Category Archives: Unsolicited Writing Advice!

How did you get along without it?

DUH! it’s nanowrimo!

I CANNOT believe it’s 18 November, and I forgot to give my annual plug for National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo! Maybe because I’m so swamped with grading and thesis reviewing I don’t have time to write myself. Fine writer I am! I still should find the time to jot down something (well, maybe that’s what THIS is. But still. NaNoWriMo is still the greatest thing ever, because even if you’re not planning on starting a new novel, you can still use it to continue on with your current work-in-progress, spiff up an old one, or give yourself a virtual kick in the pants. Or as they put it…

Every story matters.
Let’s start writing yours.

Writing a novel alone can be difficult, even for seasoned writers. NaNoWriMo helps you track your progress, set milestones, connect with other writers in a vast community, and participate in events that are designed to make sure you finish your novel. Oh, and best of all, it’s free!

Yes, free is always a good thing. And so is the sense of community you get . There are local chapters as well, so you can keep that community spirit all year long, with the great events they sponsor. There’s even Camp NaNoWriMo for the youngsters. In any event, it’s never too late to get started.

Now–get that butt in the chair and start creating some genius!

Throw away your thesaurus and use these words instead

Yes, Biden won. He did. That’s reality. (YIPPEE!! btw). But at least for the present, I’m tired of being a pundit. I’d rather be a writer instead. But I’m too exhausted by the last few weeks to rub two coherent thoughts together (See? Even splitting infinitives). Then I saw this on a social media site, and it’s exactly what I need today. See how many of these words you’ve actually used in your writing. I for one have used several, but my absolute favorite of the list has to be cattywumpus. I have no idea what it means, maybe something akin to kerfluffle, but I’m definitely going to have to find an occasion to use it.

Word counts that make you feel inadequate

I found this online and it made me feel so inadequate (temporarily) that I just HAD to share it with you. I hope it either spurs you into action, or you’re already so infinitely superior you scoff at such meager amounts. Either way, get to your keyboard, you’re wasting time with me.

writing outside your brain

I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you. You have this fantabulously good scene inside your head, practically playing like a movie, so you run to your keyboard and write it down, the words shooting to the screen like rivets, convinced you’ve just birthed genius. Exhausted by the effort, you save and exit, pondering the multitude of ways you’ll expand on it next time. But when you go back to it, whether the next hour or day or week, it reads like something out of a kindergarten class. The transitions make no sense, the characters are running into each other, the continuity seems out of a time warp. What happened to your genius?

The inability to write outside your head is one of the most common causes of angst I see with my young writing students. Oh–no angst for them–for me is what I mean. They don’t see anything wrong because until I point it out, that scene is playing in their head just as fresh as if the action were taking place right in front of them. But what they don’t realize is that there’s blanks they have to fill in, like facial expressions, reactions, settings, time of day, transitioning from one place to another, who this person is they’re suddenly talking to and how they relate to the scene. Then there’s technical things that may relate to a character’s profession or action they’re currently in. Like what is that tripod or data set or NMR tube is for. Sometimes what a writer doesn’t realize is your reader may not understand what comes so clearly to you. I say to my students that sometimes you have to explain things like your are writing to kindergarteners. With the average news site at a sixth grade level, sometimes you just have to dip a bit lower.

This doesn’t mean you have to dumb down your writing. That’s not what I’m getting at. What I’m saying is that sometimes your writing needs you to step back and let it simmer for a little while, so when you go back to it you can look at it with a fresh eye. Sometimes you need to forget it just a bit, to see where you need to fill in the crack. Like mortar, it’ll only make it stronger.

Tips from the MFA Pit – Part 9

Hello class! It’s a new school year, and with it comes a new edition of Tips from the MFA Pit, actual advice to actual MFA students. This edition is on Deep POV versus Internal Dialogue, and all advice is from my brain alone, and NOT the official voice of anything outside my head. So please feel free to add a large grain of salt!

Let’s look at Deep POV before we get to Internal Dialogue. Both are intensely personal. You’re literally putting yourself into the character’s shoes. When you write within a character’s POV, you can only see what they see, and all the other character’s actions are just what that character can hear or observe. Deep POV goes beyond that. It’s what they feel, how they react, their gut feelings of pain, pleasure, anger, calm. It’s also how they react cognitively, psychologically and physically to another person, a situation, what’s said, observed, etc. For example:

Lauren opened the front door, the hills rolling out before her. Her fingers tightened around the knob and her pulse raced, tears flooding her eyes as Tom’s car rounded the last curve. Her heart burst with joy. He’s here.

