Category Archives: Art

David Baldacci On Commercial Writing

David Baldacci is an author of many paperback novels. These notes are from his MasterClass.

Finding the Idea

The Writer Prism

Writing is a lifestyle: it needs to be incorporated in your daily life. You need to be looking at the world, but combining what’s black and white + your imagination with a few tweaks of reality. Writers run reality through a filter of your own creativity.

Look for Problems to Solve: wouldn’t be cool if something normal was actually changed slightly? You want to have the puzzles in your story, you have to leave clues, it tests your wit and cleverness. Make sure the story is puzzling.

Entertain and Inform: think about the opioid crisis and automation; rustbelt towns. Paying people $9 an hour to run around an Amazon warehouse. You want to feel a bit smarter after having read that book by raising awareness of these or other major trends and concerns.

Write about things that you are passionate about: Michael Crichton loved dinosaurs, don’t write a dinosaur story as a result of Jurassic Park. Don’t jump into the story for 100 pages and run out of the gas, either. That’s a risk when you don’t write from the heart.

Story Combinations: read the front page of a newspaper story then read a back page story and look at whether you can combine those two in a plausible way.

Research and Method: You have to learn about the industry you are covering. You need to be a journalist and then learn about it first hand. You will have better plotting and writing as results.

Live Your Research: If you use a real gun in your novel? It helps if you actually have fired such a gun.

Go to the places you are setting your novel in: People will see if you got the information right, so make sure you are accurate or there will be hell to pay.

Character of the Location Is Important: the location will drive and imprint on the soul of the characters. It makes it more monumental. If you pick a coal mining town, visit it because it is critical to understand it for the plot.

Zero Day: Baldacci interviewed people, study nuclear weapons and then distill into a 2 pager. John Puller is a researcher who can explain it in dialogue. You do not want to lose the audience. Really use a lot of easy dialogue to explain the situation to the reader. As a writer, leave almost all of your research out!

Research Methods and Sources: “does anyone know a secret service agent?”… Baldacci was able to get a connection through his friend network. Don’t just go in cold-turkey. You have to show that you respect what they do. Do what Robert Caro did and move to Texas to study the hill country. Ask how did you become a secret-service agent. Ask questions like what is it like being [job]? Always remember to not record others without disclosing it. Don’t send important information in emails; you should be very discrete.

Buildup the Plausibility: if it could happen, it’s been considered by your audience to be real. No one can argue that is implausible. If you can imagine it, they have already done it….in the US military.

Research isn’t as hard as the story: you should try to do research and then write and then research more. It is so attractive to continue to research, it’s like going back to college. But don’t forget to write.

Outlining Your Story: do your outline for where you have to get to. Baldacci doesn’t do some work. He writes out what is the big story. He recommends winging the story and it might be more interesting to plan to the halfway and then figure out where to go.

Do Mini-Outlines: do not get overwhelmed with the story. You should focus into discrete tasks. You have to build the building blocks, and then you don’t feel overwhelmed. If you are thinking about all 145,000 words, 500 pages you would freak out and not start!

Working on small bullet points: you do not want to focus on the whole book. You should sweat about the small scenes, since small scenes make great novels, it doesn’t work in reverse. You need to work with outlining and then you need to let your mind grow and flow. Work on the forces behind an action…

Surprise Your Reader: You want to slant the reader into expectations that you then skew; you want the reader to say I never saw that coming. You want the reader to say “not going to try to predict what is going to happen in this novel. I’m going to read on.”

Constructing a Powerful Chapter: if you try to figure out the whole novel at once well then you should start with the “big pop”; which should be the first chapter. It’s the touchstone of the story. It’s the most important chapter. You want it to be more important. The mothership is the first chapter.

Create Momentum with Short Chapters: hurry up so we can get to something massive. You want the rapidity of chapters to signal imminent events. You have to hit these chapters quickly and hard.

Create Some Balance: if you have just interior monologue, you want to have some break up in the type of chapter. You should diversify. Dialogue is a powerful story telling mechanism. Bullet point your writing in the outline. You are always going to add as you write. Why are you writing Chapter 12?

Why are your writing Chapter 12? Be sure you know what’s the purpose of every chapter in your book and what isn’t the purpose of this chapter.

  1. Convey information,
  2. Develop character or
  3. Move the plot forward.

Tension, Pace: building mystery into the thrillers. The mystery has to be in there to trick the reader. You need to build the mystery incrementally. It’s not easy to build a mystery.

