Listening to Your Elders

getoffmylawn I spent the past five days in a whirlwind of speaking, transit and moderately heavy drinking…all thanks to having been invited to give four presentations in three days at two conferences in Northern Washington.

They were great cons: Write on the River in Wenatchee and the Northwest Travel Writers’ Conference in Spokane.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn I like cons. They’re a chance to talk shop and visit in a job where we spend most of our time by ourselves. They’re also a source of real inspiration as you talk to other people who are doing it right.

But my favorite part is talking with the elders. Like any other tribe, our clan of writers includes those who have gone further, done more and been around longer than me. When I can find a quiet corner and a few pints with one of these people, I do not miss the opportunity. Here are a few hints that have worked for me for making the most of these conversations. Continue reading

Getting Started as a Professional Writer? Try This

The first step in becoming a professional writer is deciding you want to be a professional writer. The second step is developing a small body of work. If you want to write fiction, you need some short stories to sell to print and online magazines. If you want to write nonfiction or ad copy, you need a few articles or blurbs to show what you can do.

I’m going to assume that, if you want to become a professional writer, you aren’t one yet. This likely means you have a regular job. Maybe a wife, kids, commute and house to take care of. You can’t devote all your time to making this happen. That’s life…but it doesn’t mean you can’t make your portfolio happen.

Try this.

On Monday of next week, sketch a simple outline of a story or article. For fiction, write a sentence or two about each character and each major part of the tale. For nonfiction, write a note describing each paragraph in your essay or copy structure, and some lines about where you’ll go for further research.

On Tuesday, write the “sketch draft.” This is the simplest written form of the story. Any time you get stuck, write in parenthesis a note about what you want to have happen and move on. “John looked into Stella’s eyes and said (something eloquent about loving her).” or “(Put actual statistic here) out of 100 Americans say they fear a terrorist strike in their local area within the next 10 years.” Get it all down.

On Wednesday, focus your efforts on filling in those parts you skipped the day before. Look up the the statistics, scan through scenes in books and movies you liked for inspiration about how to handle those tricky scenes. At the end of the day, you’ll have a working rough draft. Continue reading

Truth in Advertising

The Martian I just finished The Martian by Andy Weir. It is a great read. One of the best sci-fi stories I’ve come across in a few years.

Go read it. I’ll wait.

As I was sitting there in post-book malaise (you’ve ll been there…that period of grieving after you’ve finished a great book and you’re hurting because the relationship ended too soon) I started looking at Amazon reviews.

As of today, The Martial has 3,389 reviews. Over 2,400 of those are 4-star. Thirty-one are 1-star reviews. Let me give you a sampling of these benighted opinions:

I thought this would be about the psychological journey of someone stranded on Mars. When the other reviews mentioned it was ‘scientific’ I thought the real story would emerge through the details. But no. There’s no inner story here. It’s a technical manual.” — Some Idiot.

“I don’t know what I was expecting but the whole story was about putting things together and was way too technical for me. I could not make heads or tails out of the equipment. my husband enjoyed it. But I could not get one quarter of the way through it. I did not like the writing, it did not engage me.” — Some Other Idiot

The main character is leaving a record of his experiences, one which would presumably be discovered by other astronauts. Was it really necessary then to explain how to make water? I imagine other astronauts and scientists would know these details. Not only was this dull, it seems unnecessary in the context of the tale.” — Yet Another Idiot

Alert readers will notice a theme here. These 1-star reviewers were saying “I didn’t like this book because I don’t like this kind of book.”  It’s not uncommon in bad reviews and makes you think the reviewer is an idiot.


The book description and many of the reviews aren’t a very accurate description of the book. They lean heavily on the “Robinson Crusoe” vibe and use emotiony words like “relentless” and steadfast. They could lead a reasonable person to expect a book with a lot of psychological and emotional exploration of getting marooned on an uninhabitable planet.

In fact, the book is a technothriller with all the emotional engagement of a porno. An excellent technothriller with all the emotional engagement of a porno, but that’s what it was.

The one-star reviewers actually fell for a bait-and-switch. They had a right to be angry about it. When you’re preparing your Amazon page or back cover copy, do a better job than this. Make sure it matches the tone of your story or the facts in your book.

They’re still idiots for not liking The Martian. I freakin’ love this book. But they’re not the kind of idiot they first appeared to be.