Building blocks, marinara sauce, and sentences

old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.comA couple of weeks ago, I was at a retreat with several other writers. The topic of indie writers, small presses, and general writing quality came up. If you’ve ever spent more than ten minutes in a room full of writers, you’re not surprised by that, I’m sure.

One thing I said was this: I’ve read books published by a well-known (in the horror community anyway) medium-sized press where the copy editing was so lacking that I found glaring errors on nearly every page. I’d rather self-publish and pay for my own editing than publish with a house that doesn’t provide a good editorial staff.

Immediately, a chorus of objections arose. “That’s not all there is to editing!” “The story is more important!”

I don’t actually disagree. I know, shocking! 🙂

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explain myself because unpleasant news about Hurricane Matthew’s looming party-crashing seized everyone’s attention, including mine.

So let me elaborate on what I meant.

If I go to a new Italian restaurant and find that the cooking staff cannot produce a substantial, rich marinara sauce, I don’t need to know much more. I don’t need to wonder if the tiramisu at that restaurant is substandard. I don’t need to taste-test the Pizza Rustica. I don’t need to sample the spinach ravioli either. Why? Because the basics aren’t there. The foundation is weak. I will look elsewhere for my lasagna fix.

If the building blocks of the story — the actual sentences the writer uses to build the plot, develop the characters, and weave the magic spell — are flawed, the structure of the story won’t be as strong as it could be. If the structure isn’t strong, things will fall apart sooner or later. Usually sooner.

When I check out a book, usually via Amazon’s “look inside” feature, I can’t read more than a few pages. I can’t read enough to know if the story itself will pass muster. I can, however, notice the basics. If I see spelling errors, bad grammar, screwy punctuation, etc., I have a pretty good idea I won’t enjoy the journey very much, no matter how good the story idea might be.

That said, can a book be perfectly grammatical, excellently punctuated, and brilliantly spelled and still be lousy? Oh, heck yeah. I’ve run into a few of those, too.

On balance, however, I’ve seen way more badly spelled, badly punctuated, ungrammatical books — usually with stories I can’t get into because the basics aren’t sound —  than correctly spelled, well punctuated, grammatical books with incompetent stories.

In my opinion, the ultimate responsibility for correcting these errors rests with the publisher if there is one and with the writer only if the book is self-published. If a publishing house is involved, I hold them responsible for editing. Granted, some writers are as obsessed with words and grammar as I am. Some aren’t. If you write and aren’t good with grammar, hire a copy editor, especially if you plan to self-publish.

What Makes a Writer a Real Success?


Photo: singhajay at

What is success for a writer? Heck, what is success for anyone, especially anyone working in the arts?

If you’re writing and you measure your success solely by the dollars and cents or the number of books you sell each week/month/year, the chances are pretty good, you’re going to be frustrated.

It’s difficult for readers to discover a new writer’s books. So many writers, so many books. And they’re all demanding, begging, pleading for attention. Readers tune out all the promotional pleas like so many droning mosquitos – and sometimes they swat them entirely with such programs as AdBlock.

So what is success? Finishing that last draft. Working out the plot so all the bits come together in the end. Creating a cast of great, three-dimensional characters. Crafting some wonderful, singing sentences. In short, doing the work.

It’s not that much different from any other artistic endeavor. Money is good, but finding joy and fulfillment in the act of creating the work is better. And if you’re lucky, persistent, and continue to improve your craft, you might find the money follows as well.

Then you can crack open that bottle of bubbly if you want to. (Or, if you’re me, buy a pound of that ultra-expensive coffee I covet.)

champagne by Alvimann at

Photo: Alvimann at

That was then




I often hear, “Why can’t I write like (fill in the name of a famous writer from the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s?)”  Folks tend not to like my answer: That was then. This is now.

Tastes change. Trends change.

I came of age when you could title a play “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad,” or “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade,” or a book “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me,” or “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.” These days, the smart money goes with short titles. One to four words. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe shorter attention spans.

And, yes, some writers of the past wrote paragraph-long sentences full of descriptive language that advanced the plot not one inch. Readers today have so many other options for entertainment, and, frankly, they have shorter attention spans. They won’t stick with you if you take tangents. Again, because little in writing is absolute, some writers working today still get away with it. James Lee Burke is one. Unless you have his chops, his following, and his backlist, I’d suggest you not try walking this particular high wire.

Push the envelope a bit if you want to. Don’t shred it. That’s my advice anyway, for what it’s worth.

IndieReCon is Coming!

How many times have you heard a writer say (or say yourself – I know I’ve said it), “I’d love to attend a conference, but they’re so expensive. And how can I get away from home? Conferences are all so far away. I don’t know the city such-and-such a conference is in, and I’m nervous about being there alone.”

Well, this one is online (you can attend from your bedroom or living room or the coffee shop down the road), both in real time and archived (so you can read the sessions and watch the video chats any time), filled with high-quality teachers (to judge from last year’s roster and the few announced so far for this year), and FREE. Free. Can’t beat that.

If you’re a writer, whether you’re an indie or traditionally published author or a hybrid, you owe it to yourself and your readers to work on your craft every way you can. Attending writers conferences, whether online or physical, is one way to do that.

So why would you pass up this opportunity? Great teachers. Extreme convenience. And free.

I attended last year and will again this year. And for the record, I have no other connection with this conference. I’m not a presenter; I’m not a sponsor; I’m just an attendee who thinks this is a great resource for writers of all stripes.

Takeaways from a one-day workshop

Yesterday I attended a one-day workshop sponsored by Winston-Salem Writers (a group of which I’m a member) and given by the truly amazing C. Hope Clark. One reason she’s amazing is that she’s a bit of an introvert, not the kind of person who enjoys standing up in front of a crowd of strangers and sharing her knowledge. You’d never know it, by the way. She’s learned some strategies for dealing with that. And she shares them in one of the two books I bought at the workshop, “The Shy Writer Reborn.” It’s available from Amazon in e-book and paper. The Shy Writer Reborn 

One of the most important things I learned—or maybe just had reinforced for me—is to value your writing. Hope Clark is the founder of “Funds for Writers” (and if you’re not getting this newsletter, at least in the free version, why not?), and she reminded me that writing for free is not, as a rule, beneficial to your career. Write some guest blog posts for free, sure, and your own blog, but don’t give away your writing.  Much of her focus is not the same as mine. She loves writing for magazines. I have a dreadful time writing non-fiction. Still, the thought is the same.  If you’re writing short stories and submitting them to anthologies that don’t  even offer a contributor’s copy and/or a token payment, you are not valuing your own writing nearly enough. That anthology publisher is going to charge money for the book, isn’t it? Then why on earth not compensate the people who provide the content?

Another thing I picked up from the workshop is to look for opportunities in places you might not consider from the get-go. Look beyond the surface. Do your research. When you start looking for an agent, if that’s something you decide you want, don’t give up. Write a new query letter for each agent, tailoring it to that particular agent.  If the book isn’t hooking the interest you think it should, perhaps you need to rework the book entirely. Don’t stop. Don’t stop trying to improve.

And I’d say you might give some serious thought to picking up Hope’s newsletter. Try the free version for a year or so. Then graduate to the paid subscription. It’s only $15 a year and the newsletter is packed—packed!—with opportunities to make a bit of money (or maybe a lot of money) with your words. Go here (Funds For Writers) and sign up. You’ll soon find out why Writer’s Digest has named this website one of the top 101 websites for writers year after year. At the top of the page are buttons where you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter as well.

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