Lay the Groundwork to Make It Plausible: you have to lay the groundwork. It has to be clue by clue. You need to have all the material together. Then the twist is something that the reader would say “that makes sense.” You cannot have one false note in your story. “I never saw that coming” is key because the reader is engaging the story to try to solve the problem.

The sound of the car, the plane going over: the red herring: it’s a misassumption; and you assumed it was an airplane when it wasn’t it was a bi-plane, that’s a red herring.

Maintain a Ticking Clock: you need to make sure the time is ticking with this story. If you let something lapse, you don’t want people to be reading back earlier in the book to remember why the time is ticking on this story.

Take a Reader on the Roller Coaster Ride: you cannot sustain a constant action packed story, there is too much going on. You can’t sustain that. You need to have chapters where your characters heal their wounds, go get beer, have a pattern of crazy things happen then there is a lull, you need to rest the audience. The same with films as in books, the same needs to happen.

Give the Reader a Recap: the reader probably has too much going on in their lives to remember everything from earlier in the book. You can’t trust that something 18 chapters ago is going to be remembered by the reader. Detectives say “here is what we know about the situation….”

Build Anticipation with Cliffhangers: anticipation needs to be built. You have a cliff hanger. Pause in mid-scene. You can’t use every chapter to do this but it’s a fun trick. Your main character has to let himself go and nothing, he doesn’t seem to care about life…then the news comes in about who killed his family. Boom, end chapter.

Cliffhangers: Zero Day, you need to entice the reader to keep going. To makes sure they continue to turn the page. The so-what of your writing. Why did you spill this ink?

Creating Compelling Characters: You remember the character. You know his character. You need characters badly. It’s the only shot you have to connect with the audience. You need to have deep characters. You have never met a perfect human being; and just like in novel, you need flaws to make them humans, it gives you plot engagement too. You can root for them. How can I make any reader like this guy? Mistakes.

Give Your Character Baggage: Fodder, that you can foreshadow with. After he hit rock bottom. The best way to get readers into the story, is to put your character in rock bottom. Then it comes a challenge to show how they survived the situation.

Sidekicks Should Be Deep: You have to have an aircraft controller with your characters. Do not ignore your sidekicks. The journalists and the detectives and they could just float away: but instead they have to work with each other.

Antagonist is a Complex Character: It gives them depth and complexity. If you have an evil genius; No one want to think he was just a psycho. You actually ought to meaningful motivation.

Memory Man: Amos Decker: The character that sees the world very clearly. Why is his mind so weird? The narrative shows that the character is very unique in the way they notice certain things and analyze the world around them.

ID the Emotional Context: People don’t really talk pointlessly. What is the emotional context. You need to round out the scene. How would you feel if this happened to you. You need to get into the emotional side.

Make Every Word Count: When you are writing dialogue, you need to make sure the characters are efficient. You might realize that the story is very important to you or the description of the forest in Tolkien is very important to him but not to your reader. Be brief, every word matters.

Become a Student of Humanity: You need to listen to people. Watch their body cues; you can tell they are prevaricating. Live in the real moment and see if you can accomplish that.

Read Dialogue Out Loud: Test your ear. If you were worried about it, get your friend to talk the scene out with you. Does this sound right?

You can use shorthand in your writing, the reader doesn’t want to know about these short-hands. Be very careful about the readers. You should have shorthand stuff; technical language is useful but make sure it is against something that the reader can read. People actually know, that could insulate the reader. Do not insult your readers.

Writing Action: You want action to see if you can jolt the reader. Then the action can convey the information. You can actually learn about the character through action, it has to be important. You want to make sure you don’t screw this up.

What does it feel like to be shot or hurt? Know how to describe that. You should show the consequences of these actions. Slow down the fight scenes. Savor them if you can.

Choreograph Action Scenes: you should try to visualize the scene. Plan the details.

Make the Action Believable: This guy bleeds. You neve want to write science-fiction where the character is completely crazy. He almost died there are consequences to the scene. No one will buy it if the hero is impervious to harm.

