Tag Archives: advice for writers

One Huge Thing Authors Can Do To Improve Their Writing

open-book1I recently attended a 3 day writing retreat for children’s book writers, in a beautiful beach house on the New Jersey shore. My job was to critique manuscripts, have one-on-one meetings with the participants, and generally make myself available to hang out and talk. It was small and quite intimate and the participants were a lovely group of people. It was a very nice retreat and I truly hope I made a difference for the writers who attended.

There was one participant who stood out for me though. She was a woman who is brand new to writing. Before the retreat, when I received her manuscript, I did an internal WTF. Was the short piece she submitted for critique the beginning of a middle grade or young adult novel? Was it a picture book? What was her intention with this? With nothing but the work to go on, I made an executive decision and decided to go with picture book. But I couldn’t and didn’t want to critique it using the same criteria I used for the other manuscripts. If I did, I could very easily rip it to shreds and subsequently crush and destroy a fledgling writer. That’s just not how I roll.

I can’t tell if this author has what it takes or not to be successful. The writing is decent, but not yet kid-friendly or focused. She’s clearly at the beginning of this journey. And that’s more than ok. That’s fantastic! When talking to any of the authors, I tried to drive home that where their focus needs to be is on their work, not on “how to get my book published.” With this author, we didn’t even speak about publishing. We talked about what her intention is and why she wants to tell this particular story (which was pretty interesting, by the way). I gave her a picture book lesson, explaining some of the many different structures picture books can be written within. We spoke about looking at the world with the eyes of a child and trying to leave our adult filter off the page. I told her about picture book lay outs, and page numbers, and all that jazz. But I think the best advice I gave her, which I’d like to share with you, is this:

Read in your genre. Know what books came before you. Know what’s in bookstores right now. Read books that are successful in achieving a similar goal to what you intend to accomplish with your manuscript. Allow yourself to be inspired. Immerse yourself in reading books in your genre; swim in the water of your intention.

I wish that new author all the best of luck, as she tries on being a writer. I hope that she finds her voice and perseveres.

How much do you read within the genre in which you write?



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Guest Blogger Katherine Sparrow: On Writing What Sells

grant-writing (1)I’ve been thinking a lot lately about marketing, financial success, and sustainability in writing. Not necessarily in a “how to dominate everything” kind of way, but in the quieter way of thinking through what it means to be a writer and an artist working on her craft and telling the stories she thinks are important, and at the same time making a living at this kind of work.

On the one hand, I am and will always be a starry-eyed dreamer. I think stories can change how we live and view the world, and thus how we are in the world. And humans need to change, a lot. That’s my deepest truth about where my stories, and my drive to write and fling it out into the world, comes from.

On the other hand, I am a mom of two young kids, who is engaged in the hustle economy of trying to get the bills paid. I am a writer who has been working diligently on her craft for fifteen years, and if there’s a way I can do my writing and make money at it rather than get some other job, that would be amazing. But how do I write stories that are commercial and marketable and still write my kind of stories?

Some thoughts on how I can do that, and how you can do that, too.

