Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

So…exciting things are happening. Amazing, wonderful things! I blogged about 2012 being The Year of Impossible Things, and suddenly, some things are starting to look…well, pretty darn possible.

But. Here’s the deal.

Here be dragons.

Okay, maybe there’s just one dragon. Here be one big, scaly, seemingly invincible, fire-breathing dragon who wants to dine on roast girl with a side of scorched dreams. I stare down this ugly beast almost every day. It taunts me, warns me to turn back, demands my immediate and unconditional surrender.

I’ve learned it’s no use bargaining with this particular dragon. Without mercy, it devours peace offerings, always eating up more of my time and resolve. I can’t kill it, either. I’ve slayed it a thousand times, only to see it slink back, alive and whole again. The only thing I can do is face the mirror and confront the monster hiding in my reflection. Often, I can intimidate the treacherous brute, temporarily banishing it out of sight. There’s a magic chant that usually works:  Go away, dragon. I’m writing and I don’t have time for you today.

Hungry for more? Try this recipe for Kitchen Sink Brownies, which appease all but the fiercest creatures.


We’ve all heard about (or maybe even know!) writers with bad additudes–scribblers who are bitter, self-important, unrealistic, or just plain old hard-headed.

I worry about that quite a bit–I don’t want that to be me.  I’m no expert, but here’s what my interactions with writers, agents, and editors have taught me about cultivating a healthy writing attitude:

1.) Realistic expectations should balance optimism.

Some of my friends in our writers’ group tease me about being a bit of an Eeyore when it comes to writing. No, I’m not oozing with false modesty or self-deprecation. No, I’m not a naysayer.

I’m…cautiously confident.

For example, when I started querying my novel, I told myself I probably wouldn’t get requests. When I did, I smiled. When I got requests, I told myself I probably wouldn’t get offers. When I did, I danced. I always let myself dream and entertain thoughts of success, but here’s the key: I never expect them. I never feel entitled when it comes to getting published.

If and when it happens, I will shout and jump into the air and fly to the moon. Until then, I will keep my feet on the ground. I will keep putting one foot in front of the other.

2.) Live in the moment.

Once a manuscript is queried or goes on submission to editors, there’s not much more writers can do to influence the outcome. We have to let our work stand on its own. We have to let our wonderful, capable agents do their jobs. To wax Beatle-esque, we have to LET IT BE.

Here’s what we can do–we can read in our genre or field. We can work on another projects. We can take the time to support fellow writers. Day by day, we can enjoy the blessings we already have in our work, friends and family.  After all, a writing project should be fulfilling, but it shouldn’t be the only thing keeping a suicide watch at bay. (If  you feel it is, PLEASE GET HELP NOW.)

3.) Be circumspect.

At every point in my journey, I’ve been faced with the temptation to blab, blab, blab about the minutiae of my writing life. I’ve fretted. I’ve obsessed. I’ve contemplated word vomiting my ups and downs into cyberspace. But one thought stops me (almost) every time–I can’t regret what I didn’t say, blog, or tweet. My rule is simple: If I can’t say something constructive or share good news, it’s crickets for me.

4.) Embrace opportunities for real growth.

Setbacks and rejections are tough schoolmasters, but they are instructive, all the same. Every time I sit down to write, I process and exploit whatever feedback I’ve received.  I try to get better. I always want to always look back and see development and change. I always want to stretch for words just beyond my reach.

Stasis is my enemy, not rejection.

What about you? I’m so grateful for all my writing friends. What have you learned so far?

Hungry for more? Try this recipe for my cinnamon rolls. They’re from scratch, but they’re worth the wait!

Cinnamon Rolls


4 packages rapid rise yeast

1 cup hot water (not boiling, not lukewarm, just hot tap water)

2 tablespoons sugar

2 sticks real butter

1 1/2 cups warm (not hot!) milk (heat on stovetop or in microwave)

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

2 tsp. salt

8-9 cups of flour


More butter

Dark brown sugar

Good Quality Cinnamon (don’t cheap out on this one, ok?)


