The Rules of Story
Guest Writer Lisa Cron
We all know that grammar is utterly necessary. Try to read a book with all the punctuation removed and you won’t make it past the first page. But grammar, like language, is a living breathing entity. That’s what makes it so intoxicating, interesting and at times, maddening. It changes as the culture changes.
Which is why writers may understandably assume that the same concept applies to the rules of story, leaving you free to experiment with which elements of story to use, which to ignore, and perhaps to even make up new elements as the spirit moves you.
By Nadia Chaudhury
Editor’s Note: Thanks to the authors who shared these tips, Nadia Chaudhury, who compiled them, and Time Out New York, which shared them online. Think of this as a share or retweeting of important information.
Reza Aslan (rezaaslan.com)
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, $27)
“The best advice I can give an aspiring writer is the one I received years ago: Nobody cares about you or your work like you do. Your agent, your publisher and your publicist are all wonderful people who work their hardest for you to succeed. But in the end, your success as a writer depends almost wholly upon your own tireless efforts to promote your book and make sure it gets the attention it deserves.”
11 Bits of Wisdom from Doris Lessing,
On Reading, Writing, and Life
Posted in the Huffington Post on November 17, 2013 by Meg Waite Clayton
22 Story Basics
Written by Emma Coats with a few notes by editor B. Lynn Goodwin
By Anne Sigmon
From Peter Greenburg, travel editor for CBS News:
A guidebook is something you depart from.
Look for the hidden gems when you travel. “First thing off the plane, I go to the fire
department. They know all the best places. And I always talk to the hotel maids.”
From conference founder Don George:
Focus on the wonder of the place, not the gripes.
Develop a passion for language
Look for the larger connection that makes your story universal.
From Georgia Hesse, doyenne of Bay Area travel writers, and founding editor of the San Francisco Examiner travel section:
A sidewalk café is not a waste of time. Sit, see, absorb-and don’t tweet! Turn off all the
machines and just listen to the earth breathe.
Travel writers must be more specific now than ever. Facts! Facts! Facts! What side of the
street should you walk down if you’ve never seen Notre Dame?
Observe during the days. Write your notes at night.
Always carry a corkscrew; never pass up a bathroom.
By Ellen Cassedy
There are many methodologies and techniques for writing
a novel. Perhaps one of the most respected and
potentially useful is Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake
There are many methodologies and techniques for writing a novel. Perhaps one of the most respected
and potentially useful is Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method.
The Rules of Story
Guest Writer Lisa Cron
We all know that grammar is utterly necessary. Try to read a book with all the punctuation removed and you won’t make it past the first page. But
grammar, like language, is a living breathing entity. That’s what makes it so intoxicating, interesting and at times, maddening. It changes as the
Which is why writers may understandably assume that the same concept applies to the rules of story, leaving you free to experiment with which
elements of story to use, which to ignore, and perhaps to even make up new elements as the spirit moves you.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While the rules of grammar continually evolve, the rules of story do not. They’re fixed, because they stem
from the way our brain has evolved. They’re hardwired into the architecture of our very humanness.
And here’s something surprising: the rules of story are often the opposite of what writers think they are. Which is no doubt what prompted
Flannery O’Connor to note, “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”
After all, our brain responds to a story like a duck to water-we instinctively know a good story when we hear one. Why? Recent breakthroughs in
neuroscience reveal that our brain is wired to respond to story because story is necessary to our survival-it’s how we make sense of the world.
A story is a simulation. It allows us to envision the future, and so plan for it. Thus our brain gives us a reward for paying attention to stories: that
delicious dollop of dopamine that fuels our desire to know what happens next.
But when it comes to creating a story, we often believe that what matters most is the writing-luscious language, intriguing dialogue, vivid
descriptions, compelling characters. It’s not. Those things are great, but they’re gravy. What matters most is that they’re harnessed to a story
that meets the brain’s hardwired expectations.
So, what are the brain’s hardwired expectations when it comes to story?
Here are seven immutable rules:
1. All stories make a point, beginning on page one. A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question, which
complicates as the story progresses. After all, a story is a simulation-it captures our attention because it allows us to vicariously experience what
it would be like to navigate a challenging situation.
We need to have an idea of what that situation is from the get-go. It’s like when your friend is rambling on about something that happened
yesterday, and you nod and smile politely while a little voice in your head screams, “Okay, okay, but what’s your point?” Same with a story. Think
of your story’s point as the context that allows the reader to gauge what things are adding up to.
2. Story is about how someone solves a problem, which is another way of saying story is about change. But here’s the fine print: change results
only from unavoidable conflict. Because no one - you, me, or the guy next door-changes unless we’re forced to. Think about it. We swear we’re
definitely going to start looking a new job-tomorrow. Which is code for about a week from never. Until one day we show up for work and the door
is padlocked, the factory closed, and guess what? It’s tomorrow!
In other words, a story’s job is to shove protagonists into the fray, where they find out what they’re really made of. It’s like that great JFK story.
When asked what made him a war hero, he replied, “I didn’t have a choice. They sank my boat.”
3. All story is emotion based. Neuroscience has proven that, as Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert says, “Feelings don’t just matter. They
are what mattering means.” In life, if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious. In a story, if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. The question is
What are we feeling? The answer is The reader feels what the protagonist feels.
The protagonist is our surrogate-our avatar-in the world in which the story unfolds. Can you see the fine print in this one? It means that the
protagonist had better be affected by everything that happens and react in a way the reader can see.
4. Story is not about the plot; it’s about how the plot affects the protagonist. This means that everything in a story gets its meaning and
emotional weight based on how it affects the protagonist in pursuit of his or her quest. You can have a dramatic event in a story, and we’re
talking birth, death, or the fall of the Roman Empire, but if it doesn’t affect the protagonist-if it doesn’t matter to her-then it doesn’t matter to
the reader, either. Drama for its own sake means nothing.
5. Story is about an internal journey, not an external one. In other words, a story isn’t about the external events that unfold, it’s about the
internal changes the protagonist must make, given those events, in order to achieve his or her goal. At the end of the day, what your reader is
aching to know is What would it cost someone emotionally to do that? What would it gain them?
6. Everything in a story must be there solely on a need-to-know basis. When your brain focuses on something, it filters out all unnecessary
information, the better to concentrate on the task at hand. And since about 11,000,000 pieces of information bombard your five senses every
second, your brain does a pretty good job of it. In a story, that’s your job as writer. Because as far as readers are concerned, there’s a story-
reason for everything you tell them, or you wouldn’t waste their time mentioning it.
The problem is that the brain is wired to read meaning into everything, so if you throw in something that might be beautifully written, but that
doesn’t have an effect story-wise, readers will try to read meaning into it anyway. And when that doesn’t work? The rush of dopamine that kept
them riveted dries up, and they decide to see what’s on TV.
7. In a story, everything that can go wrong, must go wrong-and then some. It helps to think of a story as that annoying schoolyard bully who
always taunted, “Oh yeah? Prove it!”
The purpose of a story is to allow your reader to learn from experience-namely, your protagonist’s. Which means that as writers, it helps to be a
little bit of a sadist. Because your protagonist has to earn her victory, nimbly snatching it from the jaws of defeat. And the only way she can do
that, is if you construct a plot that forces her to face things she’s probably spent her whole life trying to avoid.
This is what the reader comes for - to find out what it would really feel like to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you know, just
And lest it sound as if I’m speaking metaphorically when I talk about the reader “feeling” what the protagonist feels, here’s something to think
about. Recent brain imaging studies show that when we’re lost in a good story, the same areas of our brain light up when we read about
something happening to the protagonist, as light up when we actually experience it ourselves.
Story is the world’s first virtual reality, and as neuroscience reveals, we have the hardwiring to prove it. Of course, it also helps immensely to get
the punctuation right.
Lisa Cron is the author of the new book Wired for Story, which is overflowing with practical information. Get it or find out more at
11 Lessons Authors Should Learn
By M.J. Rose
Tips From the Travel Writing Pros
Always write for yourself. That’s when you get engaged emotionally. The story must be important to you or it won’t be important to readers.
Adding personal details about your experience lends depth to the story. But the “I” shouldn’t dominate. Write about others, too.
Enrich your writing with sensory details; transport the reader to the place you’re writing about.
Great travel writing helps both the reader-and the writer-understand life.
Some of these might be review for you. Some might be old ideas stated in new ways. It’s useful to look at the advice of a knowledgeable artist working
in a different genre. Take a look at what Ms. Coats offers. Use what works and store the rest away. You never know what new problems may come up
as your novel, memoir, short story, novella, or mixed genre piece grows.
1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th - get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.
18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How’d you rearrange them into what you DO like?
21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Emma Coats is a freelance director of films, boarder of story, and sometime a public speaker.
Who Cares About Your Family Story?
Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will Care
See How Easily You Can Write A Novel Using The Snowflake Method
Every August, travel writers from around the country-and from far corners of the globe-converge on the Bay Area for the Book Passage Travel Writers
and Photographers Conference, called by The Huffington Post the finest travel writing conference in the world. The annual four-day event, sponsored
by Book Passage Bookstore in Corte Madera, California, offers writing and photography workshops, talks, panels, and one-on-one discussions with the
Whether you’re a travel writer or a memoirist, you’re sharing your life and helping others to understand their own. Here’s some advice from
two strong writers who share their life and experience with others.
The 2013 conference will be held August 8-11 in Corte Madera. Registration information is available on the Book Passages website.
“This conference is no private party for the travel-writing elite or some secret society of travelerati,” says Lavinia Spalding, editor of the Best Women’s Travel Writing series from
Travelers Tales. “It open to anyone and hands down the most exciting writing event I've ever attended. Consider this: there's no application process, no previous publishing credits
required. No judgment, ego, or cliques, and absolutely no limit to the connections you can make.”
Anne Sigmon writes about her adventures-and misadventures-as a stroke survivor and autoimmune patient who still tromps through the wild: to Burmese jungles, Syrian deserts,
backpacking with llamas in the Utah wilderness.
2. “What’s terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know
quite well you’re capable of better.” - from The Golden Notebook
3. “There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” - from Under My Skin
4. “[T]he book, the story dictates how I’m going to have to do it. The story dictates the means of telling it…” - from a telephone interview with the
Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org following the announcement of the 2007 Nobel Prize, October 11, 2007
5. “I tend to speak my mind, which is not necessarily a good idea.” - from a Time Magazine interview
6. “When I was bringing up a child I taught myself to write in very short concentrated bursts. If I had a weekend, or a week, I’d do unbelievable amounts
of work. Now those habits tend to be ingrained … I think I write much better if I’m flowing. You start something off, and at first it’s a bit jagged, awkward,
but then there’s a point where there’s a click and you suddenly become quite fluent. That’s when I think I’m writing well. I don’t write well when I’m sitting
there sweating about every single phrase.” - from a Paris Review interview
7. “It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when you write in the first person about someone very different from you.” - from a Paris Review
8. “I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had-I don’t know what-the literary
equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for.” - from a Paris
9. “Whether literature accomplishes anything or not, we do keep going.” - from a interview
10. “There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them
when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a
movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa.
Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.” - from the 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook and my favorite, although I have not yet found the
source of it:
“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
Meg Waite Clayton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of four novels, including The Wednesday Sisters and The Wednesday
Daughters. She’s written for The Los Angeles Times, Writer's Digest, Runner's World and public radio, and for The New York Times and Forbes online. This
piece originally appeared on her blog, 1st Books www.megwaiteclayton.com
Stories are complex. Rules for making them work don’t have to be.
These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coats, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list - When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen
next - is a great tip and can apply to writers in all genres.
Author Lessons to Learn 1. - Agents suffer along with us -- truly they do, even when they don't show it. It's their job not to show it. So taking some
time out when your book comes out to let your agent know you appreciate all his/her hard work is a good idea. It's so easy for us to focus on all that's
not going right with our book launch when we look around and see the "it" books getting all the juice. We need to remember every book launch is still a
Author Lessons to Learn 2. - It won't hurt to write your editor/publisher/publishing team on pub day to thank them for their efforts bringing your book
to life. Even if they don't write you first -- or at all -- people doing their job are happiest when appreciated!
Author Lessons to Learn 3. - Buy books in every bookstore where you do events. If you don't want to go home with a bag of books, buy one of your
own books and give it to the bookstore owner to raffle off or for him/her to give to a reader who might be a great big mouth. Give more than you take.
Author Lessons to Learn 4. (And publishers.) - Booksellers really really read Shelf-Awareness, EVEN the ads. This week a bookseller shared that my
event happened because she read my ads in Shelf-Awareness, and I also found out that Seduction will be included in a terrific newspaper's summer
reading list because the editor saw the ad in... yes... Shelf-Awareness.
Author Lessons to Learn 5. - Buy other authors' books when you go to their events. Even if you aren't going to read it. Even if you are going to give it
away. Even if you aren't interested. Not just for the author but for the bookstore. It's karma and just plain good manners.
Author Lessons to Learn 6. - If you are doing blog talk radio shows -- listen to one episode before you accept. Some are amazing -- Cyrus Webb, I'm
talking to you -- but some are poor excuses for the host to get you on the show so he/she can draw readers to listen to him/her talk about his/her own
book and you are just the patsy.
Author Lessons to Learn 7. - Find out if your radio interviewer has read your book or you are going to have to do that part of the job on air. It's okay if
they haven't but its always better to be prepared for what's coming.
Author Lessons to Learn 8. - Ask your editor or ask your agent to find out what the house's goals are for your book before it comes out. Get some
sense of expectations so you are prepared.
Author Lessons to Learn 9. - Put everyone you hire for your book in touch with each other, or at least share the plans!! As "marketing" I bought ads
for a clients while at the same time the person she hired to do "social media" was actually buying ads for her too but not calling them ads. So the client
didn't realize she was getting twice as many ads at that site as she needed.
Author Lessons to Learn 10. - Save yourself some grief. Check with the publicist you hire to see what other books he/she has coming out at the same
time as yours. Since I do marketing -- and we can handle any number of books at the same time -- it never occurred to me to tell authors about this --
but PR and marketing are different. If the publicist can only torture the editor of a magazine about one author, will it be yours or the one he/she's had for
10 years who is 10 times as big as you?
Author Lessons to Learn 11.- Please post reviews, ratings at Goodreads, Amazon, BN.com etc of the books you read and liked. They matter for
algorithms, they matter to publishers, but most of all they warm an author's heart and stoke his or her soul.
M.J. Rose is the author of 13 novels including THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES and SEDUCTION - her most recent novel of suspense. She's also co-
authored three nonfiction books on marketing including WHAT TO DO BEFORE YOUR BOOK LAUNCH with Randy Susan Meyers. Rose was one of the
founding board members International Thriller Writers and her work has appeared in Oprah, Poets & Writers, and many anthologies. She runs the blogs
Buzz, Balls & Hype, and created the first marketing service for authors, AuthorBuzz.com.
I love books based on family stories - especially those that provide me with a perch, a home, an intimate place from which to experience a larger culture
or a bygone era.
For me, the vibration between the ordinariness of everyday life and the sweep of history is not only a pleasure but also a political and a moral matter.
Observing what happens from the point of view of unfamous people, we learn that human history is made not only by generals and kings but by each one
That said, who cares about your family story, or mine? Here are ten ways I’ve discovered to keep readers engaged with the story that engages you.
1. Step back.
When my book first began to take shape, what was foremost in my mind were my own feelings. On my family roots trip to Lithuania, the land of my Jewish
forebears, shivers went down my spine in the old Jewish cemetery, and tears overtook me in the now-empty market square.
I was writing about what I cared about. But that - simply that - was not a story, and certainly not a book.
Paradoxically, what enabled me to shape my raw experiences into a narrative was detachment.
When I stepped back, I was able to place my family story within the broader context of a nation’s encounter with its “family secrets,” its Jewish past.
My particular family story came to illuminate something larger. And that’s what made it a book.
I came to be motivated by my responsibilities to my readers - which leads to the next point.
2. Take care of the reader.
Telling a true story, rather than inventing one, can make it harder to see what you know that your reader doesn’t. Put yourself in her shoes.
As my journey progressed, I kept a diary, writing down everything I was seeing, learning, and thinking day by day. That way, even when my journey was
over, when I knew how the story would end, I could look back and see what my readers would be wondering at any given point along the way.
3. Give the reader a home, or homes.
In the difficult moral and historical terrain into which I led my readers, I realized my readers would need places to catch their breath - familiar touchstones
to hold onto, places to rest.
The classroom at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, with its rows of battered wooden desks, became one such place, and my kitchen table in Vilnius, with its
knobby cucumbers and its loaf of black bread, became another.
These recurring images gave my narrative a rhythm, like the refrain of a song.
4. Create vivid characters.
With a first-person narrative, you must create yourself as a character. Ellen Cassedy, the reader’s trusty guide, has to be as vivid as Uncle Will with his
grizzled chin and his secret past, or Ruta, the passionate young woman who drives a Holocaust exhibit around the country in her pickup truck.
5. Create vivid scenes.
Just like a work of fiction or a play, a memoir needs places where the narrative slows down and draws the reader in close.
In addition to jotting down in my diary everything I could see, hear, and smell, I took pictures with my camera.
Later, at my desk, when I was conjuring up, say, the old man who wanted to speak to a Jew before he died, I could see his green cap, his aluminum cane,
and the blood-red gladioli that framed his front door.
In writing a story from life, I found I was less a builder than a sculptor, carving away everything not needed.
My side visit to Poland had to go. The amazing yoga class in Vilnius had to go. Even my discovery of my great-grandfather’s grave had to go. Deeply
moving though it was, it didn’t advance what had become the real story.
7. Create suspense.
In my first draft, I revealed Uncle Will’s fearsome secret on page 3. Now I make the reader wait till page 51 for even the first clues.
8. Blend the personal and the historical.
Break up what Ursula LeGuin calls “the lumps in the oatmeal.” Instead of requiring the reader to swallow background information in big chunks, find ways
to stir them in. Make them go down easy.
9. Be honest.
It’s been said that “writing begins with taking notice.” That means noticing what’s going on inside you as well as outside.
In writing my book, I trained a microscope on the minutest details of how I was beginning to let go of the cross-cultural hatreds I’d been taught as a
10. Pay attention to every word.
It goes without saying that I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. Because I cared - and I wanted my readers to care.
After I read in the New York Times that The Golden Notebook author Doris Lessing, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, passed away this
morning, I turned to rereading some of her writings and interviews. I hope you’ll enjoy these little wisdoms I’ve collected:
1. “You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing cant be a way of life, the important
part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.” - from A Small, Personal Voice
Spud Hilton, San Francisco Chronicle travel editor, calls it “summer camp for travel writers,” a place to learn, make contacts, meet friends and, sometimes,
“Every year peoples' lives are changed utterly by conference,” legendary travel writer and editor Don George has said. “Every year I get a dozen emails
from people who say their careers have taken off, or they've been inspired to travel around the world, or they've gotten a photo or a story published, or
they've landed a magazine assignment or a book contract because of something they learned, someone they met, some connection they made, at Book
I try to go every year. The sessions are jam-packed with insight, inspiration, and writing tips. Here are a few of my favorite tips gleaned from the 2012
From Larry Habegger, executive editor of the Travelers’ Tales anthology series:
Ingermanson has constructed a 10-step process, which I have summarized below. This process is based around the idea that a writer begins with a simplistic
Deep Theme and then, over time, develops and adds complexity. This makes the formation of the novel a conscious process, rather then a random creative
I am not saying that this is the ‘best’ method to write a novel. In fact, I feel many writers will be horrified at such detailed levels of planning. However, some
writers will find an affinity with the Snowflake Method. If you are a writer that plans, this post might just change your writing life!
T.C. Boyle (tcboyle.com)
T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, Volume II (Viking, $45, out Oct 3)
“My standard advice for aspiring writers is to come from a wealthy family.”
Mike Burns (@DadBoner)
Power Moves: Livin’ the American Dream, USA Style (It Books, $15.99)
“I believe you should be emotionally bonded to the people you write about, whether they be real or fictional. Feel sad for their hardships and happy for their triumphs. If you aren’t truly attached to your subjects, chances are the reader won’t be either. Music is very important to my writing process. I’m fascinated by the idea of using letters as a way to transform sound into images and colors in another person’s brain like some sort of sensory alchemy. Just like great films, great writing needs a great score, even if it can’t be heard.”
Edwidge Danticat (facebook.com/edwidgedanticat)
Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf, $25.95)
“It might sound corny but listen to your heart. Let that inner voice guide you, the one closest to your truest self. The story you are most afraid to tell might be your truest one, your deepest one. Don’t let neither success nor failure deter you. Remember the excitement of those first days, those first words, those first sentences-and keep going.”
Ben Dolnick (bendolnick.com)
At the Bottom of Everything (Pantheon, $24.95)
“Get a kitchen timer. Writers are ingenious at redefining what qualifies as doing work (‘If I just spend this morning cleaning my desk…’). A kitchen timer tolerates no such nonsense. Set yourself a daily writing quota (as little as a half hour is fine at first), set the clock and get to work.”
