Category: The Writing Life

From my March Newsletter: How THE DEVOTED Began

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THE FIRST PAGE OF “THE DEVOTED” STARTS WITH A PROBLEM. I’d written a shaky short story for my fiction workshop. It was about Zen Buddhism, and growing up Irish Catholic; it was about getting sucked into religious devotion that became more like sexual worship. But it was talky and vague and technical and confusing. The workshop hadn’t gone well. But at the end of the painful discussion, my teacher said, “it’s not working well because there’s too much here. There’s a novel here.”
I rode the train back to my apartment in Brooklyn, clutching my wrinkled stack of commented stories, thinking about what my teacher had said. The story was a disaster; but I knew there was something there, the seed of a story, the characters and ideas I’d been mulling over, wrestling with, for most of my life.
Back in the apartment, I pulled out my 1935 Royal typewriter, a graduation present from my parents. Sometimes when the blinking cursor on a blank page on my computer felt too overwhelming, I turned to this ancient, creaking machine to get my writing done. Every key press was an effort. It felt like I was really doing something heroic. I looked out the window, let the quiet of the afternoon fill me, and I wrote a page. It was the same character I’d been writing about in my failed short story, but now the central problem of her life was laid bare, and Boston was wrapped up in it too, those long trips on the train, those muddy backyards and strangers walking by with their coat collars turned up. This time, the first page of the story was an open door into everything I wanted to say about belief, about sensuality, about family and devotion and their hard irreconcilability.

That first paragraph got tweaked and shuffled around a bit from draft to draft, but in the final work, it’s still there — and all the energy and mood, the promise of it, was what kept me going through the years it took to reach this story’s completion.

This month, I’m off to the AWP writers’ conference, which is always a huge jolt in the arm for me; it’s tremendously inspiring to learn of others’ projects, successes, and failures, and to re-connect with writers I’ve met from around the country. Coming soon will be some of the first scheduled events for The Devoted — so stay tuned.

The Purge: Why You Have to Clean House

I’m not the best housekeeper. If a dish is sitting on the counter or dustbunnies are galloping down the hall, I’m not too fussed; I’ll let them accumulate before I finally pick up a broom with a sigh. Life’s too short for obsessing about the little details of a tidy house, I feel.

And yet the funny thing is that I’m the exact opposite when it comes to my papers, computer files, and stories. I can’t stand having a file out of place; my desktop is in a state of minimalist splendor; I have an elaborate nesting system for stories depending on their stage of completion, and color-coded tags and neatly organized archives. My “Unfinished Stories” folder is the only one that is allowed to grow and sag, as I create a document and write a page or two of a new story idea. But even there, every now and then I feel a need to do a purge.

Staying organized and doing a file purge can be good for one’s inner state as well, I’ve found. If I have a half-dozen stories in various stages of completion or neglect, then I feel more scattered, stretched between them. I find myself wondering on any given day whether I should be devoting my energies to this one or that one. And it leaves me overwhelmed and paralyzed, unable to finish even one story as long as six other enticing beginnings are out there.

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Find the Hole in Your Story

So you’ve written a short story. Congratulations! You’ve maneuvered the characters into position, shown the heroes and the villains, pulled them into conflict and steered them into a climax.

And yet — something is missing.

Have you had that feeling before when you read back a story draft? That there’s a hole somewhere in the story? Many stories in their first or second versions can feel this way. Because if a story is only the sum of its parts — then that’s all it is. The stories that we love to read, the truly masterful stories, are the ones that make up something more. Their authors have learned to fill up those holes that are in the early outlines of stories, that make drafts like Swiss cheese.

I’m not just talking about plot holes here, the blatant mistakes of story or logical inconsistencies. Those things are essential to fix, but that’s just good housekeeping. I’m talking about identifying the beating heart of your story, and of finding ways to make it mean something larger than it is.

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Editing Challenge Day 30: Have the Courage Not to Be Done

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

You made it, writers! You’ve gotten to the end of the marathon! Here we are, on the very last day of our thirty-day editing challenge. Did you go all the way? Did you try to do a little editing every day, even if it wasn’t exactly the tip I prescribed? I’d love to hear what your editing process has looked like in the past month. Send me a note on Twitter @bhurley to tell me how things went. Are you proud of the story you’ve created? Are you surprised by what form it ultimately took? Are you inspired to create new spin-off stories, using the characters that were jettisoned? Tell me all about it.