If you’ll notice, no one outside Lauren herself could feel her pulse racing or burst with joy. They could observe her fingers tightening or tears flooding her eyes, but what she feels internally – or the reasons for it – is hers alone. Then we come to the last sentence – He’s here. That’s Internal Dialogue. It’s things that could be said orally, but are kept inside the character’s head.  It’s the difference between feelingJoey knew there was no way he could talk his way out of this – and saying to yourself – I’m sunk.

A best practice, at least the way I see it and no way is this a rule, is to use Deep POV more and keep Internal Dialogue to a minimum. Using Internal Dialogue too much is like “telling” not “showing.” When you’re in a character’s POV, you want to know how they are feeling inside, or what would be the point of being in their head? Usually it’s best to keep the internal dialogue short so it has more of an impact, and most publishers place it in italics to separate it from the Deep POV. It is ALWAYS limited to the character whose POV you’re in, and it is always in first person.

Words of wisdom indeed! Till next time — keep writing because ===> WRITERS WRITE!

De-inspiration

I’m back again after a long non-vacation, as what constitutes a break these days? When we get one, we’re largely in the same place, revolving in the same space we’ve been taking up for close to six months now. The college I teach at has gone remote, except for the fewest of disciplines that must meet in on campus, abet physically-distanced, masked, temperature-checked and documented for contact tracing. I get to work behind the desk that’s long spawned my source of income–and served as a jumping off point for my attempts at writing beyond my pay grade. (Hey editors — if you’re out there listening, I’m still at it.) After awhile you get to wonder whether it’s all worth it, writing in this environment. You wonder when it will all lift, and with it your mood and your inspiration.

Funny, that months ago I found myself falling into a rut. I’d get up, go to work, come home, grade grade grade (the real work of a writing teacher), attend to household things, write. In between I’d sprinkle in going out to dinner, meeting up with friends and family, shopping, movies, and occasionally, there were conferences, lectures, and club meetings, and a sprinkling of short vacations. Most were repeat events, things I’ve done in the past, but however enjoyable, there was little variation. Oh! for something exciting to happen! I’d lament, as anything out of the ordinary would be welcome to shake me out of the slog my life had become. Then–and I remember the exact day, March 13, the last day before Spring Break was to begin–I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I ought to stay home. That day was a Friday, and the day itself couldn’t be more portentous. It was more or less the day New Jersey drew into itself and suddenly the world, my world at least, shut down.

For six weeks I didn’t leave my neighborhood, the first week not going further than the end of my block. After two weeks in, my husband an I took a ride to a dairy farm a mile or two away. The early spring dampness hung chilly and dank over the fields, doing nothing for my mood, but it got me out of the house, so even the manure smelled sweet in its rankness, but at least it was outside and not in my backyard. Without anywhere to go, I read and read, binged Mad Men, Schitt’s Creek, and Outlander, kept to a rigid exercise schedule.

I never cooked so much in my life, big complicated meals full of sauces and cheeses and all kinds of veggies, via Shop Rite at Home. We got so many deliveries from Target the back of my husband’s van became filled with cardboard boxes that never did make it to the packing shop who always had taken our used boxes before (back before they believed they carried the virus). My kitchen and closed in porch filled with fresh fruits and vegetable from another local farm where you texted in your order for curbside pick-up, and because of shortages all around, our meals consisted of what we could glean. When the glean was fat I’d make cookies out of whole-wheat flour, filled with dried fruits, coconut and dark chocolate, energy food I’d tell myself. I made heavy pound cakes I’d toast and slather with butter, homemade ice cream, and soups so thick a spoon would stand up. I’d scour The New York Times cooking section for new and ever-complicated recipes, which I’d start preparing not too long after lunch. I’d make banana cake, rice pudding, home made apple and cranberry sauces. At one point I realized I’d made every bit of food we put in our mouth for two months straight, and the idea so horrified me, we planned on taking the enormous step to get take out for my birthday in May. Takeout Chicken Francese had never been so good.

Then as the weeks wore on, somehow the pressure got a bit lighter. I ventured out to the supermarket for the first time, left the state to visit my sister, took a day trip to the shore,  finally got my hair cut. While the virus picked up in other parts of the country, it calmed down here in New Jersey, and life returned to a kind of new normal. We wore our masks, kept our distance, Zoomed, and washed our hands, and spent a lot of time outside. Before long I submitted one book to my agent, then made the decision to start another next. Which leaves me where I am today, thinking: How does one write in a pandemic?

