Sunday, December 12, 2010

New Intersession Course on Writing the Human in Science Fiction

For the Johns Hopkins Intersession, I'll be teaching a course on how to write believable human characters in the fantastical worlds of science fiction.  Through workshops and readings, we'll address questions of how to develop a realistic and believable character who inhabit worlds that may involve aliens, time travel, and intelligent robots.  As we do so, we'll be examining issues of how the physical form affects the spiritual and mental identity of the individual, gender and sexuality, and memory versus reality.

If you'd like to learn more about this course, take a look at our course website:  If you've already registered for the course, you can go ahead to the User Login to set up your profile on the assignments homepage.  You should have received the enrollment key via e-mail from ISIS.  If you haven't, please Contact Me so I can forward that on to you.  Be sure to include your full name in the online form so I can confirm your enrollment with ISIS.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NaNoWriMo 2010 - Interactive Writing

So I've been long wondering how best to use social networking tools to drive traffic to my website.  And it's hard.  As you can see, I've been busy lately, so I haven't been putting in as much work on the website lately.  But with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) just around the corner, I believe I've found a way to incorporate writing, social networking, and website development into one exciting project: Dragons Vs. Machine Guns.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Does My Head Look Big In This by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah is one of the most entertaining books I've read this year.  It starts with a simple premise: a young Muslim Palestinian-Australian high school student decides (while watching Friends) that she will begin wearing her hijab full-time.  And from there, Abdel-Fattah takes on all the trials and tribulations of high school: test prep stress, racism, dating, choosing not to date, weight, running away - even pimples.  And not only does she cast these disasters in the appropriate context of "this is the end of my world!" of teenage angst, but she makes it fun and engaging.  As a writer, I was particularly impressed by the delicate use of voice - it's a rich cast of characters, each one unique, and each one revealed with both humanity and interest.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Revision: Realizing the Full Potential of the Story

Revising a short story can be both challenging and rewarding. In a way, you have a lot more control once you've completed the first draft - our goal is to make the most of that control in order to refine the story.  Here's a look at how my approach to revision has changed over time.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

June 9, 2010 Newsletter - Short Story Workshop Starts Friday

In our latest Creative Writing Newsletter, read about the Short Story Workshop coming up this Friday and the encore of Freewriting Across Genres coming on June 25.  If you would like to register for either of these courses, visit our Online Registration Page.

Also, you don't want to miss our Online Workshop Survey.  With just a few clicks of the mouse, you can help us determine which classes to add to our roster over next couple months.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Freewriting Across Genres is Off to a Good Start

I'm very pleased to announce the start to our summer workshops with Freewriting Across Genres, which began yesterday.  To give an idea of the scope and direction of the course, here's a selection from the teaching material...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How to Write a Novel in Three Easy Steps

There are really three steps to writing a novel: begin, persevere, and revise.  Once you master these three steps, the rest of the work - the entire novel itself, actually - will literally complete itself.

But then only three easy steps?  Is it really that simple to write a novel?  The answer, dear reader, is yes.  And at the same time it's no...

Monday, May 31, 2010

May 31, 2010 Newsletter - Free Workshops Start Friday

Happy Memorial Day!  In Today's 1-2-Writing Newsletter, read about our upcoming Freewriting and Short Story Workshops (both of which are free of charge).  Also, we have an extensive list of book picks and links to websites that offer feedback for your creative writing.  (for a complete list of recent newsletters, you can visit our iContact Community Page.

Scribophile: A fun approach to writing

Looking for a community to develop your writing? Want a place that gives solid constructive feedback? Perhaps you are a budding writer, looking to hone your skills? Today, we’ll take a look at the community known as Scribophile.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Roxana Saberi's Memoir of Captivity in Iran

Roxana Saberi's Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran chronicles her experiences as a prisoner in Iran's Evin Prison.

For me, it's very hard to imagine what she went through.  She was imprisoned for over a hundred days, and during that time she was often told that they would keep her locked up for ten years.   Roxana's Interview on the Tavis Smiley Show gives an idea of just how difficult it must have been, and yet it also shows the poise and reflection of someone who is braver than she herself would ever admit.

For more information, see Roxana's Interview with Paul Morton of The Millions.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

After the Apocalypse - Three Books on the Third World War

Few topics offer the scope and interest of a world war.  In terms of creative and historical interest, the Second World War continues to resonate with readers today.  Simply Searching for WWII in Amazon yields nearly 45,000 book titles, and an additional 2,700 in movies and television.

Here we'll consider three books which the prospect of global war and break it down into what such a war would mean to our daily lives: War Day, End in Fire, and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers

Glimmer Train announces their Short Story Award for New Writers, deadline of May 31st:

1st place wins $1,200, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies.
2nd place: $500 and possible publication.
3rd place: $300 and possible publication.

Glimmer Train is one of the best magazines for aspiring writers to publish in.  They are always open to new talent, and they pay significant earnings for contributors and contest winners.  Because of this, competition is also fairly stiff.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Learn to Write Fiction, Poetry, and Drama with X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia

Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, Interactive Edition (9th Edition)
On the outside, it resembles a classic literature textbook - a hard cover, lots of pages, and a rich collection of stories, poems, and screenplays.  What separates this text from the others, though, are the essays on craft.  I own the 3rd Edition of Kennedy's book, and I regularly refer to it for everything from teaching meter to understanding plot.  In addition to the literary and critical essays, it offers a great selection of authors and several complete novels.  As an introduction to literature and writing, it's hard to beat this book - especially at the used-book price.  (I bought my copy for fifty cents at a used book store)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Revise Your Work with Professional Editorial Advice from Polish My Paper

Christina Davis, a grad student alum and former instructor from Case Western, has started the website Polish My Paper to provide revision services.  From their website, their instructors are required to have qualifications such as an MA or Ph.D. in English or a related field, teaching experience, or previous work as an editor.  I especially like the approach outlined in their philosophy: they not only provide feedback on a specific paper, but also on how to become a better writer.

Davis's website comes recommended to me by Mary Grimm, one of my former professors at Case Western and the current chair of the English Department there.  In addition to hands-on editing, you can go to their website an take a look at their Free Guide to Common Writing Errors with information on punctuation, sentence structure, writing paragraphs, rhetoric, and citations.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Are Online Writing Classes Right for You?

If you're considering online creative writing workshop but aren't sure if it's right for you, take a look at my new article on HubPages: Online Writing Workshops.  In addition, you can consider your budget, the teaching, and whether it's time for an MFA by going to the earlier blog post Choosing the Right Online Workshop.

