writing advice

New Column in The Blue Mountain Review

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Issue 14 of The Blue Mountain Review is now posted online and it looks pretty amazing. The new issue includes work and words by Jericho Brown, Robert Pinsky, Melissa Studdard, Elizabeth Beck, Meagan Lucas, Lane Young, and a whole swath of other writers. There’s also a bunch of interviews, art, and essays, including one by me called “Everyone Has a Story to Tell,” in which I thumb back through the years to the time I was talking to a bunch of construction workers about writing and where stories come from while we drank happy hour beer in Jimmy’s Corner in NYC. They didn’t think much of my ideas, except one guy, and I hope that guy eventually told his own story, somehow. My thanks to the editors and Clifford Brooks as always for including my little piece. If you want to take a look you’ll find it on page 100. Thanks for reading!

New Essay at The Blue Mountain Review

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The new issue of The Blue Mountain Review is now up, and it includes an essay of mine titled “Stepping Back / Stepping Forward” (on page 26) which discusses my month-long experience of stepping away from social media this summer to focus on writing. The break was a great way to re-focus, but I also found that stepping away from a few other things like Netflix, poetry readings, and even magazine submissions (yes, you read that right) also helped be move forward with the writing goals I set out for myself this year. You can read the essay, along with a ton of great poems, columns, and interviews, inside the new issue of The Blue Mountain Review, created by the folks over at the Southern Collective Experience. Thanks!

Piece By Piece: Writing Your Way Out of a Creative Dry Spell

Piece By Piece: Writing Your Way Out of a Creative Dry Spell

It happens to all of us at different points in our writing lives: we hit a stretch where we can’t seem to finish anything, or the ideas have dried up faster than morning rain on an Arizona highway. It happened to me this last year when I finished one novel and was excited to start a fresh project, except each novel idea I started fizzled out. They weren’t right. Same went for a few short stories I had rattling around in my head. I’d make it halfway through before casting each aside. Even poems felt forced. I felt stuck. I WAS stuck. And I was breaking Neil Gaiman’s wise and important rule: “Whatever it takes to finish things, finish.” It was a hollow, scary feeling.

But instead of sitting back and waiting for inspiration to strike, I tried a few of the methods below to jumpstart that old excited feeling, to help me start something I could finish. I picked these up from other writers, so it's not like these are fresh, original ideas, but they helped me out, bit by bit. I’m hoping that if they worked for me, they’ll work for you. 

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StoryHarvest: Write for Yourself, Write for Us All

StoryHarvest: Write for Yourself, Write for Us All

Watching a twelve-year-old child working a typewriter is a special kind of magic in our modern era, magic enough all on its own, but when he finishes and says he wrote about his feelings on police brutality and runs off to give it to a friend, that’s not magic, that a game changer.

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Poetic Focus: From I to Eye

Poetic Focus: From I to Eye

About twelve years ago I received a poetry rejection from a magazine editor who shall remain nameless (because I can’t remember who it was for the life of me). This editor told me he rejected my work because the poems were all about myself, the poet, writing poetry, and nobody cares about “I” poems anymore. While this was (and remains) untrue in the wider sense, it took me years to understand what this editor meant by his rejection.

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Writing Advice I Learned (and Re-Learned) In 2017

Writing Advice I Learned (and Re-Learned) In 2017

No writer is done learning, and some methods and "tips" we learn evolve over time and take on new dimensions. I did a lot of writing in 2017, not all of it as successfully as I wanted, but throughout the ups and downs I learned a few things (and re-learned even more) that might also help you too. Good luck in 2018!  

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There Are No Rules: My Time Writing for Writer's Digest

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A few years back I worked for Writer's Digest, serving as an editor in both their book and magazine divisions, and one thing I loved to do was write for their advice blog, “There Are No Rules.” Not that I’m some bestseller rife with literary wisdom, but I always felt we each have our own writing insights, tricks, and habits that are helpful to us and might be helpful to others. Besides, what writer doesn’t like writing about writing from time to time? A lot of my old blog posts are about breaking out of writing slumps, self-editing and revision, how watching Star Wars or Hitchcock’s Rear Window can help your writing, the best books to read during Halloween, advice on self publishing (a bit dated but still useful), and there’s interviews with writers, editors, and much more. Enjoy!