Even more butter

Powdered Sugar



Dissolve yeast in a medium bowl with 1 cup of hot water and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes. You will not the yeast mixture is active if the yeast bubbles up (mixture should get very foamy, if not, you goofed with bad yeast or too hot or too cold water).

Melt one cup butter and combine with 1 1/2 cups of milk. Mix the milk/butter mixture with the yeast mixture. Add 1 cup sugar and then the eggs. Mix in salt and four cups of the flour. Mix until smooth. Add in the remaining cups of flour, a little at a time, just until the mixture is cohesive enough to handle. Save some of the flour to knead with. I usually save the last cup or so for this purpose.

Slap dough onto the counter and knead it a bit. Knead it just enough so it no longer so gooey and sticky in your hands.

Spray a large bowl with cooking spray. Put the dough into the bowl. Cover the dough with a thin cloth and let it sit. Let dough rise for an hour to an hour and a half. Dough should double in size.

Spray a counter top surface with cooking spray. Spray your rolling pin, too. Divide the dough into two lumps. Roll one out one lump into a large rectangle. Soften a stick and a half of butter and smear on the dough. Sprinkle a lot of cinnamon (to taste, I like a LOT) over the dough. Smear a bunch (a heaping cup) of dark brown sugar. Roll up the dough from the widest side to make a log. Use a length of dental floss (unused, please!) to cut and section individual cinnamon rolls (1 1/2 inch width sections).

After placing the rolls in a greased 9 by 13 pan (you should have approximately a dozen), roll out the second lump and do the same. You’ll end up with two pans of cinnamon rolls. Cover pans with a thin cloth and let rise for another hour to an hour and a half. I put my rolls on my stove top and turn on the oven to preheat. The warm airflow near the oven helps the rolls rise.

When the rolls are nice and puffy, bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes. I have a large oven, so I can bake both pans at the same time on the same rack. If your oven is not big enough, bake one pan at a time. Don’t use different racks.

After rolls have cooled a bit, ice with homemade frosting. For frosting, I use one stick of melted butter, one tablespoon of vanilla, some powdered sugar (just add until the mixture is the right thickness), and a tiny bit of milk. Add powdered sugar and whisk until icing is the right consistency.


**spoiler alert**

So I saw the movie SKYLINE this weekend. It was dissappointing, to say the least. SKYLINE is a bad movie that could have been great.

As I watched the big screen, I couldn’t help but see the movie as a semi-solid first draft. It was as if they took a freshly written NaNoWriMo piece and filmed it. If only the screenwriter, director, and producer had put more work into polishing the movie, it could have been EPIC. If only they’d revised as any good NaNoWriMo scribe would.

What revision lessons can writers learn from SKYLINE?

1. Prologues (usually) stink, so start where the story starts.

Don’t begin with the alien invasion and then backtrack to the day before. Build in bits backstory as the action unfolds. Or simply anchor the beginning of the story in the ordinary world, just before the action explodes.

2. Cut. Cut. Cut.

Only include scenes that matter. Don’t include irrelevent subplots. For example, don’t spend an ungodly amount of time developing a love triangle between a hollywood player and his two vapid mistresses if you’re just going to have an alien snap off each of their heads off midway through the story.

 Edit out any characters who don’t pull their weight and bulk up the ones who do. In Skyline’s case, we needed less rich-girls-we-don’t-care-about and more *cough*  hot and angsty, alien-punching ERIC BALFOUR.

What can you cut from your novel?

3. After editing out the fluff, deepen and develop the good stuff.

Skyline had a great premise, but it played out like a disjointed sequence of special effects scenes. It didn’t quite gel. (ME GRIMLOCK EAT A DELICIOUS VFX REEL AND POOP OUT SKYLINE.)

