Monday, June 30, 2014


When you start your mystery, do you know who did it, and how do you avoid signaling it to the reader?

This is an interesting pair of questions because it’s both easy to answer and almost impossible to explain in a way others can use as a guide. Every writer develops a rhythm for telling stories, and at least half of us (the “pantsers” – seat of the pants writers) like to improvise as we go along to keep our writing fresh. I start with a protagonist, a victim, a killer and the core reason why the murder happened. I have a setting, a cast of characters, and a sense of the time of year (for some reason, that’s vital to me). That gives me a direction to start off in.

What invariably happens is that the characters make decisions that only make sense as the plot unfolds and the details emerge. A character I thought was only useful in passing leaps into the action. The weather causes a problem for my protagonist and before I know it, someone else is in danger. The killer’s actions back him into a corner I hadn’t anticipated, and what does he do? He kills again – news to me!

If this sounds helter-skelter and not something you’d be comfortable with, know there are an equal number of writers who outline, write chapter summaries, animate every character fully before they even start writing the actual manuscript. Works for them, and might for you. But I’m one of those who likes being on the edge of her seat, who thrives on the excitement of not knowing what the hell happens next until it does. Obviously, these turns and twists aren’t random. My subconscious has been building the story all along, but I was too busy putting words on paper to stop and take note. And at times these serendipitous moments turn out to be dead ends or false trails and, as much fun as they were, they have to be axed and I have to backtrack to solid ground.

The second question is one I think most of us struggle with. We know who did it and every clue seems to scream out, as if we wrote it in ALL CAPS so the reader wouldn’t miss it. Beta readers help here, as does one read in which you seek out and test every red herring and real clue to see how well they’re scattered, flaunted or hidden. I think it was Rhys Bowen who said you hide it in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph and no one will find it. Given her great success and thousands of ardent fans, I’m guessing that’s good advice.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Group Hug

By Art Taylor

About three weeks into my first semester in the MFA program at Mason, several of us first-year fiction students formed our own critique group—meeting once a month to review earlier drafts or later revisions of the same manuscripts we were submitting to the larger workshops in the program itself.

There's a little bit of redundancy there. The four of us were all part of the same workshop on campus, so why get together another time in that smaller group to talk an extra time about those same—or at least similar—manuscripts? Part of it was that we'd identified one another as peers who "got" what the others were trying to do, and while others in that larger group (18 people) weren't always giving us the feedback we wanted or needed, the constructive criticism—more focused, more extensive— from that smaller group promised opportunities to really improve our craft in a more strategic way.

That's not to say we sought out each other because we simply liked each other's work and wanted positive feedback; empty and endless praise was never the goal, and we could often be very pointed, if not even harsh with one another. And it wasn't that each of us shared the same approach or aesthetic; instead, we enjoyed the vastly different perspectives and approaches and suggestions—each of us opening up one another's eyes not just to problems with a manuscript but to possibilities. But when I say that we "got" what the others were doing, I mean that each of us was committed to helping a story become the best that it could be according to what the individual author was trying to do, and not according to how another writer would do it themselves.

When people ask what an MFA is good for, I always say that you'll get two things out of it (and neither of them is a publishing contract): 1) a sense of your own writing process, and 2) a set of readers whose judgement you trust. A good writing group serves both purposes.

That group eventually moved in different directions and schedules fractured: marriages, births, transfers out of the area... and importantly (more on this further in the bullet-points) a move toward writing novels, which didn't seem to workshop as easily in the early stages. Today, I only regularly keep up with one of those writers, but even now, eight years later, nothing that I write—a story, a review—gets submitted to the larger world without having passed his approval and feedback. Nothing.