Monday, May 10, 2010

HubPages can Boost Traffic to Your Website

As writers, marketing is (for better or for worse) one of the most important components of our financial survival.  I've heard that HubPages are an excellent way to generate quality links to your website, and they also have a social networking function which looks promising.  I've posted a hub just to your left - if you're interested, take a look and let me know what you think.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Optimizing Your Website - Search Engines and PageRank

To the previous post about Cleaning Up My Online Profile, a friend of mine asked if I could talk a bit about search engine optimization and page rank.  I've actually wanted to write a post on this for a while, but I've been reluctant because I am not an expert.  However, I have found some excellent websites to get you going.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

2008 Publication - My Brother the Hero

Publication is perhaps the highest qualification a writer can seek.  Academic degrees, military experience, and artistry with words pale in comparison to the words "I published a novel."  The closest I've come so far is a short, short story in the 8th Annual Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition (I came in tenth).

Ryan Edel on in 2003

One of my strongest qualifications as a writer has nothing at all to do with words or publishing - I was in the Army.  In fact, my military experiences will probably help future book sales far more than my academic credentials.  And my experiences were nothing special - I joined, I served, and I didn't see much in the way of combat (thankfully - not everyone is this fortunate).  But if you'd like to see how I looked back then, watch these videos of My Life as a U.S. Army Linguist.

Share Your Stories and Poems on Scribophile

For a writer, few opportunities are more precious than the opportunity to share with other writers.  On,  not only can you share your work, but you're also very likely to receive feedback and friendly support.  And, as an added bonus, you can read a selection of stories about Dagny v. Writer.

Why I Write Fiction and Not Autobiography

In 2005 - when I was first putting up a website, still deployed in Afghanistan - I thought I knew what direction my writing would take in the years ahead.  In my article "Because the Truth Hurts: Why I Write Fiction Instead of Autobiography," I tried to lay out the reasons why fiction, for me, was so much safer than works more personal.

Writing Action on Bill Henderson's TrueVoice Blog

By focusing in on the details, you can write action scenes that lock in the reader's attention.  To learn about how Little Lizzie saves the planet from schoolyard bullies, frat boys, world-devouring nanodes, and an enormous tarantula with hairy legs, take a look at my articles "Writing Action - Part 1" and "Writing Action - Part 2" on Bill Henderon's TrueVoice Blog.

Cleaning Out the Skeletons from My Online Profile

It's a fact - people check us out online. So imagine my horror today when I discovered that the "first hit" when I googled "Ryan Edel" was the neutered web page I haven't updated in over two years.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why We Must Learn to Teach

Many writers - many writing teachers, in fact - fail to realize how different writing is from effective teaching.  Teaching online in particular carries many challenges.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Diagram Your Sentences with

Do you feel confident writing complex sentences?  Or do you fear the run-on sentence?  Does the subject match the verb?  Or has a prepositional phrase somehow usurped the proper placement of adjectives?

One way to double-check a sentence is to do a quick mental diagram. Visit Grace Fleming's "How to Diagram a Sentence" on to see the correct way to break down a sentence.  Besides teaching proper syntax for a full-on diagram, reading the article will make you more aware of how each component of functions within the sentence as a whole.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

New Tax Law May Affect Small Websites and Writers

A new tax law passed with Health Care Reform may affect the way small businesses (e.g. writers starting websites which some start-up costs) do business.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Place Your Commas Inside the Quotes

Yes, you've worked in the perfect dialogue for your characters - well-versed lines packed with intensity.  But then, on the side, you have these pesky little words outside the dialogue which still need quotation marks.  Where, then, does the comma go?  Inside?  Outside?  Dropped completely?

I, too, have wondered this.  And now there's a website to answer this question for us.  Basically, if you're an American, the punctuation goes inside the quotes except in extremely rare cases.  For anyone British, however, punctuation often goes outside the quotes.

For a thorough discussion of this, visit Tim Blue's "Quotation Marks: Where do the Commas and Periods Go - And Why?"

Punctuation: the Zero Tolerance Approach with Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Do not underestimate the importance of punctuation in writing.  As Truss points out in this handy book, slight changes in punctuation can seriously affect the meaning of a sentence:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.
A woman without her man is nothing.
Note, however, that this book strictly follows British conventions for punctuation.  Although still very helpful, Americans will find a few differences between standard American usage and standard British usage.  Overall, though, the examples are entertaining, helpful, and memorable.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Connection vs Content - Social Networking and the Future of Online Learning

Web 2.0 - more than just content, it's about the connections that bring us together.  It's the integration of ideas from multiple sources. It's changing the way we interact with our friends, and it will revolutionize the way we learn.

To get an idea of just how rapid the change has been, see the Socialnomics Video on  To learn more about how this will change online education, see "The Future of Learning: LMS or SNS?" on the Connectivism Blog by George Siemens.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Writer's Idea Book by Jack Heffron

Looking on Amazon for books on writing prompts, Jack Heffron's The Writer's Idea Book came up as a source of over 400 prompts and encouraging advice.  In the reviews, Heffron's readers dubbed the book "insurance against writer's block" for "writers of any genre."  Although almost all the reviews as of today are positive (19 of 22 readers gave it 5-Stars), one reader pointed out that the prompts tended to focus on finding inspiration from everyday objects rather than the wonderful or the unexpected.  Another reader - a poet - felt that Heffron's focus on fiction is very apparent.  She writes that the prompts tend to be helpful for narrative prose, but that there's a distinct lack of poetry exercises or the kind of inspiration that helps start a poem.

Writing Prompt: Express the Forgotten Senses

This next writing exercise is meant to help bring out some of the "forgotten senses" in writing.  Often, writers focus so exclusively on the sights and the sounds of an experience that they neglect the essential senses of taste, touch, and smell...

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Unthinkable - Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley

Most fiction is really about the personal disasters of life. Conflict springs from impossible situations for which our protagonists are ill-equipped. In The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley presents the reactions of people who have faced deadly situations ranging from September 11th to stampedes at Mecca.  Interspersed among the personal stories are reports of scientific studies which cast light on the human behaviors which lead to both panic and survival.  It's a fascinating read with great insights into cultural psychology.

Paragons - Master Science Fiction Writers Ply Their Craft

Few things are more rewarding than a book about writing written by a writer.  In Paragons, we get the best of two worlds: a collection of twelve short stories written by some of the best authors in the genre coupled with craft essays in which they discuss the source of their ideas and the art of getting them on the page.  Besides providing excellent tips for writing well, the book delivers a good dose of perspective.  It shows us that all writers - even established writers - must rely on the fundamentals of storytelling as they face their own doubts about writing.

Divided into six sections, Paragons devotes individual sections to plot, character, setting, theme, point of view, and style.

Michio Kaku and Physics of the Impossible

Science requires facts.  Fiction requires speculation.  To write science fiction, you need an elegant merger of the two.