Writing Process: Baldacci was a lawyer but he also had to find the time. He would spend time at night 10 to 2am. But if you really like your stories you will take those 4 hours a day to focus in on your writing. He wrote 4 hours per day. Either write in the mornings or evenings. You should set out little goals for every writing session…

You Have to Find the Time: If you really wanted to be a writer, find the time. Writing is a compulsion. You find your time if you are really into your career. So writers are ready to find the time. You have to be creative to find the time to do your stories; 4am to 8am or 10pm to 2am….

A Good Clip: 2,000 words, or 5 pages per day. Baldacci doesn’t write at all some days. He could write 5,000 words in one sitting. So every day is a bit different. You may find one process doesn’t work. The perfect place is in your head: you should be able to write anywhere. You should be focused and be productive in a coffee shop or subway car.

Immerse Yourself: You should re-read the first chapter of the novel then the last two chapters you recently wrote to get you warmed up, that way you can avoid doing the next scene cold.

Breaking Writers Block: Go work on another project, and take a shower, go exercising. He does a lot of long walks, let your mind wander.

Self-Imposed Deadlines: Baldacci has an April and November deadline per year. Baldacci never misses those marks. He is the fastest editor in the west. He then does the editing in the novel and then mixes and moves plot points around nearing the final draft. Have an internal deadline; when you immerse yourself in the material; you have to live with the material.

Editing Process: go through the manuscript and then edit 12 times and then do the big boy edit (one final read through), you turn the manuscript around start to finish and then cross out other aspects. And then remove the preachy time or soap box type stuff. You cut out a lot of material or you just have to add a few lines. Copy-editing stage: this is where you work to get the manuscript off your desk.

Check Your Pacing, Chapter by Chapter: look at the roller coaster ride that you’ve built and lay out how to make it more appealling.

Walk Away from the Material: Take a break, and have a clean look at it again. During the editing, you should know where you are in a novel just be reading a few lines.

First Draft: there is a lot of tightening that needs to happen and then you cut some sections out.

Know When to Let It Go: you have to wear your psychologist and writers caps; reader might feel differently You have to let it go before you edit it to death. Let it go and then move on to the next book.

Working With An Editor: build trust with editors. You have to have trust and confidence. Writers have to have trust. The editor is trying to make it better. A good editor will say promo! you need the editor to tell you the truth where the plot is not working. there will be disagreements over the manuscript. Open communication is essential. Not any word is set in stone, take feedback in context.

The Buck Stops with You: you should make the changes, then copy-edit. The buck stops with you. You can’t really change that much. So you have three opportunities after your first draft.

Editorial Letter: take feedback positively, character X could use more attention, similar to actors on the screen. Try it and see if it makes the story better. In fact, that’s how several other novel series were born for Baldacci.

Navigating the Publishing Business Part 1: if you are given an advance, then you are given 15% of the book’s cover price, so if the book is $25 then you get $4 bucks. Then you’ll learn about royalties. The publisher gets better placement of the book on Amazon for example, then you get this bigger pie because they want to grow your share. Get all your expenses in there, but then we have money left over which Baldacci splits with his publisher. He gets 50% of the revenue in that deal. You should learn about the business, you should learn about the publishing industry. You will then feel more in control. Understand the industry, you won’t get screwed. You want to help sell this book that drives the publisher’s profits.

ThrillFest: is a July convention. Do panels. And then they have publishers and then pitch ideas.

Look to this as a Career: you want an agent that manages your career not your one book. You want to negotiate your own deals. You want to have sage advice. Are you receptive about the craft? You need to lift yourself out of the sludge. If you tell your agent that you are only doing one novel then you will lose their interest fast since they want to milk you just as much as a multi-book publishing deal. Align your interests otherwise you will get screwed.

Actively Promote Your Book: print ads, airport placements. Be prepared to publicize this book. If this is one book success, then you will lose your audience. You can reach people and build the ecosystem with more than one book.

Pay Attention to World Rights: be sure you do not sell world rights to the publisher. You can sell your American rights and then British, you should be wise to meet your country by country publisher to get better deals on a bilateral basis. If you sign off World Rights, then your publisher will do all that work for you and get a better deal for themselves. Don’t work with a publisher that want to do World Right or nothing at all. You should do your own World rights deals and build your fan base over there.

Establishing the Booksellers: you should do book signings. Walk around the stores, how many returns do you get? how many people do you see? There are book stores on book tours that you have to visit. You need to promote your book by being present.

