Story Starters

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Story Starters
* The Writing
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“Until you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great.” Cherilyn “Cher” Sarkisian

“Successful negotiation is not about getting to ‘yes’; it’s about mastering ‘no’ and understanding what the path to an agreement is.” Christopher Voss

I suspect it’s a lot easier to say No to a six-figure deal when saying Yes wouldn’t change your life dramatically.

Story Starters

Two days ago Garry Rodgers posted “Mindset, Motivation, and Tchotchkes” on the Kill Zone blog. In case you missed it, I linked to it again in “Of Interest” below. The following is an expansion of my original comment on that post:

I have dozens of tchotchkes, defined here simply as small decorative items, having surrounded myself in both my little adobe “Hovel” and in my home office with things I enjoy when I catch a casual glimpse of them. Each, at any given time, might represent or spur or provoke a story idea.

My tchotchkes range from rocks to feathers to odd but natural wood configurations, a little stuffed burlap donkey, turtles, frogs, a lead musket ball, a fused meteorite (two small meteorites fused together), books, gourds, stone fetishes, etc. etc. etc.

I also buy art that interests me, primarily oil paintings but some watercolor or pen-and-ink or prints. I always buy them second-hand in antique stores or junk shops or at estate sales.

I know nothing about art. What matters and what determines whether I buy a painting is how many story starters I recognize in it when I first look at it. Some paintings can hold dozens. Any I buy hold at least a few.

But the start—a character with a problem in a setting—is all I get from them, and it’s all I want. From there my characters take over and I leave it to them.

As the writer, I don’t want to extert the control that all the writing gurus say I should exert. I never do character sketches or world-building or outlines. The very thought of it practically puts me to sleep.

How frightened must you be to want to know every tiny intimate thing about every character in your stories? How insecure are you that you want to know every twist and turn of everything that WILL (future) happen in a story before you even sit down to write it? And how immune to boredom are you to slog your way through writing a story you’ve already written in an outline, a story for which you already know all the major turning points and even the ending?

I wonder, do you also only watch films and read books after someone has told you the plot and how they end? Or do you take a chance that you MIGHT enjoy them and even get a sense of exhilaration from not knowing in advance what will happen?

If you do, then why can’t you give your readers a chance at that same experience? In your writing, if you “figure out” what happens point by point and know what’s coming next, so can the reader. See, the reader has a conscious, critical mind too.

Me? I don’t go there. I’m telling my characters’ stories specifically so I can find out what happened. But then, when I’m writing I’m neither frightened nor insecure nor bored. And I have zero need to control my characters’ world or their story.

So I never don the authorial robes, accompanied by an angelic chorus in the background. I never see the word author capitalized in my mind, as if it’s an elevated calling of some sort. Nor do I ever ascend into the authorial ivory tower, whence I might control every event of the story, every physical reaction of every character, and every word of dialogue.

Instead, in my jeans and t-shirt, sneakers and a ball cap, I roll off the parapet into the trenches of the story. I’m thrilled my characters have invited me along at all. To repay them for that kindness, I race through the story with them, doing my best to keep up and recording whatever actually happens and whatever the characters actually say and do in response.

I would no more force my will on the characters or change any of what they say or do in response to the events of the story than I would force my neighbors to change the facts of their account of their recent trip to Tibet.

Because it isn’t my story. It’s their story. If you believe the story you’re shoving out through your fingertips is your story, you really need to check in with yourself.

The Writing

Writing for the Journal has slipped into my psyche and taken priority. I spend a couple of hours each day writing something for the Journal, which is perfectly fine. After all, the Journal is what enabled me to still call myself a legitimate writer even through all the months I was unable to write a word of fiction. I kept my hand in by writing the Journal.

When I started writing short stories and novels back in 2014, I wrote fiction almost every day. Today and for almost the past two years I still write almost every day, but most of what I write is nonfiction in the form of the Journal. That’s good for you, I hope, but it’s horrible for me as a fiction writer. I need to get back to what I love to do.

I used to write for the Journal in addition to writing fiction. But recently (right up through now) I’m writing for the Journal instead of writing fiction. That is vastly different.

Consider, as of May 19, 2021, I had written 58,223 words of fiction for that month and 429,502 words of fiction for the year up to that point. (Nonfiction words for May 2021 were 14,180, and for the year up to that point were 99,040.) I had also written 8 novels, 1 novella and 3 short stories on the year as of that date.

A year later on May 19, 2022, I wasn’t reporting numbers at all. I had no numbers to report. When I finally did report numbers again, it was May 28. At that point I had written only 3,676 words of fiction for May, and only 9,469 words of fiction for the whole year to that point. (By contrast, nonfiction words for May 2022 were 17,760, and for the year were 77,410.) By December 31, 2022 somehow I had written 5 novels, no novellas and no short stories.

A couple of days ago I talked about setting goals. My big goal is to get back to my pre-August 2021 writing levels. To do that, I’m going to have to re-establish my daily word count goal, which I will set, modestly, at 3000 words again.

I’ll be a day or two looking around (maybe) for a new novel to write. It might be a continuation of the Stern Talbot PI short story I published on my substack a couple weeks ago, or it might be another western or SF or Blackwell Ops thriller. Or it might be something completely new.

Or maybe I’ll start pumping out a short story every day until one of them wants to run into a novel, at which point I’ll just run with it.

I don’t know. Stay tuned. Place your bets if you’re interested. But take my word for it, at the moment the odds are only even.

Along these lines too, and because I and a few others have been talking about pulp writers and about the modern “speed” myth (if you write “fast” you must be turning out garbage), tomorrow I’ll repost a bit I wrote awhile back about pulp writer Anthony Trollope.

It might give some of you ideas how you can respond (or not) to some of the “beginners who somehow magically know everything about writing” that you encounter online. Great fun.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “I Feel Bad For New Writers… Part 9… More Myths” at

See “Meet ‘DarkBERT:’ South Korea’s Dark Web AI could combat cybercrime” at Story ideas.

See “Mindset, Motivation, and Tchotchkes” at

See “What recent publishing controversies say about the industry” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1370

Total fiction words for May……… 14404
Total fiction words for 2023………… 97868
Total nonfiction words for May… 20320
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 102010
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 199878

Calendar Year 2023 Novels to Date…………………… 2
Calendar Year 2023 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2023 Short Stories to Date… 4
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 73
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 221
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark, adherence to Heinlein’s Rules, and that following the myths of fiction writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

1 thought on “Story Starters”

  1. Word tchotchki sounded strange for me – it looks definitely borrowed, but I couldn’t recognize original.
    I’ve checked Wikipedia and it was a lot of fun. It’s an Yddish word, based on Belorussian (and common for werstern Russian dialects) tzatzki – plural for tzatza, “toy”.
    It’s still used in common speech. But I think word pribambAs (used since 1990th) for same stuff sounds even funner

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