Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Value of Writing Fast by Malcolm R. Campbell

You begin your new novel with gusto: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times on that dark and stormy night when Eliza Doolittle Smith tripped over the bloody body of one of her lovers and fell down the basement steps into the cold arms of another dead lover. “Yikes,” she shouted fearfully.

Before Eliza sees the demon hovering behind the neat rows of canned peaches, your inner editor proclaims: “This is crap.”

You know what happens next. You ponder. You stare at that first paragraph until, crap or not, all the life drains out of the story.

When you write fast, you don’t have time to listen to your inner editor or worry about what your parents will say when they read your novel later. Writing fast is scary. We can’t help but notice words and phrases flying by that make us cringe.

Writing fast is also empowering because the story is happening right now, evolving and unfolding before your eyes. Characters are doing things you never expected them to do. The plot is twisting down unexpected streets. You suddenly learn the butler didn’t do it and that the demon behind the canned peaches used to be your protagonist’s sweet grandmother Emmy. What a flowing river of words your story can be when you take a deep breath and just step out of the way.

I signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year because I was stuck. I was pondering things too much! No, I didn’t make it to the 50,000-word level. But since I told everyone I was signing up, I had to do something. Staring at each paragraph for an hour just wouldn’t cut it. So, I wrote the opening chapters as fast as I could. Now I’m over 21,000 words into a story I was beginning to worry about writing at all.

NaNoWriMo forced me to turn off my inner editor and just write. No, I’m not happy with every word and phrase on my screen. But frankly, I’m surprised by some of the things that have happened between the characters. I feel empowered because I now know I can finish this book and ultimately be proud of it.

Some writers do their own versions of NaNoWriMo day in and day out by writing for a set number of hours at a specific time every day. Others have a daily word-count goal of, say, 2,500 rough draft words. Whether it’s the satisfaction of a disciplined approach or the pep talks we get through NaNoWriMo, writing buddies and critique groups, each of us needs to find a viable incentive for turning off the inner editor and writing fast.

Writing fast doesn’t necessarily mean writing sloppy. To some extent, it means zoning out and getting into a pure storytelling state of mind in which you more or less learn what’s going to happen as the words appear on your screen. Like your prospective readers, you’ll be spellbound about what might happen next.

You can edit and polish later.

Just write:

She turned on her flash light. There stood her canned peaches in neat rows. Something moved behind the Mason jars. “Oh, Mark,” she cried, is it you? I’m sorry about our silly little argument. Forgive me?” But the thing that moved was thinner than Mark, and its eyes glowed pale yellow, brighter than the peaches, and with an intensity that made Eliza’s skin feel like she was covered with snakes Her late Grandmother Emmy, bless her heart, had always been kind to snakes. Kind to a fault, some said.

For now, hang on and enjoy the ride!

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of three novels. Look for “The Sun Singer” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire” on Amazon and Smashwords. His most recent novel, “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey” is available on Amazon and OmniLit.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

KISS - Keep it Simply Simple by Chelle Cordero

Good for you if you have a grasp of vocabulary that would put most SAT students to shame – but most of that isn’t needed when you are writing dialogue and action. If you rely on long, multi-syllabic words just to make your dialogue sound impressive, you are probably defeating yourself.

Unless you have a character who
characteristically tries to sound like a dictionary when they speak, then don’t fill their speech with long and unnecessary words. Read the dialogue aloud, does it sound natural or does it sound false and stilted. Be honest with yourself, is that the way your character really speaks?

Would most AVERAGE high school students say "I need to eradicate my response on the examination" or would it be more believable for the student to say "I need to erase my answer on the test"? Think which
statement sounds more realistic. Chances are your dialogue should sound just like people you talk with everyday.

You should concern yourself with a different pattern of speech only when you are placing your setting in a different time period, country, or if the speech pattern is specific to a unique character trait such as someone who
doesn’t speak the language well, has a speech impediment or is trying to show off by using fancy words.

Keep your narrative simple as well. You shouldn’t have to rely on the narrative to describe a character’s emotions – their speech and actions should suffice. Be very stingy in using adjectives and adverbs – hurriedly, anxiously,
nervously, angrily, happily – are all words that are better assumed by a character’s actions. Instead of: "More tea?" She poured the hot water nervously. Use: "More tea?" Her hand shook as she poured the hot water. If you say that a character is shouting, it is redundant to say ‘shouting loudly’; the same thing applies to whispering quietly, creeping slowly, and other such combinations. If you feel that using an adjective is absolutely necessary, be careful with your placement; use ‘she said nervously’ and not ‘Nervously she said’. Don’t duplicate words in the same sentence such as ‘Nervously she said nervously…’ Always read your words aloud if you are not sure and listen to what you’re saying – it should sound normal and flow smoothly.

Adding unnecessary words to your writing can also make your words seem less potent. Sentences like ‘She started to laugh’ have less impact than ‘She laughed’, likewise ‘He had come to the saloon’ versus ‘He came to the saloon’. Reduce repetitive words – you probably don’t have to keep repeating that your
character is doing something like breathing (if it fits and sounds right, then use it) but there is no need to keep finding a different word to say the same thing such as inhaling, gasping, panting, etc.

