Thinking Differently


How many times have you been told that to get published today, you need to think outside the box? Being creative will get you noticed. Oh yes, it’s nice if you can write a lovely sentence too. I hear this refrain in writing classes, critique groups, and at writing conferences. One agent at a recent conference said that by making her vampires sparkle, Stephanie Meyer made her series unique. Excuse me? Twilight succeeded despite its dreadful writing because it used the classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl plot. The author was ahead of he curve by using vampires and werewolves as her teenage protagonists, but let’s be honest, vampire stories have been around for quite some time. As for the dreadful Fifty Shades of Gray (or as my children call it (“Mommy Porn”), anal beads and nipple clamps a best seller do make as long as romance is involved.

These two books are neither amazing nor well written. They’re awful, but stirred enough prurient interest to make them into best sellers, and lets face it folks, that’s what the publishing industry is really looking for.

You can’t blame them really. Publishers are running scared with so many distractions on the internet, they want sure bets when they put a book to press. But let’s stop the pretense that if you write like James Joyce or F. Scott Fitzgerald and come up with the newest and most outrageous plot in the world, you’re a sure bet to get either an agent or publishing contract. Who knows if either of those literary giants could get published today? After all, they had fabulous editors who recognized their considerable talents and helped form their books.

That aside, with few exceptions (and I’m talking the top literary writers here), we mortals need to line up and prepare to grind it out.

Lest you think, I’m just a grumpy old coot, I do wish every single writer out there the best of luck. It’s a slog, my friends, but you learn a lot in the process. You may not get the six figure advance, but you will learn so much the more you keep at it. Network, go to conferences, talk to people, join writers groups. Don’t sit in front of your computers and contemplate how you can write the great American novel. Think about how you can write the best novel you can, then write. Once you’re done. Revise. Write some more. Have people read your stuff. Most of you know this, but I’m always surprised by how many writers are so intimidated by showing their work.

Start with your family because they’ll always give you uncritical praise (unless your family happens to be a writing family like mine in which case you’ll find out fast what isn’t working). Then move out to a small critique group. Trust me everyone’s nervous. If one group doesn’t work, you can always change to another.

Most importantly don’t give up. If you feel you have to write, then do it. Writing is a calling. You either follow it or you don’t. When you feel like your plot is a little mundane or ordinary, remember there are only five plots. (I’m not naming them because if you’re writers, you should know them.) They’ve all been used. You don’t need sparkly vampires or anal beads. But well honed words and a few plot twists couldn’t hurt.

One last thing, as writers, we all need to support each other. Author Jonathan Maberry has made it a mantra that “Writers should support writers.” He’s a best selling author who still makes time to talk to working authors, give advice, and is a genuine good guy. We should all keep that in mind.



The World of Self Promotion

I have just returned from another writers’ conference where I was reminded once again that writing a novel today is only a part of the writer’s job. After an agent is procured, contracts are signed and a somewhat diminished bonus is agreed upon, said writer must then switch hats and turn into a publicity machine unless he or she has the means to hire a publicist.

Today you must create a platform so that you have a built in audience once you go to press. Then be prepared for the dog and pony show to follow–clown suit and red nose optional.

Look we all know the publishing industry took a hit in the recession, just like everything else in this country, and the industry wants to protect its top producer, but really. We all know the authors ho dominate the Times best seller list aren’t going to fade to obscurity if publishers spend a little more on new talent, especially if new authors prove their willingness to participate in the publicity process.

Who knows? It could end up being a win-win for everybody.

The Mission

Winds ripped at his furs; great boulders forced him to walk beside his horse rather than ride, but Lord Malachy knew his mission was urgent. Troops gathered on the borders of his land, separated only by the Anon River.



He smiled a little. “They’ll have a hard time crossing the river won’t they?” he said to the yellow dog that accompanied him.



He came alone not wishing to put anyone of his house in danger. Should the jackals find a way to cross into his lands, best to let them think he’d fled like a coward.



He wished he left before the autumn wind whipped the mountainsides, but he couldn’t go back.



The dog growled and returned to his side. Horses. He heard the thunder of their hooves and stood, half blinded by their armor in the sunlight. Malachy pulled out his broad sword. If he were to die in these godforsaken mountains, he would do so as a man.



“Old fool,” a familiar voice said. “You should have come a month ago.”



He bowed. “My Lady, you grow more lovely each day, but war is upon us. We must prepare.”


She shrugged. “You rode all this way. You may as well ride to war with me.”


Fountain of Change


When it first happened, uproar ensued. Tommy Gulliver just went for a drink of water at the old fountain and came with fangs and claws. But it was almost Halloween, and the teachers thought he was playing a prank. After all, Tommy was a bit of a goblin. When he didn’t change back people began to worry.


Before the Thanksgiving holidays Virginia Regent returned with a nose six inches longer and a long floppy tongue. Now people were scared.Virgina was a noted tattletale and snoop.

People said weird things happened to people who drank from the fountain. Sometimes good things. Jimmy Stone who had a face full of acne scars suddenly had a complexion smooth as a baby’s. Ashley Grant lost forty pounds, but Becca Bartkowski’s hair fell out in clumps and her nose turned up just like a pig’s, and Jerry D’Giacamo grew ears like a jackass.


By Christmas, Principal Haley said he’d prove the fountain was fine. He took a big slurp and immediately began to shrink. His eyes grew beady, and black and white fur covered his body until he turned into a skunk.


Little Mrs. Berryman came from the front desk. She regarded the fountain then placed an X of tape on the front and turned to the on-lookers. She shook her head and sighed.

“I don’t know how this got here, but it needs to be handled with extreme caution. Stay away from the fountain, unless ye want to find out who ye really are.”




On Criticism

ImageLast night at the second of my of my mystery writing classes an incident occurred that reminded me how painful the writing process can be. This class on writing mysteries is a small one for which I enrolled on a whim. Why not a mystery writing class? The fiction writing class was full, and I like meeting fellow writers. We writers tend to be a solitary lot, trapped inside our heads a good bit of the time. It’s good to get out into the world and mingle with people who are fighting the same battles as you. 

But with writing comes critique. Our first assignment was to write the opening chapter for a mystery, and one of our little group, a newer writer, had some difficulty grasping the concept of how modern mysteries work. She started with a prologue then a first chapter that was slow, and this caused one of the more aggressive members of the class to jump on her verbally. Hostility ensued.

She was still upset when class ended and stormed out. Everyone else walked away a bit stunned.

It is hard to explain to someone who is new to critique groups, whether they occur in a classroom setting or some other place, that at some point, no matter how good a writer you are (or think you are), you are going to get walloped, and it hurts. It feels personal, and sometimes it is. Most criticism, however, comes from people sincerely trying to help you improve your book. The trick is learning to filter out what works for you from what doesn’t. You can’t improve unless people read what you have written; just getting positive comments from your friends and family won’t do you much good when you start sending your book out to literary agencies where the agents are deluged by hundreds of queries every day.

But to the people handing out criticism, it’s not just about pointing out the flaws in a person’s writing. It’s about finding the things that work as well. I try never to criticize anyone without offering something positive to my fellow group members. If you’re too harsh, the writer might turn off everything you say and miss something valuable. When you criticize, you walk a fine line, it’s not about showing how much you know, but trying to help your fellow writers take a step forward.

I’d call that a win for everyone.

Besides you never know when the subject of your criticism will take revenge on you in print and have the book become the next NY Times’ bestseller. Thank you kindly, but I’d just as soon not be turned into the person in the corner who is a closet pervert and is shoved into a wood chipper in chapter nine.