Six Lessons my Five-Year-Old Can Teach You About Selling Books

It was a cold, rainy day and I was at the college where my wife works to meet with an acting student who needed to record an audition for a film role. Although college was in session, the elementary school was closed for the day and so my job after coaching my student was spending time with my five-year-old son.

Those of you who follow me regularly on Twitter (@pauljennynyc) and Facebook often see photos and hear stories about this little boy’s abundant energy, wild craziness and free-flowing imagination. He inspires me to write and to tell stories for a living. Seeing the world through his eyes keeps wonder alive in me. He’s always saying or doing something surprising, silly or even profound and I’m a better person in his presence.

After finishing the coaching session with my student, I came back to the lobby and my son had set himself up behind a low bench that he was using as a table. He had five paper cups festooned with push pins, screws and paper clips with hand written price tags next to each decorated cup.

I knew right away what those cups were. They were Daleks. My son is obsessed with the Daleks from Dr. Who and loves to make models of them with whatever he can get his hands on.


Fair use. Uploaded by Edokter to Wikipedia.

Three of the Daleks had $1.00 price tags. One had a $10 price tag and another cost $1001. Each handmade Dalek pretty much looked like every other one, but he was trying different prices to see what would sell.

LESSON ONE: Try different price structures on your books. Most of them will probably sell at $.99-$2.99 but I think it’s a good idea to put a few of them out there at a higher price. There is even some research to suggest that setting the price higher and then marking that price down during a sale will suggest that the book is a really good deal. You already know that it IS a good deal, but the psychology of the good deal is well-documented.

I asked him why the one Dalek was so expensive. He said, “Well, if someone has that kind of money and really likes Daleks, they might buy it for that much.”

I had to agree with this kind of thinking, but I thought the more expensive Dalek needed something to set it apart so I took a gold paperclip and made it into a kind of antenna for him. I said, “Here put this on the expensive Dalek and say it is a ‘Special Edition’ and then people will think of it differently.”

He grinned from ear to ear and poked a few new holes to put the “golden” paperclip antenna on the special edition Dalek. Now it was different. Now it really was a special edition compared to the other Daleks.

Students wandered by the bench as they were passing from class to class. With each and every student, my son would hop up from behind his table, run over to them with a big smile and say, “Do you want a Dalek?”

The students would come over thinking he was giving them away, but then he showed them the price and their smiles would turn into frowns. Most would say they didn’t have any cash and then walk away. My son started to get frustrated.

I said, “You should always say, ‘Would you like to buy a Dalek?’ that way they know you are selling them and the people who are interested in buying will come over and look at what you’re selling.”

He agreed. He tried it with the next group of students. They were interested and came over to check out the paper cup Daleks.

LESSON TWO: Make sure you let people know you are selling your books. Just putting them on the various sites for sale but then never doing any kind of outreach won’t be very effective. You have to reach out and let people know that you have something they might want. There are may ways to do this without being spammy. By doing some research you can find the best ways to do this for the genre you’re working in.

Those students still didn’t buy. It seems college students don’t carry a lot of cash on them during class. So, I made another suggestion.

“Next time someone comes by, politely say, ‘Excuse me, would you like to buy a Dalek?’ then, when they say, ‘I would like to but I don’t have any cash’, offer to trade them something for the Dalek instead.”

He tried this tactic with the next student – a young man with glasses who was definitely a Dr. Who fan.

“Excuse me, would you like to buy a Dalek?” my son asked.

“How much are they?” The student looked amused and slightly uncomfortable and pushed his glasses back up on his nose.

“This one is $1001 but that is a special edition with a gold antenna. These are only $1.00.”

“That’s a great deal! But I don’t have any cash.”

“Would you be willing to trade something?”

“Let me see…” The young man pulled out his wallet and checked his pockets to see if he had anything he could trade and in doing so, noticed that he did have a dollar.

“Actually, I do have a dollar. Here you go!” The young man handed him a dollar.

My son beamed. He jumped up and down. He waved the dollar in the air.

“Don’t forget to give him his Dalek and say thank you,” I said.

“Oh! Here you go. Thank you!” He handed the young man his Dalek and continued to do the money dance while squealing and leaping around the room.

