Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 15, 2017

How to Get to Carnegie Hall

James Preston

There’s an old joke about a tourist in New York who asks a native, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall.”

They say to lead off with a joke, right? Well, I’ll lead off with half of a joke that’s older than many of the Writers in the Storm readers. (And notice I did not say, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”)

When I was in junior high my parents wanted to encourage me to do arty things. After all, Maggie Preston, one of my aunts on my father’s side, was a well-known painter. Well, I’m not. There was a brief spate of clarinet lessons and after a lot of work I got it to make a noise like a duck. Nobody was sorry when I switched to piano. Which leads me to an anecdote about a concert pianist who said, “If I miss a day of practice I can tell. If I miss two days my coach can tell, and if I miss three my audience can tell.”

I recently launched two novellas called Crashpad and Buzzkill. (Insert high-priced commercial here.) I talked about them at some length at a signing at a great independent bookstore in Orange, California called Book Carnival. I talked a bit, read an excerpt and answered a lot of questions, some of which were about the background (they are period pieces set in the 1960’s on a college campus), and a few questions were on how to do it because, as with any audience, some of the listeners wanted to write.

Well, I’ve studied, of course. But mostly I’ve written. Words on paper. You’d think that was obvious, right? Maybe not so much. The point is that all of those folks who tell you to write every day are right. However . . . Not even Stephen King gets up every morning and knows exactly where the next scene is going. At least, I don’t think he does. But he writes every day, oh, yes, he’s there at the typewriter or the word processor or with a notepad putting one word after another, because that’s what writers do. They write.

Is all of it deathless prose that jumps from his page to the New York Times list? Of course not. Ray Bradbury says he wrote every day for sixty-nine years. Writing every day does not have to mean a new chapter in your novel, though that would be nice. 

I had a writing teacher and reviewer named Paul Bishop. Paul is a now-retired LAPD officer and talented writer. Look for books like Citadel Run and Tequila Sunrise. He told me a story about a writing class he taught and a woman who came up to him afterward, thanked him, and said, “Now I’m almost ready to start, just as soon as I know exactly what the entrance to the FBI building in Washington DC looks like.”  My guess is she’s still waiting. 

So, you think, “Write every day,” and you get up one morning and Urk! no ideas, the old brain is thinking about breakfast or does the car need gas. So what? That concert pianist does not play Bela Bartok every morning first thing. No, she runs scales. (During my piano lessons I got to where I could do that and I’ll bet if I sat down today with only a little fumbling around I could do it again. Muscle memory. Your writing muscle is like that.)

Here are some ways to write every day even when your muse is off shopping.

Much of the following is based on writing prompts developed for the State of California by, among others, my wife Nancy and Fae Rowen (yes, the Fae Rowen who is one of the founders of the blog you are reading now). 

Write a letter from your main character to you. Mine might go like this: “Hey, James, this is Jane. How’s it going? I got all my classes for once and didn’t have to stand in line very long to register. I’m taking Psych 101, and . . .” 

Write a paragraph about your character’s life before the event that started the story. Alternatively write a paragraph in which one of your  characters describes their life before this initiating event. My hero is a man named T. R. Macdonald, a guy who was a very successful broker/analyst in New York until, well, here’s what he would say about his life “before”: Mostly I’m a technical analyst, or I guess I should say I was. Anyway, I was at my station on the trading floor watching three screens and talking in the phone when Bernice, my boss’s Executive Assistant pushed her way through the crowd and pointed urgently at the blinking light on my phone. Until then I’d been a winner: Trader of the Year, fat bonus, Porsche Carrera (provided by a grateful company), stuff like that and it seemed to matter, you know. All it once it changed like a dip in a candlestick chart when somebody unloads a big block. Bernice told me my wife, who I’d left behind in California, had been hospitalized with a drug o.d. You know, I looked at the screens and I couldn’t remember the names of the equities or the client. 

Whoa, when I wrote that I learned something about how Mac felt. Ok, it’s not deathless prose, but I got in touch with him in a new way. 

Write — from a character’s viewpoint — what happened after that event. For me, this might be the reaction of Walter Dalrymple to Macdonald’s return to California. (Side Note: Walter takes center stage in the novella Crashpad.)

Will these exercises find their way into a final draft? Probably not, but so what? I doubt there are recordings of Jascha Heifetz tuning his violin. It flexes the writing muscle. 

So you sit down and your mind is as blank as the page. Write, “I can’t think of anything to say. Why is that?”

Shaquille O’Neal accepted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2000, he quoted Aristotle: 'Excellence is not a singular act, but a habit. You are what you repeatedly do.' Classicists might quibble with Shaq’s translation of The Nicomachean Ethics, but in our view he was right on the money.” (Excerpt from What the Numbers Say by Derrick Niederman & David Boyum

There are many ways to practice. I have listed only a few.

Share some of yours. If you have none, take a stab at one of these and tell us about it.

Writing that blog response is, after all, practice. 


So the other half of the joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”


James R. Preston is the author of the Surf City Mysteries. This October he launched Crashpad and Buzzkill, two novellas set on a college campus in the 1960’s.

26 comments on “How to Get to Carnegie Hall”

  1. I love this essay. I'm inspired by how you pull it all together with the example (and joke) from the worlds of music, sports. The quotes are ones I should hang up over my desk. Thanks for the much needed reminder that we really only get better by writing, not by reading about how to write. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Irtrovi! I had a good time with this essay; it took me back. It is as true now as it ever was: practice makes perfect.
      Thank you for your comment and -- keep writing!