But if the creators of the movie had cut out some of the extraneous story arcs, they could have really focused on the characters that count, aka Jared and his pregnant girlfriend, Elaine. Their conflict, their relationship,was a great thread. But because SKYLINE squandered so much energy on other subplots, the movie ran out of time. At the story’s most climactic moment, SKYLINE just sputtered out. The film had a non-ending–no satisfying conclusion was offered, only the worst kind of ambiguity.

Boo, hiss. Don’t do that with your NaNoWriMo novel. Revise it to the point that it: 1.) has a satisfying, complete story 2.) has interesting, compelling characters and 3.) has an actual, HONEST-TO-GOD POINT, for crying out loud.

 Hungry for more? Whip up some alien-apocalypse-proof trail mix and then check out A. Lee Martinez’ most recent post, in which he writes the ending of SKLYINE so you and I don’t have to.


Recently, my school hosted Kate Klise for an author visit. We have one every year, and the kids are always excited to hear the stories behind the books they check out from our library.

Have you read Kate and Sarah Klise’s book DYING TO MEET YOU? It’s an award-winning gem of a story about a scrappy kid, a persistent ghost, and a grumpy old scribbler all sharing the same rambling house on 43 Old Cemetary Road.

Read it and you’ll understand why it’s on so many awards lists.

It should be no surprise that Kate’s visit was fantastic. She was funny. Engaging. Honest. Real.

The kids loved her. They laughed at her stories and listened to what to she had to say about writing a good book.

And me? Well, when she started talking about the protagonist’s journey, my ears perked up.

Kate drew a circle and explained that every story needs at least one character with one problem. The character takes a circular journey and grapples with the conflict. At the end of the journey the protagonist returns home (figuratively and/or literally) a changed person. 

An interesting character + A compelling problem + A tranformative journey. 

See? That’s all you need to entrance a reader. Kate’s thoughts really stuck with me. The circle she drew keeps spinning around in my mind.

How about you? What do you think are the crucial elements of a great story?

Hungry for More? Then try this recipe for HALLOWEEN PUMPKIN SPICE CAKE. It’s perfect for curling up with a spook-tacular read this week.


Browse the bookstore shelves for books on the craft of writing.

Better yet, run an internet search with the terms “writing advice.”

Go ahead, Google it. There are only 102 million hits, right?

Yeah, lots of “advice” to be found in all corners. (Don’t even get the librarian in me started on ‘evaluating authoritative sources’…) It’s hard to process all the information on the shelves and in the digital ether.


But here’s the thing: so far, the best advice I’ve gleaned can be boiled down to two things: read and listen.

That’s it. Really.

1. Read well.

You can’t write remarkable, satisfying, fearsome, awe-inspiring, gripping, gutwrenching, exceptional fiction or non-fiction unless you read a lot of breathtaking stuff. You can’t tell a good yarn unless you’ve steeped yourself in story.

Anyone who says you can is full of bad gerunds.

2. Listen well.

Listen to other writers. Listen to agents. Listen to editors. Listen to critique partners. Listen, even when you don’t like what they have to say.

And REALLY digest their criticism. Not just praise. Compliments do nothing for you.  But sharp appraisal? That drives you to the edge. It tests your endurance, your persistence, your willingness to learn, and your ability to process feedback. (I’m preaching to myself on this one, kids)

Tough jabs push you to your limits. They make you better.  

If you don’t listen, if you don’t pay attention, you won’t grow. And you won’t get requests and acceptances.

But hey, if you’re too busy to read and too talented to listen, there’s always PublishAmerica.

Hungry for more? Work out your writing frustration and try this recipe for Aggression Cookies. They’re pure buttery oatmeal goodness.


As a school librarian, I can’t tell you how many times people offer used, new or self-published books for the school library. For one reason or another, nine times out of ten, they are not appropriate for our collection.

