The 3 Keys to Writing Success

Disclaimer: I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. But neither does anyone else, I reckon, or that expert would be the only person a writer ever listens to. So it’s possible that, however accidentally, my advice today is worthwhile.

The changeling

If a writer tried to follow all the writing tips flying around on WordPress, agent/publisher blogs, and in writing magazines, she would probably explode like that robot on Star Trek who couldn’t handle paradoxes (by the way, why do electrical things in the twenty third century explode instead of flashing a useless error message like every HP printer I’ve ever owned?).

If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve found yourself exasperated by all the contradictory messages (sometimes from the same source) about what you should be doing that you’re not. I used to get frustrated too, but then I stopped listening to advice and became much happier.

I think a lot. I analyze. I study logic. If someone said I reminded him of Spock, I’d take it as a compliment. Through thinking and analyzing and logicating, I’ve formed a hypothesis that the following three activities are the keys to writing success, and the rest is noise. They are drawn from the worlds of business, sports, entertainment, science, and personal observation.

If you see me selling lots of books with my name on the cover someday, that means my test supports my hypothesis, ‘cause the following are going to be my three writing practices from now on. If I’m wrong, you will have long forgotten this post and me. I can’t lose!

Practice, Practice, Practice

Whatever you do—be it knitting, painting, playing Pong, photography, writing, or following some skeleton keyother passion—nothing beats practice. The Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hour rule, however unscientifically derived, is hard to argue with on a practical level. If you want to be an advanced writer, you’ve got to hammer through the beginner and intermediate stages. If you can’t push through, you aren’t cut out for having writing passion.

Kristen Otte is an author many of you know from WordPress. She writes a cute children’s book series about the adventures of Zelda, her pet pug, as well as sports-themed young adult novels. Her prose is as clean, slick, and professional as any you’ll find in Barnes and Noble. Although I believe there’s such a thing as innate talent, I’m convinced Kristen’s work is that good because the woman is simply possessed by the urge to write. She writes a lot. Her daily tweets typically say things like, “Finished another manuscript today.”

To get good, we gotta write.

Modeling Successful People

Ripped from the pages of business books!

skeleton keyPeople often dish writing advice based on their personal quirks and preferences rather than on proof that what they say is true. I’m sure you have your own advice peeves, but my two are “You have to use an outline” and “You have to join a writing group.”

Since heaps of authors have written blockbuster novels without using outlines (Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and JK Rowling, for example), and tons more never joined a writing group, the above declarations are really just personal choices. If you write better with outlines, use outlines, and if you enjoy the support and experience of a writing group, join one. But don’t tell me I have to.

I prefer to study what a successful person did to achieve success, not what [irony/paradox alert] people like me say. Everyone takes a different path, of course, but as with practice, you can’t argue with success. If Writer X makes the bestseller list, don’t you want to know how?

It works in business and sports, so why not in writing?

Stop Worrying about What Other People are Doing

Yes, model success. No, don’t compare yourself.

skeleton keyDo you know what type of athlete is most successful? The one who keeps practicing when others are off watching TV. The one who doesn’t worry if someone else scores more points or gets more press. The one who listens to his editor coach. Any sports psychologist will tell you so.

Another bit of advice I often get is to read everything in my genre and know what my competitors are doing. Why? Is that going to make my writing better? Is it going to help me finish my novel? I doubt it. From one writer to another, I wish you success, but when I’m creating, I ain’t thinking about you, and you shouldn’t be thinking about me.

Bonus: A key to blogging success is “Keep it under 800 words.” So, on that note, peace out homey.

Don’t forget to sound off in the comments!

3 words every insecure writer needs to understand:

[that's just about all of us, last I checked]

its not personal

Today’s post inspired by this story from editor Lynn Price.

Gender rules: Why does breaking them freak us out so much?

The other day I had an epiphany… at Staples of all places. I’ll explain shortly, but first:

Think of three people

  1. A straight man
  2. A gay man
  3. A straight woman.

Now, following your first instinct, decide which person goes with which list of traits below.

gender graphic list

There’s no reason to feel like a bad person if you assigned the straight man to list A, the straight woman to list B, and the gay man to list C. Anyone who knows about playing the odds would do the same, even if you thought, “Hey, I’m a woman and I like dogs better,” or, “I’m a gay man and I dig horror films.”

Thaaaaang is, all the items on all three lists happen to be my interests and tendencies. I think lizards are cool; I’m sooo not the person you want to call when something breaks; and I stood in line for two hours to see Alexander McQueen’s dresses exhibited in New York a couple years ago. Some other interests I left off: I adore old-school British mystery novels (aka “cozies”), I frequently use the word “fabulous,” and I get a major adrenaline rush when I hear a bad-ass guitar solo.

The point of this exercise is not to say, “Ooh, look how open I am.” I suspect all of you have interests that shatter stereotypes and exhibit preferences that contradict society’s gender rules. The point is that I would never have admitted to some of the stuff on lists B and C until recently.  As recently as two weeks ago, in fact.

