May 16
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Last-Minute Edits

Finally, from experience I've formulated a rule of thumb:

Last-minute edits on a work that has been in progress for a long time, or a published work about to be republished, are mistakes.

Last-minute edits on a work you have very recently completed are likely to be good edits.

If one is "in the zone" of creation on a particular piece, ideas for revision rise from the same pool of thought, or, as they say, "are organic." After that work has been completed and set aside and another work commenced, that same zone simply never comes again. The author has changed or grown and can't step into the same work twice. I have longed to add a new insight to an old work, and did, and now that extra sentence in there jars me, and I am concerned that it might jar readers just as much.

One's old stories and poems can be rewritten or refurbished and turn out very well, but not if rewriting or additions take place at the last minute; say, a few hours before a contest deadline. It's like sewing a new sleeve on an old shirt. It might fit but it will be a slightly darker shade or nap or texture, and even if no one else knows, the author does. Is it too small a thing to care about? Not if you care about craft.
Apr 09
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So You Want to Publish a Children's Book

If you've already sent your children's book to several publishers and it's been rejected:

  • First, if you are sending right now, stop sending because you can't re-send the revised manuscript to publishers you've already tried. 
  • Publishers like to use their own illustrators. If your manuscript is already illustrated and you like it that way, you will probably have to self-publish.
  • If you've written the story in rhythm and rhyme, it had better be expertly done or you are better off writing plain prose.

Next, contact a professional editor. The market for children's books is extremely competitive, because the majority of the book business is adults buying books for adults, and adults tend to buy for children the books they used to love: Make Way for Ducklings, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Little House on the Prairie. Having your work professionalized and perfected gives your manuscript an edge.

An editor can give you:

  • feedback on your plot and characters and suggestions for any improvements
  • corrections of any grammatical, punctuation or spelling errors
  • feedback on rhythm, rhyme and vocabulary, and (with my master's degree in poetry) I can rewrite rhymes so they're professional quality
  • I will tell you whether the manuscripts are ready to publish or require revision
  • I will tell you whether the market is saturated with similar stories and you're better off writing some new stories more likely to sell
  • I will pinpoint the age range of your readership. You might think you have written a picture book for ages 2-5, but in fact the text might be accessible only to ages 8 and up. I once read a Wind in the Willows-type manuscript with many references to early 19th-century styles and culture that young children couldn't appreciate. The characters spoke in Hollywood-British dialect and vocabulary ("What ho! Who goes there? Show yourself, lackey!"). The book was really for adult readers who could see is cleverness.
  • advice on professional formatting, and I will format your manuscript if you want.
  • an assessment of your cover letter, if you want. If it's less than optimal I will rewrite it or make suggestions, as you choose. If you didn't send a cover letter, we can compose one of professional quality so at least your cover letter won't hold you back.
  • suggestions regarding potential publishers
Mar 24
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Fiction and Nonfiction Both Need Subplots

A good short story, personal essay, poem, or memoir captures the texture of life. The most celebrated memoirs are those which tell more than one story. For example, in Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life we read about the boy's education and conscience, but also about the bad second marriage his mother is trapped in, and how she is changing, doing things formerly out of character, like campaigning for JFK. These experiences happened during the same period. They were parallel.

Wolff could easily have written the entire memoir about his youthful self and how he learned to lie and fight. He could have written a fine memoir just about his mother's life. Either one would probably have been swell. But these in reality were intertwined, and Wolff wrote them that way.

What this appears to accomplish:

1) More accurately depicts the boy's exterior reality (events, conversations, his stepfather's behavior, friends and schooling and lessons learned)

2) More accurately depicts his interior reality. We all live more than one life at a time. In fact, at least two: the life that people can see and the one they don't. I've read (dull) stories and essays delving deep into an individual's emotional life that never indicate that this character or person has a job, or siblings, or a loan to pay off, or a best friend who isn't a dog, or a political opinion, or a goal.

Fiction and nonfiction have this in common: To capture the texture of real life, the work needs a subplot or more than one narrative thread.

You can see this on television, say, on The Simpsons, when the main story is about, for example, Homer, but a secondary story is woven in about two other characters. If you look for this, it is absolutely everywhere. That's because having two or more threads captures the texture of life.

