Archive for Writing & Submitting Tips

David Simon Gets All Richard Price

david simon

Here’s the kind of inside information that separates the truly knowledgeable insiders from the writers who just learn from Wikipedia.

In “David Simon on Baltimore’s Anguish shares amazingly detailed knowledge of the cop beat and the unwritten codes of behavior that, in years gone by, governed interactions between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”

Simon explains a concept called “humbles” when someone could spend a night in jail primarily because they stepped out of line and needed to be, in the eyes of the police, humbled. Simon isn’t defending this cultural construct, but just explaining the way it worked.

Check out this amazing bit of professional guidelines: “In some districts, if you called a Baltimore cop a motherfucker in the 80s and even earlier, that was not generally a reason to go to jail. If the cop came up to clear your corner and you’re moving off the corner, and out of the side of your mouth you call him a motherfucker, you’re not necessarily going to jail if that cop knows his business and played according to code. Everyone gets called a motherfucker, that’s within the realm of general complaint. But the word “asshole” — that’s how ornate the code was — asshole had a personal connotation. You call a cop an asshole, you’re going hard into the wagon in Baltimore.”

Here again, Simon isn’t necessarily saying this is a good thing. But what a fascinating observation. That’s the kind of insider information that distinguishes Richard Price novels.

And that’s something all writers should strive for…

Slate Says “Ignore Inspiration”


Slate has been running a series on the rituals and techniques of great artists. Today’s article, focuses on ignoring the idea of waiting for inspiration.

“Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan,” Mason Currey writes. “In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.” It’s not necessarily earth-shattering to most serious writers, but it is a useful reminder.

The people who can most obviously benefit from this type of advice are the — for lack of a better description — posers. The folks who spend all day at Starbucks with their computer open, hoping someone will ask them what they’re working on so they can spout off their lofty ideals about the muse, and art, and all that.

But even writers with a fairly dedicated routine can still benefit from the prescription to ignore inspiration. Even if you’re diligent about sitting your ass in the chair for a set number of hours a day, worrying too much about getting in the zone can lead you to bail out too quickly, to say, “It’s just not happening today.”

Get Off My Damn Lawn! Says the Internet

As many of you know, November is National Novel Writing Month. To help folks blast through their 50,000 words in 30 days, GalleyCat has been providing writing prompts, tips, and words of encouragement. Most notable is this roundup where they collected two years worth of tips into a single post.

This week, they referred to some words of wisdom from Carolyn Kellogg. It’s a simple admonition, easy to implement, and cheap. And something that all of us writers need to remember from time to time, even if we’re not trying to churn out a novel this month.

Simply go offline.

That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Here’s Kellogg’s entire post.

Jim Harrison and Admitting Ignorance

In the October issue of Outside, Tom Bissell recounts his conversation with Jim Harrison in “The Last Lion.” Bissell is the author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, and The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam. But what gives him a unique perspective for this article is that his father is a longtime friend of Jim Harrison and the iconic author visited Bissell’s home during his childhood. “Harrison came by our house for dinner, seeming less like a man to me than a force of nature with a Pancho Villa mustache,” Bissell writes.

Peppered throughout the engaging article are useful allusions and asides that aspiring authors will certainly enjoy. But a reference to authorial authority is what most caught my eye. As writers, we feel a pressure to create a world and be the ultimate overlord of that domain. We obsesses over minutiae and research the smallest details. Our voice must be the one with all the answers.

But, according to Bissell in this passage, one of the hallmarks of Jim Harrison’s work is his refusal to pretend he knows something he doesn’t.

The assumption of false authority is a useful writing trick, one I have used again and again, but maybe it’s also insidious. After all, it actually means something to know what things are called. You cannot share anything worth knowing unless you make it clear what you do not know. Harrison refuses to hide his research. If he reads a book to learn about something, the characters in his novels will invariably read the same book. It makes the stuff Harrison does know that much more striking.