I now belong to two writing groups: one that meets monthly here in Northern Virginia (hi, Alan!) and a second that's looser and further-flung, each of us exchanging manuscripts online instead of in person. (I've also just joined another online short story group, through the Sisters in Crime's Guppies, but since I've been out of town, I haven't entirely gotten traction on it yet.) Often the same bits of manuscript get run past each of these groups, but I always wait until I've finished something to my own standards before submitting it to them, so that I have my own sense of what's working and not and where I want to go. After that, the feedback I get is frequently invaluable—even when completely contradictory at times from one reader to the next... in fact, perhaps most often when contradictory from one reader to the next. It's not just a second set of eyes that's key, but several sets of them, readers bringing a diverse set of responses your way—as diverse as that larger group of readers you're ultimately aiming for down the line.

I guess I've already touched on the things here that I'd suggest in response to this week's question: "Writing groups and early feedback - does it help or hinder your process? Why?" But I want to boil them down into some more direct suggestions for folks considering this:
  • Find readers who respect and encourage what you're trying to do—not those who want to rewrite your work the way they'd do it. Different aesthetics and approaches are great, preferred even, but someone trying to assert control of your manuscript or to demean your own approach.... well, that's not constructive criticism, that's just flat-out destructive.
  • Bring a full manuscript to critique if a short story (as with me)—or at least be far enough into the manuscript that you know where you're trying to go (if a novel). Too early a draft or too early in the process, before you have your own sense of direction, and the feedback might simply confuse you about where you want to go—and mess up where you end up. And do recognize that critiquing only selected parts of a novel offers its own complications; reading a single chapter will obviously not give you a sense of the full narrative arc ("I'm not sure where this is going. Can you front load it a little more?") or the broader complexity of a character ("I wish I knew more about this person. Why don't you add...?") or even a sense of how small details ("Well, I'd just cut that") will take on larger meaning in the long run ("Oops! OK, keep it").
  • Be open to feedback, and then listen to yourself. I mentioned contradictory advice, which ends up frustrating some writers, but I find it often the most productive. Instead of saying "This reader thought this and this one thought that and now what do I do?" I find myself saying, "Here's what this reader took from this, here's what that reader saw, and what was I trying to do? And given those responses, how do I clarify my own intentions on the page?"
  • And finally, don't take the feedback personally, as easy as that is to do. The focus should always be on the page, getting that to be its best, and not on the person who wrote that page.
And it's perhaps telling that before hitting "Publish" on this, I had one of my other first readers give it a look—and then I revised accordingly.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Give it to me Straight

by Alan

Writing groups and early feedback - does it help or hinder your process? Why?

If you asked ten writers about their writing process, you’d get fifteen different answers. What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another, and after having written more than a dozen complete manuscripts myself, I’ve learned that what works for me once, might not work for me again.

Yes, writers can be fickle, finicky creatures with a dependence on coffee and/or bourbon.

However, one thing that remains constant in my writing process is my need for feedback. It’s easy to slop some words down on the page, thinking that I’m saying one thing, when in reality, my work is being interpreted in an entirely different manner (hey, it happens!). I need to understand how my story is coming across to readers so I know if I’m on the right track.

The most beneficial way for me to do this is by participating in a critique group. I give them my words, then sit back to see how they go over (not always so well, I can assure you!). I can find out what works and what doesn’t. Is the plot believable? Are the characters behaving consistently? Is the pacing right for the genre? Do I have ten characters whose names begin with J? Have I dotted all my t’s and crossed my i’s?

Writers can be too close to their work to be able to give it an impartial evaluation. I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my work “out there” without first sending it through the gristmill that is my critique group. It’s a very valuable—and crucial—part of my writing process.

Without a critique group, I’d be just another writer pounding away at his keyboard, mired in self-doubt. Instead, I’m just another writing pounding away at his keyboard, mired in self-doubt, with a critique group to keep me in line.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A second pair of eyes brings clarity

By R.J. Harlick

Writing groups and early feedback - does it help or hinder your process? Why?

I’m one of those writers who can’t see the story for the words. When I finish the first draft, I find I am too close to the story to see the flaws. I need a second pair of eyes to help pull me back and be objective with my writing.

