Anticipation and Dread

By Kate Gerard 

Most readers will forgive other inadequacies if a story hooks them with suspense. How many times have you completely ignored mundane details when perched on the edge of your seat? If you’re like me, you’ll find surprises when you re-read a favorite suspenseful scene—details you were too busy or too involved to notice the first time around. This is the effect of suspense. It’s like a hectic carnival ride. Good suspense snatches the reader and propels her forward, faster and faster—details blur and her heart races—she’s so eager to see how the conflict resolves, she can’t read fast enough.

Unfortunately, new writers often fail to build suspense. Worse, they fail to resolve suspense in a climatic manner. The reader is teased by a potentially dangerous or emotion-laden situation, only to be disappointed when the conflict sputters—the characters either resolve the issue without escalating the tension, the tension escalates too quickly, or someone/something interferes too soon. Instead of perching on the edge of her seat, the poor reader slumps down in her cushion, disappointed and unsatisfied.

But suspense is not so difficult when we apply two simple principles: anticipation and dread.

Anticipation is a simple concept. In fiction, the secret to anticipation is letting the reader know something bad could happen. We create anticipation by introducing a situation that’s fraught with the possibility of danger or risk. Say your protagonist, a Department of Defense employee, is driving down the road, distracted about the documents he’s taken home from the office. Behind at work and with a report due tomorrow, he’s taken home top-secret papers, and he’s terrified of being caught. He misses a stop sign. Another driver leans on the horn, cursing, and your protagonist tells himself to pay closer attention. But a paragraph later, he’s back to worrying about those purloined papers. This is anticipation. The reader knows something bad is going to happen, and she’ll be glued to the page waiting for it.

Let’s take another situation. Say your protagonist, an assistant bank manager, is sitting at her desk when two strange men in dark suits approach. She rises to greet them, but instead of acknowledging her greeting, they walk past her and into her boss’s office. She hears the door lock behind them. Sometime later, she’s with a customer when she sees them leave, but her boss’s door is still closed and she shrugs it off. Any reader with a modicum of curiosity is going to wonder what’s up. That’s anticipation.

Or say your single father protagonist is chopping carrots and cuts his finger. It’s just a little nick, no big deal. He holds the cut under running water, and while blood is running down the sink, he has a sudden chill. He feels unaccountably light-headed and nauseated, but blows it off and goes on to prepare dinner for his children. The reader, being smarter by far than the protagonist, is immediately alerted to possible disaster. That’s anticipation.

In each of these situations, the reader knows something bad is going to happen. She may guess, she may speculate, she may nod knowingly; but she’ll have to read on to find out what the bad thing is going to be. You, the brilliant writer, have created anticipation.

The important thing to remember about anticipation is not to resolve it too quickly. Let the reader wonder what’s going on. Let the tension build. Sometimes anticipation will last for pages, sometimes chapters.

On the other hand, neither should you string out anticipation too long. Readers love being teased with anticipation, but they don’t like being manipulated. The reader will get annoyed if you don’t show her what’s happening in a reasonable amount of time. While allowing anticipation to simmer, make sure the intervening narrative is important, interesting and compelling. The reader will not forgive you if you leave her hanging with mundane, unimportant, or boring events.

The second principle of suspense is dread. Dread is the natural offspring of anticipation. Dread occurs after the bad thing has happened, but the outcome hasn’t been resolved. Let’s take the three earlier examples and see how dread works.

Absent-minded, your worried defense employee doesn’t notice the car in front of him has stopped for a red light, and he rear-ends the stopped car. He raises his head from the steering wheel, wipes the blood off his forehead, and gets out to check on the other driver. He approaches the car and finds an elderly driver slumped over the steering wheel. This is where dread is born. The worst has happened; now what will your defense employee do? Will he run for it, or stay to make sure the other driver is taken care of? What will happen to him? A good writer will play this moment for all it’s worth.

In the next example, for the rest of the day, secretaries and tellers go in and out of your bank manager’s boss’s office, many carrying boxes of files. No one looks her in the eye and when she asks, no one will tell her what’s going on. At the end of the day, her boss calls her in and accuses her of embezzling. Dread is born. Your protagonist is no embezzler, but who will believe her? Her boss is waving the proof in front of her nose. He picks up the phone to call the FBI. What will she do? What will become of her?

In the case of the carrot chopper, weeks pass and his symptoms progress. One morning he finds blood in his urine. Days later the worst is confirmed. He has cancer. Dread is born. What will this single father do? Who will take care of his children? What will happen to his family?

Dread should increase as the story progresses. Your protagonist will begin with many options. But, one by one, those options will prove untenable, and with each failure, the dread should grow. Present your reader with all the worst possible what-ifs, and don’t let her lose sight of those horrible possibilities. Remind her what’s at stake again and again. However, don’t ever clobber the reader with melodrama. Nursing drama takes a subtle touch.

Anticipation and dread can be used to propel the primary theme of any story, but a good writer uses these tools throughout the narrative. On a smaller scale, anticipation and dread can be woven into even minor conflicts. Don’t be afraid to douse your stories with suspense—readers will thank you and so will your publishers.

Kate lives in Kansas City, Missouri and is the moderator of the online critique group, WriteCraft.

Copyright Law

By Jodi Brandon

As writers, we must be concerned with copyright law — both sides of the law: not infringing on others’ copyright when writing as well as upholding and protecting our own copyright. See if you know the answer to these three true-false statements.

  • Shakespeare would be able to sue the writer of West Side Story for copyright infringement of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Copyright infringement is legal as long as it’s unintentional.
  • A work needs the copyright symbol (the © in a circle) to be protected by copyright law.

All of the statements are false. Did you get them all correct? The reason copyright can get so confusing is because it deals in so many intangibles and case-by-case variables (as opposed to an exact, absolute standard). Despite the uncertainty that often accompanies decisions about copyright, writers are responsible for abiding by the law. To do that — as well as to protect our own works from being used illegally — we must understand the law. I won’t bore you with a history lesson on Copyright Law Through the Ages, though. I promise.

Fair Use

” align=“right” style=Lloyd J. Jassin and Steven C. Schechter put it simply and perfectly in The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: Fair use is impossible to quantify. As a writer, you can “copy” another person’s work as long as your use is considered fair use. So how do you know? Is there a magical formula, like an algebraic equation from seventh-grade math class, that writers can use? If only that were the case! There are guidelines. Here are the four factors of fair use to consider:

  • Purpose and character of the use.
  • Nature of the use.
  • Amount and substantiality of the use.
  • Effect on the existing or potential market of the use.

