Category Archives: General Interest

Death Becomes You: What Will Your Legacy Be?

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

I’m going blind.

The eye doctor told me this a few weeks ago. I have diabetic retinopathy which is basically uncontrolled bleeding behind my eyes from half a lifetime of having type 1 diabetes. Retinopathy leads to blindness. It might take a year, it might be five, ten, or twenty years.

There is no cure.

I will go blind.

(I’m not looking for sympathy, many others have it far worse. I’d like nothing more than to for you to read on because I feel like there’s a bigger point to be made).

Sadly, my first thought was, my career is over before it really started (I lie and say I’m an optimist when asked, but I come from a long line of Pollyanna-like pessimists).

And if my fate ends with not being able to write anymore (which it won’t since I plan to teach my seeing-eye dog how to type, so forgive me for any future novels begging for bones), what sort of legacy will my works leave?

What do my books say about me?

Better yet, what do your books say about you?

Scary thought, right?

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of every book I’ve put into the world. I’ll freely admit some are better than others. Some suffered from my learning my craft. Some suffered from thinking I knew too much. Hell, in one book, and I won’t say which, I believed that using ‘said’, thanks to a bad critique group, was akin to publishing suicide. I only used it 939 times in 76 thousand word novel (Don’t try this at home; it will result in severe trauma). The book is published and available in ebook and trade paperback. I dare you to figure out which one it is.

But I’m talking less about craft and grammatical insanity than content. I wonder what sort of legacy my words leave in the world because there is immortality in your work. Even if you never publish a single word, it is forever alive.

As much as a part of me wishes to leave behind a legacy like Maya Angelou, who recently departed did, I know better. I am a genre writer, sometimes a good one, and sometimes bad. I love writing romance. I love writing mysteries. I loved writing F***ed Up Fairytales.

But I’m no Angelou.

I’m me.

And I will own my legacy.

And if we’re lucky, after we’re gone, we will have someone like Mark Stevens to convey our uniqueness with the rest of the world like Mark is doing with writer Gary Reilly. Also like RMFW does at every Colorado Gold conference when they honor Rick Hanson’s life’s work with contest where first place is usually a haiku’s using the word sphincter.

I think I’ll end this post here.

But I’d love to hear what sort of legacy you see for yourself, and what you wish your legacy could be? And if you could use the word sphincter, that would be great.

How to Make Your Editor Happy

By Katriena Knights

Nobody wants one, but everybody needs one. Maybe it sounds like a riddle Bilbo Baggins should have tossed Gollum’s way, but it’s really just a fact of the publishing business. Everybody needs an editor. Even the editors.

I’ve worked as an editor for almost ten years, in addition to writing my own books. There’s a certain satisfaction in figuring out what an author is trying to say, that maybe they didn’t even know they were saying, and helping them tease that out of their manuscript. There’s a bit less satisfaction in finding all the typos and grammatical errors an author may have committed, but it’s part of the job, too.

But this post isn’t about working as an editor. It’s about how to interact with your editor in a way that’ll keep your relationship positive and productive. The more positive your relationship is, the more likely you’ll be able to work together to produce a piece of work you’re both happy with. And if you and your editor are happy with it, your readers are that much more likely to be happy with it, too.

So, with that in mind, here are some guidelines for communicating with your editor.