With my first book, I tried family and friends, but they were of little help. They could only tell me whether they liked something or not. Mostly not, except for my mother who thought my writing was equal to Shakespeare. But they couldn’t tell me why they didn’t like something, which was of little help. If it needed fixing, I had to understand why.

Eventually I found some other aspiring writers, who were also seeking critical eyes, so we formed a critiquing group. We would meet once a month at a local eatery to discuss the latest work. Fortunately for me, they knew considerably more about writing fiction than I did, so through this critiquing process I learned what I should’ve picked up in the creative writing course I never took. 

Each month we would concentrate on the work-in-process of one author. Finally it was my turn and I barely survived. I was so traumatized by their criticism, that I left the session convinced I didn’t have the talent to be a writer. I threw the manuscript into a drawer and didn’t go near it for a good six months. Eventually I summoned up my courage and dared to read the underlined words and jottings filling the margins.  Fortunately with the passage of time, I could put away my hurt feelings and look at their comments objectively and knew they were dead on in identifying the problems with my manuscript. And so I learned the value of a second pair of eyes.

Later I became involved in another critiquing group. We would critique works-in-progress, one or two chapters at a time. This worked well for my first couple of books. Their comments not only helped me with the reviewed chapters but also with the writing of the subsequent ones. But eventually I realized this type of piecemeal review no longer worked for me. I needed those critical eyes to look at the entire manuscript in one go. Edits and awkward sentence structure I could handle on my own. I needed comments on the overall story; its flow, its coherence and credibility as a story, and on the characters; their viability, their depth and breadth as meaningful people.

After six books, I follow a pretty well established routine.  I revise the first draft on my own trying as much as I can to step back to see the story for the words. I then pass this revised version onto two or three fellow writers for their comments. Invariably they find things I missed.  Their insights allow me to take that final step backwards to be as objective as I can.  I go through another major revision and pass this onto my editor, who in turn does her thing. But by this point it is mostly copyediting. Major flaws have already been corrected by the critiquing process.

Whether it is via a writing or critiquing group or through a few key individuals with solid knowledge in creative writing, I’m a firm believer in the value of those second, often third and fourth pair of eyes to help a writer step back to obtain the objectivity needed to shape their work into an exciting story, one worthy of publishing.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The pros and cons of writing groups

by Meredith Cole

Writers can only scribble (or type) away in their dark corner for so long. Eventually someone needs to read what they've written. Before that first someone is an agent or editor, it's probably best that someone else takes a quick look to see if they "get" what you're writing (and help you get rid of glaring errors). Writing groups are a free way to do that. When they're good--they're amazingly helpful. And when they're not--they can be damaging to a fledgling writer's psyche.

I teach a class at the University of Virginia every semester--either Mystery or Novel writing--and for most of the semester I teach it with a critique group format. Everyone has to read everyone else's writing and comment on it. At first students don't understand why it's important that they critique other work (or listen to what other students have to say about their own). They just want to hear what I think. So I keep explaining how it's so much easier to recognize mistakes in someone else's writing, and how, once they recognize the mistakes, they will learn to stop making them in their own stories. And, by the end of the semester, my students usually "get it." And often they decide to go and create a critique group with the other members of the class.

How do you know when a writing group is bad? That's easy. You leave a session full of despair, not sure if you ever want to write again. People don't offer advice--they rant or belittle the other members of the group. You should run--not walk--and get out of the group as soon as possible. It's not you, it's them.
How do you know when you've found a good writing group? You leave a session full of fresh ideas and concrete ways to fix your piece. You're relieved that someone found a few of your boneheaded mistakes so you can correct them. You know they're helping you make your writing better.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Pinot Noir Grapes of Wrath

Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul? Why or why not?

by Paul D. Marks

Well of course the answer to this question is yes and no. How’s that for being unequivocal?

While many people think of writers, and artists in general, as having tortured souls, there’s no rule that says one must be tortured in order to be an artist.

So I wracked my brain trying to come up with some well-known writers whose names people would know who were happy and not tortured.