LESSON THREE: By engaging with your customers you can make more sales. By letting them know there are many ways to purchase what you have to offer you give them lots of opportunities to become a buyer. Being polite by saying “Excuse me” and “Thank you” is always a good practice. Also, money dances are a lot of fun and fill me with joy!

For the next three hours my son asked almost every person who stopped buy if they wanted to either buy or trade something for a handmade Dalek. After awhile he started offering them to buy or trade and his “sales” slowed.

I said, “You should lead with, ‘Would you like to buy a Dalek?’ then if they say they have no cash, offer to trade with them. By giving them too many options right away, they can’t decide and then make no decision at all.”

He thought about this and nodded. Then he started making some drawings to sell. He was getting low on Daleks. The only ones left were the $10 and $1001 Special Edition Dalek.

LESSON FOUR: Giving your buyers too many options all at once is confusing and can cause people to not engage with you. I have a few friends who are selling classes, books, lectures, seminars, workshops and I get so many emails and notices from them that even if I wanted to take part, I wouldn’t know which offer to take because there are so many of them. Some offer free things for participating, some offer discounts if I act by a certain time, but all of them are being offered at once and I get overwhelmed. I know I’d rather just get one solid, convincing offer that is a great deal than tons of offers all at once.

The drawings he made were almost as popular as the Dalek models. He drew a picture of New York City, Dark Vader (he insists that’s what he should be called), tanks fighting, a train, some scribble marks, a page full of ‘W’s and lots of pictures of R2-D2 and BB-8, his newest obsession.

LESSON FIVE: Diversify! You really need more than one book to make any money. Look at what other authors are doing. They are usually busy building up a catalog. The more product you have to offer, the more diverse of an audience you can reach. He needed more than one product to keep people’s interest. Not everyone is into Dr. Who. There were a surprising amount of college students who didn’t know what a Dalek was.

As the day went on he sold four of the five Daleks. (He let the $10 Dalek go for a pen/stylus combination that matched his tablet. Pretty good trade!) The $1001 Dalek went home with us, it was a Special Edition after all.

handmade dalek

He sold or traded all of his drawings. He earned $3.95 in cash, plus a 10p coin and a Danish coin (perhaps a 50 øre). He traded for a green pen with no top, a catalog from Mrs. Fields, a gorilla key chain with no arms that he said had a 3D butthole (turned out to be a small screw in the gorilla’s backside), a half pack of gum, a piece of a sugar cookie, a piece of a brownie cookie, the pen/stylus and a bobby pin to hold his money together.



At the end of the day, as he was packing up, he gave away all the leftover drawings to his lucky last customer. The money dance was danced many times. He had a great day interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds. He earned enough money to go to the toy store later and buy himself a new toy, but he also learned a very valuable lesson:

LESSON SIX: By creating something from nothing, putting it out there in the world and saying “If you are interested in this, I will trade you something for it” you can have a very rewarding life. There might not be a ton of money involved but you could end up with a bag full of treasure by the end of the day.

If you take these lessons from my five-year-old and apply them to your book sales, you’ll be doing the money dance in no time! Leave a comment if you do. I love hearing from you.

Kurt Vonnegut – Writing Quote Wednesday


I took this Writing Quote Wednesday from Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007). I was part of his lost NYU lecture on what it takes to be a writer that was recently posted on Brain Pickings.

I once ran into Mr. Vonnegut at Penn State. He was eating at a table across from me. The way I remember it, he was by himself looking off into the distance almost as if he was thinking up the plot to some new story he was working on or thinking about what kind of drawing he might want to do next.

I wasn’t brave enough to approach him and say hello, but he certainly made an impression on me, sitting there by himself, thinking.

It is even more moving, thinking about that moment, when I read the full quote:

I’ve heard that a writer is lucky because he cures himself every day with his work. What everybody is well advised to do is to not write about your own life — this is, if you want to write fast. You will be writing about your own life anyway — but you won’t know it.

And, the thing is, in order to sit alone and work alone all day long, you must be a terrible overreacter. You’re sitting there doing what paranoids do — putting together clues, making them add up… Putting the fact that they put me in room 471… What does that mean and everything?

Well, nothing means anything — except the artist makes his living by pretending, by putting it in a meaningful hole, though no such holes exist.”

