Saturday, January 10, 2015

Guiding Words for a New Year

by M.L. Buchman

I have a lot of words in my life. I'm an writer, a speaker, and for years I was a project manager (which is all about communication, trust me) and even a teacher of project management. On top of that I married a librarian. You would think I would know the power of words. I keep learning there are more.

So, here are some of the words I will be carrying into the New Year. And they apply to any art/artist.

Pharrell Williams joined The Voice this year as one of the judges.
"Wait! That's music?"

If you think that, you really need to watch this show. It is talented singers, many with very impressive credentials themselves, performing in front of four recording superstars. If you listen to the advice and make these simple substitutions, you'll see what I mean.

When they say: Music, think: Words
When they say: Song, think: Story
And when they say: Voice, definitely think: Voice

Pharrell is my kind of artist. At one point he saved (I'm not going into the show's mechanics) a young singer named Elyjuh Rene who had just had his butt handed to him on stage by another singer. He shocked everyone, including the artist, with that save. Pharrell cornered Elyjuh immediately afterward and was very intense when he confronted him (sorry, can't find the exact video clip):

"Don't you be singing someone else's song! Don't do that!" Which had been precisely Eyjuh's problem; he'd tried to sing it from how he imagined a "pro" might sing it, rather than how he himself would sing it. Rather than using his own "Voice."

So, let me say that one of my guiding phrases for the next year is: 

"Don't you be telling someone else's story!" I strive to make each tale, whether my monthly free short story or a rocking big Night Stalkers novel, MY story. My voice.

This one sounds counter-intuitive: I make my living as a writer, it's my job to care! About words, about story. But let me trace a bit of the origin of this one.

I was getting jammed up on a story, trying to find just the right words, just the right turn of phrase, etc. I was so wound up in the words that my writing had slowed to a crawl because I had to consider each word before I typed it. Each phrase before I moved on. Wow! What a useless and dangerous whirlpool to get caught in.

This was after I had thirty novels and a dozen short stories written. This was after I had been named NPR and Barnes & Noble Top 5 Romance of the Year and  Booklist Top 10 Romance of the Year.

My mentor looked at me and said, "Writing is not what you do. Writing story is what you do. Stop caring so damn much about the words!"

I love writers in dozens of styles from James Lee Burke's eloquence to Nora Roberts' straight-forward voice to Clive Cussler's rip-roaring one. And what do I love about them? It's not their writing styles. If I try to analyze them, I find Burke's overly thick, Nora's a little tedious, and Cussler's under-nuanced. BUT! My god can these people tell stories! 

Do they care about the words? Some, but I'll bet less than you think. What makes them such standouts is what they DO care about. They care about story. Story is their craft. As to the words? I have to keep reminding myself not to care too much.

Which leads me to my last guiding principal of the year.

I treat every single thing I write as practice. No let me be clear to former concert pianists like my wife, I don't mean running scales. That's what high-school English class was for. 

But also unlike the concert pianist, I don't have the opportunity to practice a piece many times before the performance. Oh, I can redraft if the first manuscript doesn't work, or abandon it. But a short story takes days and a novel can easily take months (I had one take 7 years-though that was 9 complete drafts).

So where do I go to practice? My next story of course! I try to challenge myself in new ways with each book. I especially look for craft or story items that I've never tried. A villain? My first true villains appeared in my Dead Chef thrillers, my best yet is Stephie in  Two Chef! (my 30th novel).
A romantic suspense between two characters who have both lost their past? My recent Firehawks release.
A military romantic suspense between two characters who don't talk?
Pre-order now! Releases March 3rd
WHOA! Wait a sec! What? A romance between two characters who don't talk? 

Yes, it was an incredible, wonderful challenge. Colonel Michael Gibson of Delta Force in the Night Stalkers series doesn't speak much more than a sentence, and only then when he has something to say. To a man who knows so much outer violence and such inner silence, how could I pair him with a woman who isn't as thoughtful and quietly observant as he is. 

This is far and away my favorite Night Stalker book so far...of course, it is also the most recently written and I always love my most recent characters. I "practiced" very hard to make this the best book, the best characters, the best storytelling I knew how. And if this is what I achieve through "practice," it will definitely be one of my watch words for this year.

VOICE, STORY, and PRACTICE both of them. That's how I'm approaching my art this year, just as I have every year. I'd love to hear what words guide your approach.
M. L. Buchman has over 30 novels in print. His military romantic suspense books have been named Barnes & Noble and NPR “Top 5 of the year” and Booklist “Top 10 of the Year.” He has been nominated for the Reviewer’s Choice Award for “Top 10 Romantic Suspense of 2014” by RT Book Reviews. In addition to romance, he also writes thrillers, fantasy, and science fiction.

In among his career as a corporate project manager he has: rebuilt and single-handed a fifty-foot sailboat, both flown and jumped out of airplanes, designed and built two houses, and bicycled solo around the world. He is now making his living as a full-time writer on the Oregon Coast with his beloved wife. He is constantly amazed at what you can do with a degree in Geophysics. You may keep up with his writing by subscribing to his newsletter at


  1. Great blog, Matt! It's so true that as a new writer and even a seasoned writer, you have to stay true to your story and your voice. It's hard when there are shiny trends to follow and great authors to emulate, but you can only be you. I guess the advice I always think about is that there's no right way to write a book. I think a lot of authors get too caught up on the "right" way instead of just doing the work.

  2. Thanks for your words of wisdom. I get strangled by perfectionism which is crazy since I'll never be perfect. Still, I get bogged down by the striving. My mantra has become 'Story first' since I write historical romance. The other thing I've started doing recently is writing longhand in a spiral notebook. That's freeing. I usually do both, but the pen and paper gets the creative juices flowing. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise.

  3. I guess if I were choose just a few words... Courage, because publishing can break your heart if you let it, and it's easy to lose your confidence. Joy, because that's why I write, for the joy. Rest, because without this, the courage gets raggedly, the joy collapses, the creativity wilts. Great post, and keep the great books coming, too!

  4. Shana, Funny. Since I wrote this (all of 3 days ago) I've had several conversations with early writers about the "right" way. And when I point out that even when you find the "right" way for this book the next one will be different, they get pretty distressed. Every project is unique and that's one of the things I love about writing (that makes me nuts at the same time, but keeps it fresh. There is no "right" way.

  5. Gina, Story! Story! Story! It's the only thing that matters. And whatever you can do to get out of your own way and get that creativity flowing...that's the key. One bit of advice, don't latch on to any one method. What works now may change or shift, so be open to change. It's all part of the exploration.

  6. Grace, Courage! Man, you make me want to go back and redo my post. That's a huge one! And keep 'em coming yourself! Thanks.