Recently in Writing Category

Why I Heart Indie Writers

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I was thinking about the brouhaha over at Big Al's Books & Pals blog concerning the now-infamous Jacqueline Howett, who wrote THE GREEK SEAMAN. If you missed it and you're in the mood for some eyeball-pinwheeling excitement, click here.

Welcome back. Still dazed? Here, let me get you a chair. Sit down and catch your breath.

I'm sure that the unpleasant incident has spawned hundreds of blog entries about professionalism in publishing. But I'd like to use it to talk about something much more upbeat: the fact that I've been extremely accessible to other writers and readers on Twitter for almost two months now, and have only met one soul who was a bit clueless, but only because he hadn't done his homework. (Steven Umstead can tell you I was quite the ignoramus when I first landed on Twitter--shut up, Steve, and keep the dark secret about the crazy old writer lady! :D)

Running at the Image

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Yes, yes, I understand that this blog has been dark for three years, and yes, yes, I fell off the face of the planet. But the important thing is...

That in the meantime, I've discovered Twitter and have had a blast chatting with other writers, indie and published, about the craft of writing--one of my favorite subjects. And so I'm going to be devoting a good deal of time to talking about how to write. I'd like to think that after thirty-four novels, all published by the biggest houses and all but one of them still in print, that I've picked up a few tricks along the way. And I'd like to share them.

Since many of the writers I've come across are just starting out, I thought I'd talk about a problem that I discovered in my own writing when I was new to the craft, one that I think is common: a failure to run at the image.

What do I mean by "running at the image?"

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"I have been an author for twenty years and an ass for fifty-five." -- Mark Twain

Mark Twain has always been one of my favorite authors; I got hooked on him back in tenth grade, when I played Twain in a skit for Mrs. Dodamead's English class. (Alas, she wouldn't let me light that cigar, but I spent a year toying with Swisher Sweets...)

So for those of you who wish to know the rules I l write by, here they are, both large and small, as Twain designated them:

Large rules:
1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

Pencils2Moguls

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Send a media mogul a pencil!

It's the brainchild of the WGA strikers -- Hollywood writers trying to get a fair deal. They've put their pencils down in order to strike; as a little reminder, they're sending the Six Most Powerful Media Moguls boxes of pencils. Truckloads, in fact.

You can support a fair deal for the writers by contributing a few pencils of your own. Just go to the United Hollywood site.

Speaking of pencils, here's an interesting article by artist Matthew James Taylor on how to properly sharpen them.

In all honesty, I don't write with a pencil anymore. In my old age, I've grown accustomed to typing faster than I can think. However, I still write my first pages of the day by hand, using a disposable fountain pen. How else can I guzzle down my morning coffee at the same time?

Bookmark This NOW

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Bartleby.com is a must, only the coolest site ever invented for readers and writers. It features a mind-boggling slew of reference titles (we're talking hundreds), poetry anthologies, novels (the classics), and nonfiction titles. You can read anything from Roget's Thesaurus to Bartlett's Quotations to the King James Bible to Gray's Anatomy. Need some free Shakespeare fast? Bartleby.com has it. In fact, it probably has every reference title or classic work you can think of.

So bookmark it already!

For those of you who would yearn to see your own fiction published: here's some more unasked-for advice from yours truly.

I honestly was too shy to contact any writers, go to any fiction workshops or even ask a friend to look over my manuscript before I sent it off to the publisher. I'm of the opinion, even now, that those who schmooze, lose in the novelist's world. It probably pays off bigtime to network obsessively if you want to write screenplays, but if not if you want to write a book. Why? Quality, not "who you know" still counts in the literary world, and agents and editors are always hoping to stumble across a well-written manuscript by a first-time author. It's the work, not the connections, that count. Give up the lattes and gabfests at Starbucks with other wannabe authors and hightail it to your writerly hovel and pen a few pages instead. I really do believe that talking out a story too many times saps the energy you need to write it down, and dilutes your enthusiasm for it.

So how did I break into publishing? Well, I wrote a book and mailed it off with an SASE that I never got back (though I'm not complaining). But FIRST I 1) obsessively outlined the plot of at least a dozen novels I admired in the genre I wanted to break into, because of all my skills, plotting was my weakest; 2) studied WRITERS MARKET and made sure I submitted the novel to the right editor using absolutely perfect formatting; and 3) worked my saucy derriere off making sure the book was as good as I could possibly make it.

I think I got the idea for outlining novels I liked from a book on writing by Lawrence Block. I forgot to mention 4) reading every book I could find on writing by published writers. A few I found useful: The two books by Lawrence Block (TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT is one), ON FICTION by John Gardener and THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING by Lajos Egri. Now that I'm familiar with writing lingo, I love STORY by Robert McKee, but most beginners find the jargon and technical stuff off-putting. It's the most concise, inspired explanation of plot construction I've read.