  1. Your editor is always right. Well, okay, maybe not always dead right on every issue, but if your editor flags something because it made her cringe or roll her eyes or just get confused or made her go back to read a sentence more than once, it’s worth your time to take a look at the suggestions. And it would probably behoove you to make a change, even if it’s different from what the editor suggests. After all, your editor is your first reader, and if something doesn’t make sense to her, it’s probably not going to make sense to somebody else.
  2. Don’t tell the editor flat-out no. As an editor, I don’t have a problem with an author not wanting to make a change. But I do like to at least hear why they don’t want to make that change. Sometimes, by explaining what they meant to say or get across, the author can give me insight into how a phrase or a plot point isn’t doing what the author intended. When this happens, we rework it together until the author’s intent is crystal clear. At other times, it becomes clear that we’re not on the same page, and that’s fine. The author should win in these cases, unless it involves a conflict with a publisher’s guidelines. And even then, if you’ve explained something to me and I understand you feel strongly about it, I’ll go to bat for you with the bosspeople and do what I can to keep your vision intact.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Fighting about punctuation is a waste of time, unless somebody’s moved a comma and completely changed the meaning of a sentence. In most cases, minor grammatical tweaks like this are a matter of house style, and even if the editor changes them, a line editor will change them back. If it’s really important to the story, then yes, talk to the editor about arranging exceptions. But if it’s just a style issue, it’s better to let it go. (This is an advantage of self-publishing, by the way—you get to make your own style guide. My personal style guide REQUIRES the Oxford comma…)
  4. Save your energy for the big stuff. If it’s worth throwing down over, throw down. There are occasions when an editor or publisher’s demands for your story are so counter to what you wanted to get across with that work that you just have to draw that line in the sand. And there are things worth throwing down over. You’ll know what they are, because the thought of changing them makes you nauseated. Focus on those things. Hopefully, you’ll never run across an editor who works at this kind of cross-purposes with you.
  5. Send chocolate. Chocolate is always a good idea.

MOMENT OF BLATANT SELF-PROMOTION: My new book, Blood on the Ice, arrives tomorrow at Samhain publishing. I hope you’ll take a gander!

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

When It’s Time to Part With Your Agent … by Chuck Greaves

Chuck_GreavesSigning with a literary agent is an early career milestone for many authors. Finding the right agent is, I submit, essential to an author’s long-term success and happiness. Having chosen both badly and well in my brief writing career, I thought I’d share both experiences, as a kind of authorial teaching moment.

When I finished the first draft of Hush Money – my debut legal mystery – in 2008, I proceeded to amass an impressive stack of agent rejections over the course of very few months, until finally hitting the jackpot – or so I’d thought – in the form of a request from a veteran New York agent (we’ll call her Natasha) to read the entire manuscript. My telephone rang several weeks later, and Natasha and I were in business together, our partnership memorialized in a two-page written agreement. Hush Money, she told me, while still in need of some minor fine-tuning, had tremendous market potential.

Several weeks passed while Natasha’s summer intern took a blue pencil to my magnum opus. When the line-edited manuscript was finally ready, I took a notion to fly to New York and collect it from Natasha in person, only to find that her address was a shared suite in a seedy section of Broadway that would have given Max Bialystock pause. Needing privacy, the four of us – Natasha, her husband, the intern, and I – squeezed into an office so small it required the intern to perch, knees to chin, on the radiator.

I flew home with the line-edited manuscript and a growing sense of unease. When I returned the tightened and polished manuscript to Natasha a month or so later, having reluctantly changed its ending and generally accommodated ninety percent of her editorial suggestions, she said she was pleased with the result, and promptly set out to test the fickle waters of commerce.

Greaves_Last_Heir[1]After several more months and a handful of editorial rejections, I flew to New York again, this time meeting Natasha and her husband for cocktails at the Algonquin (where I got stuck with the check.) At her insistence, I agreed to undertake another round of edits. Length (then 120,000 words) was, she said, our biggest problem, and so I tightened the manuscript even further, to a muscular 112,000 words, and sent it off for her final blessing. Meanwhile, I’d finished the first draft of Hard Twisted, my second novel, and sent her that as well.

She abhorred Hard Twisted, stating that the thirteen-year-old protagonist was “impossible to root for.” As for the new and improved Hush Money, she refused to even read it, calling it “unsaleable” unless and until I could pare it to fewer than 100,000 words. At that point I thanked Natasha for her efforts, and terminated our contract.