Zilch. Zero. Nada.

clip_image002Couldn’t think of one.

We all know of the tortured writers of the present, past and near-past, Hemingway, Anne Rice, David Foster Wallace and possibly the queen of tortured writers, Sylvia Plath. The list is endless. And they created great art. But what about happy writers creating great art? Can it be done? The search for the happy writer continued.

I moved to the next step: checking the internet. And after a lot of searches, using different terms and ways of phrasing things, it seems I found one well-known writer who claims to be happy. Though when you see his name I think you’ll be surprised:

Philip Roth. Author of such happy-go-lucky stories as American Pastoral and Everyman.

clip_image004According to Roth, and assuming the quote I found is correct ‘cause I never fully trust the net, he says, “I’m happy all the time, but a lot of people aren’t. I write about all those people. People in trouble make for interesting characters.”

So I guess even if the writer is happy the characters might not be and unhappy characters might make for more interesting characters.

I’m sure there’s other happy writers out there, but while the list of unhappy, tortured-soul writers is long and includes plenty of men and women, Roth is the only happy writer I could find.

This leads me to believe that many people who are tortured and scarred emotionally and/or psychologically one way or another perhaps go into writing as a way to exorcise those demons in the same way that it’s said that others with psychological problems go into psychology or psychiatry.

clip_image006Artists of all kinds are said to be unhappy people: Comedians – most of them – are known to be unhappy in large measure. Lenny Bruce. John Belushi. Richard Pryor. Drug problems, early deaths in some cases. And musicians, from Beethoven and Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. Fine artists like Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso, Gauguin, and, of course his pal, Van Gogh – all very depressed. The list in all of these categories is endless. And, of course, writers.

So maybe it is true that unhappy artists and writers – or characters – can reach into the depths of their souls, because they look inward – to touch some common threads that most of us wrestle with in our lives. And through their work we can see a mirror into ourselves and our society through which they can help us put things into perspective.

As for myself, I guess I would have to put myself on that long list of tortured souls. Without going into all the reasons why, I think if you asked people close to me, my wife and others, they would acknowledge that. And I would have to acknowledge it too.

That said, I don’t think a writer has to have a tortured soul. He or she just has to have a soul and enough introspection and empathy to be in touch with it so they give us a mirror to the world – give us something we as readers can relate to and connect with.

In the end, maybe writers – tortured souls or not – are like the pinot grapes that Paul Giamatti’s Miles character talks about in the movie Sideways. We are all, to one extent or another, pinot grapes in a cabernet world. He says:

Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.

clip_image007 clip_image009

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Not in despair, just visiting.

Does great writing come from a tortured soul?

Hmmmmm.  On the one hand Sylvia Plath, I suppose.  But on the other, Ted Hughs.  Closer to home, Edgar Allan Poe but also Alexander McCall Smith. And Joyce Carol Oates, who seems to plumb the depths of human misery from a pretty cheerful homebase. And Maya Angelou, whose soul transcended no small measure of torture and ended up soaring.

It depends what we're talking about - mental illness, external hardships, or just existential angst and its attendant gloom.

I've never believed that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, having seen too many people worn out and ground down by vicissitude. I'd argue that a writer - or radiographer or burger flipper - who overcomes illness or hardships to achieve a finished book - or clear x-ray image or evenly-browned burger - far from having lucked out with acquired strength, has triumphed.  But as to whether the books, x-rays or burgers are the better for it . . . wouldn't think so.

But say it's not Plath's or Poe's depression we're talking about. Say it's that low-level existential angst just rumbling along like a Leonard Cohen soundtrack.  Misery as lifestyle, because happiness is so uncool. Are writers more susceptible to its dreary embrace than others? Not the ones I've met. Not so far. Female poets are supposed to be the unhappiest writers of all, but the female poets I've met - Vicki Feaver, Kathleen Jamie, Carol Ann Duffy and Sharon Olds - are some of the most exuberant people imaginable, despite producing work that's sometimes plangent, sometimes searing. Perhaps they can visit despair and use it to such powerful ends specifically because they don't live there.