Piece By Piece: My New Column in The Blue Mountain Review

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Every writer has been there. Whether it's burnout or writer's block, we all hit that wall where nothing seems to work, we can't finish anything, and great ideas die on the vine before they're ripe. I hit this wall a few times each year, but I've found little ways to work around (or through) that usually do the trick and get me back on track. I shared a few of these tips in my latest column, titled "Piece By Piece," for The Blue Mountain Review, Issue 8. Check out page 50 for my quarterly column. The issue is full of excellent poetry, prose, art, interviews, and a lot more, so it's definitely worth your time. My deepest thanks to Clifford Brooks and the staff at The Blue Mountain Review for including me yet again.  

Five Films That Make Me Want to Write

Five Films That Make Me Want to Write

As a writer, films about writing can come across as inspiring and rejuvenating, or as extremely hokey, or, I admit, both (looking at you Finding Forrester…"you the man now, dawg" still makes me cringe). When I’m feeling uninspired, ill, depressed, tired, or suffering through writer’s block (thankfully, this is rare), settling in for a good quiet film alone can help take my mind off things, while at the same time stoking the desire to get back in front of the keyboard. Here are some of my favorite films that make me want to sit down and write.

Additional note: I should say this is not what I’d call a list of the BEST films about writers or writing, but movies that get me feeling better about wanting to writing. They’re a bit of an endorphin shot in the creative arm, a cinematic sugar high to get me started, if you will.

Final note: I’m always open for suggestions about other inspiring films about writers/artists, especially since this list is admittedly narrow in its scope (white male writers of the 20th century). So please fire away with your favorites and I’ll be sure to watch!  

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How Watching Twin Peaks Can Enhance Your Writing and Storytelling

How Watching Twin Peaks Can Enhance Your Writing and Storytelling

Every other year or so I sit down and re-watch the bizarre television phenomena that was Twin Peaks, and it always revives my appreciation for David Lynch’s strange genius. It was as eerie and captivating as The X-Files and True Detective (eh, season one maybe) and for a season or so it had the intense following of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, and despite some amusing 80s-styled haircuts and clothing, the show holds up. Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, with a bevy of other writers to help—including Emmy nominee Harley Peyton, Saturn nominee Robert Engels, Barry Pullman, Tricia Brock, and others—the show became known for its blend of murder mystery tropes, soap opera camp, and spectacularly eerie dream sequences that included a dwarf talking backwards, flashing lights, a giant, white horses, and hip jazz numbers.

Most of all, Twin Peaks was (and remains) a storytelling playland where writers can discover all manner of tips and tricks for their own use. Here are some things that I found helpful with my own writing, and maybe they’ll help you too. Yes, many of these pertain to mystery, crime, noir, and horror stories, but you never know when you might be able to add elements of those genres into your own stories.

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The Pros and Cons of Writing in the Presence of a Pet

While visiting home recently, it hit me how much more I enjoy the writing process when the family dog is lying at my feet. My pal Rocky, our yellow lab, has become my writing sidekick when I’m visiting upstate NY, and there are definite pros and cons to his watchful eye…I also used to live with cats too (eh, not as big a fan) and I found many similar pros and cons. Let me know if I missed any!

Pro: They’re always there to listen when you need to ramble about a passage or character, and I do sometimes ramble on about places in a story where I’m stuck when no one else is around. It helps clear out the head and get things straight with a willing (if captive) audience.

Con: They always think your idea is a great idea, so the feedback quality isn’t exactly “professional grade.” But hey, we all need cheerleaders, even those happily watching us write ourselves into infinite corners.

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My Top 3: Writer's Digest Books

My Top 3: Writer's Digest Books

During my time as a Writer’s Digest book editor, I had the pleasure of shepherding a tall stack of books into the world, and each taught me valuable lessons about writing (it’s hard not to pick up some cues when you’re neck deep in writing advice night and day), and some were a lot of fun to edit, too. The following books were especially enjoyable, written by talented, fun, whip-smart people who really cared about helping other writers write better (and sometimes just to write). All these books are definitely worth picking up, and that’s coming from a guy who doesn’t even work there anymore, so you know it’s not some PR smoke and mirrors act. Enjoy!

