Saturday, 6 January 2018


Another year, another blog post (that’s how often you’re supposed to blog, right? Just once a year? I think that’s how it’s done).

2017 was a very interesting year for me. Although I didn’t make my deadline for the new book, I did have one of the most productive years of my writing career.

“But J, your output makes Axl Rose look prolific!”

This is true. But I’m talking about productivity in terms of the development of my style and technique. In that case, I’ve been quite prolific. In fact, my style and technique have changed more in the last twelve months than it has in the last twenty years. How? I did something quite revolutionary:

I started asking myself for help.   

It’s been a strange journey over the last few years. First, I quit pantsing and decided to become a plotter. Then I became disillusioned with plotting after I realized that 99% of how-to writing books are written by people who’ve only written how-to writing books. They’ve never written a successful novel and wouldn’t know how if their lives depended upon it.

So I chucked most of what I’d learned and combined what remained into a strange hybrid called plantsing (a mix of pantsing and plotting).

Plantsing worked for me. And it would continue to work unless I found a new structural problem. If that happened, I’d have a real dilemma. But what were the odds of that happening?



Back in February, I faced a big structural problem. The kind of scenes I wanted to write just didn’t fit with my existing method of structuring. Either I would have to change the content of my scenes and keep the existing structure, or chuck the existing structuring method and create a new one to fit the scenes I wanted to write.

I didn’t want to change the content. Changing the content would tear a big hole in the plot.

So, I had no choice. I’d have to change the pre-existing structure. But how? I couldn’t go back to those writing books; they’d just lead me down a path of self-doubt or, worse, cause me to write a cookie-cutter scene with no life.

After a mild panic attack, I asked myself: “Well … if I could create my own structure … what kind of structure would I create?”

And my brain whirred to a stop.

It actually paused for a moment.

What kind of structure would I create?


No, no, no. That was a preposterous question. I was just some indie writer with one book under his belt. People like me don’t come up with new ways to structure scenes. Professors of literature do that, and qualified people like…


Like all those goobers who wrote all those how-to writing books?

I sat and thought about that. Those goobers weren’t qualified to create new ways of structuring a scene. They weren’t best-selling authors. They were (I’m assuming) mostly educated in marketing. So, if they could come up with a method, why couldn’t I? Something tailored just for me?

I decided to give it a try. I tore apart the structure of a scene. I re-worked it, simplified it…

And it worked.



It was my Neo moment. Remember when he watches Morpheus leap from one building to the next?


After scene structure, I moved on to plot structure. And then style, character development, narrative description, everything! On and on and on, one by one, month after month, I asked myself what could work. And I haven’t stopped. Only last week I started ripping apart my method of writing dialogue.  

And it’s still working.

Have I discarded everything from those writing books? Oh, no. Some writing advice is as old as Aristotle, and it’s still used by writers because it works. But I’ve kicked most “recent” advice to the curb.

If you’re struggling with your writing, ask yourself what’s blocking you. Is it you, or are you trying to contort your story so that it adheres to the “36 Laws of Writing Success” or the “5 Secrets of Best-Selling Authors” or some method with a silly name like the “Camel Method” or the “Snowball Method” or the “Power Pyramid of Plotting Potential.”

Get rid of that junk. Create your own structure. Stop giving money to those hacks.

Don’t believe that trusting your own way could yield results? Could Stephen King or Ray Bradbury persuade you?

Scour “On Writing” and “Zen in the Art of Writing,” and you’ll find no mention of the myriad of fiction teachers that have dominated the industry over the past 50 years. It seems that both King and Bradbury, outside of grammar, pretty much adhered to their own method.  They relied upon their own intelligence to create a story.

Sure, you say, but that’s freakin’ Stephen King and frackin’ Ray Bradbury.

Yes, but King used to be a 28-year-old janitor living in a trailer park. Bradbury was a 30-year-old short-story writer who had to rent a typewriter (at 10 cents for every half hour) because he couldn’t afford to buy his own.

That janitor followed his own method and wrote “Carrie.”

That short-story writer followed his own method and wrote “Fahrenheit 451” on that rented typewriter.

Not bad for two writers who didn’t follow the “36 Laws of Writing Success.”

If you still don’t believe you can build your own structure, consider this: As a writer, you create worlds out of nothing. Worlds. So, you can do that, but you can’t create a simple method that is reliable, increases productivity, and allows your story to thrive?

Come on. Don’t lie to me.

Don’t lie to yourself. 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

I Quite Like It

Happy New Year! It turns out that I am still alive and writing. What a relief!  

Now, I’ve had a few inquiries about the new book. I’m happy to report that I am on the 3rd draft, which is the final major draft and also my technical draft (in which every word is scrutinized, and whatever needs to be peeled away is peeled, and whatever needs to be added is debated, and my inner grammarian shouts at me). This means that, if all goes well, I should have the book finished by the end of March. Considering that my last book came out in 2011, I am eager to get this one finished.  

It’s going very well, and this terrifies me. I’m not used to any book going well.  I’m used to a brawl. Sure, I've had a few panic attacks over this book, but nothing major. Is that a good sign? I hope so. 

Maybe the "going well" part has something to do with my new writing style. I stumbled upon something interesting back in 2014, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I fumbled with it for a while until I finally saw a pattern. And now that pattern is my style. It’s probably not original—I assume I cobbled it together from a hundred different writers—but it gives me a little more room to play with imagery. And I quite like it.