Newly rudderless, I submitted both manuscripts to the 2010 SouthWest Writers International Writing Contest in Albuquerque. From a field of over 680 entrants, Hush Money won Best Mystery, Hard Twisted won Best Historical Novel, and Hush Money won the grand-prize Storyteller Award, with Hard Twisted coming in second.

I soon had offers from several New York agents, and a second bite at the Big Apple. Should I again sign with a grizzled industry veteran, or should I go with the hungry young newcomer who professed undying love for both novels? I called an author-friend for counsel. He said, “Sign with whoever will still return your phone calls if the books haven’t sold in a year.” It proved to be some of the best career advice I’ve ever received.

Within a few weeks, Antonella Iannarino of the David Black Agency had sold Hush Money – still at 112,000 words, but with its original ending restored – to St. Martin’s Minotaur in a multi-book deal, after which she sold Hard Twisted to Bloomsbury. Hush Money – the novel Natasha had called “unsaleable” – would go on to receive starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal, would be a Critics’ Pick from Kirkus, and would be a finalist for several national honors including the Shamus, Rocky, Reviewer’s Choice, and Audie Awards. Hard Twisted, the book with the “impossible to root for” protagonist, would be hailed as “a taut and intriguing thriller” (London Sunday Times) and “a gritty, gripping read, and one that begs to be put on film.” (Los Angeles Times)

So what did I learn from these very different experiences?

First, that reading is a highly subjective endeavor, and one should never be discouraged by the opinions of even a few so-called experts.

Second, that you should think long and hard before committing to an agent whose commitment to your work is other than unequivocal.

Third, that while parting with your agent might seem like a giant step backward, it is sometimes the only way to move your career forward.

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Chuck Greaves has worked as a bartender, a construction worker, and a librarian. He spent 25 years as an L.A. trial lawyer before becoming a novelist (and sometimes vigneron) in southwestern Colorado, where he lives with his wife, four horses, and two German shepherds. THE LAST HEIR (Minotaur), his fourth novel, and the third installment in his award-winning Jack MacTaggart series of legal mysteries, will be in bookstores on June 24, 2014. For more information on the series, or on his literary fiction written as C. Joseph Greaves, you can visit his website, or get the latest updates here on Facebook.

BOOK GIVEAWAY NOTICE:  Readers who leave a comment on Chuck’s post before noon U.S. Mountain Time on Sunday, June 22nd, will earn an entry into a drawing for a signed copy of The Last Heir. The winner will be announced here on Sunday afternoon.

How to find all those Colorado Gold agent/editor/speaker interviews

Our regular blog contributors and guests have been busy interviewing the agents, editors, and speakers who will attend the Colorado Gold Conference in Westminster September 5-7.

We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for you to find and read those interviews. On the day they post, we put the link on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Facebook page and the RMFW Google+ page. The link usually gets tweeted a couple of times as well.

On the home page of the RMFW website, there’s a link to the interview list. The link is called 2014 Conference Guest Interviews. That link takes you to a concise list of the published posts with an individual link to each.

Additional interviews scheduled so far include Elizabeth Copps on Tuesday, July 15th. We’ll have more on the schedule soon.

Meanwhile, you can go to the 2014 Conference Guest Interview page to view the ten interviews published so far.

Look Who is Coming to Colorado Gold: A Conversation with Agent Sue Brower

By Kerry Schafer

Last month I had the privilege of posting an interview with Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency. Today, I’d like you to meet Sue Brower, another fabulous agent, who works with the Natasha Kern Agency.

suebrowerSue Brower loves finding and developing authors and connecting them with the reader. Book publishing has changed dramatically over the past several years and it’s no secret that the novels that create buzz through their unique writing or concepts are the ones that become bestsellers. Over the past 25 years in publishing, Sue has done marketing, editing, story development and acquisitions for Zondervan, a division of Harper Collins Publishers. Most recently, she was Executive Editor and had the privilege of working with New York Times bestselling authors Karen Kingsbury, Tim LaHaye, Stephen Carter, and Terri Blackstock and was named ACFW’s Editor of the Year in 2010. And now she is fortunate to partner with Natasha Kern at the Natasha Kern Literary Agency. Sue’s been an avid fiction fan since childhood and loves the way stories are able to change lives, heal hearts, and bring joy to readers. Today, she wants to read and acquire women’s contemporary fiction, any kind of romance, suspense, mystery and historical novels. She would love to discover the next breakaway author in any of these genres.