Most people use contractions in their everyday speech. It is usually okay for your character to say "I don’t want" instead of "I do not want". At the same time be careful that you are using correct contractions and
don’t rely just on the sound. A very common mistake is to say "could OF" instead of the correct "could’ve" (for could HAVE). Try not to use slang "contractions" unless that is characteristic of the way your character really talks (like ya know, gonna, gimme, ain’t). Using a thesaurus and dictionary while you are writing may be helpful, but the end result shouldn’t sound like it.

NOTE from the Editor:

Welcome to a complete month of lessons about the craft of writing and being a writer. In the BONUS Section of this book you’ll find more than 50 brain-starting exercises to help you get those words on paper. These short lessons and activities have been previously published as part of the acclaimed Amazon Kindle blog Living, Writing, Breathing available by subscription for Kindle owners, and now are available to every writer.

Chelle Cordero is a multi-published author with Vanilla Heart Publishing and a full-time freelance writer with local and national newspapers and magazines. She resides in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, family and three spoiled pussycats. In addition to her books and articles, Chelle pens a weekly writing course available by subscription at Amazon Kindle Blogs and volunteers with her local ambulance corps as an EMT. Her website is

Friday, October 22, 2010

How Not To Write A Query Letter by Smoky Trudeau

Check out the various writing blogs and magazines like Writers Digest and you’ll find plenty of advice on how to write a query letter. What you won’t find is advice on how not to write one.

And, sometimes, knowing how not to do something is as important as knowing how to do it. Here are a few tips on how not to present your work to a publisher.

1. Don’t compare your book to other books.

My second novel, The Cabin, involves time travel. So do Diana Gabaldon’s fabulous Outlander books. Her books have made her practically a household name; her books have sold millions of copies. Now, I believe The Cabin is every bit as good as the Outlander books. But to say that in a query letter would have been arrogant and presumptuous. It is not for the author to compare her books to best sellers. That’s the job of literary critics.

2. Don’t tell the publisher your book is guaranteed to be a best seller.

You don’t know this. You cannot guarantee this. Once again, to write such a thing in a query is arrogant and presumptuous, and will get your query tossed faster than a burning Frisbee. Along the same lines, don’t tell the publisher they’ll regret it if they don’t publish your book. That sounds like a thinly veiled threat. Again, you’ve doomed any chance you had of the publisher even reading the next sentence of your query.

3. Don’t assume a publisher’s submission guidelines don’t apply to you.

They do. Not reading and following a publisher’s submission guidelines to the letter shows the publisher you cannot follow directions, and if you can’t follow simple directions, how is the publisher to know if you can follow an editor’s directions? Don’t send your science fiction novel to a publisher who publishes only romance. Don’t send your literary novel to a publisher who publishes only inspirational non-fiction. Don’t send an entire manuscript if the publisher asks for only a chapter. I cannot stress this enough: follow the submission guidelines to the letter.

4. Don’t admit you’re clueless.

I have seen query letters where the authors admit they’ve never published so much as a Facebook comment. Never, ever admit you are clueless! If you’ve written a good book, if you’ve had it professionally edited, let the book talk for you. If it is good, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never published before. If it isn’t any good, well, it still doesn’t matter.

Be professional. Be courteous. Be humble. Follow the guidelines. Writing a good query letter is really as simple as that.

Smoky Trudeau is the author of two novels, Redeeming Grace and The Cabin, and two nonfiction books especially for writers: Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out: Lessons on Writing the Novel Lurking Inside You From Start to Finish; and Left Brained, Write Brained: 366 Writing Prompts and Exercises to Free Your Creative Spirit, Awaken Your Muse, And Challenge Your Skills Every Day of the Year, all from Vanilla Heart Publishing. She has published short stories and poetry in literary journals such as CALYX and online e-zines such as Smashed Ink, and was a 2003 Pushcart Prize nominee.

An ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature, Smoky’s newly released book, Observations of an Earth Mage, is a collection of prose, poetry, and photography celebrating the fragile beauty of our planet. She is currently writing her third novel.

Finally succumbing to her bohemian spirit and need to live near the mountains and the ocean, Smoky moved to Southern California in 2008, where she lives with her husband and daughter in a ramshackle cottage in the woods overlooking the San Gabriel Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and fighting the urge to speak in haiku.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Acckk!! Where's That List? By Chelle Cordero

Organization, or rather the extreme lack of it, is the bane of my existence. As a self-employed – and too broke to hire assistants – writer, I have to keep track of my different projects, deadlines, invoices, bills and other “I gotta do it(s)”. Organization has NEVER been my forte. I am tempted to say I thrive on chaos, but that only seems to expand the piles of papers and JUNK. sigh…

Yet to survive as a writer, or at least manage to hang on to the dream, I have to keep track of what I am doing and when it needs to be done. Sometimes it seems a bit overwhelming, but I’ve learned a few tricks.

To-do lists – very important. Not only does the list serve as a reminder of those things to be done, it also helps keep you on track. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke of the person who started out looking to address a letter, but they needed their glasses – while looking for their glasses they came across something else they meant to do, and so on until the day was over and they sat down exhausted at the table to find they never addressed or mailed the letter. I hate to admit this, but that really should be my biography, truly, that’s me.

