Category Archives: Writing Tips

Make the most of your writing: join a local writers group

SDWritersInk

I recently took the plunge and joined a local writers group called San Diego Writers, Ink. They offer writing workshops and meet-up groups for writers, as well as regular “Room to Write” drop-in sessions that work great for keeping a regular writing date with yourself. I figured I needed the boot to the bum, as I’ve been neglecting my writing time recently, even though I know that I’ve got a bunch of projects I want to get finished.

As an added bonus, my husband is also happy about this development because now he gets to have Friday mornings to himself for composing music in his studio — without having to use headphones to keep it quiet.

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The sign I made for my husband’s studio door

In addition to SDWI’s other programming, this weekend they’re holding their annual “Fall for Writing” conference. At just $120 for members ($140 for non-members) to take up to 10 sessions, it’s a steal of a deal. I’m tempted to drop in for a few of the classes, like “Low Cost Ways to Promote Creative Projects” with Janene Roberts (no relation) or “Flash Fiction and Short Stories” with Lisa Kessler to help improve my short game and start winning more Iron Writer challenges.

If you’re interested in a free online class that’ll help you learn to write flash fiction that doesn’t suck, I would also recommend Holly Lisle’s aptly named “How to Write Flash Fiction That Doesn’t Suck” class. I just started on the week one exercises, and it’s been super helpful so far.

I’ve also been accepted into MJ Kelley’s virtual writer workshop, starting this October, so it looks like I’m joining writers groups left and right! This should be just the motivation I need to keep putting my writing higher up on my daily To Do list, even when it’s not paid work. Plus it’ll be awesome to read work from my fellow critique partners and get a chance to see what other people are working on.

So now I’m curious: do you belong to any writers groups — local or virtual — and if so, what attracted you to the group?

Author meltdowns and the FAQ page: How to handle dumb questions with grace

A certain indie author — someone whom I’d personally never heard of before a member of one of the indie groups I belong to on Facebook posted about her — has apparently been having a very public meltdown this week. This author, who shall remain nameless to prevent further bad behavior on her part, apparently posted to her Facebook page something to the effect that she was sick of getting incredibly dumb questions from her readers, and that people ought to look to Google before shooting her any more ridiculous emails about Amazon products or her own book series.

NUCLEAR MELTDOWN!

NUCLEAR MELTDOWN!

As someone who regularly receives some really odd (and even flat out dumb) questions in my inbox, I thought I’d give this angry author a bit of helpful advice.

  1. You don’t have to reply. There’s this amazing receptacle included in all email programs called “the trash.” You just select the offending message and drag it to the virtual wastebasket and voila, problem solved! For repeat offenders, there’s another invention that comes in handy: automatically redirecting all further messages straight to the trash, totally bypassing your inbox. In Gmail, it’s super easy to filter messages by email address, so you never even have to see the offender’s name again. Works wonders for your blood pressure.
  2. If you do reply, you can use a form letter. If you seem to be getting a lot of the same questions over and over, from different people, write a response once and then save it. You can cut and paste it (or just call up the saved draft) and send it off to anyone who asks you that question in the future. Saves tons of time and typing.
  3. You don’t have to write a(nother) book. Hey, you’re an author — you already wrote a book, congrats! And now people are curious about it. Great! But there’s no reason you have to write a second tome just to reply to an email. Keep it short and sweet, maybe send the person to one of your blog posts? Sure, we authors are busy, but that doesn’t mean we need to be rude.
  4. Pre-empt obvious questions with an FAQ. This particular author was apparently most bent out of shape by the fact that readers were asking in what order her book series was meant to be read. This calls for the handy dandy section of any website known as the FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions. For instance, if someone wanted to know in what order they should read Naked Montreal, I would tell them that part one is called Naked Montreal: Sex and the Underground City, while part two is titled Naked Montreal: Porn Stars and Peccadillos. I’d load this info in my FAQ, along with some other questions I get a lot (“How do I reach you for an interview?” maybe, or “Will you review my book?”), and answer them politely. In fact, I’m writing up my FAQ this afternoon, because seriously, why don’t I have one already?
  5. If you’re really that upset, seek help. Guess what? As an indie author you ARE in customer service. Your customers are your readers, and you need to be nice to them and help them out — even if it’s Amazon’s screw-up, not yours. Shit happens; roll with the punches. Maybe look into hiring a virtual assistant to help answer your emails, or even a real-life personal assistant that’s eager to interact with your fans. If you can’t handle the pressures of the celebrity author lifestyle, you should probably seek out a refuge in the woods with no internet access — a place where you’re totally unreachable except to the most intrepid of fans or trespassers, and where you can shout “Get off my lawn!” while shaking your shotgun in the air. Or, you know, maybe look into getting some therapy for those anger issues? Fans ask questions because they LIKE YOU. Don’t make them regret their decision by acting like a douchecanoe.