When your creative prose seems dull or flat or thin or like "weak tea," it's usually because it has only one facet or thread. A secondary or parallel story, or "subplot," is a lot of work for the writer and requires skill. It is a large part of what makes superior fiction and creative nonfiction. You can spend years in creative-writing courses and never once hear about subplotting, or why subplotting is as basic as the "main story." I have, however, heard a poet say, "A poem should always be about two things." Poets get it.

Prose writing is a little different. After you have learned how to develop and play on one thread, attempt to add another to the piece you are working on. Don't worry about how well or poorly you do it at first. I said it's a skill and that it's not easy.

Mar 21
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Net Connections

A writer must have a reliable ISP and it helps if it's a fast one. I used to test my upload and download speeds and so should you if you suspect that your speeds are slower than they were.

My HughesNet satellite connection, although reliable, had become so slow I could do calisthenics or watch 5 minutes of TV while connecting, and there was no way it'd let both my computers work at once. This poor performance crept up on me over 3 years of service and I accepted it as the norm, the price one pays for living away from the big city. Then I heard about the Verizon JetPack. It will support up to 10 devices on the Verizon network, one of those being the ISP transmitter which uses their 4G network. They offer a two-week trial. So I got one.

Joy! It was a simple compact thing that plugged in, needed a password and then began instantly to work. Still, though. . . I live in one of Verizon's "extended service" (read "fringe") areas and I could get online within a few seconds but couldn't stream "Gangnam Style" worth a darn. I speed-tested the JetPack. In this fringe area it scored about .8 mbps. The HughesNet actually did equal or better, in its best test scoring 1.35,  but the JetPack gave me that little edge -- seconds instead of minutes to get online, especially after 5 p.m.

Now what? Back to PeoplePC and dialup? (There's no DSL out here.) I called HughesNet to cancel because the JetPack was better at firing up. But they offered me an upgrade for the same price and a 30-day trial. Installers came, and in an hour I had oh-wow downloads between 8 and 10 mbps and now can watch the nightly weather report online and get rid of my TV -- which had just begun charging $8 more a month for fewer channels. I didn't even get CNN anymore! I phoned and said, "I don't get to charge more for reduced service. Why do you?" and they trimmed $6 off my monthly bill because I complained.

Why didn't I look into all this sooner? Your ISP is a crucial tool and should make you proud. If not, you have alternatives. Seek them out; don't waste the time you could be spending on writing, editing, attending webinars, or connecting with your writing community.
Mar 18
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Four Self-Publishers to Avoid

The biggest self-publishing concerns, those most advertised on the Net, are precisely those that new authors should avoid. They exploit over-eager authors who sign contracts without reading the fine print and find out later that they might have signed away the rights to their work -- forever. Don't be so eager to see your own book in print. Make sure you're not getting the shaft. It's your book and your money and you have rights. Check everything out. Read reviews. Call their references. Believe what other authors who've published with them say. Have an editor review the contract before you sign it. Just for the record, avoid:

West Bow Press
Author House
Feb 25
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Want to Be a Brilliant Writer?

I have the answer.

Brilliance is revision and revision is brilliance.

Brilliance doesn't come in the first draft. Brilliance is accumulated over drafts.

Writers are very lucky because we can take our first drafts and over time develop and craft them. A first draft is like Adam's rib. We add the muscle, nerves, flesh, hair, and breath of life. Editors, publishers, and fellow writers help us polish the work until it shines and communicates perfectly, and keep us from making public our inevitable misjudgements and mistakes. That's why your favorite writers dazzle you. How do they do it? Revision. That's why years pass between their books.

We all want to write brilliant first drafts and be done with it. That's like wanting to climb Everest right this minute without a base camp or a team, or have a baby right now without a pregnancy. That'd be brilliant, but it's unlikely. Don't pressure yourself with the belief that you can or should write brilliantly immediately and all by yourself all the time--that you must be superhuman. That will be unproductive. Revision is very human. The humanity which soaks into the work through revision is what makes it brilliant.

Feb 14
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Ninety Thousand Words

Ninety thousand words the normal length for a novel and this is the first time I can say I've written one. Since I last wrote an entry here, I looked at my life and saw articles weren't any longer a reliable source of income or creative satisfaction. Decided that when I write my own stuff, I will write books or nothing.