I keep getting distracted by things I come across during my pursuit to accomplish just one thing. My to-do list helps me snap back to what I am supposed to be doing and helps me keep my focus. Besides, I leave plenty of room on the bottom of the list to write in all the things I came across to distract me so I will eventually get those done as well. And I don’t try to finish the list every day although it is nice when I’ve accomplished the bulk of it; I just copy the balance to the next day’s list.

Calendars can help keep you afloat. I carry one in my pocketbook and keep a full size one on my desk – these are regular old fashioned write on it yourself calendars. I also maintain a webmail calendar that I can set up to send me periodic email or text-to-phone reminders. Occasionally I do have to sit and coordinate each calendar to make sure I have the same info (ie: deadline dates and appointments) on each. Having a calendar at hand is a great way to make sure I am not double-booking myself or missing important dates. I also include social obligations and religious holidays since those can affect my availability. Some of my friends use the electronic calendar feature of their phones, that can work, but I prefer something I can easily look at and scribble on at will.

I keep a “project book” next to my desk. There are various methods you can use here – keep your lists individually, by date, by client (for multiple assignments) or just assign a sheet or two for each month and list an upcoming deadline appropriately. If I scheduled a blog visit, have a deadline, am hosting a blog stop, have an appointment or anything that will alter my time commitments, I list it here. This is in addition to my little note on my calendar(s). I check things off and even make a few notations about the job and or results so I can refer to it the next time I have a similar task.

When you are feeling overwhelmed with too many things to do, the stress builds and causes distractions and headaches. I work at home so my distractions may include family or neighbors, social phone calls or housework you just know has to be done. Caller ID and answering machines should be used to the fullest extent when you don’t need to be interrupted – I’ve gone so far as to turn off the ringer when I am really feeling frazzled.

As for interruptions from family, close a door or even hang a sign if there is no door saying “I am at work” and demand compliance. Plan a timed schedule for any must-do’s that you simply fee you can’t ignore and don’t devote more time than allowed. Finally, if you are really overwhelmed and stressed and reacting badly (as in you can’t seem to accomplish anything), take a break – yep, walk away from your desk and work and relax for at least fifteen minutes.

I hope you’ll find some of these helpful tips useful. For me, I am getting back to work – WHAT WAS I DOING when I thought to write this little ditty?

Chelle Cordero is a multi-published author with Vanilla Heart Publishing and a full-time freelance writer with local and national newspapers and magazines. She resides in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, family and three spoiled pussycats. In addition to her books and articles, Chelle pens a weekly writing course available by subscription at Amazon Kindle Blogs and volunteers with her local ambulance corps as an EMT. Her website is

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Death of a Story by Smoky Trudeau

I’ve been working on a novel for the past couple years, my third novel. It was an idea I was really excited about when I set out, an idea I thought held great promise. I started out great guns, eager to explore my characters’ personalities, learn where their adventures would lead them, find out how their conflict would resolve.

And then … it died.

I have page after page of beautifully written prose that goes absolutely nowhere. And it has nowhere to go, because (a) the conflict isn’t very strong, and neither protagonist really cares that much about it, and (b) the timeline doesn’t work. There are too many years between the characters for their stories to converge the way I imagined.

Please, don’t post well-meaning comments with suggestions on how to revive the story. I’m not interested in reviving it. I’ve tried, believe me. Some stories are best tucked away in a drawer. Every novelist has such manuscripts, and if they don’t, well, some day, they will. Not every idea turns out to be brilliant.

And that’s okay. I can’t stress that enough. It is okay to let a story die. Trying to revive a story that doesn’t really exist, invent a conflict that isn’t there, bend time in a manner that isn’t plausible, is akin to trying to save the life of an end-stage cancer patient. Sometimes, the compassionate thing is to let it die.

I am relieved. I’ve spent a good part of the last six months trying to figure out where I went wrong, what I can do to “fix it.” It’s caused me more stress, more sleepless nights, more migraines and stomachaches, than you can imagine.

But more importantly, it kept me from being able to let other ideas that were sprouting in my fertile mind to develop. I kept pushing them down, because I felt obligated to finish The Storyteller’s Bracelet first. I didn’t feel it was possible to be working on two novels at once. And I was afraid the demons that plagued me with the dying book would affect my writing anything new.

Then, Vanilla Heart’s managing editor, Kimberlee Williams, asked me to submit a short story for the soon-to-be-released Passionate Hearts anthology. I had an idea—a short story had been floating around in my head for months—but it was one of those ideas I suppressed. How could I write a short story when there was an unfinished novel on my computer, nagging at me, calling to me, creating so much guilt I was almost paralyzed with fear at the thought of writing something different?

Kimberlee was lovingly insistent. And because she is such a fabulous publisher, such a champion for my work—for all the VHP authors’ work—I didn’t want to let her down. So on my recent vacation to the Midwest, I sat down one morning and began to write.

And I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. And I wrote the best short story of my life. Breakfast at the Laundromat.

And something wonderful happened. The demons that were preventing me from letting new stories come to the surface were chased away by an unnamed man who is raw from a failed marriage and the middle-aged hippie who charms him in the most unlikely of places. And with those demons in flight, I was finally able to recognize that The Storyteller’s Bracelet was meant to be my unfinished novel, the one in the bottom drawer that no one will read until someone discovers it upon my death.

Turns out, once I finally admitted this to Kimberlee, she said she’d suspected the novel was dead for months now. She realized it before I did, or at least, she realized it before I was able to admit it. And she is 100 percent behind me in letting it go.