My lawyer recommends the same thing many legal and publishing experts do: that I ask myself the following question before taking directly from someone else’s work: If I were the author of the material I want to use, would I consider my use fair, according to all four of the factors just listed? I hate to simplify such a complex issue, but another way to think about it is this: Treat others (specifically others’ work) as you’d like to be treated. Mutual respect goes a long way. The bottom line is this: If you have even the slightest bit of doubt, get permission. (Don’t just attribute the material to its source; that’s not enough.) It’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to copyright infringement.

Requesting Permission

OK, so you’ve decided that your use might not or would not be fair. Now what? If the work is in the public domain, you’re free to use it as you wish. If it’s not, though, you need to find the copyright holder and request permission. Check the work for a copyright notice (e.g., the copyright page of a book). If you can’t find anything, you can search the records at the Copyright Office. Once you’ve found the copyright holder, put your request in writing. Include all the information pertinent to the decision to allow you or not allow you to use the material: exactly what material you’re using, the title and description of your work, the number of copies you expect to have published, your publisher/publication name, and what rights you’re asking for. The more information you can provide initially, the more likely a decision will be made without the copyright holder coming back to you for further information.

Remember that the copyright owner holds the cards here: He or she (assuming it’s a person; it could be a company) can ask for more information before making a decision, refuse your request, charge you for your use, or give you permission to use his or her work free of charge. You’re legally obligated to do what the copyright holder says.

The Other Side of the Fence

As writers, we not only have to worry about infringing upon the works of others, but we have to regulate our own copyrights as well, which can be difficult for the obvious reason that if our copyright is being violated, the violator isn’t going to send us a copy of his or her work with a friendly note to look for our own work inside. That said, we can’t possibly read every work written on every subject we’ve ever written about, can we? Unless we’re superheroes, of course we can’t. It’s possible to police our work on the Internet to some extent. Every once in a while, I type my name into a couple search engines to see what comes up. If there are copyright violators, I won’t find them all, but I will at least find those people who use my work and give me credit without permission. Really, though, you find your copyrighted work infringed upon by chance. The more specialized your writing is, the more likely is it that you’ll come across infringement, as you’re more likely to be reading the same sorts of material that you write. For writers who write on a wider variety of subjects and might not do a lot of focused reading on each particular subject, it’s more unlikely.

When you discover copyright infringement, let the infringer know with a cease-and-desist letter. If you see your work on-line, let the site owner know that your work is copyrighted and he or she needs to either pay you to post it (and include an attribute) or remove it.

Works for Hire

Works for hire merit mention because they’re unique in that writers don’t own copyright to their work. (This is also the case for employees who write something as part of their job, such as a copywriter or a public relations employee, but that’s not really our concern here.) The writers are, technically, the authors of the work, but for copyright purposes, the commissioning agent (say, for example, a book publisher) is considered the author. Obviously this would be spelled out in a contract before the writer begins his or her work. Even more obvious to us as writers, I’d hope, is that work-for-hire situations are not advantageous. Why would we ever want to simply give our rights away, copyright or otherwise?

The Internet

Although I know I promised not to make this a history lesson in copyright law, I think it’s only fair that I mention copyright law and its relationship with the Internet. Think about it this way: You sell FNASR to a print publication. The publication then gets a web site and posts your work on it. Are you happy that your work is getting further exposure? Sure you are, but you’re also a bit miffed that you were only paid for the article to run in print — one time — in North America. Putting an article or book excerpt or whatever on-line changes things. Is your publisher guilty of copyright infringement? Perhaps copyright law isn’t the problem here; perhaps it’s the language in publishing contracts. Either way, it’s an issue that writers will certainly be keeping an eye on in the future.

* * *

Copyright law isn’t the easiest or most fun law to understand and follow, but it is one of the most important to affect a writer’s life and work. We must pay attention to both sides of the law so that everyone’s work is protected, our own included. The Copyright Society of the U.S.A. just celebrated the first annual Copyright Awareness Week in April 2002. This is good news for writers, because the more people who know what the law means, the better.

In her role as president of JBedit, Jodi Brandon has edited and/or contributed to a number of high-profile book projects, including The Barnes & Noble Guide to Children’s Books (3rd Edition), The Buzz on Beer anthology, the Frommer’s Irreverent Guide travel series, The 50 Best (and Worst) Business Deals of All Time, and Copyright Plain & Simple. Jodi Brandon has a website and a blog.

Why I Write Commercial Fiction

By Steve Fey

I’ve always liked to write stuff. In elementary school I made up some awful bit of drivel about a baseball team, which is now lost to posterity. Posterity should send me a thank-you note. By junior high school, now known in most places as middle school, I was skipping doing my homework in study hall in favor of reading everything I could find by Poe, Twain, and the prodigious science fiction author for youth, Andre Norton. Besides lousy grades, this habit helped give me a broader perspective on life than that of most of my small town friends. That perspective was helped along in high school by an English teacher who forced me to learn to spell, and also forced me to read all sorts of “good books.”

You know “good books,” don’t you? Things like Withering HeightsThe Scarlet Letter, a few plays such as Macbeth. I was becoming “an intellectual.” Fer sure. And I got to read poetry, too. Robert Frost, Robert Browning, Robert Burns (lot of poets named Bob, apparently), Sandburg, Nash. There was some good stuff in there. College reinforced my earlier training. Even though I wasn’t an English major, I took a lot of literature classes. That’s where I found out what Huckleberry Finn is really about (and no, it isn’t a racist book at all), and first read John Fowles, Leo Tolstoy, Camus, and other living and dead authors. A lot of them I really liked reading, too.

I even read The Lord of the Rings when Tolkein was still alive to write dust jacket notes for the books. The books, so far as I’m concerned, are better than the movies, because you don’t need to have read the books previously to enjoy reading them.

I watched lots of movies, too. That’s relevant to what I’m saying because I now write scripts for movies. I love movies as much as I love good books. ThereÆs nothing I like better than a book or film that’s so good that I lose myself in it for a time. A great movie to me is one that I don’t deconstruct on my first time seeing it. If the movie is only good, I check my watch for the timing, analyze scenes, and otherwise distract myself from the fact that the film isn’t totally engrossing.

I learned about deconstruction in college, too. I remember the play We Bombed in New Haven, where the actors step out of character right in the middle and introduce themselves. I just loved that device. Very intellectual, isn’t it? The trouble is, most people in America have never heard of We Bombed in New Haven. That includes most of the people who have heard of, for instance, Lethal Weapon or The Matrix. Neither of those movies has ever been accused of being overly intellectual, but both have outsold the intellectually superior Bombed by maybe a couple of powers. What, you might ask, is wrong with people?