Hey, I get it. I’ve been asked “What’s a PDF?” and wondered whether I was being punked. I’ve been asked if I would personally tutor someone in the bedroom (for free, no less), just because I write sexy books. There will always be dumb questions, and there will always be dumb ways to handle them. Let’s just try to remember that behind even the dumbest of questions lies a human being who’s trying to understand life, the universe and everything – and if all else fails there’s Hey Let Me Google That For You.

How do YOU handle dumb questions? (And please, don’t say “There are no dumb questions.”)

Why reality TV is great for writers

Some people hate reality TV. They complain that it’s the downfall of civilization or even humanity itself. Personally, I just have to laugh.

Grammarly even thinks reality TV kills books. Calm down, drama queens!

Grammarly even suggests reality TV kills books. Calm down, drama queens!

For one thing, there are so many different kinds of reality TV shows that it’s impossible to say they’re all categorically bad — or even that you refuse to watch them. Reality shows aren’t just the voyeuristic kind like Big Brother or The Real World, where they throw a bunch of strangers in a house together and watch the drama unfold. Not all of them are about gossippy Real Housewives or celebrities with first-world problems. In fact, you probably watch a lot of reality shows without realizing they’re considered reality TV. Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, for instance, is a reality show. So are most modern-day contest shows, like The Biggest Loser, Dancing With the Stars and Cutthroat Kitchen. And if you’re into adventure and excitement, you’ve probably watched some survivalist reality shows like Doomsday Preppers or Bear Grylls’ Man vs. Wild - or maybe even that old favorite, Survivor.

In short, reality TV is everywhere. And though some view it with disdain, I have to admit that I love reality shows.

Why? Because reality TV is great for writers!

dirtyjobs

Not only will you learn a lot about all different kinds of human behavior, but reality shows can also give you a crash course in just about anything you’d ever want to write about. Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, for instance, is an amazing resource for writers in search of unique, unusual and often underpaid jobs that real people do. But just about every reality show I’ve watched has given me great glimpses into other people’s careers, which is priceless for developing realistic characters.

For students of human nature, the histrionics of more dramatic shows like Basketball Wives and Jersey Shore can help inspire over-the-top characters and great off-the-cuff responses to just about any situation. (Or even The Situation!)

If you’re looking to perfect your dialects, reality shows are a goldmine. You’ll find Louisiana drawls on Swamp People, exotic accents and cooking jargon from around the world on Top Chef, and both east and west coast slang on The Real Housewives franchise.

Even when they’re bad, they’re good. Think, for instance, of the Duck Dynasty brouhaha. Whether you love or hate the Robertsons, their redneck comments really got people talking.

And perhaps you caught PBS’s spoof posters, parodying the “sad” state of TV? Their fake reality shows included Married to a Mime (“She’s got plenty to say”), Bayou Eskimos (“Their life is heading south”), Knitting Wars (“It’s sew on”), Bad Bad Bagboys (“Cleanup in every aisle”) and The Dillionaire (“Life’s a pickle”)?

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Frankly, I’d love to see some raging grannies duking it out in the yarn aisle, or a show about a pickle king. After all, that last one’s just ripe for puns — another tool in the writer’s arsenal.

The bag boys, however, may be pushing it. Then again, wouldn’t you be curious to know more about what really goes on in the produce aisle after your neighborhood grocer’s automatic doors slide shut for the night? My husband used to work for a local supermarket — and boy does he have some scary stories!

In the end, I believe reality TV is as good — or bad — as you want it to be. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from reality programming, and maybe that’s just because I’m a naturally curious person. But I also agree with reality TV producer extraordinaire Troy DeVolld, who says “Life doesn’t just tumble through a lens and spill out the other side of a cable as a series of engaging stories any more than a potato left to its own devices is likely to magically transform itself into potato salad.”