Who knows? I don't have an answer for this question.  But if anyone's feeling the tug of melancholy and wants help resisting it, I do have Henri the French cat. [click his name to watch - for some reason the link isn't showing up]

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Genius with a Side of Pain....

by Clare O'Donohue

Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul?

There are a lot of unhappy people who work in artistic fields - musicians, poets, novelists, painters, probably clowns (but who can tell underneath all that creepiness). There is a tendency to link the two things - "greatness" and "sadness" surely go together, we say, as if one created the other.

But are they linked?

A while back, I watched a documentary about the qualities of really successful entrepreneurs. A person being interviewed said that study after study has been done on these people - the Bill Gates and Warren Buffetts of the world - and they all have several qualities in common - things like focus and persistence, adaptability, a love of what they did, etc...

The conclusions of all these studies was that if you want to be successful, you need to develop these traits. Seems logical.

But here's where it got interesting.

The guy in the documentary pointed out that no studies have been done on people who tried and failed. For all we know, he said, these defeated entrepreneurs were also focused and persistent. Maybe they were adaptable. Surely most of them loved what they did. Maybe they did everything that Gates did. And yet they failed.

We don't know if there are qualities that only successful people share, because no one has ever looked beyond them - never asked about the failures or about the people in the middle. The people conducting the studies, he said, choose their conclusion first, then went looking for evidence to back it up.

And that's what I think about "greatness" and "sadness". We put them together because they often are together (like success and focus) and we point to examples like Van Gogh's unfortunate ear issue, or the countless cases of  writers and artists dying of overdoses, suicides, or alcoholism, as proof of the link.

But surely there are lots of talented, successful writers who lived normal lives, without excessive angst. I'm sure they've had their share of sadness, but then don't we all - great writers or not. 

On the other hand, I have no idea if a higher rate of depression in creative types is due to the fact that depressed people are drawn to creative fields (where there is a higher tolerance for it) or whether being in a creative field makes one really depressed.

So, my best answer is "I don't know." I hope not, honestly. I like to think that greatness comes from honestly, objectivity, openness, and sensitivity - not from a tortured soul.

But then, I'm not a "great" writer. I'm a happy writer.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Like Lady Gaga Says

Question of the week: Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul? Why or why not?

Answer: Yes and no.

Why yes?

To write something original, a writer has to let their crazy side out to play. We have to take chances and push limits and trust an editor to help us reel it all in later. I don't think we so much need a higher level of torture in our souls than the average person, but like Susan said in her answer yesterday, we have to be able to look at our own dark side, to spend some time dissecting and understanding it, in order to write empathetically about the characters who populate our stories.

Why no?

There have been many studies about the link between creativity on madness. Most results indicate that while highly creative people do have significantly higher tendencies toward depression, addiction, bipolar, and other mood disorders, their best work is produced NOT when those illnesses are taking hold of them, but in times of health and emotional strength.

My own experience:

I think first draft writing is hardest for me for this reason. It's when my rational mind has to go live somewhere else for a while, my editorial sense has to be quashed so I can let my fingers fly over the keyboard as the characters figure out where they're going. It's hard, and a bit scary, to give up that level of control. So when I start to get deep into fiction land and feel a little more nuts than I'm comfortable with, I take comfort from those who have gone before me.

Quotes I like:

Kurt Vonnegut: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

Oscar Wilde: “An idea that is not dangerous is not worthy of being called an idea at all.”

Lady Gaga: “When you make music or write or create, it's really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you're writing about at the time.”

Albert Einstein: “I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking”

Monday, June 16, 2014

Me and Dostoevsky Talking at the Bar

“Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul?”

That’s a trick question, right? If I say yes and then can’t produce evidence of my own tragic life, I am giving up all possibility of posthumous fame. (It would have to be after my death since I haven’t taken on the mantle of greatness yet and time is running out.) If I say no, I sound shallow and no one will believe I’ve read Dostoevsky, except maybe in comic book form.