I’m doing some work right now to push through to the next level in my work and my life and one of the techniques I’m using involves drawing what I’m experiencing and then interpreting those drawings to gain insight into the situation. In my last session, which was a few weeks before I saw this quote, one of the drawings I did was of a man with several holes surrounding him. I had no idea what the holes were when I drew them and the man in the drawing had no idea what to do with them either.

Now I know that those holes I drew were meaningful holes to put my pretending in. Those holes do exist. Even though nothing means anything, putting our pretending in those holes is the way we, as artists, make our living.

Penn State English professor Kevin Boon had this to say back in 2007 about Mr. Vonnegut, “If I had to sum Vonnegut the man in one word, I would say he was, in all matters, gracious. If I had to sum his work, I would say that, in the end, the message threading his oeuvre is that people, as a whole, are cruel, but people, on an individual basis, are precious. Team players who are blindly loyal to ideologies are the primary reason the world has experienced so many atrocities (Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, slavery, racism, sexual intolerance, sexism, greed and the contemporary horrors of Iraq, Katrina, Darfur and so on), while the best results of our presence on Earth — a sonata by Mozart, a painting by Van Gogh, a poem by T.S. Eliot, a statue by Rodin, Gene Kelly dancing, Maria Callas singing — are the result of brilliant individuals producing single, epiphanous moments of beauty in a world that is largely inhumane.”

The Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen


Well, maybe not the worst thing. There are a LOT of terrible things happening in the world right now. The stock market is fluctuating like crazy, monster storms are flooding cities, people are shooting other people instead of talking to them. Those things are the actual worst things that could possibly happen.

But for a writer who’s been off his game for a while and then just starting to get right back on his game, the worst thing that could happen, happened. Right in the middle of some really important writing that I did not back up, my computer just gave up the ghost and went blank on me.

I had just gotten several great pages done on a new solo show I’m working on. This one is big. It’s life changing. I’ve avoided writing this one for years, that’s how close and important it is to me. It’s about my dismal days working on a big Broadway tour and how I almost didn’t survive those days.

I decided to finally sit down and really start working on it because I’m in a hotel room in Newark, Delaware, away from the family to do an acting gig. It’s the perfect set up to get some writing done. I had a few days off because my scenes are all in the second and third acts of the Feydeau farce we’re doing.

I could feel a good idea coming on. So, I paced around the room. I drank some water. I took some notes on a legal pad. LOTS of notes. Suddenly I knew where I would start and what I would call the piece. I opened up OMM Writer (a great writing app) and zen-ed out while I bled words. I got just about as far as I could before I had to go to rehearsal. I was elated and exhausted and excited, all at the same time. (That’s a lot of “e” words, but I guess emotions are somehow tied to the letter “e”.)

I saved my file and closed everything down and went to rehearsal. I thought about backing the file up, but then thought, “What could happen between now and later?”

When I came back to the hotel, I talked with my family for a while on Skype and then decided to watch “Fear the Walking Dead” on I thought of it as “research” because some of my years on the big Broadway tour were like being one of the walking dead.

Everything on the computer was running a bit slowly. The ads were loading strangely, the computer kept freezing up. I thought it was just the crappy internet that the hotel lets you use for free. Then, suddenly, like a zombie jumping out from behind a door, the computer froze up, the screen turned into a bunch of horizontal lines that wavered and shook and then the screen went black.


I tried rebooting the computer. It’s an old MacBook Pro. The Apple symbol came up. Good.

Then the screen went black for the video test.

Then…the dreaded gray screen hang.

I did some searching on my phone about how I might be able to fix it. I tried rebooting it to safe mode. The computer belongs to a college, so there is a firmware password. I couldn’t boot it. I could just take it back to IT at the college, but it’s over three hours from where I am now. Plus, they might have to wipe everything. I wanted to try to save it first.

So, I tried buying a Thunderbolt cable and booting it as a target disk to another Mac. Nothing.

I tried removing the hard drive and getting an e-SATA cable and hard drive enclosure and plugging it into a PC. Well, the pretty blue drive light comes on, but at the hotel’s PC I have no access to it’s hard drive so I was still out of luck.

