Contacts Are Everything to Writers


Here’s something rare for writers (not exclusively fiction writers) from Ben Stein’s Diary

“About a month ago, I met a woman at a meeting. She told me she wanted to be a writer. She sent me a few very brief selections of her work. It was amazingly fine stuff. I told her I would help her become a self-supporting writer, but she has vanished from the Internet. My febrile brain kept cranking though, and I have a few tips for those who seriously want to be working, paid writers:

Contacts are everything. Aspiring writers should be friends with those who are already successful writers. Your servant was helped incredibly by friendship with the great essayist, columnist, historian, and novelist. Bill Safire. Through the intermediation of a fine man named Earl McGrath, I became friends with Joan Didion, whose book of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is as good as any book of essays I have ever read. She is a living legend and she was extremely helpful to me and I worship at her shrine. My old professor of film at Yale, Stanley Kauffmann, the kindest, best teacher I ever had after Lowell Harriss, took me under his wing. He used his amazing power as Film Critic for the NY Times to get me jobs teaching and writing. He just died and he is missed desperately. These people were giants. Their help for me was immeasurable. Later in life, encouragement came in by the carload and my favorites were letters from Herb Gold, a genuinely great novelist. (Buy and read his book Swifty the Magician.)

You really cannot make it as a writer without connections.

“Write about topical issues, at least at first. You can write about your dating life at some point, if you wish (and I used to a lot). But when you are starting, write about something in the news — like, how does a budget crisis affect my life as a designer of handbags? And if it doesn’t affect it, why is the budget crisis such a big deal?

“Use the force and power of the news to advance your own career.

Do not try to be too stylish or too cute in what you write. Just describe straightforwardly and don’t try to set a new standard in stylized prose.

“If at all possible, do not now or ever take a writers’ workshop. Don’t let other people take up space rent-free in your brain. Write as well as you can and as much as you can, and don’t let other people — unless they are Joan Didion or Herb Gold — tell you how to write.

“Write every single day except the Sabbath and read great writers like Fitzgerald and Nabokov all day and all night. And get enough sleep.”

OK, so Stein’s on the opposite side of the political aisle from you, so what? We’ve made politics a religion in this country. That’s a mistake. Politics is circumstantial, mostly. Totalitarian governments need one set of political opponents to straighten things up. Governments with no structure and no power need a different set of opponents to improve things.

Monopoly is the real enemy in politics, same as in business or any other ecosystem where competing forces strike a tentative balance and work to improve one another….

So maybe I’m going to try to find Stein’s email address, or some way to contact him. And maybe I’m going to send him a little snippet of my best writing. You should do the same. And if you’re a woman, you should mention that fact, because this guy truly loves everything about women. (I’ve read enough of his stuff to know.)

Good luck! Be brave.

M. Talmage Moorehead

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel is written by a girl from a parallel universe. If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. The protagonist is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas, and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog ( Thanks. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.


The Meaning of “Your” Writing Voice?

7-20-09 Capilano Suspension Bridge and Stanley Park 010

Voice – not the Einstein-Rosen Bridge but a way to find it.


The meaning of the term “voice” as it applies to writing seems to have changed over the years. At least it has for me.

In the past, everything about “voice” seemed to relate to the author, but today, with most popular fiction written strictly from the viewpoint of a character, I think the term “voice” applies more to the viewpoint character than to the writer.

It’s true that it will always be a synthesis of the author and the viewpoint character, because neither can completely shake the influence of the other, but in the stories I’ve read in recent years, it seems that the author and her “voice” are mainly a reflection of the personality of the viewpoint character and how she thinks, speaks and “writes” her own story.

My purpose in this site has always been to help people, myself included, write “meaningful page-turners.” (I’m probably helping my writing more than anyone else’s.)

I’ve always said that our job must be to first establish an interesting character with a quality about her that makes the reader personally care what happens to her. Then our job is to make her life’s plot and her fellow characters meaningful and spellbinding.

