Archive for category: Creative Writing

I’ve been following some interesting discussions about the use of profanity in novels. It started on Kindle Boards in this thread titled “Gutter-mouth.” Then I continued the conversation over on my Facebook page, since I was curious as to what people there had to say.

I also thought about it a lot during the final go-through of Forgotten April, my debut novel that’s coming out in May. In earlier versions, I had lots of cussing, but the cussing had less to do with my characters and story and had more to do with me, I think. I was giving myself permission to be naughty by letting f-bombs fly freely on paper.

See, I was raised a good little Catholic girl (you always gotta watch out for anyone who says this), and I don’t think I swore with any vigor (or at all, really) until my mid 20s, and we’re talking after college. Since then, my mouth has devolved into occasional vulgarity that could make a trucker blush, and I take pleasure in occasionally shocking my dear almost-80-year-old mother with a string of expletives. But I always do that (the latter anyway) in jest and for effect and to make sure she’s paying attention (she always is — she also has five sons in addition to me, so it’s a lot harder to shock her than you might think). It’s like I’m making up for my lack of rebellion during my youth, even as I sit here approaching 40.

So when I first started penning Forgotten April ten or so years ago, it almost felt like I was getting away with something by having my characters cuss. And cuss they did. A lot, and for no particular reason.

And therein lies the problem, I think. Like every other word and action that happens in a story, each and every “thing” needs to serve the story and be true to the character. If you’re dealing with an ex-con who is about to rape a woman, he’s probably not going to be all polite and proper. He might even — heaven forbid — utter the “C” word. And the woman, in danger and fearing for her life, is probably not thinking of propriety, either, even if she is Miss Priss in real life. It would be odd, in my mind, if these characters, particularly the ex-con, didn’t swear. It wouldn’t ring true, and that would affect my reading of the piece.

That said, I do know there are readers who can’t stand any form of cussing. I respect these folks, and I realize they’re probably not my audience anyway, since my writing tends more toward the dark side in topics and situations. Characters in my worlds swear. But they don’t swear nearly the amount that I had them doing in earlier drafts of my novel and short stories. I exorcised 90 percent of the cussing in Forgotten April and kept only the swears that fit the scene/situation and character.

Restraint is necessary and perhaps even our responsibility as writers. Like every other word we pore over and consider, we need to give each curse, cuss, and expletive careful consideration as well. Just because we can have a character say, “Oh, f*ck!” doesn’t mean we should.

What’s your take, readers and writers? Does swearing turn you off, do you not care, or does it depend on the character/situation/story? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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I imagine many writers out there have heard a fellow writer say, “But it really happened that way!” when questioned by beta readers or critique partners about a particular event in their story. (I might even be guilty.)

This isn’t an original thought, but I’m sharing because it’s worth remembering: just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean repeating it in your story will automatically make it “real” to the reader. It’s your job as a writer to render the event believable. That might require deviating from the “real” nature of the “real” event in order to make it authentic to your characters, story, and, ultimately, your audience. You might know it’s “for real” since you experienced the event or saw it happen or whatever. But your audience doesn’t know that.

That’s why ripped-from-the-headlines television shows are such a hit, I think. Their almost-unbelievable story lines become believable because the audience has “heard” it before, thanks to the media. (I think many readers would have had a hard time accepting Room’s premise if not for the Josef Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard cases.)

While readers often willingly suspend their disbelief, they’re willing to suspend it only so far. It’s the writer’s responsibility to make even the most unbelievable thing feel real. Not an easy task.

Have you read anything recently that made you go “No way. That never could have happened”? Or have you read anything that seemed unbelievable but you kept reading anyway and the “thing” became believable, thanks to the writer’s skill? Share in the comments.

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I saw My Name is Asher Lev at The Lyric Stage Company in Boston this past weekend. It’s adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok. It tells the story of Asher Lev, an observant Hasidic Jew who is caught between being true to his art and true to his faith (or, at least, what the leaders of his faith dictate).