It may also have something to do with Hemingway. I recently spent some time researching Hemingway's use of minimalism (a subject near and dear to my heart), and I ended up doing a deep dive into the topic of literary impressionism. Basically, literary impressionism is the idea that emotions can be implied by using the external environment to represent the internal. According to the theory (championed by Ezra Pound), this allows the reader to create whatever emotions he or she needs in order to understand the scene. This, in turn, creates a stronger emotional impact.

I really like this idea because it reminds me of “The 50% Rule” for description in a scene. This rule states that if you describe around 50% of a scene’s setting (or a character’s physical description), the reader will fill in the other 50% with his or her imagination, leading to a much more vivid scene in the reader’s mind. It’s one of my favorite magic tricks, and I’ve used it for years.

But literary impressionism takes this idea to the extreme, and Hemingway was such a disciple of it that his writing could sometimes (in my opinion) take on a stilted, wooden, and unemotional characteristic. Although I don't think I'd ever take it as far as he did, I think I can add it to the mix, just like Fitzgerald did in Gatsby, or Stephen Crane did in "The Red Badge of Courage."

In other happy news: That sci-fi novel that I had to abandon back in 2015? I have an idea on how to save it. All it needs is a trim of about 40k and a new ending. Easy peasy. I think I’ll try it, if for no other reason than to justify the four years I worked on it. And maybe there’s still a psychic “gut punch” associated with it that I need to heal.

What else? Oh! My PEI fantasy novel is still waiting for its 2nd draft. I hope to work on that in the spring. And then it’s either on to the next draft of a novella, or I decide to give my sci-fi novel its new ending.

So, anyway, I’m still alive and writing.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

J. Birch, Epic … Plantser?

In my last post, I talked about the failed book that I quit after 4 years of writing, rewriting, and editing. When I wrote that post, I was still reeling from the experience of crashing and burning on such a long project. However, I said that I would get up again, and I have.

And the experience has been fantastic.

Sometimes, one must hit a kind of rock bottom before gaining a moment of clarity. Looking back on my pre-crash, I can see how tied up I’d become in writing the "right" way. Although writing, like any art, is full of guidelines, I began to see those guidelines as rules. This, of course, can have two effects. One, it can aid in writing more clearly (and it did), but it can also constrict creativity until it chokes.

A typical discussion in my brain: 

“I want to write this scene this way but I can’t because rule 786 of How to Write the Masterpiece That Will Make You Instantly Rich and Famous by Billy-Bob McHack says that you can’t structure a scene this way. So I’ll have to write it another way, even though I won't like it.”

Yup. After 17 years of writing, I got caught in that terribly destructive mindset. 

So my book crashed, and I crashed.

But then two amazing things happened. One, I read “Story Trumps Structure” by Steven James. This book emphasizes writing from the gut and following the logical path of your characters. Which is interesting, because that's how I had finished Gasher Creek in the first place (and then dismissed that method as too simplistic. Yarg.). 

Second, I read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve read it before, but that was back in high school when my head was stuffed full of study points and suffocating symbolism (West Egg means birth, Gatsby is God or Hamlet or capitalism, etc.). As a result, I couldn't just enjoy it as a reader. 

So, I re-read it a couple months ago, and it was a revelation. Not only because it's brilliant and deserves all the kudos it gets, but because it represents an era in fiction when writers were unafraid to experiment with form, structure, character, and dialogue. Gatsby is fast, fun, dizzy, and it somehow flows beautifully despite being written half a century before all those how-to writing books enlightened us on the "proper" way to write.

So how did Fitzgerald do it? He wrote from the gut (and, apparently, the liver), following the logical flow of his characters and refusing to constrict his own creativity. Because of that, he crafted something that still resonates and still reads as remarkably modern. 

Although I don't fancy myself as brilliant or talented as Fitzgerald, his example has given me the courage to apply a new writing style to my fiction, a style I had worked on in the summer of 2014. 

Because of this, I've never had so much fun writing. That youthful energy, the energy I had before trying to become an “expert” at this stuff, is back. Since my August crash, I’ve written the second draft to a new western, and I’ve nearly finished the first draft of a new YA sci-fi adventure series. And both are going remarkably well. 

Have I abandoned all I’ve learned from those how-to writing books? Oh heck no. I still believe that structure is important, and the lessons I’ve learned from Stephen King (On Writing) Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing), Rebecca McLanahan (Word Painting) and Renni Browne and Dave King (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) have been invaluable.

Guidelines are important, and they must be studied (especially grammar). But it’s also okay to bend those guidelines. Or, on occasion, break them.

So what do I call myself now? I no longer think of myself as a pantser. After all, I do follow a loose structure. Nor am I a plotter, as that's too constricting. I suppose I’m some strange hybrid of the two. Maybe … a plantser? I suppose that could work, although it sounds like the name of a poorly-conceived comic supervillain who's trying to destroy Metropolis with radioactive tulips.   

Whatever the label, it seems to work, and as long as I’m having fun, that’s all that matters.

2016 is going to be an awesome year. I should have two new novels out this year, and I may re-work a few old projects as well. If I can update them to my new style, they may see the light of day.  

For those who have asked about a sequel to Gasher Creek: the answer is yes, there will be a sequel (and possible prequel) coming out in the next couple years. But a few other characters are looking for the opportunity to breathe first.

For those who have asked about the podcast, yes, I'm still planning a podcast. But I want a new book to promote on the first episode, so that's where the delay is coming from. That "new book" was supposed to be the one that crashed back in August. But that's okay. I have a better book to promote, and I think it's worth the wait. 

Yikes, I have a  lot of work to do. Better get started!