It’s an interesting concept. Next time you’re headed to the computer to research the mating habits of Marabou storks or the melting point of aluminum, try being honest on the page and explain where you got that data. See how it works for you.

And definitely check out “The Last Lion.” Bissell writes movingly and admirably of Harrison’s work, providing strong sentences and passages that are perfectly at home in a discussion of the great writer.

(Photo Credit: Wyatt McSpadden)

Ten Tips for Submitting Stories

Over at The Millions, Josh Rolnick presents a great overview of helpful hints for submitting short stories to journals and magazines. Ten Things I’ve Learned Over 12 Years of Sending Out Stories provides classic, evergreen things that we should all remember.

Tip #3 the list is to shoot for the stars at the beginning of your submission process. “Make a list of the top tier journals you’d love to have your story published in, then start at the top and move down,” Rolnick writes.

I’ve always employed this exact strategy. But in addition to Rolnick’s concepts, there’s another reason to send your work to the most prestigious outlets first. In my experience, I’ve always found that those well-staffed, well-financed places (relatively speaking, they’re all cash strapped, I know) responded more quickly than the isolated, forlorn literary journal at some forgotten academic outpost. For years, the huge circulation glossies like Playboy or The New Yorker had a response time of one month. Compare that with the six months, or even a year!, that you regularly encounter at smaller publications. It might be a long shot, but give it a try. You’ll get an answer quickly and can then start moving down the list.

NPR Writing Contest, Judged by Michael Cunningham

I don’t enter many writing contests, although lots of people do so with surprising regularity. Some folks approach contests as a way of generating a name and building up a resume. I don’t follow that prescription, but I do like to sometimes use contests as an exercise, to try something a little different, and pursue stories I might normally ignore.

Today, NPR posted a brief mention of a writing contest where you have to write a 600 word story, using a predefined haunting first line and final line. The contest will be judged by author Michael Cunningham.

Seems a like a neat and tidy little exercise? Anyone out there going to enter?

Mitchell Points Out the Limits of a Writing Cliche

Novelist David Mitchell was featured on the San Francisco Chronicle’s webpage and he pointed out the limitations inherent in one of writing’s most beloved sayings:

“‘Write what you know’ will only get you so far,” Mitchell says. “You need to write what you can imagine, write what you can research about, write what you can pretend to know.”

He raises an interesting point that we should all consider in our work. While there isn’t a thing in the world wrong with only writing what you know, I believe Mitchell’s point is a good one in that we shouldn’t place artificial boundaries around our work. Or our imaginations.

Periodically take a chance with your work. Sure, maybe you’re a Raymond Carver type writer who focuses on the hard scrabble lives of coal miners. I’m not saying you need to put all your energies into a science fiction novel about purple unicorns. But don’t fence in your ambitions either.

Always remain open to where the writing process will take you, however different it may seem.

Being Humble and Hardworking While also Being a Bit Different

john 5

Most longtime readers know of my fascination with the guitar. Many of you also know that I’m working on a book about guitar players. One of the most interesting musicians I’ve encountered in a while is John 5. I’ve spent the morning listening to his new instrumental disc The Art of Malice and I’m amazed at the contrast between the man and his work.

Now, most of you aspiring authors and publishing folks out there are probably thinking, “I don’t wear psycho clown makeup and I’m not into medieval torture devices. What does this have to do with me?”

The reason I think John 5 is relevant to our subject matter here at is the way he manages to be humble and hardworking while also being noticeably different.

John is most famously associated with Marilyn Manson and his current gig in Rob Zombie’s band. That he plays pretty heavy music shouldn’t come as a shock. But he toured with K.D. Lang, recorded with Avril Lavigne, and worked with Lynard Skynard as well. And one of his biggest influences is the old seventies country music television show Hee Haw.

One of the reasons he gets such great, and diverse, gigs is that he shows up on time, knows his material, and supports the musician. Sounds simple enough. But it’s amazing how many musicians allows ego, pride, and other issues to get in the way.