Kerry: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Sue. I’m looking forward to meeting you in Colorado! But first things first. Your bio tells us that you are interested in acquiring women’s contemporary fiction, and also romance, suspense, mystery, and historical novels. Could you tell us a little bit more about what gets you excited?

Sue: I like stories with strong characterization and a well-paced plot.  One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “…fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.” I want to be so engrossed in the story that I am disoriented when I close the book. I do not acquire based solely on genre because publisher and consumer trends change so quickly.  But give me a well written book and I think I can pitch it anywhere, anytime.

Kerry: What was the last book you read for pleasure and what did you love (or not) about it?

Sue: I have been on an odyssey the last six months or so to read beyond my normal  favorites. Unfortunately, that left a lot of books unfinished. Probably the most memorable book I’ve read recently is Reconstructing Amelia.  It was a little dark and had some themes that put me off, but it was compelling and I still remember many of the characters.  The best book I’ve read that feeds my love of romantic fiction was Julianne Donaldson’s Blackmoore.  I loved that it drew me into an era that I read a lot about, yet this felt new and refreshing.

Kerry: Now that I have a couple of new books to add to my towering To Be Read pile, could you talk a bit about how you view the author/agent relationship? This seems to be a hot topic for writers these days.

Sue: I view the author/agent relationship as a partnership.  As a former editor and marketer, I tend to be very opinionated, so the writer needs to be open to input on their writing, where they should be spending their time, and how they should brand themselves. Notice I said “input.” I want to be available to help an author to succeed at building a writing career.

Kerry: I think that input is one of the things that makes an agent so important to a writer. Things have changed a lot in publishing over the last few years, and it gets overwhelming trying to figure out where to spend your time. Another question writers often have involves what you see as your role in publishing, and how do you help your clients navigate the slippery territory spawned by Amazon and self publishing?

Sue: I see my role as coach, career counselor, advocate, listening post, and biggest fan.  Editors today do not have time to acquire projects that just have potential. The editorial staff has more and more to do and there are fewer of them doing it. It’s my job to make sure that what I send out truly represents the writer’s best abilities.  With regards to the various ways that a writer can be published, I think we, as agents, should be aware of the pitfalls of self-publishing and coach the writer to make the best choices for their career goals.

Kerry: I see that your agency is closed to unsolicited manuscripts—do you have any advice as to how a querying author could still get your attention?

Sue: There are a number of ways that a writer can get their manuscript in front of me.  The best ways are through referrals from current client authors and through conferences.  I would also say that if you respond to a blog or online class that I am a part of, I would be open to talking with you about your manuscript.

Kerry: Could you tell us a little about what happens when writers pitch to you at a conference?

Sue: When a writer pitches to me at a conference, they need to have a completed manuscript ready to be reviewed.  I want the writer to tell me what their story is about and anything about their research or background that supports why their book is fresh or unique. I will look at a one-page, but I want to hear the writer to engage in conversation with me. If I am interested, I will ask for a proposal, synopsis, and three sample chapters to be emailed to me. If that looks good, I will ask for a full manuscript. Writing conferences are a great way to reach your preferred agent or editor since most will not accept unsolicited manuscripts.  I would absolutely ask for anything that interests me.

Kerry: If you are considering a project that doesn’t immediately shout “pick me pick me” – what tips the balance toward acceptance?

