Little Masters

I knew no writers when I was a kid, and because my father failed in the arts (he had been a back-up singer for Nat King Cole.  I was actually in the recording booth when he recorded back-up for “Ramblin’ Rose”), my mother discouraged me from trying to be a writer.


As a result, my early efforts were filled with doubt and fear: if there was no way to reach my goals, why bother?  But by struggling and modeling, I managed to scratch a career together, and while there have OF COURSE been pains, by studying books like “Think And Grow Rich” I was able to contextualize: failure and strife are just a natural part of the process, and those who cannot plan, model, keep their focus, learn from failure, keep motivated through the fear, market efficiently and effectively and not take rejection personally will have less success, and less joy, than those who can.


After many years (and studying Heinlein and Bradbury and Butler’s rules of managing a career), as well as works like A Book Of Five Rings and The Art of War  I evolved my own Six Principles:

  1. Write a sentence a day
  2. Write 1-4 stories a month
  3. Finish and submit the stories
  4. Don’t rewrite except to editorial request
  5. Read 10X what you write (a story a day)
  6. Repeat 100 X



I can’t think of a failed writer who did these things.   T and I decided to start an “author’s club” at Sandburg Jr. High to see what would happen if we guided children through these steps.  Would it work?


As I suspected, the single biggest problem was THE LENGTH OF THE WORK.   All of them wanted to write books (which is good) and had difficulty creating short work.  Meaning that they just didn’t have the experience of actually rounding a piece of work, creating a whole.


Why?  Because most of their reading experience was novels, and movies from novels. That was the natural length they thought of. So their imaginations sprawled through a Harry Potter size mega-tome, multi volume, a complete world of wizards, kingdoms, battles, dragons and so forth was the most common result.


But you know what they didn’t know?

  1. They didn’t know how to END their stories.
  2. Because of that, they couldn’t extract the MEANING from their story, the dominant emotion.
  3.  Without this, their rewrite efforts remained on the surface level: event, event, event…clever dialogue, cute twist, nice turn of phrase.    And nothing under the surface.
  4. They rarely trusted their own hearts.  Did not see that they had experience and emotions that were precious, and integrating them into their stories would have raised their quality INSTANTLY.


All of that is what happens in the rewrite. The first draft is like a “sprint.”    Imagine packing for a camping trip.  You have a backpack, and that’s it.   Better make it a short trip!


Someone planning to spend a year in the woods better know how to build a permanent shelter, hunt and gather, provide their own medical care, and have emotional defenses against loneliness, fatigue, and strain.   This is a MUCH larger set of skills than packing a PB&J, a sleeping bag, a bottle of water and camping out in the backyard.


That’s all a short story is: you are working WITHIN the skills you already have, so that you can gain new skills.




The kids didn’t understand that, thought they had to create these huge stories. And at the end of the semester, some of them still hadn’t learned…but most of them had.  MOST of them were able to focus down to a 5-10 page chunk (a story is about a moment when someone changes.  Novels can contain dozens of these points.   Every chapter contains moments that can be extracted and rounded to create a short work.) THEN we were able to take them through the different levels:


  1. Spelling and grammar (we didn’t mess with this.  Not my job)
  2. Structure of paragraphs and essays
  3. Structure of drama (the Hero’s Journey is always my go-to, but we start with “Who is the hero, what do they want, what’s in the way?”)
  4. The climax: what is the Big Scene you are writing toward?
  5. What is the dominant emotion?  Often this relates to genre.  An action story’s primary emotion is excitement.  A horror story’s primary emotion is fear. And so on.
  6. How do you rewrite the earlier scenes to maximize the emotion felt when the reader puts the story down?
  7. And most importantly: what is the PROCESS by which you created the story?  Every day’s work should be about the PROCESS as well as the story, which is “merely” “Product.”   Unimportant compared to the overall arc of your career. A single step, not the journey.




Watching the light go on in their eyes as they realized that a story could fail without it meaning a damned long-term thing was wonderful.


They had permission to fail.   Permission to experiment.  Permission to openly copy the style and stories of the writers they loved.


We would lecture at the beginning, and then let them work and help each other and share.  And once they really got the basics they were off and running.


They have been so bright, so happy, so eager. Unlike adults, most of them were “empty cups” who saw in us a bridge to a previously unattainable goal; being real, published writers.  We’re going to actually publish a club anthology, and give each of them a way to make money selling it to friends and family, as well as pay them five bucks each.


They will be paid, published writers. All that remains is getting better, continuing the work.


What is mastery?  A verb, not a noun. A vector, not a position. And once you have the basics of your craft at Unconscious Competence, and have committed to “the work”, you are as much a master as anyone else on the path, although some of them are horizons beyond you, or seem to have Seven League Boots.


We showed them the path. And now they know that we are not magic, except in the “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” sense.


We are the same, walking the same path. T and I are just a couple of horizons different, describing the territory and handing out maps.


THEY have to do the work, and there is a lifetime to do. But really…that’s all there is. The work. Chop wood, carry water.  Just do it.




We’ll be creating a class on how to create a class. How teachers and parents can help their charges become writers.   Little Masters.  And the beautiful thing is that, as Jerry Pournelle said, “once you master anything…you know how to master anything else.”


This wasn’t about writing…it was about life.


What do you want?

Why do you want it?

Who can you model to get a syntax of success?

How do you test their theories FAST so that you can make adjustments and improvements on their plan?

How do you keep going through disappointment and fear?

How do you organize yourself for maximum efficiency with minimum effort?


And so on.    We taught writing.  But the precise same notions would have been used in martial arts…or marital arts, for that matter.


Success is success.


I’m so proud of our Little Masters, and would guess that a couple of them will actually continue, and might publish in other contexts.  At least three have what it takes, brain-wise. Do they have the heart?  No one can predict that.


But…I have hope that some of them will get the REAL lesson.  And will have wonderful lives at least in part because two writers took an hour every other week to teach them a perspective they were then able to test for themselves.


Pretty cool. God willin’ and the river don’t rise…we done a good thing.


I’ve earned my air this year.



Write with Passion!


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