Archive for category: Writing

I do it for the cat named Dorian Gray, his last moments filled with terror, his pupils dilated to the size of nickels as the vet administered the lethal shot.

I do it for the boy I loved in third grade, for the agonizing awkwardness of seventh, for the “Look how fat she is!” comment made in high school as I leaned over the water bubbler after gym class.

I do it because Adrienne Rich was right: two people together really is a miracle.

I do it because eyes, breath, memory. I do it to piss people off, to scratch an itch, to embrace the pain, to run away from it. I do it because I’ve read something that moves me to recreate the magic for myself, by myself, on the blank page, wand-less though I am, the words falling apart and disintegrating into inky dust that flakes from my fingertips.

I do it to soothe, to slumber, to laugh, to anger, to hope, to learn, to discover. I do it even when the muse packs her bags and leaves without so much as a goddamn note. I do it when she returns, showering her with purple prose until I calm down with coherent thoughts.

I do it when it hurts, because it hurts, because I hurt someone else.

I do it to remember my childhood to forget my childhood to screw over the childhood bully who stole the granola bar from my brown lunch bag.

I do it because of the sunrise, the need to share it with someone who wasn’t there: No, not pink, not purple, not red—the color of love, the tickle of a kiss, your breath against my neck, maybe.

I do it because how else can you pass the time in a hospital, waiting for test results or the chemicals to kick in or the body once alive but now not.

I do it because life, death, madness, loneliness, the fifth floor balcony beckons me to jump, and I consider it, but stop because of the unfinished story, my characters’ and my own. No, not yet. Wait and see how it unfolds. Such a cliffhanger would be cliché.

I do it bird by freaking bird and to shut up the voices in my head.

I do it because of vanity, to make a buck, to get laid, even though Bukowski warned against that.

I do it because I fell in love with Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, the man who built the fire, because the words made me feel.

I do it because of the words, the beautiful words.

Because they understand.

Because they always understand.

This. Is. Why.

I do it.

If you’re new to writing, you’ll encounter plenty of advice from well-meaning scribes, especially if you hang out in writer forums or with your local critique group.

But not all advice is created equal. Unfortunately, even in this enlightened age, plenty of writing myths persist—myths that can discourage new writers or lead them down the wrong path.

So let’s set the record straight and bust some of the biggest myths for good.

Myth #1: Good writers are born, not made. While some folks are born with natural  talent—e.g. an innate sense of story or way with words—plenty of other people (including this writer right here) have learned the craft over time. If you’re willing to put in the time, you can pick up mechanics, structure, and so forth.  

Myth #2. If you can’t spell, you can’t write. Here’s a list of great thinkers who supposedly couldn’t spell. You’ll notice the list includes many famous authors. My point: while you should certainly strive to spell correctly, you won’t be doomed if spelling is your weakness. Telling a good story has nothing to do with knowing how many S’s are in Mississippi. That said, if you know spelling isn’t your thing, make sure you have someone proofread your work before you send it out into the world. (And remember that spell-check is your friend!)

Myth #3. Great writers get it right the first time. Ha. I wish. No writer gets it right the first time. And most of us don’t get it right the second or third time, either. Great writing is all about great rewriting. The writers who make the craft look effortless are the ones who embrace the revision process.  

Myth #4. You need to write every day. If you look online, you’ll find plenty of advice regarding how and when you should write, including the notion that you should write every day. First, be careful of any advice that uses the word “should.” Second, when it comes to writing, there are no absolutes. Some writers write every day, including holidays and birthdays (Stephen King comes to mind). Some writers work a Monday-to-Friday schedule. Others consider themselves weekend warriors. The key is learning what works best for you and your process.

Myth #5. Don’t start writing until you know exactly what you want to say. Remember, you can’t revise a blank page. And if you think the muse will rescue you by whispering sweet nothings in your ear, well—you’re going to end up sorely disappointed.

Myth #6. The writing life is a solitary life. OK, so here’s the thing. Writing can be solitary, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m an extreme introvert and relish my solitude, but I know plenty of writers who love engaging with their fellow scribblers. Think conferences, expos, meetups, or coffee dates with a fellow novelist pal. Bottom line: you decide how solitary you want your writing life to be.