Build Your Fan Base: you need to write regularly just like podcasts etc. 1 per week and for a book, it’s 1 per year? He has many characters with multiple series. You have to get out there. He went around the world to get fans. You want to build your fan base by writing another and another. You shouldn’t just write every 5 years, there is a free market, people will forget you and your books. Note that Baldacci writes okay books twice a year (3 months to write one + 2 editing). They know that they will be consistently reading, that’s the way the market place is. The biggest problem; you need to follow-up with a reasonable fan base; or they will forget about you.

You can do self-publishing, editing and sell copies. You can have thriving careers on Amazon. You can send sample chapters as well.

Stay Focused on What is Important: some authors actually forget about what got them there which was the writing and thinking.

Writing A Series: if you have the motivation to write a series. A is for Alibi, B is Burglary, don’t say that you can’t take on a series. The world will miss out on a great character if you don’t write a series..

Give Your Characters Wiggle Room: so that you can potentially write a separate series featuring them.

Next Books: always sell the idea to the publisher that you want to write a series of 8 books.

Be Consistent

Everything is consistency; if your character reappears in a new book than you need to know about them. Be consistent with what they do. You should master your own material. Do not screw up the arch, make sure that your character actually follows an arch.

Books Change The World

So be the next vital cog in making this system work. We need people’s inner drive. Don’t give up what you care about. If writing is your passion, then follow the words and good things will transpire.

This Holiday Prepare Yourself for Any Argument With These Simple Reminders

Or Just Don’t Get Into Arguments At All

Life is short. Love one another….focus on common ground. But if you’re getting into an argument, check these classic argumentative habits. But know that the biggest mistake you can make in life is to believe that your opinion is the correct one, that your opinion should be imposed on all others in your immediate or extended sphere. The second biggest mistake is to think that people will ever really understand what you are saying, even if you try to be as clear as possible. And that’s because others: a) can’t live your life, b) want to project on to you their interpretation of what you have just said and c) will never be able to fully get inside your head. Plus, your counterpart is too busy preparing their next point in the conversation…while you are talking. So accept that a civil argument is mostly to exercise your own mind.

A List of Classic Social Science concepts to be aware of in any Argument:

Winning” an Argument

Okay, you can’t really win an argument, but the best next thing is to say to your counterpart, “fine, what is the next step based on your argument?” If your counterparty has made a valid point, they will frequently stay mired in the awareness stage in which they are trying to validate the logic of their argument rather then extending it outwardly to the implications and the consequences of their argument. For example, that inequality is evil. All you have to do is say; “So, what’s the next step.” And they will have difficulty because a policy of enforcing equality is way more difficult than the normative claim that equality and fairness is a positive aspiration. Saying “what’s the next step” typically shifts the debate into your corner.


Your counterparty will want to make the first offer in a negotiation, so that they frame the discussion around what they are advocating. That’s why striking a specific price point is critical. You could say that healthcare is a human right for example. That anchors and locks down your position and shapes the discussion thereafter.

Cognitive dissonance

Is a situation where you mind holds two conflicting ideas at the same time. When you have a belief that you believe is true and then discover that the facts show otherwise, instead of accepting being wrong, you come up with scrambled thinking to avoid reconciling yourself with the truth that you were wrong. This is also known as negative capability; the most successful management and leadership are able to overcome cognitive dissonance, identify it and figure it out in others. Tells that someone has cognitive dissonances are: 1) using word salad to win an argument, 2) mind-reading the other person’s intentions, 3) expanding the opponents argument with absurd absolutes, 4) tells like “so….your saying” which are misinterpretations of what you are saying. Cognitive dissonance is a flaw that EVERYONE has and can be used to turn others onto your side, if you point out someone else’s cognitive dissonance in a compelling way, you can help them see your world view better, as long as you do that gently.

Confirmation bias

Is where your brain subconsciously finds evidence in the real world that reflects what you are most thinking about. The human brain builds biases based on patterns observed over time. As a result, biases are impossible to get rid of. The curious point here is that confirmation bias is also where your brain starts pointing out instances that align with what you are looking for as evidence to support your pre-existing view. So when you are in an argument, you might actually have confirmation bias that the other person does not and because neither of you can access eachother’s biases directly, you just argue without knowing which biases are preventing clarity of position from being realized. And of course, if people are involved there are competing interpretations of what the truth is from their perspective….


