Writers Conference News

It’s time to register for the Surprise Valley Writer’s Conference. http://www.modocforum.org/writers_conf.html

It’s on of my favorite places to teach. The setting is magnificent, the staff is focused on helping the attendees, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. I look forward to working with you.


Write for the Market

  Some of my students and fellow fiction writers have somehow gotten hold of the idea they must “write for the market.” Seems like sound advice, right? Who’s against that?



Reason One: The lag in publication time makes it almost certain that what you write for today’s market will be bean dip a couple of years down the road, stale as a campaign promise.

Reason Two: Some people can sell anything. Chevy, Buick, Toyota, Hummer, and can pretend they’re really in love with the product. If you have to pretend you’re in love with your product, writing, you introduce a false note into your work. An experienced editor or agent can smell it like a sweat sock in an undie drawer. (That metaphor sounds a little off, but this is dataspace.)

Do this:

Write from your own heart, the themes that mean something to you, the things that make your hair stand up, and your eyes mist over. That’s where the good true stuff lies. It’s the stuff agents and editors want–any time, any season. It’s the stuff that will always be memorable, and marketable.

A knowlege of general  market trends is not a bad thing, but being a leader instead of a follower is a far better thing. So hit those keys–lead with your heart.  And, as always, WRITE AT ABSOULTE TOP SPEED.

Guidelines for Critique Groups

 A critique group can be an invaluable help to you as a writer, or a painful exercise in losing friends and failing to influence people. We use the following guidelines in our critique groups. Print them out and take them to your next meeting. Good ground rules.

                                             Critique Group Guidlines                       

As the Writer/Reader:

1. Know that the comments you receive are only opinions. It is your task to  decide which are helpful and which are not.

2. Prior to reading aloud, tell us what kinds of comments might be most helpful to you.

3. After you have finished reading, take a deep breath, relax, and prepare to listen closely. Jot notes for later consideration. Restrain yourself from defending your choices, unless you believe the evaluator has clearly missed the point.

4. Ask questions until you fully understand the criticisms.

5. Talk through any hurt, frustrated, or misunderstood feelings with the person concerned as soon as possible, or feel free to talk with the facilitator.

As the listener/evaluator

1. Focus first on what the writer has done well.


2. Try not to focus on “nits,” i.e. word by word, line by line problems involving punctuation, grammar, etc. If you see these kinds of problems repeated throughout a piece, make a note, such as “Check comma use,” or, “Subject-verb separation throughout,” rather than marking each incorrect usage.

3. Determine if the writer has carried through his or her intent. Is the theme clear (fiction and non-fiction)? Are the characters interesting and appropriate to the genre? Is the writing stimulating, i.e. incorporating all of the senses, or contains quotes, anecdotes, facts and figures? Does the lead hook your interest, orient you in time and space, direct your attention to the problem, theme, purpose of the piece?

4. In giving comment, make sure you make eye contact with the writer and have his/her attention. If you sense that you have not been understood, ask the writer if your comments were clear .

5. AVOID interrupting speakers. AVOID quick disagreement with someone’s opinion. AVOID jumping to a writers defense. AVOID digressing into your own writings or personal history, unless doing so is relevant to the work at hand.


6. When making written critiques on manuscripts, please sign your name.

7. Hold in mind that your goal is to help the writer achieve his or her  purpose. Restrain the impulse to level judgments on any writer’s choice of subjects or interpretations.

8. Limit your oral comments to the most significant ones so that everyone will have time to speak. Know that you can talk with a writer later.                                                                                                                              

  *John Reed,  Writers Welcome Editing and Critique Service. http://www.writerswelcome.com

Query Letter

 Writing a Query Letter About Your Novel
          The query can be a quick way to tell whether your novel might be of interest to a particular publisher——without having to wait until some editor finds your manuscript deep within her slush pile. The query should give the editor an idea of your story (and a sense of the way you’’re handling it) that’’s clear enough to help her decide if it’’s worth considering. If the idea sounds good, you know the complete manuscript (or sample chapters) will enjoy a prompt and careful reading. If the idea doesn’t sound right for her, she may tell you why, and perhaps suggest either a new approach or another publisher.


Some queries are very short, and others are long indeed——novel outlines masquerading as letters. Consider the following suggestions as guidelines, not as ironclad laws:

1. Supply a short, vivid description of what the book is about: a desperate attempt to escape a narcotics bust, an unexpected journey that leads to romance and danger in 1930s China, an aging gunfighter’’s attempt to prove himself again in the Mexican Revolution. Explain what’’s at stake——this is crucial for most editors I’’ve dealt with. Example: in a genre western, what’’s at stake is a ranch, a family, a gunfighter’’s self-respect. In a historical western, what’’s at stake is the fate of an army, a nation, a people.

2. If not obvious from your plot outline, identify the audience your book is aimed at: hardcore space-opera fans, teenage girls, Regency-romance readers.

3. Be able to tell the editor what makes this novel different from others in the genre: a twist in the plot, a new angle on the hero, an unusual setting.

4. Your credentials may be helpful, if only as a dedicated and knowledgeable reader in the genre.

5. Display in your query some of the excitement and energy you want to bring to your story——show how and why this story matters to you, and it’’ll matter to your editor.