To make the main character seem alive and impossible not to care about, I’ve come to realize that one of the main ingredients is the way the writing reflects the character’s personality. As a reader, I want to feel that the viewpoint character wrote the story in her own words, or better yet, she told me the story through mental telepathy. The words I’m reading are merely a transcription of her thoughts.

So much is contained in the character’s “writing voice.”

An innocent twelve-year-old boy with high-functioning autism might say to the reader, regarding his sister,

“I know why she’s so smart. Because she remembers everything she reads.”

The fact that the little autistic boy confuses cause with effect shows him at a level that nothing else could. This is his voice. It’s not the author’s. The “narration” is his, just as the dialogue is his.

I’m beginning to think that this viewpoint character’s “writing” voice is often one of the top three ingredients that makes the reader initially care about the vp character. (The first is empathy. The second is probably danger or challenge to the VP character.)

The VP character’s “writing voice” also seems to be one of the key forces that makes the plot hold the reader to the end because it keeps the reader feeling as if all the plot twists are happening to a real person.

I’ve got a secret project going now in which I’m writing a story in first person, present tense. (Example: I stand in the room. “Shut up,” I tell him. He closes his mouth and listens.) To make things as real as possible to myself and to the “readers,” (who don’t exist) I’m writing the story on the internet and telling a potential lie (it would be a real lie if there were any readers). The lie is that I’m giving the impression that the viewpoint character is a real person (with a web site) who is telling everyone her own weird life story as it happens. She is supposedly telling it with a device on her ear that she speaks into all day long, saying whatever comes to mind, even repeating what other characters say. Other characters don’t think it’s normal, or even tolerable – the fact that she’s repeating everything they say and blabbing her every thought into a recording device.

In doing this I’m learning about the main character’s voice in a way that astounds me and opens my eyes to the subtle world of “writing voice.”

Writing in this potentially deceitful way makes it crystal clear to me when the viewpoint girl’s writing voice changes from the way she normally writes/ talks to the way I sound when I’m writing a story.

The reason it’s so clear is that I can fairly easily put myself into the mind of an anonymous reader who might happen along and start believing she is a real girl talking about her life. From that strange vantage point I’m keenly aware of when my potential lie is starting to fall apart.

Places where the writing slips into that “once upon a time” sound of my usual “writing voice.”

The only thing I don’t like about the whole thing is lying to the potential reader. It’s conceivable that a reader might come along and believe the lie, get sucked into this story and later feel hurt when it becomes obvious that it’s all a lie, the girl is made up and her life is just a novel.

Plus, I have sort of OCD-ish aversion to lying.

Yeah, I’m weirder than you. But you don’t mind, I bet.

Anyway, for now I can tolerate the lie that is my viewpoint character’s web site, simply because I have no readers there to lie to. I’m going to keep it that way by not telling my one reader, you,  (or anyone else outside of my family who think it’s weird that I write fiction in the first place) where that website is.

I recommend that you try what I’m doing, especially the potential lie. assuming you make a new blog site that has no readers. (I think real lies are destroying our culture, but that’s another post.).

You could click on the button that makes your website private (on WordPress software), but if you do, the whole thing might not work for you. Taking away the “potential lie” might take away that strange feeling that you must keep the character’s “writing voice” believable to your “potential readers.” To me, anyway, the fact that a reader could truly show up and believe the whole thing creates a subconscious, but real-time motivation to keep the character sounding real and consistently like herself.

Anyway, since I’ve got no readers on that site, I don’t think it’s a real lie. It’s like Schrodinger’s cat, simultaneously dead and alive.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Update 9/22/14: I later discontinued that version of my novel, then spent a long time writing a new version in 3rd person, past tense. Abandoned that, and now I’m starting over and posting another total re-write on this blog. Here’s a link to page 1 of that ongoing story: Hapa Girl DNA. It’s science fiction set in the present with a ton of fringe non-fiction and many links, some of which blew my mind when I discovered them.