Myth #7. Writers can’t make a living. I’ve been a professional writer since 2002. I pay the rent. I buy groceries. I put money away for a rainy day. In other words, I make a living as a writer.  

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Will you be able to make a living as a fiction writer? Possibly. You have a better chance now than ever before, thanks to self-publishing (which is something I also do; and yes, I make money from my self-pubbed fiction). Like any other endeavor, it won’t happen overnight, and you will need to work at it. But it can happen.

Myth #8. You need an English degree or graduate degree to write. Nope. And this is coming from someone who earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. The only things you need: your imagination, your willingness to get your story down on paper, and your desire to improve.  

You can learn grammar, punctuation, structure, and anything else through books, the Internet, critique groups, and so forth. In other words, you don’t need the degree. That said, there are good reasons to pursue a writing degree (for example, if you want to teach at the college level in the US, you’ll more than likely need an MFA, at the very least). But a degree is not the be-all, end-all for writing a book, short story, or ad copy.  

Myth #9. You must read in order to be a good writer. This is tricky, because I do believe all good writers are avid readers. The two go hand-in-hand. But being an avid reader alone won’t make you a good writer. You need to take what you’ve learned from reading and write, rewrite, write, and rewrite some more. This, over time, is what it takes to become a competent writer.

Bottom line: get writing.

A friend of mine is working on a book of poetry. The other day, he sent me an email with this question: “I’m nearly finished with my book but I’m struggling with when to stop doing rewrites and edits and just call it complete. Any advice on when to stop editing? I feel like I could keep rewriting and I feel like I might be getting in my own way.”

Here was my response: 


I’m a firm believer that a piece of writing is never “done.” (This isn’t an original thought, either.)

I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

If that sounds familiar—if you’re debating comma placement—you’re probably “done.” At least for now. Getting an objective third party—someone who doesn’t know you, and someone who DOES know poetry—to review your work and provide feedback is probably a good next step.

(Edited to add: this would apply to fiction and nonfiction as well.)

Writers write. Right?



The smart writers know when to shelve a work-in-progress.

Case in point: I recently finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King.


It’s a time travel story that centers on this question: what would happen if JFK had lived? I CRUSHED ON THIS BOOK SO HARD. Here’s the thing about King: he is so versatile, and he has evolved so much as a writer. So if you tried him in the past, meaning decades ago, and he wasn’t your cup o’ tea, consider trying him again. Consider this book!

I digress. Back to my point. In the afterword, King says this: “I originally tried to write this book in 1972. I dropped the project because the research it would involve seemed far too daunting for a man who was teaching full-time. There was another reason: even nine years after the deed, the wound was still too fresh. I’m glad I waited.”

So know this, dear writers: it’s OK to shelve an idea that’s not working for whatever reason. Maybe you don’t have the necessary means to do the research. Maybe you don’t have the necessary life wisdom to write the story you’re trying to tell and you need to wait a little while longer and, you know, live. This doesn’t mean you stop writing altogether. It simply means you stop writing that particular story. Latch on to a new idea and work on it.

All that said, I’d like to offer two caveats:

1. Don’t allow a challenging story to convince you it just needs to be shelved. There’s a difference between shelving a story for a good reason and shelving a story out of fear or (gasp) laziness. Learn the difference (how these differences manifest will vary from person to person, which is why you need to get cozy with your inner self).

2. When a story isn’t working, don’t assume you must shelve it. Analyze what’s going on. Is the story not working because it needs time on the shelf? Is the story not working because the idea/concept isn’t sustainable? Is the story not working because you’re the obstacle, meaning you need to revise and/or recalculate your approach (see this blog post to understand what I mean)?

Sometimes you don’t need to shelve a story. Sometimes you need to shit-can it. It happens. No shame in having an idea that just isn’t working — and that *likely* won’t work, no matter what you do. (Getting good at recognizing these scenarios is another important skill all writers need to develop, including this writer here.)