I left the hotel and carried the darn thing around campus for several hours looking for a computer. No luck. School is not back in session yet, so no Mac labs are open. I tried the PC lab. No luck there. The library was closed. The classrooms are all antiquated and only have plugs for PC laptops. The bookstore was closed.  I was hoping it was open so I could just walk up to their Mac sales display and plug this thing in. I really want those opening pages.

But it’s not just the pages for the solo show. I was also going to publish my second children’s book this week. Now I can’t. The formatted book is on the Mac.

I was making great progress on another play I’m writing. I can’t work on that either.

I was several pages into a short film we want to shoot this winter. That’s in there, too.

All in all, I’ve put in about 25 hours trying to get this information back. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use the e-SATA cable with a Mac tomorrow and I’ll report back that I was able to recover the information.

If not, I guess I’ll have to try to reproduce what I originally wrote. I know I can get close to it, maybe even make it better. But there’s something about that feeling you get when you just know something is working and it’s good. That kind of experience is hard to repeat.

I guess the moral of the story is ALWAYS back up your writing. Every time. Otherwise, you’ll end up like me, a poor lost soul wandering a huge university campus in search of a Mac computer, hoping that you can either retrieve those pages or remember them just as they were.

The Battle Within – Which Wolf Will You Feed?

On this Sunday after that irrational holiday, Pi Day, here’s a short film to think about as you begin the new week.

As we ate pie yesterday and today I thought about that old proverb that states there are two wolves we can feed in our lives; one wolf is good, one wolf is evil. The story ends with the question, “Which wolf will you feed?”

I know I struggle with this everyday. In the spirit of transparency, this film stars the five-year-old I talk so much about here and on my Twitter feed. The film was shot in New York City’s Bryant Park. Meir Kalmanson of AMK Productions (aka The High Five New York Guy) shot the film.

Let me know what you do to keep the wolves fed in the comments below.

Have a great writing week!

Be a Straight Shooter – Use Straightforward Dialogue Tags


(Credit: Morguefile photo by lightfoot)

“You’re in big trouble, Dastardly Dan. You stole my prize bull,” Cowboy Carl blurted.

“I did not,” Dastardly Dan babbled.

“You did, too,” Cowboy Carl objected.

“Prove it!” Dastardly Dan bellowed.

“He’s standing right behind you,” Cowboy Carl barked.

“Save me!” Dastardly Dan squealed.

The prize bull stomped his front hooves in the dirt and snorted. Then, he lowered his horns, snorted again, and charged. Carl and Dan grabbed hold of their ten gallon hats and ran. They both wanted to get as far away as they could from the prize bull and these terrible dialogue tags.


There’s a chart going around the internet that pops up from time-to-time on Pinterest, Twitter (and other writerly hangouts) called, 100 Colorful Words to Use in Place of Said. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 2.40.25 PMThe poster was apparently created for the classroom by to help young writers use words other than “said” when writing dialogue tags. As you can see from the poorly written dialogue above, young writers might benefit more from using straightforward dialogue tags and saving the colorful language for the rest of their prose.

Teaching student writers about synonyms and how to look for the most powerful word is useful. But when it comes to dialogue tags, I think it’s best to stick with “said” when someone is speaking and “asked” if someone is asking a question.

If we use a lot of colorful words for dialogue tags, the reader’s brain has to stop and translate each tag. It’s better to find a way to write dialogue that is “snappy, stormy, nagging, sputtering, gushing, etc.” than to add a tag to let us know the way the dialogue should sound.

The next time you read a colorful dialogue tag, try saying the dialogue as the tag indicates. I can almost guarantee you that the tag will affect the way the words come out of your mouth. Then, get rid of the tag, write it the way you “said” it and use “said” for the tag. It will come across as much more truthful and the reader won’t have to stop and think about how someone might “snort” or “sneeze” your dialogue.

Another way to be a straight shooter with your dialogue is to put the dialogue tag within quoted material when you can and use an action to show us what state of mind the speaker is in.

Here’s an example from the Pulitzer prize-winning Western writer, Larry McMurtry. In Lonesome Dove (“the grandest novel ever written about the last defiant wilderness of America”) Augustus finds some of his pigs eating a rattlesnake on his front porch. He kicks a young pig, known as a shoat. He doesn’t begrudge the pigs the snake, he says that having pigs on the porch “just makes things hotter and things were already hot enough.”