At one point, Asher tries explaining that he needs more than painting; he needs to share his paintings with others. That’s the part his ultra-religious father has a big problem with — the fact that Asher needs to show others his (often disturbing) work. Asher says (and I’m paraphrasing) that he doesn’t simply paint for himself, that art is meant to be a two-way communication, and that he needs people to see and respond to his creations.

That scene spoke to me. See, I recently saw a blog post (I can’t remember where now) from a fellow writer lamenting that he/she doesn’t write to be read; he/she was perfectly satisfied with simply creating. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of artists out there who feel this way, but I’m not one of them. While I do find the process immensely satisfying, I can honestly say it’s not enough for me. I’m like Asher Lev in that respect. I’m not writing simply for myself. I want to be read. I need to be read. I have an overwhelming desire to share the stories inside of me with others.

Here’s the thing: I know not everyone will like my art, and that’s okay (as it was for Asher). Oh, but for those who do! When I launched this venture last fall, I remember coming home one night and logging onto my Facebook page where a woman named Mercedes posted a comment on my wall. I had no idea who she was — she wasn’t a Facebook friend or friend of a friend. She had somehow found my page, “liked” it, checked out my eBook descriptions, and decided to buy and read “Support Our Troops” on her Nook. She left a comment telling me the story sounded interesting and she couldn’t wait to read it.

A few days later, after she had read it, she left me another comment on my wall telling me how much she enjoyed the story and that she looked forward to more of my shorts. She has continued to post comments every time I release something, and her support means more to me than she’ll probably ever know.

Mercedes is the reason I write. It makes me so happy to share my stories with another human being who is touched in some way by my art.

How ’bout you, fellow artists. Why do you write (or paint or sculpt or compose or…)? Is the process satisfying enough? Or do you need to share it with others to feel complete? Share your thoughts in the comments.

By the way, if you’re in the Boston area, I highly recommend My Name is Asher Lev. It runs through 3/13. I’m posting the trailer below.

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I’m self-publishing my debut novel in May. This is a book I’ve worked on for nine years. No, wait — 10 years (since 2001). It’s gone through six top-to-bottom rewrites. It’s been laid to rest once, only to be resurrected a year later when, out of the blue, I figured out how to fix the beginning, which had been dogging me since version 1.0. It went through a bunch of beta readers, and each time, I revisited the piece and reworked it some more. I wrote, rewrote, put it aside, rewrote, revised, proofed, and then this past fall, I finally felt it was ready.

And when I say “ready,” I mean ready to go to a copy editor, not the virtual bookshelves at Amazon or B&N.

As I mentioned in this post from last week, we indie writers have an enormous responsibility to put out polished work. (Yes, all writers do, but bear with me here.) Indie writers don’t have to use an editor, whereas traditional writers do. But I believe all indie writers should use a professional editor, even if that means pushing out the date of your release or working a second job for a little while to get the funds to pay for one. I’ve read too many indie works lately that have punctuation errors on page one. Page one! There’s no excuse for that. None. Don’t peddle schlock. Put out your best work.

I’m lucky. I’m friends with a professional story and copy editor. Her name is Laura Matthews and she owns

We met in Niblets (my writers group). What I love about Laura is that she’s a “literal” reader and writer. I’m not. I’m all about the implied and the indirect, so Laura provides great insight into my work. She also is great at calling me out on my crutches: I know I overuse words like actually and just; I exorcised most of those from my manuscript before she got it, but she pointed out the crutches I missed because I’m too close to the work. Words like really and starting too many sentences with and.

Before Laura edited this version, she read version 5.0 and provided feedback on the story, characters, and the arc. I made some revisions based on these comments and then continued making more until I got to the point I was at this past fall. Then I sent it to Laura around Christmas. She sent it back to me the end of January, and I’ve been working on the edits ever since, poring through every line, every scene, and debating titles (another thing that dogged me with this book. I finally came up with a title I’m happy with — more on that in another post once I finalize the cover art).