[I digress: Does anyone else remember comic book editions of masterpieces? I swear I read The Man in the Iron Mask, Metamorphosis, and a couple other famous novels in honest-to-god comic books when I was a kid. I also read Lulu and Archie, so I didn’t have an entirely weird upbringing. But before graphic novels, I swear someone had the brilliant idea of reducing some pretty tortured stories to flimsy paper booklets to imprint gravitas on young minds.]

Anyway, back to the question, writers who can grab us and hold us captive with their words aren’t merely people who’ve experienced a lot of pain and suffering. The world is full of staggering sorrow, tragedy, cruelty, and fear and none of that necessarily leads to art. The great writers haven’t had more pain than other writers by some arbitrary measure; their gift is in picking it apart and looking hard at it, then expressing what they observe and feel in ways that become universal rather than interesting only to them. (This is true of visual artists also, I believe.)

I’d like to put in a plug for happiness as an equally valid road to greatness for a writer, by the way. If Hamlet’s a sign of Shakespeare’s greatness, so is The Tempest. Jane Austen’s characters may suffer in their own minds, but she makes sport of them and ends her stories with smiles. As Stephen King supposedly said: "A tragedy is a tragedy, and at the bottom, all tragedies are stupid. Give me a choice and I'll take A Midsummer Night's Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh.” 

The bottom line for me: Great writing is, for the reader, a personal, empathetic, transformative experience wherever we find it and whether or not it has a famously unhappy writer’s name attached to it. Which means, I suppose, I have some chance of occasional, if not generally acknowledged, greatness!


Friday, June 13, 2014

Are There Any Tips Left?

By Art Taylor

The problem with wrapping up the week's discussion here at Criminal Minds is that I have to find something fresh to add—especially with a question like this one: What three tips would you give to a new writer to help them along their journey? But no worries, I thought, I can just pad out my own post a little by recapping all the great advice that my fellow bloggers have already offered, right?

And then I read Alan's post yesterday.

There's been tremendously good advice in this week's posts, and if I'd been starting out the week instead of finishing it, I think I would've zeroed in on several of these: Write a lot (and read a lot); get involved in your writing community (join critique groups, join local chapters of MWA or SinC or other organizations, go to readings, attend conferences, etc.); and don't take rejection—or other people's successes—personally. 

So what can I offer beyond that?

There is no "perfect"—which doesn't mean to settle for sloppiness, but....

I'm a huge advocate for revision, which I see as not just an integral part of writing but the most important part of the process. And when I talk about revision, I don't just mean tinkering with the sound of a sentence or finishing up some copy-editing, but being open to tearing something apart and putting it together again—to re-visioning it in a completely new (and hopefully better) way. But while I encourage my student to be open to the possibilities of revision, I've also seen the other extreme, where beginning writers get paralyzed by the idea that it's not good enough, never good enough, no matter how many times they've rewritten and restructured and re-everything'd their draft-eternally-in-progress, aiming for the one, best, right way to do it. I used to do this; occasionally I still do; please don't do this yourself.

One of the most liberating stories I ever heard was about sculptor Alberto Giacometti's work on the 1956 series Women of Venice—the nine elongated bronze sculptures seen below.

Each of the figures here is distinct, and while I'm sure art historians and critics may champion a favorite or two among the bunch, I'd argue that each is wonderful in its own way. But the story behind their creation is what's always stuck with me. As I understand it, Giacometti worked with a single batch of clay, shaping, reshaping, crafting, and then he'd stop and ask his brother to make a mold of what he had. Once the mold was made, he would jump back into it and start shaping and reshaping and crafting that same piece of clay again until he'd gotten something else that seemed... interesting? worthwhile? Certainly perfect isn't the appropriate word, or else why bother with the other eight, right?