Want your book’s spine facing out on the library shelves? Then listen up…

1. Enough with the anthropomorphic animals, people!

So you wrote a charming picture book about a helpful squirrel or a shy frog. Good for you. I have 3, 276 of them already. Talking animals have been done to death. Unless you’re the next H.A. Rey or Kate DiCamillo, please consider a premise with more minty freshness. Kids are tired of these books and so am I.

Talking robots or mutant woodchucks?  Now you’re talking.

2. I will throw your book across the room if you mention the phrases “learns how to…” or “teaches a lesson…”

Seriously. One whiff of GRANDMA TAKES RAINBOW KITTY TO THE DENTIST and I’m out. Kids want to read about complex characters tackling conflicts in a vivid setting. They don’t want to be taught or lectured. They want to get lost in a story and draw their own conclusions. Leave the lessons in Sunday School, please.

Didactic books are so last century. Don’t go there.

3. Your writing style reveals you don’t have a clue about your audience.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started reading a so called “children’s book” with the voice of a misty eyed eighty year old.

Gee whiz, Gramps.

If your dialogue, phrasing and plot conjure the words  “heartwarming, old fashioned fun” or “Dick and Jane antics,” you don’t know Jack about what kids are reading.

If your story would make a great hallmark movie, it’s probably not a home run for today’s market. Or my library.

4. Your writing style reveals you don’t have a clue about format or genre.

A 30,ooo word picture book? A twenty page mystery for sixth graders? Fritz the Friendly Frog, a chapter book for shy tweens?

No. No. And heck No! Maybe you chose the wrong format. Maybe your picture book is really a middle grade novel. Maybe your middle grade chapter book with an eight year old protagonist is really an early childhood picture book. Maybe your voice is not a good fit for your target audience.

Maybe no kid of any age would touch your book with a ten foot Nerf bat. Just sayin’.

5. I’ve read books written by second graders better than yours.

After reading your typo filled book with the dayglo, grainy stock photo cover, I suspect you barely have opposable thumbs.

I don’t just reject these dreadful books, I exorcise them from my library. Get thee behind me, Lulu!

6. Your books scares me. And not in a good way.

Your anime style romp with sword wielding, brimstone breathing, scripture quoting heroes in spandex? Tis’ the mark of the beast.

Your middle grade chapter book infused with colorful pejoratives and racist overtones? No thank you, you are not, in fact, this century’s Mark Twain. Kindly respect the restraining order.

Okay, before you spray the comments section with hate scented air freshener, just know I’m exaggerating. A little.


What turns you off a book? I’d love to know.

Hungry for more? Try these Indoor S’mores, the easy to make snack my library kids love.

Yeah, I’m still wet behind the ears when it comes to writing, but here’s what I’ve figured out:

1. Grammar only gets you so far. There’s more to writing than clusters of mechanically perfect sentences. But you must master grammar, anyway. Why would an editor or agent take on your  “diamond in the rough” if you can’t even be bothered to take care of the basics of punctuation, etc? Especially when they have their pick of marketable projects without these issues.

2. Too much description has a tranquilizing effect on the reader. Purple prose is a hallmark of bad writing. And who gives a flying fig about the pattern on the china or the silken texture of the bathrobe, anyway? Only describe stuff that matters, stuff that the reader really needs to know.

Sadly, you probably won’t recognize you’re doing this on your own. (At least I didn’t.) Get thee a critique partner or workshop group.

3. Dialogue tags can make or break a scene. Not everything needs a tag. Or an adverb.

4. Gestures (he winked, his eyes widened, his lips curled, etc.) are often poor substitutes for true emotion. Are there real thoughts behind those cliches? If so, share the thoughts instead of the gestures.

5. Writing fiction is less about linear action and more about heart. A constant stream of “he did this, and then this happened, and then he did this…” makes for a cold, clinical briefing. If you want to write a  story with emotional power, break up the action with interior thought, characterization and backstory.

6. Voice is not a made-up hoodoo term. It’s the distinctive flavor the author injects into the story. Great authors have it in spades, and it makes their books unforgettable. Don’t ask me how it works? I don’t know. I just know a great voice when I read it.