Bottom line: Write. Know when to stop writing a particular project. Write some more.

I’ve been bitching to my writer friends (and anyone who’ll listen) that I can’t seem to write a goddamn story without some weird time warp timeline. WHY CAN’T I WRITE FORWARD? Meaning I start at point A and move to point B and then C and then D until I get to the end. FLASHBACKS SHOULDN’T BE MY ENEMY.

But the other day, after coming off revision #5968657475457 for book #3 and returning to book #4 (the one giving me hives because of the timeline), I took a step back and asked myself, Well, why CAN’T I write this forward? What’s stopping me but me?


Yes, it sounds so simple. It IS so simple. But my brain and heart had to meet up, apparently, and be like OK, WE CAN DO THIS. We CAN write this story in chronological order. Because, WHY NOT?

And so now I’m licking my lips with anticipation, my fingers twitching over the keyboard, the ideas tumbling out. And I’m outlining. Holy crap a real honest-to-goodness outline. (I think the outline is proving easier this time around since the story is going in order…it’s hard for me to write an outline when time warping.)

Essentially, I just keep asking myself one question: So then what happened? And bird by bird, just like Anne Lamott promised, it’s coming together.

I share this only to remind my fellow scribes (and to show readers my ridiculous process) that sometimes you need to stop and question why you can’t write something a certain way. Too often, we writers get caught up in so-called rules (e.g. don’t write in present tense, don’t write in second person, don’t open with weather, don’t kill your main character) that we accept them without question. And sometimes these “rules” come from our own heads.

Stop. Drop. And question. Always question. Try breaking one of the rules and see how it feels.

For #TBT, I’m digging into the radio archives. When I was a pup and still finding my voice, I worked for a Boston radio station as the producer of a morning show. This picture is from 1995-ish. I’m in the green. Next to me: morning show host Gary Dickson, the incredibly talented Moneen Daley Harte, and, yes, Tony Randall (google him, kids).


One of my many tasks included editing down long interviews (think 10 to 15 minutes) to 90 seconds. This was the best instruction a future writer could ever get on the subject of revision. My boss, Don Kelley, would remind me whenever I was whining that I couldn’t possibly cut out one more thing (because it was SO IMPORTANT) that only I would know what I cut…the audience wouldn’t. My job was to stitch together a pithy and fast moving story.

The lesson served me well. I now love revising and “killing my darlings,” all in an effort to create the most compelling story possible.

All that said, I know revision can be challenging for some writers, especially major developmental revisions (we’re talking story gutting, not tidying up prose).

So I thought I’d share my revision tips for the Big, Hairy Revision Monster most writers encounter at some point. (Yes, even those careful plotters with outlines — the Big Hairy Revision Monster doesn’t discriminate.) Use what makes sense, reject what doesn’t, and figure out what works best for you.

1. Walk away. This isn’t a revelation. Probably every book on the writing craft talks about shelving a piece for a series of days, weeks, months, even years. Time brings perspective. This is probably the hardest tip (even for me) because when writers finish a story, the temptation is to share it RIGHT AWAY, which makes sense.

Most writers I know WANT readers. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with sharing your work-in-progress with some trusted readers to get feedback. The problem is when you send it out prematurely to EVERYONE. Meaning, you self-publish it too soon or you query that agent before it’s ready.

Put the bloody thing away and let the wounds heal. Then, go back and re-read it with a fresh and ruthless eye. If you still think it’s ready, OK. But more often than not (if you’re being true to yourself and the story), you’ll see some stuff that needs fixing. It might be minor stuff. It might be major stuff. Either way, fix it.

2. Do something drastic. When a piece is NOT working, I’ll often do something drastic, like start over. I’ve tossed completed, polished 100,000-word manuscripts out the window and started anew. (And I’ve not regretted it yet.) Or I might just “play” a little with an idea. Write a scene from another character’s POV or try a scene in third person instead of first or draft a chapter in present tense as opposed to past, just to see how it feels. Often, I’ll abandon these writing exercises, but the exercise is enough to get me going again. And sometimes the exercise leads to a major breakthrough.