The stories you see on reality shows are still written by writers who have to focus your attention on something interesting and entertaining. If they fail, the show flops. If they succeed, it keeps on going as long as there are people willing to watch it.

So what do you think of reality shows now? And will you admit you’ve got a favorite — if only as a true student of the writing craft?

The challenge of criticism: snark, entitlement, Steve Almond and me

IMG_0838.JPGThere’s a really interesting essay by Steve Almond in the Sept/Oct issue of Poets & Writers. It’s called “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect,” and it talks about tearing other writers down.

Steve describes his view of the difference between snark and entitlement, which I found helpful distinctions. He says:

Snark is a conscious attempt to cast aspersion for narcissistic reward. Writers who use social media, or other public forums, to dis other writers are seeking to convert resentment into attention. It’s a tool of self-promotion.

Entitlement, on the other hand:

…operates at a more basic and often unconscious level. It’s a kind of defensive snobbery, a delusion that the world and its constituent parts–whether a product or a piece of art or a loved one–exist to please you.

Although he frames his essay in terms of creative writing workshops and students who rip on writers they hate, he also mentions that snark and entitlement exist throughout our ranks. Every time someone badmouths another more famous writer, it’s some combination of the two.

Ultimately, of course, neither of these temptations serve us as writers. As Steve puts it, people can either “get over their sense of entitlement or, at some point, abandon writing.”

I found Steve’s example from Tobias Wolff quite illustrative as well. He quotes “Bullet in the Brain,” a story about a burned-out book critic, which rang true for me as a reformed (and formerly burnt-out) book critic. When one loses the pleasure of reading — or, indeed, of giving praise and respect to a fellow writer — it is time to take a step back and reevaluate what you’re really doing in critiquing another’s work.

My husband often tells me I am too harsh a critic. I like to think I just have high standards and aim for greatness, and therefore want to bring everyone up to my level. But when he points out that I am being overly critical, I try to go back over a piece with a specific need to find something I enjoyed. It is so easy to lose that lust for literature, and to skip over the parts that work simply because they work. “The writer already knows this part is good,” critics think, “so why tell them what they already know?”

Whenever I get stuck in a review, and realize I’m leaning much more heavily toward negativity, I stop and remember a playwriting instructor I had in my university days. This professor would invariably give his students — myself included — extreme benefit of the doubt, comparing our novice attempts to some of the great dramatic works, and it was a technique that worked well.

Part of his goal in offering these comparisons was likely to prove he knew what he was talking about, as he was extremely well-read in both French and English literature. His allusions also subtly suggested we seek out those works for additional study, since we typically had no idea such works existed and hadn’t read them in class.

The other part that worked was the way he put us in the company of those great writers, giving us a chance to see ourselves as drawing from the same well. To praise our works as being anywhere near the same league as those famous, well-known playwrights made us feel as if we were on the right track — and reminded us that others before us had dealt with similar problems in life and in writing.

Aren’t we all, in the end, standing on the shoulders of giants? And if we seek to tear those giants down, what do we truly accomplish — aside from denying ourselves the same dazzling view?

Thanks, Steve, for this reminder to always be mindful of our words, particularly when we critique.

International Authors Day: Join me for a week’s worth of giveaways

Did you know that July 18 is International Authors Day? Debdatta from Bookish Indulgences with b00k r3vi3ws has organized this brand new yearly event in order to celebrate authors from around the world.

In honor of this cool literary event, I’ve got a giveaway (see below!), but first let me tell you about some of my favorite authors.

I’ve always been a huge fan of recreational reading, and as far back as I can remember, I delighted in going to the library to check out new books. I typically tore through these books quickly, and often ended up re-reading my weekly library stack, impatiently awaiting our next trip! Back when I was a kid, I loved to read books in series. I voraciously read anything by Judy Blume (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), Ann M. Martin (The Baby-Sitters Club), Beverly Cleary (the “Ramona” books), and even the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal (which I later learned were actually ghostwritten by a team). I also enjoyed Nancy Drew mysteries, the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol, and his Two-Minute Mysteries books as well.

Somewhere along the line I also discovered Shel Silverstein’s wacky poetry in Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Roald Dahl’s amazing characters like The BFG, Matilda, and The Witches.