Well, that’s an entire thesis, or library, of an answer. Whatever it is, an author should remember that he or she is a person, too. So, whatever’s wrong with people is, gasp, wrong with the author as well. Consider an arena where intellectuality is more honored than in the United States of America: Europe. I’ve seen some movies from Europe that I really thought were terrific. German cinema is famous for innovative techniques in storytelling. France has produced some of the finest comedies ever written. It’s good to be an artist and intellectual in Europe. They’ll honor you there, much like some American musicians find appreciation on the continent that they never receive back home. It’s a paradise for “good” art.

“So, the problem is?” I hear you asking. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of top-selling movies in Europe are American. Not indies that were discovered at Sundance, but the big ol’ studio-produced, crass and commercial films like . . . well, how about Lethal Weapon and The Matrix? It’s true. In the home of honor for artists, where you can hear people criticizing the crass commercialism of American film, the stuff that gets watched is just that crass commercial product. How on earth can that be?

It may not satisfy a hard-core English professor to hear this, but “great literature” that remains popular for centuries follows the same rules as do commercial movies. There’s a mythological construct that underlies all good stories, in fact. If you want to see it in its least disguised form, read The Odyssey. If you don’t think that book would be a commercial success if it were written today, then you have missed some things in (or never seen) such films as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Frankly, folks, the same things happen at the same point in each of those stories.

Don’t believe me? Well, at 26-2/3 percent into a story, the hero (protagonist according to Aristotle) is thrust irrevocably into strange territory. Up until that point, there was at least a theoretical way out of having the adventure. At that point, there is no longer a choice. Guess what happens at just that point in Huckleberry Finn? If you guessed that Huck, Jim, and the raft drift right past Cairo in the fog, you’re right. Huck’s stuck now, and has no choice but to go on down the river. Mark Twin not high literature enough for you? Then consider one young Dane named Hamlet. I think most people consider Shakespeare to be “good” literature, after all. At that point in the play, the young hero, in a passage including the line “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” declares that he is going to set things right. No more wavering soliloquies now: he’s going in.

See? The Bard of Avon used the same timing scheme as Mark Twain, and as the writers of popular movies. Is that so bad, after all? I really like Shakespeare, as a career writer I mean. You know what he was really after? Do you think he sat down one day and said, “Hey, I think I’ll write a play about the dangers of revenge, with a great moral message for future generations to heed.”? No, he did not. He wanted juicy roles for himself and his friends, he wanted to please his Queen, and most of all he wanted to pack the house so he knew where his next pint of ale was coming from. He knew the rules for creating a popular story, too. So, while he certainly did create some great literature, he’d have considered that a happy accident. As evidence of that being the case, consider that he threw his stuff away, and it was his friends who saved it and got it published. Three cheers for his friends, but my point is that Will was writing commercial fiction.

And that’s just what I hope to accomplish as well.

Steve Fey has been writing throughout a lifetime of doing other things for a living. A few years ago he turned his attention to screenplays, of which he has now written five and has one in the works. Since the conventional wisdom holds that anything after the fifth one should be salable, he’s feeling optimistic.You can visit Steve Fey’s website

Attending a Conference for Writers: Anxiety and Ecstasy

By Krysten Lindsay Hager

The night before attending a conference for writers there’s always that excitement about going and meeting the perfect agent or editor for your work. Maybe it’ll be a magical moment where time will slow down and you’ll end up running in slow-motion toward each other,“Chariots of Fire” playing in the background as you leap, holding your manuscript in one hand, the other outstretched to literary glory. Or maybe you’ll just go, find out your genre isn’t selling and come home feeling defeated and a little poorer since you spent fifty bucks buying the speaker’s books. In reality, very few people find their editors at conferences.

In fact, in 2005 I attended a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference where I heard the most surprising news. An editor from a very well-known publishing house said that she had been shocked to find an author at one of these conferences that she actually went on to publish. The editor said it almost never happens and that she might see potential in a few writers that she had done critiques with, but she had never heard of anyone getting published from having a writing conference critique. This was news to me and the rest of us who had plunked down the extra thirty-five dollars for a critique and clung to dear life to the few positive comments that were thrown our way. This editor had been in the business for years and for her to say it was almost unheard of to find talent through attending a conference was shocking to me. However, it was also a relief.

I decided after hearing that comment that I would no longer get so worked up about missing out on my “big chance” with an editor or agent. Instead of handing out business cards and trying to corner agents and editors in every place but the bathroom (I have my standards) and missing out on the speakers’ advice because I was too busy “stalking my prey,” I was going to take advantage of the conferences in a different way.

First, no matter how interesting your work is, chances are an editor or agent isn’t going to remember what you looked like or if you told them a witty story. Instead of making editors and agents attending a conference uncomfortable by cornering them and asking if they’re interested in your new novel, take note of what the agent or editor is interested in. Find out what they’ve represented or published before and what they’re looking for now. They usually share these things in their presentations, but if they don’t you can always raise your hand to ask and, if you’re not the type to raise your hand in public, many conferences have a box for questions that is presented at the end of the conference for the speakers to address. That way you, once you’re at home, you can mention in your query letter that you enjoyed his presentation at whichever conference you attended and then ask if he’d be interested in seeing your work. The agent or editor isn’t going to remember you anyway, so you might as well do your homework and save yourself the embarrassment of coming on too strong with your proposal.

Many times it’s not the big names at the conference that will get you anywhere. One author I know spent all her time at a writing conference trying to find publishers and representation for her middle-grade novels. She ended up getting discovered through a query letter to an editor she had seen named in a writer’s guide and said the only decent contact she had made at that conference was me because once she got her books published, I wrote reviews on them in several places (both in print and online) and later wrote an article about a group book-signing she was participating in that gave her more attention as well as articles to put in her portfolio. You never know when the person you sit next to at the conference might help you more than the famous connection you’re trying to make by attending a conference.

Also, many times editors and agents come to conferences with an invisible shield up. They’re wary of taking writing and art samples at the conferences for many reasons. Your work could get lost, nobody wants to carry extra heavy manuscripts back home on a plane, and there are also the legal issues. They prefer to get work that’s been submitted in the mail. Plus, nobody likes to be put on the spot. Sure its easier for them to reject you via mail where they don’t have to face you, but may editors and agents are so put off by people trying to slip them manuscripts at conferences that they’ll give you a flat “no” if you ask about giving them work. So save your dignity and put your questions in writing.