As writers, we should also strive to build a reputation as being easy to work with. Make your deadlines. Do your research. Turn in clean copy. Once again, sounds simple enough. But too many aspiring authors sabotage themselves with attitude and poor work ethics.

John 5 also keeps a good separation between his work outlets. When he is recording for an artist, their needs are at the forefront. A fan asked John is he is always pushed or challenged with the work he does for other musicians. “Absolutely not,” he quickly replied. “But that’s okay. It’s their music. I’m there to support them.” But when he works on his solo projects, such as the The Art of Malice he allows himself the opportunity to pursue his passions. The record contains bits of country music, bluegrass, and even some flamenco-inspired tunes to round out the heaviness.

Once again, as writers, we can learn something from this separation. When you are writing an article for the local entertainment weekly, then you are working for them. Use their style, follow their instructions. When you sit down to work on your masterpiece, then you can indulge yourself a bit.

All of these are obvious lessons. But we all need to be reminded of them now and then. I’ve often heard editors and publishers say their jobs would be great if it weren’t for the writers. Just keep these basic qualities in mind and you’ll never be considered one of “those” guys.

Now, if you can just learn some cool makeup tips for your author photos, you’ll be all set!

Ten Rules for Writing


The Guardian in Great Britain approached a number of writers, such as Elmore Leonard, Annie Proulx, Ian Rankin, and Zadie Smith, to get ten rules of writing fiction from each. They have some interesting advice and certainly there’s something in there each of us can learn from. Check it out here.

A couple of writers advised that you can’t get any serious writing done on a computer that is connected to the internet. That’s something I’ve been thinking of doing: just unplugging for a few hours a day. Anyone else achieve good results with this strategy?

Intensely Focused Practice

talent1When we observe someone who has truly mastered their craft, whether it’s a writer, athlete, musician, or business person, we tend to assume they achieved that level of mastery through a combination of two ways:

1. They worked really, really hard.
2. They were born with some level of natural talent.

However, in Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin, the argument is made that neither of those two routes is the most effective way to achieve mastery of a subject. Instead, Colvin argues, deliberate practice is what separates the champs from the chumps.

Particularly germane to this website, Colvin uses Benjamin Franklin’s writing regimen as an example of deliberate practice. After his father suggested Franklin improve his writing skills, he enacted on the following routine:
–He took published sentences and made notes on the meaning of each one. Later, he would review those notes and try to write a sentence of his one that expressed the same points and meaning as the original. He then reviewed his versions with the published version.
–He rewrote published essays in verse, figuring that experience in poetry would enhance his vocabulary. Then, after he had forgotten the pieces, he would take the “versified” text and convert it back to prose. And he would compare his prose versions to the published version.
–On a separate slip of paper, he wrote notes on each sentence in a published essay. He then would jumble up all those scraps. Later, after he had forgotten the original essay, he would retrieve the pile of notes and try to put them in the correct order, attempt to write his own piece based on those notes, and then compare his version with the published one.

“Significantly, he did not try to become a better essay writer by sitting down and writing essays,” Colvin writes. “Instead, like a top-ranked athlete or musician, he worked over and over on those specific aspects that needed improvement.”

vaiI recently came across another example of such intensely focused practice. Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai recently gave a class and peppered his lecture with memories of “practicing just one single note for hours.” Whereas most people sit down and try to bang out “Smoke on the Water” as they learn to play guitar, Vai focused in on the smallest techniques and studied them exhaustively. Then, as he mastered each technique, he started to bolt them onto each other and string them together.

So as writers, the point that we should take away is to look at the way we go about pursuing our craft. Simple sweat, the argument goes, won’t get you there. Nor will defeatist attidues towards natural skill that allows us to shrug and say, “I don’t have what it takes to be a Faulkner.” Instead, we should break down the tasks of our writing into their smallest components and go about practicing them in a detailed and focused way. And then we should evaluate the results objectively and critically.