Writing Advice

I regularly receive requests for advice on writing as a career from friends, family members, former students, and even mere acquaintances. This entry is an open letter to all those so interested.

Dear Aspiring Writers:

It’s great to hear about your interest in pursuing writing as a career. If you’re really a writer, by now you know that writing fiction is not something you do because you want to; you do it because you have to. It is both your blessing and your curse.

I need to warn you that very few people are able to make their living writing fiction. The vast majority of us, me included, write as an avocation, not a vocation. Fiction writing is an incredibly competitive field full of very talented people all striving to earn the same few available spaces on bookstore shelves. The earning potential is nowhere near as plentiful as most people believe, and there are no benefits (at least of the medical/retirement kind). Again, I’d suggest that if you are going to write, do so because it brings you joy or because it provides some kind of therapeutic benefit or opens up imagined worlds better than your own lived-in one. If you are ever lucky enough to profit financially from your writing, consider yourself blessed, and do something fun with the money. You will have earned it.

 As for seeking copyright, that’s an unnecessary step, a waste of time, and sometimes part of a scam. There are many unscrupulous scavengers out there seeking to take advantage of people’s dreams. This is especially true in the publishing world. Once you write it, your work is protected under copyright law without any formal registration.

 As for self-publishing, I’ve done it both ways. My first book was published by Random House in the traditional way; whereas, for several reasons, I self-published my second book. I much prefer the former to the latter. Traditional publishing is very difficult to break into, actually nearly impossible, but it allows the writer to concentrate solely on writing rather than all of the behind-the-scenes necessities of publishing: cover art, typesetting, editing, marketing, etc. If you do choose to self-publish, know that it is very unlikely that it will ever appear on a bookstore shelf. Also know that the typical self-published book sells somewhere between 50 – 150 copies, mostly to supportive or guilt-stricken friends and family, and the vast majority of self-published books do not make money. I’ve been much more fortunate. However, remember I had already built a platform and an audience through traditional publishing. Whatever you do, if you do self-publish, hire a qualified editor (not a friend or family member) to aggressively edit your work. If you don’t, chances are that you will be embarrassed by the product you present to the public, and that is never a good thing.

 Finally, you should know that the vast majority of what I’ve written will never be published. I have written at least five full-length novels that have never been read by anyone but me and that will never exist anywhere except on my hard drive. Those novels represent thousands of hours of time spent at my computer and rummaging around my own head. That’s time that I wasn’t playing with my kids, working around the house, or romancing my wife. Point being: writing is sacrifice, both for the writer and his/her family.

 If none of this has discouraged you, then write on! You truly are a writer.

 Good Luck and Always Love,


“Say What You Need To Say”

swear words
“Nothing [is] good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

By the inclusion of the occasional “bad” word in my novels, I have willfully hamstrung my potential sales in the education market. Schools are very sensitive to parental/community overreaction to their children coming across curse words in school-assigned texts; therefore, they are reluctant to purchase books that make use of them. This is true even when the words are accurately reflective of reality. Not long ago, a local school district came under fire for teaching Walter Dean Meyer’s novel FALLEN ANGELS, a modern classic set “in country” during the Vietnam War, because the mostly-teenaged soldiers occasionally use the “F-word.” I somehow doubt those “grunts” said “Darn!” or “Fudge!” or “Poop!” very often. And when they said “Shoot,” it was in an entirely different context.

Father Flanagan, the priest who founded the Boys Town orphanage, is famous for saying, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” I’m not sure that I totally agree with Fr. Flanagan. It seems to me that some people are simply born evil, but the relationship between nature vs. nurture in personality development has nothing to do with this article. Instead, I’m going to share how I have long used Flanagan’s motto to make the similarly-contentious point that there is no such thing as a bad WORD; only words used in inappropriate environments and due to inappropriate training/example/thinking.

To begin with, I’ve never been a Grammar Nazi who corrects every double negative, incorrect use of “who” or “whom,” or the confusion between “can” and “may” or “I” and “me.” In fact, I find such people pedantic and annoying. Sure, I have a few pet peeves, but for the most part, I try not to nag. I especially believe that there is far more room for loose grammar and blue language in the spoken word than in the written one. But in either case, words are intended to facilitate communication, and as long as a speaker’s words are understood, I believe she is communicating appropriately.

“But what about curse words?” Some would ask. I believe that even curse words are appropriate in the correct environment and context. For example, despite a fairly-extensive vocabulary, I swear like a sailor when I’m with my buddies, but I don’t believe I have ever used a swear word in my mother’s company or in front of children. Another example of the contextual appropriateness of curse words occurs in movies that have been edited for television. In these the curse words have often been dubbed so that a word like “shit” becomes a garbled “shoot.” The replacement word typically doesn’t fit the situation or the character and completely ruins the scene by rendering it laughable. Even the “F-bomb” is acceptable in the proper environment. I’m thinking of that Maroon 5 song “Payphone.” In the unedited version, in utter disgust, Adam Levine sings, “One more fucking love song, I’ll be sick,” and it has punch. On the radio-friendly version, he sings, “One more stupid love song, I’ll be sick,” and it just lacks something. As an extreme example, dirty talk between the sheets would become clinical, un-sexy, and pathetic without the use of so-called curse words (I’ll let you imagine a few lines for yourself.).