Focusing on meeting fellow writers can also benefit you in finding out about publishers that are eager to sign on new authors. You might meet someone who gets published down the road and can later direct you to the right person to submit to at that publishing house. You can also meet people who write book reviews who, when you do get published, can later help you out by writing a great review and “bumping” a less-than-great review that’s been posted on Amazon.com. You might meet people attending a conference who are aware of great new places to submit to or critique groups or other writing conferences that might help you. I found out about a writing publication through a writing group member that later published one of my articles. I never would have found it on my own, but that publication has proven to be a great way to get my foot in the door. Finding out where other conference attendees have been published is a great way to get new leads for your work as well.

Plan to Enjoy Attending a Conference

Instead of staying up late worrying that you’ll miss your big shot to talk to the editor or agent that you “just know” would be perfect for your manuscript, relax and plan to enjoy attending a conference. You’ll end up gathering more information from the speakers and you’ll be just as far ahead (if not farther) than the people who tracked down that editor in the lunch line. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you make a personal connection at the conference because these professionals meet so many people at these things that they wouldn’t remember you anyway. So enjoy the conference, take notes on the market, and find out what each agent and editor is interested in. Then mention in your query letter that you saw them at the conference. In the long run, this will pay off more.

Cover of Krysten Lindsay Hager's book Can Dreams Come True? (The Cecily Taylor Series Book 1)Krysten Lindsay Hager writes about friendship, self-esteem, fitting in, frenemies, crushes, fame, first loves, and values. She is the author of True Colors, Dating the It Guy, and Can Dreams Come True. Krysten Lindsay Hager has a website.

Limiting Computer Time

By Katherine Huether

Most of my day is spent on the computer. I check e-mail, write queries, and use my word processing programs to complete the bulk of my assignments. Recently, I spent a day without my computer. I spent some time feeling lost and unhappy without my laptop and Internet access. Then, I dusted off my journal and started writing longhand for a change.

The end result of my time away from the computer was that I experienced more creativity and motivation than I have in a while. I’ve made it a goal to limit my computer use and spend at least one day a week away from the computer. I find that I need this weekly rest away from my writing and my “work.” Here are all the benefits I’ve experienced from this weekly ritual.

More Balance

When I first began my writing career, I felt that I needed to spend every free minute I had working. My kitchen was a mess, my house became disorganized, and my exercise and grooming routines both fell apart. My life was out of balance.

Even though I currently spend less time writing and developing my business, I am more productive. That day off recharges my mind and helps me use my time more efficiently. I exercise more, I eat well, and I spend time with my family.

Make a list of all the aspects of your life that feel disorganized and out of balance and make sure you give yourself ample time during your week to work on them.

Living Life

As a writer, I get most of my ideas from my life. When I spend all my time working, it is easy to run out of ideas. Since I take time away from technology and my business, I am experiencing life and giving myself a chance to develop new ideas.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of taking a whole day off, you can still schedule time each day to turn off your computer and ignore all telephone calls. Do something for yourself. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Plant some flowers. Go out for dinner. Make sure you bring your journal along so you can write down any ideas that may come to you.

Journaling

A journal is a powerful tool. There’s something about writing longhand that can spark creativity. Use unlined paper; this opens you up even more because you aren’t constrained by the lines provided. Do writing exercises. Observe the world around you. Jot down any ideas or thoughts. Write a poem. Keeping a journal on the computer doesn’t have the same effect. Turn off your computer at least once a day and find an inspiring place to write. Let yourself write whatever comes to mind. Then, go back through it later to extract all those little bits that can be turned into an article or story.

Stress

Although helpful, technology can also be stressful. Yes, computers, laptops, e-mail, cell phones, and our personal electronic organizers do make our jobs easier. But what happens when the phone rings all day and you check your e-mail on an almost minute-by-minute basis? This can promote stress. It isn’t necessary to respond to every call and e-mail you get as soon as you get it. In fact, it can cause stress.

Checking e-mail only a few times a day and letting voice mail pick up your calls can help you relax. Stress hurts creativity. When you are relaxed you can be more productive with your writing time and it is easier to come up with new ideas.

Greater Productivity

Yes, spending time away from your computer and from e-mail every now and then does enhance productivity. I know it seems hard to believe. I mean, it seems like you need to actually be at your computer in order to get things done.

I don’t know about you, but when I sit at my computer all day, I start to zone. I play a game or two of solitaire. Then I check my e-mail. I finally start writing but I can only write one sentence before I feel stuck.

At that point, I know I should switch off the computer and do something else. It’s time to take a break and at the very least do some housework. But when I take a REAL break away from the computer and take out my journal or get some exercise, that is when my mind starts to organize my thoughts and ideas and I am better able to return to my work refreshed and more productive.

Small Steps

Intrigued? You may want to start with small steps. Try taking a few ten minute breaks throughout your work day. Build up to taking an entire day off. You will be more creative and productive and have a lot more things to write about because you will be experiencing life

Katherine Huether is a freelance writer who takes care of the majority of her business with her computer. Her work has appeared in Herbs for Health and Herb Quarterly. Katherine Huether has a website.

The Power of Journaling for Writers

By Erica Miner

Anne Frank . . . Virginia Woolf . . . Anais Nin . . . Sylvia Plath . . . Henry David Thoreau . . . James M. Barrie . . . Franz Kafka . . . Samuel Pepys . . .

Some of these authors are best known for their journals; others have used journaling as both a source of inspiration and a stepping-stone to self-enlightenment. But they, among many others, have one important element in common: they have all engaged in that wonderful, creative activity we call journaling.

We all follow journeys of self-discovery at some points in our lives, but as writers we take these journeys on a daily basis. Journaling is a powerful way for us to chronicle these fantastic voyages. And as I like to point out in my journaling workshops and lectures, it’s no coincidence that the words “journey” and “journaling” come from the same root.

Not only do we gain personal insights and discover new layers of our psyches through journaling; it can also help us get our creative juices flowing and often help us through bouts of writer’s block. I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and wisdom about journaling that have served me well, both as a writer and as a voyager through life.

Just to give you a little background about myself, I was born in Detroit and started journaling at the tender age of thirteen, when I was just starting high school. Already I had found my journal to be my best friend, allowing me to confide my deepest secrets, fears, and emotions during that hormone-infused time of life. My recall of that era is so vivid that I am able to recapture my experiences in the novel series I have been working on about a young girl growing up in the volatile 60’s and 70’s — even though those journals have long been lost.

Years later, when I was going through a devastating divorce, journaling saved my life—literally. Suddenly I found myself with two children to raise and support on my own, and on my worst days I was ready to jump out of my ninth floor apartment window — until I started journaling and poured my heart and soul into my writing instead. And I’m not the only one who has had that kind of profound experience from journaling: Oprah herself credits journaling for saving her life. How powerful is that?