I really think indie writers are doing a disservice to their work, to their readers, and to the self-publishing industry in general if they don’t go through this process. While I had only a handful of actual typos in 371 Word doc pages, Laura caught enough inconsistencies, lazy language, crutch words, etc. to show why an editor is needed. It’s not simply a worthy investment; it’s a necessary investment as well. If you’re an indie writer, don’t skimp.

What do you think, readers and writers? If you’re a reader, have you ever read something and wondered where the author’s editor was? And writers (indie or traditional — we’re all the same), do you make sure your work is professionally edited (before you self-publish or before you pitch an agent or publisher or submit to a lit magazine)? Feel free to share info about the person you use in the comments. Copy editing is not an easy job. Props to anyone who does it and does it well! (And in case you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend Laura.)

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I’m sure all writers have that one movie they feel every writer should watch. Mine is Stand By Me, which is based on the Stephen King short story “The Body.”

I love this film for so many reasons: the time in my life when I saw it (aged 13 in 1986), the story itself, and, of course, the whole writer theme. I’m embedding the trailer below. I highly recommend adding this to your Netflix queue if you haven’t seen it yet.

What film do YOU recommend all writers see? Leave your picks in the comments.

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If you had asked me a year ago if I’d ever self-publish, I would have given an emphatic “No.” At the time, I was busy at work on the draft of my second novel, and I was still caught up in the dream of landing an agent and a traditional publishing deal.

Now, I won’t lie: parts of those dreams still exist in me, but thanks to the digital revolution that’s taking place before all our eyes, I’m quite excited to be part of this venture. I don’t even cringe internally anymore when I tell people I’m going this route and that I’m self-publishing my work as eBooks.

That said, I’m aware of what some people — both fellow writers and readers — are thinking. Self-publishing is a last resort. Self-publishing means you couldn’t make it as a “real” writer. Most of the self-published stuff out there is crap. Blah, blah, blah. I don’t take it personally. How can I? I was one of the people thinking those same things not even nine months ago.

And here’s the dirty truth: a lot of crap is still being self-published. I mean “crap” in a totally objective way. In other words, the author doesn’t have the piece professionally edited (your mom and BFF don’t count, unless they’re editors in real life), resulting in numerous mistakes in punctuation and grammar. And the author hasn’t received sufficient feedback from beta readers on the story itself.

I think we indie writers have an important task at a pivotal moment in this revolution: we MUST be committed to putting out quality work, even more so than traditionally published authors, just by virtue of the fact that we self-publish, which, in essence, screams, “I feel strongly in this work and think it’s ready for prime time.”

Rushing something to market just because we can doesn’t mean we should (this isn’t an original thought, by the way). Unfortunately, those who do are the ones who really give self-publishing a bad name (and it’s the main reason I avoided it for so long). Thanks to people like Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking and so many other serious writers who take pride in the quality of their work, that’s changing.

But we ALL must adhere to this first commandment in the indie writer credo: do no harm; put out the best work possible no matter what. And yeah, that might mean postponing the release or taking a step back to review the work one more time. Just to make sure. Do it (I’m doing it too). It will be worth it in the end. And maybe — just maybe — we can dismantle that ugly indie writer stereotype for good.

Indie writers, what do you think? Should this be the first commandment or can you think of something more important?

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…in no particular order:

  1. PostSecret (My short story “A Touch of Charlotte” was inspired by one of the postcards from PS.)
  2. The “Science” section from one of my favorite magazines, The Week. Actually, almost all the sections of The Week get my juices going (a close second – almost anything in Wired).
  3. The news, in general.
  4. Cop shows like Law & Order, SVU, Criminal Minds.
  5. Freak shows that A&E and TLC like to run, like Hoarders.
  6. People watching, anywhere.
  7. My idea journal. (When I was a kid, I loved going through my toy box and finding things I’d forgotten about. It’s the same experience with my idea journal, which is where I record ideas whenever they come to me, including the middle of the night.)
  8. The shower. What is it about the shower that does it for so many people?
  9. Driving. Ditto the shower; there’s something about driving that soothes my muse and allows the ideas to flow.
  10. The beach, especially during the off-season when no one is around.