  2. I'd love to do this - along with writing words for songs, and flash fiction, and horror, and...but I have too many books in my head! I'm one of those who doesn't want to write a wasted word. I mean, I'm old, and there's a ticking clock...

    Maybe my next lifetime!

    1. Oh, boy, Laura, do I ever know what you mean! I have been thinking about a historical novel, still a thriller, but set in the period between WW1 and WW2. Lately I have been thinking about what Bolles (What Color is Your Parachute) calls, "The futurity of my decisions." His example is if you want to be a doctor you need to set aside four years for med school. In my case, there's a lot of time involved and do I ever hear that ticking clock. Thank you.

    1. That's a great way to get into a character's head, Sandra. Looks like more than one of us feel the old, "Like sands through the hourglass." When I was studying screenwriting I watched a solid month of Days of Our Lives and their tagiine stuck with me. Yeah, write that email to your character. Here's a thought: Are there wasted words? Or does it all go into some mental melting pot and come out somewhere? Laura Drake, any thoughts on that? Fae?

        1. LOL, Laura. You are so right. And those long-winded types (some don't even have to be drunk) can show up anywhere, usually after I've just thought of a way out of a plot issue and haven't written it down yet. No jury of writers would convict you of murder in cases like that.

  3. When I get stuck, I will sometimes go write a scene from some other point in the main character's life and that will usually reveal some backstory or emotions that I can draw from to keep writing the novel. Thanks!

    1. Julie, excellent idea! It's something I have not tried, but I certainly will. Makes me think of Back to the Future 2, when Marty McFly attends the "Under the Sea" dance and sees himself on stage. And doesn't Julie's comment illustrate the value of this blog?

  4. Writers block (or feeling stuck) can come about when you fear you can't meet your expectations. If that plagues you, cross out those expectations. When I sit down each morning to work on my latest novel, I have zero expectations for that day. I don't set a minimum word count or say I have to sit in my chair for four hours. I just jump into the story where I left off and start writing what happens next. I do set broad goals for the year, but find narrow goals can become a hindrance rather than a help.

  5. Boy, can I relate to this! When I used to set minimum word counts after a while I'd miss, then I'd be behind, then it would get discouraging, then I'd take a break. I like the idea of broad goals. Thanks for sharing.

  6. With scrivener software im able to simple scroll down my outline and write on another scene if the one i am working on is not flowing. But i have written a few character backgrounds and chattering notes to myself to leave in the refence area so i can find the backstory if i need. Additionally i go find a pic of someone that closely resembles the character and have that pic up in the notes area to look at when im writing that chrs story.

    1. Hi, Jeanne -- I haven't used Scrivener, but that sounds like an excellent feature. However, when I have written scenes out of order I try to consider them drafts and somewhat expendable. When I go back to fill in the in-between material the story can potentially go off in another direction, rendering the out-of-order material obsolete. However, it is words on paper and therefore good.
      Thanks a lot for useful info! (I like the pictures suggestion and have in fact used it.)

  7. Thanks, Tiffany! I'm glad you liked the article, and that you are posting it. If I Google Tiffany Yates Martin will I find the editorial FB page?

  8. Remember James, I was the lone math teacher in the state on that task force, and I knew nothing about writing. But Nancy did encourage me to write my first novel, and suffered through reading the rough draft! I'm still trying to figure out if I'm anywhere near my hundred thousand hours to "mastery." Thinking maybe it will take two hundred thousand...

    1. I think it takes as long as it takes; that "hundred thousand" may not be true for you. The only thing that we know for sure is more hours are better. And I read that rough draft, too and saw the promise. I'm glad you kept writing! Now pet the kitty and pound those keys.

  9. This solid advice was timely for me. While other writers were in the throes of NaNoWriMo, I allowed myself a "holiday hiatus". For my sanity, honestly. Now that life has calmed to a dull roar, I've returned to my WIP, only to feel as though I'm climbing a steep muddy hill. In cement shoes. These tactics should help jump-start my my writing engine. I've pinned this to my board as reference. Thanks for a great post.

    1. I know what you mean about the "dull roar." Look, if this was easy, everybody would do it, right? Okay, you had a break; the important thing is that you're back, slogging up that hill. All it takes is one foot after another. I can't footnote it, but I think when people ask Stephen King how he writes, he says, "One word at a time." And that's all it takes. Dominique, I'm proud to be pinned to your board.

  10. Hi, James. Great posting. Reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point.He highlighted 10,000 as the magic number The Beatles early gig in Hamburg gave them 10,000 song performances before they were "overnight successes." Or the programmer who has written 10,000 lines of code. Worth a quick read. Wonder what the right unit is for us? Paragraphs? Pages?

    1. Thanks, Jack. You're right, Gladwell pointed out the Beatles' hard work leading to their success. I have wondered what the number is for writing, and can only think it must vary widely from writer to writer. And as to how to measure it -- the unit -- wow, that's more up your alley than mine.
      For those of you who don't know, Jack Bowie is a techie who gave up honest work to write. (See jackbowie.com) He is the author of the thrillers The Saracen Incident and The Liberty Covenant, I've read Saracen and really liked it, Liberty is on my list but you know how it goes. Soon . . . .

  11. James! Delightful to see you here. Excellent advice, sir.

    Every February I use a time-honored method to make myself write music (my novels slow a skosh in Feb.) I’m part of an online group that each commits to writing 14 new songs in 28 days. Since I’ve been doing this for 13 years I up the ante and aim for 28 songs. With hundreds of people aware of my progress, cheering each other on and helping out, it feels good to push, to show up and turn in the work even on days the sun doesn’t come out.

    An understanding intelligent support group, however small, can work wonders.

    I was wondering, James: next time I get stuck, can I give you a call?

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