  1. Be well read in your genre, so that you understand where your writing fits in, and where it doesn’t. For the past two years and counting I’ve been a juror on The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. Which means I’ve gotten to read many of the genre’s newest releases. Without this, I might not know that the multiverse is currently hot, while dystopias are not. I am not saying that one should only write toward the industry’s desires, but be educated about it. For example, in one of my (as yet unpublished) novels, there is a theme about gods living in San Francisco. I can name half a dozen other well-received young adult books recently published about gods living in the modern world. However, those are all Greek or Nordic gods, and mine has the God of the Earthquakes and the Goddess of Art, among others. So it fits in some ways and is unique in others, which I think is the sweet spot.
  1. Consider writing to a form. I love mysteries. People love mysteries. Lately I’ve been writing urban fantasy novellas that are mysteries. Now, besides them being mysteries, I also happen to be doing all kinds of other heart on my sleeve kinds of things in them, (the protagonist is a lefty who has a fondness for misunderstood monsters), but I think the fact that the stories are written within a mystery form helps the reader be grounded and take a chance on a new writer. Other forms that you might write to are: screwball comedy, romance, space opera, hero’s journey, or really any form of book that you personally love.
  1. You can love what you write, but you don’t always have to write what you love. Meaning, it is okay to not always be writing your magnum opus and to be writing something fun and/or more commercial, but never ever forget to love it. Never forget that you have a sacred pact with anyone who reads your words, and that they are giving you a piece of their finite life, so write things that are worth it.
  1. Consider writing a series. Or, write a book that starts and ends within itself, but if it’s possible, give it some extra world and breathing space so it could keep going. These days, so much of youth fiction is made up of series. I’m not sure if that holds true for adult fiction, but I figure many of the people reading this blog are YA and MG readers and writers.
  1. When all else fails, remember no one knows what the hell will sell. Does that help? Nope. But if you are bummed out and confused about how to make your way in the writerly world, throw away everything else and just write your thing, you strange little rabbit, and see what happens. For reals, all the advice above? At the bottom of it, just write.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKatherine Sparrow writes speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers as well as (very) quirky picture books. She was nominated for a 2012 Nebula Award for her novelette The Migratory Pattern of Dancers. Her short stories have been published online and in various anthologies, and you can find her contemporary Arthurian novella series, The Fay Morgan Chronicles, for sale at Amazon. A graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, Sparrow is also on the jury of the Norton Award for best young Science Fiction and Fantasy. Visit katherinesparrow.net and @Katie_H_Sparrow.


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Guest Blogger R.L. Saunders: Things That Happen to Writers (and how to deal)

free adviceDo you love writing? More than almost anything? Possibly more than Doritos and wine for dinner?
     Did you recently decide to start calling yourself a writer (out loud) after years of contemplation and writing lots and reading lots and teaching (English, maybe) and/or working in a library or book store and/or writing for newspapers and magazines and/or getting an MFA or some such writer-type behavior?
     Have you spent the last several months or years reading publishing news and writing advice?
     In the name of industry research, do you regularly cyberstalk authors, agents, and editors?
     Do you fully understand what a long shot traditional publication is, but secretly believe you’re an exception, because who knows, maybe you are?
     If so, I don’t have any specific writing advice for you. Sorry about the buildup.
     But I do want to tell you to stick it out for as long as you love it. If you love it, deeply and genuinely, keep at it even when ugly but normal things happen that nobody likes to talk about–things that make you feel like the ousted mayor of Schmucklandia because you’re too big a loser even for the town where all manner of frauds and talentless hacks go to die.
     Normal things that happen to most writers:
  •  You’ll sometimes feel like a joke nobody gets, and not because it’s a smart joke.
  •  You’ll sometimes feel embarrassed about the stupid shit you say and write while you’re learning how this publishing thing works (see: this). There’s a lot to know and it’s always changing. Forgive yourself and keep learning.
  •  You’ll feel (and be) perpetually ignored, especially at first while you’re trying to build yourself into a circle of writers you’re sure are your people. Some people you admire and were positive you’d like will turn out to be dicks. But some will turn out to be your greatest allies and writer friends. Adjust accordingly. Do not turn into a dick.
  • You’ll experience several dozen fucktons of rejection at every level.
  • There will always be people–even friends and family you love and respect–who just don’t get what you’re doing. And some won’t understand what the big deal is, even if you get an agent or a book deal or twenty book deals. Oh well. You’re not doing it for them.
Reminders for writers:
  • If you choose, over and over, to make it about the journey–about the writing–instead of about “making it” (which is a moving target anyway) you’ll be okay. You’ll be happy, even.
  • Stay humble. Keep growing.
  • So much is outside your control. Try to laugh about that at least as much as you cry. A 60:40 laugh to cry ratio seems healthy.

And remember that there’ll always, always be evil assgadgets who get something from malicious criticism of those who have the audacity to go after seemingly impossible dreams. If you die trying, you’re a thousand times braver than they are, which is probably why they hate you so much. Unless they’re paying your bills, fuckem. Do what you love.

Headshot RhondaR.L. Saunders writes young adult and middle grade fiction. She lives in Key West, where her well-received column in Key West, the Newspaper ran for five years. Saunders was Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at Northwood University, and developed and directed their writing center. You can find her online at rlsaundersauthor.com and @rl_saunders.


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