I’ve discovered something odd: that as much luster as my day-to-day has lost, that no matter how many times I’ve been depressed and lonely, wondering when the perennial touchstones of my life will return, I know that retreating into a world I create will never fail to bring me joy. That losing myself in that world brings me purpose, knowing it is possible to venture into faraway places by never leaving your desk. I’ve learned that after all these years of varying success, writing is something I’d still do even if I never have any success at all. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but maybe it really is more about the journey. That’s not to say I wouldn’t argue with an eventual destination or two. Even amidst this pandemic, with all its restrictions, there are still places I’d like to go.

The Write Path

Little nippers driving you crazy? Not with their presence–we’re all addicted to their charms by now, aren’t we? (Huh? Huh?) What I mean is with their constantly upstaging you with their creativity. All those poems and essays and cute little short stories they dash off like skipping stones in that lake too crowded to safely socially distance in. So you sit there, seething, stuck in that same para while they toss off so much casual genius, you’re more than ready take a hammer to your laptop and concede the Pulitzer to the young’un.

Okay, take a deep breath. Sooner or later the pandemic will be placated and yes–you’ll get you muse back, so stop being jealous of the kid. They inherited their genius from you after all (you have my permission to keep telling yourself that). So why not develop it so they can make the big literary bucks, and take care of you in style in your old age? Isn’t any better place to do that than the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program!

The Young Writers Program offers tools, resources, and community access to help young writers and educators set ambitious creative goals and tackle projects year-round! Each year, over 100,000 young writers under 18 enjoy our youth-friendly writing space, progress tracking tools, and Young Novelist Workbooks. Educators can support student skill development with our free Common Core–aligned curricula, online classroom management tools, and motivational classroom materials.

So get motivated! Your kid already is! Check out the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, and who know? Maybe they’ll be able to show you a thing or two about showing that muse who’s boss!

Chameleon Submissions REVISITED

Another in our continuing series of “if it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying again.” Okay, so you’ve proofread that manuscript and spiffed it up. Now it’s time to finally pitch it. But to who? And AS what? Sometimes a submission can fit into multiple genres. Sometimes it shouldn’t. Especially if you’re not sure just what it is, because you’re not writing the best book you can–you’re writing to market. And that’s something you shouldn’t EVER do…

The number one thing an emerging writer needs to do is finish the book before they could even think about putting it out for sale. And when I mean finish, I mean the book needs to be the best it can be. Definitely NOT first draft, but all the plot holes worked out, characters real, breathing and transformed at the end, conflict apparent and resolved, and a satisfying conclusion. After that, the book needs to be edited and proofread (edited means all those items I just mentioned worked out, whereas proofread means no grammatical, spelling, or formatting errors). Then and only than can you think about submitting it to an agent or an editor for publication. Sounds logical, right? But there are some authors out there that take that concept and think in the inverse. And that, my dears, is never going to get you what you want.

There are some new writers that troll such sites as Manuscript Wish List or MSWL to see what agents or editors are looking for. Or toss an idea out there to Twitter pitch parties like #PitMad without even having started the manuscript. Often when writers do this they’re testing the waters, looking to see what agents and/or editors are looking for, then writing a book to those specifications. Bad idea! Because then you’re not writing in a genre or sub-genre you’re adept at and interested in –you’re writing to the market. And when you’re good at writing gritty adult detective fiction and write  dystopian middle-grade instead well…you just may come out with the literary equivalent of finger painting–a hopelessly amateur attempt.

Now, I’m not saying a writer can’t change genres. Some authors write in several. But writing a different genre to branch out and expand your skills and scope is quite different than simply writing to what you hope will sell.  You’re not looking at writing as a craft to be honed and polished. You’re looking at the book you produce as product.  Reminds me of an author talk I was at once where they referred to their novels as units. Writing like that is only going to make you one thing — mediocre.

Look, we all want to sell, be a New York Times bestseller reaping accolades and royalties we need a Brinks truck to drive home from the bank. But writing to market is not the way to do it. You do it by writing the best book you can. If you do, the accolades–and the royalty checks–will have to run to catch up with you.

Writing’s like a candy allusion Revisited

dark-chocolate-vanilla-caramels-with-sea-salt_2

Why am I “revisiting” all these old posts lately? Retreading a glory day gone by? Brain gone to mush? Don’t have an original thought in my head? Right on all three! That and the fact that I’m trying to get a new ms. edited and off to the powers that be. So enjoy this rerun from a few years back, still chock-full of writing wisdom and sage advice!