Here’s the dialogue with the pigs:

“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake.”

Notice how the dialogue tag is in the middle of the line and McMurtry adds some action for the character to do. Augustus kicks the little pig, then gives the pigs an order. I can’t imagine Augustus scolding, shrieking or protesting while he says those words. But I can tell just who Augustus is by the way the line reads and what Augustus has to say and what he does. As a reader I just want to hear him saying it, not think about how he might have said it. That part I can make up by myself using the information the writer has given me.

Next time you’re writing dialogue, stick to your guns and just use “said” and “asked”as a dialogue tag. If you need to break things up a bit, try putting the dialogue tag in the middle of some dialogue or, if you’ve already established who is speaking, leave off the dialogue tags completely. I think you’ll find that your writing is stronger and more truthful this way.


When they lost sight of the prize bull, Dastardly Dan stopped to catch his breath. “Hold up, Carl,” Dan said, clutching his sides. “I cain’t run no more.”

Carl stopped and turned toward Dan, keeping his hands over his six-guns.

“Dan, did you steal my prize bull?” Carl asked.

“I didn’t,” Dan said, shaking his head. “I only borrowed him to impress my girlfriend, Miss Daisy.”

“Dan, thanks for being such a straight shooter with your honesty and your dialogue tags,” Carl said, pulling out his six-guns and pointing them directly at Dastardly Dan’s chest. “Now I’m going have to take you to jail. Git your hands up.”

Dan raised his hands high. Carl walked him all the way back into town and locked him up in the county hoosegow. Later that night, the prize bull returned. Rumor has it that not long after, Cowboy Carl and Miss Daisy were at the saloon drinking root beer and talking quietly together. I guess that prize bull impressed Miss Daisy after all.

T.S. Eliot – Writing Quote Wednesday

(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using photo by kconnor)

(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using photo by kconnor)

As I’m writing this post, my family is downstairs preparing to celebrate the New Year by watching the festivities in New York City. It’s bitter cold this year, with temperatures below freezing, so I’m glad we’re safe and warm inside.

Although I’ve asked my five-year-old and his cousin to play somewhere other than where I’m writing, they’ve insisted that where I am now is their house and that it is in desperate need of decoration with all the blankets and pillows in the house. Lots of loud yelling and the playing of random musical instruments directly in my ear accompanies their shenanigans.

Despite this, I keep typing, keep trying to focus in the midst of the jocularity and imaginative play swirling around me. I have to ask them several times to stop leaning on my arms and jumping on my head as I type because I need two hands and my brain to finish this before midnight.

This quote by T.S. Eliot about last year’s words belonging to last year’s language while next year’s words await another voice seems like a great one to explore on the last day of 2014.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m struggling through a tough patch in my work in progress. In despair I gave up for a few weeks to get perspective on what I was writing. But in that ending was a new beginning. I stopped and re-read everything I had written and found that the story was holding together but definitely needs a good paring down and tightening up.

Last year’s words belong to last year’s language. Next year’s words await another voice.

This idea of a new year and making resolutions on the night before January 1st has always seemed kind of silly to me. Since it is always NOW, the best time to make a change is now. The past is already gone the moment we bring our awareness to it and the future is constantly being created in what we do now.

One of the beautiful things about Time is that it cannot be wasted in advance. The next year, the next hour, the next minute are waiting for you as if you had never procrastinated too much on Twitter or Facebook, drank one too many glasses of wine, made one too many trips to the fridge, or sighed and shut the computer down instead of finishing your next sentence, chapter or story. These unsullied moments are there waiting for you to turn over a new leaf, hourly, if you choose to do so. Endings can happen at any time, making way for new beginnings.

I urge you to use your other voices and next year’s words in a powerful way. With each moment that you don’t do something you say you want to do, remember you can also, in a moment, decide to do it as well. I’m looking forward to reading what you write in 2015. Stories are the Wildest Things!

Give it All, Give it Now

I missed Writing Quote Wednesday this week, so I wanted to make up for it with this quote from Annie Dillard:

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”
—Annie Dillard

I often find myself holding back as I’m working on a book because I’m afraid that I’m going to run out of ideas. This is a ridiculous thought. Ideas are infinite. Some people, like Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, even think our ideas don’t come from us, they pass us through us and, if we’re lucky, we’re able to grab them on the way past.

