Archive for the ‘Writing Advice’ Category

Inconceivable! Or, The Pitfalls of Writing a Bio

March 4, 2012 5 comments

It’s difficult to condense who you are into a few sentences, especially on Twitter. There’s a character limit. You can only say so much. But a limit like that can also reveal the potential for poetry. Brevity is the soul of wit. And lingerie. But I digress.

I’ve read a lot of bios. I’ve written a few questionable ones. Once, I accepted an nonexistent Oscar and diligently thanked the Academy. Another time, I used the word “penchant,” because I was having a severe Word Nerd Day when I’d written it. The truth is, we all write and say silly things, sometimes.

There are times, however, where it’s just plain funny. You write something, and another person might GET what you mean, but the actual words you’ve said? You’ve turned into Vizzini. So, without further ado, here are a few phrases you might want to rethink.

1.)    “I live in [State] with my first wife.” Does this mean you’re planning a second? Does your first wife know? Are you secretly a polygamist, Bill?

2.)    “Follow me for author book pub info & book deals for readers.” That sounds like the author version of a creepy man with a van, asking a little girl to help locate a lost puppy. I’m just sayin’.

3.)    “Soon-To-Be-Famous-Author.” Face, meet palm. First, the hyphens nearly gave me a seizure. Second, that does not belong in a bio. That is a wish, not a facet of who you are. You are a writer. Not a pen-wielding ninja hell-bent on world domination. Although, as Pinky always says, NARF! Carry on.

4.)    “I am a full-blooded American…” Is there an advertisement for vampires? What’s your vintage, darling? Shall I alert Lestat? Edward is too busy sparkling, somewhere, I’m afraid.

5.)    “Follow me on this amazing journey!” Oh, good! Sign me up. Because I was about to follow this other person, over there, who was going on a non-amazing journey.

6.)    “I am working on [insert novel title here].” Three words: show, don’t tell. Also, the first rule of writing is: don’t talk about it unless it’s finished. Or you’re sworn a blood oath of secrecy. *hides pocketknife*

7.)    “100’s of [whatever]…” ARG. What is that vagabond apostrophe doing there? You mean 100s. TRUST ME.

8.)    So-and-so has published over seventy novels! Tweet with her…” Is she too busy to write her own Twitter bio? I feel like her assistant is going to answer me, not her. Either that, or she’s overly fond of referring to herself in the third person, which is a major pet peeve of mine. Or, in lingo that might be better understood, “Ali is not fond of that.” Savvy?

9.)    “I am a star of a reality romance novel…” Uh, why did I not know that something like that existed? Also, that feels a bit too much like voyeurism to me. Also, star? Really? Let me call Mr. DeMille. I’ll tell him you’re ready for your close-up, Ms. Desmond.

10.) “I’m working on [whatever] and hopefully, one day, I’ll finish [whatever].” So, you’re maybe working on SOMETHING that you might, at some vague point in the future, actually finish? Okay, then. Good to know.


The Wisdom of Being Stubborn

August 11, 2011 7 comments

I’ve always been stubborn. Insistent. I remember, a year or so, warning a friend: I can be pushy, sometimes. I don’t mean anything by it. Feel free to say no.

Of course, I’m not the obnoxious kind of pushy. I won’t try to sell you a Bible or insist that you take your shoes off when you come inside. Most of time. If they’re muddy, or covered in something that smells like poop, remove them.

If I believe in something or someone, I won’t give it up or walk away easily. I hold on. I push forward. I have crap days where I won’t get out of my PJs and ice cream is served for dinner. Preferably on waffles, as a sandwich.

I don’t have a naturally tough skin. Chances are, if you hurt me, I’ll cry. But I probably won’t do it in front of you.

Like I said, I’m stubborn. I’m the kind of stubborn that’s probably genetic. I come from a long line of tough women, on both sides. And god knows, the minute you tell me I CAN’T do something, that’s the minute I decide to serve up some nice, fried CROW.

Stubborn isn’t always easy to swallow, but it gets you places. It’s has gotten me places. You know what gets your nowhere? Can’t. Never. Those words are a plague of confidence-eating locusts. They will eat up your soul and then start in on whatever’s left.