Kaku's Physics of the Impossible provides exactly the kind of reference a science fiction writer needs.  In careful scientific detail, he lays out what we know about the universe and how we might eventually build the tools and weapons that litter science fiction like so many shiny toys...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Creating an Online Writing University

It isn't often that writers will admit to learning something from lawyers, but the Solo Practice University has developed an educational network for new lawyers that I would like to adopt for new writers.  In this framework, writers would seek out writing instructors who share similar interests.  Yet unlike the Solo Practice approach, I believe that a writing website could overcome the need for membership fees by placing the writers and instructors on equal footing...

Friday, April 23, 2010

Write the Reading Experience You've Always Wanted

Everyone, it seems, wants fame.  We want success.  And success, in writing, is measured by readership.  It's measured by exposure to the greater public.  It's measured in the connections we have to other writers and also to our publishers.  Yet the root of these connections is the work itself - the writing.
Maryland Writers' Association Homepage Review

The Maryland Writers’ Association is a locally based non-profit organization that focuses on the Maryland community of writers. They are dedicated to developing this community by offering writers opportunities to improve their skills, locate agents and editors, find representation, and discover the network of professional writers in Maryland the area.

Information on the organization is available on their website, In addition, there are links available to the MWA projects.

Their schedule and information is available on their blog.

At the MWA critique groups, small, informal groups meet for constructive evaluation of creative work.

The Annual Writers’ Conference sponsored by the MWA and generally held in March in Hunt Valley, MD is an excellent means of networking with local writers, agents, and editors. Writers can schedule, for $30.00 each, short sessions to meet with agents and editors to discuss their work and potential publication. This is a great opportunity for any writers in the area. Though the deadline to register has passed for this year, the conference will most likely be held around the same time, next year.

The MWA hosts annual writing contests in the categories of novels and short works. Periodically, there are additional contests in areas including poetry, children’s writing, and play writing.

They are represented by chapters in Annapolis, Baltimore, Frederick, and Howard County and hold a monthly meeting in Towson.

Membership is $40.00 for one year of membership which extends from July 1 to June 30 of the following year.

The MWA is an excellent resource for anyone looking to become involved in the local community of writers, and for anyone interested in becoming aware of events and opportunities in the area.

1-2-Writing Workshops Online

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Try the 1-2-Writing Forums!

We're introducing a new forum to the site!  Visit to connect with other writers.  Or, if you prefer an easier link to remember, go to to be redirected.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Write Memoir with Natalie Goldberg's Old Friend from Far Away

Natalie Goldberg writes that memoir "is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged" (quoted from John Thorndike).  She sees writing as a Zen approach to expressing our deepest thoughts and developing a relationship with the mind.  Reading an interview with her (see below), I was struck by her dedication to writing as not only an art form, but as a way to deepen our inner connections.  Her latest book takes this approach to memoir, discussing how we can learn to trust our memories for the page.

Interview - Natalie Goldberg with Ascent Magazine

Natalie Goldberg Website - Workshops and Retreats

Writing Your Way to the Long Story

Writing the ten page Whole Story is, in a way, the culmination of the Introduction to Fiction and Poetry course I teach here at Hopkins.  At ten pages, we begin to cross the threshold from college essay into plot development, from simply writing a scene or revealing a character to developing the forward motion of the story.  To read about how you can write a ten page story (or start any longer work of fiction), take a look at my Writing the Whole Story article on the IFP Blog.

Choosing the Right Online Writing Workshop

A quick Google Search will quickly reveal dozens of online creative writing workshops - some free, some cheap, and some relatively expensive.  Deciding to take an online workshop can definitely help direct your writing, but it can also represent a major commitment of time and money.  Here are some aspects to consider before you sign up for a workshop.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fact vs Memoir: James Frey and A Million Little Pieces

As writers, we must ask ourselves whether we want to write about facts, or if instead we are aiming for a different level of truth.  We also have to ask which which aspects of writing we value.  Are we in this for the money?  To express our innermost thoughts?  Or simply to produce art?

I haven't read James Frey's book, but the scandal it generated was impressive.  As a writer, I am torn.  He duped millions before being exposed, but he wrote well enough to pull it off.  Do we call this impressive?  Or inexcusable?

Oprah's Response to Being Duped

The Smoking Gun Investigation: "A Million Little Lies"

Friday, April 16, 2010

Revise Your Fiction by Expanding the Details

Writers often tremble at the thought of revising a story, especially a long and complex work of fiction. But if you are working on a novel or a novella, you'll need to fill out your story with all the details and subplots necessary to present a rich experience for your readers. For advice on how to radically revise and expand a story, see "Expanding Your Fiction" on the IFP Blog.  For more examples on how to rewrite chapter openings, see "Maria Villanueva - Story Openings from Happy Ever After" or "Selonge Naita, The Martian Spy" on my Science Fiction Blog.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Interesting Idea Generators

Check out these awesome generators. They have things for names, characters, setting and more!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

April 11, 2010 Newsletter

Take a look at our Latest Creative Writing Newsletter.  In this issue, you can find tips on Writing Sonnets, writing a Symbol Piece, and using Tone with Specificity of Detail to hold the reader's interest.

Or, View All Our Newsletters on iContact.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Write Fiction with Symbolism

Want to write with Symbol?  Do you want the objects in your fiction to carry special meaning above-and-beyond the call of existence?  Then take a look at Writing the Symbol Sketch on the IFP Blog.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Specificity of Detail Will Enhance Tone and Interest

In writing, we want our details to be as specific as possible without pulling us out of the narrative.  We need to provide our readers with the sights and sounds of a place without overwhelming them with superfluous details which distract from the true beat of the story...

Hiring and Interviewing Candidates for 1-2-Writing Associates

Yes, we're expanding. And in keeping with the idea of building an open-source writing website, below I've included my 1-2-Writing Interviewer's Guide. Although I am only hiring in the Baltimore Area, my hope is to gradually expand the website geographically, too. If you are running a small business of your own - or if you're simply interested in my approach to business - please read on.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Writing the Narrative Poem

Yes, narrative is not limited to fiction - it can also be a real feature of poetry, particularly when you want to tell an event with more poetic import than is possible with a traditional short story.  To learn more, read "What is a Narrative Poem?"

