The Bar is Set Low – Very Low

I am lucky to coach some very talented new writers. They all come to me with an idea for a story and their main question is always the same: “Is this story any good?”

The fact is that any story can use improvement. What I offer is structure: both in the form of the story and in getting it done. I use lessons from mythology, screenwriting, psychology, and a little project management to help beginning writers create a novel in 6 months.

The Novel That Convinced Me It Was Possible

In 2005 I joined a mystery book club. We were to read a book a month and share what was great – or not so great – about the book. The first book was Lisa Jackson’s Fatal Burn. It’s not what you think. You might think that I was so bowled over that I was inspired to reach the same literary heights as Ms. Jackson. After all, this was a New York Times Best Selling title – so it must be good, right?

My epiphany came when I read the climactic scene where the heroine realizes that it was her father – the local fire chief – who was responsible for the rash of fires in her town. It was his dark secret revealed when she listed her and her siblings in birth order: Aaron, Robert, Shea, Oliver, Neville, and Shannon. If you take the first letter of each name it spells “ARSONS.”

Clearly this is the most ridiculous plot point in the history of fiction. What if the mother had died in childbirth after three children? That would spell “ARS.” What if the mother wanted more children and named the last two Isaac and Charles? That would be the height of irony: an arsonist with children’s names (mis)spelling “ARSONIC.”

That was the moment I realized that I, or in fact anyone, could write a novel and sell it on the open market. If you have even a basic competency to write prose, you can write a best selling novel – because the bar is set so incredibly low.

Even Pulitzer Prize Winners Write Crap

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. It weighs in at over 750 pages and  tells the story of a young man’s life from age 12 (when his mother is killed) to nearly 30. When Theo loses his mother to a terrorist bomb in a museum, he steals a precious painting of a goldfinch and keeps it hidden for nearly 20 years.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but of course these are my opinions. One man’s crap is another man’s fine dining. But I have objective reasons for claiming The Goldfinch is crap. First of all it’s unnecessarily long. If ever a work could be accused of purple prose, The Goldfinch is a leading contender. The story lingers far too long on scenes that ultimately have no purpose in the story.

But the final straw for me was the climactic ending. Our hero is despondent over the loss of his painting and is holed up in a hotel room. He becomes so miserable that he contemplates suicide – which is a difficult thing to write in a FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE. How in the world do you write anything after the gun goes off if the main character is dead? Worse than that, if the story is told in the first person, past tense, then how in the world is he relating the story to you after having killed himself? As a ghost? So you KNOW he is not going to kill himself.

Finally, though, just as the hero is about to pull the trigger, his friend barges in and EXPLAINS the climax of the story. That is: “while I was gone, I returned the painting to the authorities, all the bad guys who are out to kill us are in jail, and we got a big reward.” In other words, all the action happens OFF PAGE to a SECONDARY CHARACTER while the hero was WALLOWING IN SELF-PITY. If I thought Fatal Burn had the worst plot point in history, then this is the single worst ending ever – and it won the highest literary praise on the planet.

In any story with a main character: the hero provides the climactic action. You must SHOW not TELL the action. These are two of the primary rules of storytelling.

Who Needs a Hero?

I am coaching a young man writing a dystopian zombie young adult novel. My advice is to create a main character the reader can follow from beginning to the end and give him an inner problem to solve. Think about Divergent, The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner. But he balked. He read Charlie Higson’s The Enemy in which the main character is killed off at the midpoint and a new character takes up the role of the hero.

This is heresy of the highest order. You don’t kill your main character in the middle of the action. Of course there are well-known stories where important characters are killed off (I’m looking at you Game of Thrones). But even in ensembles there are lead characters you want to follow through to the end. Yet The Enemy breaks this rule and still is #90 in its category on

Know Your Audience

How can these books make such obvious mistakes and still attract a readership? What is it these authors know that the rest of us don’t?

It’s simpler than it seems: these authors reached their audience. Such books as E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight are, by most measures, terrible pieces of literature. And yet they are blockbusters. All of these writers have found what readers are looking for. Jackson knows her readers don’t need logical plot lines as long as she provides enough suspense and action. Tartt focused on style rather than plot and appealed to readers who like deep characters and deep descriptions. Higson knows his readers relate to first-person shoot-em-up zombie video games – so he gave them that in print.