If you’re a new writer, or curious about my take on the so-called “rules,” download my new aging e-book, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners, here. We’re lucky to be among the most influential minds on Earth. The last chapter talks about how to meet a viewpoint character who adds the dimension of joy to your fiction and to your life. For me, it was Johanna Fujiwara, my Hapa Girl protagonist. If you haven’t met someone in your fiction who means a lot to you, there’s an amazing experience waiting for you.



“Tight Prose” vs Imagination and Personality

800px-Storiform_pattern_-_intermed_magCreating tight prose is something you’ll get patted on the back for. (<dangling participle!) But honesty and imagination draw fiction readers.

To write anything in tight prose, I have to edit like a madman: avoiding dangling participles, eliminating pawns, rephrasing weak passages, swapping verbs, getting out the thesaurus but not overusing it, cutting viciously and ignoring sanity.

When polished to the bone, tight prose, or I should say, my hack assaults on it, sound pretentious, stripped of personhood, snippy, and a little unimaginative. Rarely does it resemble anything you’d call a unique writing voice.

But if you’re a genius with words, and you always have something novel to say, in a few years or decades someone’s going to tell somebody that you’ve got a unique writing voice. They may say it’s strong. Oh my!

Of course if you don’t have anything new to say, all the tight prose in the world won’t draw accolades.

On the other hand, if you focus on new and interesting ideas, feelings, personalities, plots and places, readers may discover you, especially if you let your honest personality come through, cherishing your own natural speech pattern a little, and not leaning too heavily on the thesaurus.

Here’s a snippet of my “tight prose” that’s beyond dead…

The dermatofibrosarcoma protubrans (DFSP) displays a storiform pattern on routine hematoxylin and eosin stains. Most DFSP’s express CD34, however, a minority lack this typical immunohistochemical phenotype. DFSP’s may recur if incompletely excised. Five percent metastasize.

“Data to Enterprise.”

Incidentally, I spent too much fearful time on that, knowing that a non-hack could point out where I screwed the pooch. Is it “a minority lack” or “a minority lacks”? Logic says that a minority is a singular thing, despite its many components, so it “lacks.” But to me “a minority lack” sounds better. At least it did before I thought about it.

Who cares, right? It doesn’t matter to the friendly, non-judgmental person I care about – my one reader.

I try to think of my one reader as someone who’s on my side before I start, pulling for me to come up with something worthy. Ignoring typos and saying, I know this is going to be good, come on!

Critics? Professors? Callous sophisticates? No. They despise doctors.

I’m not paranoid, that’s just silly. You’re jealous because the voices only talk to me.

(Is that from MASH?) Ha! I love that line.

Here’s the exact same DFSP snippet, except with something interesting thrown down, and not much concern for tightness:

I wanted a great name for a website. Clever and maybe just tangential to the topic – which I figured would be the final word on writing fiction. Sweeeeet! For awhile though, I wanted to dive into something else, like those weird rocks in Puma Punku. You know, Peru – or is it Bolivia? – twelve thousand feet high? Giant stones that weigh, what, twenty tons? Some architecturally designed by a genius and cut from cliffs with a technology that re-writes ancient history. They’ve got these huge smooth flat granite surfaces, modular H-designs, there’s this perfectly straight, uniform groove a few millimeters across running down the side of one! You’d have to see it to believe it. But they tell us that it was all cut with soft metal and chips of stone. Something like that. And also carried for miles up steep slops by primitive people who had no wheels and no written language? I, for one, don’t buy it. I may be stupid, but… Google Puma Punku for yourself and click on the “images” thing. I guarantee you, you won’t come back to this blog any time soon because, unfortunately, I decided not to write about impossible rock-work. That’s all you’ll be thinking about for weeks now. Hey, I just found this site, check it out:  No, it’s not my site, don’t worry. Anyway, instead of Puma Punku, I went with fiction writing and came up with, “,” because it’s a pathology term (for the dermatofibrosarcoma protubrans) and it sounds like “StoryForm,” which is what I really wanted. Oh well, “Storiform” is probably better… in some vague way that hasn’t occurred to me quite yet.