As I make progress on the novel based on my short story My Strength Will Ease Your Sorrow, from Beyond the Gate I’m going to try to keep Annie’s words in mind. “Give it, give it all, give it now.”

Here’s Annie (and friends) giving it her all as a karaoke singer in Key West.

I also like this quote because this is the season of giving.

I love giving and receiving gifts as much as the next person. But I know that around this time of year we can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get the PERFECT gift.

We sweat and fume over what gift to give to those we love. We wander the aisles, in real life or online, running our fingers, real or cyber, over the merchandise on those overstocked and bulging shelves.

We might ask ourselves:

“What should I give to show how much I care?”

“What is the perfect gift for the person who has given me so much?”

“Why can’t I just buy something and be done with it?”

We seem to pursue that perfect gift to have a transcendent experience with the person the gift is intended for. As we pick up the object we look into the future and see the hoped-for response in the receiver of the gift. Maybe we want them to weep in happiness or jump up and down for joy or finally see how much we really, truly understand them by our choice of a gift.

But how often does this happen? (Hopefully it’s happened more often for you than it has for me.)

In the past, I’ve felt the painful disappointment of giving a gift that was received with less enthusiasm and joy than I had imagined. Excited for the holidays, I kept a joyous anticipation of the look on my children’s faces when they would open their gifts. Then when the big day came and the gifts were opened and almost immediately abandoned, I’d feel a sad lump in the pit of my stomach as I realized I hadn’t achieved gift-giving nirvana once again.

Now that I’m older, I realize that gifts during the holidays are just a token to stand in for something larger and more important – our time and attention. Time and attention is so scarce in these days of smart phones and binge-television and Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and whatever other social media apps are hot now. A gift is a small way to say, “I appreciate you for who you are and treasure your time and attention,” not “The value of this gift is how much I value you.”

Because we could just as easily paint rocks in pretty colors and give them to each other if that was our tradition of gift-giving. But even if that was our tradition, people would still be disappointed because the rock they gave wasn’t purple enough or red enough or orange enough or shiny enough or big enough or small enough or new enough or whatever enough quality they were looking for in the gift because it’s not about the gift.

This holiday season try not to project the perfect response on to the receiver of the gift. Allow what happens to happen and be there for it fully. Maybe their eyes will twinkle for a millisecond. Perhaps they’ll sigh because they have a hundred of the same thing at home. They might even drop the gift on the ground and jump gleefully into the box it came in, playing with the box for hours. By allowing their response to the gift to be what it is, you have a chance to remember that a gift is just a stand-in for the time and attention you want to spend with that person now. If you waste that time worrying about what they thought of your gift, you’re missing out on being with them fully as they are.

This slight change of thinking has made for much happier holidays for me and my family. I no longer put tremendous pressure on myself to come up with just the RIGHT gift for those I love. Now I try to give my time, my love, and my attention. The object wrapped in shiny paper can never equal that in value.


If you are looking for gifts for the writers in your life (including yourself), please stop by and order something from The Writer’s Retreat. There’s some great books on writing, writer t-shirts, writing supplies, Poe air fresheners and more. Check it out by clicking this link: THE WRITER’S RETREAT.

Neil Gaiman – Writing Quote Wednesday


(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using Flickr photo by Clinton Steeds)

As I was driving to Home Depot to buy a piece of plywood for my brother-in-law’s Thanksgiving table, the name Jack Dunphy popped into my head from nowhere. I had no idea where it came from or who Jack Dunphy was, but my subconscious or the aether or a daemon or something told me I should remember that name and look it up when I got back to the house.

It was raining the kind of rain that feels like someone has poked holes in a bag of ice and is letting the water drain on top of your head. We loaded up the board and drove home, dried it off, sanded it down and put it on top of the table we’ll be using to celebrate the holiday.

When we finished, I went to my laptop and typed in Jack Dunphy. This is who Jack Dunphy is:


(Credit: Flickr photo by Peggy O’Connor)

He was a ballet dancer, novelist, a soldier during WWII and the lover of Truman Capote. He was married to and divorced from Joan McCracken. He was from Philadelphia, my hometown.

So why did his name jump into my head?