What is Success?

There are rules to good storytelling. Some people bristle when I use the word “rules.” (Others prefer “guidelines.”) But I think we should all learn the rules of good storytelling, practice them, master them, then learn to break them.

At Agile Writers, the very first thing we do before writing our books is write a Story Abstract. In it, we choose our genre, reader’s age, gender, and educational level. Simply put, we define our audience. We begin our writing journey by thinking about who is going to read our book. We put our reader first.

Success, then, is not necessarily measured in book sales, high praise, or adherence to the rules. But in reaching your audience. If your audience is 100,000 people and you sell 100,000 books you’ll be successful. But if your audience is only 100 readers and you reach them – then you’ve succeeded. And the best way to reach your audience is to first know who they are.

So remember, the bar for so-called quality is set very low. You don’t need the best story idea, plot points, or even literary prowess. What you need is a passion for your story, a well-defined audience, and a plan to complete. You bring the passion, we’ll bring the plan.

Continued Success!


Agile Writer featured on local show

Richmond, VA – Agile Writer Jackie Hunter, a retired teacher and elementary school administrator, will be a special guest on the next broadcast of “Love, Light and Positivity”. Hosted by Richmond personality, Yemaja Jubilee, the television episode will air at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 11th. Viewers may tune in on local public access channels, Comcast (Channel 95) and Verizon (Channel 36).

“Retirement can be the best phase of your life,” says Jackie Hunter, 66, a retired public middle school administrator, “When you want to learn how to do something new, my advice is to research ‘how-to’ books, and find the people and places you need to learn from.”

A native of Richmond, Hunter decided to write a sci-fi fantasy novel after working 31 years in public education as a math and science teacher. She joined Agile Writers of Richmond, a writer’s club dedicated to helping the beginning writer create a first-draft in six months, and a year later had completed her first manuscript.

Her book, Lost in the Red Hills of Mars, is about a twelve year-old girl who lives in the first human colony on Mars. It will be available as an e-book and in paperback in late-August 2017.

Agile Writer Keith Van Allen Releases New Novel

Ezekiel Saw a Wheel is a Sci-Fi Suspense Magical Realism novel by animator director Keith Van Allen, about an excentric cartoonist, Zeke Landover who’s convinced he and his family were once abducted by aliens. What he finds out is far more startling, and his cartoon characters agree with him! A surrealistic romp through the back roads and towns of historic Virginia, as Zeke and his friends search an otherworldly humanoid,while often chased by odd and sinister men of unknown origin and frightening agenda.

Van Allen worked with Agile Writer Coach Greg Smith in 2014 to bring his unique skills and story to the world. He has twisted his TV animation and cartooning career into an extraordinary magical realism tale of the surreal and unexpected, set against the landscape of historic central Virginia. It’s a sometimes horrific and even comic romp through town and back roads as Zeke and his friends, Jerry and Minnie, are enveloped in one strange occurrence after another, in the seemingly placid landscape of their lives. At each turn of the road, the friends are confounded and confronted by things which challenge their conceptions of reality, the Universe,time and what’s actually happening around them in the everyday world,(that is when they have the time). Alien and metaphysical worlds collide as the friends go spinning onward through vortex after vortex of mysterious apocalyptic visions and bizarre situations. A truly wild ride of weirdness!

Also along for the ride, inside Zeke’s mind are his cartoon characters from his weekly comic strip (which he really should be working on), Melvin the Gunk and Stupid the Cat, a marooned blobby alien and an out-of-work cartoon character actor, who drive a 39 Ford in search of America. Zeke struggles to keep his mind on creativity and also the business of survival while they intrude on his thoughts at unwanted moments,and even try to help him (if he’ll let them), and in between his occasional rants about the world, the media, the environment and politics.

Minnie is an ex-girlfriend psychic of free wheeling New Age attitude, who re-hooks up with Zeke and joins in the undulating chase along with Jerry, an exuberant easy going but unorganized conspiracy theorist who takes what comes in his own unique fashion which defies description. Various characters of the Virginia landscape, downtown Richmond and elsewhere also invade the swirling plot,as one by one they are wrapped up and spun out, into some sort of realization that seen and unseen forces for good and evil are everywhere at work, while encountering clues which promise to lead them somehow to an understanding of what’s going on in, and out,beyond,within and even without-The World.