If you're not a stickler for detail, if you're not an utter perfectionist, then enter a different line of work. If, however, your friends and significant other(s) have labeled you a nit-picker, then novel-writing just might be your niche.

I've been enjoying Roy Peter Clark's Writing Tools lately over at Poynter Online. Clark is a journalist with a lot of solid advice about improving prose.

He's collected a good deal of his wisdom on his blog. It doesn't matter whether you've been published, or how much you've written: we all need to review the basics. So here are fifty writing tips, in a convenient list -- and podcast form, too.

Or your best friend, either. Especially if you're struggling to break into the writing business and/or aren't brimming with confidence.

Why?

Well, read the following comment posted on writing coach Emily Hanlon's blog:

The first draft was twelve hundred pages, and when I was about three quarters done, I proudly announced to my parents that I had just finished writing eight hundred pages. My father was delighted and he congratulated me. My mother laughingly said, “Who would want to read eight hundred pages you wrote?” I laughed with her. After all, I was used to Mom’s brittle humor. Ha! I blocked for three months. I couldn’t write a word.

Friends, family members and significant others can do more harm than good -- unless they're experienced writers or editors. Take the case of my Beloved Consort, aka Mr. K.

A Goldilocks Writer

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Saw a cute meme over at Booking Through Thursday . It asked

So, this is my question to you–are you a Goldilocks kind of reader? Do you need the light just right, the background noise just so loud but not too loud, the chair just right, the distractions at a minimum? Or can you open a book at any time and dip right in, whether it’s for twenty seconds, while waiting for the kettle to boil, or indefinitely, like while waiting interminably at the hospital–as long as the book is open in front of your nose, you’re happy to read?

Well, I'm not so much a Goldilocks kind of reader -- but I'm definitely a Goldilocks kind of writer. I need quiet, lots of it -- at least in terms of words. Maybe it's crazy of me, but hearing another person's words -- when I am trying hard to listen to the ones emerging in my head -- "drowns out" what I'm trying to get down on paper.
I've tried writing to music, but the same problem occurs there. No lyrics, please. I can handle a little Bach or Mozart if the volume's really low, otherwise forget it.

Interestingly enough, the sound of dogs snoring actually increases my writing output and enhances my concentration.

How to Write a Book

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Here's some advice from Scott Berkun over at The Berkun Blog, subtitled "the short honest truth."

I have to agree: Most people balk when they realize the work involved. It's ridiculous, really -- most day jobs in corporate America pay more per hour than the average novelist makes, when you break down the amount of time spent working. Sure, there are a few lucky souls who hit the bigtime with the first book, but most of us toil in the salt mines for years before achieving a modest degree of success.

As for glamorous lifestyle that follows publication: I'll be mowing the lawn this morning, then tucking into another Sunday spent at the computer.

It's the single most-asked question of fiction writers. I used to reply with Harlan Ellison's snappy comeback, "From a post-office box in Schenectady."

But it doesn't answer the question, of course, because if we writers had any idea where our inspiration came from, the technique would have been patented long ago.

Over the years, I've paid attention to where my best ideas strike me: in the shower, walking the dog, drifting off to sleep. In fact, I was mowing the lawn last Saturday when I experienced a sudden insight about the novel I'm working on, and a marvelous idea for a critical scene came to me full-blown. (I started mowing the lawn as a teenager and kept up the practice when I discovered how much problem-solving I got done while pushing those deadly blades over my little green patch of suburbia.)

What do all of these places have in common? I'm in a meditative state. My mind is free and somewhere else, not on the book. I'm not thinking.

I formally meditate, though I've been irregular about it lately. I can't recommend it highly enough; I gain insight and reduce my stress level significantly. The core of the practice is freeing your mind from the problems that plague you -- i.e., the chatter, the noise of thinking.

Here's a post on Zen Habits (a great lifehacking blog with tons of how-tos for organizing your life) about non-sectarian meditation.

Give it a shot and see if you don't become inspired. Me, I'm going out again this morning to mow the lawn (for real).

I have fallen in love with a blog that is no longer being updated.

But oh, the archives!

Miss Snark was a literary agent (she has since gone on to marry George Clooney, according to her blog). She answered questions about submitting fiction manuscripts -- and she did so with style and grace and no small amount of snarkiness. Those of you who are authors, aspiring or otherwise, could learn much about the publishing world, submissions, and the courtship of agents from Miss Snark, even though she has left us for a time.

My own experience with agents: If you haven't sold a book, it's nigh impossible to find one. Once you sell -- and become a marketable commodity -- they'll catch wind of it and come to you.

After a false start, I found an agent I adore. I've been with him almost twenty-five years now. His name is Russ, and you can't have him, girls. He's all mine.

In the meantime: six polished pages so far today, perhaps one or two more to come this evening. I have a nicely gruesome scene coming up, which always puts me in a chipper mood.