Recently a friend sent me a manuscript she was reworking after having received a so-called “good rejection” from an editor. In case you’re not familiar with such rejections, that’s when the editor thinks the submission is good enough to warrant another look after some changes are made. Sometimes the changes are suggested, sometimes not, but most editors do include some illuminating commentary, and if you have to receive a rejection, they’re decidedly the best kind. This particular editor didn’t offer anything specific other than she’d like to see some more insight in the beginning, and perhaps something a bit incendiary a little farther along.  Well, not only did my friend comply–she did so in spades, injecting enough plot complications this no-longer sagging saga’s got more twists and turns than a whole bag of Twizzlers, and boy-oh-boy does it snap. But this reworking also leaves her with another wholly unintended consequence: she’s created a Genre Cocktail. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

So what am I talking about? Okay, let me use her story as an example. She started out writing Romance, and the story has all the components: meet cute, solid conflict, steamy couplings, de rigueur happy conclusion. Though to keep it interesting, she tossed in a bit of suspense–a medical mystery, an employee theft, a woman on the run. But when the editor found it lacking, she heightened the stakes, adding a red herring, jaw-dropping duplicity, corporate espionage, and a breathless chase that leaves you guessing until the end. Three-quarters of the way through, when I got smacked by yet another twisty-turn, I was nearly certain I was no longer reading a Romance. Or was it a Romantic Suspense? No, it was more like a Thriller. Or howabout a Romantic/Suspense/Thriller? Not quite sure, I told myself as I kept flipping pages. What did it matter anyway? Whatever it was, it was good.

Should it matter? Or should whatever you write be able to be found under a keyword or a specific genre header? Usually it does–when you’re writing in a specific genre: Romance, Mystery, Thriller, SciFi, Fantasy. But these days you have Romantic Suspense, Historical Mystery, SciFi Thrillers and many more cocktails that are less easily identifiable. So how do you categorize them? Which search keyword do you use, under which header sign do you look? Do we create subgenres of subgenres? And moreover, how do we present such a work to the acquiring editor? By lumping together genres, do we confuse the issue–or do we clarify it? Especially if it’s so out there, we fear we may never be able to grab an editor’s eye and get an in.

The first time I had a salt caramel I was in a candy shop in Philadelphia that makes their own confections. The candy itself was a standard cube of buttery caramel dipped in dark chocolate, but centered on top was a delicate pinch of sea salt. In theory, such a combination shouldn’t work–separately, maybe–but together? And then I took a bit and ohhh…what exquisite fusion! the sweet playing off the salt, and visa versa. It shouldn’t work, but it did, as one taste flowed into the other, a mutual appreciation of each other’s attributes that ultimately produced magic. It can be the same with crossing genres, as within the story I read over the weekend, the twists and turns that heightened the stakes ultimately complicated the conflict, and that made surmounting the insurmountable so much more satisfying in the end. The trick, and this is where the execution can be dicey, is when you add Historical and Mystery elements to a Thriller, or Romance and Horror aspects to a SciFi and so on in any direction. Like salt to a caramel, they need to fuse all the elements together and advance the plot, or they’ll just seem gratuitous. And above all, don’t forget your core audience. If you’re mainly writing a Mystery, you’ll still need to have the case solved, or with a Romance, you’ll still need the happily-ever-after. The upside is if you integrate these other elements well, you’ll have the bonus effect of expanding into another genre, which of course, makes for more readers–and buyers–of your book.

In the end, with whatever genre, and however it’s achieved, it all comes down to writing a good story. And there isn’t an editor in the world who’d argue with–or reject–that.

 

Free Online Writing Workshop with Mystery Writer Jane Cleland

While learning from home is all the rage, I’d like to direct your toward a free online writing workshop from mystery writer and educator Jane Cleland on Saturday May 16 at 1:00 PM EDT. I’ve attended her live workshops and they’re always fabulous. Here’s the skinny from Jane…

If you were able to attend the first workshop, you know we came together as a writing community and covered the nuts and bolts of harnessing isolation and overcoming writer’s block. It was great! So great. I’m doing it again. Let’s come together again—I love hanging out with writers. Want to join me?

Here are the details about this FREE one-hour workshop “Writing With a Through-line Plot (or Storyline)” on May 16th at 1 p.m. Eastern time. We’ll talk about through-line plotting (crucial) and how it relates to creating an opening that kills it (also crucial). If you’re interested, sign up here, and I’ll send you what you need to access the workshop.

You can also view a flyer for the event here. If you have a friend you think might be interesting, I’d love if you could share it with them using social media or email.

For more info about Jane, her books,  and her workshops, visit her website. Be safe and well, and happy writing!