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Writing on the Rails: Survival Tips for Traveling Authors

I write on trains. A lot. It's not always pretty (shabby interiors, crying kids, cell-phone talkers) but when you get a quiet car, a seat to yourself, and a gorgeous view, you can have a lot of fun. I discuss my tips for making the most of your railway adventures while still trying to work on that novel of yours over at the Writer's Digest website. Take a look, and good luck writing the next time you hop trains cross-country! 

Dear Editor, Dear Writer, Please Stop!

Dear Editor, Dear Writer, Please Stop!

The bad apples are out there in every field and occupation, and the publishing world has plenty of those wormy, half-trodden, utility apples lying about the orchard. The vast majority of editors and writers have amazing, productive, inspiring relationships, or at least working acquaintanceships, or at the VERY least they don’t hate one another, but sometimes those wormy bad apples come calling from both sides of the publishing lines.

I don’t intend for this to be a gripe session, not at all, but I do want to hold up some apples to the light and examine them with the hope that it makes the writing world a happier place to be. And it’s important to remember that these are cautionary tales, not the norm—so with that in mind, here are some things that bad-apple editors and writers should both stop doing immediately to make this publishing life a little easier on the rest of us.

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Composing a Novel: Create a Soundtrack to Help You Re-live the Story You Have Yet to Write

Composing a Novel: Create a Soundtrack to Help You Re-live the Story You Have Yet to Write

Whether or not you outline your entire novel before you begin or leave plenty of room for surprises along the way, many writers will reach a point where they struggle with a story. Maybe you wrote yourself into a corner. Maybe you’re having trouble bridging main plot points with smaller scenes of character development. Maybe the characters feel flat. Maybe you want to add an unforeseen subplot but nothing fits just right. Whatever it may be, story speed-bumps are out there waiting for you, but I’ve found a little “game” I like to play that can help flesh out a story idea and possibly turn a handful of outlined scenes into an expansive epic full of action, drama, and tension.

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How to Find the Perfect Name for Your Characters

No matter what genre of fiction you write, be it horror, mystery, YA, erotica, or more literary fare, there’s one very basic thing all fiction writers have in common—we LOVE coming up with perfect place and character names. I know some writers who seem to pull names of people, towns, rivers, roads, and ranches out of thin air, as if these fictional locales have always existed in the recesses of their minds. I can’t always do that, and maybe you can’t either, so here are some ways I go about gathering names for the characters and places in my own books and stories.

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The Five W's (and One H) of Soliciting Feedback for Your Novels, Short Stories, Poetry, and More

My newest advice column at Writer's Digest's blog is now live. It examines the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of soliciting feedback for your novels, stories, poems, etc.

On a related note, I also recently wrote about how writers can become publishers by creating DIY literary anthologies in my interview with author/publisher Bud Smith

For all of my articles at the "There Are No Rules" blog, click HERE. Thanks!

7 Tips for Revising a Novel

*Previously published at the Writer's Digest blog, There Are No Rules. I blog there once or twice a month. Take a look!*

I spent my December revising a noir/crime novel (I seem to spend most Decembers revising a novel) and I also had a recent discussion with two other writers about the revision process. Both occurrences brought to mind some tips you may find useful. Mind you these are rather simple pieces of advice, and everyone has their own process that works for them, but they might help you feel a little less like you’re swimming upstream during this vital step. I hope they help. Happy revising!

1. Use One File — This is especially true in fiction, but I advise all writers to write the early drafts in one Word file (or whatever software you use). Not only does it help keep a sense of continuity as you progress, but if you make a change that affects an earlier chapter, all you have to do is scroll up. It also makes a key word search much easier without having to open multiple files. I’ve seen novelists use a new Word document per chapter (I did with my first novel way back when) but it can become a confusing jumble of files once you get up to chapter sixty, seventy, eighty…

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6 Writing Lessons From Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rear Window'

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It's often said that the book is better than the movie, but sometimes a movie can help you write a book, especially if that movie is directed by cinema legend Alfred Hitchcock! Granted, he was working with some exceptional material, with a dynamite screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich - something I forgot to mention in the article I wrote over at the Writer's Digest blog, "There Are No Rules," where I offer six lessons a writer can take away from the classic film Rear Window. Enjoy!