Manage the Shifting Tone in Your Writing

In fiction and poetry, we often discuss this idea of "shifting tone," sometimes as if it's some kind of leprous creature to be avoided at all costs.  "The tone shifts here - it really bothered me" is a common refrain in workshops.  But this isn't to say the tone of your story should remain constant throughout - quite the contrary...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Write Your Sonnet with Rhythm and Meter

Want to impress your lover?  Looking to use one of the most time-honored poetic forms?  Need a challenge for arranging words with rhyme and meter?  Then visit these two new posts on the Introduction to Fiction and Poetry Blog:

"Sonnets: Poems of Love and Ideas"
"Writing Sonnets with Rhythm, Meter, and Proper Form" (Exercises)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Free Writing Blog Subdomains

Are you a beginning writer?  Would you like a domain name that has something cool (like your name?) and something about writing?  Read on to find out about setting up a blog at ""

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Escape from the "Ethnic" Story

In class, it came up that one of my classmates doesn't feel that her stories are necessarily ethnic, but she doesn't like the fact that readers assume her characters are white simply because they aren't explicitly Asian.  And for many American writers who do write about their ancestors, there's an assumption that every story they write is meant to convey the perspectives of an entire people (see "Foreign Correspondence" in Mark Athitakis' American Fiction Notes).

Writing Workshop Feedback - Positive, Negative, and Progressive

My classmates and I have some interesting debates about how to run a creative writing workshop, particularly when it comes to giving feedback.  To a large degree, I differ from many of my MFA classmates not only in the way I view workshop feedback, but also in the role of the workshop in the writer's (i.e. the student's) writing career...

Online Resource: Creative Writing Prompts Website

Creative Writing Prompts (.com) - it's a neat site.  If you're short on inspiration, go here and just role your mouse over the numbers.  Each number has a new and intriguing prompt - 346 in total.  And you can order your very own journaling kit via the links to the left.

Publish Your Romance Novel with Harlequin

Do you stop by the Romance Section with each visit to the bookstore?  Do you find yourself writing surreptitious stories about loves lost and found?  Are you working on a novel?  Then you may want to publish a Harlequin Romance...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

SciFi Book Pick: Armor by John Steakley

John Steakley's Armor takes the brooding male of literature, drops him on a planet filled with dust and wind and insects that give Starship Troopers a run for its money, and provides us a moving story of a man who must face loss, a disbelieving military, and his own deepest fears.

Book Pick: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

The book I Am Legend, in many ways, is more chilling than the movie. And the ending is very different - in the book, you'll learn the true source of the title.  As the back cover says, "The Last Man On Earth Is Not Alone..."

Revise by Reading Your Stories and Poems Aloud

We've all heard them - writers who get up on stage and trip over their own sentences, these long and precious lines which they've lovingly composed.  And it isn't a lack of preparation or a lack of love - it's because the sentences were written for writing rather than speaking.

Editing the MFA Thesis

Yesterday I finished editing my MFA Thesis, and it was somewhat brutal.  Don't get me wrong, I love writing - but when you have to line edit forty pages of your own work in three hours, it gets rough.  And that's after thirty pages of heavy revising the day before and another twelve pages of line-edits that morning.

Monday, March 22, 2010

For Writing Style, Read Strunk and White

Ready to be a serious writer?  Then it's time to master your style - and I don't just mean your style, the one you will use to distinguish yourself from other writers.  I mean the style that reveals your professional mastery of the writing craft.  The style that publishers will read and judge from the first page of your manuscript.  It's time to break out Style 101 with Strunk and White.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Harvard Lampoon Parodies Twilight

The Harvard Lampoon has taken aim at Twilight, and the result is pretty funny.  I just found Nightlight at Barnes and Noble last night, and the first few pages were so funny I had to buy it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

March 20 Newsletter - Character, Dialogue Tags, and Contests

The latest 1-2-Writing Newsletter is now online!  You can sit it by visiting my iContact Profile.  And if you would like to receive regular updates (about two newsletters per month), then you can Subscribe to Our RSS Feed or add your e-mail over to the right.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Writing Short Story Characters with Purpose

The saga of the MFA Thesis continues with Character Development.

The next step: developing my characters to reveal genuine motivations in the tight form of the short story.  And this can be challenging.  In order to be interesting and compelling, characters in fiction must have something at stake in the outcome of the story.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Narrative Magazine Contests for Stories and Novels

Narrative Magazine Announces their Winter 2010 Story Contest with $6,500 in prizes (deadline March 31, 2010).  Also, don't miss their Narrative Library Book Award Series, a year-round contest with awards of $25,000 to successful entries.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bridport Prize in Poetry, Fiction, and Flash Fiction

The Bridport Prize is a writing competition open to all countries, and it further offers very substantial prizes of up to £5000.  This year's judges are Zoë Heller and Michael Lasky.  Deadline: June 30, 2010.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Writing for Feedburner

Aside from writing the manuscript, the hardest thing a writer ever does is build and maintain an audience.  Now, in the Digital Age, your fans can instantly download your latest wisdom automatically.  And this is a great new feature for writers - it allows us to keep our readers coming back for more.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Consolidating Blogger Posts

So I've spent what feels like a week just trying to work out a good way to keep the blog "user-friendly" and "design-friendly."  Not that the blog would ever be entirely easy (have to give some thought to the writing, after all...)

Write to the Finish with Sean Murphy and Tania Casselle

Are you writing a novel?  Would you like to?  The award-winning authors Sean Murphy ( and Tania Casselle (
& will again be hosting their "Write to the Finish" Distance Workshop starting in April. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Write Your Idea Poem

Do you find yourself struggling to convey a thought so critical - so important, in fact - that only a poem will do?  Then go to "Writing the Idea Poem" on our IFP Blog.  There you can read about techniques used by Philip Levine, Robinson Jeffers, and Carol Ann Duffy, paying particular attention to the strengths and challenges inherent in the Idea Poem form.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dialogue Tags

"You're really want to read this Amazing Post About Dialogue Tags," he said.  "It is thoroughly entertaining."

"You said the same thing about paragliding into a swamp bog," she replied.  "Why should I listen to you?"

"Because I speak so prettily," he laughed lovingly, with the tone of one walking on air.

Read more about Dialogue Tags for Squirt Guns

Dialogue Tags for Squirt Guns

It's the sharp voice at the start of the chapter.  It's the old man saying to go west, young man - west.  It's the young woman telling off that scumbag loser who wants to go on a date.  Yes: it's dialogue.

But dialogue can't stand alone.  It requires attribution, so we know who's speaking.  And this is where dialogue tags come in: the "he said/she said" of your story.  Here are some quick tips you need to follow in order to avoid voices that sharply cut with the jagged feel of rusty nails, old men who snort out directions, and young women who shriek out rebuttals...

Organizing 1-2-Writing

It's the ultimate nightmare: Organizing One's Own Website.  Yes, terrifying.  Like trying to sort piles of lizards into matching manila folders.  Only to find that the iguanas not only crawl around between the folders after you've sorted them, but that they change colors, so you have no idea how to color code them.  Yes, it's true: I lose sleep over this.