I want to conclude this project with just a few thoughts about where to go from here. One teacher of mine, who offered some of the most helpful advice I’ve heard about editing, finished his talk by saying that at the end of all the exhausting work, you must be willing not to be done. So many budding writers get tired and then get frozen. They stop seeing things that could be changed in their work; they give up. They think the work is as good as it can be and that’s that and now it will sink or float the way it is. This period of fatalism is often followed by a flurry of sending the story out and having it get rejected. That’s when most people quit. They can even get bitter at this very delicate stage, and start blaming politics or the environment at literary magazines or whatnot. There are many reasons to be frustrated about the system and the way it works, but I think that’s a separate conversation from whether your work can be made better. And the truth is that the writers who succeed are the ones who have the courage not to be done.

It means being willing to pull that story out of the drawer, maybe right after it has received a disheartening rejection, and think about ways it could be changed. It means being open to radical changes even way down the track, even if you’ve had your heart set on one particular ending for weeks, months, years. It means being open to possibility, and to the wonders of your own talent and ability and hard work.

So today, on our very last day of our editing challenge, I’m asking you to do one more thing: to not be done. To revisit that story and other stories as many times as is necessary. To examine and re-examine and find ways to shake up your thinking so that you don’t fall into old rutted grooves. Print out the story in a different font or color. Make a game of cutting words. Read it aloud. Have a friend or partner read it aloud to you. De-construct it and build it again. Make it work. Keep working even after the joy is gone; push through the sweat and tears; take a break, recover your energies, and do it all over again. Do not be done until you feel deeply and firmly that the story is better than anything you’ve ever written, and that it’s ready to go out the door. And even then, read it once more, and find that one typo that has hidden in a sentence through twenty drafts. Read it one final time, and be proud of what you’ve created.

Editing Challenge Day 7: Make a Choice

The Blairzone - 31This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.


Life can be seen, to paraphrase Borges, as a garden of forking paths. Your story can be seen that way too: so much of the stories we write are about roads not taken, or looking back at alternate paths with regret or nostalgia or simple curiosity. Life is a series of choices: this way and that way and this one and that one. So why don’t our stories reflect this tangled web of choice?

Today we’re examining the role that choice plays in stories. Ultimately, for a story to feel like a story and not just an anecdote, a sketch, a vignette, a scene, or an observation, it must contain some element of choice. There must be a crux, a point after which the world will never be the same again for your character.

In your editing journal, try to summarize what choice your character must make in the story. It’s got to be something that the story hinges on. It must act as a fulcrum, or pivot point for the story. And certainly, the choice your character makes might be to do nothing; that, too, is a choice.

If you’re having trouble articulating what that choice is, that’s already a helpful thing to notice. It might be time to clarify a choice, or make a bigger choice as part of the story. If you can articulate it, then start looking back into the scenes leading up to that choice. It shouldn’t suddenly appear as a fork in the road at the climax; all along we should see a steady build toward that choice. Does your story do that?

If the choice is a little weak, brainstorm in your journal a few different ways to make your character forced into a choice. Instead of discovering his friend’s affair at the same time as everyone else, have him learn about it early and have to decide whether to spill the beans.  Instead of assuming that your character will do the right thing in a situation — return the lost money, tell the authorities about the crime, refuse the bribe — make this a more difficult decision. Flirt with the disaster the wrong choice could bring.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at

Editing Challenge Day 6: Find Your Entry Point

The Blairzone - 23This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.


Think of your story as a river. Just like life, just like time, it’s continually flowing by us; the lives of your characters, unless you’re going for some epic David Copperfield-type deal, began some point before your story. You can choose to step into the river at any point; as a writer, you have that freedom. And just because you stepped in somewhere in your first draft doesn’t mean that’s the best place to have stepped in.

Writers often talk about the entry point of their stories. Where do we choose to begin? With puberty? With that morning in the character’s mid-forties when the long-lost son knocks on the door? With any old regular day? The important thing to remember is that entry point, like the myriad other elements of a story, is a deliberate choice, and will set the story’s framing and timeline.

Too many student stories that I read seem to begin arbitrarily, not choosing their entry point deliberately. The stories begin with a character waking up and having a typical day. It’s only sometime in the afternoon, or maybe a week later, that we see the story again. In workshop, I try to raise the question of entry point. Why does the story have to begin now? I ask. Because the story’s beginning must feel imperative. It must feel like no other point will do. It must feel like the story had such a need to be told that at this very point, the water of the river overflowed its banks.

The assignment:

In your editing journal today, summarize the point at which your story begins. Then write down the question I always ask my students, riffing on the question asked at Passover tables: Why is this night not like any other night? What is so world-changing about this day that makes it the right day, the right time, to begin the story?

