Don’t Settle for Second Best

Yesterday was our work Christmas party. It was happy, successful, red and green, and had a cookie decorating contest.

We had 30 minutes and two cookies, and in classic creative nature, I spent 25 minutes on one cookie and 5 on the other.

The first was the passion of my heart, the brilliant idea borne of the several minutes of planning allowed to us before the decorating began. I planned out materials, shapes, colors, sizes.

The second cookie I threw together (by which I mean decorated) at the last minute after I realized I was the only person who thought my first cookie, my pet project, was beautiful. Even I am not entirely oblivious.

For your sake, pictures.

I’ll let you decide which was my pet project, but let me give you a hint: I love snow and trees and cabins and little stone paths and clear cold wintery days, and I’d rather draw a picture and a story than “ketchup on bologna” (pardon the unappetizing analogy).

The table unanimously decided that I should submit the ornament, so I did. And won second place. Which was cool. But that’s not the point.

I liked winning. Winning is fun. Games are more fun when you win (But be a good sport still, because even if you don’t win they’re still fun. I know, because I lose board games all the time and I still enjoy them.), everybody likes to watch football better when their team is winning, and in movies we always route for our favorite teams to achieve victory.

But I didn’t submit the cookie that I loved, I submitted the cookie that would look better to everyone else.

Pardon the philosophical grasp for meaning in a cookie decorating contest.

Most people who create things know what it’s like to love what you make. You think of a unique idea, work on it, put it together, spruce up the details, and pour love into it. Then you polish it up and introduce it to the world, and everyone raises their eyebrows because it’s different from what they’re accustomed to.

So you put together something that people are used to seeing, and you make it pretty but it’s not your heart, and you make it walk the plank into the great peopled abyss. And it doesn’t reach the water because people are so excited about it and they snatch it up before it has a chance to touch the salty drip.

But in your heart, you really still love the one you loved first, the one you poured your heart into, the one that was your best idea.

The cookie analogy loses some traction here, because I didn’t care this deeply about my cookies. I just thought about it a lot.

Writers (and all creatives) sometimes have to pause their pet projects, their grand ideas, to work on something that will work for them, something that the public will love, something that will put dinner on the table and shoes on the feet. It’s easy in those times to forget the first best idea. It’s easy to settle into complacency because you’ve discovered what people love, and you can do it well, even though you don’t love it too.

But at the end of the day, even after you’ve given the public what they want, and made something that people will love, don’t forget to do what you love.

Choose something, work hard on it, and make it great. Don’t settle for second best.

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How to Write Real People

No one wants to spend their time reading characters that aren’t believable. We have enough people who can’t hold our interest in real life—writing them into your stories is a disservice to a faithful audience. Making characters three dimensional takes planning and consideration, and even if you’re not careful, they can slide back into flat-dialogue-speaking-feelingless stick figures.

So how do you write real characters into existence?

#) Study people. You’ll understand how to make the “fake” thing if you have complete knowledge of the real thing. Watch people interact, watch them be alone. Study their mannerisms, their habits, their hobbies. And ask questions. Understanding the why behind the what always helps to write more whats.

#) Make friends. If only for the sake of your writing, make friends with your characters, even the villains. In real life, you’re honest with your friends, and you see their flaws. Do it in your writing, so you can give them believable flaws (nobody really likes sheer perfection) and lovable foibles.

#) Let them go. One of the delightful things about creating characters is that once you’ve given them life and personality, they’ll start making their own decisions. When they do that, don’t try to force them back into the mold you’ve created for them. Let them do their own thing, and when they suffer for bad decisions, don’t try to patch it up for them right away. Let them be real people, who mess up and get mustard on their clothes and sing off-key.

#) Practice. I include it in every list because it’s really the most important thing to do in writing. Stop reading this and go write up some real people.

We like to read us about people who remind us of ourselves—if you can master creating them, you’ll be miles ahead of all competition.

How I Beat Writer’s Block

Classic writers block takes two forms:

  1. Getting up to a certain point then not being able to continue. You’ve written long and hard, and suddenly, at the end of the sentence, you can’t think of what comes next. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, the villain won’t pick up the gun and the heroine stays home in her pajamas. After hours of staring at the screen, you decide maybe you’d make a good chef (writing is for pale bookworms and nervous journalists with big glasses, after all), so you buy a cookbook from Amazon and start googling french cooking terms.
  2. Nothing to say. You’ve sat down to write, and you’ve written forty-five first sentences—and you don’t like any of them. None of them catch on, each one more flaccid than the last, and every time you come up with something maybe even a little good, the burst of inspiration dies out like a shooting star landing in the ocean. Dead. Completely. Sunken to the dark seaweed-y depths to live with bottom dwellers and pale fish with large eyes. You get it.