Stephen Elliott (@S___Elliott, stephenelliott.com)
The Adderall Diaries (Graywolf Press, $14); founding editor, The Rumpus (therumpus.net)
“You still have to make something really, really good. That’s the nut of it all. And the more time you spend ‘cultivating relationships,’ the less time you spend creating meaningful art. One of those things will do more for you than the other.”
Joe Garden (@joegarden)
Writer/producer for AdultSwim.com, former features editor at The Onion (theonion.com)
“Work shitty jobs that you loathe, but there’s that one bright spot that makes it momentarily bearable. Work shitty jobs that imbue in you the desire to do something different, something tolerable-and I don’t mean law school. Work shitty jobs, but don’t treat it like research or you’ll be sniffed out as a condescending prick. Work shitty jobs that you can forget the moment you go home so you can work on something you love.”
Drew Magary (@drewmagary, drewmagary.com)
Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of 21st-Century Parenthood (Gotham, $25)
“If you’re going to reference something, assume the reader knows the source. If you say, ‘This is just like that time on The Simpsons when Kent Brockman welcomed our new insect overlords,’ you suck. Just say the line and let the reader figure out where it came from.”
Anthony Marra (@anthonyfmarra)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, $26)
“Read widely. Write for three hours a day, six days a week. Throw out the red pens and retype your work. When the frustrations accumulate and you want to give up, keep in mind that your solitary struggles to shape language into meaning will become the most profound moments of your creative life. Enjoy yourself.”
James McBride (jamesmcbride.com)
The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead, $27.95)
“Rewrite everything. Even letters.”
Stuart Nadler (stuartnadler.net)
Wise Men (Reagan Arthur Books, $25.99)
“A fact: You will always feel like your work isn’t good enough. As a salve, or simply as a way to stay sane, be in the world. Ride the train. Listen to strangers. Occasionally, if you’re brave, speak to them. Walk in the city you live. Pay attention. Don’t bother with taking notes, or buying fancy notepads. Try to remember as much as you can. Have just enough confidence in yourself to not be an asshole. Then, get up and go to work and try again.”
Rob Sheffield (@robsheff, robsheffield.com)
Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke (It Books, $25.99)
“Don’t read the comments, obviously. ‘’Tis of no importance what bats and oxen think,’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson said. You can’t control who reads your work or how they respond. What you can control is how much your writing means to you-if you write about things that fire up your passions, things that stimulate your neurons, writing will probably make your life better, whether anyone else reads it or not. That’s not the only reason to write, but it’s a good reason.”
Choire Sicha (@Choire, choiresicha.com)
Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City (Harper, $24.99)
“Don’t ever show anyone who isn’t your editor your writing before publication. That’s for goths and drama queens and dramatic goths. Either you’re a narcissist and you shouldn’t be writing, or you’re showing people drafts as an excuse to not rewrite. In any event, most of the time, they’ll send you the wrong way, and then you’re just a dramatic lazy goth with a bad piece of writing. But you didn’t have to be! You could have been an awesome goth, if you’d just holed up in your room one more night tweezing wrong words and rotten sentences!”
Julieanne Smolinski (@BoobsRadley)
Freelance writer; GQ, New York Magazine, Jezebel
“Don’t pick at it.”
Adelle Waldman (@adellewaldman, adellewaldman.com)
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Henry Holt and Co., $25)
“The best advice I can give has little to do with actual writing; it has to do with thinking about people. I recommend that you practice creating fictional characters by trying to describe, privately, the people in your life. See if you can describe their characters without being so general that they could be anyone. Then check back in a few months. If your description has radically changed, you have a ways to go. You aren’t yet seeing other people as fully fleshed out others, but are mired in your own relationships with them. When you can describe people in ways that are both meaningful and consistent and survive the vicissitudes of your moods, then you know you’re getting somewhere.”
by Laura Brennan
by Arlene Mandell
by Brittany Behrman
by Reed Farrel Coleman, Author of Hurt Machine
by Chris Baty
by Ray Gustini Jun 02, 2011
by Francine Garson
You look good. Did you lose weight?
Did you lose weight? You look good.
by Victoria Zackheim
by Stephen Bakalyar
by Chandra Moira Beal
by Joan Reinhardt Reiss
by Debra Finerman
Author of Mademoiselle Victorine
by Jeffrey Small
Author of The Breath of God
by Katie M. Flynn
Writing Tips From A Pro
by Arlene Mandell
by Douglas Crago
One Nap at a Time: A New Mom's Musings on the Writing Life
by Judy Ringer
by Gabrielle Hovendon,
First Place Winner of Writer Advice’s Flash Prose Contest
How To Improve Your Writing Without Writing a Word
How Do You Become a Writer?
by Amanda Eyre Ward, author of Forgive Me
Follow the Energy: Writing Aikido
by Sherri Rifkin, author of LoveHampton
A Sudden, Brilliant Burst:
Making Flash Fiction Work
A New Job Requirement for Authors
Holding a job that distracts you from cultivating your true talents is a frustration for anyone. Fortunately for those who possess a passion for writing, it’s
possible to refine your writing skills while earning a living doing so.
Showing potential employers your value as a writer is paramount to getting ahead of the competition. Because it’s not always simple to craft a job-winning
portfolio, I’ve compiled a list of the five ways that I successfully built my resume and satisfied my calling to write for a living.
I appreciate the chance to share these tips with the readers of Writer Advice; I hope that they will help you in advancing your skills while supporting
yourself through your writing!
Read the tips here: https://www.ecollegefinder.org/pdfs/ecf_5wayswritingjob.pdf
For years after Brittany Behrman earned her degree in 2009, she spent her time searching for work. In her job hunt, she perfected these tips and used
Every so often, I’m asked to speak about pitching to a group of writers. This is easy for me because I love pitching and I love writers. I also love making
people cry, and that happens, I am not kidding, about sixty percent of the time. Not everyone, of course - it’s not like I force them to sit through Terms of
Endearment. But one person in the room, one person with a story she believes to be unpitchable, oh, yeah. Pass the Kleenex.
Why? Why is it so amazing to hear your story pitched? I do think there’s a certain amount of relief in realizing that it can be done. But I also think we are
all desperate to be heard. When a pitch is right, it conveys exactly what you want the world to understand about the heart of your story. You get heard.
That’s very powerful.
So how do you get to that? How do you pitch your story? Here are the steps:
1) Be accurate. Do not worry about what the elusive “they” want to hear. Be honest. No one likes a bait-and-switch.
2) Set up their listening. What I mean by this is, prepare them for what they are about to hear. Is it a book, a webseries, a feature, a play? If the form is
understood - if you’re at a mystery book convention, for instance - let them know the subgenre: thriller, cosy, procedural, paranormal. If they don’t know
what to expect, they won’t be able to connect to your story. I once found myself performing in a gruesome, dark, emotionally-exhausting scene in what the
judges expected to be a comedy competition. Funny only in retrospect, trust me.
3) Take the time to tell your story. There is a difference between a logline and a pitch. A logline is usually a sentence long and its only job is to get them
to say, “Tell me more.” Your pitch is what you say after that, and its job is to get them to request the script or book proposal or manuscript. Don’t rush,
don’t skimp. You’re a storyteller; you’re already good at this part.
4) Only tell the essence of your story. This is the tricky bit. Figure out what the heart of your story is and convey that, and only that. The details, even
the character names - they don’t matter as much as you think they do. Take whatever time you need, but don’t squander their good will by being
5) Don’t be afraid to insert your own passion and your connection to the material into the pitch. What drew you to tell this story in this way? That’s
fascinating and engaging. Share.
Speaking of sharing, that’s how you’ll know if your pitch works. Share it with friends and family. Watch their eyes. Notice when they start to glaze over.
Rework those bits. Also, say it out loud to yourself. If you get goosebumps, you’re on the right track.
Laura Brennan is a writer, producer and pitch consultant. Learn about the help she offers at http://www.pitchingperfectly.com/about.html.
For the past five years, I’ve taught a summer class in writing-How To Write Genre Fiction or How To Write A Novel-at Hofstra University on Long Island. It’s
a three-credit class open to regular students, graduate students, and continuing education students as well. Furthermore, it’s an accelerated class in that I
must teach a full term’s worth of material in two consecutive weeks-four hours a day, ten days in a row. In order to accomplish this I had to learn how to
reduce lessons down to their most impactful, economical forms.
Then, two years ago, Larry Light, the current Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America-a position I once held-came to me and asked me to
lead an effort to develop an idea called MWA University. This was to be a program where Mystery Writers of America would offer six hours of college level
writing instruction on a single day as a member benefit. Six hours sounds like a lot of time, but in reality it is very little to teach the basics of fiction writing.
Again, I was forced to concentrate my lesson plans even further. Here are just some of the bits of writing advice I give to my students that I have
developed along the way.
Narrative: New writers are often flummoxed by this concept. Here's an exercise: Download the late Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" or "Taxi" or "W-O-L-
D". In these songs, all about five minutes in length, Chapin perfectly exemplifies a complete narrative. There is a beginning, middle, and end with deep
characterization, and emotional story arcs. If he can tell stories this complete in five minutes, imagine what you can do in three hundred pages.
First or Third Person: First person allows for an intimacy between the narrator (usually the protagonist) of the story and the reader that is unachievable
through third person. However, first person can be very limiting because all the information to the reader must be delivered through the
narrator/protagonist's experiences. The reader can never know what is going on in another character's life when that character is not with the protagonist.
It also means the protagonist must be constantly "on screen". Third person allows for broader experience in that the reader can have a greater sense of the
complete picture. It may even allow the reader to know what is going on in the lives and minds of several characters even within a single scene. The price a
writer pays for writing in third is lack of intimacy and potential confusion.
To Outline or Not To Outline: Fiction writing is an odd combination of comfort and discomfort. I, for one, never outline because it robs the spontaneity of
the writing experience. I feel once I've done an outline, I've already written the book and I have no desire to write it twice with no surprises. On the other
hand, many successful authors do rigorous outlining. They feel they cannot enjoy the writing process if they haven't gotten the heavy lifting of plot out of
the way. Just as with routine, experiment. Find out what works best for you and stick with it.
