Breaking a Law of Writing


Stuff I don’t know how to use #424.

“I didn’t know you were a drummer!” said my agent. She’d just finished my manuscript about a middle-school girl drummer who starts a rock band.

“I’m not,” I said. “At all.” Fact is, I lack both coordination and rhythm–things that are kind of important for drummers.

So what was I doing writing a book about a drummer? Isn’t “write what you know” one of the unbreakable laws of writing?

Nope. Continue reading ‘Breaking a Law of Writing’

Four Things Public Speakers Can Do, But Writers Can’t

Less scary than a blank piece of paper? (photo from

For a short while in my teaching career, I taught public speaking in addition to teaching writing. I loved teaching public speaking, mainly because the students seemed to take it so much more seriously than they did writing instruction. Most kids are perfectly willing to slap some words on a piece of paper in study hall seconds before a writing assignment is due and think nothing of it–after all, who cares if the teacher is impressed? But it’s an entirely different matter to present ideas that are unorganized and ill-conceived to an entire room of one’s peers. I found that the students who took public speaking took all the instruction about getting attention, staying focused and organized, and using relevant examples to heart and were better writers because of it. Good public speaking skills translate into good writing skills. But there are some things public speakers can do that writers typically should not. (Note: The list below does not apply to technical writing, where all bets are off when it comes to style.) Continue reading ‘Four Things Public Speakers Can Do, But Writers Can’t’

In Which I Juxtapose a Metal Power Ballad and Writing Instruction

Remember the 80s hair band Cinderella? Sure you do. Their lead singer had that awesome screeching voice and everything they did was so marvelously loud. They rocked! And do you also remember when all the metal bands went through the power ballad phase and Cinderella sang that one about writing called, “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)”?

OK, that song wasn’t really about writing. But it could’ve been. Because that’s the song that has been playing on repeat in my head the past few weeks as I search for old copies of Writing! magazine. Continue reading ‘In Which I Juxtapose a Metal Power Ballad and Writing Instruction’

Harold Bloom Was Really Talking about Alice

In college, I had to read a scholarly work called The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. The gist of it was this: poets need to read other poets, but how do you make sure that you don’t wind up sounding like them and thus lose your own voice? I always thought Bloom’s argument was spot on, probably because all through college and my early twenties, I was doing some very bad JD Salinger writer-karaoke.  Shortly thereafter, I immersed myself in so much Faulkner that I could barely carry on a normal conversation without sounding like I’d just ridden into town from Yoknapatawpha County. Continue reading ‘Harold Bloom Was Really Talking about Alice’

Getting to Know Villains


Today I’m blogging about creating complex villains because as a professional writer, I am an expert on the subject. Ha! Quite the opposite. I chose this topic because it’s super hard and I’m trying to learn more about it myself. I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll share with you what I’ve picked up, and maybe you can offer me some tips, too. Yay, teamwork! Continue reading ‘Getting to Know Villains’

What Kind of Name is Regina George?

I was thinking about doing a blog post on naming characters, and in said post, I was going to discuss how important it is to choose suitable character names that don’t date the writer. Like, for example, if you’re writing a contemporary teen fiction, you probably don’t want to have characters named Debbie, Cindy, or Judy, because when is the last time you met a girl in this generation with one of those names? They’ve just fallen out of fashion. I started teaching in the early 90s, and of all the students I’ve ever taught (and as Billy Collins pointed out in one of his poems I love, there have been enough to populate a small town), I don’t recall ever teaching a Debbie, Cindy, or Judy.  (Lots of Madisons, Taylors, Jordans, and Morgans, though.)

But when I started thinking of this blog post, it occurred to me that one of the most successful teen girl movies ever has an anachronistic main character name: Regina George in Mean Girls. Regina? Really? Does she hang around with Deloris and Betty? Teen girls today just aren’t typically Reginas. So why Regina when that name is so dated? Continue reading ‘What Kind of Name is Regina George?’

To Be or Not to Be…Groovy?


I love young people. I love how their future stretches out before them, waiting for choices to be made and adventures to be had. I love their fresh way of looking at the world. I love how, whether they are conscious of it or not, they’re trying on new personas like clothes, trying to find the right fit, until something suits them and just works. And I love how their language parallels all of this–how their use of words evolves and grows and adapts in a ceaseless process of fitting into the fluidity of their lives.