Not every venture in life works out as planned. Not every business succeeds; not every invention catches on with the public; not every trip leads to its expected destination, and not every story is worth telling. And, I repeat, that’s okay. What’s important is that we give our all to every venture we set out on, and recognize that to lay a “failed” venture to rest is, in fact, not failure.

Rather, it’s an opportunity to begin again, with a new destination in mind. And what is more exciting than beginning a new adventure?

Smoky Trudeau is the author of two novels, Redeeming Grace and The Cabin, and two nonfiction books especially for writers: Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out: Lessons on Writing the Novel Lurking Inside You From Start to Finish; and Left Brained, Write Brained: 366 Writing Prompts and Exercises to Free Your Creative Spirit, Awaken Your Muse, And Challenge Your Skills Every Day of the Year, all from Vanilla Heart Publishing. She has published short stories and poetry in literary journals such as CALYX and online e-zines such as Smashed Ink, and was a 2003 Pushcart Prize nominee.

An ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature, Smoky’s newly released book, Observations of an Earth Mage, is a collection of prose, poetry, and photography celebrating the fragile beauty of our planet. She is currently writing her third novel.

Finally succumbing to her bohemian spirit and need to live near the mountains and the ocean, Smoky moved to Southern California in 2008, where she lives with her husband and daughter in a ramshackle cottage in the woods overlooking the San Gabriel Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and fighting the urge to speak in haiku.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Should I write about Paris or Peoria?

The Anti-Stratfordian movement says William Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him because he lacked the education, scholarship, travel and political involvement required to support the subjects, locations and themes in the work.

While I have no intention of opening the Shakespeare vs. Bacon can of worms here, the “lack of knowledge” argument in the debate shows us that the write-what-you-know advice for prospective authors has been around for a long time. This advice is not always heeded. After reading bestselling novels with high-stakes characters working in exotic locales, many of us are tempted to write about what we don’t know.

That is, we’d rather write about a fashion designer in Paris than a coach in Peoria.

Everyday People and Places

Great fiction confronts well-intentioned (usually), flawed protagonists with conflicts in rural and city settings that could be almost anywhere. If you know Paris or Tokyo, then by all means use them. If not, consider Peoria—or the town where you grew up or now reside.

Over-the-top soldiers of fortune, global industrialists, surgeons, and sports figures appear to be among the top protagonists of choice. Which of these are you? If the answer is none, then unless you know one of these people and can follow him around for months, perhaps your own job in “Peoria” will result in a more realistic main character in a more believable setting.

My recent protagonist teaches English at a small Midwestern college. It was an easy decision: I used to teach at a small college. I saw the ivy-covered buildings, quadrangles, students, aging tenured professors and absurd educational politics first hand. For intrigue and conflict, I added in some corrupt deans and administrators, a maintenance man who owned a rifle and was willing to use it to support the status quo, and a deranged ex-lover out for revenge. (Most of us can look at the nastiest people in our workplaces and imagine then ten times worse!)

Your town and your career probably have more to offer prospective readers than you think. One hard fact of life for writers is this: readers are smart enough to know whether you’re faking it or know what you’re writing about. You either have a feel for the location and the characters and their professions, or you don’t.

If you’ve traveled to or lived in Paris, you might stage a convincing crime on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées because your photographs and experiences will help you create realistic incident.

While my memories of a long-ago trip to Paris along with the knowledge gained from watching Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou careen around the city in The Da Vinci Code made me consider the location for travel scenes, my muse reminded me to write what I know. I know College Avenue in Tallahassee and the nearby Tate’s Hell Swamp because I grew up in the Florida panhandle. I don’t have to consult a tourist guidebook to learn what kinds of houses and stores are found along College or what kind of flora and fauna are in swamps southwest of town.

Your Neck of the Woods

Like it or hate it, you know the town where you grew up (or live now). You are linked to it by people and events. You know whether the neighborhoods there have 1990s homes or older Queen Anne and Craftsman houses. You know when the first flowers bloom in the spring and what the weather is like during the dog days August. The joys and hurts you experienced there are—from a writing perspective—icing on the cake.

Like the swamps near Tallahassee where I once camped and hiked, there are lakes, rivers, mountains and farmland near your hometown that you can describe better than, say, the forest of Fontainebleau or the gardens at Giverny. You already know the sights, sounds, roads, and recreational activities there and won’t have to research them heavily to make them come alive in your stories.

Modern-day novels seldom include page after page of description. Yet, details about jobs and locales are important. When characters are at work, they’re at specific places using tools and equipment to complete daily tasks. What should the reader see and hear when you show him the characters on these jobs or on trips to a nearby theme parks or resorts?

My hometown and your hometown may not be as exotic as Paris or Tokyo, but we know them. Most of us haven’t had unique careers. Instead, we know what it’s like to work as administrators, bankers, cooks, teachers, sales people, computer programmers and secretaries.

What we know makes good stories because the knowledge, experience, emotions, physical reactions and locations are natural to us and our thinking. The reality of our lives flows out of our pens as smoothly as the ink. What we know is the stuff that captures the reader’s attention and makes him believe our fiction is real.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, The Sun Singer and Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why Submit to Anthologies? by Smoky Trudeau

There’s a nasty little Catch-22 to the publishing business: it seems you have to be published to get published. This can be a frustrating conundrum to the many aspiring writers out there who think they’ve written the next Great American Novel. How do you get a publisher to read your query letter, let alone request your manuscript, if you haven’t published before?