Rule of Three: A difficult issue for new writers to make sense of is how to handle critiques and criticism. On the one hand, you can't change a manuscript
to suit every individual bit of criticism you receive. On the other, as I mentioned earlier, you can't remain stubbornly wedded to your manuscript as if it was
biblical scripture. When seeking feedback or when you begin the search for an agent or publisher, follow the rule of three. If three people mention one
specific weakness in your manuscript -- The protagonist wasn't likeable. The plot was confusing. Your antagonist was one dimensional. -- you might want to
© 2011 Reed Farrel Coleman, author of Hurt Machine
Author BioReed Farrel Coleman, author of Hurt Machine, is the former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. He has published twelve
novels -- two under his pen name Tony Spinsosa -- in three series, and one stand-alone with award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen. His books have been
translated into seven languages.
Reed is a three-time winner of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year. He has also received the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards, and
has been twice nominated for the Edgar® Award. He was the editor of the anthology Hard Boiled Brooklyn, and his short fiction and essays have appeared in
Wall Street Noir, The Darker Mask, These Guns For Hire, Brooklyn Noir 3, Damn Near Dead, and other publications.
Reed is an adjunct professor at Hofstra University, teaching writing classes in mystery fiction and the novel. He lives with his family on Long Island.
I accidentally founded National Novel Writing Month back in 1999. Since then, I've watched, amazed, as the event has grown from 21 overcaffeinated
friends into a literary block party with over 200,000 participants every year.
So what's the secret?
I think it really comes down to that 30-day deadline. Month-long deadlines, whatever the goal, are very powerful beasts. There's a reason why so many
self-help books are built around a 30-day schedule-it's really the biggest chunk of time that I think human brains can effectively plan around. To me, the
power of a 30-day deadline for novelists comes down to three factors:
1) A month gives you enough time to get a draft done, but not so much time that you start procrastinating. Procrastination will kill creative projects the
same way rust eventually locks up gears on an abandoned bicycle. Isaac Newton was absolutely right when he said that objects at rest will stay at rest.
Which is why people who give themselves a month to write a novel draft are-strangely enough-more likely to finish it than people who give themselves a
year. The thirty-day deadline gets those gears moving immediately, and forces you to come up with a realistic schedule that breaks the daunting task of
writing a first draft into a series of manageable, daily writing goals.
2) A month-long deadline forces you to abandon perfection and shoot for completion. This is exactly where you want to be on a first draft. Because if you
give yourself enough time to analyze every word you write, nothing is going to be good enough. You'll spend so much time beating yourself up about the
quality of your sentences that you'll never around to getting a story down on paper. When it comes to first drafts, the best thing you can do is turn off
your inner editor and just commit to getting a beginning, a middle, and an end down on paper. Was that page the worst thing you've ever written? Good!
Now go write another lousy page. Then another. And another. Hundreds of thousands of writers have edited a bad first draft into a great novel. But no one
has ever edited a blank page into anything but a blank page.
3) A month-long deadline brings out the cheerleaders. Imagine a marathon without supporters or spectators. Just solitary runners moving silently through
empty city streets. If they drop out of the race, no one notices. If they cross the finish line, no one cares. This, essentially, is the state in which we write
our books. Most people don't know our writing project exists, and those who do tend to stop asking about it after a couple months. The manuscript
becomes something we grapple with alone, usually at the times of day when we're most exhausted. Is it any wonder so many book projects get abandoned?
When you're writing a book on a month-long deadline, people get excited. They want to help. There's something about the folly of the endeavor that brings
out cheerleaders, and you'll find everyone from your local barista to your normally grumpy boss eagerly wanting updates on your progress. Significant others
also have an easier time embracing the month-long novel, and will swap childcare or chore duties for one month so you have more time to write. That
encouragement (and increased writing time) is priceless, but the real gift you get from your cheerleaders is commitment. I guarantee that there will come a
point in the month when your manuscript looks like a total disaster and all you want to do is quit. The only thing keeping you going will be the fact that you
don't want to disappoint all those people who believe in you. So you grudgingly keep at it, logging your daily word count while cursing the whole concept.
And a few thousand words later, you stumble on some great twist or character and you're in love with our book again, and you're so thankful you didn't give
Chris Baty is the Founder of NaNoWriMo, and the author of No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days.
WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN’T
Five Editing Myths Waiting To Trip Up Your Campaign to Market Your Work
Longtime Wired writer Steve Silberman, is about to start work on his first book, a piece of non-fiction based on an article he wrote in 2001 about Asperger's
syndrome, and he's solicited advice from 22 authors about the process of bookwriting. The responses run the gamut from practical advice about how to get
organized to ruminations on the art of writing long. These 15 struck us particularly useful, and applicable to both fiction and non-fiction.
Use Scrivener to write your book. Awesome organizing tool as well as word processor. -- Mark Frauenfelder (The Mad Professor)
"The first tip is that readers expect books to be exhaustive on their subjects. That doesn’t mean they want the books to be long - it means that
they expect that you will cover all the basic ground that needs to be covered to understand the subject, even if they know some of it already. This piece
of advice may or may not be relevant to your subject. In my case, with a very idiosyncratic book on viral culture, it led to people asking me at readings
why I hadn’t included an analysis of X or Y viral phenomenon in my book. “Because you already know about it,” the magazine guy in me always wanted to
respond. But in the book world, people want to see you mention the stuff they already know, at least in passing (or to knock it down)- otherwise, how can
it claim to be a book on the subject? It’s worth taking that point of view seriously." -- Bill Wasick (And Then There's This)
"I tried, not always successfully, to start each day with some discrete goal I wanted to accomplish: write 200 words, or get through a certain
amount of research, or conduct two interviews, or whatever. If I set out to spend a day “writing,” that would be so overwhelming I’d end up just farting
around online all day instead of starting the climb the mountain." -- Seth Mnookin (The Panic Virus)
"Planning. Planning. Planning. It’s a campaign. I used some project management tools in the end to put some order into the vastness. That’s the thing
about the bigger scale. It requires more management to support the creativity. Cultivate a good relationship with your editor from the beginning. He/she is
going to be your task master at some point. That’s going to go so much better if he/she is also your friend, colleague, supporter, and fan. The campaign of
writing a book can get so lonely sometimes, you need a good attaboy just to remind yourself of why you’re doing it and that you’re not the crazy loser who
needs to get out more." -- Barry Boyce (The Mindfulness Revolution)
"When I’m writing a book I only read other books that somehow inform my book. If it doesn’t serve my process - no matter how much I want to read
it - I don’t. I suspect there are a lot of people who will give the opposite opinion (take a break from reading about your subject matter, etc.), but I’m not
one of them. This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead - bask in the madness." -- Peter Conners (Growing Up Dead)
"Do as much research as possible away from the Internet - with living people, in real places." -- Carl Zimmer (The Tangled Bank)
"Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my
first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first
third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly." -- Josh Shenk (Lincoln's Melancholy)
"Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it
doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing." -- Cory Doctorow (Makers)
"I do not write from the beginning to the end. I write in the order that particular parts take form in my mind and I enjoy mulling them over… I mull and
mull and imagine I am explaining them to someone and then I write them down. I have the order in mind, so I write whatever part is bubbling energetically in
my mind, print it out (always) and begin a stack on THE BOOK on a corner of my desk into which I can add pieces (in their proper order) as they get written
and so I have a visible proof at all times that something is happening." -- Sylvia Boorstein (It's Easier Than You Think)
"Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac." -- Ben Casnocha (My Start-Up Life)
"Get feedback - oodles of it. Along the way, show pieces of your book to lots of people - different types of people. Ply them with wine and beg them
for candor. Find out what’s missing, what’s being misinterpreted, what isn’t convincing, what’s falling flat. This doesn’t mean you take every suggestion or
write the book by committee. But this process will allow to marry your necessarily-precious vision with how people will actually react. I find that invaluable."
-- David Shenk (The Forgetting)
"I find it helpful sometimes - and still to my surprise - trying to explain to someone what it is I’m trying to write about, usually someone bright but in a
different intellectual zone, and not a writer. Or, likewise, in a letter or email to such a person." -- August Kleinzahler ( Cutty, One Rock)
"The process of lining the book up, giving it a bedside manner, asking 'Is this what it is about? But what is it really about' was a plunge. I had to
explain the work to myself in more and more elementary language. I came to enjoy doing this. It helped when I realized that the discovery process was part
of the writing and I didn’t have to be through it already." -- John Tarrant (Life Inside the Dark)
"Advice from a Newsweek editor I worked with in the ’80s, Nancy Cooper. Roughly my age, but so much smarter and more worldly and sophisticated. I
was worried about writing the opening story of the nation section. And she sent me a note that read: ”You just start working and you keep working til it’s
done. That’s all there is to it; no mystery.” -- John Schwartz (Tall)
Ideas for stories come to me from a variety of sources-from something observed, from a dream, from a personal experience, from something read. There's no
real magic involved; it's primarily a matter of remaining open to the flow of ideas and being mindful of when they materialize. I keep a journal of story ideas,
and I make an entry in it as soon as an idea comes to me.
The central idea for "The Trip to Goodbye" came to me one evening quite unexpectedly. I was going through a rough time and was thinking about getting
away to the mountains for a few days. I've
always found that nature has a restorative and consoling effect on me, and many of my best writing ideas come to me when I'm out in the country. As I
thought about the trip and how I was feeling, the image of Christopher sitting in the truck, which I describe in the discovery scene of the story, suddenly
appeared in my mind. I found it provocative and compelling. A trip to goodbye, I thought, seeing him there behind the wheel, the truck loaded with gear.
Once I had that in my head, I knew that I had the beginning of a good story.
A few months passed before I sat down to write the story. I wasn't sure which direction to take, so I concentrated on getting to the place inside of me
where the idea began, and to connect with the strong emotions surrounding it. The first scene that I developed was the ending. It came to me right away-
the story would end in silence, the truck's motor choking to a stop, the quiet evening closing in around them. I then began working out the rest of the
story. I was having difficulty developing a typical storyline, so I wrote a series of scenes with the intention of connecting them later. As the writing
progressed, I realized that it would be more effective to leave them separated, the threads of the story unfolding side-by-side. I set the main series of
scenes, those that follow the actions of the main character, in normal font, and the parallel, complimentary scenes in italics. This structure allowed me to
convey the parallel nature of the events in a natural way, play the scenes off one another within the context of the main character's journey, and then
bring everything together in the scene at the river, setting off the ending to great effect.
After I completed a rough draft, I made several editing passes through the story, revising it into a first draft. I then passed it to my editor, and she and I
repeated this process until we both felt that the story was finished and ready to submit to prospective publishers. I like this method because it allows me to
open up and write freely at the time I'm developing a story, and then focus on perfecting the prose and other elements during the editing phase, finalizing it
in collaboration with my editor.