See, the two paragraphs are exactly the same… except that they’re entirely different.

I focused on novelty the second time, and went overboard with the grammar, normal words, and the dim-witted “voice” that comes so naturally to me. Also I set aside caution, letting my ignorant arrogance fly in the faces of established archaeologists who, unlike me, know what they’re talking about.

So here’s your hack’s infallible opinion on tight prose: Be careful of it because it can become an end in itself and a viral preoccupation, stripping your work of personality and taking away the freedom that honesty gives the imagination.

True, a writer needs economy. My second rendition proves it. Too much flab. Tough to get to the end. Efficiency is easier for the reader, true. And an unholy excess of fluffy words causes readers to reach for something easy to strangle. True.

But you really need words that are not essential to anything but the whims of your own personality if you’re going to sound unique, if you’re going to be confidently imaginative.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Note: The picture up top is a high-power shot of a storiform pattern from a DFSP on a light microscope. Click on it and the image becomes sharper. Woohooo!

Writing in First Person Totally Kicks Ass


Best selling stories are impossible to put down after ten pages or so. What hooks me is the bond I feel with the main character. I have to sense that she should be a friend of mine.

As my son the psychologist-in-training tells me, so far the only scientifically documented difference between people with friends and people without friends is their ability to share feelings.

If you want your reader to love your hero, that protagonist has to share her feelings with the reader, but not necessarily with the other characters.

The single most effective way to nudge your work in this direction is to write in first person. (“I” instead of “he” or “she”.) This makes it seem like your hero is divulging secret emotions to the reader in a way that she wouldn’t do with anyone else in the world.

Here’s an example from The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins:

“I want to tell him that he’s not being fair. That we were strangers. That I did what it took to stay alive, to keep us both alive in the arena. That I can’t explain how things are with Gale because I don’t know myself. That it’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later instead of sooner. That if I do really have feelings for him it doesn’t matter because I’ll never be able to afford the kind of love that leads to a family, to children. And how can he? How can he after what we’ve just been through?

“I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.”

You might say there’s not much dialogue in The Hunger Games. That’s true, except for the fact that it’s all dialogue.

The whole story is Katniss talking to me. Occasionally she looks over into my eyes while I’m reading to see if I really get what she’s just said. You know?

It’s possible for the hero to talk fairly directly to the reader in a second-person story, too, but it’s more difficult, sometimes awkward and less intimate.

See if I’m right. Here’s part of the same passage of Hunger Games with one small change, it’s now re-written (ruined by me, please forgive) in second person:

“She wants to tell him that he’s not being fair. That the two of them were strangers. That she did what it took to stay alive, to keep them both alive in the arena. That she can’t explain how things are with Gale because she doesn’t know herself…”

To me this sounds relatively clinical, removed from the raw emotion.

Now I know what you’re thinking… you were wondering what I did on Dec. 27, 2012.

Here’s the true story. I’ve written it in first person.

There were three of us. The white water sucked us downstream toward a giant log that had fallen across Washington’s Elochoman River, blocking the whole thing.

Just before aluminum hit pine, our guide, the only man in the drift boat with any experience shouted, “We’re going to lose the boat. We’re f~~ed!”

I didn’t say anything, but I wondered how badly f–ed we were exactly. Certainly he didn’t mean dead. Did he?

We hit the log and stopped instantly as the river rushed on around us. The guide and my son-in law crawled out to the left on the log, but I had to crawl out to the right because there wasn’t time to stand around waiting for the boat to flip. On my side, the log tapered to about the width of a telephone poll. It might have been slippery, I think. My left knee slid off and before I knew it, I was dangling with my legs downstream in the whitewater.

If I’d fallen to the right, on the upstream side of the log, I would have been dragged under and, hopefully, pushed out the other side. But people don’t generally make it all the way under logs in these circumstances. They get dragged under, and they drown. So I’m told.

