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How to #Plot Without a Formula – A Chat With Stuart Horwitz

@robblightfoot #amwriting

Photo of Stuart Horwitz

Stuart Horwitz

Going to the SF Writer’s Conference is like going to a 112-ring circus. It’s exciting, but then you’re got to deal with the resulting mess.

It’s possible to get too much of a good thing.

I now have to decide “what comes next?” Which ideas do I apply? As far as my fiction, I’m still chipping away at my novel, “Problem Child.” It’s about my “little guy” character who’s always trying to do the right thing but getting it wrong. I’ve written short stories about the Problem Child for several years, and I have stacks of manuscripts. But pulling them together as a novel is tricky. I have a dramatic through-line. But that’s part of the problem. The book keeps getting more serious that I intended it to be. When I add in characters and work on their motivations, the thing keeps morphing into another book altogether.

What to do? That was one of the big questions on my mind as I attended this conference. And the ideas point in different directions.

I’ve been thinking about is just declaring an early November and doing a month-long mad-dash through the book. I could set aside the outlines and plot points and just power through it. This, of course, is the NaNoWriMo approach, and they had a rep there in one session pitching this approach.

I did this back in November of 2013, and I still have that hot mess on the hard drive. Perhaps there’s a book in it, but it’s going to require an anthropological dig to get it out. Not sure I want to do that to myself again.

At another session I heard a best-selling authors speak of taking seven drafts before having a manuscript that was ready to see a “first reader.”

Seven drafts? Seven? Yikes.

I left that session feeling a bit beaten. According to this author, you write a first draft to figure out what the book is about, another to meet the characters,  a third to floss your mind, a fourth to whiten your screen-saver, a fifth to promote semi-colon health, a sixth for a silky-smooth grammar, and eventually you’ve written enough drafts occupy all of Snow White’s Dwarves. At this rate, I’ll be 7,213 years old when I finish.

This author must be sponsored by the Zellerbach Paper Company.

I’m sure this is great advice. She’s a big success. But I’m not sure it’s a good fit for someone with my attention span.

What were we talking about?

Oh, yeah. Finding a method to write novels.

Fortunately for me, there was someone who’s ideas resonated the second I heard them.

Stuart Horwitz, the man with a method.

Stuart was a panelist in “The Art of Writing Is Rewriting” session, and he talked about how to “quick tinkering and start tackling” your work. His advice was inspired by watching a friend of his spend years never-quite-finishing a book. He wanted to get writers out of that rut.

This was when I perked up.

He talked about a method that falls between no planning and having it all dialed in. His approach is what he calls “Book Architecture.”

After the panel discussion, I was fortunate enough to see Stuart in the volunteers/presenters’ lounge, I pressed him with questions, and found his answers encouraging.

Stuart decries formulas, and his approach is a middle-way. It’s not “flying by the seat of your pants,” nor is it “do this on page-three.”

After small-talk about his escape from the big snow storm on the East Coast-he’s from Rhode Island–I asked him where I could get his forthcoming book. Like any “serious” author, those who hope to pay their bills, he had several volumes on him. I snagged #59/250 pre-release copy of “Book Architecture: How To Plot And Outline Without Using A Formula.”

I’m eager to get going on this, and I’ll let you know what I think. Since it’s not out yet, as of this moment you can’t buy it, you may want to check out his earlier work, “Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method,” This is available in print and in eBook format. His newer book ought to appear on Amazon, too, soon. You can reach him at and Twitter @Book_Arch .

Here’s Stuart’s author page.


#SFWC2015 – Robbz Notes at a Glance of the San Francisco Writer’s Conference 2015

Photo of talent list for SF Writer's Conference 2015



Here’s a quick pick of the sessions I covered:

My roundup story

Suggestions on choosing and maintaining and effective POV (important in both fiction And nonfiction)

Blog Your Way To A Book Deal

Sunday morning keynote – Judith Curr

From Manuscript to Bestseller – Panel with Betty Sargent, Judith Curr and John Lescroart

Super Fans for Life – How to build a core-tribe to establish a marketing base

Saturday keynote – John Lescroart

The Art of Writing is Rewriting

Writing Mind-Bending, Serious Nonfiction

Cool Tools for Blogging Your Book and Establishing Your Platform

50 Shades of Pay – How to Monetize Your Books

Meet the Nonfiction Editors (kickoff session – SFWC15)


#SFWC15 Closing Thoughts on Fame, Fortune and the Business of Writing


also #sfwc2015

Artsy Map of SF

Home from the 2015 San Francisco Writer’s Conference, and I have a lot to think about. This was my fourth conference as a volunteer, and it’s an impressive operation. The talent the organizers attract is top-rate, and the atmosphere is warm and convivial. I’m not wowed by celebrities just because they’re famous. I hate to admit it, but often I don’t even know who is famous until one of my friends or family tells me. Usually the expression on their faces is “Really, you’ve never heard of Famous-Person-‘X’?” I get this astonishment less often these days. But as a kid I paid no attention to movie stars and knew exactly four famous musical groups/individuals: The Beatles, Jim Croce, Neil Diamond and Gordon Lightfoot.

This confession not only shows that I was out of tune with most of the pop culture of my formative years.

It also proves that I have questionable taste in music.

I can’t deny this, and I’m still learning about groups that were prominent in the 60s and 70s. My wife helps  me with this in much the same manner a person who is color-blind may rely on a spouse to get dressed without looking like Bozo-the-Clown. She still, after almost 33 years, is amazed by how little I know about music and musicians.

In my defense, I will note that I was the oldest in a household that focused on Doris Day, Dean Martin and the Tijuana Brass. Karin, the youngest, inherited the sizeable rock-album-collection of her big sisters.