3. Do something even more drastic. The drastic stuff I referenced above has to do with the way you’re telling the story (e.g. past tense or present tense). But sometimes what you need to do is completely turn the story itself (I’m talking plot) upside down and inside out.

What I’ll do is ask myself crazy what-if questions. Like, what if the good guy is really the bad guy? How would that affect this story? Or what if this person isn’t really dead…what then? These questions are enough to make a writer want to puke because once you start going down this rabbit hole, you see how incredibly involved and painful it would be to not only start over, but also start over with a completely different story. But sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do.

4. Start something else. When you walk away, depending on how long you walk away for, you might turn to something else — another idea that’s been nipping at the edges of your brain. And that’s great! You work on this new idea for a few days or weeks or whatever and then you return to your work-in-progress.

5. Seek out some trusted guidance. Another challenge facing writers is finding people who can provide constructive feedback that compels you to move forward instead of crushing you like a cockroach on peeling linoleum.

Working with a developmental editor can be beneficial, provided you find someone who is a good match (and provided you have the funds — they’re not cheap). Critique groups can potentially be a good source (I say “potentially” because not all critique groups are created equal). It’s hard to have friends, family, or lovers read your work and provide constructive feedback. Whenever possible, I recommend seeking an objective third party who understands story structure, style, and voice. (Again, this will cost money, but it’s worth it…and can save friendships and marriages.)

6. Embrace the mess. There’s no such thing as “neat revising.” Yes, the result — the revision itself — might appear seamless and neat, but to get there? MESSY. Don’t try to fight the mess. (I know this can be hard.)

7. Give up. Don’t give up. The choice is yours. OK, if you’re under contract, you might have no choice but to face the Big Hairy Revision Monster (and even then, there are options). It’s easy for me to say don’t give up, but sometimes giving up IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU NEED TO DO.

If you’re a “real” writer (and I hate saying that, but it’s true in this case), you won’t let the Big Hairy Revision Monster scare you away from writing forever. You’ll start something else, like I suggested in #4, or you’ll take a break from writing for a bit and do something else. And maybe you’ll even come back to the thing you had to abandon…or maybe you won’t. Either is OK. Giving up on a story isn’t necessarily a sign of defeat. Sometimes it’s the wisest move you can make.

I’ve faced many Big Hairy Revision Monsters, and I imagine you have as well. There are more out there, no doubt. Wishing you much luck. Go get ’em.

And if I ever start a band, I’m going to call it “RB & the Big Hairy Revision Monsters.” 🙂

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. — Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve tried explaining this before, but I wasn’t sure if I was alone in my feelings. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon this quote from Le Guin that I realized she feels it and, no doubt, other creative types do as well.

A story isn’t complete until people experience it. I’ll take Le Guin’s quote further and say it’s not just written stories, but also stage plays, screenplays, poems, paintings.

This is why it’s so important to me to share my writing with the world. It’s not about chasing money or fame or awards or anything like that. (Although all those things can certainly sweeten the deal, and the money aspect is necessary if you want to make a living from your art.)

It’s about chasing readers. I want people to read my work, to experience my work. And if they feel inspired to do something more with my work — review it (good or bad), share it with others, discuss it in a book club or classroom, turn it into a film, create fan art, whatever — that’s when the art I’ve created becomes fully alive, something completely separate from me. That’s magic.

Whenever I fall in love with characters on a new-to-me TV show, I always turn to YouTube for mashups, and I’m never disappointed. All I have to do is search on things like “Holder and Linden” (from The Killing) or “Frank and Claire” (from House of Cards) or “Virginia and Bill” (from Masters of Sex) or “Nancy and Andy” (from Weeds) or “Deb and Lundy” (from Dexter) and I’ll find videos created by fans that extend the story of these characters, celebrate the story, share the story. (If you work in TV, you know your show has truly arrived when these mashups start showing up.)

Fan fiction works the same way. People become so enamored by a world an author has created that the fan writes more about the world. The art continues — it goes on and on.

I think that’s the coolest thing. It doesn’t get any better than that.

I watched Breaking Bad for the first time last fall and wrote a detailed blog post on character motivation, or the lack thereof for Walter White, the show’s main character. You can read it here.

Here’s the gist: While I enjoyed Breaking Bad overall, the lacking backstories for the show’s main characters sometimes left me questioning their decisions.

For me, character motivation is everything, especially in fiction (and more so in books than TV; I can be more forgiving of TV, like I was with Breaking Bad; more as to why I feel this way in a second).

Character motivation can make or break a story. If the character does something that doesn’t make sense to that character based on what we, as the reader, have come to know about the character, it can leave the reader questioning whether he or she should trust the story (and, as a result, the author).

This doesn’t mean characters can’t surprise us (just as people do in real life). But if all the character ever does is surprise the reader and do things over and over that are completely out of character, this *usually* indicates the author doesn’t have a strong grip of her character’s backstory OR that the character she originally presented to readers isn’t necessarily the character she was striving to create. Nothing foils a story faster than an inconsistent character.

I see this a lot with early drafts — my own as well as my fellow writer scribes’ works-in-progress. In those early drafts, we’re getting to know our characters: who they are now; who they were as kids; who they were five, ten, twenty years ago; who they want to be. Our histories shape us in real life, and our characters’ histories should influence who they become on the page.

As fiction writers, we must address and fix inconsistent character issues from early drafts to final drafts, simply because we have time. Showrunners don’t have that luxury. 

To understand what I mean, think about the differences between novel writing and TV writing. A novelist writes a complete book. By the time the book is published, provided the author and editors have done their jobs well, the characters are fully formed and developed. The author especially knows her characters inside and out, right down to things like childhood traumas, flaws (and their origins), dreams and ambitions (and their origins as well).

When showrunners come up with an idea for a show and write the pilot, that’s often as far as they get with the story in terms of understanding the characters. Sure, they might have some hazy knowledge about the characters and the world the characters inhabit, but what they don’t know is if they’re going to get the opportunity to tell the full story. They produce a pilot, a network might order up a bunch of episodes based on the strength of the pilot, and they build from there. And if they don’t get the green light, they have to move on to other stories, other characters. (Yes, there are exceptions regarding this process. But I’m talking in general.) To wit: Showrunner Vince Gilligan revealed in this interview that he didn’t start getting a feel for Walter White’s character and backstory until the fourth season.

This brings me to Better Call Saul, the prequel to Breaking Bad. For those not familiar with Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman is the shyster lawyer who represents criminals and ambulance chasers. He runs stereotypical bad TV ads (that’s where the “Better Call Saul” tagline comes into play). In fact, Saul effectively lives up to every stereotype you can think of when you hear the words “shady lawyer.”

During one episode of Breaking Bad, viewers learn that Saul Goodman wasn’t always Saul Goodman. He used to be Jimmy McGill. We don’t learn much more than that, which left a wonderful prequel opportunity that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould ran with when they created Better Call Saul.

Better Call Saul is a wonderful journey through deep backstory development. Essentially, we know how things played out for Saul Goodman at the end of Breaking Bad. What we didn’t know is how he got from Jimmy McGill to the Saul Goodman we saw in the final episodes of Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul is a slow dance. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching. Well, that’s not true. I expected that the journey to the Saul Goodman we got to know in Breaking Bad would happen much sooner. But it didn’t.

From a craft perspective, I love that Gilligan and Gould are taking their time revealing this wonderful portrait of a man who’s on this path to Shady Lawyerville, including how he ends up on this path and how he desperately tries to get off this path. The journey down this path doesn’t happen overnight (just like in real life). Instead, viewers learn Jimmy McGill’s backstory over ten episodes, backstory rich with details, nuance, and the occasional red herring. Jimmy McGill becomes a wholly formed character and utterly human in the process.