Start small, that’s how. Too often, writers blast out a 150,000-word novel before they’ve cut their teeth on smaller pieces. This is a mistake on several levels. First, I’m sorry, but if you haven’t learned how to write a short story or an essay, you aren’t equipped to write a novel, no matter what your best friend, your mother, or your writer’s group tells you. That would be like a baby running a marathon instead of taking his first tottering steps, or eating a steak as her first solid food. By starting small, you learn the nuances of style, language, plot development, and dialogue. You learn to write tight, concise prose. You earn the right to call yourself an author.

Second, there are many more opportunities to publish short pieces than there are full-length novels. Literary magazines, both print and online, are one example. But perhaps the best place to publish shorter pieces is in an anthology.

Anthologies are book-length collections of prose and/or poetry on a common theme put together by a compiler. The theme may be broad, such as “The Best American Short Stories” or “The Best Stories of the Twentieth Century”; or it may be a narrow, like the Nature’s Gifts anthology from Vanilla Heart Publishing (2009), which had an environmental theme. The big advantage anthologies offer is they are normally much more open to writers who have no publishing credits to their name. Quality is what counts in an anthology submission, not what your publishing resume looks like.

Getting a story published in anthology can help you get your novel published for one simple but important reason: it proves you can write. When you go to query publishers about your novel, you can say you’ve been published, which will make the publisher more likely to pay attention to your query. This is especially true if you then query the anthology publisher about your novel! Once a publisher has worked with you on an anthology piece—once they’ve learned you pay attention to editing advice and can follow instructions about things like submission guidelines—they will be much more open to looking at other things you’ve written.

Of course, publishing in an anthology is great for established writers, too. Anthologies get an author’s name out there. If a reader enjoys a short story you’ve written, she’s likely to buy your novel, too. Try writing a short story that uses the same characters as your novel! It can be a short sequel or prequel to your book, or it can be a story within the parameters of your novel that isn’t told in the book. Getting readers interested in your characters will send them running to Amazon to buy your novel and learn more!

Whether you’re a novice or well-published writer, as with any submission, be sure to pay strict attention to submission guidelines. Don’t, for example, submit a poem to an anthology that is requesting only prose. A piece that was perfect for the Nature’s Gifts anthology wouldn’t be appropriate for Vanilla Heart’s upcoming Passionate Hearts anthology, which has a romantic theme, or their Wild Child anthology, which is open only to submissions written by children aged 17 and under. Pay attention to word counts: Passionate Hearts submissions should be between 1,000 and 10,000 words. Don’t submit a 25,000-word novella. If the publisher asks for an author bio, send one. If they ask for a synopsis, send one. Follow the directions to the letter, sending only what is requested. Nothing more, nothing less.

Pay attention to how your submission looks! If ewe think yore spell checker will fined awl yore miss steaks, u r wrong. (That sentence, for example, cleared my spell checker just fine!) Proofread your story, then proofread it again. Then, have someone else proofread it. Don’t get all fancy with fonts. Arial or Times New Roman in a 12-point size are the accepted standards for type fonts when it comes to submissions. Pick one and use it.

Of course, even if you follow submission guidelines to the letter, there is no guarantee a publisher will accept your story. Anthologies have their limits. If a publisher wants a 200-page book, for example, there are only so many stories they can accept. Don’t take rejection personally! Lots of wonderful stories get rejected because there simply isn’t room for them. Submit early for your best shot, and if your story is rejected, submit it somewhere else! The road to getting published is something akin to running full speed into a brick wall and knocking yourself silly. You have to be willing to get up, wipe the blood from your nose, and say, “Gee, that felt good! I think I’ll try it again!” If you have a talent for writing, and if you do that often enough, eventually you’ll knock down the brick wall.

Smoky Trudeau is the author of the newly released Observations of an Earth Mage, a collection of photos, essays, and poems celebrating our beautiful planet earth. She is also the author of two novels, Redeeming Grace and The Cabin, as well as two books for writers, Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out: Lessons on Writing the Novel Lurking Inside Your From Start to Finish, and Left Brained, Write Brained: 366 Writing Prompts and Exercises, all from Vanilla Heart Publishing. You can learn more about Smoky at,, or at her blog on Xanga, You can also look her up on Facebook.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Think Like a Writer - Observing Settings by Robert Hays

Good writers always take seriously the challenge of creating interesting, authentic settings. Previous contributors have offered good suggestions on this front, and my hope merely is to add yet another idea or two. In essence, I’d like to emphasize the value of plain, old-fashioned observation and thinking like a writer.

My friend Walt Harrington, who received multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations for his stunning in-depth personality profiles in the Washington Post, always carried a small, unobtrusive camera on assignment. Before and after his interviews he snapped general setting photos for later reference. His detailed descriptions of the setting were a trademark of his work. (I say were because, like many of us, Walt gave up life as a working journalist to become an academic.) His settings were real and specific to each subject, so accurate detail was important in portraying the people he wrote about.