Van Allen’s book can be found on

The Art of Incubation


At Agile Writers we’ve been reading Sage Cohen’s book “Fierce on the Page.” Each week one of the writers will take the book home and read a chapter and digest it down to one page. Then, they return the next week and share what they learned and we talk about how it applies to our writing in general and what it means to us as Agile Writers.

  • Procrastination is sometimes confused with incubation, the process of ruminating and allowing ideas the time they need to take root.
  • Nobody looks at a six-months-pregnant woman and says, “Oh, she’s procrastinating. If she were a real achiever, she would have given birth to that baby already.”
  • The challenge is that the writing life doesn’t have finite gestation.
  • Henri Poincaré, mathematician & scientist proposed creativity happens in four steps.
    • Preparation: We set our intentions and define our goals.
    • Incubation: We dream into the possibilities, honor the unknown, and become receptive to what is seeking us.
    • Illumination: We have the revelation in which some new possibility takes shape.
    • Execution: We create to manifest and materialize our discovery.
  • Many writers leap straight to execution without having first grappled with what they are striving for
  • Execution without vision is like a house without a foundation.
  • Procrastination— which is born from fear— often happens between steps three and four
    • You have a crisis of confidence that prevents you from taking the next necessary steps.
    • This is a very different from incubation, in which you have a goal or a vision


Greg’s Thoughts: At Agile Writers we do Preparation when we write our abstracts. We’re setting up our goals by writing down what we think our story is about. Incubation occurs during the synopsis. We extend into Illumination by creating a storyboard and massaging it until it is ready. Then, finally, we Execute – we write 10 pages a week until we’re done.

Fail Fast

At Agile Writers we’ve been reading Sage Cohen’s book “Fierce on the Page.” Each week one of the writers will take the book home and read a chapter and digest it down to one page. Then, they return the next week and share what they learned and we talk about how it applies to our writing in general and what it means to us as Agile Writers.

This week, it was my turn. Here’s my take on Cohen’s chapter called “Fail Harder.”

  • Book Review – Cohen received a book review from a reader who loved the book but went on at length about a typo.
  • Cohen started out a perfectionist
    • did not send my work out for fear that it contained a flaw.
    • did not share it with anyone, ever
    • What if my writing was no good
    • What if other people didn’t like it
    • What if the writing contained a mistake?
  • She stumbled upon a mural that said “Fail Harder.”
    • failing hard is often in direct proportion to trying hard
  • In Japan, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic rooted in the art of imperfection
    • a celebration of the flaw that makes a piece of art (or a life) unique.
  • When you embrace imperfection in your writing
    • you cultivate the compassion and acceptance that you (and your writing) deserve.
    • trust your material instead of fear of making a mistake.
    • your mistakes make you vulnerable enough to connect with other humans.
  • Sharing writing and making an authentic connection is more important than perfection
  • The Japanese art of Kintsugi involves mending broken objects by filling the cracks with gold.
    • to illuminate the repair and honor an object’s history of usefulness rather than to try to disguise the damage.


Greg’s Thoughts: Not only “Fail Hard” but “Fail Fast.” At Agile Writers we write abstracts, a synopsis, and a storyboard so that when our plots fail – they fail fast. It’s easier to see the flaws when we lay out our plot up front. Get the errors on paper right away rather than a year down the road after the first draft has been written. When I send you home to fix “Stage 2” it’s a failure – but you’re failing fast. You’ll also succeed fast!

The Idiot in the Room

176451-004-0848859CThere are a number of ways to expose information to the reader: dialog, letters, news reports, and flashbacks are just a few. But by far the best way to expose information to the reader is to have someone close to the hero who doesn’t understand what is going on. I call this “the idiot in the room.”

When you want to let the reader know a fact that may not be intuitively obvious, you can have some uninitiated character ask obvious questions. Think about the classic example of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.  Watson was constantly asking questions that allowed Holmes to explain how he knew what was going on.

This can also work in reverse – by having the hero be the idiot in the room. One great example of this is the old TV series “Columbo.” Columbo would constantly ask questions of the suspect requiring them to explain himself. And his classic maneuver was to ask “Oh, just one more thing…” This was always his moment to skewer the villain with the crime.