Anything worth doing is hard. Acting is hard. Writing is hard. Taking photographs is hard. Each thing presents its own challenges. If getting your photos in a magazine was easy, everyone would be Annie Leobowitz. If writing a best seller (and SELLING it) was easy, we’d all be Nora Roberts and Stephen King. If being a successful actor was simple, half of LA would be Johnny Depp’s equal. (That man doesn’t just occupy a role. He becomes it.)

Writing is not easy. It is like trying to transcribe Greek, one-handed, underwater. Selling your writing – whether it’s a novel or a story – is not a picnic. It’s necessary, but not easy. People want to like your writing. Every editor or agent wants you, and me, to be the next Hemingway, Plath, or Gaiman. They want that so bad. Why? Because they all like stories. They want to be in your corner.

When your work is met with compliments, the world is your own little universe of Joy and Awesomeness. When it’s not, it’s like someone took a look at your baby and not only said it was ugly, but excused himself/herself politely from the room. “Thanks, but…” is right up there with “we need to talk.” Nothing, NOTHING, good ever comes after those two phrases.

But the difference between a writer and someone who once wanted to BE a writer? Well, for one thing, you write. To me, that’s a given. The other thing is you endure. Sure, you might get a little neurotic. There might be a cork board where you tack up your rejections. You might compile a spreadsheet. There will be days you will eat nothing but macaroni and cheese, while wearing your favorite yoga pants.

That aside, you endure. Like Kathryn Stockett  (thank you, Jessica, for the link!) did. Not only did she endure, but she did what everybody should do: she went back to the writing and tried to figure out how to make it better. She always sought out her brethren (or to borrow Chuck Wendig’s term, penmonkey) via conferences.

But mostly? She was stubborn. I have to say, I completely approve.

How to Deal with Rejection: Make Your Story Better

August 10, 2011 8 comments


In front of me, there is a stack of papers. Some are handwritten. Some are typed. Some are scribbled bits of creation, rendered on cocktail napkins. Next to that, there is a box of matches.

Okay, I’m kidding about all that. But I am grappling with the urge to burn everything I’ve written recently. This is what I like to call The Doubt Plague. It sneaks up on an author when he/she is having a bad day, or bad couple of days. It is usually preceded by a large span of time in which writing is difficult, like performing dental surgery with a pair of tweezers. On yourself.

There are probably chocolate wrappers somewhere. Maybe an empty wine bottle. Perhaps a baking frenzy occurred. (I have been known to go on a baking bender when I’m really upset. At least it’s constructive…)

Every writer has bad days. Every writer has endured The Doubt Plague – the nagging that thought your writing is crap, that it will never be valued, and that you might as well give up. Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, it’s just a whisper. But that’s enough to kick you in the ass, when you’re already a bit unsteady.

No one, no matter what the job is, is confident all the time. It’s not humanly possible. And if it is, please don’t tell me. Okay? Okay.

I had a friend who was an English professor. He was a smart guy and a great teacher. He always went the extra mile for his students. In a series of interesting events, I ended up talking with the head of the college where he taught. The president had nothing but amazing things to say about my friend. The one that stood out the most is this:

Whenever his students don’t perform as well as he’d hope, he does one thing that sets him apart. He questions himself. He tries to figure out where he can improve so that they can do better. That is what makes him so good at what he does. He doesn’t blame the students. He looks inward and tries to figure out where he went wrong in teaching them.

And the president was right. My friend always internalized. He wanted to do his job better.

The same thing goes for writing. If a story is rejected, or it doesn’t quite work, this is a huge disappointment. It’s a kick to the stomach, sure. But my immediate reaction to wonder where the hell it went wrong. I want to rip it apart, look at the pieces, and find the one that’s rusted.

A rejection doesn’t signify a lack of talent. It indicates that something might be a bit off. Something, perhaps, doesn’t quite perform up to standards to the story Awesome.

Get back to basics – look at the story. That’s where answer lies. Not lurking in your self-doubt. Not in the middle of a candy bar. And, as far as I can tell, not at the bottom of a coffee cup. Although…I’ll keep looking, thank you.

Like my friend, figure out what went wrong. Examine the words on the page. They hold every answer you didn’t know you needed.

A Bit of Advice When Sending Out a Newsletter

July 19, 2011 7 comments


  1. Proofread it. Please. I beg you.
  2. Don’t lie. Specifically, do not reaffirm the incorrect notion that writing a novel means removing all distractions. Because that’s not feasible, honest, or true-to-life. You make a choice to write, and you WRITE. Sometimes, on the subway. (I’m looking at you, Ferrell.) How does write a novel? Butt in chair, one word at a time.
  3. Don’t gross out your target audience. Advertise a writing retreat in a way that resembles the side-effects of an STD. The words “burning” and “remove that thing inside you” should NOT be present.
  4. Remember to be consistent. If you’re a fan of the Oxford comma, use it throughout the newsletter. Don’t employ it sporadically, as if you’re tossing it in for good measure.
  5. Kill the adverbs. In other words, EDIT. If your newsletter could be turned into a drinking game based on adverb appearances, something is rotten in Denmark.
  6. Remember the importance of apostrophe placement. Writer’s Retreat is different than Writers‘ Retreat.
  7. Forget Random capitalization. (See what I did there?) It isn’t clever. It makes me wonder if you are unsure of proper nouns.
  8. Avoid “unnecessary” quotation marks. It is a) distracting and b) it doesn’t mean what you think it means, Vezzini.
  9. Be concise. If you’re advertising a book, the author’s bio should NOT be longer than the book summary. (Example: bio length = 2 pages. Summary length: two paragraphs. It is a bio — not an interview.)
  10. Avoid awkward phasing. This includes, but is not limited to, “It will almost be…” (almost? It falls short of what it should be?), “some time” (could you vague that up for me? Also, I think you mean ‘sometime.’).
  11. Lastly, and perhaps most important, mind your subscriber list. This post was kicked off because I just received a newsletter I did not sign up for. To add insult to injury, it was sent from someone who asked for a writing critique some years back (I gave it. It was not very well received). Apparently, he/she thought it would be okay to add me to the email list. A world of no.

The Dark Enquiry, Deanna Raybourn, and What An Author Needs

July 5, 2011 6 comments


I’m currently reading Deanna Raybourn‘s The Dark Enquiry, the latest book in her Julia Grey series (I still maintain that Silent in the Grave has one of the best opening lines, ever. Don’t believe me? CHECK IT OUT.). I’m attempting to read through the novel slowly, which is like giving me coffee one drop at a time. Sure, I’m enjoying it, but I have a tendency to want to gulp it down.

The book, of course, is divine. Raybourn writes with such wit and beauty. Even if you’ve never picked up a mystery novel, or a work of historical fiction, you’ll love her writing. It’s poetry and intrigue blended together with deft skill. (I’ve even got my mother hooked on her novels. We exchange books quite often, and she’s just going to have to wait to get her hands on TDE. My precioussssss. *ahem*)

On a serious note, though — first, congratulations to Deanna for becoming a NYT Bestseller. At the risk of sounding madly conceited, I knew it would happen. Because she’s just that good at writing. And no, that’s not me blowing sunshine up anyone’s existence. It’s fact.

Second, I was reading this interview a little while ago, and it is a good (fun) one. However, as a writer myself, I might’ve cheered out lout a bit (embarrassing? Yes. True? Also yes.) at this:

And my husband has been my biggest champion—whenever I moaned about the lack of money and said I needed to go and get a job his response was always, “You have a job. You’re a writer. You’re just not published yet.”

That made me happy. It also reminded me of Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own, but the Woolf bit is ancillary. Having that kind of support is priceless. It can be damned tough to toil for years (with, I’m sure, people asking, “Why haven’t you published anything yet?” or “Why don’t you publish something?” as if things like that grow on trees or can be found at Wal-Mart) without being able to point to a bookshelf. Having folks around you (family, friends etc) to champion your art and hard work? It is invaluable. It is nice to see that kind of support, too (if you read the entire interview, you’ll see that it DOES take a village to raise a writer, which is great phrasing). I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess to wondering if Deanna’s husband has a single brother. What? You were thinking the same thing, admit it.

This is a lesson, folks. It takes TIME and hard work to learn a craft. It also takes a certain level of tenacity — of not giving up. Because, hell, if you give up writing — you are standing in your own way. Deanna Raybourn has mentioned, before, that it took her 14 years to get a publishing contract. That is dedication, and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I admire that greatly.

So, again, Deanna — congrats! And to the rest of you, read her novels. You won’t be disappointed.

Battling Your Dragons: Your Insecurities Think You are Tasty and Good with Ketchup

(A repost you all haven’t seen. Written a few years back. Enjoy!)

Something I’ve noticed about writers is that we can be our own harshest critic. We get frustrated when the words don’t come. Perhaps it’s because we’re all striving for perfection, because we have something to say. And damn it, we’d like to be appreciated for it. (Great Caesar’s Ghost! When did I start talking like I’m the Representative of Writers Everywhere?)

In my more difficult moments, I’ve threatened to make a bonfire out of everything I’ve ever written. Or shouted something like, “This is why Hemingway DRANK!” I’ve looked at lines I once thought were brilliant (or, at the very least, good) and felt a sickening dread, convinced that they’re actually crap. Crap, spread heavily on Shit Toast. (That image won’t leave your mind for a while. Trust me.)

But the question is this: how does someone combat fear and insecurity? The short answer is ‘any way that you can.’ You know, as long as it doesn’t involve cocaine, reenacting a scene from Rebel without a Cause, or clowns. Clowns are horrible minions of Satan. Or did you miss that memo? The Bobs are always forgetting to circulate the memos. (Suddenly, I’m wondering if enough people have seen Office Space. You must.) All joking aside, there isn’t an artist out there who doesn’t wonder if something he/she has made is crap masquerading as brilliance. There are going to be days where you wonder why you bother, and if what you’ve done will be appreciated. (Remember: Momma said there’ll be days like this.)

So, when your ego cracks wide open, and you’re twitching on the floor (or rocking in a corner), there are a few things you can do.

  • Reach out and touch someone. Call someone. A friend. A family member. It doesn’t matter. We all need an ego boost that originates from someone who believes in us. Don’t be afraid to need that.
  • This too shall pass. Whatever happened to make you internally cringey will pass. That feeling isn’t permanent. It’s like having a Confidence Flu. Sure, you might be all shaky and feel like crap. But once things run their course, you’ll be fine. And you will be.
  • Compare yourself. Now, like inconceivable, this doesn’t mean what you think it does. I had an epiphany once, and it might not be entirely advisable (the specific epiphany, not epiphanies in general). It is, however, worth mentioning. I bought a book (surprise!), because the blurb on the back sounded interesting. I didn’t know anything about the author. I had a couple of days to relax, so I plowed through it. And honestly? Worst book I ever read. Not only were the characters flat, uninspired, and un-compelling (not a word, I know. As an English major, I reserve the right to make things up. Shush), but I spent the entire book waiting for something to happen. It was almost as bad as reading Dickens. (One day, I’m going to rewrite Oliver Twist just to piss off that man’s ghost. He made a semester of Grad. school a living Hell. *shakes fist*) Not only was the plot awful, but the entire manuscript was riddled with horrible grammar and a plethora of typos. (Every writer’s worst nightmare. Or close to it.) So, it occurred to me: if that book was published, then there is no reason on this earth that mine won’t be. Maybe that’s a buggy way of looking at things, but it helped me.
  • Put one foot in front of the other. The important thing is to keep at it. Even if you’re unsure. Keep going. Do not underestimate the act of simply pushing on. If you give up, or scrap everything, the only person you’ve given up on is yourself. If you do that, I will hurt you. Well, maybe I won’t. But I’d like to. Because you’re the only one who can write what you’ve written or are writing. No one anywhere can produce what you are creating. And if you take that uniqueness from the world, how are the rest of us supposed to benefit from it? What if Shakespeare decided to pack it in? What if Barry Eisler got halfway through Rain Fall and decided that it was too difficult? Or Deanna Raybourn simply forgot her manuscript of Silent in the Sanctuary in a drawer, for some reason? Hell, what if e.e. cummings gave up on himself, because was too quirky and too left of the middle? One of my favorite poems would not exist (“somewhere,I have never travelled gladly beyond”). What if someone out there is waiting for inspiration, and your novel, short story, poem, mixed media collage, or song is IT? Where would I be, today, without Sarah McLachlan? Or coffee? (Oh, god. Please let us NEVER find out.) You see, the hard truth is this: no one ever wins by quitting. And other people might lose out. Think of all the people who have inspired you. What if they never happened? Bad picture, isn’t it? “As a writer, you can’t allow yourself the luxury of being discouraged and giving up when you are rejected, either by agents or publishers. You absolutely must plow forward.” ~Augusten Burroughs
  • Boost your own ego. Is there something you’ve made that you’re really proud of? Do you have a note of praise from a teacher, professor, friend, colleague, or critique partner? When you’re feeling crappy, go read it. Read it and realize that people see value in you, even if you currently don’t. Hang on to that truth.
  • Objectivity isn’t a stable creature. When I’m feeling insecure, I am the most appalling judge of my own abilities. I will look at a poem I absolutely loved and loathe it with all my heart. I will find so many faults with it, so many ways it falls short. I will wonder whatever possessed me to write the damn thing in the first place. And why I wasted my ink, pencil lead, or time typing. But the truth is that I am not my audience. Yes, I write what I like and what pleases me. (I’m not about to sit down and plunk out a history book.) But it’s not about whether or not I love the work I’ve made; honestly, I am fickle and a very harsh critic. I realize that I can’t always be my own cheerleader. But then I think about why I’ve written what I have. If I’ve created something that says something, leaves an impression, evokes an emotion, or proves a point—then I’ve done it right. So, I shrug off the feelings of insecurity, grab a cup of coffee, and move on. Find out what works for you. I guarantee you, there is a way.

Well, there you have it. Just a few tricks that might help you. Truthfully, I can’t force you to believe in yourself. But I can help you try. And, at the very least, I can remind you to fake it, if necessary. Every published author has rejections lurking in a corner. Every artist was looked at quizzically and without appreciation. Gone with the Wind was rejected 25 times. Perseverance is essential. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it is. But in a way, we are all responsible for our success. Push on. Otherwise, you’ll be the one to get in your own way.

There are so many quotes out there about why writers write. The simple truth is that we can’t help it. There are stories in our heads and characters speaking in our dreams. Sometimes, it is an act of will. We want you to see something a certain way. But most of the time, we’re just out to tell a story. Or at least that’s how I see it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got miles to go before I sleep and lots of coffee I need to drink.

No One Told Me There’d Be Math

May 15, 2011 7 comments

Putting a book together, to self-publish, is hard. Understanably so. However, I was a little unprepared for what I’d find. BEHOLD: 

  1. It involves math. At least if you’re doing a print copy. In order to format the cover properly, I needed accurate dimensions. There was an equation involved. Words like “trim size” and “bleed” were thrown around. My brain, miraculously, did not explode. (I’m an English major. Math is not my favorite thing.)
  2. Designing the cover is hard work. I’m pretty good with graphic design. HOWEVER, yesterday morning, I found myself having difficulty importing a picture, wondering which color the background should be (I had six different versions), and trying to decide why all the fonts on earth suddenly looked stupid. It was not my finest five hour span. I may have needed an unusually large excess of coffee.
  3. I used a template for the inside. The only trouble was that it was formatted for a novel, not poetry. I had to do some tweaking, which was fine. Except for the table of contents, which might’ve been my Sisyphean boulder. Also, the header was slightly evil, since it was alterating by odd and evil page. I suspect it was possessed.
  4. I’m completely neurotic. If there is a grammatical error, typo, or missing word — I may cry. I edited the manuscript several different ways — on the computer screen, printed out (three times), read out loud, read from the last page first, and finally gave it to my mother to take a crack at. If there is an error, it is not mine. The Crazy Word Faeries simply played a mean trick. Really. I promise. *crosses fingers behind my back*
  5. I’m still a bit weebly on how to price the collection of poetry. Somewhere between five dollars and a lifetime supply of coffee seems appropriate. I’m thinking around 12 for a print copy. I haven’t gotten around doing an ebook, yet.

There are more things, but I am in dire need of more java. Seriously. If I don’t get more, the world will end. Or I’ll just be grumpy.