Tabs, Layouts, and Other Organizational Crud

Have I ever mentioned that I hate paperwork?  In my world, the only rightful place for paper is lounging around in piles across my desk, iguana-like.  Seriously - who needs a paperweight when you have a black hole of paper?  And yet my website is supposed to be organized and user-friendly...So I spent a couple hours last night trying to make it just that.  And it's hard.  Forget the two hours I spent trying to match my homepage color scheme to Blogger (btw: I hate the fact that it now looks better than it ever did before.  Darn you, Google, doing everything better, prettier, and easier than I can...)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Instant Freewriting Prompt

In the Member's Area today: find Immediate Inspiration through The Power of Lists.  Or, if you'd like a more in-depth discussion of getting in the Prompt-Formulation Zone, see our Writing Prompts Blog for Listing Your Way to a Good Prompt.

"Pulse" - A Poem of the Beat of the Soul

Posted today in the Member's Area and on Facebook

It's said
that the whole of a universe

It emerges,
positive and negative, energy and matter,
from this nothing
only known as...Read More in the Member's Area

Wake Your Fictional Characters!

How do you tell your characters to wake up?  When your fiction doesn't feel caffeinated enough, use this simple trick: annoy your characters until they fight back.  Go to our Member's Area to see this technique in action with Waking Up Dagny.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hiring the Young to Save the Old

I'm thirty years old.  It finally sunk in about a month before my birthday - I'm getting old.  Or at least I'm not getting any younger.  But the entire world around me seems to lose ten years every time I look around.  Kids half my age are getting thousands of hits on YouTube videos, artists who don't remember the fall of the Berlin Wall are old enough that we can see their work beginning to mature.  And my goal is to teach people to use a seven-thousand-year-old communication technology: writing.It's a scary world, constantly changing.  And I simply can't type creative writing articles fast enough to keep up - not if I'm going to go to school full time, build a website, and market said website to all these kids who don't need a search engine in order to find writing workshop.  So I'm taking a new route: I'm hiring students to make things happen.

I feel strange, to a degree, posting this where potential job seekers might find it.  What does this say, after all?  That I'm so desperate for help that I'll write about my struggles online?  Not exactly.  It's more of an admission of the obvious - I am only one man.  I'm a single, solitary creative writer.  And I don't have ten or twenty years to wait before I "make a name" for myself just to "break even" financially.  And it's pretty clear that "making a name" will involve some kind of semi-personal contact with thousands of people.  And by semi-personal, I mean that they'll read my blog posts, they'll watch some of the videos I plan to post, or they'll enjoy some of the feedback I've written for stories they'll submit to my workshop.  But in this world, people are overwhelmed with material to read.  Somehow, as I writer, I have to convince all they people swimming through the deluge of the internet firehouse that my little drop of water is worth a second, third, or tenth look.

Hence, the need for help.  The need for younger help, help from students who grew up with this new world we've entered.  Yes, I have a new-found appreciation for Facebook - that still doesn't make me very savvy.  I'm still struggling to erect my secondary pages.  And Twitter?  I still haven't figured out how to post a Twitter Feed on my site.  I'm sure it's easy - I just haven't made it that far.
It's not necessarily the case that a college student would understand these particular tricks - it's more that the younger minds will better know how to look.  They'll be quicker.  They might not need to wade through quite as many pages of Google Search Results before finding the answer to the question.
And how do I know this will work?  Simple - it's from the way I've seen myself grow older even before I aged.  Even in college, I was ignoring the internet explosion.  Wikipedia didn't quite exist, and neither did Facebook.  Cell phones, to me, were fad, the kind of thing you carried around if you were incompetent enough to let your car break down.  Never mind that my only phone, now, is a cell phone - and I won't mention the time I hit a deer at two a.m. on an empty stretch of road.  I took on the trappings of technology with the grudging air of "I still know how to do this the old fashioned way."  Handwriting a paper, researching books at the library, laying out stacks of index cards with notes - yes, I learned how to organize paperwork in the days before laptops were cheap enough to buy.

Now, not everyone my age was like this in college, but a good number were.  A good number still are.  And then I look at the grad students who are five or ten years older than me, the ones who cannot type fast enough to outrun their own handwriting.  And then there are the faculty I've met who forward e-mails to someone else to have them forwarded to the students.  But I don't mind that much - it's my classmates who constantly forget to add people to e-mail lists who worry me, the folks my age who use "reply-all" as the only means of sending out a mass e-mail.  The faculty members, at least, recognize that they don't have time to build the lists themselves.

The problem now isn't that "the younger ones don't know how to do things the way we did them."  The problem, actually, is that we're doing things now that were simply never possible back "the way we did them."  Posting a video for thousands to watch?  Back in the day, you had to be an independent filmmaker of some means to make that happen.  Either that, or you worked for a news network, and they distributed your footage for you.  Or what about Holiday Greetings for all two hundred of your friends?  Even today I have a secret dread of Christmas cards and envelopes.  I've never sent out more than twelve in a single year - I am still racked with guilt for all the New Year's Greetings I never expressed.  And now?  Switch to BCC in your Reply All, and you've sent out more sets of good wishes in three minutes than you have in the entire rest of your life.

But this brings us around to the irony of my current project.  Back in the day - I mean back before the telephone - people used to write letters.  I mean letters.  The kind of letters that said "you've been wondering for the past month whether or not I died in that flu epidemic, and now you're going to wait and hope I reply again to prove that I still haven't died in the epidemic."  We don't have those now - at least, not often.  I have a couple hundred friends on Facebook - nearly all of them people I've personally known.  Already, in this post, I've probably written more than I've written to all of them in the past month combined.  Why express the deep flames of love when you can send a Flickr at any moment?

And yet I'm here to teach writing.  My goal is to teach others to express themselves with words in a world dominated by sound and images.  My aim is to encourage thoughtful composition in the Buzzed-Up universe of Twitter.  Aren't these goals in conflict?  This idea of using the technology of now to teach a skill of "back then"?

I don't think so.  As a writer, I believe there is a special quality in writing which the internet may never supplant.  Poems and novels - these collections of carefully-assembled words - still convey a level of meaning that can't be directed into a Flash video.  It's the compression here that matters, the presentation of thoughts so refined - so basic - that words alone are enough to convey them.  And the freedom of these words is incomparable.  Through written stories, a single individual can express lifetimes of experience without the conflict of other souls struggled for control of the camera.

But it is still hard, teaching this.  Writing might be an ancient art, but it becomes a new creation with each generation.  And with the internet as it is, we may one day need to fight to reveal just how rewarding a good story can be - not some snippets of IM conversation, but a story.  And when that day comes, we'll want to have as many authors ready as we can find.

So, in the meantime, I'll hire the folks who are most ready to live in both worlds, carrying the ancient torch of writing into the new land of electronic expression: the young.

Creative Writing Blogs Rearranged

One of the toughest parts about building a website is the changing nature of the internet.  And by changing, I mean the kind of progressive churning seen only in boiling water and the subatomic fabric of spacetime.  Hence, a new domain for my creative writing blogs.