I don’t remember reading any of his novels or knowing his name in relation to Capote. Why does this happen?

When I first thought of the name, I remember thinking, “That would make a great name for a writer.” Ha!

The next thought I had was that I should use it for the name of a character in a horror series. The Jack Dunphy novels. Then, because I didn’t have my cellphone with me, I told myself to remember the name so that I could look it up when I got home.

In some ways I’m disappointed that the name is of someone famous. I was really hoping I could use it for a story. But now that I’m writing this post, I realize there are so many ways I could use this random discovery. I could tell a similar story about a person inspired by Jack Dunphy. I could use the name anyway. I could combine the name with another name. I could read some of Jack Dunphy’s novels and see what they inspire.

Who knows why the universe wanted me to connect to this interesting person Jack Dunphy? But searching for the answer will lead me on yet another fascinating journey. I hope you’ll follow your random thoughts and ideas to their conclusions as well. Please leave me a comment about any times this might have happened to you, I’d love to hear about it.

Videos from Discovery News you might find interesting:

Don’t Stop Daydreaming

What Kind of Bored are You?


Other books by Jack Dunphy you might be interested in:

6 Questions You Need to Answer to Win NaNoWriMo


Paul wearing his NaNoWriMo writing hat.

As Macbeth says, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.”

Unless, of course, you’re doing NaNoWriMo. Then the days fly by faster than Malcolm’s army moving from Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill.

As some of you know, I’m rehearsing Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well as prepping for and participating in NaNoWriMo. I’ve never done both at the same time and it’s making me nervous. The anxiety has been steadily building up over the past week as I realize that I’m going to have to reach that cold, hard deadline of 50,000 words in 30 days and open a play in the middle of the month.

It is possible to get 50,000 words in a month. I’ve done it in the past, but never while preparing for a play. As I’ve said in my previous post, 6 Things You Need to Thrive During NaNoWriMo, to win NaNoWriMo it helps to have a plan.

The plan I’m going to talk about in this post is answering the 6 Questions otherwise known as the 5 Ws and an H (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How). If you can answer these questions in some detail, you are well on your way to getting your story done. The great thing about this kind of planning is that it applies to your story and your writing life.

Let’s look at the WHO question first.

For your story, you need some WHOs doing things to other WHOs. Your MC (main character) wants something more than anything else and your story is about what your MC is willing or not willing to do to get that thing. The other WHOs are there to either help the MC or hinder them. Figuring out who these WHOs are is a big step to figuring out your story. If you take a look at my post Aristotle’s 4 Levels to Creating Characters that Live, you’ll get some great insight into creating characters with dimension. I’ve already cast my novel with photos from the internet and put them into my Scrivener file for my novel. By having a photograph and some information about them readily available, I don’t have to keep inventing information about each person, it’s like I know them already.

For your writing life the WHO question is, “Who are you going to be in the matter of finishing your 50,000 words?” What I mean by that is, will you give yourself excuses as to why you can’t finish your words for the day or will make the time to get the words done? It’s the difference between being a victim of what is happening in your life (the path I often take), or taking the initiative to find a way to do the things you say you are going to do – NO MATTER WHAT.

It’s not that you’re a bad person if you don’t do the things you say you’re going to do, it’s more a question of who do you need to become to be able to do the things you say you’re going to do? It’s a deep question and one you can live your whole life exploring.

Another WHO question you can ask is, “Who will you turn to for support?” One of the reasons people like participating in WriMo is the amount of support they receive. Writing is hard. It’s lonely. We often don’t have someone looking out for us or cheering us on, but for the month of November we join together to say, “Hey, we can do this!”

It also really helps to have someone to be an accountable to. Look for me on NaNoWriMo’s site and sign up to be my writing buddy. If you are desperate in November, reach out to me on Twitter and I’ll send you an encouraging word. I want us to get to the end of NaNoWriMo together and celebrate big time.

Next is the question of WHAT.

I like to think of the what of the story as several questions.

“What do the characters want?”

“What do they do to get what they want?”

“What gets in the their way?”

In acting terms, the first question is known as the character’s OBJECTIVE. The character wants something badly and will do almost anything to get it. The TACTICS the characters use or the ACTIONS the characters take to get what they want is often what gets them into trouble in our stories. The OBSTACLES are anything that gets in their way. When you answer these three things over and over you have a story that moves along in an exciting way to a dramatic conclusion.