I don’t know of any diehard methods to beat writers block, but I can tell you what I do: Write. About writers block. I write about how I despise it, how it makes me feel worthless and miserable, how it robs me of all inspiration and love for writing that usually comes so naturally. I write about how frustrating it is to want to say something and not be able to, like the boy who wants to ask the pretty girl to dance but he just… can’t… get… the… words… out… there… Pretty soon, I’ve written a paragraph. If I’m feeling particularly spiteful (which is rare—I may have ditzy spells, but I’m not vindictive by nature), I’ll have a page. Suddenly (while my brain was learning french and my fingers were flying with wrathful vengeance against something so small and obnoxious), the heroine has put on her super-suit, the villain is holding up a bank, and the shooting star is resurrected in blazing glory.

It may not work for everyone—but it’s better than staring at the screen in doleful misery.

Maybe it will work for you.


Nuance gives interactions depth. The change of tone, the raised eyebrow, the subtle shift in posture—all of them indicate attitude and feeling. It’s what makes story interesting, movies gripping, and real life easier to interpret. Without nuance, face to face interactions lack a certain emotion that we depend on to understand what’s really going on. Even stranger to stranger interaction has subtle nuance, whether discomfort, disinterest, or delight.

Nuance differs from person to person, but some things are universal. Do you look up to the sun with your eyes closed when you go outside? Are you constantly picking at things with your fingers? Do you lean in when you’re listening, cross your arms when you’re upset, yawn when you’re bored? Subtleties help us process interactions—without them we can’t tell what the other person is thinking, unless they come straight out and say it. Was he leaning out because he wasn’t listening? Why didn’t she nod? What is all the yawning about?

In the same way, writing nuance into your story clues your readers into what’s really going on, and triggers the imagination to help tell the story and fill in the tiny missing pieces. Without nuance tips, we won’t know the tone of the story.

How do you write nuance into a story?

#) Understand what nuance is. You can’t write it unless you understand it. Fortunately, it’s an easy thing to learn. Eighty-five percent of social interactions that you witness are full of nuance—and once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere.

#) Read for it. Find popular writers (both current and classic) and read their work. Do they use nuance well? Poorly? At all?

#) Practice. This is the dead horse that I’ll flog forever, when it comes to writing. The only way to get better is to practice, even when you don’t feel like it, even when you have nothing to say. Look at the objects on your desk and write a story about them having a conversation. If your desk is empty use your shoes. If you’re not wearing shoes, write it about the wall and the paint. If you write in a gazebo, maybe you’re in a public park and there will be people walking by… You get the picture.

Nuance is invaluable to writers. Perfect the art.

Build It


Building requires work and planning.

Building a building takes an architect, and blueprints, and construction teams, and hundreds of other things that I don’t know about, because I wear glasses and use a computer keyboard, instead of a hardhat and a shovel.

Making a cake takes a recipe (or some plan, at least), ingredients, an oven, and some previous knowledge about baking (don’t put the egg shells in, mix it enough or not too much).

Building a relationship takes time, and energy, and sacrifice. Friends don’t become friends overnight, and once they get there it’s still work.

Making a story means creating characters, formulating plot, setting the stage. It doesn’t happen without a fair amount of thinking and planning.

Sports teams don’t become champions overnight, an ice rink doesn’t freeze in one minute, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Putting the work into building something is worth it. It is an accomplishment, and achievement, an exercise of will. Sometimes there is a reward for completion, but often, finishing is its own reward. It is the ability to step back and say, “I made this,” and to recognize that perceived value aside, it is good because you made it.

Build with the value of the finished product in mind. It’s worth it.

Sign Your Work

Everybody likes anonymous surveys. There is all of the freedom of expressing opinion, and none of the burden of disagreement. It lets you say what you think without giving a reason.

Great, right?

Maybe not. Maybe it’s a good thing to take responsibility for your thoughts and ideas, and to stand for something. Signing your work means setting aside your fear of argument, your fear of being made fun of, your fear of being judged in the future.

Why are we afraid? We’re afraid of what people think of us, because even though we’re not in elementary school anymore, the pressure of fitting in is weighty. We’re afraid of what our bosses will think, our colleagues, our friends, our mom or grandma. We’ve been conditioned to think that it’s admirable not to stand for anything, because then we’re giving everyone a fair shot at happiness. But maybe drifting like the wind isn’t happiness—and standing for something isn’t belligerent.

Signing your work means that you understand what you’ve made, and you’re proud of it. It is willingness to take responsibility, because you are an adult and taking responsibility for your actions is a very adult thing to do. Signing your work means admitting that you created it, you stand by it, and you are pleased with it.

Make something amazing, and sign it. It’s a favor you owe yourself.