Originally, I held to a very strict ideal - I wanted all my blogs to be hosted on my own personal site,  Now, the name is long, I'll admit - it's very search-engine friendly, though.  And there's a certain permanence to paying annual rates for an internet domain which has functional site scripts and free tech support.
So when I first took on the challenge of blogging my way to fame (still waiting for fame...), I insisted that every blog live on my own site.  First, I tried WordPress, but it never worked quite right for me.  Blogger seemed just too ordinary.  I thought a Blogger blog would doom me to a lifetime of free web service, writing blogs that would languish unnoticed on a page as flimsy and ignoble as some GeoCities mock-up (do you remember GeoCities?  So 2009...literally.)

Actually, GeoCities pages were not at all ignoble - they started the internet revolution which makes my own site possible.  The idea of free, unlimited bandwidth for websites is still incredibly new.  We take it for granted now, but that's only because technology changes so quickly that we've adjusted our own sense of time to compensate.  Ten years ago, Yahoo was trying to charge money for "premium" services to allow GeoCities residents to get more than 4 GB of bandwidth.  And now?  GeoCities is gone.

Which leaves us with a host of new online resources, each one tailored to do something that GeoCities never could: provide your domain of choice.  I picked up my first real website in Afghanistan -  It was a nice site to work on, but Yahoo didn't offer much in the way of script support, so the site couldn't expand.  It had no feedback forms, no online course software, no hope of installing a blog platform or, better still, a Member's Forum (and believe me, I tried).  This led to - my specially-chosen Search Engine Optimized creative writing domain.
And then the gods truly smiled upon the project: I discovered FTP publishing on Blogger.  Not only could I type my blogs in this easy, (relatively) hassle-free format, but I could post them on my own domain, reaping the benefits of SEO.

Little did I know how little I knew.  It turns out that blogging with Blogger means you don't have to really worry about SEO - your blog posts go straight to Google anyway, which gives you immediate search ranking.  It might not be great search ranking, but it is immediate.  Second, SEO can't save you unless other sites link to your own.  And this is tricky.  If you want a high ranking in the search engines, you need a good page rank.  And to get that, you need to convince the sites with a real page rank to recognize your piddly start-up.  And if your site isn't big enough for recognition, then your page rank won't go up much, and the vicious cycle of diminishing returns begins to gnaw on your soul.

Blogger, to a certain degree, offers a touch of security when your site is caught in the limbo between "established but not yet established."  It ensures Google recognition, which is something you can't get from WordPress alone.  And I've noticed that my Blogger blogs really do appear in search engines - they usually outperform my static pages (except for my index page - which is of course linked to all my Blogger posts).

Which means that my loyalty to Blogger - and search engine recognition - now trumps my own brand-name loyalty.  I've sold out my SEO-friendly domain in favor of something memorable and Blogger-based:

Is it the right approach?  I don't know yet.  I'm still working on so many aspects of the site that it's impossible to tell what will finally take off.  But this much I do know - the standard assumptions are always changing.  SEO, two years ago, was all the rage.  And it's still important, yes, but are keywords enough to overcome Twitter and Facebook?  What good is a wonderful video if it's not linked to YouTube?

That's right - everything changed again.  All those "dumb little services" I ignored have now become the social centers of the internet world.  Through Facebook, I've rediscovered friends I haven't seen in years.  With YouTube, I'm learning so much more about the internet than I could from just reading and guessing.  It isn't so much that the internet is changing, or even just that it's becoming more complicated - it's become better.  It's growing more sophisticated.  It really is crawling its way into our lives at every level.  And if not for this shameless desire to promote myself, I would have never realized.  I would have been left in the dust of my own "that's just a gimmick" attitude.
Oh well - I'm learning.  And so, with my prior thoughts of Technological Dominion of the Literary World stalled by my own lack of internet savvy, I depart from this post a humbled and recalcitrant man...


March 7, 2010 - Expanding the Site and the Member's Area

It's been too long in coming, but the latest Newsletter is finally here!  Read about the new look of the site, the Introduction to Fiction and Poetry Blog, and our Expanding Member's Area.  And, of course, we have new articles on Setting, Voice, and the Narrative Poem.  Click to Read More...

Happy Writing!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

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Listing Your Way to a Good Writing Prompt

Writing Prompt: Lists (20 minutes)

This exercise provides a way to find out what it is you really need to write about, the subjects and themes that are so important to you that you'd don't even realize their effect on your life.  This exercise is particularly useful for writing memoir, and it can also be adapted for poetry...

Step 1 - Choose Your Subject

To start, first choose a place, a subject, or an event.  Generally, you want to find something which you are intimately familiar with - your childhood bedroom, for example, or a memorable trip you've taken.  I recommend taking the first such idea that comes to mind, regardless of how emotional or dull it might seem - you'll find there's probably a reason it's the first thing you thought of.

Step 2 - Write Your List

Next, begin writing a list of nouns associate with this place, subject, or event.  Write continuously - don't pause to think about the nouns, just write them one-after-the-other.  You might end up repeating words, and that's perfectly all right - the goal is to keep the pen to the page.  For example, I might write about the inside of my refrigerator (it just came to mind):

soy milk
orange juice
sweet potatoes
pancake mix

It seems like a simple list, possibly a little too revealing (Mold shows up three times?  Why am I so obsessed with mold?  I don't see it in my fridge that often...)  Yet this list carries interesting meanings for me.  Normally, I don't have ketchup - I never buy ketchup.  But I have some that a friend gave me when he moved to another city, and my girlfriend loves ketchup.  I could write a story about how she also likes Thai fish sauce, and now I have a bottle of the stuff in my apartment.  Then we have the sweet potatoes, my favorite food.  It's sad when I have to throw them out because of mold.  Especially since I have to cook for myself to save money.  And saving money is part of my larger plan to become a writer - which would take me to larger topics like how I relate with my family, how I chose my apartment, and other areas of my life I wouldn't post online.  Then we come to the ham, eggs, and pancake mix.  No, there's no pancake mix in my fridge - and no eggs, either.  But breakfast is my favorite meal (particularly pancakes), and my mom simply refuses too cook messy food on the stove in the morning.  So no pancakes, and I spent much of my childhood eating eggs from the microwave - again, this leads to interesting ideas for further writing.

Step 3 - Write Like the Wind

The key to the exercise is to write quickly.  Jot down as many nouns as possible over the course of five minutes or so.  And then, once you have a good list (twenty nouns, more or less - sometimes I go with ten, other times I don't hear the muse until I hit fifty), set a timer for ten minutes.  You can go longer, if you like, but use the timer - it pushes you to write faster.