Yes, a journal can see you through difficult times. It can also be a veritable treasure chest of creative ideas and personal history that you can use again and again in your writing. I fervently believe we all have a book inside of us, if not more than one. How many of us have family histories just crying to be told, for example? Your journal could become a novel, or a movie — witness Angela’s Ashes or In America. The possibilities are endless. A number of writers I have recently met are penning novels that stem from stories they have lived: one woman is writing a novel about living through the blitz in London as a young girl; another, a man who survived the battlefields of World War II, is turning his story into a screenplay. Even our own personal family histories handed down by elderly family members can make for compelling writing.

What about travel journals? My own novel, Travels With My Lovers, started as a journal that I had written over a number of years. A number of my other travel experiences have ended up as articles in magazines. People love to read evocative descriptions of far-off places written from the point of view of an expressive observer. In fact, the entire June issue of Vision Magazine, to which I have contributed an article, is devoted to the “traveler’s path.”

There are so many other ways we can use journaling to enhance our lives. Journals have been kept to help women heal from traumatic illnesses: for instance, actress Lynn Redgrave recently published a book about her healing journey from cancer. I met a woman who keeps what she calls a “dinner table” journal, chronicling her favorite culinary and entertaining experiences and the conversations that went along with them. Parents who take the time to journal the miraculous changes that their babies go through from day to day are rewarded with a joyful record of their children’s early journeys through life.

And the beauty of all this is that you can journal in any way you like, in any form and under any circumstances. The only limitations are those of the human imagination.

So to get you started—or re-started, as the case may be—here are some of my suggestions for making your journaling journey pleasurable and rewarding.

Believe it or not, the type of equipment you use can be a major factor. It’s of utmost importance to choose the type of journal that will inspire you to crack it open and sully the pages with your thoughts and feelings. It can be a bound book of blank pages with a beautiful cover, an artist’s sketch book to which you can add your own inventive touches, a pocket-sized notebook for travel, or a journal with quotes from writers on artists on each page to help inspire you. There’s no limit to the types of journals you can find in stores and on the web.

It’s also important to use the type of writing implement that’s comfortable for you. If you have a favorite pen that feels nice in your hand or even makes your writing look more legible (trust me, even for hopelessly illegible penmanship like mine, there are pens that can do this!) then use it. Of course, if you prefer using your computer to journal, that will work well, too. I am often asked during my talks whether I prefer journaling in longhand or on my computer. I confess that I like to think of journaling as a cozy, intimate activity, and for that, only longhand will do.

Find your perfect time of day or night, when you can quiet your mind and let your thoughts flow. Sit by the fire or light a candle—both are conducive to deep concentration—and let your muse take over.

After you’re set up with that, here are just a few of the many “hints” and techniques I’ve got up my sleeve to get those creative juices flowing:

  • Create your own imaginary world and describe it in vivid detail
  • Write about someone you met only once but still remember strongly
  • Describe your favorite “secret hideaway”

And my own personal favorite:

  • Recount your very first childhood memory

These are but a few of the wealth of possibilities for journaling that I like to impart to my readers. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send me an e-mail through my website.

The key is just to take pen in hand, or create a private journaling file on your computer, and see where your personal journey will take you. Once you settle into your own “ritual,” you will discover what you have been missing!

© 2005, Erica Miner

Former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner turned to writing as her creative outlet when injuries suffered in a car accident forced her to give up her musical career. She has since won awards for her screenplays, novels, and poetry, including the Fiction Prize in the Direct From The Author Book Awards for her novel, Travels With My Lovers. Erica has made a name for herself through radio and online interviews, book signings, and lectures. After a series of successful lecture tours, she has been named a top-rated lecturer for Celebrity Cruise Lines. Erica Miner has a website. Erica Miner is also on twitter and Amazon.

Interview with Bill Shunn

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Bill Shunn is a Nebula Award-nominated science fiction writer and stage/film reviewer. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Weekly, among others. 

Listen to Shunncast, his biweekly podcast at at iTunes. Visit Shunn.net for more.

You’ve got an active career aside from your writing. Do you have a hard time balancing working full time with writing?

Yes, working full time gets in the way sometimes, definitely. The way I try to arrange my schedule is that I get up at five in the morning and do an hour of writing before I go to work, although depending on what’s going on at work, that doesn’t always happen.

And it’s pretty easy sometimes to let the writing slide, so it’s a real feat of discipline. I have a hard time writing after the work day. I need to do it before I’ve really exhausted my brain at the office. I just can’t do it after work. I like to give my best to my writing.

What’s the appeal of writing short stories? Do you know when you’re sitting down to start a new piece if it will be a short story or a novella?

I definitely know when I’m writing a short story or a novel, and it’s planned out that way. I’ve written a couple of novels and I’m actually still working on publishing those, and a book-length memoir also. I find it easier to focus for the duration of a short story. In a lot of ways, I just like short fiction better as a form, maybe because I haven’t mastered the novel form yet, but I think I enjoy reading the form more than I enjoy novels. I appreciate more the compactness that goes into a work of short fiction and the way that it’s so contained, every word has to contribute to the overall effect. I find myself a little bit more at sea when working on a novel. Not that I don’t want to write a lot more novels . . .

Do you usually write with a particular market in mind or do you write a short story first and then research a possible market for it? Or both?

I do both, but for the most part, when I’m writing a short story I don’t have a market for it in mind. There have been the odd cases where I’ve been asked to contribute a short story to a particular anthology and then I’m writing to a theme, but for the most part, I just write the story and hope that I can find an appropriate market for it. And it seems to work a lot of the time.

Do you find that you have to do a lot of revisions that way? Like if you write the story and then find a market and then have to go back and make a short story longer or shorter?

I don’t usually find that I have to do a lot of revisions to fit a particular market. I do end up doing several revisions on every piece of work but usually by the time I’m sending something out I [will have done] four or five drafts of the story

And then, the editor will very often ask for some changes, but those are usually minor. For instance, with my recent novella Inclination, I had been working on that story—and working on other things also—for three years, from the first draft through the draft I finally thought was good enough to start submitting. And then I sent it to Asimov’s and it was accepted right off the bat and Sheila Williams asked me to make maybe three very minor changes, and that was that.