This forced me to review, just three days ago, the 50,000 words of fiction that I wrote during National Novel Writing Month and haven't looked at since November 30. I was amazed by how much of the Novel-Writing-Month material was readable and usable, how good the dialogue is, how the characters (I enjoy their company!) made connections and friendships on their own, and built their own biographies. They are directing the next draft and I can barely keep up with them. Possibly it'll finish at around 120,000 words, and now I am sure I will finish it. Remember, this is the first time in my life I can say this! How about you?

The work is extremely absorbing, but one of my main tasks on earth is to help any writers who ask me, so next Saturday, Feb. 23, I teach a seminar on a subject I know well: writer's block. The University of Missouri-St. Louis Continuing Education program offers non-credit seminars on creative writing, and Feb. 23, 9 a.m. to 12 noon, the subject is writer's block. I will do my teacherly best to breathe fresh air into anxious minds using discussions, writing assignments, facts and surprises. The seminar is $65. Register by phone on weekdays only: 314-516-6950. If you yourself aren't blocked, maybe your students or friends are.
Jan 22
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"Overcoming Writer's Block" 3-Hour Workshop and More, Spring 2013

Here's my Spring 2013 teaching and workshop schedule so far, February through May. Pleased and honored to be teaching:

Spring 2013 Seminars, live at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL):
  • Saturday, February 23, 2013, 9 a.m.-12 noon, "Overcoming Writer's Block." Call it procrastination, fear of exposure, fear or rejection, fear of failure, wanting to quit: how to get past it. $65. Click here to register, or phone (314) 516-5974.
  • Saturday, May 18, 2013, 9 a.m.-12 noon, "Writing for the 'Net." Publish your work instantly. Be your own columnist. Sell your work. Establish a Web presence. Writing for the Internet is easier than normal writing, and a fun challenge. We will practice "translating" prose into internet prose. $65. Click here to register, or phone (314) 516-5974.

To register for the above short courses, please call UMSL Continuing Education at (314) 516-5974 or Register Online through the course catalog.These courses are part of "The Write Stuff" non-credit Chancellor's Certificate program in writing.

and also

Spring 2013 Online Course: Lindenwood University Graduate Online MFA Program: "Advanced Focused Nonfiction Workshop." (You need not be enrolled in the MFA program.).  Click here for information. April-June 2013, entirely online. Participants in online courses come from everywhere: Missouri, Colorado, Oklahoma and California, to name some. Half tuition for students over 60. Contact Beth Mead, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., for MFA program information and advising.

and also

  • Saturday, May 25, 2013, 11 a.m. - 1 p.m., speaking to the Saturday Writers group at the city hall in St. Peters, MO; topic TBA.
Jan 21
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Workshop Advice That Will Ruin Personal Essays

Here is what I was taught about writing descriptions in both poetry and fiction:

  • take the adjectives out
  • choose verbs carefully; "the difference between the wrong verb and the right verb is like the difference between the lightning bug and lightning" (a misquote, but it's functional)
  • never use adverbs
  • cut, cut, cut every word you don't absolutely need
  • make every word count
  • detailed descriptions are old-fashioned and slow down the story and annoy the reader
  • use short sentences and paragraphs
  • "If you write a passage that you think is particularly fine, strike it out," also expressed as "Kill your darlings"
  • be extremely economical and concise with language; the writers who did that correctly were Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson, so write like them
  • never write "very"; if you have to use "very" you have chosen the wrong adjective

In other words: Put your poetry and fiction on a strict diet and treat words like calories.

All this was very 20th-century when the style was for stripped, bony, "masculine" prose like Hemingway's, not sparkling and vivid like Fitzgerald's, although nobody pointed out that Hemingway's style was right for his subjects, hunting and war and fishing, while Fitzgerald's was right for describing romance, youth and parties.

When I came to write essays, I realized almost all of the above advice was ruinous for personal essays. I now think essays about life should have the shape and texture of life. They should be long and rich and fill pages and explore tangents and use the five senses. I revise creative nonfiction NOT by stripping the piece to the bone but adding facts and details to enrich and clarify and layer it. Not fat, but flesh. James Baldwin, whose style is sumptuous, first inspired me to write personal essays, and I noticed he makes his most careful choices when selecting adjectives rather than verbs, although if I must choose between them, I will work harder on finding a good verb.