Now the fun part - writing the thoughts that come from your list.  Timer set, write what you're thinking.  Write whatever comes to mind.  Go as fast as you can, never raising the pen from the page (or never pausing your typing).  Don't worry about typos or grammar - these things can be fixed later.  The goal is just to get the thoughts out on the page, wherever they take you.  It may feel chaotic at first, but you'll find that a hidden order emerges as you write.

Step 4 - Repeat

The beauty of this exercise is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, without a specific prompt to start with.  Even if you're just waiting in line with a couple minutes, you can jot down the first five words that come to mind and then scribble away from association.  And a nice variation would be to rearrange the words into a poem.  Or, if you're primary aim is poetry, then simply write out lists of rhyming words - you'll be amazed by the associations you find.

Happy Writing!


Friday, March 5, 2010

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Expiration Date for Literature - Like Milk, Books Go Sour

First, a terrible admission: I don't read enough.  It isn't that I dislike literature on principle, it's just that it's very hard for me to find books which hold my attention.  And it's grown worse over time - it might be that I'm easily distracted, or it could just be that I don't have the patience of my younger years.  The Once and Future King, even, when I reread it, simply wasn't as riveting at 29 as it had been when I was 15.  And it's even worse when I go to the bookstore.  I might spend hours in the science fiction section (my genre of choice) and not find a single book that I really want to read, the kind of book where you're eager to invest the ten or twelve hours it might take to go through each page.
No go back a couple decades - or, tougher still, a century - to the days when books were even more wordy than they are today.  Pushing my way through Henry James is like getting a buy-one-get-one-free on root canals.  And Henry James is a great author - The Turn of the Screw is the classic example of a novel that literally thrives on deconstruction and "spook-factor."  I've read the book twice for class, and it fully deserves the literary reputation it's built over the years, just as it's earned the reputation for terrifying boredom.  I think I can safely say I'm not alone in my visceral desire to avoid reading this book.  Yet I also own three copies - again, a result of studying literature.  It's a testament to the quality of the work that professors are still assigning this work as required reading for many, many higher-level literature courses.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this loyalty many hold toward the canon of classical literature.  Anyone who's read a riveting novel - Harry Potter, for example, or The Silence of the Lambs - and then tried writing a story realizes that the styles of other authors will bleed over into your own.  You can unwittingly find yourself trying to write like J.K. Rowling or Thomas Harris, losing your own unique voice to their mastery of the language.  And this isn't entirely a bad thing - this is actually how we learn to write well.  Just as children learn to speak from hearing the spoken word, we pick up the essential techniques of writing from our reading.

The problem is that many writers end up reading too much of the wrong books.  For me, if I spent all my days reading trashy science fiction, I would eventually write only trashy novels.  And - disturbing as this declaration may be - too much great literature has the potential to pollute your writing with an obsolete style.  If you simply read The Turn of the Screw, you'll know that the book would never sell on the bestseller racks at the grocery story today - it's great literature, sure, but very few in the general public would find it worth the investment.  Yet the literary writers of today - anyone in an MFA program, for example - are reading disproportionate quantities of old-fashioned literature.  To me, it'd like trying to make science fiction movies if the only experience you've had comes from watching Star Trek's Captain Kirk "boldly go where no man has gone before."  Yes, it's crucial viewing if you want to understand the science fiction tradition, but Captain Kirk and Buck Rogers alone wouldn't be inspiration enough if you wanted to produce something as edgy and modern as Battlestar Galactica.

By reading classic literature exclusively - by ignoring the new (and unproven) novels of the past ten-to-twenty years - writers may fail to absorb the changing face of literature.  And let's face it - the novel has changed a lot over the past fifty years.  Direct, clean prose has mostly triumphed over the older, wordier narratives of Dickens and Hawthorne.  It's a reflection of the modern era.  Today's readers, racing to keep up with Facebook, Twitter, and cell phone bills simply don't have the time to slog through fifty pages of text without a clear conflict in sight.  Sure, we can argue that people should make time for "good" literature, but the great books of the past aren't competing with just the pulp racks at the supermarket - they face stiff competition from ten-dollar blockbusters and the instant gratification of YouTube.  Then we have Netflix - why spend twenty-five dollars and a hundred hours of your time to slog through six or seven classical reads when you can take in maybe fifty movies for eight bucks a month?

As modern writers, we have to be careful that we don't condemn our selves to the "classics" pile before we've even published.  Never mind that agents and editors are looking for modern material with an edge - if you want to make a living selling novels, then you'll need to attract an audience that keeps coming back.  You need to target the individuals who are harried by the stress of modern life - you need to attract them with something new enough and entertaining enough to keep them fastened to their seats, eyes glued to Amazon waiting for your next book.

This requires that we keep abreast of not just modern books, but the new language of these books.  I hate reading lines like "in my estimation" and "as a subscriber to the local magazine" in stories written by students and classmates during the past month - phrases like this may not be dead, but they're obsolete. They carry the kind of impact one gets from quoting Shakespeare over the course of a dinner date - wordy, pretentious, overdone.  Trying to attract steady readers with phrases like this is like trying to build a successful car company using Henry Ford's original assembly line - unless you're selling to a crowd that really, really likes the Model T, you'll be struggling to break even.

So as you choose your reading, make sure to throw in good books of the modern era.  Cormac McCarthy's The Road or even Stephenie Meyer's Twilight will reveal the turns-of-phrase and plotting which have held millions of readers in their seats for hours at a time.  Neither book is perfect, I know (many sentences in Twilight read like an ivy shrub - tangled and growing).  At the same time, you'll need to read authors who are not yet well known.  Nascent talents will write the literature of tomorrow, and you'll want to learn from them if you want to keep up - Syne Mitchell's science fiction is a fine example, or Evie Shockley's poetry (both are great writers who are well-known in their own right, but not yet household names).

This involves taking some risks, of course.  You may purchase books with incredible opening chapters which lead nowhere (I hate posting this link, but here's a book I wanted to return after reading it: Old Man's War.  If you want to read the more timeless classics from which John Scalzi pulled his story, check out Starship Troopers or The Forever War.)  You might end up with books you can't finish.  Or you may even pollute your writing with the ills of the modern style: misplaced colloquialisms, blunt-force metaphors, and similes which cause your liver to bleed out into your spleen like a dank moldy sponge.  But that's okay.  Because, armed with knowledge, you'll watch out for these problems in your own writing.

And, of course, because you're a writer, you'll ignore half my article and keep reading the classics anyway - as you most very well should.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Know Your Audience, Follow Publishing Guidelines

So I found out yesterday that I have to resubmit my MFA thesis with a different set of stories.  Now, before you worry, I have enough workshopped material for three more theses, so it's just a matter of picking a better set of stories.  Actually, I'm glad in a way - the material I submitted before wasn't my favorite.  But the fact that I need to resubmit shows the importance of paying close attention to submission guidelines.