Next thing, I hear the guide’s terrified voice, “Oh no, Talmage!” Too ignorant to be afraid, I said calmly, “I’m cool. I can hang here all day like this, no problem. Save your boat.”

I dangled there as the whitewater pulled my camo pants down over my ankles. It sounds pretty, but my jeans stayed up, so we’re good. My fingertips found bumps on the log, and I held on there for the longest time while the other two saved the boat.

When the big guy, my son-in-law, came over, he grabbed my right wrist and pulled like hell, but I must have weighed a lot more than usual with the wet coat and wet jeans, and boots full of water, so he finally had to give up. Actually, I had to convince him to give up, and then insist that he let me go.

“OK, let go!” I says. And he does.

The December rapids took me, and honestly, the water felt warm compared to the idea of drowning. Breathing water scares me a little.

With my outer pants around my feet like chains, I couldn’t swim much, but I finally found the bottom of the river with my feet and pushed off toward the edge, caught a small log that was hanging from the bank, jumped up and crawled onto it. It must have taken me fifteen minutes on that log to undo the velcro around my ankles and free myself from those camo pants. I felt old.

And lucky.

But let me tell you something that went through my head while I was hanging by my fingertips off that first log, waiting for my son-in-law to hopefully fish me out. It was a prayer. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get religious on you. I just want you to hear what I said, verbatim:

“I hope you can get me out of this.”

That was it. There wasn’t any, “Dear God,” or “please” or anything else.

Obviously I’m not saying a miracle was involved, or that my mortal hide is worth God’s time in any way. I just think my prayer sort of shows where my head’s at with this divine intervention thing.

I’m not sure, but I think God’s hands are sometimes tied by the cause-and-effect web of our own free choices. Our free wills. Without natural consequences, there couldn’t be free choice. Therefore sh-t must happen if human beings are going to exist in a non-robotic state.

If the deacons will please rise for the morning offering. Sorry, was that too religious?

First person story telling, though. I like how it feels, don’t you?

Suppose someone told you that same story in second person. It wouldn’t feel like we got to know each other at all, would it?

Writing complex stories in first person is said to be difficult or impossible because a vp protagonist can’t be in more than one place at a time. That’s got to be true, I guess.

But what’s more important to you, touching millions of people with your soul, or writing a grand, complex story that only a few beyond your inner circle of brilliant writers will ever appreciate?

There are many reasons why writing in first person isn’t the default mode for most authors. I get it. I myself am not yet comfortable writing my female protagonist’s story in first person, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and I doubt I could fake it in first person where everything is raw and totally exposed. And I’m too in love with my protagonist to start another story without her. Maybe this is the “sentimentalism” that some great authors say they hate.

So shoot me.

But a zillion readers, all hammering through your book to the end, telling people what a night they’ve had with your hero? If you write in first person you’ll get the emotions from your hero to your reader more powerfully and more naturally than you probably will in second person. Try it if you don’t believe me.

Check this out, now. It’s Katniss again…

“As the lights dim and the seal appears on the screen, I realize I’m not prepared for this. I do not want to watch my twenty-two tributes die. I saw enough of them die the first time. My heart starts pounding and I have a strong impulse to run. How have the other victors faced this alone? During the highlights they periodically show the winner’s reaction up on a box in the corner of the screen. I think back to earlier years… some are triumphant, pumping their fists in the air, beating their chests. Most just seem stunned. All I know is that the only thing keeping me on this love seat is Peta – his arm around my shoulder, his other hand claimed by both of mine. Of course the previous victors didn’t have the Capitol looking for a way to destroy them.”

Can you feel the draw of this special person, Katniss, telling you every detail of how she feels?

 The contrast between how openly and honestly she speaks of her feeling to the reader, and how much she hides from other characters creates a bond, too.

See if you can’t go back and rewrite one of your second-person babies in first person. Or start something new in first person.

I predict that you’ll get closer to a meaningful page-turner than ever before if you dare to write intimately in first person.

M. Talmage Moorehead

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