If you’re a writer, where do you get your ideas? Share in the comments.

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Okay, so that title is misleading. Sure there are rules. I have rules. That ultra-particular person in your writers group definitely has rules, and rules for his rules. Your seventh grade English teacher had rules. Agents have rules. Publishers have rules. But here’s the funny thing about rules, at least in writing (and probably in anything): they’re fluid. They evolve.

Remember the “rule” that you had to use two spaces after a period? Not anymore.

Or how ’bout the rules that got your English papers covered in red ink, like ending a sentence with a preposition, verbifying nouns, or splitting infinitives? (See how I just broke one of ’em?)

Even things that have rules — like commas — grammarians and fusspots still debate about. (See that? I just broke another rule.)

So my point in saying there are no rules is just that: there aren’t really any rules. There are accepted ways of doing things. There are even “more correct” ways of doing things. But for every correct way you show me, there’s at least one writer out there breaking that rule — and breaking it well.

The problem with rules is they can be restrictive, especially in the wrong hands. For example, don’t change a sentence that reads and sounds right because you — gawd forbid — ended it in a preposition and you’re “not supposed to do that.”

Laura Matthews, a friend of mine in my writers group (and a fabulous editor as well), offered this bit of wisdom the other night: Be intentional with everything you write. So if you’re going to end that sentence with a preposition, and you have a good reason for doing so even though it violates a “rule,” do it. But it has to be intentional. Don’t break rules out of laziness. Or ignorance. Which brings me to another important point: you need to learn the rules first before you can break them with intention.

So learn them. Learn the conventional and accepted ways to use a semicolon. Learn what a comma splice is and how to fix it. Learn how to remove that preposition from the end of the sentence. If you’re taking a class with a fussbudget for a teacher and he or she is set on some (in your opinion) inane or arcane rule, follow it in that world, knowing that you can break it in yours.

Agree or disagree? I know writers on both sides of the aisle on this one, so weigh in. (Just keep it civil.)

On a separate note, I’m happy I got to use the words fusspot and fussbudget in the same post. Like the word hogwash, these are great words that I don’t use nearly enough in my day-to-day life. I’m trying to remedy that. (Hey, it’s the little things, people.)

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I get sucked into the crime/thriller show marathons that stations like TNT run (Law & Order, anyone?). Bones is one I watch, although I don’t love that show as much as L&O or SVU. But I do have a bone to pick with the writers of Bones: it always irritates me when a character is a writer, but she NEVER writes.

Dr. Temperance Brennan, or “Bones,” is a forensic anthropologist and is wicked smaht as we say back here in Beantown, but a wicked smaht person does not a writer make. I know she’s in the exceptional category and she can compartmentalize and hyper-focus and  such, but that still doesn’t take away the fact that writers need to write. A lot. Especially when they’re cranking out bestsellers in their “spare time,” as this show seems to suggest. I think I’ve only seen her character actually writing once (and I’ve seen a lot of the shows, though not all), and that was a hospital bedside scene where Bones was waiting out Booth’s coma.


This sort of portrayal does a disservice to new-ish writers or people who “want to write a novel” because it suggests that it’s easy.

It ain’t easy. It takes work and practice and commitment and daily effort (or full weekend effort or full night-time effort…keyword is effort).

One of the reasons I appreciate Sex and the City (also now in marathon runs on E!, gawd help me. I’m dreaming about Mr. Big again), is because it shows Carrie writing in every episode. And not just sitting there tapping away on her keyboard and making it look easy. It shows her stopping and thinking and getting up and procrastinating and late nights and deadlines (remember when Aidan was stripping her floors and she was on deadline and had to go to a hotel to get some quiet?).

What other shows — past or present — get it write (ha!). I mean get it “right” in terms of how it portrays writers? What other shows get it wrong? I’ve been trying to think of other shows where the main character is a writer, but beyond the ones mentioned and maybe Dave’s World (based loosely on Dave Barry), I’m coming up empty.