According to common mythology, submission guidelines are more of a roadblock than anything else.  There is a kind of sacred merit for artistic work.  In books, movies, and conversation, we sometimes hear individuals speak of "being true to the art" as opposed to "giving in to fame" or, worse yet, "falling prey to lawyers and editors."
(At least, this is how I remember things growing up.  It's actually been a while since I've heard anyone voice this opinion.  It's possible that the economy has finally beaten the spine out of the writing community...)

However, regardless of artistic merit, any work you wish to sell must find a "home" in the publishing world.  And this can be difficult.  Or nearly impossible.  So here are some tips from a barely published writer:

1.  Guidelines, Guidelines, Guidelines
When you're sending in unsolicited work, read and follow the guidelines given by the agent or publisher.  If they ask for a two-page synopsis, don't send a twenty-page excerpt.

Now there's a bit of psychology behind why people often ignore this one.  As writers, we each like to think "I'm different.  My work is special."  And these facts are both true - all writers are different, and all stories are special.  But no one is so special that they can earn respect by ignoring simple directions.
2.  Politeness Pays
Imagine this scene: you are a thesis adviser.  One of your students has just turned in sixty pages of thesis that won't make it past the department chair.  You have to tell your student this and hope that new material can be found and submitted in time for the deadline.  Do you really have time for an argument?

Answer?  Of course not.  Now I'm not saying that writers should become "yes-men" to editors and publishers, but we need to be open to the bad news as well as the good.  Sometimes the truth hurts, and the reality pill seldom goes down easy.  But we all like to work with people who are able to adapt to change and then respond with a smile - publishers, editors, and thesis advisers are no exception.  And it's easy to forget, but our editors almost always have our best interests at heart.  My thesis adviser would very much like to see me earn my MFA - an not just graduate, but to really succeed in the program.  Agents and publishers want your books to do well - if they could write better books themselves, they would.  Instead they look for writers they can work with.

This is why early politeness and respect is so critical to being published.  Agents and editors have no idea how you'll respond to news along the lines of "fifty-seven publishers rejected your novel" or "this second half of the book?  You need to rewrite it."  But they do know that they will need to break such news to writers from time to time.  So they'll pay attention to how you react to the little things.  Something like "I'm sorry, I have to reschedule our meeting" shouldn't be met with "What?  You're my agent!  Without my book you'd be out of the job!"  Besides showing a lack of courtesy, such a response sends the message that you aren't open to change - and people who aren't open to change tend to ignore their reading public...

3.  Know Your Audience
Have you ever heard the phrase "they don't know what they should like"?  Or something along the lines of "readers just don't know anything about good writing"?  It's rare to find an author who shows such blatant disregard for his or her readers, but many authors ignore their audience in more subtle ways - and these subtle ways can be just as damaging to your popularity.
First, if someone criticizes your work, listen to what they're saying.  For example, I turned in a story to workshop last week which had the term "EMP."  Now for me, a lover of science fiction, "EMP" is short for Electromagnetic Pulse.  It's the reason Tom Cruise has to steal a mini-van after the aliens show up in War of the Worlds - it's the only car on the block that's been to the shop for a new starter.  But most of my classmates - lovers of more traditional literature - didn't know what EMP was.  And it's good now that I know - in future stories, I'll make sure to reveal what EMP is rather than assume that everyone will already know what it does.

And this is good.  It shows me an important weakness in my own writing - I tend to assume my readers already know the facts that I take for granted.  And I'll take this information to go back and write a better story.  Which brings us to...

4.  Always Write the Best Work You Can
Personally, I hate reading novels that are poorly written.  I hate it even more when a good author - a renowned author whose books I've enjoyed in the past - publishes a $24 hardcover that reads like plotless swill.  And there's a reason that book ended up on the discount racks, and there's a reason I'm still upset that I wasted six bucks to own it.  It weighs two pounds and I can't even finish reading it.  I would send it to Haiti for firewood if it was worth the postage.  (Wait, did I just promote the burning of books?  It's only because that six bucks could have bought me an iced green-tea latte with change left over.)

Nothing will turn off a reader - or a publisher - like badly written prose.  Never assume that prior success means your new books is "good enough."  The goal should always be to write a better story, to give your audience something new and improved.  And this is especially important for new writers.  If you write a story that does well in workshop, try to write a better story that will get published.  Once you're published, try to write one still better that will receive critical acclaim.  Just because that last group of readers liked your story doesn't mean any one of them would trade in a green tea latte to buy it.  And if you're going hardcover, we're talking about convincing a lot of people to give up a whole lotta lattes...

5.  Never, Never, Never Give Up
There comes a point when every writer must ask the following: "Is this my life?  Can I make a living doing this?"  Most writers, actually, must ask this question at least once every three or four months, depending on the alignment of paychecks and rent checks.

So let me tell you a little secret: you don't need to make your living as a writer.  Not today, you don't.  Working at Starbucks?  Take your complimentary green tea latte back to the keyboard.  Working as a lawyer?  Remember John Grisham.  Stuck doing laundry on your lunch break from the factory?  That didn't stop Stephen King.

Except for Christopher Paolini (author of Eragon), pretty much every published writer has held a full-time job that had nothing at all to do with writing.  I'm working on my MFA now, but before this I've worked summer jobs in medical records, spent five years in the Army, spent another six months as a bartender, and held more campus jobs than I can count.  And every time I walk into Chipotle or Starbucks, I check out their latest Help Wanted sign.  (You never know when you're gonna need a job that offers a free green tea latte with your burrito.)

Never mind that there are the English majors who don't need to earn extra money for college, or that some of them go on to grad school and then go on to teaching part time.  Sure, you might say their lives revolve around creative writing.  But they still need to publish.  They still face the same hurdles that we all face - they take those teaching jobs to pay the bills, and those jobs never pay well.  There's always another MFA grad just waiting to step in whenever someone finally gives in and moves back home.  And publishers won't publish a book because of an MFA degree from Iowa - they'll publish a book because it's good.  They might be more likely to read a manuscript from an MFA grad, but that's little more than a foot in the door.  (And no, it won't help to mail a prospective publisher a green tea latte - those things don't mail well anyway.)

So don't give up.  Keep writing.  Those black thoughts of tossing your computer out the window will pass.  Know that publication is not the most important thing in the world.  Even if you never publish a word, you can still be a very successful writer.  You can encourage your children to write.  You can run workshops at the local library.  You can even start your own website.  And always, always, always keep writing.  The "overnight success" in the publishing world usually takes ten to fifteen years hunched over the keyboard without an advance.  No, there are no guarantees in the publishing world, except this one: those who give up today cannot publish tomorrow.