There are many paths to a great story. I hope that my description of how this little story came about will be helpful to you in some way. Whatever the
case, I believe that a writer must find the story that is relevant to him, and then write it from his heart, for that is where all great stories come from, in the
Douglas Crago writes short stories, poetry and music. To read his award winning story, "The Trip to Goodbye," click http://www.writermag.com/The%
Five Things to Avoid for a Pristine Query Letter
There’s a famous story that illustrates how even masterful storytellers can end up with glaring holes in their plots. It concerns Raymond Chandler’s classic
detective novel The Big Sleep in which the killing of a chauffeur helps launch a series of complex mysteries involving drugs, pornography, blackmail, and
murder that Chandler’s hero, Phillip Marlowe, must solve. When the novel was later made into an equally classic film starring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe --
with a screenplay by William Faulkner -- the crew realized during production that there was one last question to resolve: Who killed the chauffeur? As the
story goes, director Howard Hawks first called Faulkner wanting to know, who had no idea, so Hawks wired Chandler, the source, and asked him who killed the
chauffeur. Chandler’s response, as he later recalled, was to-the-point: "Dammit, I didn’t know either."
To make sure your plot is as solid as it can be -- before some legendary film director discovers a plot hole while trying to adapt your work -- consider the
following questions and see that you have them answered in your novel.
Have all subplots and supporting character arcs been concluded? You might want to go back through the novel and mark those moments with subplot
and supporting cast that seem to demand revisiting later . . . and make sure you did revisit and conclude them in some satisfying way.
Do you find any of your characters indulging in excessive monologue toward the finale? Late-novel monologues often indicate that certain information
should have been introduced earlier but wasn’t -- and now your character is trying to catch the reader up on that omitted information in one big breath.
These one-breath wonders suggest a hole in the plot that the character is now trying to plug, poorly. Be aware of any such information dumps you come
across, and consider how you might plug the hole yourself earlier in the text.
Do the events in your novel follow the rules of the story as you’ve set them out? We already discussed rule breaking in terms of the "twist" ending, but
the same applies to every turn your story takes. If your protagonist is launched on his adventure when he saves a young woman from drowning, but then at
Plot Point 1 he lets the antagonist get away because he’s not a very strong swimmer, that’s obviously a problem, and everything that comes after that point
will be looked on with suspicion by the reader (if he's still reading at all).
Do the events in your novel follow, and account for, the rules of logic? If it's revealed at the end of your novel that your time-traveling hero has fallen
in love with his own grandmother and is now his own grandfather, your reader will likely either scratch his head or kick your novel across the room, depending
on what kind of day he's having. It's absolutely true that, as an author, you control the powers of time and space in your book -- see the section on pacing
on page 147 -- but even so you're still bound by the general rules of logic; what you do has to make sense. Thus anything that doesn't seem possible, or at
least believable, is a problem you'll need to fix.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the momentum of our story, in the fun of telling it, that we forget to properly account for, explain, or excise
inconsistencies along the way; even Raymond Chandler can let a dead chauffeur slip past him. But the smallest plot hole might still be big enough for your
reader to fall straight through, so be mindful that your plot be as solid as it can be. And if there's anything in the story you can't reconcile, you may want to
consider what the offending element is doing there in the first place.
The above is an excerpt from the book The Nighttime Novelist: Finish Your Novel in Your Spare Time by Joseph Bates. The above excerpt is a digitally
scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to
the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2010 Joseph Bates, author of The Nighttime Novelist: Finish Your Novel in Your Spare Time.
Author Bio Joseph Bates's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The South Carolina Review, Identity Theory, Lunch Hour Stories, The Cincinnati Review,
Shenandoah, and Novel & Short Story Writer's Market. He holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and fiction writing from the University of Cincinnati and
teaches in the creative writing program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
For more information please visit www.nighttimenovelist.com and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.
We’ve said it. We’ve heard it. We’ve thought it. But is weight loss, moderate weight loss that is, always a good thing? I wanted to turn that question upside
down, look beyond the obvious answer, and challenge some common assumptions. Thus, “The Book Group” was born. Or rather, the ending of “The Book
Group” was born. My job would be to write toward it.
My first task was to envision a setting. I imagined a group of women with a connection but not a close friendship, who met regularly but not daily, and who
shared interests but not secrets, in other words, a book group. (And yes, it is easier to write what you know). Perhaps the most important part of building
the setting was the selection and creation of the small details that would bring the reader into the scene. The limited word count of this particular contest
forced me to restrict those details to only those that I thought would anchor the reader as efficiently as possible…homemade brownies, a fistful of spoons, a
pile of coats on the couch. I thought that in the end this process of paring my writing down to its essentials did make for a stronger story.
The casual, chatty dialogue also became an integral part of the setting as well as a way to move the story forward. I did, however, struggle with the number
of characters in this piece. I thought that a book group with fewer than six members might have seemed unrealistic. Yet the flash fiction format didn’t allow
for any real character development beyond that of Lisa. Still, I was convinced that this particular story could best be told in a flash. My solution was to allow
each of the individual characters to remain sketchily drawn. In a sense, the entire book group (minus Lisa) became a single character whose purpose was to
form a believable backdrop against which Lisa’s experience, feelings, and secret could emerge.
I hoped that Lisa’s growing sense of discomfort with the conversation would provide the subtle clues and create the tension that would make the disturbing
end unexpected, yet emotionally true, and that the story would “continue beyond the page.” (Jayne Anne Phillips said that, but I wish I did)!
And then, I left the reader…to question, to think, and to feel.
A former college administrator, Francine Garson has published a short memoir on worklifegroup.com. Her fiction has received recognition from several
contests, including Writer Advice's Fifth Annual Flash Prose Contest. Read her story here.
Francine lives in New Jersey with an even-tempered husband and a moody cat. Her almost grown children occasionally return home for food and clean
With all the emphasis today on “friending” people through social media, you’d think the message has sunk in: Friends are an invaluable commodity. However, writing is a solitary
business, and writers are typically introverts who often prefer solitude to crowds. Many would-be authors hesitate to join professional groups. They feel they can’t justify the expense
of dues. They shy away from on attending conferences, because they see the time and money as costs, not investments.
That’s shortsighted. Professional groups and conferences are two of the best places for an author to meet other authors, and in this topsy turvy publishing environment, friends are
critical to your success. While we can sustain relationships through social media, face-to-face interaction still trumps cyber-connections. There’s something honest and real about
meeting a person in the flesh. No matter how good your computer interface is, it can never replace the bond that comes from sharing a cup of coffee or feeling a kindly pat on your
Friends-people you can rely on and who, in turn, rely on you-are indispensible to any author’s success.
Here are just a few reasons why:
1. They keep you going. Several years ago, a friend posted on her personal blog that she considered herself a failure because her first series couldn’t get any traction. I fired off an
email to her. I’d always considered her a success, and I encouraged her to hang in there. Today she’s a New York Times bestselling author. I think of our exchange often; it’s a
constant reminder to me to never give up.
2. They brainstorm with you. Last summer my good pal Shirley Damsgaard and I spent hours and hours working on new proposals. As a result, Shirley put the finishing touches on
a query for Die Standing, which will be published by Avon. I know I benefited from our discussions as well. Only another author can understand how fragile the process of sifting
through ideas can be!
3. They make you look smart. My agent called with an opportunity for me. She didn’t have long to chat. She expected me to take the information and run. But I still had a few
questions. I called a friend who’d recently tackled a similar assignment, and she kindly answered my questions. As a result, I looked good because I could take the ball and run with
4. Friends tell you the inside scoop. How does co-op work? What is sell-through? What’s the best way to get on a panel? Where can you get bookmarks printed? There’s a
shadowy world, a place where questions and insecurity hold hands. Your friends will lead you through the darkness. They’ll shine a light of understanding so you don’t trip, fall, and
lose your way.
It can be tough to tear yourself away from your comfy office, to change out of sweatpants and into presentable clothes. It can be hard to brave the elements, to take time out of your
day to sit in traffic, or to justify the cost of a cup of Starbucks when you could brewed java at home. But over the long haul, the investment you “spend” in making friends will come
back to you many times over. You just can’t put a value on friends, as a commodity they’re precious--especially if you’re in this business for the long haul.
Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of eleven non-fiction books as well as the Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel-Paper, Scissors, Death, which was the first book in the
Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series. The third book in the series-Photo, Snap, Shot-will be released in May 2010 by Midnight Ink. Visit Joanna at www.JoannaSlan.com or at the blog
What is it like to be writing and publishing after age 85? I hope the story of how this happened will give encouragement to writers of any age.
After collecting a pile of rejections, I decided to self-publish Without Warning as a Christmas present for family and friends. The praise was so genuine that I
took a deep breath and entered the St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic contest for first unpublished mysteries. Months went by. One morning I opened my
email, and there was a message from renowned editor Ruth Cavin. The book was too international for the contest, but would I accept a contract for two
books? After nearly thirty non-published years, I levitated out of my chair. Suddenly I was a pro again, no longer the wannabe with nose pressed against
the glass. I could write Author on forms. Ma’s “hobby” commanded respect. Without Warning was published in 2007, Overkill in 2009.
Why such a publishing gap? I was a late starter. For years, I darted around like a hummingbird, tasting different genres. In my forties, I became a freelance
reporter for local papers. Great training, but then came the nagging question: Instead of 300 words, why not 300 pages? The first book was trash. The
second, a historical/suspense novel, The Ancestors Cry Out, was published by Doubleday and Ballantine in 1979. In hindsight, it might have been more
productive to stick with that genre. Instead, I spent years of research on a heavy historical. And when that didn’t sell, I decided to try mysteries.
Easier said than done. There are rules. Mystery readers expect sly red herrings. Judiciously scattered clues. Surprise endings. For me, there is something
satisfying about a genre that deals with the great absolutes: Death, retribution, punishment. The villain is always caught.
Motivation? I have an on-going compulsion to try to give readers total immersion into another world-in these chaotic times, I believe that the need for
escape reads is greater than ever. My characters tend to be strong people who are working their way through disasters with a certain amount of
sophistication, all set in interesting backgrounds. By now I’ve come to know my protagonist Emma Streat as well, maybe better, than my own daughters. I
really love her, which is just as well as I’m about to be spending a lot of time with her as she survives a complicated love life and more looming disasters.
What about process? My plots aren’t set in concrete, but I like to sit in bed eating breakfast and planning the next few pages. Once in a while there’s a
logjam. At that point I write What If at the top of a blank page, followed by the situation, followed by possible solutions. It usually works.