For your writing life the WHAT question is, “What do you need to do to get your words done each day?”

Do you need to tell your spouse you are taking an extra hour or two at night on in the morning to work on your book? Do you need to let a parent know you aren’t brooding in your room, you’re trying to accomplish something really important to you? Do you need to exercise more, sleep less, drink more water, make sure your laptop is charged, stretch every 25 minutes, give yourself rewards for reaching certain goals, etc.? Think about this question as you move through the month. What happens if you miss a few days? Can you make it up on the weekend? Most people can. Don’t panic. Don’t give up. Ask yourself WHAT you can do to make it to your goal of 50,000 words.

WHERE? is an important question in many ways.

If you get stuck during WriMo (if, ha!, when), you might think of a new WHERE for your characters to end up. What interesting WHERE can you write about? You might set your opening scene in a restaurant. But what kind of restaurant? What makes it unique? Why did your couple pick this particular restaurant? A greasy spoon diner is going to tell us something different about their relationship than a four-star restaurant. Think about the specifics of your WHERE and give us a few details to allow us to find ourselves in the world you’ve created.

Locations in your story are important, but also WHERE YOU WRITE can be an important factor, too. For some reason, I was able to get more writing done at Panera Bread during my last WriMo than when I was at home. Being at home I was able to clean the kitchen, vacuum the living room, play some video games, mess around on the computer, and basically procrastinate most of my writing time away. When I was out at Panera, writing with other WriMos, I was able to concentrate and focus on the task at hand, getting the words on the page.

WHEN? is another question that can affect your story and how much you write.

The WHEN grounds your reader in time and what is happening in your story. Some writers actually keep a calendar of events in their stories to be able to keep track of what should be happening when. Use a mapping program to figure out how long a drive across Pennsylvania might actually take. (A REALLY long time, Pennsylvania is wide.) Time of day affects how characters talk, what they say. Let the WHEN affect the characters and us.

I know that I’m often best at writing when I do it first thing in the morning, during or just after that first cup of coffee. I’m writing this post late at night and I started it earlier this afternoon. When I write in the afternoon, I get fatigued very easily. For me, it has to be early in the morning or late at night. Read these great articles by Jeff Goins about How to Wake Up Early and Why You Should Be Writing at Night.

One of the biggest questions of all is WHY?

From an acting stand-point the why is your character’s MOTIVATION. WHY is your MC doing what they are doing to get what they want?  What is driving your MC to continue to pursue this action? What do they get out of the continued pursuit? If they get nothing, why?

This is also an important question for your writing life. Why are you writing this story? Is it fun? Do you enjoy it? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do? Are you doing it for approval? Do you want to make someone proud? Do you want to tell your story? Do you want to prove to yourself that you can set a goal and stick to it? All of these are completely valid reasons for writing and getting your writing done. Leave a comment about why you write. If you know WHY you are doing something, it can often give you the power to continue doing it, or stop doing it if you realize you are doing it for all the wrong reasons.

Finally, let’s take a look at HOW?

This is the question that I find to be the most fun. It’s one of the reasons I love writing so much. I get to decide HOW my characters act. I am in complete control. My MC is stuck in a well. How did they get down there? How do they get out? How will they drive to see their daughter when they’ve lost their driver’s license from drinking too much? How does this character sound when they talk? How do they dress? How do they eat? How? How? How?

The other reason I like this question is because when it comes to our writing lives we have to ask ourselves, “How will we get this done?”

The answer is: “Any way possible.”

Ask your spouse for support or sneak in a few hours after everyone is asleep. Write on your phone, your tablet, your notebook. Use Scrivener or use Word. Think about your story in the shower. Jot down notes while waiting at the doctor’s office. Talk to yourself into a recording app on your phone.

Above all, fight against resistance. Resistance will come, but we must defeat it to win WriMo and to accomplish anything in life.

As Steven says, “Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

The great thing about this is that at any moment we can defeat resistance and change our lives. HOW? By sitting down and doing the work – word after word on the page until we reach our goal – a story that we share with the world.


I you struggle with resistance and procrastination, listen to this Genius Network Interview of Steven Pressfield talking about Resistance.