In fiction writing, we have the freedom to create settings of our choice. But readers will pick up on phony settings pretty quickly. The more realistic and more interesting your setting, the more likely the characters who inhabit it will be believable and interesting to the reader. I’m not suggesting that you need to carry a camera and take setting photographs—although obviously it’s a good way to assure accuracy and pick up on small things you otherwise may miss. I am suggesting that you constantly think like a writer and take careful notes when you observe a setting of interest and, perhaps most important, remember settings you may want to use some day. When you are struck by a terrific setting, store it away in the back of your head. It will pop out sometime when you need it.

I’m using setting here to mean everything from the broad sweep to minor elements that add color and interest. Here is an example:

Probably the most commented on scene in my book, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, is that in which Bradley, finally having accepted the inevitability of Lizzie’s death, seeks solitude and takes refuge in the men’s room at a deserted park. Here, he notes but ignores ugly graffiti that normally would make him angry but reacts to a large cockroach trying to escape from a flowing urinal. He rescues the insect, sensing that he holds the power of life and death over it, all the while lamenting the fact that God holds that power over Lizzie and will not give her life.

That scene only works because of the fine detail of the setting. The fine detail of the setting comes straight from my own observations. I actually witnessed a large cockroach trying to escape from a flowing urinal decades ago, when I was in the eighth grade! I was so fascinated by the life and death struggle that I knew I’d one day use it in my writing. (Sorry to say, unlike Bradley, I did not rescue the cockroach.)

The graffiti—some of it quite ugly—also adds to the realism of the setting. Every scribble described is something I’ve seen over the years on the walls of men’s rooms, library carrels, and elsewhere on campus at the University of Illinois. (I know, that’s a sad commentary on our society.) When I saw something particularly expressive I would make a note of it later to add to a file of such things that I kept for use in my writing.

There are plenty of other good examples. Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel, The Sun Singer, grew out of a visit to Allerton Park near Monticello, Illinois, as a youth. That’s when he first saw the striking “Sun Singer” sculpture. I suspect that, even back then, Malcolm thought like a writer!

Robert Hays, Author of Circles in the Water, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, and The Baby River Angel Robert Hays' Website

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Critique or Criticism? by Charmaine Gordon

You meet in a creative writing class, and when the twelve week class ends you’ve formed a few friendships. It’s like when you were kids. “Hey, let’s put on a show. My mom can make costumes and I have a barn we can use. . .” You start your own renegade group. “Hey, we can write, meet every week and critique our work better than sitting in a big class and listening to…” Sounds good so far.

Everyone is equal. No one is published – yet, and you like and trust each other. Everyone works diligently and one day, you write The End to your first story. You are the one to write the first query and come to meetings with rejections but it’s your nature to survive and thrive. So you begin another story. The friends seem more interested in what you’re doing than in their writing and they become more critical. You keep writing and incorporate their ideas because you trust them.

Your first book is PUBLISHED! The women want to expand the group-a good idea-new blood-fresh input and you’re the first one with a real live book and now you’re not just a person who writes. You are an author. They purchase your book, you sign, so excited to be doing this, and continue writing the second story.

The expanded group has grown to ten. Not everyone brings pages to read to meeting. They eat lunch, talk about health and grandchildren, and finally get down to reading pages because it’s getting late. Lots of attention is paid to every comma you do or don’t use, and many questions about who, what, why have you written this and that. You drive home shaking your head. It’s getting to be a struggle. When book two is published, the congratulations slows to minimal and some of the women don’t purchase the book. Hmm. No biggie but hmm. You’re not looking for a standing ovation but it’s a huge accomplishment to be published. Ah well.

It’s unpleasant to discover friends can change and no longer be true friends. The sky is filled with stars; there’s room for all if us. If they feel my star has outshone theirs, perhaps it’s because I work and focus. I have the fever to express, to tell a story. And I’m not afraid to cry and laugh as I write. I’m not in competition with anyone. I write for the passion of writing.

I thought all this behavior was left behind when you grew up. I guess not.

If you’ve had similar experiences with critique groups, I’d sure like to hear about them. Just a snippet to let me know I’m not alone.

P.S. The VHP family welcomed me with open arms a few months ago. I thank all of you for making me feel at home.

NOTE from Kimberlee: I thought this might be a good place to add Smoky Trudeau's Critique Group Guidelines she uses in her classes, so thanks, Smoky!


When You are Reviewing Another Student’s Work:

* Try to always begin with a positive comment. It is as important for writers to know what works with their writing in addition to what doesn’t.
* Be specific and objective. Offer suggestions, not just criticism. “I don’t know, I just don’t like it,” or “It was good, I liked it” are not specific, objective, or helpful.
* Direct your comments to the writing, not the writer.
* Don’t focus on grammar or punctuation—that’s the job of an editor, not of critique group members.
* Don’t repeat what others have already said.

When Your Work is Being Reviewed:

* Stay out of the discussion unless you are asked a specific question. This is hard, because you will want to defend your work. But you need to let the work speak for itself. If asked to clarify something, limit your response only to what is asked.
* Don’t take negative comments personally. No one is judging you—they are critiquing your work. Critique is NOT the same as criticism. Writers who don’t learn to distinguish between the two can rest assured they never will be published.
* Remember, ultimately you are the only one who can judge whether or not you take the advice offered by your peers. If you have doubts about their input, or need further clarification of comments, talk to your editor or publisher.