Of course I have somebody read my drafts and tell me where I went overboard and where there isn't enough, or where I'm unclear, and then I revise until the essay makes sense to everyone who reads it. It can't be merely expressive, as some poetry is; it must make sense, and not just to me.

I still believe in not using "very."

Jan 17
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Bored With Death

The litmag editor opens her mail. She's eager to see today's nonfiction submissions:

1. The family is at Grandma's hospital bedside. A wonderful lady when she was well, now she can't speak and looks awful. The machines are beeping. Then Grandma is dead. Everyone feels terrible.

2. The pet is the best friend and companion anyone could have, a fount of unconditional love and loyalty, just like a person, and did many cute or amazing things, but then he gets sick and dies and leaves the owner only terrible emptiness.

3. The longtime friend gets breast cancer or ALS or has a stroke and bravely fights it and dies.

4. The husband, in his 70s or 80s, dies. What a good man he was, taken before his time.

5. The wastrel uncle or brother, a smoker and drinker who was never there for the narrator, is dying. It's terrible, but the narrator thinks it's important to sit with him through his last days and coma and forgive him.

Say. . . It's possible to write a good family essay or memoir that's not about somebody's death. Professor John N. Morris advised me, about poetry (but I use it for everything), "When given a choice between writing about life and death, choose life. It's much more interesting."


1. Write about Grandma's most wonderful talent.
2. Write about why you became so emotionally attached to and dependent on an animal.
3. Write about the friendship in the days long before the friend got sick.
4. Write about the husband, keep the work in a file, and wait until you read about a call for an anthology about widowhood or bereavement.
5. Write about what the brother or uncle did in life. His waywardness will make better reading than the self-conscious narrator's inner struggle at his bedside.

Consider, in honor of those you've lost: Would you prefer that your author relative write about your death -- or write about what you did and accomplished while you were living?

Jan 06
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Pumping Up Prose Style

At the last prose reading I attended, each piece was competently written in a funereal monotone that never varied or picked up its pace. Not a simile or metaphor anywhere; no sensations were described except those that came through eyes and ears; vast on talk and low on action. Very low-risk writing and deadly dull, like an electronic hum. And it was all very serious, so I know it was intended to be literary art.

Completely sterilized flatline prose, "strike out all the adjectives" prose, Ray Carver prose without Carver's timing or delicacy -- is too common. It seems to me as if the "personal style" we writers are all supposed to develop on our own won't happen anymore unless we are taught or encouraged to write memorable as well as competent prose. I wanted to say, "Hey, creative people,
  • try making up a simile to describe that "indescribable" thing!
  • Get your characters up from their tables and moving!
  • You don't have to give us every sniffle of every conversation! Paraphrase the dull stuff!
  • The other three of the five senses aren't illegal!
  • Convey a range of emotion!
  • Put in a subplot so we have two things to care about!
  • Lighten up just once, even if it's just the briefest mention of the bizarre or amusing!"
Dec 06
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11 Lessons from NaNoWriMo

As the days of November passed I actually kept writing, just a little behind the scheduled goal of 1700 words a day. And then for few days I really pounded it out for three or four hours at a shot and made the goal of 50,000 words of fiction to become a NaNoWriMo winner and veteran. Fifty thousand words is about half of a real novel manuscript. I learned:

1. Fiction writing is addictive.
2. Some days writing is better than others.
3. A piece of yourself must go into each of the characters or they are not interesting.
4. Characters really do come alive and start dictating what they want to do.
5. Can't be scared of the stratospheric numbers: word counts, pages, number of characters, number of chapters. . .
6. The great tasks of composition and revision are nothing but work. Work is all they are.
7. Those pages and pages of dialogue were the characters defining themselves.
8. Write anything; worry about it later.
9. While you're drafting, go there. Just go there.
10. Write the cliche (example: the harried, worrywart suburban mom) and then give her one of your own traits or values. Suddenly she's real.
11. The fourth dimension of any novel is its moral dimension.

Is what I wrote any good? Of course not. It's a draft. Drafts aren't good. Drafts are the first step on the way to making it good.

The time and trouble was worth it. Now I understand novelists better than before.