And I was very comfortable with that story when I sent it out, I had a very good feeling that it had finally achieved what— well, maybe not what I’d had in mind when I first started it, but certainly by the time I was done, I had written the best story I knew how to do at that point.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Sometimes it just comes from what’s going on around me but more and more I find myself taking the inspiration for my stories from my religious upbringing and all the thoughts and new opinions I have about it, that I’m still developing. It seems like in a lot of cases I’m exploring what it means to have had the Mormon upbringing and background that I did, and I’m doing that in my fiction, whether it’s explicitly or just exploring some of the themes that that’s brought up.

With Inclination, the thing that inspired me from my own childhood was this idea that children in a repressive society don’t necessarily know that it’s okay to have other opinions or that other people can be right. And so there’s this idea of informed consent for the philosophies that you’’re brought up with . . . that story came directly out of me looking back on my upbringing now, and that happens a lot lately.

One of your novelettes, Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites was a Nebula Award nominee. How did you feel when you got the news?

It’s indescribable. I was just ecstatic. It was the greatest thing that had happened to me in the field since the time I sold my first short story. It was just an indescribably exciting idea . . . it’s a cliché, but it’s an honor just to be nominated. The idea of winning paled beside the idea of even being nominated in the first place. I was in such good company, I felt just very honored and excited to be part of all that.

Did you feel like you’d finally “arrived”?

In a way I did, in a way, but I’d also been around enough in the science fiction field to know that getting nominated for an award doesn’t necessarily suddenly catapult your career into the stratosphere. So I felt like finally I was starting to get some recognition and people were starting to know who I was and that was a really nice feeling but I didn’t really feel like I necessarily “arrived.” I hope I never do feel like that because I think that—maybe for me anyway—when I start feeling like that’s the case, maybe that’s the time I will stop growing and I just want to keep improving and keep honing my craft.

Watch for part two of Absolute Write’s interview with Bill Shunn in January!

The 2006 Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference

By Kathy Ide

The Mount Hermon Christian writers’ conference is always an amazing experience —  professionally, personally, and spiritually. This was my fifth year there, and my first year on staff with the manuscript critique team. What an awesome conference this is! And what a privilege it was to be part of the faculty for an event that has been so special to me for so many years.

To begin with, Mount Hermon always attracts an amazing faculty. This year was no exception. In attendance were multi-published authors like Karen Ball, James Scott Bell, Brandilyn Collins, Cecil Murphey, Kay Marshall Strom, and renowned children’s book writer Christine Tangvald.

Acquisitions editors were there from all the major Christian book publishing houses: Baker, Barbour, Beacon Hill, Bethany, Harvest House, Howard, Legacy, Meredith Books, Moody, Multnomah, NavPress, Tyndale, Warner-Faith, WaterBrook, Wesleyan Publishing House, and WinePress (a subsidy publisher).

And agents attended too, including Janet Benrey from Hartline, Janet Kobobel Grant and Wendy Lawton from Books n’ Such, Steve Laube, and Bucky Rosenbaum.

Magazine editors, like Grace Fox from Power for Living, Hal Hostetler from Guideposts, Ginger Kolbaba from Marriage Partnership, Doug Newton from Light & Life, Tonya Stoneman from In Touch, and Connie Willems from Discipleship Journal were present as well.

Bonnie Jensen from DaySpring Cards was also there. DaySpring does not take freelance submissions for their line of greeting cards; however, Bonnie accepted submissions from attendees who spoke with her at the conference.

This year’s keynote speaker was Phil Callaway. This hysterically funny man regaled attendees with uproarious tales, most gleaned from his own childhood or his parenting experiences. Then without warning, he’d throw in a zinger of a life truth. Like “Find out who’s going to cry at your funeral, and hang out with them.” And “Someday your books will go out of print. But your children will still be in circulation.”

The friendly, down-to-earth atmosphere at Mount Hermon makes faculty members approachable. At each lunch and dinner of the four-day conference, every faculty member has an assigned table for eight. Attendees can sit at their table of choice on a first-come, first-served basis. That means numerous opportunities to give a sixty-second pitch of your writing project directly to agents and editors. If any of them are interested, you can ask if they’d like to see a proposal. If they say yes, you can mail in your proposal after the conference, with “Requested Material — Mount Hermon” on the envelope. That gives your manuscript special treatment when it arrives at the publisher’s or agent’s desk — on top of all the envelopes that go into the “slush pile.”

Major Morning Sessions included continuing workshops on fiction and nonfiction writing, article writing, writing for children and teens, speaking, and media marketing. There was also a Career Track for published authors. In addition, 70 elective workshops were offered. A wealth of information and instruction for aspiring writers and established authors, all presented in a lively, fun, and easy-to-understand way.

And if that’s not enough, attendees can send in advance submissions — up to 20 pages of two book manuscripts or articles (or two children’s books or five poems or devotionals), either for critique by a professional author or for an editorial review. At the conference, attendees pick up their manuscripts, read the comments, and meet one on one with the faculty member who did the critique/review. In addition, attendees can visit the Critique Station at any time during the conference to discuss their projects with professional authors and freelance editors.

Dave Talbott, director of the Mount Hermon conference center, is unsurpassed at organizing the event, opening all the sessions with a wonderful blend of humor and inspiration, giving away lots of free books, and leading attendees in worship sessions with his own heart-stirring musical renditions.

All this in the most incredible setting imaginable: Mount Hermon is nestled in the Redwood Forest near Santa Cruz, California. When you’re not taking in a workshop or hobnobbing with authors or singing hymns and praise songs in the auditorium, you can find emotional and spiritual refreshment strolling along the many quiet tree-lined paths alongside gently flowing streams. (All the workshops and general sessions are made available on CD after the conference, so you can skip one or two classes and still get the instruction later.)

Housing options range from rustic cabins to dorms to hotel rooms. Depending on your accommodation of choice, the conference cost ranges from about $600 to about $1,000, including tuition, 13 meals, all workshops and sessions, two manuscript critiques, and a thick three-ring notebook packed with workshop notes and other useful information. If that’s a bit steep for your budget, partial scholarships are available.

An abundance of professional training. A proliferation of opportunities to meet industry professionals face to face. Networking opportunities galore. A bookstore with just about every writing resource you could ask for, along with plenty of fiction and nonfiction books written by staff members and attendees. An autograph party, where you can get your books signed by the authors. Inspiration, encouragement, instruction, and a whole lot of good, clean fun. That’s the Mount Hermon experience.

Many successful authors will tell you that they would not be published today if not for the Mount Hermon Christian writers’ conference. This is where they learned how to write. Where they met their agents and publishers. Where they discovered things about the inner workings of the publishing industry that helped them get beyond the slush pile and the standard form rejection letters and achieve their goal of a flourishing writing career.

