warrant out in his name, and the Mexican border a whisper away.

The other drives a Prius with an Amnesty International bumper sticker. She’s hungry but rather than drive distracted, she pulls over to snack on a chocolate vegan granola bar made by the green company she founded. It’s a sweltering night but she’s also a survivor of sexual assault, so when she cracks the windows to cool off and hears yelping and male jeers, the last thing she wants to do is investigate.

In this scenario, which for our purposes takes place in a cellular dead zone, let’s assume both parties make the choice to render immediate aid, if they can. And let’s say that a careless foot and a dry twig have now ruined their attempts at stealth.

Without weapons and heavily outnumbered, with the gang turning in their direction, they have a second choice to make. Which of these two people will run to their vehicle and drive away? Who decides to act as a decoy and loses the thugs in the forest, looping back around to free the animals?

For the sake of illustration, let’s assume they both pick the second option and return to the clearing with only enough time to release one pup. Who selects the yappy Pomeranian? Who frees the black Lab?

Takeaways about choice:

First, McKee makes the point that character can only be revealed when protagonists are forced to make choices under pressure.

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Cultivate the Gap and Watch Your Readers’ Eyebrows Bounce

expectations gapWhen my youngest was a wee lad, there was a period when I knew I was failing him as a parent. Day after day, from the moment I woke him up to take him to the sitter’s until I tucked him into bed (for the last time), we were locked in one power struggle after another.

I wanted him to have a playful, imaginative childhood, yet the word I uttered with the most frequency was no.

Worse, while I retained the upper hand, I was under no illusion that would persist. Short of formal therapy, I’d already exhausted every resource at my disposal. I’d bent The ToolMaster’s ear whenever he could call from his enforced work absence. I combined his advice with that gleaned from seasoned and skillful parents. I’d worked on my reactivity and consistency, picked my battles, used time-outs, positive reinforcement, logical consequences, yada yada.

Still, it seemed that my son knew all my moves and counter-moves in advance, could push me to the limit, so I was always on the cusp of acting more childlike than him. It was a discouraging, humbling experience and ironic, given that my patients often thanked me for my parenting counsel.

But one hot July evening, as my son and I launched into our post-dinner script, I clutched a new, secret weapon to my breast.

A Hero in a Red Sports Car

It came courtesy of Dr. G, whom I’d been fortunate to meet at a conference on spirituality in medicine. A Corvette-driving, six-foot-tall woman in her early sixties, G’s practice was devoted to cognitive behavioral therapy. She was good at it, too — so much so that she was under contract to provide mental health services to the province’s physicians. (Doctors make extra-demanding patients because of challenges around vulnerability and trust.)

I don’t recall confiding in her about my worries, but G was full of entertaining stories. At some point in our luncheons together, she talked about hamster-wheel relationships and how she worked with clients to shift them. She had plenty of examples — all anonymous or derived from her personal life — and I glommed onto them.

The principle was radically simple: When stuck in a scripted relationship, disrupt the pattern. Do something fresh, something completely unexpected so that neither party can return to the previous relationship trajectory. (She never said as much, but by her examples and common sense, I understood this to exclude anything destructive, disrespectful, or cruel. In other words, follow the Golden Rule.)

So it was, on that sweltering July evening, when Frank and I began another of our tussles over the bedtime routine, that I had a different consequence to use when he refused my request to go up for his bath. My inspiration? [Read more…]