As fiction writers, it’s our responsibility to understand our main characters (and even minor characters) as deeply as Gilligan and Gould know Saul. This doesn’t mean all of those stories and details will make it into your novel. In fact, most of them won’t. But if you, as the writer, know each character’s backstory, you’ll be able to create a much more fully developed and believable character. You won’t leave readers questioning their motivations.

This doesn’t mean readers will agree or condone characters’ bad choices, but if the reader can understand why the character is making the choice, the reader will happily go along for the ride (yes, provided everything else like pacing, storyline, and so forth are buttoned up as well, but that’s a post for another day).

Start with character. It drives everything else. Don’t be afraid to go back and change things from the beginning — even scenes and details you love — if they don’t adequately reflect the full-grown character you have at the end of your story. Your readers will thank you.

Check out the reviews on almost any book, and you’ll quickly see a pattern emerge: all the 5-star reviews read eerily similar. Ditto for the 1-star reviews. The 5-star reviews will often have lines like “I couldn’t put it down” or “I was pleasantly surprised” or “I loved this book.”

One-star reviews are famous for saying things like “Don’t waste your time and money” and “I won’t be reading anything by this writer again” and “I don’t understand all the glowing 5-star reviews.” (To see what I mean, check out two books that have over 38,000 reviews each: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins.)

The most revealing reviews tend to fall in the middle: those well-written, thoughtful 2- and 3-star reviews. When I’m considering a book, those are the reviews I tend to focus on.

As a writer, I don’t stress over reviews — at least, not too much. I know my books aren’t for everyone. In fact, there’s no such thing as a “universal book” that everyone on the planet can agree to love. And that’s OK. More than OK. I always tell people if they don’t like a book, I guarantee there’s a book out there that they WILL love and to go find that book. 

The danger is when people who hate a book for whatever reason get so caught up in their hate for the book that they can’t get past it. When that hate turns into a so-called righteous cause where they insist no one else should read the book, that’s a problem. These folks should go find a book that makes them happy and brings them joy. Wouldn’t life be so much better for everyone?

Today (Feb 12) is Judy Blume’s birthday. She’s one of my all-time favorite writers, a true ROCK STAR of the writing world. (Tiger Eyes is still one of my favorite books; I probably first read it when I was 11 or 12.) Blume has had her share of critics over the years (and back in the day, her books caused controversies). I love her quote below.

“Something will be offensive to someone

Rock on, Judy. And rock on, readers and writers alike. Write the books you love; read the books you love.

It’s no secret that many creative types talk about walking inspiration — the magic that occurs during daily jaunts.

I love going for walks (it’s my main form of exercise). For some time, I’d trek around my huge apartment complex (four loops is just shy of two miles). I’d always find interesting things on my walk and post these these daily finds to Facebook. See the image below of CDs seemingly scattered in the wind.


Here’s another shot of a table sitting in a small wooded area dividing the parking lot and main thoroughfare.

table in woods

This past summer, I took my morning constitutionals around Callahan State Park, a lovely area about ten minutes away from me. Here’s a shot.

eagle pond

And here’s another:

purple road

Since the fall, however, I’ve taken to walking this long-ass hallway outside my apartment. (Due to issues with vertigo that began plaguing me at the end of the summer…I couldn’t drive for a while and was stuck at home.) It’s like the hallway from the movie The Shining. Minus the dead twins, of course.


But here’s the BIG surprise. I’ve done my most productive writing while traipsing up and down this hallway for 30 to 40 minutes at a stretch. Much more so than when I walk outside. Why is this? I think when I walk outside, I’m like that dog from the movie Up who gets distracted every time he sees a squirrel. But here in this nondescript hallway, I can think, since it’s just one brown door after another along a boring olive green print carpet.

It’s also convenient. As a writer, I spend too many hours sitting on my butt in front of my PC. But popping out into my hallway is EASY. It’s the perfect temperature, I don’t have to dodge cars and dog poop, and I can do it whenever.

I occasionally bump into neighbors. They’re getting used to seeing the strange chick who walks back and forth mumbling to herself. Yes, I’m THAT person. But I figure it’s better if they think I’m a little crazy. 😉 I always say hello with a cheerful smile.

Where do you work best?