There are nine ways to do anything—a hundred ways, a million ways, and more. Don't let the quest for the one way to write something paralyze you.

Find yourself as a writer—and find your reader too. A lot of beginning writers dream of being on the bestseller list—of becoming the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or whomever—and as most writers will caution, that's probably not realistic. But the focus in that advice is often on the expectations of fame and fortune. Instead, I want to focus on craft. While you can learn a lot from writing a pastiche of your favorite writer (I talked about this in an earlier post), trying to write like Stephen King long-term—in terms of plot or style, subject or theme—will never make you Stephen King and may even work at cross-purposes to the writer you truly are. My wife, Tara Laskowski, and I actually talked about this earlier this week: the fact that sometimes we ourselves have been so focused on the writer we thought we wanted to be (or thought we should be) that we've missed seeing the strengths of the writers we are. For several years, Tara worked on a novel that spanned three decades in the lives of its characters, and while the book was wonderful in many ways, it ultimately didn't capitalize on many of Tara's greatest strengths as a writer—succinctness rather than sprawl, the focus on a precise moment rather than a panorama, introspection as much as an accelerating plot—strengths which truly came to the forefront when she begin more earnestly writing flash fiction. In my own case, I labored for years as well under the idea that writing short stories was just an apprenticeship toward writing a novel—until I finally came to recognize that maybe writing short stories was where I actually had some real talent, was the way my mind worked, was where I too should be. And fortunately there's a whole community of readers out there who enjoy a good tale like that.

And as a final word, how about this? Don't follow other writers' tips (at least not too religiously). In writing that, I don't mean to discount anything offered this week—again, it's all great advice. But echoing what I've already said here, I do think that it's important to find your own way every step of the way. In the academic setting, I've had writer/professors tell me that I had to write daily or else—and specifically that morning was the best time to write. I've had others suggest writing long-hand first because you feel the words in a different way. And I've seen myriad tips on craft: what to do, what not to do, and why—some of it good (to my mind) and some of it not... also to my mind. The point is: Listen to all the advice, sure, and take what you can from it, but ultimately find what works best for you, even if it means breaking the so-called rules.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Wise Words for Writers

by Alan


What three tips would you give to a new writer to help them along their journey?


This is Giving Advice to Writers Week on the blog, so, first, to recap:

On Monday, Meredith advised writers to:

1) Write a lot.

2) Be patient.

3) Become part of the writing community.

I agree wholeheartedly.


On Tuesday, R.J. advised writers to:

1) Never look back when writing (to prevent getting bogged down in re-writing).

2) Throw something unexpected into the story, if you get stuck.

3) Immerse their characters into their surroundings, when describing their settings.

More excellent advice.


Yesterday, Tracy advised writers to:

1) Get independent feedback and join a writer’s group.

2) Remember that rejection isn’t personal.

3) Keep writing, no matter how unmotivated you may be (or how much Pinterest might be tempting you).

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Now it’s my turn to pontificate, which is difficult because my esteemed blogmates have mentioned some very helpful hints. However, I shall dig deep and give some advice not yet delivered.

So, writers, heed my words:

1) Read a lot. Not only do you have to write a lot, I believe you have to read a lot, too. Don’t stick solely to your preferred or favorite genres, but read in a wide variety of genres and styles. The more you read, the more well-rounded you will become.

2) Take a writing workshop (or two). Learn from someone who’s done it before. Get a look inside the meatgrinder (steel yourself first!) as you critique other workshoppers’ pages. Getting your own work critiqued will help build rhino hide, which so important for writers.

3) Go to conferences and conventions. Talk to other writers to get a glimpse of their writing process. Form a support network. Meet potential critique partners. Learn about how the craft of writing and the business of publishing relate to each other. Develop your drinking abilities in the bar.

Here’s a “bonus” piece of advice: Learn accounting and the principles of financial investing. You’re going to need that knowledge to properly handle the windfall that comes with being a writer! (Well, all my nuggets of advice can’t be winners.)