Look for symptoms of wrong-timeitis:

Perhaps you begin at a certain point, but then you have to spend the next page and a half quickly getting us up to speed with the traumatic event that happened to your character last year. You’ll either have to do this in flashback or backstory. But if that’s the case, why not begin with that point? Why have the most dramatic elements of your story told in a hurried aside?

Try an experiment:

Take down a few notes, imagining if the story began at a different point. What if you began forty years ago, or forty years in the future? What if you began the day before the murder instead of the day after? What would happen if you dipped into a character’s life just as she was meeting her future husband, instead of beginning with the unhappy divorce?

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at

Editing Challenge Day 5: Establishing the Problem

editingchallengeThis is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

When I look at published short stories in my favorite literary magazines, I can’t help noticing something that student work, even very good student work, is often lacking. Let’s look at a few examples of first sentences of stories I love:

“My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs anymore.” – Grace Paley, A Conversation with My Father

“Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up.” – Seth Fried, Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre

“I don’t know what to do about my husband’s new wife.” – Molly Giles, Pie Dance

“My wife came home crying from the Dumpsters, said there was some pervert over there jerked down his pants and showed her his schlong.” – Larry Brown, Waiting for the Ladies

What do you notice? These sentences are all winning in their own ways; they’re different in style and perspective and voice. But what they all have in common is that they are inherently problem statements. In the very first or second sentences of these stories, writers are identifying central problems in their tales. They are establishing the problem that characters will be worrying over like bad teeth for the rest of the story. In Grace Paley’s story, we see an aging father with a bad heart; in Seth Fried, we have a mysterious but vivid problem of violence; in Molly Giles, we see an odd little turn of phrase that makes us curious about the marital conflict; and in Larry Brown, we see an inherently conflict-ridden situation, with a flasher threatening the character’s wife.

It seems so simple and easy to do now that I’m pointing it out, right? But if we look back at our own first drafts, I bet we’ll be missing that immediate sense of problem. We might have a vivid opening line, but does it leap right into the problem that is going to be worked on for the rest of the story?

Today’s editing challenge is about more than just tweaking that first line. It’s about the big picture of framing your story in the context of problems. What is the fundamental problem your character is wrestling with? Is it quickly evident, and does it drive the momentum of the story? Does that problem drop away for a few pages? In your editing journal, make a note of every page that doesn’t make explicit mention of the problem that first set the story in motion. You might notice that your story’s true problem doesn’t really emerge until page three or four. There are stories that can make this work, but in that case we need another problem to hold our attention, a kind of bait and switch that occurs. This is somewhat true in the Larry Brown example above; we think the story is a more-or-less straightforward problem about the flasher, but after a few pages we realize it is about the narrator’s own insecurities and struggles with his masculinity. Think about ways to introduce that problem back into a conversation or scene. Keep the flame on under the pot so that the water is constantly burbling.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at

Editing Challenge Day 4: Imagining the Story Arc

risingactiongraphThis is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

All right, we’re ready to actually enter the world of editing, now that we have the right attitude. (What is the attitude? It’s the calm confidence that others need to edit too, and that editing is part of the process). So where do we begin? What’s the first step?

If you’ve got a short story whose first draft is tentatively completed, it can feel like you’re holding a piece of Swiss cheese. There’s a structure there, but it’s full of holes. When I complete a first draft, I’m often already aware of some missing pieces, whether it’s scenes or much-needed character development, but I think it’s important to push through to the end and follow the story’s momentum. So just look away from those Swiss cheese bits; for now, we’re going to tackle the overall story arc.

Remember, you are not bound irrevocably to the story arc as you originally envisioned it. Maybe you knew the story had to end with a character getting on a train and choosing to end her marriage. That was what you needed to know to finish your first draft — but now that you’ve gotten there, is it really the right choice for the story?

Have you printed out a copy of your story? Some of my fellow writers print the story two-up to a page so they can visualize the entire thing even more easily; today, we really are thinking about the big picture, and you need to be able to hold the whole story’s trajectory in your head. Take a moment and jot down the big three or four plot points on the top of the first page in colored marker or pen. Keep it as simple as you can: if you find yourself needing more than four or five points, or needing to explain why one plot point follows from another, than the story is already too complex. That’s a good thing to notice.