There’s no getting around the fact that it takes time to evolve a voice. I’ve learned, the hard way, to keep in mind that as writers we are entering a
relationship with our readers. Clarity is key. For mysteries, I’ve whittled my style down to a minimum of adjectives and adverbs. I use a lot of short
sentences and action verbs-all aimed at compelling the reader to turn the page.
It’s fair to say that writing at any age requires a major dedication of time. To be young means there’s the luxury of experimenting. When the numbers are
heading towards ninety, there can be a slowing down, as well as an awareness that every day should count; slip on the ice and in a nanosecond life
On the other hand, science has given the “wrinklies” some useful tools: the computer, affordable self-publishing, internet access to information and
promotion. Above all, it’s a great blessing to wake up in the morning with the urge to create-and it can happen just sitting at a table.
With today's search empowered readers, do we need to market and publish books differently? Does general publishing makes sense in an age of Google
searches, micro communities and niche marketing?
Today's readers are tech savvy and resourceful. They know how to get the information they need and have higher expectations from publishers and authors.
They don't just expect a book, they expect a community with their book.
I often hear publishers say that there are "very few brands in book publishing." But to thrive in today's competitive, niche markets, perhaps brands are
exactly what we need. What readers choose to read is personal and an extension of who they are. Shouldn't their book choices be supported by a publisher,
a brand that is invested in their interests?
Many small publishing companies have done an enviable job of branding themselves and building reader communities around their books. Take O'Reilly, TOR
and Hay House. You may not read their books, but you know what they publish. Their communities trust them. People who share their point-of-view flock to
their lists. These companies publish for a niche community, and are trusted members of their community. They provide extra resources, and often their
authors are members of the community itself. TOR has even launched a bookstore to meet their readers' needs. These publishers show passion for their
books and an understanding of their readers, and as such their readers reward them with loyalty.
Publishing books for the community
Besides reader loyalty, publishing for micro communities may have other long-term benefits as well. For example, the focus would help publishers save money
on marketing. Marketing through online communities is less expensive and much more powerful than trying to reach the general public and hoping to find the
right match. The publisher's Web site wouldn't have to cater to a wide variety of people. It would be designed to serve the needs of a small group. Instead
of expensive advertising, they could announce the book to the community that has already bought into their brand. Publishers and authors could enlist the
support of the community to spread the word (which will always be the most efficient method for marketing books.) The logo on the book spine would mean
the readers have a promise that the book is worth reading. The readers would know that the publisher looked at over a thousand manuscripts all on the
same topic and is offering them the very best.
So are large, general publishers at a disadvantage with today's search-empowered, community oriented readers? I think so. General trade publishing is for
everyone, yet there is no "everyone" out there. Readers are part of micro communities. They want good books, and they need publishers who will support
their interests and passions.
The bottom line is that publishers and authors need to evolve their marketing and publishing strategies to accommodate for a new kind of reader. A reader
whose expectations demand more interaction and community. A reader whose loyalty you can have once you have earned it. A reader who wants more than
a 6-week marketing campaign so you can sell a book. This new reader requires an investment of months and years.
Is that too much to expect? Perhaps. But this is your new reader, and she will stay with you if you stay with her.
Fauzia Burke is the Founder and President of FSB Associates, a Web publicity firm specializing in creating online awareness for books and authors. For more
Writing does not consist merely of creating words; it is the culmination of our life experiences translated through ourselves. These experiences come from
every corner of life and influence our writing in a myriad of ways. Although writing every day is still the best practice, there are many ways to improve your
skills without really writing at all.
Here are a few:
Read : Reading a wide variety of authors and styles is one of the best creative stimuli. Every time I read a new book, I grow as a writer. I learn new words; I
notice phrasing and construction; I think about what moves me as a reader. Reading someone else's words helps to get the writing juices going and often
Walk : Take a walk in the middle of your work day or when you feel yourself getting stuck or losing energy. Exercise will get your circulation going and deliver
oxygen to your brain, clearing it of that incessant "mind chatter." Thinking too much is sometimes what kills the writing spark. Get out of your mind and into
your body. As you walk, notice abstract details such as the color of a house, flowers blooming or the shapes of clouds. You never know when a street sign, a
window display or an overheard conversation will inspire you. Some of my best ideas come when I'm walking, showering or driving.
Talk : I used to think that my writing wasn't "real" until it got published. Rubbish! Your writing exists the moment you have an idea. Use every opportunity to
talk about your work, including the seeds of new stories, your current projects and your frustrations. If you have access to a writers group, use it. It is
healthy to get your ideas and projects "out there" so your work has some tangible value and you're not creating in isolation. Activating your writing creates
momentum. By sharing it, you will create a sense of legitimacy for yourself, and others will respond to your confidence.
Listen : Practice taking in information. Go to a restaurant and notice the way people talk and communicate with each other. Observe nonverbal clues such
as body language and gestures, or listen to the symphony of sounds all around you (birds chirping, the hum of the refrigerator). Simply notice the world of
communication around you.
Network : Get out of the office and rub elbows with other writers. Not only is this valuable for making contacts and getting job leads, but most likely other
writers are struggling with the same issues as you. Attend a writers conference or workshop and allow yourself to be supported by others with the same
Learn : Good writers never stop trying to improve their work. Take a class, read a how-to book, or interview other writers about subjects that interest you.
Immerse yourself in new ideas, or try writing in a different genre to keep your writing alive and fresh.
Draw : Drawing forces you to use the right side of your brain and think in a nonlinear fashion. Use crayons, pencils, paint or whatever medium feels good to
you. Draw whatever comes to mind. Draw what your characters look like, or scribble color to express emotions. This exercises your creative muscles in a way
that doesn't deal in words, but the energy will carry over into your writing. Go wild!
Dance : Put on some music, roll up the rug and dance around the living room. Feel the rhythm and let it evoke whatever feelings come up. Express your own
words through your body, or listen to song lyrics and pick out rhymes and patterns. Music speaks to us in nonverbal ways. How would you translate it?
Fantasize : One of the greatest elements of writing is that imagination is allowed and encouraged. Take 10 minutes to close your eyes and fantasize about
anything you want. When you find yourself staring out the window, take a moment to let those daydreams go wherever they want. Take a seat in the
audience of your own mind and enjoy yourself. Do not judge any feelings or images that come up; this is one time when anything goes.
Do nothing : Doing nothing is not the same as procrastinating. It is essential to take a break from your writing to recharge your batteries, get some
perspective and come back renewed. This can be as simple as deep breathing or stretching for five minutes. I often put my first drafts in a file, then let a
week lapse before looking at them again. When I come back to them, I see them with new eyes and am ripe to improve my work.
Chandra Moira Beal is a freelance writer and editor who has written several books and hundreds of magazine articles, as well as a DVD. She is currently
pursuing a master’s degree in library and information science. Find her at www.chandrabeal.com .
If you want to get published, you must practice the art of the follow-up. Let’s say you’ve sent out 23 poems, 11 short stories and five essays in the year
2011. Some were rejected with a polite note. Others disappeared into the Internet ether, perhaps with the publication itself. There’s a lot of that going
around. A few pieces were accepted.
You should have an Excel spread sheet or simple yellow pad where you keep track of your submissions, rejections and acceptances. And now you wait . . .
and wait. .
Don’t be too impatient, as most editors are paid little or nothing and have to earn a living doing something else. Six months go by. Three poems and a short
story that were supposed to be published do not appear.
If you’re the laid back type, you might wait longer. But eventually you should find out if and when your carefully crafted work has been/will be/will not
appear in print or on line.
You may want to add another rhinestone in your tiara, or to send your excellent work somewhere else.
Do not call, even if you have their phone number. They won’t remember you. Instead, write a polite email to the editor. Attach another copy, in case the
original has been misplaced.
If the piece was to be in an anthology, you may want to contact the publisher. Nine months or a year can elapse between the time the anthology’s editor
submits the manuscript and the actual publication appears.
I really do practice what I preach. On a recent rainy morning I spent an hour on follow-up activities and learned:
Marco Polo Quarterly has a new website. My short story would appear in mid-September. The editor thought he had emailed everyone.
The editor of Hudson View had mailed the Spring 2011 issue with “Jacques & Allegra,” a poem about ballet dancers, but it never arrived. She sent
An anthology, Israeli/Palestinian Poets Respond, which accepted a poem in 2010, had experienced delays when some of the Palestinians pulled their
work out (!) It is now scheduled for publication in February 2012.
Several well-respected writing coaches in Sonoma County, CA, call me the “most-published writer.” This doesn’t mean I am or will become either rich or
famous, but it does mean that at 71 years old, I take my avocation seriously. Are you taking yours seriously as well?
Arlene L. Mandell, a retired English professor, at last count has published 505 works a total of 686 times, including 17 anthologies with three more in the
works. This does not include anything that appeared during her years as a newspaper reporter or writer for Good Housekeeping magazine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: When I notified Arlene that we were using her article in this issue, she said, “For the ultimate follow up, four years ago I had a memoir
segment, "Everybody Loves Saturday Night," accepted in a publication with music-related themes. The editor was busy with other things, but we keep in
touch sporadically. Two days ago he e-mailed that he's getting ready to publish another edition and my piece is included. Four years later!”
After six years of writing, rejections, rewriting, more rejections, getting a big agent, even more rejections, losing my agent, and rewriting again, my first
novel, The Breath of God, hits bookstore shelves in March.
Publishing The Breath of God has been the most difficult project I've ever tackled. For all of you aspiring novelists, I thought that I would share some of the
lessons that I wish I'd better understood when I embarked on this journey of heartache, of three hundred pages of discarded prose, and of elation at seeing
my book in print.
1. Write one page at a time.
The thought of writing 400 pages of a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end that has all sorts of twists and turns is intimidating to point of being
paralyzing. Novels, however, are not written in one fell swoop. Each day, I had to sit down and begin by starting with a single page, just as twelve step
programs encourage their members to take one day at a time. Rather than focus on the end product, or even the challenges that might face me in the next
chapter, I set a modest goal for myself: 1000 words a day, about four or five days a week. But I always starting with that first single page. Day by day, the
pages began to add up.
2. Turn off your self-critic.
Okay, you've completed your research; you've taken notes on your characters; and you've outlined your plot; now it's time to start writing that initial draft.
For me, the most difficult part each day was beginning. Getting those first words out was torture. My favorite method of procrastination was to read over my
previous day's work. Doing so would then lead to the temptation to edit my writing. I could rationalize that by editing I was still working. Although a number
of successful authors edit as they go along, I discovered that it was too easy to get lost in trying to perfect my earlier prose, a endless process, and thus
risk never finishing the book. Once I gave myself permission to write badly, to accept that my first draft would suck, then it became easier to start writing
something. I had plenty of time when the first draft was finished to fix it.