Weigh in. Can you think of others? Do you get annoyed, too?

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I have a good friend who is struggling in her job. She wants to leave it — she really does — and she would like to write full time (freelance and creative stuff; she’s a novelist). But she’s scared. Scared of the unknown. Scared of being poor in a tough economic climate. Scared she won’t make it. Scared she’ll become depressed. Scared about feeling scared.

I get that. Back in early 2001, I came to a crossroads in my radio “career,” where I’d been since the tender age of 21. I had always planned on it being a short-term gig and that I’d leave to go write the Great American Novel, but the one-year plan turned quickly into three, then five, then close to seven. I used the excuse of money (and without getting into it, I’ll say it was a legit excuse) for my reason to bail (morning show producers get paid squat and I wanted a raise that would put me in line with one of my male colleagues, but it wasn’t going to happen). I really wanted to leave and write, but how could I? I was almost 28 — a grown up — and past the age of ditching it all to follow an elusive dream. I had rent to pay, a cat to feed, and well, I mentioned the grown-up part, right? So I found another job: teaching reading to children. I convinced myself that this was related enough to writing and that it would give me time to write and it did pay more money and I had to do it. Even when I accepted the job and gave my notice at the station, I think I knew I’d never work one day at the other gig. I needed to write. I needed to figure out a way to make that happen. (I imagine many of you are thinking this: why couldn’t I write while I was in radio? Very good question, and trust me, I kick myself now for all the time I wasted in my 20s. My only excuse is lack of sleep — my days started at three in the morning and by the time afternoon hit, my brain was fried. I know, I know. I should have pushed through it, but alas.)

Back to the story. My last day in Radio Land was on a dreary, wet Friday in February. I was supposed to start the new teaching gig on Monday. But my mind was racing. I was a mess. And so I did what I often do when I need to think: I drove. I drove all the way to Nauset Beach on the Cape, one of my favorite places in the world (a good 2.5 hours away) and communed with the ocean (I’m a Pisces baby). And that’s when I decided I was going to give it a go: I was going to write full time.

Oh, gawd, even writing that makes me queasy. Man was I green. Clueless. I was smart to go for it, but just about every other decision I made for the next two years after that was pure idiocy. But I suppose I had to go through that to get to this point.

The short of it: I backed out of the new job (and was told in no uncertain terms that I was “unprofessional” — the only time in my entire life that I’ve ever been called that, at least to my face [or via phone]). I moved back home (yes, at 28, when all my friends were getting married, buying houses, and having babies). I rented a room on the cheap from my brother’s computer company and called it my writing studio. I was pretty green when it came to the Internet (this was before Twitter, Facebook, and Google was in its infancy). I lit candles and played jazz and pretended to be an artiste. And then I ran out of money. My parents didn’t charge me rent, but I’m a proud girl and I had bills to pay and I hated living at home (due to my pride) and then 9/11 happened and then I went back to radio full time for about nine months as the station’s promotions director, a gig that was almost the death of me, but I learned a lot. Then I left radio (again), got serious about my copywriting business, started teaching writing at the grad school level (that’s another story), got serious about my creative writing, did NaNoWriMo, started a writers group, wrote about six top to bottom rewrites of novel #1 over nine years, earned my MFA in creative writing, moved out of the house, wrote a second novel, invented cool programs for my business like The Copy Bitch and Rent My Noggin, and embraced the indie writer revolution. (Aren’t you glad I didn’t give the long version?)

And you know what? I’m not going to say I wouldn’t change a thing. There’s a lot I’d like to change. I wish I had gotten serious with my writing in my 20s. I wish I hadn’t spent close to seven years living back home. I wish, I wish, I wish. But it’s done. It’s over. And all of it has informed the writer I am today, and that I wouldn’t change.

So back to my friend. I can sympathize with her fear. I think I’ve spent the last decade more scared than not. But I’ve also never been freer in thought, in the possibilities, and in the control I have over my own life. Sometimes fear is the biggest motivator out there.

What motivates you as a writer?

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