Now, go forth and write!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Do As I Say…You Know the Rest

By Tracy Kiely

There are so many bits of advice I think new writers need to know that it is hard to boil my keen understanding of the publishing business down to just three. (Pause for laughter.  HA! Yes, that was kind of funny. So, let's continue…oh, you're still laughing? Sure, I'll wait. No, no problem. Yes, it was funny. Maybe not that funny, but… right.  Look can you maybe take it outside? We only have the room for an hour. Thanks.)

Anyway, as I was saying.

“It's okay to write crap. Just don't try publishing it while it's still crap.”
First, I would tell new writers that their families, while most likely lovely people, are liars.  Big fat liars. They doubtlessly have told you that your writing is “brilliant,” “amazing,” perhaps even “epic.” (Some families are a little more grandiose than others.) But before you compose your acceptance speech for the Pulitzer, stop for a moment to remember that these are the same people who burst into applause the day you mastered tying your shoe, riding a bike, and making poo in the potty. (Preferably not in that order, but only God should judge. Well, God and Judge Judy.)  They cheerfully plastered the front of the refrigerator with every wrinkled art project you ever pulled out of your backpack. Your mom probably even once wore that necklace you gave her for Mother’s Day. You know the one – it was made out of macaroni, glue, and string and looked like a collection of small tumors. The bottom line is your family loves you. And because of that, they probably aren’t the best critics of your work. So, my advice? Join a writing group. Get independent feedback. It is worth it.  A writing group will tell you what works and what doesn’t work. If you’re lucky, they might offer helpful suggestions as to how to make your writing stronger. If you are not sure how to spot an independent reader here’s a tip:  If they receive your manuscript without gently placing their hand on their chest and whispering through misty tears, “Oh, I am just so proud of you!”/”You wrote all this?”/”Your grandmother would be so proud of you!” you are headed in the right direction.

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”
– Harper Lee

Remember that like most everything thing else, writing is a business. Yes, publishers love books. They love to read. They love finding a book that moves them, that makes them laugh, that makes them cry, that makes them question. You know what else they love? Money. Preferably in large obscene quantities. You can write a wonderful book, but if a publisher doesn’t think it will make money they aren’t going to buy it. It is as simple as that. Publishers spend a great deal of time and money producing a book. It needs edits, proof-reading, cover art, promotion, someone to suggest that it might work better with zombies or vampires, and lots of other things that I don't know about. A publisher needs to know that they are going to get a return on their investment. Rejection is a part of writing. The more you realize that any rejection you encounter is business and not personal, the better your psyche will fare. And probably your liver.

“Lots of times I’m not crazy about the writing, but I keep moving ahead and somehow it gets better. The important thing is to move forward.”

There will be times (days/weeks/months) when you will come to believe that your Muse stepped outside for a cigarette and got hit by a bus. Or ran off to Mexico and is now half in the bag on some beach wearing a sombrero.  You will stare at your computer screen and… do nothing. You will find yourself surfing Pinterest and emailing pictures like these to friends.

But you need to get off Pinterest and keep writing. Keep going! Sooner or later your hussey of a Muse will come staggering back in reeking of rum and eight other aromas you really don't want to identify. She will tell you that "now is NOT a good time to talk" and that she needs her "space for a day" or so and to just "back off." (Muses are not unlike rebellious teenagers and it is our duty not to clock them upside their heads when they act like this.) Soon she will reappear, once again full of energy and ideas (and, if you are lucky, freshly showered).  My point is (besides that fact that my Muse happens to be a walking disaster at times) is that some days are great, some not so much. Some days will make you feel as if you are only fooling yourself and that you probably should check if your local McDonalds needs a new fry guy.  But you can't do that. Write through the tough days.  Write around them. Write over them. But just WRITE. The more you write, the better you will get. And besides, McDonald’s fries, while delightful, apparently aren’t that good for you.  Who knew?

And my final bit of advice before I leave you, is this:

“Beware of advice – even this” – Carl Sandburg