The dance of life continues with all steps forward-no slip sliding as in the past. I am excited,over-joyed,ecstatic. Get the picture? This author is one happy woman. To Be Continued, my first book with Vanilla Heart Publishing, has gotten good reviews. Women write that they cheer when the straying husband gets what's coming to him. My latest novel, Starting Over, romance/suspense has just been released, and Now What?, my paranormal/psychic romance is due out soon.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Room of One's Own by Smoky Trudeau

Creativity is not a gift of some sort that you are born with. Creativity is a state of being. There is no magic bullet to teach you to be creative, but there are tools that can help you change the way you see yourself, teach you to view yourself as a creative being.

Creativity is hampered by a too-hectic environment that does not provide quiet time for reflection and introspection. It is also hampered by:

  • a sterile environment that does not feed the senses
  • demands for quick production of results, both tangible and intangible
  • harsh words from ourselves as well as from others
  • stress, which steals energy from our creative selves and damages our health
  • routine, which limits our range of responses available, makes us automatons

Space to call your own is very important, because this allows you to create a sensory stimulating environment. Virginia Woolf wrote an entire book about it: A Room of Her Own. So did Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift From the Sea.

Of course, not everyone has an entire room they can claim as their own. But isn’t there a corner of a room you can claim as your private creative space? The size of the space isn’t what is important. It’s having a nook where you can be free to write, to draw, to make sculptures or collages or whatever it is you want to do.

My own creative space is tiny—only four feet wide by about ten feet long. In my space I have my desk and computer for writing, and a bookshelf with books on art and writing. I’ve got boxes of clay, paint, markers, bits of wire, scraps of pretty paper—anything and everything I find that might some day work its way into an art project.

I also have a toy box. Full of toys. Not cast-offs from my children—these are my own toys. And yes, I play with them, especially when I’m creatively blocked. Why? Who are the most creative creatures on the planet? Kids, of course! That is, before we adults drum their creative imaginations into submission. Playing with toys—being childlike (as opposed to childish), stimulates creativity.

Yes, my creative space is very, very crowded (especially when my 84-pound dog and two cats decide to sprawl out and squabble over what little floor space there is). But it is mine. And wondrous things are created there.

Smoky Trudeau is the author of the newly released Observations of an Earth Mage, a collection of photos, essays, and poems celebrating our beautiful planet earth. She is also the author of two novels, Redeeming Grace and The Cabin, as well as two books for writers, Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out: Lessons on Writing the Novel Lurking Inside Your From Start to Finish, and Left Brained, Write Brained: 366 Writing Prompts and Exercises, all from Vanilla Heart Publishing. You can learn more about Smoky at,, or at her blog on Xanga, You can also look her up on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Solitude by Chelle Cordero

small press review

What exactly is a “writer’s retreat”? Does it have to be a remote cabin in the woods? Or is it simply unbroken privacy and relaxation?

Many writers tend to be hermits by nature, at least when we are pre-occupied with a project – just leave us be. In this case a writer’s retreat can be anywhere we can work without interruption or stress. Yes, this may sound very unfriendly to someone outside of the writing circle, but writers understand this (occasional to frequent) need for solitude.

The other members of my immediate household are involved in a sports activity and every so often they travel away for a weekend – some time back my son invited me to join them on their trip to make use of the mountain cabin they would be staying in along with another dozen people; “Bring a laptop mom and write all day while we are out…” It was tempting, but I declined.

I adore spending time with my family, however remaining in a cabin (not air conditioned by the way…) where I would feel obligated to help with the cooking and cleaning and seeing my family only in a crowd (geez, even sleeping would have been separate and dormitory style!) paled against the concept of undisturbed quiet amongst all the comforts of home. With only the cats to feed morning and night, I had no other schedules to concern myself with.

The phones were ignored (a special ring that only family cell phones made happen) – I slept when I wanted to, typed at my desk as I needed to, ate simple meals without a lot of preparation – and I took relaxing breaks to read, watch TV or take a local drive. It felt like I was on vacation! Best of all I got things done and felt so accomplished. And when they returned we were all rejuvenated by pursuing favorite activities. We had a wonderful reunion.

Albert Einstein said “I lived in solitude in the country and noticed how the monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.”

There comes a time when a writer needs a brief respite from the day to day interruptions of everyday lives. Yes, we are stimulated by events around us, conversations, sights, sounds and even smells, but then we need time to just allow our minds to wander aimlessly, to ponder randomness. We do our best when we can retreat into our private little bubbles for a little while.

Are writers - am I - antisocial, eccentric, disturbed…? Or do we just crave a few moments in time to call our own?

small press review

Chelle Cordero is blessed to be a full-time writer and a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic. She has eight novels published with Vanilla Heart Publishing, short stories in three anthologies and numerous articles in various North American newspapers and magazines. Chelle also teaches an online writing course available through Kindle subscription.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Writing the Novel by Marilyn Celeste Morris

A daunting task. Some people get discouraged just thinking of the time involved. I wonder if anyone ever asks an artist how long it takes to paint a landscape? A vase of flowers? Well, you don’t do it all at one sitting. It takes as long as it takes. My first novel, Sabbath’s Gift, took me oh, about twenty years. From concept to publishing. Life intrudes. But you keep working on it.