I recently watched a rerun of “Lie to Me.” The main character, Dr. Lightman, is played by Tim Roth. He is a PhD. whose secret power is that he can read micro-expressions and tell when people are lying. He has a sidekick named Torres who is just learning the craft. Whenever Lightman figures out who is lying, Torres asks how he knows. He then launches into a description of the facial ticks or body language that exposes the liar.

If you need to explain something to the reader, a great way to do it is to create a sidekick who needs mentoring from the hero. Or, make the hero a character who needs information from a more experienced character (like a reporter asking questions of a professor). The idiot in the room is your secret weapon to exposition that is natural and not information dumping.

The Problem With Star Wars

StarWarsMoviePoster1977Star Wars has been a phenomenally popular movie franchise. The original Star Wars came out in 1977 and was an instant success. But when I first watched it, I was not impressed. My first impression was that it was the King Arthur legend in outer space. Even at the age of 14 I had expectations of my science fiction adventures. We all have a sense of a good story when we see one. But when I first saw Star Wars, there were things missing. Let’s look at one of the flaws of Star Wars and why the film has endured despite it.

The Elements of Good Storytelling

At Agile Writers, we follow the basic pattern of the Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

  • The Hero starts out in his ordinary world
  • Something happens that upsets the hero’s world
  • And he is cast into an unfamiliar world
  • Where he makes new friends, enemies, and overcomes trials
  • After overcoming a major crisis
  • The hero returns to his ordinary world, with a lesson learned.

What Star Wars is Lacking

Star Wars follows this pattern nearly to a tee. However, one thing lacking is the lesson learned. What is it that Luke understands about the universe that he didn’t understand at the beginning?

Luke starts out with what we call a “Missing Inner Quality.” He lacks confidence. In the end, he acquires this confidence when he trusts in the Force. So we have to ask ourselves, is this the message of this film? Is this the lesson learned?

If so, then the lesson learned is that we should all trust in the Force to resolve our issues. But the Force is a fictional element of a fictional galaxy, long ago and far away. This is not a message that any of us can use.

Alternatively, you might argue that the point of Star Wars is that we should trust in some higher power. But that doesn’t really seem to be the message that George Lucas was attempting to impart. We don’t really see Luke or any other character giving praise and credit to the higher power. Using the Force in the final scenes of the film is merely the device that signifies Luke has overcome his lack of confidence and has found a new confidence in the Force.

Why Star Wars is Popular

What Star Wars does right is the use of archetypes in story telling. These are fundamental character types that all humans seem to recognize intrinsically. The archetypes Star Wars employs are:

  • The young hero (Luke)
  • The damsel in distress (Leia)
  • The comic sidekicks (R2D2 & C3PO)
  • The rascal (Han)
  • The mentor (Obi Wan)
  • The villain (Darth Vader)

When we see these elements combined in the right ways, we are instantly engrossed in the story. You can see them employed over and over again in storytelling. Look at The Karate Kid, The Wizard of Oz, and The Matrix.

When George Lucas created his story, he consulted Joseph Campbell on the use of these mythical archetypes. He got this right. He got it so right that he was able to build an empire from this one story, and overcome a critical flaw.

The Serial and Roller Coaster Rides

Lucas based the structure of Star Wars, in part, on the serial movie shorts of his youth. Serials like Flash Gordon, for example, were episodic and often began with a recap of previous episodes. So, also, does Star Wars begin with an opening scroll.

These action/adventure stories were designed to thrill and excite young movie goers. They weren’t meant to teach a deep lesson. The idea was to pull the viewer in and keep them coming  back for more in subsequent releases. As such, they are very much roller coaster rides.

At Agile Writers, I warn writers away from writing roller coaster rides. When you begin your story, you are entering into a contract with the reader. That contract is that you promise if the reader hangs in there with you, you will deliver a story with a point to it. If the reader gets to the end of the story and there is no point, they will wonder why they spent the time and money on your story.

Have a Message

Roller coaster rides are fun. They are nice once in a while. However, as a beginning writer, I advise you to have a message to impart upon your reader. You have an opinion about the world we live in. You have a unique perspective about this world. Draw upon your unique experiences to craft a story that imparts a message to your readers that will enrich and engage them. That is the ultimate point of story.