As writers for a young audience, dare we try to keep pace? Continue reading ‘To Be or Not to Be…Groovy?’

Are You Thankful for Rejections?

Maybe it’s because the holiday season is winding down, but all the goodwill and gratitude of the past couple of months got me thinking how thankful I am for good rejections.

Sounds crazy, I know. Writers don’t want to be rejected. We want to be told our work is brilliant and breathtaking. But sometimes, it’s just not. And I really appreciate editors who will tell me so.

If you’re a writer and you’re depressed about rejections, I urge you to take another look at them with appreciation. Think of it this way:

Editors don’t owe you anything. Granted, if your agent is well-connected and/or someone they like, editors will try to be diplomatic when saying no to your work. But the fact is, anything you get beyond a polite “thanks for the opportunity to review this manuscript; however…” is a gift. Editors are not obligated to explain WHY your manuscript didn’t work for them. They’re just not. Period. But the awesome thing about some of these editors is that THEY MAY DO IT ANYWAY.

I recently got a long, thoughtful rejection from an editor at a highly prestigious publishing house. He went into great detail about what wasn’t working in my manuscript. I felt humbled that he took the time not only to give my work such a careful read, but also to offer such helpful feedback. One of his suggestions was so good–so why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?-of-course-that’s-the-way-to-go!–that I implemented it immediately. He didn’t have to help me out like that, but I’m grateful that he did.

That’s what I love about writing: there’s always so much more to learn. And I’m thankful for editors who don’t have to teach me but do it anyway.





What’s Your Point of View?


I had this amazing English teacher in high school. Her name was Dorothy Ward. I wish I knew where she is now so that I could call her up and tell her she was awesome. Anyway, Mrs. Ward once gave us an assignment to retell the story of Rip Van Winkle  from his wife’s perspective. Maybe she wouldn’t have nagged him all the time if he’d quit sleeping all day while she did all the work…maybe Rip was just a lazy bum…maybe Mrs. Van Winkle had gotten a bad rap all these years. This assignment–with just about any story–is a fun and highly instructive exercise for writing classes, and I highly recommend it to teachers who want to get across the importance of point of view in a cool way.

For fiction writers, point of view is a little more tricky. Not only do you have to decide who will be your POV character, you also have to decide whether you’re going to tell the story in first or third person, or just have an omniscient third-person narrator. (I’d say it’s probably a good idea not to attempt second person unless you’re writing one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, which, btw, I loved as a kid…but I digress.)

So, how do you know when to use which method? The answer is…I don’t really know. That’s the funny thing about writing–it’s an art, not a science. Sometimes you just have to try something and see if it works and if it doesn’t, go back and try something else. Not the most expedient of methods, but there you are. I can, however, offer a few things to think about when deciding whether to go with first or third. I wish I could remember where I picked up these nuggets of advice, but I’ve been tucking these hints away for so many years now that I’ve lost track. In any case, here they are…. Continue reading ‘What’s Your Point of View?’

What Writers Have in Common with Mick Jagger

No, it’s not the moves. It’s not the legions of screaming fans (well, unless maybe your name is JK or Suzanne or Stephen). It’s this: much like Mick, writers cain’t get no satisfaction. How do I know? ‘Cause I’ve tried…and I’ve triiiiied.

Many years ago, I saw my name in print on a byline for the first time. It was a regional magazine, and they paid me a whole $35.00 for an essay I wrote. I was thrilled. I even made a color copy of the check so I could keep it forever. It’s…somewhere.

After that, I started wondering if I could get a byline in a national magazine. Then I’ll really be a writer, I thought. So I did. And it was an awesome feeling. For a little while.

Then, I thought, if I could just get my own column…now that would be something. So I did, and I was beyond thrilled. But then I thought…if I could just publish a novel….

Then I thought, what if I could get a fiction series? And one day I asked myself, Woman, are you ever going to be satisfied?! And the answer was no.

I wondered if I just suffered from a personality problem. Maybe I was just a malcontent. So I asked other writers if they felt the same way. And guess what? They do. Here are the results of my informal poll…the thoughts of a highly eclectic group of successful writers I know who chimed in on the subject: Continue reading ‘What Writers Have in Common with Mick Jagger’