As I graduated from the children’s section of the library, I began reading lots more mysteries, especially The Cat Who… series by Lilian Jackson Braun — most of which were passed on to me by my cat-loving aunt, who bought each paperback in the series. My aunt also passed along other books like Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and even Madame Bovary.

Besides storming the library and devouring my aunt’s recommended readings, I also enjoyed exploring my parents’ bookshelves, which contained Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts — a writer with the same name as my father. (Although he jokingly referred to it as “my book,” my dad isn’t actually the famous historical novelist. He does, however, have a lot of great stories that should be turned into a book someday!)

My middle school also gave me plenty to read, including The Pearl about 3,000 times, Something Wicked This Way Comes (turning me onto Ray Bradbury), Johnny Tremain, The Count of Monte Cristo, and even a few Shakespearean plays (I definitely remember reading Romeo and Juliet and wondering why a couple of kids my age would ever want to get married, ew!).

In high school I tackled books like Great Expectations, Fahrenheit 451, The House on Mango Street, Red Emma Speaks (a collection of Emma Goldman’s anarchist writings), and even the enormous unabridged English translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I read a lot of British authors during high school, perhaps as a result of the curriculum but also due to a common teenage interest in dystopian literature. Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, as well as Huxley’s Brave New World influenced much of my world-view then. Poets like T.S. Eliot and Louis MacNeice, and humorists like Douglas Adams also took up residency in my brain. (Not to mention the Monty Python songs my BFF Jenna enjoyed singing between classes, which still haunt me to this day!)

In college I majored in Philosophy and read works from Plato and Aristotle, Descartes, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, and even Eastern philosophers like Lao Tzu (or Laozi), Confucius, Mencius, Sun Tzu (Sun Zi) and Vyasa (the scribe and incarnation of Vishnu to whom the Bhagavad Gita is attributed). I found that I preferred Existentialism, and began to explore the works of more international authors like Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Jeanette Winterson, Leonard Cohen, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I also enjoyed reading poems by Dorothy Parker that suited my dry sense of humor, as well as her barbed book and theater reviews, which eventually inspired me to begin a little magazine of my own.

And now? My favorite authors still wander all over the map, from David Sedaris’ humorous essays to Paul Auster’s postmodern rambles to Jorge Luis Borges’ and Murakami’s magical realism to Anaïs Nin’s erotica to classics I like to re-read every year or so like Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I love novellas, mysteries, books that play with language, authors that break the rules and bend genres. I love fraud memoirs, like JT Leroy’s Sarah and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. I love weird and wonderful books, and the authors who made them great.

In short: I still love reading, and always wish I had more time to devote to it. But, like any author, I must eventually pull away from reading and turn back to writing my own books. Hopefully at least some of the greatness of the writers I’ve read throughout the years sticks with me and inspires my own stories to aim higher and give readers something new to ponder.

The Giveaway

To celebrate International Authors Day, I’m giving away a super awesome Book Lovers prize pack!

One lucky prize-winner will receive everything in the pack, which includes:

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AND!

I’m also giving away copies of my ebooks to the first 10 people who comment on this post. You can pick your favorite from amongst these titles:

HOW TO WIN

  • To win one of my ebooks, just comment on this post with the book you’d most like to win and why. (Winners of this contest can be based anywhere in the world.)
  • To win the Grand Prize, just follow the instructions in the Rafflecopter widget below. (Winners must be based in the U.S. for this contest.)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

DON’T FORGET TO HOP!

For a chance to win even MORE prizes, don’t forget to visit the other blogs in the International Authors Day Blog Hop. All authors are offering unique prizes on their individual sites, plus there’s a chance to win a $15 Amazon Gift Card from the hop’s organizer, Debdatta.



Horny Hump Day: Fucking Anais Nin

horny-hump-day

Happy Horny Hump Day!

I’ve joined a weekly blog hop for authors that post 3 saucy sentences each Wednesday. Simple, straightforward, sexy. So without further ado, here are 3 steamy sentences from my short story “Open Letters to Famous Writers” (featured in the Book Lovers anthology):

You did take my breath away, with stories that had me touching myself the way I pictured one day touching you, as your dirty words splashed from your painted lips. You were my first contract come, Anaïs. And you’ll always be the best, even now that I’ve got a stable full of talent to trot out every night.

Panting for more? Grab a copy of Book Lovers from your favorite bookseller to find out what happens next — and stay tuned for next week’s Horny Hump Day!