Sue: I don’t usually consider projects that don’t shout “pick me up.” I have too much to read and too many queries to follow up on.  The things that tip the balance for me are usually in the writing. If I am intrigued by a project, but the writing isn’t quite there, I will look for possibilities. Are they willing to revise? How much work will it take to get it ready for the publisher? If I am interested in an author, I usually want to have a phone chat before making an offer. If I see that they are not open to constructive criticism, or are reluctant to do the work, I will pass on the project.  Also, if there is just too much work that needs to be done, I will have to put it aside. I usually make a few recommendations including finding a critique group or editor and I offer to look at it one more time.

Kerry: Are you open to authors pitching their books to you if they see you out and about in the hallways or the bar?

Sue: No. The worse pitch I ever received happened when I was leaving a dinner on the last day of a conference and I was obviously worn out and sick with a cold, but the writer wouldn’t let me politely decline a conversation. It’s never good to approach an agent when they are heading to a meeting or relaxing with colleagues after a long day. It’s absolutely forbidden to approach them in a restroom!

Kerry: I’ve heard horror stories. Personally, I can’t imagine the desperation that would drive a writer to the bathroom pitch, but I know it happens. Would you prefer writers keep to the boundaries of scheduled pitch sessions entirely?

Sue: I think that depends on who the agent is.  If I am sitting in a common area (lobby, for instance) and not already talking to someone, I am open to a writer starting a conversation.

Kerry: Last and most importantly, what is your beverage of choice? Just in case we do find you hanging out in the bar and would like to show our appreciation for spending time with us at Colorado Gold.

Sue: My favorite drink is Diet Coke. I am particularly open to this approach when the venue is Pepsi only!

Kerry: Excellent. I’m a Coke fan myself, so if the venue happens to be misguided I will try to snag you a drink from somewhere. Thank you again for taking the time to answer my many questions.

Oh Those Wonderful Librarians!

Remember those days as a kid, wandering into the library and being guided to a book by the librarian? I have very fond memories of both school and public librarians of my childhood years. Their recommendations provided me rich rewards and a deep appreciation for books.

At the end of May, I had the honor to participate in a panel of authors at the Library Journal Day of Dialog. The audience was an energetic collection of librarians from across the U.S. That experience brought home to me once again just how large the role of librarians is in our lives as readers and writers.

As children, most of us rely on adults to shape our reading choices. If we are lucky, we encounter those wonderful mentors who have noted our interests and taken the time to get to know us. They lead us to new authors, suggest unfamiliar books, and launch us into great adventures.

I recall the librarian in the children’s section of the public library helping my sister pick out my earliest books. She always made sure we left with a pile of five or six or seven and fostered my initial love of books and the library so much that I played “library” with friends, creating cards for each of my own books and carefully entering names and dates each time I loaned to a friend…even if it was only for the couple hours of play time.

In my elementary years, my school librarian walked me through the Paddington Bear series, showed me the biography section, told me about Maud Hart Lovelace (the Betsy-Tacy series); suggested the Boxcar Children and Happy Hollister mysteries, made sure I found all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and let me read Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret a year early (it was restricted to sixth graders).

When I moved, just before sixth grade, the public librarian in my new community led me through their entire Nancy Drew collection during my first six months in the small town– I think I read ninety-nine books in that time (they didn’t have the entire series). When new books came in, she always made sure I knew about them. She introduced me to YA, long before it was called YA—I’ll never forget Lois Duncan, Betsy Byars, and Judy Blume. She and made sure I didn’t miss Gone with the Wind and other classics. Then, just as I was tiring of Harlequin’s sweet romances, she put Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and LaVyrle Spencer into my hands and sealed my fate.

With each move I made during my adult life, I always found the library. While I didn’t forge the relationships with librarians that I had during childhood and adolescence, they always remained important to me.