I'm nicer than I look

I’m nicer than I look

I remember it like it was yesterday…

[Imagine the scene blurring and refocusing two weeks earlier in a store, with me clean shaven (yeah right) and in a pressed suit (yeah right)]

I was at Staples buying school supplies for my kid at the end of August when I decided to pick up a small spiral notebook, the kind I like to use for jotting ideas as I write and blog. I grabbed a cheap one off the display in the front of the store while seeking to acquire other items from (the freaking gigantic) list the school posted on its website. After zigzagging through the aisles to get the rest of the stuff, I turned the cart and headed up the center lane toward the registers.

A person shopping in front of me stopped to look at an item, blocking my path (it happens). Waiting, I glanced to my right because I had nothing else to do, and there stood a stack of spiral notebooks, similar to the one I already chosen for myself, only these were in silver sparkle. Without thinking, I ran my fingers over the textured surface.

Homer Simpson voice: Spaaaaaarkuuuuuuuullllllll

A lifetime of sparkly moments flooded my brain. My old Star Wars t-shirt (still have it) with the sparkle border. The Cars CD box set, in purple and silver sparkle, that came out in the 1990s. Wanting my drum set in green sparkle but having to settle for white mica finish.

Epiphany. I’m a straight dude with a beard and a scowl and, damn it, I like sparkly shit.

green sparkle Tama

This story would have a much better ending if I actually bought the silver sparkle notebook. Frugality won out ($1 vs. $4). Still, what I learned was more important than what I purchased.

If you’re under 30, you may be thinking, “What is this post even about?” I’ve noticed most of my under-30 friends and co-workers are far less hung up on things like men buying sparkly notebooks, and they’re unlikely to make judgmental comments if one does. The over 30s, on the other hand, frequently, sheepishly apologize for breaking society’s gender rules . A male co-worker seemed braced for serious taunting when he admitted to watching Project Runway a while ago. No one taunted him.

I think of myself as open-minded, often encouraging people to embrace what they love and to express themselves without fear of judgment. I’d even say it’s one of my best qualities, and it enables me to gain friendships easily.

Yet I wonder why I was unable to turn that openness inwardly until now.


What are your thoughts? Any gender-bending pleasures you want to publicly embrace for the first time? Do you have an opposing view on gender roles? Please share in the comments below (anti-feminist diatribes will be deleted, so don’t waste your time).

For more on gender rules in society, check out this terrific and sparkly post by my friend Janna.

Writers, what is the ultimate compliment?

Say you published a book that was disseminated widely enough that strangers have read it. Then imagine one of those strangers gives you a compliment? What would you want to hear?

The top two compliments I can think of for a writer (of a novel or non-fiction book) are:

1. I couldn’t put it down

2. I couldn’t stop thinking about it later.

Of course, those are not mutually exclusive. But with the conceit being that I can only hear one, I believe that “I couldn’t stop thinking about it later” is the best possible compliment. The first option is plenty special and is what I aspire to achieve one day. However, the latter means the story will have transcended the page on which it was printed. It will be a construct that continues to exist in readers’ minds, with characters who live on beyond the events the writer has chosen to describe. Only the books that touch people’s hearts and souls do that (yes, for some people that includes Twilight, Stephenie Meyer haters).

What are your thoughts, writers (and anyone else who wishes to opine)? What’s your best compliment as an artist?


Voice-over artist Kris Keppeler did a another podcast of a Clawing at the Keys post, this time the “My Man Crush on Sean Bean” bit I wrote not too long ago. As usual, she manages to make me sound far cleverer than really I am. It’s less than four minutes long:

I’m finally one of the cool kids

If you want to be popular, you usually have to be good-looking, wealthy, charismatic, famous, athletic, or have some sort of talent in the arts. I arguably possess a bit of the last one, but widespread dissemination of said talent is often needed before you can go clubbing in New York with an entourage that may or may not include current NBA stars, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and at least two former Nickelodeon starlets who are now 25-going-on-50 and totally wacked-out on cocaine.

However, there is a secret side-door for us normies into the world of the cool kids: Resembling a newly famous celebrity. Remember all the girls getting their hair straightened to look like Jennifer Aniston back in the ’90s? Teenage girls are probably dressing and styling themselves after Rihanna and Taylor Swift these days, though I wouldn’t know because I haven’t worked in a shopping mall since VCRs.

I’ve never had the good fortune to resemble a trendy famous person. I look more like Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, than I do Justin Bieber, and I can’t believe this sentence now exists.

Then, two weeks ago, things changed. British actor Peter Capaldi took over the lead role in BBC’s global phenomenon Doctor Who. Whenever a new performer steps into that iconic role, he instantly becomes the most talked about actor in Great Britain.

And what are people discussing about Mr. Capaldi? His acting? No. His eyebrows. Dude’s brows are already legendary.

I was chatting about the latest episode with a friend the other day when she stopped in mid-sentence. “Holy crap, Eric,” she said. “You got Capaldi brows!”