Lucky her. She still has a lot this vinyl. Alas, my Neil Diamond records are long gone. But as one friend observed, “If you’ve heard one Neil Dimond song…. you’ve heard them all.” His analysis was that Neil had, in fact, been locked in a room for several years and recorded one, Encyclopedia-Britannica-length song that was being sliced up and extruded into the marketplace one monotonously painful piece at a time.

I think this is unkind, but then I still confuse Billy Joel with Dan Fogelberg, and I continually slip up elsewhere, saying such things as: “I really liked that song by Cat Stevens.” When this happens, Karin will gently poke me and say: “That’s not his name these days.”

So my expanding knowledge of real non-Neil-Diamond rock-culture is still a work-in-progress. What I know I’ve learned mainly by leafing through Karin’s collection, asking dumb questions and making painfully uninformed observations in public. But these days I can almost carry on a conversation about the Byrds, the Doors, the Steve Miller Band and many others. All this from just looking at my wife’s somewhat-shopworn album covers.

And that’s how I know who is famous. If only there were a way of doing this when it came to writers.

Oh, yeah, I guess I could look at dust jackets. But, there again, you have to be paying attention to book displays. Maybe I need to get out more, pry myself away from, and go to Barnes and Nobles now and then.

They still exist, right?

What do I know of famous authors? Once I get past Stephen King, Asimov, Bradbury and J.R.R. Tolkein, I find I’m often out of the loop. I like goofballs like Bill Bryson, Fanny Flagg and Neil Gaiman. I just don’t like what everyone else seems to enjoy. For example, I find David Sedaris’s work hit and miss, and Dave Barry had a good-novel streak going until his joint-effort with Ian Frazier. “Lunatics.”

Yes, it won the Thurber award for 2013, but it’s not to my taste. Eliminate the “F-word,” an the thing would be no longer than a New Yorker article. But that’s what passes for humor these days, I guess.

Again, I find I’m not in tune with those who lead the cultural pack. So the SF Writer’s Conference efforts to attract famous writers are mostly wasted on me. I’d never heard of their keynote speakers and was unfamiliar with their work.

But, that said, it was interesting to hear best-selling writers talk about their paths to fame. Not always instructive, but interesting nevertheless. Take John Lescroart, Saturday’s keynote speaker, for example. He has an amazing, odd and funny story to tell. But exactly what is the take-away here? Just keep writing, and if you ever wake up from a coma and decide you can make a living as a writer… it may NOT be a sign of brain damage after all.

Alas, John is quick to note that the publishing industry has changed a lot since he broke in. This is a kind way of saying what he did really can’t happen again for anyone else.

Isn’t that helpful?

But he does still have suggestions.  For example, DON’T follow his lead when it comes to taking career advice from your father. Even though John’s dad liked a novel John wrote in college, Lescroart left it in dresser drawer for 14 years because his dad said “you can’t make a living as a writer.”

So John formed a band and spent the next 10 years as a working musician-and-house painter. The band never became famous, but no matter. I wouldn’t have known them anyway.

After hearing his witty presentation and panel sessions, I’ve decided to put Lescroart on my “must read” list, and you can see the rest of John’s story elsewhere on this blog. Look for the #sfwc15 hashtag.

Yes, the SF Writer’s Conference attracts the biggies. Lescroart “dresser-drawer” manuscript eventually got a six-figure advance for that book. But what most impresses me about this event is the breadth and mix of the “lesser known” talent it attracts.

There are plenty of not-so-famous authors making a decent living at this crazy business. This I find even more inspiring. There also are publishers, editors and agents galore. Some big and some small… as are the businesses they represent.  Without exception they are generous with their wisdom and advice. I found it credible, sound, and at times contradictory.

Isn’t that life all over again?

I have summarized their comments here, and their suggestions and resources are well worth chasing down. They have websites and, in many cases, free books and videos telling you how to most effectively approach the marketplace or develop your talents. I’ve watched these pros handle long Q and A sessions with patience, grace and even kindness when answering sometimes-inane questions from newbies and wannabies… like me.

The SF Writer’s Conference is an event that is committed to developing the “craft, commerce and art of writing.” It’s a great place to go and dream big.

The presentations I attended appear here on this blog, but with 100+ sessions, you really ought to check out the listing of CDs and MP3 recordings. You can select from different areas of emphasis. No matter if you’re a poet, screenwriting or aspiring YA author, there’s something for you.

Here’s a link to the CDs.

My favorite sessions this term focused on blogging-into-books, marketing, and the changing nature of writing for an online audience. I learned about new tools, heard that big changes are in store for Facebook, and got re-acquainted with professionals that have become my friends.

I’d like to hear from others who attended what they liked, or if you listen to recording or two, drop back by and let me know what you think.

Maybe you can let me know who your favorite author is too. I’m still learning….

In closing, I’d like to thank Michael Larsen, one of the key organizers and the man who first brought my attention to the SF Writer’s Conference, Linda Lee the volunteer coordinator who allows me to help out and meet the pros behind the scenes, and author, blogger and professional coach Nina Amir, who inspired me to try blogging as a path to write a book.

Three books later, I’m still finding my way.

But the experiences that have come from this journey have been gratifying. No fame or fortune yet, and who knows if they will ever come. But no matter, even if I were to become a publishing rock-star I can rest assured there will always be a culturally-impaired person, like me, who will look at my book, see the mug shot on the dust jacket, and say:

“I don’t know about your book, Gordon, but I really like the way you play a 12-string.”

And to that fictional, future person, I hope to have the patience to say: “Thanks. But that’s not my name these days.”