As an author, I find librarians still play a big role in my life. Five Star Publishing focuses on the library market. Thus, libraries make up the bulk of my sales and librarian recommendations drive increases in my readership. The Day of Dialog brought me face to face with many of those librarians responsible for building collections. They were articulate, curious, intelligent, nurturing men and women…just like all the librarians I remember in my life…and I can’t help waxing nostalgic as a result.

What memories do you have of librarians? Do they still play a role in your life? In your children’s lives? Tell us about them.

Then…remember to tell them!!

August RMFW Workshop Announcement: Homicide 101 (For Writers, Not Criminals)

August RMFW Workshop
Homicide 101 (For Writers, Not Criminals)
Saturday, Aug. 23
1 to 3 PM
Sam Gary Branch Library
2961 Roslyn St., Denver (Stapleton neighborhood)

Presented by: Tracy Brisendine

One of the most fascinating and feared crimes is murder—it can completely immobilize a community and tear a family apart. It can also make for some really great writing.

The life and death of your story can depend on the authenticity of your detail, so step beyond the crime scene tape and get it right! Learn basic homicide investigative techniques, motives that induce a person to kill, commonly used cover-up methods, and the importance of physical evidence at a death scene.

Do you know the fundamental characteristics of gunshot wounds, stabbings, and blunt force trauma? What about the tell-tale signs of an asphyxiation death? You will after this class.

So if you plan on offing someone, fictionally of course, don’t miss this free program.

About Tracy:

Tracy Brisendine’s invisible pet dinosaur landed her in the principal’s office in second grade, and it was downhill from there. In order to protect her mental health, she allows some of her ideas to bleed out onto the page. When she is not battling demons of deviance, she serves as RMFW’s Publicity Chair.

Tracy lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and snaggle-tooth dog named Max. She worked in law enforcement for seven years and has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, with a concentration in Criminal Justice, from Colorado State University. Currently, Tracy works as a locate investigator for the City of Denver, and writes urban fantasy as TJ Valour.

Follow Tracy on Twitter: @WolvesCanEatMe
On Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorTJValour

Orange is the New Black is Back So I Spent My Blog Writing Time Watching it…

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

My original post was going to be something very profound and enlightening, something that would make your writing career, and eventually put you at the NY Times Bestseller List, and then I started watching the 2nd season of Orange is the New Black…

If you haven’t seen Orange is the New Black, you really should, for your writerly sake. It is just plain, good storytelling. It can teach you a lot about characterization too. The story starts off about a young woman of privilege who ends up in prison for a crime she committed many years ago. But it grows into so much more as we see the world through the eyes of various inmates, in humorous, sometimes sad, gritty and grim, but very honest ways.

I LOVE this show for many reasons, the writing, the plot twists, but most of all for the characters, for each is deeper, and their stories sometimes horrible, but also entertaining. At the end of every episode, I feel for them. I carry them in my thoughts after the show is over. I embrace and connect with them.

All things we as writers want our audience to feel.

Then there’s the main character, Piper.

I hate her. Seriously can’t stand her.

But I continue to watch.

She is an anti-hero in the finest way.

I don’t like her, for she isn’t very likeable. She started off likeable, and I even felt sorry for her. Now I feel like stuffing her in a wood chipper.

Her choices are poor ones, resulting in causing others much pain.

And yet, I watch every episode, hoping things will be different. Hoping she’ll be redeemed in some way. Hoping for a happy ending, not for her, but for the sake of those around her.

Yes, I hate her.

But, like it or not, I connect with her.

Now I’m not suggesting you go and write crappy characters who I will hate. Nicolas Sparks fills that void for me just fine (Kidding, no Sparks’ related hate mail, please).

I’m merely pointing out, that every character is flawed in some way. Find those flaws, exploit them for your audience, show us who the character is beyond a description in the mirror (please, please don’t describe your character by having them look in the mirror; it’s been done a million times, by yours truly half of those times). Give your hero warts (not literal ones unless your heroine like to apply wart remover), and make us want to heal them.