7. I don’t really know that much. And maybe you don’t, either. So take all the good advice and critique you can, whenever you can. It really helps.

In fact, I’m very interested in what YOU have learned so far. Please tell me about it with in the comments below.

Hungry for more?

Try this recipe for Kitchen Sink Cookies. They are chock full of distinctive flavor.

Let’s just not talk about how I haven’t blogged lately. You and I both know only two people care, anyway. And you are NOT one of those individuals.

Let’s talk about the new adventure keeping me busy: REVISION

(Look! I’ve included random John Williams movie theme awesomeness to inspire your revisions!)

As I write this, I am slashing my way through the deep, dark jungles of revision for my agent, searching for the lost Tiki of backstory & characterization. When I finally lay hands on this ruby eyed idol, I’ll be one step closer to submitting my project.

How to get through this jungle full of Indiana Jones sized pitfalls? I definitely have strategies for coping. Here are my three tips for survival.

1.) Embrace criticism. Exploit it for all it’s worth.

The revision process is a great opportunity to grow and develop as a writer, so when your beta readers, your friends, and even your agent share feedback, really listen with an open mind. Yes, I’m talking to you, the tortured misunderstood artist. In my experience, the person giving feedback is right more often than not.

Neil Gaiman on critique:

“…when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Bottom line: Listen, then fix it already!

2. ) Don’t just write during revisions…read, too!

If something is not working, stepping away from your work and immersing yourself in something else might be helpful. When I struggle, I always pull up a pile of great novels and read excerpts with a critical eye. I notice the different styles and elements which make the stories work. I analyze the mix of narrative vs. dialogue, description vs. action, etc.

While I would never try to imitate any other writer’s voice, I think it helps to admire the artistry of good craft. If I read good stuff, it helps me write my own good stuff.

Honestly, show me a terrible writer and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t read.

2.) Write yourself a revision letter.

Tell yourself what you’d like to see in a new draft. Lay it all out there and take yourself to task. Make specific suggestions to your writer self. Then take your own advice and whip your WIP into shape!

3.) Take your time and be strategic.

I go over my manuscript many, many times, focusing on different issues each time. One pass for the protagonist’s voice, one pass for general world-building issues, etc.

And don’t forget what my friend Rosemary Clement Moore says, do overs are allowed!

Hungry for more?

If you are busy poking around on your revisions and pouring your heart into making it better, you might enjoy this recipe for Chocolate Caramel Poke and Pour Cake.


I’m honored to have author Scott Selby answer a few questions about his fabulous new book, FLAWLESS, which investigates one of the greatest jewel heist in history. For more on the book and its authors,  visit the book’s website

1. Your background as a scholar is impressive. (Scott is a graduate of UC Berkeley, Harvard Law School, and Sweden’s Land University, where he wrote his master’s thesis on diamonds.)  Can you elaborate on how your studies inspired and/or influenced FLAWLESS?

Thanks.  From law school, I learned about the importance of research. I worked as a research assistant in college as well as law school so that helped tremendously.  I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to such great schools.  My masters thesis in particular enabled me to study the diamond industry which was tremendously helpful in writing Flawless.

2. In tackling a book on the heist, what was your plan of action? In your investigation of the facts, which avenues did you pursue first?
The first thing was to write everyone who knew anything at all about the Antwerp Diamond Heist. Next, we tracked down each additional source of information that we could be it a document, court case, blue print, or person.

3. What aspect of the project do you find most irresistible or intriguing?
I loved the mysteries at the heart of the story. My co-author Greg Campbell and I had to work hard to dig up as much as we could to try to solve such mysteries and in the process we ended up finding out that things that originally looked straight forward were anything but.  For example, the more we found out about the combination dial on the vault door, the more of a mystery it became. The manufacturer and the locksmith who worked with it both explained in detail why it would be virtually impossible to film the combination being entered.  Before we did this research, we had believed like many others that it could have just been recorded surreptitiously.