3. A frustrated protagonist is a happy reader.
When I began The Breath of God, I understood the basic requirement in fiction that conflict is good: bad things must happen to your protagonist. I had lots
of conflict: unusual murders, chases in exotic and dangerous settings, unhinged characters. My problem was that I tended to resolve these conflicts too
early and too easily. Because my characters lived in the imaginary world inside my head, the conflict they experienced made me uncomfortable, and I wanted
to relieve them of this discomfort. Tension and frustration, however, keeps readers turning pages. As I rewrote, I began making the conflicts more difficult to
resolve. I also employed the common technique of introducing a new conflict as soon as an earlier one was conquered. And, yes, I ended each chapter with
an open conflict or question.
4. The antagonist must oppose the central aim of the protagonist.
I'm not quite sure how I screwed up this simple bit of structure in my first draft. I had lots of conflict, my protagonist was often frustrated, and I had an
antagonist who was colorful and frightening. But as I dove into the story, I realized that the antagonist was often pitted against secondary characters or the
situation in general, rather than specifically out to thwart the objective of my protagonist. As I looked even deeper, I had to admit that for the first half of
the book my protagonist did not even have a clear central aim. These realizations caused me to completely rewrite both my protagonist and antagonist
5. The purpose of fiction is to entertain not to educate.
If you want to educate, write nonfiction. This lesson was the most difficult for me to handle. An early editor who read my novel told me that I had written
two books in one: a suspense novel and a non-fiction book on comparative religion. I'd always loved the thriller/suspense genre, but I wanted to write one
that made people think. I grew up a Tom Clancy fan. I loved how he interwove the technical details of military strategy, espionage, and cool hardware into
his thrillers. I wanted to do the same with the topic of religion. The danger with such an approach is that the non-fiction elements can take precedence over
the fictional ones. The book can become preachy or, worse, boring. People read fiction to be entertained. It took me many drafts to strike the right balance:
a balance that puts primacy on story and character.
© 2011 Jeffrey Small, author of The Breath of God
Jeffrey Small, author of The Breath of God, graduated summa cum laude from Yale University and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He holds a
master's degree in the study of religions from Oxford University. Jeffrey is an acclaimed speaker on the topics of rethinking religion in the twenty-first
century and the common spiritual themes in the world's religions. Jeffrey also writes for Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-small
About the book: The Breath of God, by Jeffrey Small follows grad student Grant Matthews on a journey through the Himalayas as he pursues an ancient
legend that promises to tie the world's religions together. Facing a murder at the Taj Mahal, a kidnapping in a sacred city, and a desperate chase through a
cliffside monastery, Grant confronts a conspiracy of zealots who will stop at nothing to suppress the truth. A truth that his university colleagues believe is
mere myth. A truth that will change his life forever -- if he survives. -- Find The Breath of God on Amazon.
It was winter of 2005 when I heard the phrase the other woman and my life changed. I had never been the other woman, nor suffered her, yet I thought:
What a great anthology this could be! So how do you go from a good idea to publication? Here are some ideas.
What makes a good anthology topic?
Look around you: photos, friends, family. The Best Gift I Ever Received. The Worst Vacation of My Life. Things and emotions lost, found, shared. Somewhere,
there is a gem waiting to shine.
How to proceed? Invite the authors.
You have this terrific idea, but which authors to invite? Women only? Men and women? Men only? Personal essays or short stories? A no-holds-barred
collection with humor, rage, introspection, guilt? The decision is yours.
When I set off with The Other Woman, I wondered if I could organize an entire collection around infidelity. I never imagined that some of the top authors in
the country-99% of them had never heard of me-wanted to write about it. As Jane Smiley announced during an interview we did with ABC's View From the
Bay, "We were just waiting for her to ask!"
When you're inviting authors, you must be fearless.
However, there is a conundrum: Many editors will not consider buying an anthology unless there are sample essays; many widely published authors will not
write on spec. (That is, writing first and then hoping the book will sell and they'll be paid.)
You'll find that many writers are happy to write the essay first and take a chance. (If your project doesn't sell, they still own the rights and can pitch the
essay elsewhere.) Your agent can guide you in this area.
There are two primary approaches you can take:
1. A universal call for essays, either posted on a website for writers (such as www.redroom.com, www.shewrites.com, www.writersdigest.com). Be
prepared to receive more essays than you need. It's important to choose only those that best relate to your theme. Mix funny, serious, poignant, touching...it
makes for a better collection.
2. A personal invitation. Make a list of your "dream" authors-bestselling, A-List authors, writers you love to read-and contact them. Many have websites;
most can be reached through their publisher. If you're not sure, read the Acknowledgments page of their last book. They almost always thank their agents
and editors, so an email to either might elicit a response. Your invitation should be straightforward and short:
Dear XX, I'm putting together an anthology of personal essays on [theme] and would be honored to include your work. When the book sells, I'll let you
know about deadlines, word count, and fee. Sincerest thanks, XXX
If you already have authors aboard, let the invitees know who they are.
After the great idea: the Agent.
We've all heard stories about acquiring an agent...it can take months, years! Keep in mind that agents are always looking for the book that sells. There are so
many websites that list agents and what they're seeking. Choose ten agents and write a short note-fifty words or less-describing your anthology idea. If you
have a few top authors who want to contribute an essay, all the better. If not, let the agents know that you're prepared to go after those big names. When I
came up with The Other Woman idea, I contacted my "dream" agent: Sandra Dijkstra. I was thrilled when she assigned me to her associate, Jill Marsal (now of
Marsal Lyon Literary Agency).
Write the proposal.
This takes time, but it must be done well. Your agent pitches your idea by sending this proposal to editors at publishing companies. In your proposal, include:
1. Introduction describing the book. (This can be revised later to become the intro to your anthology.) Word count: 200-400 words. If you have authors
signed on, mention their names and a brief comment on their essay. ("Caroline Leavitt's essay on writing Pictures of You reminds us of the challenges of
being a novelist.")
2. Bios of your authors, including writing awards and their media contacts.
3. A competitive analysis, listing a few similar books (use those that have been successful.
After your proposal is delivered, go on with your life and try not to obsess about which publishers are considering your project. It's crazy-making, to be sure,
but you can't succeed if you don't try. Good luck!
Victoria Zackheim is the editor of four anthologies: The Other Woman, For Keeps, The Face in the Mirror, and He Said What? (2011, Seal/Perseus). She is
the author of The Bone Weaver, a novel, and writer/developer of documentary films for On the Road Productions. Her play, based on five essays from The
Other Woman, is now in development. Victoria teaches creative writing (Personal Essay) in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. She can be contacted at
One week before my daughter was born, I finished a draft of my second novel. I wrote feverishly to the end, not knowing when I’d be able to return to it. I
said goodbye to my writing group too, assuring them we'd reconvene soon, but secretly I wondered if that were true. Like many women, I would be balancing
motherhood, a career, and writing, and if something had to give, it would by necessity be my writing.
1. Wait for the fog to rise. And for the first few months, I was right. Even if I’d had the desire to write, I don’t think it would have been particularly good.
My brain felt foggy; I was exhausted, brain-dead, and far too enraptured with my baby to sit at my computer for very long.
2. Beg your friends for help. At about the three-month marker, the fog lifted. I was excited to write, to come newly to writing, but I wasn’t sure how to
schedule in the time. So I called upon my writing group to reconvene. I asked the group to come to my house instead of the cafe where we customarily met,
and they graciously agreed. I held the baby during our meetings, passing her off to my partner or another member of the group when I needed to take notes.
3. You know what they say: write what you know.
In those first weeks back at work, it didn't matter who I was talking to, or what we were talking about; I could steer any conversation back to my daughter.
Though it might have driven my coworkers crazy, it wasn't necessarily the worst thing to happen to my writing. As a parent I have a whole new well of
experience to draw from and a greater capacity for love and fear, responsibility and duty that can only help to deepen my writing.
4. Save the guilt for someone who has time.
The guilt I feel when I'm away from my daughter is similar to the guilt I feel when I don't write, only amplified. To avoid it, I simply never choose writing over
my baby; when I'm home and she's awake, we're together. But at about six months, as she seemed to fall into a fairly regular sleep schedule, I learned to let
my daughter's routine dictate when I wrote.
5. Take advantage of naps and nighttime.
At ten months, my daughter takes two naps a day and has a fairly regular bedtime. In those quiet times, when I know she's safe and sleeping, I write with
the kind of focus and ferocity that only scarcity could inspire.
As my daughter's first birthday nears, I finally feel ready to return to my novel. I've printed a copy, and it sits on my desk, staring at me, waiting to see what
I'll do. In some ways, it's similar to my baby. Both have to be fed and loved, cared for. But let's face it; it's not my baby. I'll feed it, sure, but only after my
daughter's gone to sleep.
Katie Flynn, who won Third Place in Writer Advice’s Flash Prose Contest, lives in San Francisco with musician Brian B. James and their daughter Thea. Her
stories have appeared in The Bellingham Review, Pindeldyboz, Quick Fiction, and other journals. She directs the Menlo College Writing Center in Atherton,
Merriam Webster describes the noun "flash" as "a sudden and often brilliant burst." This definition encompasses the two essential characteristics of successful
flash fiction, its brevity and its effulgence. But how to achieve both at once? How to create a gemstone when you only have 500, 700, 1000 words to do so?
While there is no formula for creating a concise plot for a flash fiction story, many ideas can be adapted into a short short. A walk in the park, a
confrontation at work, a conversation overheard in a bar - all can provide that diamond in the rough to make a great short story. The writer's job is simply to
refine and hone the idea until it shines.
A few tips for coming up with these scintillating ideas: Peach cobbler is great, but unless it's somehow poignantly linked to a tragic car accident, it's not
going to make an exciting story. Illicit drugs, illicit affairs - illicit anything, for that matter - make great controversy and therefore great short story topics.
The idea doesn't have to sustain a huge discourse, it just has to spark interest in you and in your readers.
As far as brevity goes, some people think of creating a short story like packing for a trip: They write it out without worrying about size and then remove half.
This technique can make your story feel sparse and devoid of details, though, especially if you're trimming out all your adjectives and modifying clauses to
make a word count.
For me, the most helpful thing to remember when writing flash fiction is the story arc. Short stories work through a delicate balance of beginning, middle, and
end. If it takes more than a few hundred words to introduce your protagonist and the situation, your middle and conclusion will be cramped. If you're planning
a long and complex ending, chances are that you won't have room to adequately develop your characters.