This is perhaps most true when writing the antagonist. Too often we only show the antagonist’s flaws, his evilness. But to make a living, breathing bad guy, show us beyond his evil façade. Show us why he is the way he is, show us his humanity, and we will continue to read on.

Any of you watching season 2 of Orange is the New Black? What do you think? Care to defend Piper? Or anyone have another example of a great anti-hero, besides Hannibal Lector?

The Top 5 Best Pieces of Writing Advice I Ever Got … by Trai Cartwright

1.   If you’re holding something back for later, drop it in now.

Last Thursday, a friend and I both had one of those explosive days you live for as a writer: the day when your story just electrifies you, delights you, reveals itself to you. She told me she had just written the scene that told her it was just another 25 pages until the supernatural elements of her book could be introduced. I’d just written a scene that was wholly unexpected: a dude who wasn’t supposed to reveal his true nature for many (many) pages to come suddenly whipped off his mask.

This reveal not only changed my whole book but radically improved it in an instant.

This trick comes from a writing teacher I reviled except for this gem. Don’t hold on to the secrets. Don’t write an entire book knowing that in the last 30 pages, all will be revealed. It drains your writing of life-giving creative energy. By “giving away the store”, I was seemingly left with nowhere to go. In fact, I was forced to imagine greater. My story expanded in the most delicious ways because I didn’t hold back.

So my advice to my friend who’s waiting 25 pages to unleash her tasty goodness: just do it now.

2.   Write something beautiful, something grotesque, and something odd on every page.

This one came from a poet who’d just published her first novel, and it’s what her editor said transfixed her. The poet had always used these tricks in her poetry, and had unconsciously carried it over to her fiction. The effect: pages and pages of surprises in the sentences, creating a unique texture that illuminated her world in unexpected ways.

3.   Don’t let the reader catch you writing.

This is from Elmore Leonard and a habit I had to break in my early years. If you’re overly-enamored with your own scintillating, bombastic, lyrical writing style, chances are your readers know it all too well. My voice often over-took my story, and instead of carrying my readers away on a fantastic journey, I was demanding they stand in awe of my cleverness. The point is this: you’re a storyteller first. The voice has to be in service to the story, not your ego.

4.   Don’t confuse, don’t bore.

This from my MFA director Tod Goldberg. Written in big letters on the board, first day of class. If your readers are busy trying to sort out why someone said such-and-such, how they got from the parking lot to Rockefeller Center, who it is they are talking to, when their mother became reanimated because you could swear she died in the first ten pages, they are being carried way on a fantastic journey. They are confused. Confusion equals disengagement as we readers try to conjure the answers that are not on the page.

And boredom, well that’s easy too. If you’re bored writing your story, your readers will have already put your book down. The fix? See #1.

5.   Stop with the semi-colon. And the em-dashes. And the parenthesis.

This is from my god-like genre teacher, Stephen Graham Jones. We all do this. We all suddenly fall in love with some punctuation device that to our minds displays brilliance, adds essential information, and in the case of parenthesis, delivers a dollop of writerly humor.

Readers get exhausted by these devices. Semi-colons create complex sentences that can feel like a challenge to some. Most of those sentences can live independently of one another, so drop in a period instead.

Em-dashes—which, to our mind, can create urgency, provide delightful intrusion, or give crucial tangential information—work maybe every five or six pages, but more than that, it’s a red flag to readers. We start tracking your over-use of the device rather than read your story. It’s like using a word like “stupendous” on every page—we will notice. And it will annoy us.

And as for parenthesis (those semi-smiles of bardic narrator grandstanding), they often break the fourth wall just so you can impart your own sense of humor rather than the character’s. Or worse, it’s a piece of exposition that the writer couldn’t figure out how to include any other way and shoe-horn it in awkwardly. The answer is simply to not employ them. We probably didn’t need that info to follow the scene anyway. And we certainly didn’t need the distraction of your joke.

So that’s it: my top 5 best pieces of writing advice.

What are yours?

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Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.