4. The book does an excellent job of putting the reader in Leonardo Notarbartolo’s point of view. How were you able to grapple with such a difficult task, considering his reluctance to discuss the unadorned facts of the case?
My co-author Greg was able to meet with him face-to-face in a Belgian prison.  Unfortunately, Mr. Notarbartolo was not willing to discuss specifics without being paid, which we were not willing to do. He was however kind enough to permit one of his closest friends to accompany us during our research in Turin.

5. What tools for non-fiction writing do you find most helpful? Are there any resources you turn to again and again in your own writing?
I think the most important thing is to do your research and then once you have written something, continue to edit it over and over again. Greg and I, along with our editor at Sterling Iris Blasi, revised our book countless times.  The main resource I’d say are my friends who have been kind enough to read my work and give me much needed feedback. The track changes function on MS Word is a lifesaver.

6. Do you have any advice for writers (non-fiction or otherwise)interested in creating a flawless (or perhaps a less flawed) narrative?

Buy a few of the more popular books on how to write a proposal and how to write generally. Think about what you admire in others writing. And keep working on your own projects as long as it takes. If one book doesn’t work out, then start another one and try to learn from what you’ve done before. Good luck!

Oh, yes. I am well acquainted with the heartbreak of rejection.

 I mean the writing kind, folks. (Not the kind of rejection I got in fourth grade when I slipped a box of Russell Stover chocolates into my dreamboat crush’s valentine sack…that’s another level of pain altogether.)

 1. Rejection is a natural part of the writing process. Everyone goes through it. Rejection should be a motivator to persevere and grow.

 2. Rejection can nurture a healthy sense of humility. You thought everyone would love your perfect novel about sparkling zombie assassins? Think again. Learn to embrace honesty and work to improve.

 3. Rejection can be illuminating. Although even the most complimentary rejection is still a “no,” rejections with personal feedback provide the writer with valuable critique. If agents or editors take the time to point out flaws, some deep reflecting and/or revising is in order. Query, partial, or full request rejections with on target personal critique are golden. Each has the potential to strengthen future submissions.

 4. Rejection can measure progress. Most of my first rejections were impersonal form rejections. After much revision and critique, my rejections became personalized notes and partial requests. After more revision, my queries have been followed by full requests. Yes, I’m still getting rejected, but I’m getting a lot of detailed critique in the process. Bless those agents who offer scraps of insight to the hopeful writer.

 5. Rejection can be a much needed reality check. If you’ve revised two dozen times, queried 200 agents, and still get only form rejections, a gut assessment is needed. Maybe it’s your project, maybe it’s your writing, or maybe it’s the market. Maybe you stink like a three month old cabbage. Maybe it’s time to explore a career in dairy farming…

 6. Rejection separates the wheat from the chaff. Those who give up early and refuse to learn from rejection make room for others who will go on to publish wonderful (or not so wonderful) books. Keep your day job, but keep writing.

 7. Rejection is hard and fast. No amount of wishful thinking or elaborate rejectomancy can spin an acceptance from a pass on a manuscript. Deal with it and move on.

Dear Ones,

Although your rejection misery sounds very compelling, I’m afraid Imust pass on hearing more about it. I wish you future success in your psychothery sessions.

Best Regards,

Scarlet Whisper

 Hungry for more?

 Curl up with a steaming mug of my hot spiced cider. Pour in a little something extra, if necessary, but remember that the suicide hotline standing by twenty four hours a day, if you need to talk to someone. 

 Hot Spiced Cider

1 large can pineapple juice
1 quart orange juice
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 1/2 quarts strong tea
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons whole cloves
Cinnamon sticks (two or three)

Combine  juices and tea. In sauce pan, combine remaining ingredients with 1 qt cold water – bring to a boil, then simmer for five minutes. Turn off the burner and strain off the cinnamon sticks and cloves. Add hot mixture to tea/juice mixture. Heat and serve.