I immediately took to Twitter with this boast and, as if to prove my point about side-door popularity before I even thought of it, BBC picked it up and retweeted it to thousands and thousands of people. Somehow I doubt uncool kids get retweeted like that.

Here’s the photographic evidence:


Capaldi vs Baker

Capaldi vs Baker

Note: If you’d like to be in my entourage, please submit an essay explaining why you are cool enough and how many drinks you are willing to buy me. Thank you.


A bit of sad news this week: Lost amid the chatter about the Jennifer Lawrence photo-hacking scandal was the death of singer Jimi Jamison of the ’70s and ’80s pop-rock band Survivor, whose hits included  Eye of the Tiger (with a different singer), The Search is Over, I Can’t Hold Back, and High on You. Survivor never received critical recognition and, to be real, their music didn’t have much substance. However, they did know how to craft a good pop song. Regardless of their place in music history,  Jimi Jamison had a killer voice. You don’t have to like their music (which I do) to admit the guy owned serious pipes. He could have sung for Journey.

Jamison died this past Sunday at age 63. Rock on, Jimi!

Self-pity never fueled a single accomplishment

I made the above statement a few days ago and impressed myself enough to use it as a blog post title. If someone else already said it, please don’t tell me. Let me keep the fantasy alive of one day appearing in the “Quotable Quotes” section of Reader’s Digest.



With so many of you on summer hiatus, I’ve been forced to troll WordPress in search of blogs to read. Here’s something you missed (besides endless talk of Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photo leak): People complaining that they can’t get their novel or story published, can’t get an agent, can’t win a writing contest, can’t get blog traffic, can’t get motivated to write, and so on. Common theme: It’s a conspiracy.

I feel like I’ve been a supportive member of the blogging community. Some writers I encounter on WP are experienced professionals while others are still trying to develop mechanics and find a voice. Wherever people fall on that scale, I am always willing to offer encouragement.  Because really, the difference between good and not-good is often practice. Innate talent helps, but talent is nothing next to determination.

We should all agree that, to be successful at something (define success your own way), you must engage in activities that get you closer to your goal. For writers, that includes writing, reading, learning and researching, observing, and seeking feedback from writing groups, beta readers, or editors. Getting to know people in the industry can’t hurt, either.

Lamenting one’s struggles publicly will not bring writing goals closer to realization. Time spent bemoaning could be time spent on one of the constructive activities mentioned in the previous paragraph.



I read a dead-serious blog post last week from a writer complaining that, no matter how much she writes, she is still nowhere near as good as John Steinbeck. Poor thing. The Fates have conspired to stop her from being a generational genius who writes some of the most legendary works in the entire history of fiction.

Note: None of us is owed a place in the pantheon of great writers.

I think I’m a pretty good writer. I believe my novel-in-progress is, if nothing else, clean of prose, and it has potential to be a fast-paced page-turner. Those are my opinions. I know, as a statistical fact, that my chances of getting an agent to rep it and a publisher to buy it are almost nonexistent.

Almost nonexistent.

If I were to say, “It’s just too hard. Look how great I am, but they still don’t want me. I quit,” I’d be doing a disservice to you and me. To you, because I would be dismissing your talent and effort and desire as inferior to mine; and to me, because I’d be taking an almost nonexistent chance and turning it to an impossibility. I can’t publish a thing I never write.

Moments of frustration are inevitable when one pursues a lofty goal. If the likely thing happens and I don’t find an agent or a publisher, I’ll probably want to chuck my laptop off a cliff and stop writing. But you won’t see me hosting a pity party about it on my blog, because I am not going to chuck my laptop off a cliff and stop writing. I’ll get a new idea—a better one—and I’ll spend that pity-party time working on my next story.

Check out a new video for a song I recorded last year:

Decompressing between drafts of my novel, I whimsically decided to make a video for a song from the album I released last year. Skip down and watch it if you don’t want to hear the excuses and pseudo-legal disclaimers in the next few paragraphs.

See, I lack the time and equipment to film and edit a real live music video myself, and I have no budget to hire anyone who can make it for me, so the best I could do for zero dollars was to doctor up some photos and scan the rest. Primitive, I know, but in a way I enjoy applying my creativity with almost no resources and still coming up with something.

The song appears on the Full Blown Cranium album, Cacophony of Weirdos, the link to which you see in the right sidebar. The vocals and bass are performed by Tony Parisi, and I play the drums and guitars. All songs, including this one, are by us, ©2013. We do not use computers, drum machines, or AutoTune. We play every note. Just not at the same time, because there’s only two of us.

Legal disclaimer: I make no claim to the rights for the scanned images, which were taken from a very old comic book that inspired the song. If you are the artist, writer, or copyright owner of this material: This video earns me no money. The song and video are together an homage to old horror comics, which I grew up reading. I’ll be lucky if more than 100 people ever see this video. Don’t be a jerk and demand that I take it down.

“22 Dollars and Change” by Full Blown Cranium:



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