Okay, you have an idea for a novel. But you ask, “How do I get started?”

You’re faced with whether to outline or fly by the seat of your pants, or Free Fall. I vote for Free Fall. I believe outlines should be outlawed. Choose which one works for you.

The dreaded Page One, Chapter One: Relax. This can and will change a thousand times. Do something different. Write your last chapter first. Really. You'll know where you're headed, and you can even use that chapter as your first chapter and use flashbacks, if you're good with them.

Just throw words on the computer screen. Just get started;you can rearrange it into some form of cohesiveness later. My first novel was done on an old-fashioned typewriter, so my drafts were literally cut and pasted, then retyped. When I got my computer, I was able to put it all onscreen, and it was so much easier. The important thing is, just get it on screen. On a disk. Out of your head.

Describe your characters: Cut out pictures from magazines. If it’s a period setting, get old magazines and cut out the characters, or use the Internet. There are many sites devoted to period pieces. Describe your hero, heroine, villain, and peripheral characters. Give them quirks. (Tugging on an ear lobe; putting hands in pockets; biting her nails.)

Give each character a complete background, from birth to present time, where they went to school, favorite colors, siblings, their hobbies, etc. Even if you don't use them, you'll know them well, and that will sift into your story: For instance, the villain is a volunteer at the animal sanctuary.

Names are important. I heard a well-known writer at a convention once say: “Name your hero something you would call your dog. One syllable. Never, ever name your hero "Hank". It should be something like "Brock". Think of Cruella De Ville or Snidely Whiplash. You get the idea.

Your setting: When? Where? All the senses should be involved: Sights, sounds, smells. Be sure you know what you're talking about! Don't have a person talking on a telephone when it hadn't been invented yet.

Point of View: First person/Third Person/Omniscient? Generally, novelists use use Third Person. He or She. I have read novels where the main character is the first person throughout, and some novelists do it very well. But you have to be very, very good at that.

Tenses: Always use the past tense. Keep the tenses in synch with each other. Don't do: "He said," and "She answers."

Try to write as we speak. We don't say, "Do not," we say, "don't." There are exceptions, of course, if your character is using English as a second language and is unfamiliar with contractions, etc. A huge mistake some people make is giving the villain a stilted form of speech, with no ordinary contractions. “I will kill you” vs. “I’ll kill you.”

Dialogue and dialect can get tricky. Be very careful, especially if you don’t know the area lingo. Take NY vs. the Old South. Dialogue not done well can lead to some real howlers: “How y’all doing?” for instance, is incorrect when addressing only one person. It’s meant to include more than one person.

Please avoid this mistake in dialogue: "Hi, John.” “Hi, George.” “How are you, John?” “Fine, George, how are you?" If there are only two people speaking, the reader can easily figure out who is speaking.

Avoid too many dialogue tags: John said, “It’s over.” Jim said, “Are you sure?” John answered, “Yes, I’m sure.”

Show, don't tell: “His face turned red and he struggled to control himself as he stalked through the room." We don’t tell the reader the man was angry. Same with other emotions: She was confused. It’s better to write: Her brow wrinkled as she heard the words.-Don’t tell the reader she is confused; show it.

Flashbacks: Be very careful that the reader knows they're flashbacks. Use italics, or spaces, or something to break the current action. One of the flaws of "Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood,” in my opinion, was that I couldn't follow who was doing what, when.

Watch your language! Spelling & grammar. Don’t rely on spell check. It doesn’t differentiate between there, their and they’re, and other grammar dilemmas. Edit carefully, watching for those errors. Good writing is good re-writing. Then let someone else edit your work.

Don't let anyone else see your first, or even second draft. They are usually awful, and make sense to no one but yourself. However, when you finally turn it over to an editor, don't take criticism personally. What they will say is something like: “Chapter One needs to be tightened up a bit.” What you hear is: "Your baby is ugly and shouldn't be allowed outside in the daytime."

Are you ready? Now, do a one page synopsis (in present tense) and send it to a publisher or …Send to an agent. Be very careful if you go this route. If your only goal is to break into a major NY publishing house, go ahead. But there are plenty of great independent publishers out there, and I happened to find a great one, the second time around. Join a Yahoo group dedicated to writing and publishing and find out from other writers who they chose as their publisher.

Wait. And Wait. And wait some more. While you are haunting your email In Box, work on your next project. You do have one, don't you?

At last! You're going to be published! You do the Happy Dance. But wait! There’s more!

Writing is fun. Re-Writing is hell. Especially when someone disagrees with the way you wrote a certain passage. Editors are a sorry lot. After they lower themselves to accept your work, they send it back. They don't like your punctuation, your grammar, your ANYTHING. It's not personal. Do what they suggest, up to pitching the whole thing and starting over.

It's Published! You have your work in your hands. You like the cover. You like the binding. It almost has that "new car smell." You like everything, except it looks different from the manuscript page. Doubts set in. You're positive nobody will read it. And those who do read it wont like it. Your mother calls. Your friends call. They tell you they like it. (They have to.) Those in the business criticize your work.

You begin to wonder: Why did I ever start this? Remember: Criticism isn’t a bullet through the heart. Just think: You've done what other people only dream of doing. Who only talk of doing. Your "someday" has become a reality. You're a writer.

Marilyn Celeste Morris, Author
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