Mount Hermon’s writers’ conference is held on Palm Sunday weekend every year (one week before Easter), from midday Friday through midday Tuesday. For details, check out the Mount Hermon Conference website. If you’re serious about getting published in the Christian industry (or if you just need to get away for a few days of refreshment and encouragement), there’s no better place on earth than this.

The only thing that’s more exciting than attending this conference is having the honor and privilege of serving on the staff for it. I had a terrific time, worked with a lot of wonderful people, exchanged warm hugs with all my friends from previous conferences, and got to meet some extremely talented new writers. Maybe I’ll meet you there next year!

Kathy Ide is a published author, professional freelance editor, and writers’ conference speaker. She is the author of Polishing the PUGS: Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling. Check out Kathy Ide’s website.

The “Do It Yourself” Book Tour

By Aliza Sherman

Everything I know about booking a book tour, I learned while in the music business. Sometimes, I joke that as an author I’m like a small rock band. I’ve been signed by a major label, given some money in advance to make my album, fed a lot of exciting promises about marketing and promotions, and then I’m on my own. It is entirely up to me whether my record succeeds or fails. If I work really hard and there is a blip in record sales somewhere, maybe, just maybe, my record label will put a little money toward promotions or do a little public relations for me.

Does this scenario sound familiar? As a currently non-best-selling author, I’ve learned that my publisher is the ideal distributor for a product — my book — but that I’m really the marketing and PR machine. Once I accepted my role, I took advantage of an extended road trip I was taking across the country to promote my second book, Cybergrrl @ Work. I ended up stopping in more than 50 cities in 2001 to support my book.

How did I do it? Based on what I learned while working in the music business — at booking agencies and music managements companies in the early 90s — I mapped out several months of tour dates. I also enlisted a friend — Alison Berke of bworks.com – to help me book the dates, something she was happy to do on the side while running a home-based Internet marketing business. Then I hit the road.

Here are some basic concepts of booking tours that work well whether you are an aspiring rock band or up-and-coming author.

Routing the Tour

The act of “routing a tour” simply means to map out the entire trip, specifying the cities you’ll cover, noting the mileage and drive time, then using it as a framework for actually booking the tour.

Your publisher will tell you that there are only a handful of major markets that they really care about. My publisher mentioned New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and maybe Seattle since my book was Internet related and at the time, Seattle was an Internet mecca along with Silicon Valley. Traveling between those cities can be unrealistic if you cannot afford the airfare. If you can take the time off, try routing a driving tour to hit as many major markets as possible or stick to a regional area around a single major market.

You can even book a tour within a driveable radius around your own hometown or fly to a major market, rent a car and create a tour in that region. The best market, of course, would be New York City and the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) plus Pennsylvania and Washington DC and even as far north as Massachusetts. Amtrak has good deals between these cities if you don’t like to drive.

To route my tour, I used these essential tools:

A Rand McNally road atlas to help me visualize the driving routes.

Mapquest.com’s Driving Directions section so I could check approximate mileage and driving times.

A good map of the entire United States to get a perspective of the overall territory. I found that the Rand McNally road atlas only had a small map of the country without much detail.

Maps of each state where I would be traveling. My local AAA office furnished me with every map I needed.

For the first leg of my tour, I began in South Florida with a plan to end a month later in New York City. I knew that I wanted to hit Atlanta, GA, and Charlotte, NC, so I couldn’t stick to driving north on I-95. I had to consider the drive time to each city and keep in mind that most bookstores preferred evening appearances on the weekdays and afternoons on weekends.

The first few weeks of my skeletal routing looked like this:

JAN
Jan 8 Mon Miami
Jan 9 Tue Ft. Lauderdale
Jan 10 Wed Pompano Beach
Jan 11 Thu Speaking engagement (already booked) – Ft. Lauderdale
Jan 12 Fri West Palm or Melbourne?
Jan 13 Sat OFF
Jan 14 Sun OFF
Jan 15 Mon Tampa
Jan 16 Tue Orlando
Jan 17 Wed OFF
Jan 18 Thu Jacksonville
Jan 19 Fri OFF
Jan 20 Sat OFF
Jan 21 Sun OFF
Jan 22 Mon Atlanta
Jan 23 Tue OFF
Jan 24 Wed Charlotte

I emailed the above routing to Alison. We received suggestions of bookstores in each city either by emailing friends and acquaintances in the area or by researching on the Internet.

Here is what the actual tour for those weeks ended up looking like:

Tue, Jan 9 Ft. Lauderdale, FL – 8:00 pm – Archives Bookcafe
Wed, Jan 10 Miami Beach, FL – 8:00 pm – Books & Books
Thu, Jan 11 Ft. Lauderdale, FL – Speaking engagement
Fri, Jan 12 DRIVE
Sat, Jan 13 Tampa, FL – OFF
Sun, Jan 14 Clearwater, FL – 1:00 pm – Barnes and Noble
Mon, Jan 15 Orlando, FL – 3:00 pm – Books A Million
7:30pm – Borders Books Music & Cafe
Tue, Jan 16 DRIVE
Wed, Jan 17 Atlanta, GA – 7:00 pm – Chapter 11
Thu, Jan 18 Atlanta, GA – OFF
Fri, Jan 19 DRIVE
Sat, Jan 20 Charlotte, NC – OFF
Sun, Jan 21 Charlotte, NC – 7:00 pm – Borders bookstore

The changes from my tentative routing to the final schedule happened mostly because of the available dates and times at each bookstore. I skipped certain cities because they didn’t fit into the schedule as it developed, and they weren’t big enough markets to warrant rearranging the schedule.

Submitting a Rider

Every rock band has a rider — an addendum to their contract that states what the band would like in the dressing room to make their appearances more comfortable. Whether it was M&Ms without the green ones for Van Halen or an enormous bowl of boiled shrimp for Def Leppard, I witnessed rockers getting almost anything their hearts desired at each concert.

As an author, you only get what you ask for. I created a rider that Alison sent in advance to all of the bookstores that requested things such as:

  1. How to obtain copies of my book and who to contact if there is any delay. I wanted to make sure they had my books at each signing. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many authors show up for signings only to find their books aren’t there.
  2. Request for the exact store location, contact information and driving directions to be emailed to Alison. I wanted everything in advance so I didn’t get lost.
  3. Request for specific event details. Would I be doing a signing only or did they want me to speak as well? Or were they going to set me up behind a table with my books at the front of their store?
  4. Request for Audio/Visual inventory. If they want me to speak, what would be the setup? Microphone? Podium and lectern? If they wanted me to speak, I did request a microphone and amplifier because I found that it attracted more attention storewide.
  5. Request for several bottles of spring water without ice. This was my luxury request.
  6. Request for local media contacts. If they provided Alison with these contacts in advance, she could help pursue media coverage of the event.