Ask yourself if the first plot point is really a plot point. I see this as a common mistake in a lot of story drafts; we save the actions and choices for the second half of the story, and the first half is more or less buildup or background. We need the story to have a balanced plot, moving and changing and growing throughout. Think of your story’s plot as a seesaw. Is the seesaw heavily tilted in one direction or another? If so, jot down some notes about events that could or should happen in the beginning, or earlier on.

Ask yourself if there is a climax. Does the character make a choice that changes the trajectory of the story? Great! If not, think about why that might be. Does your character only have things happening to him or her? Is the character only passively observing someone else’s life?

In a notebook or text file that you are keeping specifically for this editing project, jot down some notes about actions that could be added to the story. Instead of having the character just at work for a while, have the action move up earlier in the story. Instead of just letting the bad thing happen, have your character make an effort to stop it.

Good work, editors. Next time, we’ll delve deeper into plot choices.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at

Editing Challenge Day 3: Print and Highlight

The Blairzone - 39-1This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.


Today’s task for the editing challenge might sound simple, but it’s stunning to me how many people have lost touch with editing their writing in this way. We’re going to go old-school today and treat our stories the way legendary writers and editors of the past, from Hemingway to Gordon Lish, would have treated them.

It starts with a simple instruction: print it out.

Yes, it’s so simple! But the ease and convenience of word processing software can actually be a hindrance when it comes to the editing process. It’s so easy to move a paragraph here and shuffle a sentence there — so easy to delete a sentence with a click — that we can lose sight of what the original story looked like, and what shape it ought to take. We can skim easily over lackluster sentences and allow them to continue existing.

So today, print out your story. You might want to use a two-up to a page printing system; this allows to take in even more of the story on a single page. But reading glasses for the nearsighted (like me) will be required for this technique.

Now that you’ve printed it out, it’s time to have fun with highlighters. We’re going to get a thorough understanding of the components of your story. So break out at least three or four colors of highlighter and spread the story’s pages on your desk.

In your first pass, highlight all the passages of exposition or backstory.

In your next pass, highlight all the passages of dialogue.

In your next pass, highlight all the passive description.

In your next pass, highlight all the action.

If all went well, you should now have a story that looks like a rainbow, with parts of backstory bumping up against dialogue and description and so on. This is a great way to get a visual sense of what your story is made up of. And very simply on this level, do you see patterns emerging? Do you see now how the first two pages are all backstory before we ever get the first action sequence, or perhaps in the middle is a three-page section of back-and-forth dialogue? Is one component entirely missing? Is the balance of the story heavily weighted toward one kind of writing and not others?

This isn’t an immediate prescription; some stories might be entirely dialogue or entirely exposition and they can make it work. But you’ll never know how to improve your story until you start noticing what is at work in it. Looking at your story in this zoomed-out way can help us see the forest that contains the trees. And being armed with this knowledge will be tremendously helpful as we embark on the real shaping in future days.

Editing Challenge Day Two: Make an Editing Journal

The Blairzone - 22This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s time to kick our editing journey into high gear, writers. And that means starting with some hard, concrete plans for editing your story this month. Let’s try to begin with organization and purpose. So today, the goal is to set up an editing journal.

This can be part of your existing note-jotting journal, or your daily thoughts journal; it just shouldn’t overlap with the place where you write your stories. This journal’s pages should be set up for a place of organization, creativity, and thoughtful dissection.

First, choose the story or two that you’d really like to focus on for the 30-day challenge. Then Start a fresh page in your editing journal. Date it and title it and then in note form, give a rough overview of the story you’re re-visiting. Don’t just start describing the setting or characters; instead, put a big giant problem statement at the top. Then, in note form, try filling out a few of these lines:







If you haven’t heard the term “inciting incident” before, it’s the thing that gets the story in motion. It’s not the big problem driving the whole story; it’s merely the action that starts the wheels turning. A stranger knocks on the door or a surprising letter arrives in the mail; a person forgets his umbrella on a rainy day or a wife asks for a divorce. What starts the story moving?

We’ll re-visit all of these elements of story in future days of the 30-day challenge, but it’s crucial for now to establish a place where you can think freely about your story with the mindset of an editor instead of that of a writer. We need a scratchpad for these thoughts. As you embark on the 30-day challenge, try taking notes on each new assignment on a new page of the journal. When you reach the end, you’ll have a deeply-realized portrait of the mechanisms at work in your story. And that will give you the freedom to play with it.

One of the principle challenges of editing a story, and even more so with a novel, is the challenge of holding the entire thing in your head simultaneously, understanding movements and shifts in one visual sphere. Taking notes in this way will help you contain your story in a framework. It’s a valuable tool for changing the way you visualize your writing.