We “filter” reality and each person is interpreting reality from their own perspective. Bertrand Russel said that there only markers that we are experiencing the same reality are physical markers. A filter is the brain’s interpretation of physical reality. The brain is shaped by the Value Laden hypothesis. Max Weber described this phenomenon in the 19th century; basically, we have values or theories or frameworks (based on pattern recognition and the like) that we believe can predict future actions and we go out into the world, to prove our theories are correct. And sadly, we tend to believe our filters too much which creates confirmation bias.

High-Ground Strategy

Taking a debate away from the level of detailed debate to a topic that everyone can agree on. Being intentionally vague has its place in any communication strategy. It’s also known as triangulation, we aren’t trying to win an argument this way, we’re just trying to make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

Thinking Past the Sale

Persuasion tactic where you get those you are trying to persuade to think about what it will be like after the decision is made. The act of forcing us to imagine what you want to have happen is a means of shaping opinion, as long as you can also sell the good and downplay the bad. Visualizations are very powerful.

Pacing and Leading

Pacing and leading is when the speaker gets into the learner’s head, so that they understand your thinking, speech and breath of the speaker and thus this more persuasive because we believe the speaker is speaking for us. As I said in the introduction, your counterparty is never going to fully get you but if you can create the illusion that you get them, you’re ahead of the game. Things like repeating in your own words what your counterparty has just said is helpful. Basically, mirroring the audience or counterparty. Negative attacks on your character is what people remember in these conversations. You should match your counterparty’s cadence of attacks until you’re both covered in holiday stuffing or whatever. Just kidding, chill.

Psychic Psychiatrist illusion

Believing that you can diagnose someone’s sanity just by their outward actions from a far is just wrong. This activity is typically shunned in most circumstances but can be used as an attack on someone who’s leadership you detest.

Walking Talking Contradiction

Policies are obviously going to overlap and conflict with each other. Politicians by definition will make statements that contradict other statements made because facts are moving objects in the sense that time is a moving object. People want snacks and beer and burgers and salad. We are walking emotional contradictors, not logical beings. Get used to it, don’t fight human nature unless you intend to be confounded by it (i.e lose).

Rhetoric is Not Action

If you ask your counterparty to put their money where their mouth is (demonstrate how they live by their opinion /or make a bet) and they refuse, they are simply being rhetorical. Rhetoric, virtue signally is also an extension of the contradiction since emotional statements are often illogical and will contradict themselves. Words matter but to what degree depends on how much you want to undermine the communicator. The difference between assimilation and integration for example, is mostly in the speakers head. Understand that top persuaders will communicate to the the less informed (who have not studied the nuances) with the aim of persuading. Most folks are least likely to detect contradictions and most likely to be appealed to on emotional grounds but when the general public spots a contradiction, we as people get a little high off of the enlightenment that needs to be handled with care or you risk insulting the intelligence of the uninformed. Remember that the less informed aren’t necessarily idiots are all, it’s just they have better things to do then argue about what you care about.

History Does Not Repeat Itself

Using analogies from past events to imply a future outcome that is relevant to whatever argument you are having now is hollow talk. You can’t predictive the future generally, but in particular by saying this current situation is just like this other past situation and look how that past situation turned out therefore the same will happen here, is lazy thinking.

Facts are Weaker than Fiction

Better more reliable facts are helpful but secondary. Facts relating to human behavior and activity can change and evolve. Facts are moving objects therefore any statement is subject to being made false through time-lapse (passage of time). Meanwhile, fiction is static because there are no reference points to suggest it is changing. And people love certainty!

Rationality versus Irrationality

Human beings are irrational most of the time, therefore appealing to the irrational is far more effective. Get used to it. An example where rationality does not take hold is the financial sector. There are systems to analyze finance which managers use to ensure they are in control of the apparatus of capital creation, however, Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street illustrates that irrationality rules the stock market. Human are irrational with pockets of rationality in specific circumstances; the final purchase decision is usually not rational. Love is not rational. And politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the rational. Complicated prediction models with many assumptions have the possibility of being very wrong because the assumptions are rarely dispassionately derived.

Acknowledging that this Argument was good Exercise:

it’s a nice way to diffuse a situation, if you can explain what this argument really was about. It was about exercising your brain. The most important “muscle” in the human body, needs a good work out and so you can finish off any argument by stating the obvious that 1) we’re not going to solve the world’s problems by the end of this argument, 2) it was good exercise…