The rider worked out well for everyone, and I always had my bottles of water when I needed them!

Advancing the Dates

In the music business, to “advance a date” means to call a few days ahead of time to make sure everything is in order. Alison contacted each store within a week before my appearance to make sure everything was set, to go over the rider point by point, and to get answers to any last minute questions.

Advancing dates is not foolproof, but it is helpful. After over 50 tour dates, I had only had one mix up when we got a date wrong, and no one realized it until I missed my appearance. The store generously let me set up the following evening, although I didn’t have the benefit of promotions.

Promotional Tools

After many appearances at bookstores, I’ve learned that as an author, you can’t have enough promotional tools. Here are a few tools that have come in handy:

  1. Promotional Blurbs. Prepare a few, very short promotional blurbs about the book and about you that the bookstore can have in advance to include in their newsletter or give to the media. You can only imagine the erroneous and irrelevant blurbs I’ve seen about my book. Getting a consistent message out there is key to marketing your book.
  2. Pre-Prepared In-Store Announcements. Write out and give bookstores several options for storewide intercom announcements to avoid them reading blandly from your book jacket. Make sure you clearly specify how to pronounce your name. I can’t tell you how many times I’m announced as “Eliza” or “Aleesha” instead of the proper way — Uh-LEE-zuh. If you can, get permission to do the announcements right before your appearance if you are comfortable on a microphone.
  3. Book Blowups. Get several blowups of your book mounted on foam core. When you arrive in a town, go directly to the bookstore even if a few days in advance. Check the signage about your signing, and offer the blowups to put in their window or near their checkout counter with the date and time of your appearance taped to it. I was lucky enough to be given 3 blowups of my book by a New York City bookstore who had them made for my local appearance. The posters were so eye-catching that the store sold over 40 books the week before my appearance.
  4. Flyers. I made fliers at Kinkos with my photo, a graphic of my bookcover and the text: “Meet the Author — Tonite!” and “Aliza Sherman — “Cybergrrl @ Work.” I left blanks for Date, Time and Location. I made several copies of the master flyer and used a Sharpie pen to insert the appropriate information. I made copies on bright yellow paper to attract attention, and then canvassed neighboring businesses near the bookstore and asked permission to hang up the flyer in their windows. They almost always said “yes.”

Booking your own book tour can be time consuming and being on the road can be grueling, but as you begin to see book sales increasing in the markets you’ve visited, you’ll realize how effective a grassroots tour can be. Happy trails!

Aliza Sherman is an international keynote speaker, author of 11 books including Social Media Engagement for Dummies and The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, and a digital strategist since 1992. Aliza Sherman has a Website.

Tips for Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist

By Kris Saknussemm

The problem with “should” advice is that it’s either something you already know, i.e., your diet should include more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis—or it’s something really difficult (like consuming more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis). Based on my own stumbling, fumbling experience, I offer the following list of things I would strongly advise aspiring and despairing writers not to do. I doubt that simply by avoiding these pitfalls you will be guaranteed international fame and fortune, but I’m confident that you will at least escape many unnecessary frustrations and defeats, so that you can be fresh for the really poignant failures and setbacks that will either make or break you—and with any luck will do a bit of both.

Tip #1. Do not spend years gathering interesting material—odd quotations, overheard remarks, colorful phrases, bits of trivia, weird statistics, and obscure facts in the hope that you will one day find a story to contain them. I ended up with a figurative warehouse of such stuff and I can tell you now with considerable confidence that the larvae of the human botfly bore into the skin and gorge themselves, emerging as centimeter-long maggots, while a Joshua Hendy nine-thousand horsepower steam turbine delivers a cruising speed of 16 knots at 78 rpm. There is nothing wrong in knowing that if left underwater for years brass gives off a bright verdigris stain or that the first birds of paradise shipped back to Europe had their legs chopped off to facilitate packing, but the collection of details is like any acquisitive habit—potentially obsessive. You can end up with a novel that reads like the Gospel according to St. Matthew translated into the Duke of York Island language and a response from the publishing industry reminiscent of a deserted poolroom on the shore of Sheepshead Bay. Put bluntly, burn your notebooks and clear your head.

Tip #2. Do not spend years experimenting with different forms of writing and various intellectual follies such as cut-ups and verbal collages, intricate multiple person narratives, dream stories, recipe books, anatomies, imaginary academic theses, and the like. Yes, it’s true that some of the world’s most interesting literature has elements of these forms—but that was then and this is different. If you are serious about getting a work of fiction published today you need quick, sharp answers to the following questions: In what section of a bookstore or retailer’s website will your book be found? Which authors can your work be likened to? What’s your novel about in three sentences or less?

Tip #3. The Puritans believed in covering the body for modesty’s sake. Yet they developed a sexualized fascination for the ears of women and the noses of men. My point? (See Tip #1) In apparent restriction there is unexpected release. Dickens created over 800 individual characters and laid down some of the most intense cultural satire in English—but his writing really came into focus when Wilkie Collins hipped him to the detective story. I struggled for years trying to find a form for my writing, flitting around like a Ulysses butterfly. The moment I gave myself permission to write an action/adventure story, things started falling into place. Modern art has provided artists with unparalleled and some might argue paralyzing freedom. Don’t waste time trying to create a new form. It’s given to very few people in any medium to do that—and many of their achievements end up looking like legless birds of paradise later. A seemingly simple repetitive musical style like the blues has proven capable of expressing the full spectrum of human experience and has inspired countless variations and mutations. Give yourself over to an established structure and follow its guidelines, and suddenly interesting points will emerge to surprise you.

Tip #4. Read your work aloud, ideally to some willing victim, but at least to yourself. Storytelling began as an oral form and the ear (however erotically appealing) has a trueness to it that will reveal what’s working and what’s not in a more immediate and decisive way than simply scanning the page. This discipline will also slow you down psychologically and bring you into more intimate contact with your story. In the end, it will take no more time than reading back a page silently.

Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more important, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston, I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ’em.”

Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself—unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around)—unless you are willing to get lost, confused, and even terrified—then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable.

Cover of Kris Saknussemm's novel Private MidnightKris Saknussemm grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but has for a long time lived abroad, in the Pacific Islands and Australia.  A painter and sculptor as well as a writer, his fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Boston Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters and ZYZZYA. You can find  Kris Saknussemm on the Web at krissaknussemm.comKris Saknussem has  an Amazon author page

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