 Ideally, your query letter ought to run to a page or a little more, organized something like this:

The Letter Itself:


First paragraph: Tell us what kind of novel you’’ve written, or are now writing. How long is it, when and where is it set? Describe the hero and heroine, and perhaps one or two other major characters. What’’s their predicament? How are they proposing to get out of it?

Second paragraph: Describe what happens in the middle of the novel——how your characters interact, what conflicts arise among them.

Third paragraph: The resolution of the novel——the climax and its outcome, and tying up loose ends.

Fourth paragraph:Why this story interests you, what your qualifications are for writing it, and some questions for the editor: If this story interests you, would you like the whole ms., or an outline and sample chapters? Do you have any specific ms. requirements I should be aware of? (If you’’ve read the submission guidelines on the publisher’’s Website, you won’’t need to ask such questions!)

Obviously this pattern will vary depending on the nature of the query: If you’’ve included an outline and sample chapter, the plot summary will be very brief or nonexistent, and the query will focus on your background and your questions for the editor. If the book is completed, the plot summary will be easier to supply than if you have only a rough idea of where the book is going.

The quality of writing in the query had better be first-rate, especially if you haven’’t included an elegantly written chapter or two. If your query is clumsy or riddled with English errors, the editor will be less than eager to see more of your prose.

Because the query requires little time to read and respond to, it can help you quickly identify potential markets and definite non-markets. But it can’’t pre-sell your novel; at best, it can only create a cautiously welcoming attitude in an editor.

Creating Characters That Breathe

Creating real characters is always tough. Here’s some help, borrowed, in part, from Marge Piercy and Ira Wood’s book, So You Want to Write.

 You discover real people by ENTERING THE CHARACTER

The look-in-the-mirror cliche stops your story. The real issue is: what do size and appearance mean to the character? How does she feel about herself? What’s his self-image?

How does your character move? Feel how she moves–try moving that way yourself.

What senses are most important to them? When they enter a room do they respond to sight first, or smell or social dimensions of the room?

Beyond the physical characterization devices lies deeper characterization: fears, anxieties desires, passions, attachments to things and people, friendships and animosities and real beliefs.

What does your character want?

The next-to-last position of a Tarot reading is: “What is most hoped for and/or most feared?”

 Ask that question if you have difficulty entering a character It’s often the key.

Three Kinds of Characters that Don’t Work

Over the years, I’ve found these folks populating many a beginner’s manuscript. Make sure that this ain’t happenin’ to you.

1. Character based on the writer, her/himself–one in which self-hatred is in charge. Writers try to punish, castigate and kill off a part of themselves they detest.

This kind of person is often boring and unpleasant.

The writer (and sometimes the reader) can’t tell which is which, writer or character.

2. Characters drawn directly from life. If we don’t know or can’t bring ourselves to imagine the person intimately enough. Use someone you know, but remember if you are only using a piece of them somebody you loved or hated–you don’t have a fully imagined character. Revenge is not the best motivation for writing a story: It distorts too often. 

3. A character drawn not from knowledge or observation or musing about people you have known or your own motivations or actions, but from other writers or TV or the movies.

 Excerpted from:

 So You Want to Write http://www.amazon.com/You-Want-Write-Marge-Piercy/dp/0967952026

 Marge Piercy and Ira Wood

Vintage Writing Advice

This is a reprint of a post from the old blog. Still get a kick out of it.

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped through my groin, and so began the most extiting adventure of my career.”
     Punchy opening, no?  It may suck swamp gas, style wise, but it catches your interest. It’s an inciting incident, what Chris Vogler calls in his wonderful book, The Writer’s Journey, the ‘call to action.’
    My little message today, however, is not about hooking the reader’s interest early–we all know that’s essential–but going bull goose-looney about it. The bang, bang stuff is definitely bull goose-loony.
    A lot of writers get so wound up about kicking the story out of the gate they come up with a dynamite opener that has little or nothing to do with the story. That’s cheating. Disgruntled readers would be justified in  hunting you with dogs.
    If you hang a banner reading, “Live Nude Guys” in front of your shoe store, you will get some traffic, but it won’t take long for the customers to realize they’ve been cheated. (I realize that “Live Nude Shoes” isn’t a great banner, and might attract a somewhat odder customer base, but you take my drift.) Don’t cheat.
     Your opening must do more than draw instant attention. It must pass the Chicken Delight Test. And what would that be, our younger readers ask? There once was an ad that read, “Others make promises, Chicken Delight delivers.”
    Start your book with an inciting incident. How do we know it’s the inciting incident? The test: After it happens, nothing will ever be the same again. All the rest of the story will grow out of, and be related to, this incident.
    The best inciting incident I ever heard occurs in the first line of the classic country song, “El Paso.” (Original recording by Marty Robbins, later covered by The Grateful Dead and others–look it up.)
     The line: “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.”
    The whole story grows from this. All the elements are included. The protagonist is introduced, the setting and the conflict revealed, the ending foreshadowed. The whole rest of the tragic story of a young cowboy hopelessly in love, riding to his doom, comes from this event.
     So before you set up that slam-bang opening, make sure you can deliver on its promise. Consider our Texas cowboy who ended up seeing the “white puff of smoke from the rifle,” and feeling the bullet go deep in his chest. We knew it was going to happen all along.
    Thus, we begin and end our post with small arms fire. For the action/thriller fan, that is satisfactory.
    Now, go craft a hot opening that delivers on its promise. To accomplish that you will probably have to WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED.