Best Advice, Worst Advice: Why Good Writing Advice is Sometimes Bad

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When it comes to writing advice, there’s bad advice and then there’s good advice that sometimes goes bad. Plain bad advice is easy to spot; it’s the stuff that makes you roll your eyes or laugh out loud, as TC Editor Stephanie Lenz (Baker) did once upon a time at a “a public writers’ get-together sponsored by a major magazine.” Baker recalls: “The instructor spent ten minutes advising people on what font to use for manuscripts. She said that ‘Lucida Handwriting’ is on the ‘acceptable’ list of fonts to use for your manuscript. And I only remember that out of her bag of bad advice because it’s where I laughed out loud and got dirty looks.”

Bad advice is notable only for its wackiness; it’s easy to identify and even easier to dismiss. Bad good advice is more complicated. This is the kind of familiar writing advice that does seem to have merit—if only because it’s so frequently repeated—but at the same time may feel oppressive when you try to put into practice. You know the kind of advice I’m talking about—standard writing maxims like “write what you know,” “eliminate adverbs,” and “show, don’t tell.” Pervasive advice like this often feels like it’s a rule rather than a suggestion. And therein lies the problem.

Background Image: Lisa Norwood/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Beware of Always/Never Rules

The main difficulty with popular writing advice is not that it’s inherently bad, but that it’s presented as an absolute: you must always do this; you should never do that. Additionally, most of this advice has been boiled down to such pithy phrases that the meanings have often become unclear.

  • Write what you know

One oft-heard refrain is “write what you know.” This advice can be perplexing since, as TC Editor Ana George notes, “the point of fiction is making stuff up.” If writers were to follow “write what you know” literally, then all anyone would ever write would be memoir. Of course, that’s not the case. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean that you can only write your personal life story; it means you need to draw on the things you do know to create a realistic fictional world.

Better advice: make sure you know your fictional setting and characters inside-out. As Baker says, “Set your story in a place you know. You don’t have to have been there but you need to know it, from how it smells in the morning to what the people who live there do in their free time.” Ana adds, “In order to have a setting that sounds realistic, you do have to make the details consistent, but it’s fine to have the whole thing invented.”

  • Eliminate adverbs (also adjectives, similes, metaphors)

This purpose of this advice is to encourage writers to choose better—more specific—verbs and nouns. So “sprinted” is a better choice than “ran quickly,” “raisin” is better than “dried grape” and “industrious” is better than “busy as a bee.” A few original similes and metaphors will always have more impact than many overused ones—as TC Forum Host Faith Watson (fmwrites) says, “Best advice I ever received was actually a command from a boss when I used to write marketing copy: ‘Quit it with the extended metaphors. It reads lazy.'” That said, you’ll never get rid of every adverb—”always” is an adverb, and sometimes “always” is the word you need.

Better advice: eliminate unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, similes, and metaphors.

  • Show, don’t tell

“Show, don’t tell” is another familiar mantra that can be confusing—after all, aren’t you telling a story? Like “eliminate adverbs,” this one is meant to discourage writers from taking lazy shortcuts. Instead of telling the reader: “Bob was sad because his dog had died.” you could show the reader that Bob was sad by writing, “Bob pinched back tears as he caught a glimpse of Rover’s bowl, still full of kibble.” Showing generally has more impact on readers because it allows them to figure out what’s happening for themselves and make their own judgments; it makes them a participant and thus invests them in the story. However, showing everything would make for an unnecessarily long (and most likely boring) story. Telling is perfectly appropriate in some circumstances, for example, summarizing what happened during a leap forward in time—just as montage sequences in movies do.

Better advice: be sure to show the important scenes.

  • Avoid passive voice

In general, using active voice (“Jack threw a rock at the window”) is a good idea; it’s more direct and therefore more engaging than passive voice (“A rock was thrown at the window by Jack”). However, sometimes passive voice is appropriate, particularly in situations where the subject of the sentence is unknown or unimportant. For example, if your narrator was unaware who threw the rock, “A rock was thrown at the window” might be preferable to “Someone threw a rock at the window,” especially if you want the focus to be on the rock rather than the unknown rock thrower.

Better advice: use active voice most of the time. Keep in mind that the related advice to seek out “was” and “were” to eliminate passive sentences can be misleading; the presence of was/were is not a definitive indicator that a sentence is passive. For example, “Jack was throwing rocks at the window” is an active sentence.

  • Always use said

Also good as a general rule: using “said” as your primary dialogue tag. Said is unobtrusive and even when used frequently, doesn’t become annoying in the way that more effusive tags like “shouted,” “cried,” and “whispered” can. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should never use a different dialogue tag. Like metaphors, descriptive dialogue tags can be very effective if used sparingly. A single use of “whispered” will stand out if it’s the first deviation from “said” in some time, whereas it is less likely to have any impact if it just one more in a series of creative dialogue tags (yelled, bellowed, coughed, guffawed, whispered…).

Better advice: use dialogue tags other than said only occasionally.

  • Don’t write in first person / Stick to one point-of-view

While it’s true that writing in first person has limitations that writing in third person doesn’t and that switching points of view is more complicated than sticking to one throughout, there is no reason not to write in first person and/or have multiple viewpoint characters if you know what you are doing (why you are using a particular point-of-view, how to switch points-of-view without confusing the reader).

Better advice: always be aware of whose point-of-view you are telling your story from and know why you are using it. As TC Member Sparky99 says, “A writer who has published a number of novels led a discussion at a conference I went to. One woman in the audience kept asking him questions like ‘I’ve been told you can’t switch voices in the same chapter. Is that true?’ To each of her questions, he kept saying the same thing… it doesn’t matter as long as you tell a good story.”

Always Good Advice

  • Just Write

Ana says, “Just write. Don’t worry about how good it is. Edit later. Write in the now.” Baker concurs, “Allow yourself to write crap. It’s how successful NaNoWriMo participants win. Don’t edit as you go and don’t feel that the first draft has to be gold. Write like a shark—you stop moving forward, you die.”

TC Editor Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman) adds, “Best writing advice I ever got was from my very first creative writing teacher (Martha Grimes, who had at the time just published her first novel so was still teaching community courses): ‘The rewriting is more important than the writing.'”

  • Keep Writing

Sparky99 says, “Keep writing. I don’t necessarily talk to too many people who are already writing. I talk to a lot of people who wish they could write and I always tell them to sit down and try. To go to places like Toasted Cheese and look at some of the prompts and see what they can make happen.”

TC Editor Lisa Olson (Boots) adds, “Write for yourself,” which is a good tip to keep in mind particularly for those times when you’re discouraged (not another rejection!) or when the people in your life aren’t being as supportive of your writing aspirations as they could be. If you write for yourself first, you will always have a reason to keep writing.

  • Create Enthusiasm

Baker suggests, “Don’t stop for the session unless you have at least an idea of what will happen next. It’ll save you time at your next session and you won’t dread sitting down to write. It creates enthusiasm.” Boots has a similar strategy: “Write little markers to follow the next day. I did this all during NaNoWriMo this year and it really worked. It’s like a mini outline. While I didn’t always stay on track, it gave me a path to follow.”

While these specific tips might not work for you, the important thing is find something that does. Why do you put off sitting down to write? What gets you excited about getting started (or back at your work-in-progress)? Do whatever it takes to minimize procrastination and maximize enthusiasm.

  • Trust Your Voice

Writers often hear “you should write like [author/style/genre/book]” or they’re encouraged to write whatever is currently popular, or to not write anything too unique. Beware of anyone who advises you to make drastic changes to your style or thinks you should write chick lit when your genre is fantasy. TC Member mikemunsil says, “Never accept just one opinion; hear it at least three times before you even take the opinion into consideration.”

Boots notes the importance of trusting advice-givers: do they know what they’re talking about? Do they have your best interests in mind? Above all, trust yourself, and trust your voice. Your writing should sound like you wrote it, not like someone else did (even if “someone else” is a rich and famous author).

  • Break the Rules

Whether it’s hearing that you must join a critique group (or participate in NaNoWriMo or take a writing class or get an MFA…), that you absolutely need to outline your story or novel, that dedicated writers write every day… writers are constantly bombarded with well-meant advice. But remember, it’s just that. Advice.

If the “rules” help you, great. If not, break them. Just make sure, as Ana points out, that you “know what rules you’re breaking and why.”

Thanks to everyone at the TC forums who helped with this article!

Final Poll Results

Write Through This: Strategies for Writing About Real-Life Conflict and Tragedy

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The first time I ran across the Garrison Keillor aphorism “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer; everything is material” it immediately resonated with me because it so succinctly summarized how I feel about being a writer.

The upside of being a writer is that it’s impossible to ever be bored. You can write about washing dishes, or standing in line, or watching paint dry. It’s all material.

Another perk is that the best material is often found in the downs of life’s ups and downs. Being a writer means you can actually take perverse pleasure in all the hellish experiences of your life—the vacation disasters, the bad breakups, the medical crises—because as bad as they are to get through at the time, you know they’re going to make a good story later. But while some things quickly go from nightmare to comedic gold—like the trip where the airline lost my luggage and I ended up at a hostel that was straight out of Dickens—other subjects can be trickier to handle.

Your job with the boss and co-workers you can’t stand (think: The Office) might be a rich source of material, but everyone knows that writing about work might get you fired. Writing about family and friends is another touchy subject—as much as you might like to relate the wacky hijinks that ensued at this year’s family reunion, even lighthearted teasing has the potential to hurt feelings. So while writing about your dysfunctional family might seem like a great idea in theory, contemplating the potential repercussions can be enough to cause an epic case of writer’s block.

For other events, it’s not the consequences of what you might write that cause the block, but your own reluctance to revisit a painful event. The loss of a loved one, the battle with a life-threatening illness, the lifelong dream that didn’t pan out—all of these events beg to be written about, but at the same time can be so distressing to revisit that you perpetually avoid doing so.

And while we writers know that risky or heartbreaking material can be the most worthwhile to write about—and the most interesting to read about—if we can only get over our blocks, compounding the dilemma is not knowing how to approach these momentous events. Because the things that touch each of us most deeply are often the same things that impact others, many of these topics (e.g. birth, love, death) have been written about ad nauseum. As such, it can be all too easy to slip into clichés, and it’s not an insignificant concern that you’ll end up sounding cheesy when you’re aiming for profound.

While a straightforward personal essay or memoir might seem like the logical way to approach real-life material, if that’s not working for you, why not switch things up and try something different? Here are some suggestions for approaching difficult topics:

Background Image: Leo Reynolds/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Use a pseudonym. Writing under a fictitious name might be for you if your primary concern is the potential consequences of having your writing connected with your everyday self. This approach is popular with academic bloggers who want to connect with other teachers/professors, but don’t necessarily want their students (or employers) reading their blogs. If you’re serious about keeping your identity under wraps, in addition to changing your name, you’ll also want to leave out (or change) other identifying details: names of other people, cities, schools, places of work, etc. The downfall of this approach is that it can be unsatisfying for readers: the more you leave out, the more difficult it becomes for readers to understand what you’re talking about and connect with your experience.

Keep a journal. A private journal is a good option if fears of repercussions are preventing you from being as honest and open as you’d like to be. Do what you need to so that you can write without censoring yourself: buy yourself an old-school diary with a lock, write “Private! Keep Out!” on your notebook, or password-protect your Word document. Don’t worry that you’re wasting time by “simply” keeping a journal. Natalie Goldberg advises beginning writers to fill notebooks for two years before trying to publish, and while you may be beyond this stage, there’s nothing preventing you from “just” journaling about this particular topic, while still working on other projects for publication. Later, your journal may form the basis of a personal essay or memoir. Or, it may become a project in itself—many writers have published excerpts from their notebooks or written books on the writing process based on their journals. What you write now can always be used later.

Wait. While some people have the gift to write about a traumatic event while it’s happening, not everyone is so self-possessed. When you’re feeling sick or overwhelmed, the last thing you may want to do is sit down and craft a narrative arc. If you’re afraid you’ll forget important details if you don’t write them down right away, a dayplanner is a low-stress way to keep track of events—you can annotate existing reminders and tuck in accumulated ephemera to create a reference you can look back to when you are up to writing about it. Another reason to wait is that sometimes time is needed for context and perspective. Most childhood memoirs aren’t written until the writers have some life experience behind them (Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy, for example, was published when she was 36). A memoir written too soon—without the experience to sympathize with the viewpoints of others in your story—may come off as narcissistic and shallow. Simply being observant and waiting for the pieces of your story to click into place in the short term can result in a story with more depth and nuance in the long run.

Try another medium. Sometimes you know what you want to say—but the words aren’t coming together. Working visually rather than verbally engages a different part of your brain and may make it easier to tell the story you want to tell. You don’t need to be an artist. You can draw, paint, take photographs, collage pictures from magazines… whatever works for you. Comic strips are a natural medium for writers since they bridge writing and drawing, and are amenable to simple drawing styles (see xkcd, for example). Working visually is also an alternative to consider if privacy is one of your concerns. Karen Walrond initially kept a journal-style blog to document her daughter’s adoption and first years of life, but was uncomfortable with the idea of writing about her daughter as she got older. Instead of giving up blogging entirely, she started a photoblog. By posting photos, she was able to continue documenting her life and family in a way that was comfortable for her. As time passed, written commentary crept back into her posts, and the latest incarnation of her blog incorporates both text and photos (which demonstrates that comfort levels can change over time—so listen to yourself and be willing to adapt).

Write in installments. Beginning to write about a life-changing experience can be daunting, but there’s no reason you have to do it all at once. Another alternative is to write your story as a serial—in the vein of comic strips and soap operas—adding a little bit to the story with each installment. Despite Wired declaring blogs so 2004, they are well-suited to this kind of writing. If you blog you’ll probably also end up with an audience, particularly if you commit to a schedule (weekdays, three days a week). This may sound scary at first, but the feedback an audience provides can be a great incentive to keep writing through the hard parts—a big bonus if you’ve had a tendency to give up rather than pushing through when the writing got tough. If a blog seems like too much of a blank canvas, you might try Twitter (you’re limited to 140 characters per post) or join the 100 Words challenge (write exactly 100 words each day)—or set up your own parameters.

Alternate topics. There’s also no rule that you have to stick with the difficult topic exclusively until you finish with it. Give yourself a breather: write about it, then write about something else. These things might be closely related or more loosely tied. Maud Newton‘s blog is primarily about books and writing, but she has been researching her family history and occasionally posts photos and family stories. Anderson Cooper’s memoir Dispatches from the Edge intersperses his own personal tragedies (the deaths of his father and brother) with the tragedies he has witnessed as a reporter. Interspersing personal drama with more prosaic material can also prevent a memoir from becoming too syrupy—and perhaps attract a wider audience. For example, you might alternate revisiting your grandmother’s favorite recipes with your memories of helping her cook, creating something that would appeal equally to people who like to cook and those who are interested in your grandma’s life story.

Beginning at the beginning. Instead of jumping right into the dramatic event, go back—way back—and write up to it. When Madeleine L’Engle’s husband, Hugh, was dying, she wrote Two-Part Invention. The book starts with their different childhoods, then how they met, and progresses through the various stages of their marriage, until she gets to Hugh’s illness. Saving the drama to the end not only eases the writer into it, but has the benefit of creating added poignancy for the reader. If you’re writing about a death, in particular, taking time to build up to the loss gives your readers a chance to get to know your beloved family member so that when you do get to the sad part, they will share your grief—in other words, instead of thinking, “I’m sad for you,” they’ll actually be sad. This recent newspaper story isn’t a first-person account, but uses this technique very well.

Write a song or poem. With poetry and lyrics, you can focus on impressions rather than details—a good option if what’s important is capturing the emotion of the event rather than preserving a step-by-step account. It’s also a good way of dealing with an event that might come off as overly sappy or cliched if you document it exactly as it happened. This approach also allows for readers/listeners to have their own different interpretations of the event depicted. For example, the Spirit of the West song “Goodbye Grace” is actually about band member Geoffrey Kelly’s son who was born prematurely—the “Grace” of the song is a hospital, not a person. However, unless you’ve heard him tell the story, you might have a completely different interpretation of the song, the chorus of which goes: “Goodbye Grace / There are no words I’d rather say / Than goodbye Grace / Never want to see your face again.”

Take an informative approach. Taking a more neutral (journalistic/academic) position may help you to be able to write about a challenging topic. Instead of focusing just on your own personal experience, take the pressure off by seeking out the accounts of others who shared a mutual experience (as with a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane) or who have had similar experiences (as with an illness or loss of a family member). Poet Anna Evans recently had a series of medical issues that she thinks were precipitated by the kind of birth control pills she was taking. Evans is working on a memoir about her experiences, but is also soliciting the experiences of others who have had similar problems.

Fictionalize. Although true stories are the trend du jour, fiction can be just as (if not more) compelling. Inserting a narrator between you and your story can make your story easier to write; it enables you to distance yourself from your own pain and see the story from different points of view. Fictionalizing also allows you to fill in details that are unknown or that you can’t remember without resorting to the dreaded fake memoir, and can lessen many of the concerns that writing non-fiction raises (offending people, potential backlash, etc.). For example, after summering at a law firm, Jeremy Blachman wrote Anonymous Lawyer from the perspective of a hiring partner, rather than a memoir from the perspective of a law student. (Ironically, however, before Anonymous Lawyer was a book, it was a blog that many people believed was non-fiction.)

These alternate approaches can work simply as exercises to get the words flowing—or you may find that what results turns out better than the project you originally envisioned. Ultimately, the approach you take will depend on your purpose for writing and who you’re writing for, as well as what your concerns are with writing about the topic in question.

Final Poll Results

What Brand of Writer Are You? Part II: Building a Strong, Successful Brand

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By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Part One of this article (August 2008) introduced the concept of branding yourself and your writing. The benefits of building a brand from your writing were discussed in the same terms as consumer brand marketing. We defined a brand as occupying a position representing the solid aspects of the relationship it offers to prospects (potential readers and editors) by demonstrating consistent characteristics, and standing for something of value to its users (readers and publishers).

Whether it’s business marketing or creative writing terms, a brand is both a strategy and a result. It includes the attributes its creator has decided to promote and the benefits of capitalizing on them. From the customer perspective, a brand stands for something, so it is selected with a certain favorable bias.

In the August installment, writers were asked to inventory their writing brand and arrive at a clear statement of their brand essence to develop a general platform. This platform is used to both guide and measure the work of a writer who is interested in owning a propriety brand for their work. Here in Part II, we are going to use two sample brand platforms to explain how writers can build and strengthen their writing brands over time.

In other words, let’s learn how we can make the branding idea work for you.

Background Image: Marina Noordegraaf/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Expand on Your Essence

Sure, branding sounds like all boring business, but there is also some fun to be had along the way if you are a creative person looking to grow your potential with writing. Looking at two sample writing brand platforms from Part I, we can use them to demonstrate how the basics of brand-building apply to writing for pleasure and profit:

Gabby: I craft travel stories that always end with a connection to the universal qualities of the human condition. My audience enjoys up close and personal tales of little known and exotic places, and the everyday stories of the people who inhabit them.

Luke: Sickeningly realistic slasher novels with a hard drinkin’, no holds barred, in your face attitude. Favorite short stories for reading while waiting for new dagger tattoo.

The first brand building tactic you should use is surveillance. It’s important for you to know what’s out there in all the places you’d like to be a force. You should regularly survey the markets and the competition for your writing.

In Gabby’s case, she should keep an eye on travel magazines worldwide, including in-flight and cruise cabin publications. Direct source publications such as city cultural organizations or chambers of commerce shouldn’t be overlooked. Who is writing all the articles on small towns in the US costal states these days? Is photography a key element?

For Luke, it’s important that he look for new openings in his already well-defined market. If he has direct access to readers with similar interests, he can take advantage of that and survey them directly. What are they reading? Can he lurk on their favorite online forums?

The second tactic falls in line right after the first. Writers should take stock of their ammunition. Repair it, polish it, load it and distribute it accordingly. If you have come this far and actually have a notion of the type of brand you’re pushing, then surely you have some writing and knowledge to collect and use, right? Put it in play!

Luke may have three notebooks filled with scary, gory stories, just like the ones he likes to read. Now is the time for him to type them up, get some feedback and hit those target markets which he identified during surveillance. If he’s farther along than that, say, with a pile of rejection slips, it’s time for him to retool and rearm. How can he hone his work according to his aspirations for his brand, as well as his competition?

Gabby may have sold several stories over the last few years, but feel her pay scale is lacking as well as her prestige. Perfect opportunity for a branding approach! How can she inflate her perceived value? Is it the locations she is writing about, or the interests of the readers she is targeting? Fine dining and elite travel markets can be cracked, but perhaps not by a simple story following an island coconut. Unless the coconut was enjoyed by a popular celebrity chef, or compared to a coconut costing five times as much on another island more favored by rich tourists. In the world of brands, perception is everything.

More experienced writers will also want to consider if it’s time to expand their brands.

Sometimes print markets dry up, but in today’s webscape, there are always new doors opening as well. Many of them rely on the niche. Gabby can create an all-coconut blog or pitch a book of her reviews and photos of famous sunsets around the world. Luke can self-publish and invest in enough copies for every tattoo parlor in a 100-mile radius, for starters. (And, he might even be able to write off his expenses for that distribution road trip!) Niches work vertically. But writers can also expand horizontally.

For instance, topical trends pop up all the time. Writers can grow their brands in new directions by maintaining a simple awareness to widening interests in their general field of specialty.

When Bridges of Madison County became a novel, and then later film, phenomenon (I’m not commenting on quality here, just popularity) a few smart writers expanded their brands horizontally to ride on the county’s and bridges’ new fame. Non-fiction books featuring covered bridges popped up on bookstands and so did stories resembling the tale’s aloof roving photographer and the immigrant country housewife. Gabby might have run into a similar tale or two during her travels, and if she were trying to expand her brand, might have sold them under the umbrella of her travel expertise as well as her platform’s promise to speak of the human condition in little known places.

Another horizontal expansion for a growing writer’s brand can be found in audience. Look at the warm circle of people around Luke’s original audience. A little bit of research might prove that there’s a similar mindset ready to read angry tales of horror and mayhem among users of other kinds of brands. What about motorcycle riders, cigarette smokers, extreme sports enthusiasts or heavy metal musicians? If Luke tries to market his work horizontally, he might find an incredibly receptive audience in other arenas, or better still, a publisher from another genre who wants to expand into fiction like Luke’s.

Keep Your Promises

All things considered, the most important thing any brand of writer can do is keep their promises. An audience or market is like your faithful guard dog at home. When you arrive, you want it to recognize that hand on the doorknob as yours. The best writing will begin with what is in your heart, include real understanding of the topic or characters by the author, and end with something unique and enjoyed by its audience. A brand of writing will help guide you along your path toward achieving all that and more.

I once went to a very looong seminar on branding. I expected to be bored out of my mind but was instead impressed and moved by the possibilities of this mindset and approach. I remember one theory above all that stuck with me regarding our brands, what good they do, and how we relate them:

The quality of your life depends on the quality of your relationships.

The quality of your relationships depends on the quality of your communication.

The quality of your communication (noun) depends on the quality of your communication (verb).

To communicate with truth, style, understanding and conviction is the key to… everything.

In short, writing and trying to sell what you’ve written is just like developing a product and trying to sell that product. Your approach should be to say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you said you were going to do.

It’s really quite simple… but it’s definitely not easy. Still, it’s worth it! The most successful writers in the world (and not all names you recognize, either) have arrived at their success by defining and maximizing the essence and attributes of their brands. Not always deliberately, but you can have that extra advantage now that you know what brand of writer you are.

Final Poll Results

The Virgin Page: A Peek at Writing Erotica

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By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

People are sexual creatures. It’s not something everyone is comfortable admitting, much less exploring through creative writing, but it’s something we need to acknowledge about our characters. Whether you want to write flat-out erotica or just spice up your “vanilla” fiction or poetry, some of the tips and tricks for writing erotica could come in handy for developing your work.

Background Image: CC-by kori monster/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by kori monster/Flickr

What is erotica?

Erotica is sexually explicit literature and may be fiction or poetry. It can have several purposes but what makes it erotica is that it arouses the sensuality of the reader. There is nothing inherently “dirty” about erotic writing but unlike romance fiction, for example, the curtain is not drawn and words are not minced. Erotica is written for and by both men and women, although the majority of the audience for erotica is female.

Erotica is a hot, growing genre and erotica markets can be lucrative. Publishing houses like Ellora’s Cave are dedicated solely to publishing erotic work. There are several online and in-print journals devoted to erotica; Duotrope’s Digest and Erotica Readers and Writers Association are great places to begin searching for markets (and there’s a list at the end of this article). Some erotica journals and publishers run contests, if you’re looking to test the waters.

The world of erotica writers and editors is welcoming and as professional as other genres. Erotica writers take their craft very seriously. Note, however, that not every writing community allows erotica to be posted for feedback (this includes Toasted Cheese, but you are welcome to post a request for feedback via email); ERWA has forums where you can get critique from writers familiar with the genre.

Many mainstream writers also publish erotica under assumed names. In fact, many erotica authors use pseudonyms; this is something to consider if you’re concerned about maintaining your anonymity. Another benefit of using a pseudonym for erotica is that you can keep your credits and portfolios separate. Although things are changing, erotica writers aren’t always given the same respect as other genre writers. Sometimes listing your erotica credits isn’t a bonus to a mainstream editor, agent or publisher. I’ve learned that it’s best only to mention your erotica credits when submitting erotica and if you want to hint at it, say something like “other publications” in your queries and cover letters.

Are there any restrictions involved in writing erotica?

Most erotica journals and writing communities are restricted to those 18 and over. That doesn’t mean you can’t write erotica or use erotic elements in your work if you’re 17 or younger. You can write whatever you like. Publishing your work may be difficult, however, as some journals require that the author be over 18 and to see your work in print you would have to violate the journal’s rules. Getting feedback might be difficult as well but it’s not impossible.

Just about anything goes in erotica; you’ll find niche markets for certain kinds of erotica (bondage or BDSM erotica for example) so if you think something is verboten, you might be surprised. The erotica reader isn’t looking for pornography however. That’s not to say that your erotica can’t be raunchy or smutty. What it means is that she expects well-crafted writing alongside what’s lighting her fire. It’s certainly possible to write beautiful smut (or to write smut beautifully).

There isn’t really a good, clear-cut definition of pornography. What one person finds pornographic, prurient or obscene might not bother or even excite someone else. But the one thing that sets erotica apart from pornography is the artistic nature of the work. For example, a “letter to Penthouse” is likely to be labeled “pornography” rather than erotica. A short story in Clean Sheets might use the same subject or sexual acts as the “letter” but its execution sets it apart as literature and, therefore, erotica. Erotica is artistic and expressive first, sexually exciting second (or simultaneously). Pornography is meant to be sexually exciting without using artistic expression to achieve that end. Of course there are exceptions to these guidelines but in general, that’s how to differentiate.

Usually the restrictions you’ll come across are by publication. One publication might say “no S/M (sadomasochism) please” while another only publishes S/M. Some publishers have to obey the laws of other countries and are legally bound. In the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand—generally speaking—anything goes. For example, it’s not illegal to write erotica featuring underage characters or erotica with homosexual acts. Write without boundaries, no matter what you’re writing.

What sets erotica apart from other writing?

Erotica is just another genre, like sci-fi or horror. There are conventions and expectations. The basics of erotica writing are the same as any creative writing: rounded characters, a plot, action, dialogue and so forth.

It might feel silly to think about dialogue in erotica but when it comes down to it, it’s not the SAT. Silence is not required… or maybe it is and that’s an idea for a story right there. In general though, sexual partners speak to each other before, during and after sexual activity.

In fact, an erotic story doesn’t even need sexual action but it, like most any story, it will need some kind of action. All that means is that there is a journey between opening and closing paragraph. Your protagonist need never get out of her seat on the subway to have an erotic experience.

If you want to add erotic elements to an existing story, go for it. You know these characters better than they know themselves. What gets their engines stoked? Write some erotic scenes and if they don’t fit with your story, you’ve still gotten to know those characters that much better.

Erotica can exist alongside another genre in the same work (erotic western, erotic fantasy, erotic crime, erotic graphic novels, etc.). All you need is some sexuality and, hopefully, some sex. Erotica can also be an ingredient in a work that’s mainly in another genre (think single scenes in mainstream or literary fiction). You know, the “good parts” where library books have dog-eared corners.

The main thing about using erotic elements in mainstream work is that they need to fit with the feel of the remainder of the work. Use language that’s conducive to the language already in place. If your narrator wouldn’t use certain terms, save them for a stand-alone piece.

Speaking of four letter words…

Erotica embraces language—all elements of language, including words that some find offensive. The flip side of the offensiveness is that the words are also titillating. Erotica readers generally don’t care for pieces that use euphemisms like “member.” They want to read the blue words, especially the “Queen Mother of Dirty Words.” Erotica readers don’t want to dance around the sex; sex is what the reader expects.

It’s okay to be embarrassed about language or situations. Same goes for your characters. Not every written sex scene has to be the World’s Best Experience. Like a conversation, it can be bad, mediocre or fantastic. They might be embarrassed about what they’re doing so why not write that? Or if they’re uncomfortable, let us know. It develops your character.

If you’re not writing stand-alone erotica, it’s important that your scenes mesh with the surrounding work, not just in tone but as part of the story. Make sure you’re not shoehorning in some sex just for the sake of sex. The scene can change the dynamic between characters, reveal a secret, turn the plot 180 degrees, etc. It’s likely that your sex scene won’t just be a sex scene. If it is, you can always lift it and edit it into a stand-alone.

Back to the embarrassment factor…

You might worry about what people will think. The people who know I write erotica aren’t really surprised and are more intrigued than anything. If people don’t like it or don’t want to talk about it, they change the subject or clam up. In my experience, the reaction is more often, “Tell me about it.” People ask for copies of the stories and want to know when I’m writing more. Then again, I’m not terribly concerned about the opinions of others. You can be a highly successful erotica writer and no one need ever know it’s you. However, I’ve also found that when you’re “out” about writing erotica, you have a legion of volunteer editors happy to read your latest work.

How do I get started?

One way to get started is to do some exercises to help determine what you want to write. Do you want to write something new or add to an existing work? For a new piece, think about what you find erotic. Maybe it’s a dream or a fantasy you’ve had. Maybe you’ve had a real experience you could turn into a story. Hrm—that doesn’t sound so unlike regular fiction or poetry, does it?

Anyone can write erotica, whether you’re a virgin or sexually experienced, a great lover or a lousy lover. As I wrote in the opening paragraph: people are sexual creatures. Everyone has something that excites him or her. The key is not to be shy about it. If it works for you, chances are it works for someone else. Besides, you can always deny that it’s something you dig. That’s the beauty of fiction—you are not (necessarily) your narrator.

An excellent way to get started is to read erotica journals. There’s a list on online journals at the end of this article. Reading other work can help you learn what kinds of words are not only acceptable but expected. Even better: it’s fun to read! Erotica has a determined goal: to excite the reader in a sexual way but also in a literary way. What’s happening in the action of the story might not be your cup of tea but the literary effect could be quite stimulating. Writers are naturally turned on by words; after all, the primary sexual organ is the brain.

Write with emotion and passion. We don’t need to know whose foot is where or how they moved from position A to position B (unless it’s relevant). Sex is within and without, physical, emotional, and mental. Let us know what’s happening inside your character’s head and heart as much as between her legs or on her skin. How does she feel about what’s happening?

Of course we all want to be shown what’s happening. The best advice I can give on how to do this is to trust yourself and your writing. If it feels good, write it. The pieces you find in other journals can also help guide you in terms of how to set up your scene and what details you should include. Work at your comfort level but don’t be afraid to challenge your boundaries.

One great thing about writing an erotic scene is that you have a natural plot arc; erotica stories (and some poems) follow the pattern of sexual arousal, complete with climax (a term that’s the same in sex and plotting) and resolution. Of course you don’t have to follow that kind of plot arc. You can have a character’s climax in the first paragraph (or none at all) but if you’re anxious about getting started, it’s a convenient tool to help you structure and complete a story or poem.

You’re also likely to have a myriad of options for sensory detail, which is another reason we don’t need to know whose foot is where. Unlike real-life intimate moments, your writer’s eye can linger on spots, freeze images and pick and choose what is noticed by and conveyed to the reader. Again, your reader expects this kind of detail—it’s what makes your scene or poem erotic and sensual.

If you’re still a little wary or shy about writing erotica, remember that you don’t need to show your work to anyone. You can password-protect your work if you don’t want anyone else to read it. You might be pleasantly surprised by the freedom of writing in a genre anything goes with an eager audience on the other side just waiting to embrace your work.

Recommended reading:

Anthologies and collections:

Websites that offer must-subscribe newsletters:

Books About Writing Erotica

Stephanie Lenz writes erotica as Eden Lenz and Ceilidh Lindsay. Her erotica has appeared in Amoret, Mind Caviar, Abby’s Realm, Asexystory and Best Women’s Erotica 2003. Her mainstream fiction has appeared in “other publications.”

Final Poll Results

What Brand of Writer Are You? Part I: Branding Yourself (It might hurt a little, but it’s for your own good.)

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

McDonald’s®, Pepsi®, Marlboro®, Lexus®, Nike®, Oprah, Britney Spears, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. All of these are brand names. Strong brand names, in fact. However, a marketing specialist will be quick to point out that a brand is much more than just a name. After years as a business branding strategist, I can convey all I know about being a giant in one’s field with this simple concept: a strong brand is a promise kept. As a writer, I can go one better: a successful writer is a strong brand.

Yes, Mark Twain is a brand, and you can be one, too. Knowing what promises you’re making, to whom, and keeping them, is the way to define and build your own writing success. With a bit of introspection, honesty and accountability, writers can benefit from the same strategies used to build leading brands in the marketplace. Twain might have done it by chance; you can start branding yourself right now. Let’s start with the basics:

Background Image: Marina Noordegraaf/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

What is a brand?

A brand occupies a position in the mind. Ideally, the brand owns a singular space that serves as “mental shorthand” for a much larger set of attributes and associations within a broader class or category.

Far more than its name, logo, or product features, a brand represents all aspects of the relationship it offers to prospects. A strong brand offers a strong relationship by keeping its promises and consistently demonstrating its character.

In sum, a brand stands for something; and a great brand stands for something great, making it uniquely valued within its users’ experiences over time.

Test out any of the brand names in the first paragraph against the definition above. Americans, at least, will have an equally clear, automatic impression of Marlboro, as they will of Oprah. The Marlboro man represents ruggedness. Oprah is the supreme example of offering a strong relationship to her prospects and consistently demonstrating her brand character.

But what about Britney? Well, cringe as we might, brands stand for something, which makes Britney is a very strong brand, but not necessarily a positive one. Brands both profit and suffer from the consequences of the image they build in people’s minds. Still—Britney sells tabloids like no other, and many a rich paparazzi has her image to thank. Her brand is money in the bank.

Now try comparing your writing, and yourself as a writer, against the same brand criteria. Wouldn’t it be incredible to own a singular space in your market? Sure, that’s a dream, but all dream brands have to start somewhere. For writers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the starting point was literally a collaborative fantasy that has branched off to become an extended brand family. They originally wrote “Dragonlance” together, a series of dragon books. Since then, they’ve succeeded as individual writers, and have also been brought back together on a number of products, including role-playing games. If you say these names to a fantasy fan, they know dragons are afoot.

Weis and Hickman are well branded. They provide a great example of how a path to success can arise from positive associations with specific product features. They enjoy an instant bias in their market, and show us the tangible value of a strong brand attribute. They have a platform for their work that began with a creation that was true to their identities. Now, all their prospects know what to expect from them. They’ve offered a relationship with readers, and delivered on their promises. All this keeps their names at the head of their pack, and their image sterling with their fans. So, now we see how your brand as a writer is far more than your name or your features. It is your ability to deliver on the promise of a rewarding relationship with readers… and editors! In this way, it is the future of your writing career. Better still, when you arrive at and stick to a well-defined brand, you’ll have more focus and a clear, enjoyable path for your projects and submissions.

Defining Your Brand

Brand Identity: Branding yourself begins with identifying yourself. Kind of like cattle. Who are you and where does your writing belong? Take inventory. “Know thyself” remains among the greatest advice of all time, so apropos for writers building brands.

What drives your identity as a writer? Some of parts of your identity are internally driven, meaning they come from you. They are either facts about you and your writing, or claims and representations that you make. Nike used the slogan “Just Do It” to provide an instant message about its brand of athletic shoes. Lexus is an expensive luxury car. If you’re Pepsi, you are a sweet brown cola. You are also an affordable beverage found worldwide, associated with youth and pop culture.

What about you? Perhaps you have a very clear defining genre for your work, like Shakespearian sonnets or lesbian pirate erotica, and thus genre is an important identity driver. You might eschew punctuation, or have a famous parent, or write in a style reminiscent of Poe. In all cases, you can only build a successful brand if you know the components you’re working with

Your actual human identity begins the process of defining all the elements of your writing brand. This includes any number of facts about you. If you’re Mark Twain, the Mississippi River matters to your identity. Living in a slave state as a young man matters. Your birth name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, matters to the point that you choose a pen name. Oprah, being black, being a female from the south, being from a poor family, being a spiritual person: it all matters. These traits didn’t have to be focal points of identity, but for a unique brand to build on a reliable promise, this type of authenticity is a good thing.

Then there’s Tom Wolfe. One stroll down the “Alphabetical by Author W” shelf shows how he CAPITALIZES on his NAME as a part of his brand identity relationship with prospective readers. We know who we’re reading when we read one of his books. Just like you know you’re eating in a McDonald’s when you’re under those golden arches.

Maybe your name on a manuscript is not going to pull in as much attention as Tom Wolfe’s does, at least not yet. But one day it could be just as recognizable, if that is what you aspire to. Your intentions for your brand, though, can only take you so far. Your identity might be a thing of beauty, but rest is in the eye of the marketplace beholder.

Brand Image: The fuel of your brand strategy will be leveraging what it is about you as a writer that makes you, you, and makes your writing stand apart from anyone else’s. In the end, perception is everything. What already exists in the mind of your readers is key.

The other half of what drives your writing identity is externally driven, meaning they are factors which exist outside of you. Your image actually resides with others who encounter you and your work. You contribute to your image via the messages you send about your self and your work, so it is crucial that you define your identity and send messages according to the image you want to create. Impressions received from an unsolicited query, and the editor’s feelings about unauthorized biographies, would both be a part of a biography writer’s image. Thus, they would also be part of that writer’s brand.

How you think about what you have to offer can be vastly different from what is received by others. This is why the submissions/rejections process can be so valuable to an aspiring writer. It serves as research on your image. Writers’ groups, online critiquing communities, writing classes and even informal family reads are also windows to your image. Any effort at branding yourself must include feedback, and you’ll do well to take notes on reoccurring criticisms, compliments and questions as part of your market and audience research. Is your writing brand what you think it is? Are you the writer you are intending to be? Only others can answer these image questions. The answers, good and bad, can all be used to your benefit.

For example, some creative writers complicate their identity (what they control) at the expense of their own image (what others experience). Perhaps they try to create an air of mystery or veiled meanings in an effort to keep their audience guessing, and presumably intrigued. But seasoned veterans know it’s hard enough just to get your work read, without adding any unnecessary questions or confusion to the mix.

You might think you are different and that’s a good thing, but not always so if you’re making the reader work hard to “get” your messages. When that happens, your image isn’t at all what you set out to convey with your identity. Furthermore, having a writing brand actually is about being able to be pinned down, in a way. From the marketability perspective, recognizable and understood are not dirty words. There should be an element of predictability in a brand. That’s why people return to it again and again. However, it needs to be predictably good. Stay away from predictable plots, dialogue and imagery!

To help you get started on branding yourself now, take this brief inventory of your own brand identity, then work on creating a concise brand statement you can tape to your computer screen and use to guide all your work.

Your Writing Brand: Take Inventory

  • The physical facts about you (i.e. gender, location, age, background)
  • The technical facts about your writing (genre, specialties, style)
  • The look and sound of your writing
  • The intended audience for your work
  • The type of people who favor your work
  • The markets for your work
  • The benefits for those who read your work
  • The formula or approaches you use for your writing
  • What/who your brand of writing reminds people of
  • In what environments or under what circumstances your readers would be found
  • The competition for your writing in your markets
  • The comparisons to your writing in your markets
  • The challenges and predicted future of your markets
  • What your brand stands for in your opinion

Your Writing Brand: Core Identity Statement

  • What is at the hub, or is the essential, unchanging part of your writing brand identity, around which all other components rotate?

Your brand essence, or core identity, doesn’t need to be fancy. You don’t need a political platform to refer to as you write; rather, you need an easy to use navigation system. Your writing brand can be as simple as the following examples:

I craft travel stories that always end with a connection to the universal qualities of the human condition. My audience enjoys up close and personal tales of little known and exotic places, and the every day stories of the people who inhabit them.

Sensitive, psychologically driven literary fiction featuring prominent female characters and their children, submitted in grammatically and cosmetically perfect form to editors at small local presses.

Sickeningly realistic slasher novels with a hard drinkin’, no holds barred, in your face attitude. Favorite short stories for reading while waiting for new dagger tattoo.

I only write rhyming, long form poetry. I do not strive for anything other than an honorable approach to the traditional poem.

Next month, we’ll address the more specific tactics for building your brand image in Part II of this article.

Final Poll Results

Your First Writers Conference: A Guided Tour

Absolute Blank

By Kristin Baxter

I didn’t get to go to my first writers conference.

In late 2006, I joined Pennwriters, Inc., a Pennsylvania writers group. My reasons for joining were threefold: I wanted to go to their conference, which in most cases is cheaper as a member; I wanted a critique partner who wrote in my genre; and I wanted to network.

I got the critique partner. I’m still working on the networking—breaking into established groups always makes me shy. And the conference? Well, I even submitted the first ten pages of my two young adult novels to the group’s annual writing contest, the results of which are announced at the conference. I was that dead-set on going. As I told my husband, I didn’t hope to actually win (a blatant lie); I wanted the judges’ critiques that came after the contest.

Life doesn’t always agree with our plans, though. In May 2007, when they announced the contest winners at the conference’s Saturday luncheon, I was in my car on I-495, probably having a panic attack as I dealt with D.C.-area traffic for the first time. Somewhere between entering the contest and the actual conference, my husband and I agreed to a temporary move to Virginia for his job. Our moving weekend just happened to coincide with the conference.

I’ll admit I thought of the contest once or twice, on the drive down, but once we got to Virginia everything was so chaotic that I didn’t think of it again until Wednesday. Since we were still without Internet access, I called my mom and helped her access my email. I paced our still furniture-less apartment as she scanned the messages, looking for the right one. You probably didn’t win, I told myself. Don’t expect to win.

“Oh, my God,” Mom said from five hundred miles away. I heard the excitement in her voice, but I couldn’t have guessed what came next. My breath caught in my throat as she read the winners’ list. “‘Novel Beginnings’ Contest: First place, The Malloy Legacy, Kristin Baxter. Third place, Battle of the Hexes, Kristin Baxter.”

It was the first time I ever won anything. And, technically, the second. In retrospect, not attending the conference was probably a boon, since my jumping-screaming-crying reaction may not have made the most professional impression on my peers. It made a lasting impression on the cat, though.

That particular bittersweet experience inspired a singular goal in my mind: I would go to the 2008 conference, and I would take advantage of every second.

Background Image: Centrum Foundation/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

So, in May 2008, I drove to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to attend what should’ve been my second writers conference but was really my first. Throughout that weekend, my heart rose in my throat and plummeted to my stomach, I got several serious cases of jelly knees, and I was exhausted to my very marrow and yet utterly unable to sleep.

This is the mark of a good conference.

I listened raptly to a keynote speech by Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favorite writers. I nearly had a heart attack when an editor from Avon read the first two pages of my novel to an editor from Berkley and another from Tor, as well as a room full of writers, and then all three editors critiqued it. I pitched my novel to an editor from HarperCollins and received a request for the full manuscript.

I came away from the weekend inspired and invigorated, and ready for another year of lonely work. I also arrived home brimming with advice for first-timers.

There are several features to consider when choosing a writers conference. Conferences can be prohibitively expensive once you add everything up. This may be the only time this year, or for several years, that you get to gather with other writers of all genres and areas, at all levels of experience, and learn about the one thing that brings you together. You want the event to be worth every last penny.

Here’s how to figure out which conference is right for you, which features are important and which aren’t, and how to take advantage of every second.


A full conference can cost anywhere from $200 to $1000, and that’s just the base cost. Once you add hotel rates, food, drinks, transportation costs, and extras such as keynote dinners and parties, you’ve shelled out enough for a nice vacation. And if you’re just starting out in this business, you probably aren’t making nearly enough money to nullify the hole this trip will put in your bank account—if you’re making any money from your writing at all.

If you’re not sure whether a conference is right for you, or if you can only invest a limited amount of time and money, some conferences allow a single-day attendance option. If the conference is located within a few hours’ drive, you not only decrease the total cost of the conference, you also eliminate the need for an expensive hotel stay.

A full writers conference, though, is like an investment. You must be confident that you’ll get a return on it, whether it be financial in the long run, or mental and emotional in the short. So the most important consideration is whether it’s worth your money.

Here’s a basic list of what to look for:

  • Location: Is the conference close enough that you won’t go broke paying for gas or plane fares? Does a friend or family member live nearby, providing free accommodations?
  • Classes and seminars: Does the class list pique your interest? Does it strike a good balance, with offerings for both beginners and more advanced writers?
  • Editors and agents in attendance: Will editors from well-known publishing houses or magazines be there? Will agents who represent authors you read and admire be making the trip?
  • Critiques: Does the conference offer in-person critiques of attendees’ work, whether by fellow writers or by publishing professionals?
  • Pitch sessions: Will you have the opportunity to pitch your work to an established editor or agent?
  • Keynote Speaker/Guest of Honor: Is it someone you admire? Someone you’ve been dying to meet?

Classes and Seminars: Striking a Balance

Writers are like snowflakes—no two are exactly alike. Some of them are seasoned pros, and some of them make clichéd comparisons to snowflakes.

In all seriousness, every writer is at a different level of experience and skill, and if they’re steadily working, their level of experience is in constant flux. No conference can possibly cater to every writer in attendance. And even when a conference and the classes attended are chosen with utmost care, every class a writer attends isn’t going to enlighten and inspire. Think of the class offerings, then, in terms of which level of writer they’ll attract. Do most of the classes focus on the basics like manuscript format, or are they geared more toward multi-published authors who need to brush up on copyright law?

Find a conference that offers a balanced selection of both. This both increases your chances of learning as much as possible, and almost guarantees a diverse attendance of writers. I firmly believe that we can learn something from every writer, from the starry-eyed neophyte to the wizened professional, if we keep an open mind.

Do yourself a favor and attend at least one class that seems beyond your current reach. Do yourself a second favor: buy a fellow attendee a drink in the bar. Be brave, and you’ll learn more than you thought possible.

Editors and Agents: New York Comes to Podunk

Most writers, contrary to popular belief, do not live in New York and hobnob with the literary elite every day. We live in the suburbs, in the country, and in the woods, and we spend our evenings at the computer or the kitchen table. For many of us, this is our one chance to connect and network with the people who decide what’s on the bookshelves each season.

To make the trip worth your while, do your research. Go beyond the conference’s guest bios and look up the agents and editors slated to attend on sites like AgentQuery and Preditors and Editors. Are they currently active in publishing? Do they have a solid history of sales or acquisitions? Most importantly, ensure that at least one editor and one agent will be attending that represents or acquires in your genre. A good conference will have a wide variety of publishing professionals with diverse areas of interest. This is especially imperative if you write in multiple genres—or if you haven’t quite settled in a genre yet.

Pitches and Critiques: Get Gutsy

While you could easily pitch your work from home with a well-polished query letter, this may be your only chance to meet one-on-one with a publishing professional. Some might scoff at pitch sessions as a worthless hook used to lure writers in, but they can be more than just an in-person query. Pitch sessions can last anywhere from two to fifteen minutes, and that face time can be valuable if used correctly.

Frequently, when registering for a conference, you can indicate your first and second choices for pitch appointments. I chose to spread mine out—I picked a children’s book editor as well as a fantasy editor, since my novels fall under both headings. Do your research, though; you’ll be wasting your time and the agent’s or editor’s if you pitch something they don’t represent or buy.

Once you’re at the conference, as terrified thoughts of your upcoming pitch dance through your head, try to attend a class led by the agent or editor you’ll be pitching to prior to your appointment. They’ll most likely be discussing your genre of choice, anyway, but this will also give you the opportunity to gauge their personality. Are they personable and lively, or subdued and curt? These cues can help you tailor your pitch to the individual who will be hearing it.

Most advice columns regarding pitch sessions tell readers not to be nervous. This is the most pointless advice I’ve ever heard. You’re risking face-to-face rejection—of course you’re going to be nervous. Better advice would be: Be yourself. Remember the passion that drove you to complete your project (don’t waste their time by pitching an unfinished book), and let that passion shine through. Once your pitch is completed, if you have time remaining, ask the agent or editor questions about their work, how they ended up doing it, and what they like best about it. Ask them about their most recent favorite book. Be friendly and open, but be professional. They’ll remember you for it.

On that note, a word of advice you’ll find everywhere else, but that too few writers heed: Don’t pitch your book to an agent or editor while they’re leading a class or seminar. There’s a fine line between bravery and rudeness, and this crosses right over it. Remember that everyone else in the class has paid to be there, just as you did. Classes are for learning; pitch sessions are for pitching.

Many conferences also offer read-and-critique sessions. In most cases, either an agent or editor, or other writers in your genre, will read your first few pages and offer their thoughts. These usually fill up quickly, so reserve a spot while you can. I didn’t register in time for the group critique sessions, but I got lucky enough that my first two pages landed near the top of the pile in a class on writing better beginnings led by three editors. When they read my first two pages aloud, I was busy searching the room for a portable defibrillator—but once I calmed down and listened, I got some phenomenal advice that helped punch up those first few pages, and that I carried through the rest of my writing. As terrifying as those few moments were, they were also invaluable to my writing.

So, while nerve wracking, these sessions can be extraordinarily helpful for your writing. Again, be brave and don’t let your fear get the best of you: you’ve paid for this opportunity, so use it.

Keynote Speakers/Guests of Honor: Bonus or Waste of Money?

Joyce Carol Oates, creative writing professor at Princeton, three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, and bestselling author, delivered the keynote address at the 2008 Pennwriters conference. I’ve admired her writing for years and consider her one of my favorite writers of all time, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered she would be the featured speaker at my first conference. I emitted a very loud squealing noise, terrifying both my husband and my cat.

Ms. Oates’ speech focused on writers and rejection, a theme with which we can all identify. While such a speech could easily turn depressing, it seemed to uplift everyone in the room. She related anecdotes about legendary writers from Emily Dickinson to Samuel Beckett to Norman Mailer, and the rejections, both personal and professional, that they suffered. She then connected these rejections to each writer’s life and work, showing the profound effect rejection can have on a writer.

To know that the greats have endured such stinging rebuffs and refusals, and yet continued on to become legends and permanent members of the literary canon, should inspire even the most disheartened writer.
After her speech, Ms. Oates signed books and graciously posed for pictures. I now have a treasured, personalized memento from that weekend, one I would be unlikely to procure anywhere else.

While the keynote speaker shouldn’t be your central consideration when selecting a conference—especially since keynote dinners are not usually included in the base cost—he or she can certainly add yet another transcendent moment to the event, if the speaker is someone you admire.

Final Advice

On clothes: Most conference organizers recommend business casual wear for classes and seminars. This is a professional event, so leave the jeans at home and look your best. Plan for varying temperatures, though, and dress in layers. Many hotels and conference centers air condition their meeting rooms, but the bar and luncheon areas may be warmer. And for the ladies, don’t wear your highest high heels. You may be making several circuits from your hotel room to the classrooms, and your feet will thank you for your thoughtfulness.

On roommates: One way to cut your hotel costs in half is to bunk with another attendee. Most conferences offer a roommate-matching service. In addition to the financial considerations, this is a great way to get to know another writer.

On your fellow writers: Writers are not the most social lot; we spend a great deal of time alone, with only our characters and thoughts for company. This is your chance to spend a few days with a few hundred other writers, and the crackling energy in the air will sustain you until your next chance. Be brave. Break out of your shell. Forget your mother’s advice and talk to strangers. At the end of the weekend, you’ll be glad you did.


Below are some websites that can help you sort through the plethora of conferences out there and find the right one for you:

The Shaw Guides to Writers Conferences and Workshops: Allows sorting by genre/specialty, month, country/state.

AgentQuery: The popular resource for agent hunting tackles conferences.

Writers’ Conferences and Centers (WC & C): A division of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Includes both conference dates and registration deadlines.

Preditors and Editors: Alphabetical listing of conferences, conventions, and festivals.

Guide to Literary Agents: Small conference listing by state. Not all states listed.

Kristin Baxter lives in Johnstown, PA, a city full of characters. She’s been a reporter, a technical writer, and an assembler of travel mugs. Presently, she drinks too much coffee and stays up far too late while writing young adult novels.

Final Poll Results

Atmospheric Control

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

As I settle in to write this, I am sitting at a cluttered desk surrounded by a wave of papers, magazines, books, and CDs. My TV is on as background noise, set to a channel I think I can ignore. From the other room, I can hear my children singing along with the game Rock Band, as loud and as off-key as possible. All of these factors are colliding together and contributing to my performance as a writer.

It occurred to me when I started writing this article that all these things were creating a writing atmosphere. Some of what is going on is helping me, while some of it is keeping me from my goal. Successful writers can be found writing in surroundings that support their performance. It’s important to create a writing atmosphere that works for you.

Background Image: K.G. Hawes/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Let’s tackle what’s going on in my writing area as an example of what works and what doesn’t work, at least for me. You can do this yourself to find your own strengths and weaknesses. We’ll start with my messy desk.

Even in the chaos that the desk is in right now, I can tell you right where everything is on the desk. My dictionary and thesaurus are close by, as are my other inspirational books and CDs. The desk works for me because I know right where my tools are, even under all the papers and clutter. Look around your own desk a moment. Are you frustrated by the clutter? Are you uninspired by the cleanliness? Try mixing it up until you feel comfortable and you aren’t distracted by either.

I next mentioned that the TV was on as background noise. I thought I could ignore it while I did something else, but it wasn’t working. Instead, I turned on the radio in order to finish the article. Some writers can’t have any kind of sound while they work, while others use it to set a mood they’re trying to create. A colleague mentioned that she creates specific soundtracks for her stories and novels. She said it helps put her in the right place at the right time. Whichever works for you, silence or sound, don’t wait until you have been distracted several times. Start out with what you know will drive your efforts.

For me, the children were the easy part. The door to the office closes and they’re all old enough to take care of themselves. They know that a closed door means “leave mom alone.” While they’re grown now, I am still familiar with the challenges presented by very small children, since I have a granddaughter with a demanding nature. My advice for parents is to work hard and fast when kids are asleep or otherwise occupied. I worked this way when my children were young and I did manage quite a few short stories. You could also hand them off to a grandparent or to your significant other for a set period of time until the work is done. You don’t need to compromise your children or your writing, but you will need to look for, and create, writing opportunities.

There are other distractions, but my surroundings are in my control, just as yours are. If a writing session isn’t working out, try changing your atmosphere before giving up and closing what you’re working on. Even a subtle change can make a vast difference. Hey, I finished the article, didn’t I?

Final Poll Results

Writing as a Not-So-Solitary Pursuit: Ye Olde Guide to Wryting Groupes

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

We got our first computer in December 1999 and one of the first things I did was look for an online writing group. I’d been working on a novel on our old word processor and I wanted to keep working on it and get some feedback on it as I went. Plus I wanted to do exercises, meet other writers, and do the things I’d done in college workshops.

I found one with a lot of great people (some of us went on to form Toasted Cheese). That site was among the 101 Best Websites For Writers in 2000 but, like any community, it had its flaws. We started asking each other “If we could make the perfect writer’s group, what would we include?” Password-protected forums were atop our list because many people asked if the work they offered for critique would be considered “published” and expressed concern about others “stealing” their stories.

We also wanted to provide a real-time chat, to give the feel of in-person writer circles. Of course we wanted a page of links and resources but we wanted to be sure to include other writing communities, since we knew that no one group is right for everyone. We also wanted to create an atmosphere where members of the community would feel comfortable posting links to contests, journals and other publishing opportunities. We wanted to eschew the idea that writing communities were in competition for the writer’s attention and embrace the idea that they were tools to help us succeed.

So in January 2001, we launched Toasted Cheese. We had nothing but word of mouth to get us going. In March 2002, our literary journal had a write-up in Writer’s Digest’s “Zine Scene.” By the time we were chosen among their 101 Best Websites for Writers for the first time in May 2002, we had a healthy following. I think the success of our writing community came in part from the fact that we knew what we wanted as writers and we provided that for other writers.

In the years since we created Toasted Cheese, there have been many wonderful writing communities created on the Net. I’ve also noticed an increase in the availability of in-person critique groups. But how do you know when a group is for you? Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself if you’re thinking of joining a writing community either online or offline.

Background Image: Tim Ellis/Flickr (CC-by-nc)


What does a writers group do?

At their cores, online and offline writers groups operate in the same way. You present your work and other writers offer constructive feedback. You also offer feedback on work that others present to the group.

There are certain characteristics of both that may be advantages or disadvantages, depending on what the writer wants/needs. For example, I’m a mother to two young children and it’s difficult for me to arrange childcare to go to a group for a couple hours. An online writing community is available when I am so if I don’t have a free minute until midnight, I can “go to the group” then. And I can wear my robe and slippers while I go.

The flip side of that is that in-person groups provide face-to-face contact. Some people might feel more comfortable looking a critiquer in the eye, for example.

What do I want from the group?

Your main objective is probably that you want feedback on your work. Communities get a fair number of people who “post and run,” meaning they put their own work up for feedback, don’t give any feedback and then are never heard from again. Writing communities generally try to enforce the “give and take” aspect of critiques. At TC, we work on the honor system (our critiquing guidelines ask that you critique two pieces for every one you post). Other communities have come up with clever ways to ensure that members give feedback as well as receive it. Critique Circle works on a “point” system:

You pay three credits for submitting a story, and receive 0.5 – 2 credits for giving a critique.

If the crit is (150-)300 words you always receive 0.5 credits, no matter how long the story is. However, if you crit a story that reaches 3000 words, you receive 1.5 credit for a crit over 300 words. If the story reaches 4000 words you get 2 credits for a crit over 300 words.

When you’re approved to join Critique Circle, you get 2 credits. Therefore, before you can post anything for feedback, you have to participate.

Writing communities can also serve as a get-together spot, like any group of people. You’ll find familiar faces, people with whom you “click,” etc. You have a built-in commonality: you’re writers. By its nature, a writing community provides social interaction when we talk with other writers about submissions, rejections, story ideas, characters, etc.

How much can I or do I want to participate?

Some groups require participation for your user ID to remain active. If you’re not comfortable being in the midst of the group, you can “lurk.”

For example, let’s say there’s an in-person group that meets at the local bookstore. You can browse books (or pretend to) near where they’re meeting. Listen to what’s happening and determine if you might want to join them at the next meeting. Some offline groups do their reading at the meeting so be prepared to eavesdrop on silence. Other groups ask people to bring photocopies to hand out at the end of the meeting, the stories are critiqued in the interim and then the following meeting is devoted to discussion. In a group like this, you might feel left out during the discussion but you can always jump in with general advice, impressions or suggestions.

TC is a small, laid back community. Other communities are intense, with dozens of stories waiting for critique. The size and activity level of the community can dictate your comfort level.

Do I have to give feedback?

If you want feedback on your work, be prepared to give some. Your chances of getting constructive feedback increases with your participation. If you feel iffy about doing feedback, check out our articles on giving and receiving critique. Also, be honest with the group. We’re all just writers here. Tell them you’re anxious about giving (or receiving) critiques. If you haven’t done many crits, let them know. Remember: if you can read, you can crit.

What will I invest in a writing group? (money, time, “self”)

There are two main things you’ll invest in a writing community: time and yourself.

You’ll spend time reading other people’s writing, whether you’re critiquing it or not. If you’re attending meetings of an offline group, there’s also travel time, social time (usually after the meeting), and possibly “homework,” like reading articles or doing crits outside of the meeting time. Some groups also ask members to bring an edited version of a piece the group critiqued, so editing time is also a factor.

Online groups have rules or guidelines to read. Many offer links, prompts or message boards, for example. The time you invest in a writing group is usually up to you.

When you offer a piece for critique, you’re putting your work out there for approval and it can be an investment of yourself. It can hurt when someone doesn’t like your favorite character or suggests you cut a section you worked for hours to perfect. An online community can be better in this regard. You can walk away from a critique you disagree with, whereas in an offline group, it can be hard to hide a reaction. If you want to be in a writing community, you should be ready to receive critique, not just praise. It’s fine to admit that you need an ego boost (all writers understand that); the key is finding a community that allows the type of feedback you need.

Some writing communities also require an investment of money. If you want to join a writing community that requires fees or dues, that’s your prerogative. There are many free writing communities as well, some of which offer alternative versions (ad-free, for example) for those who donate for site hosting costs. Running a writing community website isn’t cheap and so many communities (including TC) accept donations. You can also support a writing community by shopping through their affiliate links. For in-person groups, you can offer to host the group (if they meet in private homes), bring refreshments, or donate to defray costs like rental of the meeting space.

What other features are offered by the community?

Every writing community is different. Some groups don’t exchange work; they’re just writers getting together to talk about writing.

It’s really a matter of finding what you like. Maybe you find a level of participation you like but the flashing ads drive you crazy. Maybe you see that there are a lot of posted pieces without any feedback. Maybe the community vibe isn’t friendly. Like any online community or offline group, you need to examine what the group offers and determine if it’s right for you. And no one says you have to only belong to one community. Maybe one group has a higher level of feedback but you really like the people at another group. Go to both. Or maybe you want to be part of an online community but you also want to get out of the house once a month. Do both. Any good writing community will encourage you to do what’s best for you and your writing.

Is a story posted to an online writing group considered “published?”

In almost every case, no. If you’re antsy about this, chose a writing community that’s “members only” or requires a password to access its forums.

Posting a story or poem to an online crit group is akin to photocopying a piece to hand out to your offline writing group. Most editors recognize that stories posted for critique are drafts and encourage people to polish their work before submission.

Fred Sasaki, assistant editor at Poetry says, “If a writer is interested in publishing in POETRY and also wishes to participate in an online critique forum, we recommend that writers use private forums that require password access. This way they can submit the work for print consideration at a later date. Basically it comes down to recognizing the Internet as a legitimate publishing vehicle.”

The submission guidelines of some journals clarify the editor’s definition of “published.” From the submission guidelines at Mindflights:

POSTS TO CRITIQUE GROUPS ARE NOT CONSIDERED PUBLISHED if a password and special group membership are required to read the item. Likewise, inclusion in symposium or workshop collections with limited distribution is not considered published. However, if the item is easily available to the world at large, it is published.

For some journals, you have to read between the lines; note the use of terms like “final draft.” From the submission guidelines at Segue:

We do not accept previously published creative work. “Previously published” includes final drafts published on blogs, personal web sites, etc.

A “final draft” is not one being workshopped in a writing community. Then again, some publishers don’t consider anything found online to be “published.” From contest guidelines for the William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition:

A work will be considered previously published if more than 50 percent has been published in any form. Self published or on-demand works will be considered published if more than 500 copies have been distributed in any way. If there is a question regarding publication by a winner selected in the competition, that person will be expected to offer proof of number of copies of a manuscript actually sold or distributed in any way. Works from which brief sections have been excerpted for quotation in literary journals, news journals, broadsides will not be disqualified. The Society is dedicated to the art of the printed word, and, therefore, works appearing on the Internet or read on other electronic media will not be considered to have been published if they are not offered in printed form.

If in doubt after reading submission guidelines, e-mail an editor and ask. I think the best guidelines were set forth by Jordan E. Rosenfeld in his Writer’s Digest article, “Shades of Gray“:

It was published if…

  • you gave up your first North American serial rights
  • it went through an editorial process
  • it appeared in an online journal, even a defunct one
  • it appeared in a print publication with a small print run
  • it appeared in a literary anthology

It’s unpublished if…

  • it won a prize but was not printed
  • it was workshopped in an online writing workshop
  • it appeared on your blog or someone else’s (though this is changing, so tread carefully)

In my research, I’ve found that the most anxiety about whether a work is “published” or not seems to pertain to poetry published in one’s personal weblog. When guidelines aren’t clear about online workshopping as “publishing” and you’re not confident about the definition of “published,” write to the editor and ask. If the guidelines are hazy enough, the editor might rewrite them to be clearer.

What do moderators or group leaders do and what do I need to do for myself?

Whether online or off, group leaders are the ones who lead the discussions, keep everyone courteous, and they participate in the discussions. Beyond that, it depends on the community. Some communities treat the leaders as mentors, some as equals. Moderators will welcome you to the group, answer your questions, and guide you through the community as you become acclimated. Some communities are very large and are self-sustaining, with little moderator interference. It’s easier to find a community with moderators you can tolerate than to try and wedge into a community with moderators whose approach you don’t like.

How do I know if a group is right for me?

Do you feel welcome? Are you comfortable sharing work? Is the feedback what you’re looking for? Are you treated with respect as a newcomer? There are a lot of factors that determine whether the fit is “right.” Treat writing communities like clothing. Try it all on and if it doesn’t fit, don’t feel guilty about leaving it on the rack.

Maybe you’re still wary about writing communities and you hear yourself saying “What if…?”

What if someone steals my story?

It’s possible that someone might swoop in and steal your story. If you publish it, it’s possible that someone could get it from a literary journal. The question to ask is “is it likely?” The answer: “No.” People in a writing community are writers and are busy working on their own stuff. If someone wants to steal a poem or story, he’s more likely to swipe something by a famous author.

If you do find that something you’ve shared in a writing community is published under someone else’s name, contact the editor of the publication. If you find it posted in another community or otherwise incorrectly credited, contact the community moderator or website owner of the site that is using your work without permission. A reputable site will work with you to make things right. If they refuse or do not respond, contact their hosting company and report the copyright infringement. If you find your work on a scraper site, your best recourse is to contact the search engine where you saw it and ask that the page be removed from the search results.

What if the other members are better/worse writers than I am?

It’s a guarantee that there will be writers of varying level of experience and talent in any writing community. Don’t let degrees or publishing credits intimidate or overly-impress you. You can learn from every writer in the community. The more you critique, the better you’ll become at editing your own work as well. You have something to offer to every writer as well. In an editor’s submission pile, the only thing that matters is the quality of the work.

What if someone attacks me instead of my story?

This can happen. A moderator should step in and sort things out, but in larger communities, you might be on your own. Hopefully another member of the group will step up and say something to the attacker. If not or if you want to speak up for yourself, remain professional and as courteous as possible. If you feel you need to continue the discussion, use e-mail or private messages for online groups or one-on-one conversations after the group meeting for offline groups.

What if they hate my story?

They might. They might love it. You’ll never know unless you share it. The important thing isn’t whether the writing is loved or hated. It’s whether you’re offered valuable feedback and the way in which feedback is offered. If someone in the group says, “This stinks,” is it a group you want to utilize? If the overall tone is derisive, can you learn in that environment? It’s okay if someone doesn’t like your story or poem. Don’t let a negative review keep you from using a writing group. Members of a good writing group will help you improve a weak story, not mock it.

What if they don’t give me any feedback?

This can be worse than negative feedback. At least with “this stinks,” you have an opinion to work with. With no replies, you’re left to wonder “What’s wrong with my work?” There could be several reasons that a story gets light feedback or none at all. We’ve found that around major holidays, feedback drops off (US Thanksgiving, Christmas week, Memorial Day). Feedback also drops off in the summer for the northern hemisphere, which is unfortunate since so many young writers join crit groups in those months and then abandon them when there’s no response to their work.

If there’s an option for “e-mail me replies,” select it. That way you don’t have to return to the site to check for feedback. Look at the frequency of posts. Is the group one that doesn’t work often but gives good, in-depth feedback when it does? Do group members reply quickly but not offer much beyond “I like it” in their replies? If you’re looking for a little quick praise or an ego boost, which we all need occasionally, the second group could be a good addition to the first.

What if I’m not good at giving feedback?

Members of a good writing circle will help you with this as much as they’ll help you with your writing. Since everyone is working together toward the same goal, everyone should want the group to be as effective as possible. If your feedback is too light, a more experienced member might ask you questions to help you expand your response. For example, you might say “I liked this dialogue.” The other member might say, “What did you like about it?”

If your feedback is too vague, it’s likely that the author will ask for clarification. You can also learn by reading other people’s critiques.

Remember: if you can read, you can critique. Don’t feel embarrassed to offer your opinion. It has value, even if it’s as simple as “I liked this.” Do your best to offer specific critique, since that’s what you’ll want when it’s your turn to receive. Toasted Cheese has some guidelines to help members create constructive criticism.

What if they want me to give them money?

They probably do. What you’ll need to ask yourself is whether you feel comfortable with what the group is asking for. Do they ask for a membership fee? If so, do they require the fee before you can check out the group?

There are groups that require fees. In researching this article, I didn’t pay to join any writing groups. There are excellent groups that require no money to participate. Often you’ll need to sign up since password-protected forums are the norm for online crit groups. Toasted Cheese is one example of a free group that requires sign-up. None of the groups I joined have sent me any spam either so I wouldn’t hesitate to provide my e-mail address for registration. Many groups have newsletters that you can opt into. I recommend creating an e-mail address just for your writing ventures (submissions, writing group sign-up, etc.); using a separate e-mail address can help you keep things organized.

Some writing groups allow donations. These donations help with site costs, like paying for the domain and hosting fees. It’s nice to support your favorite sites if you have a little extra money but it’s not requisite for you to participate in the group. If you’re not comfortable donating, most writing groups have affiliations (with Amazon, Powell’s, Cafe Press, etc.) that earn them commissions on sales of things you buy through their affiliate links. Best of all, you can support your writing groups without spending a cent by sharing their URLs, telling your writer friends to check them out and by participating in the group.

Some writing groups:

Final Poll Results

All in a Day’s Work: Should Writing be a Job?

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

In On Writing, Stephen King calls writing “just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”

Some writers balk at that statement. Writing? A job? But isn’t writing supposed to be about the joy of creation? Following your muse? I think the answer is yes. And no.

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with writing. We want to create, but it can be tough to find the time/energy/persistence to actually do it. And whether you write fiction or nonfiction, a little or a lot, it’s a matter of deciding where you want to go with your writing. There’s nothing wrong with treating writing as a hobby, but if your goal is to make money as a writer, it takes discipline.

We interviewed three authors—two established, and one working hard to get there—to get their take on writing as a job.

Background Image: Taema Dreiden/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Author John Scalzi has been a full-time writer since he left college, first writing for a newspaper, then as an in-house editor and writer for America Online. He’s been a freelance writer since 1998 and has published a dozen books. Two of those books, Old Man’s War and The Last Colony, have been nominated for the Hugo Award.

YA author Laurie Halse Anderson has been writing full-time since 2002. Her books, including Speak, Catalyst,and Twisted, have won numerous awards. Prior to being a full-time writer, she wrote early in the morning while working freelance jobs and other part-time jobs to make ends meet. “I made the transition the first time I got an advance that (with much penny-pinching) could support me for a year,” she says.

Seanan McGuire, a mid-level manager in a non-profit customer service center, is working toward becoming a full-time writer and recently signed with an agent. McGuire has been published, although “not, as yet, in my chosen genres (or that I’ll admit to).” She writes primarily horror and urban fantasy.

TC: Do you keep a regular writing schedule?

JS: Theoretically I write long-form work in the morning while my daughter is at school and short-form work after she comes home and wants attention. In reality, it all sort of mixes in together. I am trying to become more scheduled, however.

LHA: I write minimum of six hours (this can increase to 16 when the deadline pressure is turned up) a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

SM: During the work-week, I write from seven to nine every day except for Thursday, when I have my weekly “girl’s night out.” On the weekends, I do two four-hour blocks, split between the two days. Sometimes more, if I have edits to process.

TC: How much time do you spend on the “business” of writing?

JS: I spend about an hour a day on it. It mostly consists of e-mailing my agent or editor or clients. Sometimes I have to travel for work, which of course takes up more time. but when I’m at home, and hour a day usually does it. It helps that my wife handles a lot of the financial end of things, because that’s what she’s good at and has training in.

LHA: At least 25 hours a week, often more. Correspondence with readers takes up the bulk of it. Preparing for travel to conferences (tons of email, plane and hotel reservations, correspondence with committee members, speech and presentation preparation) takes up a lot, too. I have cut way back on my travel, but still spend about 60 days a year on the road. Website updates, interviews, and research for new books also happen every week.

SM: Currently, about two to five hours per week are spent contacting agents, formatting submissions, and pursuing representation. It’s a small amount of time, but it’s a tiring one.

TC: Should would-be writers treat writing as a job?

JS: If people feel it’s best to pursue writing as a hobby or a part-time thing, who am I to try to convince them otherwise? Lots of very excellent writers held down other jobs or wrote primarily for recreation and enjoyment. Also, you know. Writing for a living is hard, and generally it doesn’t pay well.

LHA: A career in the arts is not for everyone. It’s more demanding and less financially rewarding than most people realize. If you love the work, you’ll get a lot out of committing yourself body and soul. But there is nothing wrong with making your writing into a piece of your life, instead of the whole thing.

SM: I find that writing is always work, if you want to get it right; it takes time, effort, dedication, and focus. I work harder at writing than I do at almost anything else, and I’d rather have the time I currently spend on other people’s projects to devote to my own.

TC: What advice would you offer to would-be writers?

JS: 1) Be aware of your audience. The vast majority of the time, when you’re writing professionally, you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for an audience—specifically (most of the time) an editor who is looking for writing of a certain nature or function, and in a more general sense to a larger readership that is looking for something specific… 2) You have time. So long as you don’t intentionally step out in front of a bus, chances are pretty good you’ll make it to 70 or 80 or some bone-deteriorated age like that. That being the case, what are you worried about? Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the process of writing. and 3) You’re a writer. Prepare to be broke.

LHA: Do it for the love, not the money. But if you decide to make it into your career, structure your life frugally, so the ups and downs of the unpredictable market won’t hurt as much.

SM: Learn to take critique, even when it’s hard. Learn to focus. Trust your story. Follow the market. Read. Write. Adapt. Also, you’re not as good as you think you are… but you could be, if you work hard enough to get there.

King’s On Writing has even more advice for any writer trying to make it. He says that all writers should have a private writing space, with the ability to shut out all distractions. He recommends sticking to a schedule, and setting concrete goals.

“The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse,” says King. “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three.”

And ultimately, figure out how you define success. Are you happy writing fanfiction to share with your friends, or do you aspire to the New York Times Bestseller List? Set goals that make sense for you, and stick to them.

Final Poll Results

Show and Tell 101

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

As a writer, you have probably at some point been given the advice to “Show, don’t tell.” What do people mean when they say this? What is showing? What is telling? When do you show and when do you tell?

There are two ways to create a scene. One way is to tell the reader what is happening outright. For example, suppose you are writing about a man who is worried because his wife is late, you might write:

John was worried. His wife had never been late for dinner before.

This is telling. Instead of saying telling the reader that John is worried, you can show it:

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time. Still no car. Where was she? Dinner grew cold.

When you show, you are conveying the worry through the actions and the specific thoughts, rather than through the label “worried.”

Background Image: Béliza Mendes/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Why “don’t tell”?

Historically, many writers relied heavily on narrative summaries, which are “telling” in nature, to get information to the reader. Writers would often introduce a lot of back story, or information about things that happened before the main action of the book. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the narrator introduces the reader to a complete history of the family in the first few pages:

Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was only exceeded by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line that ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.

So if all these famous authors start out telling instead of showing, why should you show instead of tell? Styles change over time. The rather static but flowery language of previous eras has slowly shifted to the lean, dynamic writing today’s readers and editors prefer. Generally, you should start your story in the middle of the action to hook in the reader and bring them into the story. If you make readers wait for action, you run the risk of losing them before your story really starts. Large quantities of narrative summary do not work effectively as a hook.

Writers who are advised to “show, don’t tell” often overuse narrative summary, which makes the writing seem flat by today’s standards. Think of it this way: How long would you watch a movie where all that happens is a character sits and tells you stuff? No flashbacks, no visualizations, just the character sitting in a chair explaining things. If the explanations are interesting, you might watch for a while, but eventually you have to ask yourself, “Why isn’t this person doing anything?”

Why Show?

Generally, showing has far more emotional impact on the reader than telling does. Remember John, who is worried about his wife. As the reader watches John fidget, it’s possible to fidget with him. You give the reader the opportunity to feel the same worry and to identify with the character. By showing, you give the reader specific actions on which to focus the emotion. If you just say “he is worried,” the reader is more likely to think, “Ok, he’s worried,” and leave it at that.

Show, don’t tell, isn’t just good advice for conveying emotion in your narrative. You can also “show” in description and via dialog.

For example, consider this exchange between Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s obnoxious cousin, and his mother from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

Dudley, meanwhile, was counting his presents. His face fell.

“Thirty-six,” he said, looking up at his mother and father. “That’s two less than last year.”

“Darling, you haven”t counted Auntie Marge’s present, see, it’s here under this big one from Mommy and Daddy.”

“All right, thirty-seven then,” said Dudley, going red in the face. Harry, who could see a huge Dudley tantrum coming on, began wolfing down his bacon as fast as possible in case Dudley turned the table over.

This exchange effectively paints Dudley as greedy and spoiled.

Dialog can be used to reveal people’s characters. It can also be used to give information to the reader. This kind of dialog, if not handled well, can become a clunky form of telling. Consider how much information Van Helsing is giving the reader in the following exchange from Dracula by Bram Stoker:

“Here, there is one thing which is different from all recorded. Here is some dual life that is not as the common. She was bitten by the vampire when she was in a trance, sleep-walking, oh, you start. You do not know that, friend John, but you shall know it later, and in trance could he best come to take more blood. In trance she dies, and in trance she is Un-Dead, too. So it is that she differ from all other. Usually when the Un-Dead sleep at home,” as he spoke he made a comprehensive sweep of his arm to designate what to a vampire was ‘home’, “their face show what they are, but this so sweet that was when she not Un-Dead she go back to the nothings of the common dead. There is no malign there, see, and so it make hard that I must kill her in her sleep.”

This turned my blood cold, and it began to dawn upon me that I was accepting Van Helsing’s theories. But if she were really dead, what was there of terror in the idea of killing her?

He looked up at me, and evidently saw the change in my face, for he said almost joyously, “Ah, you believe now?”

When dialog tells too much, it’s often referred to as “As you know, Bob” dialog. “As you know Bob, I’m about to reveal some important information in a long piece of dialog.” (For tips on avoiding “telling” dialog, see Something to Talk About.)

How to Show

Showing is a powerful technique. How do you turn a “tell” scene into a “show” scene? One key is in using powerful verbs and nouns. In general, the fewer adjectives and adverbs you use, the less “tell-y” your writing will be.

For example, take John again, waiting for his wife. Compare the following sentences:

John looked nervously at his watch, then opened the door and looked out impatiently.

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time.

In the first sentence, the reader is once again being told how John feels. He feels nervous and impatient. While this is an improvement over the terse “John was worried,” it is still telling the reader what the emotions are. The second sentence moves the emotion right into the action. He glances, he yanks. He’s done this four times before.

Another way to show instead of tell is to invoke sensory description. Involve touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste where you can. The more you can draw the reader into the moment, the more powerful the scene will be.

Recognizing When You Tell

A big clue that you are over-telling is if you find yourself using the words was and felt. John was worried. He felt anxious. These are telling statements. Another is if you are using a lot of adverbs. John said anxiously, “Where is she?” He paced nervously. Look for places where you are explaining emotions. If they are important emotions, or important scenes, work on showing in these places.

It’s also possible to show, and then undercut your showing by summarizing what is going on. For example, if you wrote:

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time. Still no car. Where was she? Dinner was getting cold. John was worried that his wife wasn’t home.

you would be following your showing with a telling summary. When you are writing for adults or young adults, they already know John is worried because of the way he is acting. Telling the reader he is worried doesn’t add any new information. don’t underestimate your readers—don’t pull them out of the moment by explaining what you’ve already shown.

(Note: Writers will often both show and tell when they are writing for young children. Young children are not able to infer things the way adults and teens can. If you both show and tell what is going on in a scene, you help children to learn how to infer what is happening.)

When to Show and When to Tell

Most beginning writers rely heavily on telling to get their point across. This robs them of the immediacy that will pull the reader into the story. Because of this, “Show, don’t tell” has become a basic mantra for writers. But it isn’t always practical or even desirable to present an entire story by showing it all. An action movie with all action scenes will quickly exhaust the viewer. There need to be down times between the excitement to make the excitement meaningful.

In general you should SHOW when:

  • You want to make an emotional impact
  • You want to convey an image with your words
  • You want the reader to feel “in the moment”

In general you should TELL when:

  • You want to summarize relatively unimportant events
  • You want to convey events over a long range of time
  • You want to give the reader information the characters don’t know

Dos and Don’ts

  • Do show important scenes.
  • Do show more than you tell.
  • Do tell when it is appropriate
  • Don’t tell using dialog.
  • Don’t undercut your showing by summarizing the scene with telling sentences.

Final Poll Results