For that reason, I write and rewrite each paragraph in turn until it's concise enough, grinding and polishing the gem until it sparkles. Ask yourself: Does every
sentence have a purpose? Is anything irrelevant? Winnow out the unnecessary details as you go, allowing yourself no room to get sloppy as the story
Above all, remember that flash fiction should be enjoyable. If you're bored as you write, the audience is certainly going to be, too. Enjoy your topic and the
words you put to it, and you'll be well on your way to making your fiction flash.
It happens all too often. Over a course of six months, a well-published writer and poet goes cold. Everything she sends out - a brilliant short story, an
ethereal poem, a biting essay - everything trickles back. Each stamped self-addressed envelope returns with a stingy strip of rejection paper: "Not right for
Blathering Hills magazine. Try us again."
She paws through her submissions file and starts following up with the silent editors. Some have totally disappeared from the web. Some couldn’t even be
bothered slipping that curt message into her envelope. One has had serious surgery. Another is in the throes of "major life changes."
Frustrated, she cleans out her closet, brushes the burrs out of her retriever’s golden coat, and wanders through the November garden yanking the occasional
weed. She reads the inspirational words of illustrious dead poets like Allen Ginsberg: "Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness." And dead novelists
like William Faulkner: "The necessity of the idea creates its own style. The material itself dictates how it should be written."
Yes, but . . . she isn’t having difficulty writing, just in finding the right outlets. Why, in the past 19 years, she’s been published 457 times in literary magazines
and web zines.
Time for a meta-analysis, she decides, though she doesn’t quite know what that is or even if it’s a word. Many of the refusals were from publications which
advertised in Poets & Writers, a magazine read by every MFA in America. These literary journals were probably swamped, she reasons. All but one of the
remaining refusals came from magazines in which she had not previously been published. In the simplest terms, they didn’t know her. Furthermore, some were
"local" publications promoting the writings of local authors; while they said they would consider work from the whole U.S., most of their pages were devoted
to their own voices in Poison Ivy County, which is not unreasonable, for if they don’t publish their local scribes, who will? And some had too much material,
but politely invited her to try again. Which could mean something . . . or nothing.
What now? Keep writing, revising, following up on leads from her growing network of online updates on the marketplace. Avoid the impregnable fortresses of
metafiction, fantasy, and horror zines. Thank the editors who have recently published her work. Read their publications cover to cover and tell them what she
most admired. So many writers focus on getting published that few actually read beyond their own page.
Buy more stamps and envelopes.
Arlene L. Mandell, a retired English professor, recently survived a blizzard of rejection slips.
I remember going to hear Joyce Carol Oates read when I was in college. I wanted desperately to be a writer, and I hung on her every word. When she
mentioned that she wrote by a window, I noted write by a window. When she said she drank tea, I wrote tea. Whenever I met a real writer, I asked them
where they wrote, how they wrote, and when. I wanted to know the rules, how to organize my life in order to succeed.
I know now that every writer makes his or her own rules. The advice I give to beginning writers is to have faith, love the process, and to value writing, to put
it in the center of their lives.
Having faith is hard as rejection letters and bills come regularly in the mail. But of my friends and colleagues who studied fiction writing with me at the
University of Montana a decade ago, the only ones who have not published yet are the ones who gave up. The rest of us make a living now by writing. (Or
writing and teaching.)
Valuing writing is the fun part. Set aside a desk for writing, set aside a day. Spend some money on your favorite tea, an important pen, a book you want to
read. Play music, and feel proud when you’ve written a page. Take a walk if you need to. Get a sitter. Surround yourself with objects that inspire you. The
rest of the writing life is difficult, and can be heartbreaking. This is what you get: a solitary morning, a cup of coffee, the luxury of bringing words into the
world, the joy of a perfect sentence.
Putting writing in the center of your life is also challenging, when so many other important things beckon. Oprah and everyone else tells me I can make time for
an exercise routine, but I can’t seem to do it. But living as a writer doesn’t always mean being alone. You can take care of children, or a job, or a spouse
while you think about writing. When you see a movie, ask yourself why it is working or not. If you lose interest in a friend’s story, ask yourself what she could
have done to hold you. What magazines are you reading, and why? What could be going on with the bank teller and her strange expression? Living your life as
a writer is a way of participating fully, but also taking notes as an observer. It’s something that takes practice, but I have found it to be essential. I have
been completely stuck in a novel, left it for the day, and then found my answer on the playground or at the library. I am always thinking about my novels.
And, thanks to Joyce Carol Oates, I always sit by the window.
Amanda Eyre Ward is the award-winning author of How to Be Lost and Sleep Toward Heaven. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her family.
How many times have you listened to a radio commentary and thought that you could do better? The reality is that you probably can create an opinion
piece that is superior to what you just heard.
In 1995, I was a regular listener to KQED, a San Francisco public radio station. KQED featured Perspectives, a series of free-lance commentaries. No one
was doing environmental pieces. I phoned the editor, pitched the idea, and left my first opinion piece in his home mailbox. With that beginning, I became the
environmental expert. Over the years the Internet arrived, editors changed, and my pieces evolved into environmental health issues. Eventually, I added
personal stories, as well as musings on family and aging.
Before you embark on creating an opinion editorial, plan on intensive marketing research. Determine whether your local public radio station is interested in
receiving free-lance commentary. Spend time listening to existing commentaries so you can hear the variety of subjects.
An excellent source for commentary outlets is the website run by the Association of Independents in Radio, http://www.airmedia.org/. Click on "Member
Resources" and then go to the "Pitch Page." Several listings include requests for commentary. An alphabetical program list appears that includes famous
outlets like NPR and Marketplace as well as lesser known entities like Sound Medicine and Weekend America. If you submit to a program that is not in your
area, be sure to ascertain the recording process. For example, when I did pieces for Marketplace , I recorded at KQED.
Each public radio station usually has guidelines for initial email submissions as well as three key elements: subject, style, and length. The abbreviated KQED
Perspective guidelines that follow are a good example of the three key essentials needed for all commentary:
Perspectives are often geared to Northern California issues; state and regional topics are best. Essays on local issues work well if they illustrate larger
concerns with which other communities are struggling. Observations on everyday life are frequent topics especially when linked to a broader, more universal
Most Perspectives are opinion pieces that say what is wrong or right with something, offer a better idea, an insight or an unusual angle on a matter of
common interest or concern to our listeners. They are strongest if they draw from personal experience. The best essay, like the best Perspective contains a
solid idea that is well-told.
The time limit for all KQED pieces is two minutes; approximately 350 words. Note your script time by reading aloud, clearly and with feeling.
Combine these fundamentals, submit, and be prepared to work with the editor for the final polishing. Once my editor is interested in a piece, we usually go
through several drafts before the final recording. Recently I recorded a KQED Perspective on all the tainted Chinese products that enter the U.S.and how
unlikely it is that there will be any new regulations on this avalanche of goods. The opening and closing sentences illustrate successful framing of the piece.
Opening: "My grandson adores his Thomas train collection. But Thomas is dangerous to his health. Mattel recalled over a million Thomas trains made inChina."
Closing: "Thomas the train may have been sidetracked, but the global economy locomotive won't be derailed by your health and safety."
With a Perspective this is Joan Reinhardt Reiss
Joan Reinhardt Reiss is an environmental health consultant, public radio commentator, and dedicated athlete.
If your English teacher told you something is OK, it is. (No! Language rules have changed since you were a sophomore.)
If a manuscript or query is grammar-perfect, you'll make a great first impression. (No! Lots of things that are absolutely grammatically correct will annoy
publishers, agents and others.)
Always use your Spell and Grammar Checker. (Maybe. Some well-known editors suggest you don't use it at all but The Frugal Editor gives you dozens of
ways to make it your partner instead of your enemy.)
Your publisher will assign a top-flight editor so you don't need to worry about your manuscript. (Maybe, but don't count on it. Besides you can be a
better partner for an editor if you know something about the process--and you'll also know better when to nix her suggestions!)
Formatters and editors will take care of the hyphens, ellipses and all the other grungy little punctuation marks that English teachers avoided teaching
because they didn't know how to use them either. (Chances are, you'll catch even great formatters and editors in an error or two if you know your stuff!)
National Novel Writing Month's Secret Weapon
1) Every page should be more interesting than the one before.
2) Take your time revealing who your characters are. Disclose their secrets carefully, for maximum effect. Reveals can be just as powerful as plot points.
3) Movies need movie stars, so always write a great role for a movie star. Two roles for two movie stars is even better.
4) Every speaking role, no matter how large or small, should leap off the page.
5) Begin each scene just before it starts to get interesting and cut away before it starts to bore.
6) Never reveal or even imply what is going to happen next. Keep the reader off balance. If a man asks a woman to dinner, don’t show her saying yes; just
cut to the date.
7) Narration should be a last resort. If you must use it, make sure that the narrator never tells us anything that we already know or can see with our eyes.
8) Human beings in conversation rarely call each other by their names, so why should characters? Cut every name, unless absolutely necessary. They are
9) Make scene descriptions terse, visual, and filmable. This is your chance to write good prose. Refrain from smart aleck asides. Never do anything to
interrupt the dream.
10) Never suggest specific songs for specific moments. It’s amateurish. It’s not your job.
11) Structure is everything. Structure is logic.
12) Write and write until you discover your own rules.
Allison Burnett is a screenwriter and novelist living in Los Angeles. His novel Undiscovered Gyrl was published by Vintage in fall of 2009. Read about him at
We are selling our work when we approach any gatekeeper, an editor, an agent, a contest judge. Here are five little things to avoid so you'll look like the
professional you are.
Don't tell the gatekeeper you always wanted to write. You can think of something more pertinent to your cause (and something more original!) than
Don't use the verb "quote" when you want the noun "quotation." Some stylebooks will tell you that it's OK, but agents can be a picky lot. Use zero-
tolerance grammar rules for your queries.
Don't pitch more than one book at time. You want to give that one your best shot.
Don't call your novel a "fictional novel." By definition, a novel is fiction.
Don't overdo exclamation marks, question marks, the use of sentence fragments. (Yes, fragments are acceptable when they're used for a good
Here's one last suggestion for fiction writers 'cause they're so often neglected when it comes to marketing. Avoid using italics for internal thought. Yes, it's
being done more and more but it is often a crutch that fiction writers use to avoid writing great transitions and point-of-view; the best agents will recognize it
Carolyn Howard-Johnson is award-winning author, a former publicist for a New York PR firm and an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. She
is an editor with years of publishing and editing experience. Learn more about the author and her award winning books at http://HowToDoItFrugally.com.
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