The most extreme use of words that are generally deemed inappropriate for public consumption occurs when utilizing those terms that are charged with venomous disrespect for a person’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I would argue, however, that even these – more so for the writer than the speaker – can be used appropriately. The best example, of course, being Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I’ve tried to read censored versions in which the n-word (I can’t even type it; I find it so distasteful.) has been changed to “slave.” The conversion ruins the story and lessens Twain’s intended satire regarding the wrongheadedness of racism. And although I do not like the “C-word,” I watched a character in HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS use it in reference to a female rival, and it stung in a way that the “B-word” never could. As a child, I was sometimes chided for using the word “hate.” Adults would say, “Hate is a strong word.” I always thought, “Yeah, that’s why I use it.”

In my classroom, I often compare the words at a writer’s or speaker’s disposal to a handyman’s tools. Although it would be inappropriate and less effective to hammer a nail with a wrench, we wouldn’t label the wrench itself as a “bad” tool. It would simply be being used in an improper context. So don’t let the Grammar Nazis and the language prudes get to you. In the words of John Mayer, “Say What You Need to Say.”



I’ve long shared with my composition students the notion that pieces of writing are a lot like relationships in that the middle is easy; it’s skillfully getting into and out of them that’s difficult. As a novelist, if you fail to hook your reader early, odds are you never will, and if you leave them disappointed at the end, they will most likely not be interested in your next project.

Some writers are particularly good at beginnings but not so much at endings. For example, I enjoy Stephen King immensely, and there is no disputing his talents and popularity. However, there have been several of his novels that have left me very disappointed at the end. On the other hand, there are some writers whose novels slowly build momentum to exciting conclusions if you are able to slog through the tedious opening chapters. In this category, I think of many classic nineteenth and early twentieth century authors like Henry James, Dickens, Edith Wharton, and even Jane Austen.

One of the most consistent compliments I’ve received from readers of GOODNESS FALLS is that they liked the ending. Their positive response has somewhat surprised me, being that the ending of the novel isn’t particularly happy nor does it neatly wrap up the plot. To the contrary it raises more questions than it provides answers, and it requires the reader to imagine for themselves what happens next.

The happy conclusion I draw from all of this is that the majority of readers enjoy unpredictable endings that leave them pondering the story long after they’ve read the last page and that they feel somewhat cheated when the story ends in a fashion they could have imagined themselves.

W.I.P. until I R.I.P.

A Work in Progress
Authors often refer to their current project as their w.i.p. or work in progess. If you’re a writer, you have at least one. I write books a lot like I read them. I usually have at least two books going at one time; it’s the same with my novels. I almost always have one or two at differing points of completion. This system would make a lot of readers/writers crazy. It’s just what works for me. As a writer, I’m often asked about writer’s block. I think this system is one reason why I can always answer that I’ve never experienced it. If the words and ideas just aren’t flowing with one w.i.p., I can turn to another one.

Today I finished what has to be at least the fifth re-write of my current w.i.p., and tonight I’m starting what I hope will be the last. Each time, the process moves much quicker, the story gets a little tighter, the language more descriptive, and the characters more drawn out. I’d compare it to staining woodwork; it’s just a matter of putting on layers until you get the shade exactly right. For those who know better, trust me, I’ve never stained anything in my life except the front of my shirts, but you get the idea.

The other day, I was thinking about that abbreviation, w.i.p., and I thought how much the phrase “a work in progress” actually applies to me and people in general. Whenever my kids fall a bit short of our parental expectations or their own potentialities, I remind my wife that it’s okay because they are still works in progress. I also know that I am constantly “re-writing” who I am. I know that the version currently writing this blog entry won’t be around for long, as I’m still trying to deepen my stain. I always tell my students that when I see them in the future, I hope I don’t recognize them because they will have grown so much from the year I spent with them when they were seventeen or eighteen-years old. I don’t think there are many things sadder than stasis.

In his poem Ulysses, Tennyson, in the voice of Ulysses himself, says “How dull it is to pause, to make an end / To rust unburnished.” I totally agree with Tennyson. Therefore, the title of this article and one of my many philosophies on life. I hope to be a W.I.P. until I R.I.P.

Interview with PC View

One of the cooler aspects of publishing GOODNESS FALLS has been the opportunity to work with student journalists at Port Clinton High School. A few weeks back, one of my students, who is interested in pursuing a career in journalism, conducted an interview with me that appeared on the front page of the Ottawa County Register. The interview above is from the PC View television show aired locally and produced entirely by PCHS students under the direction of Mrs. Carla Pelz, who just happens to have been a student of mine in one of my very first years as a teacher.

I understand that these aren’t exactly the New York Times Book Review or the Oprah Show; however, I cherish them both dearly. If the interview has piqued your interest, you can order GOODNESS FALLS through your favorite online bookstore. A link to Amazon is provided below.

Tapping Into My Inner Adolescent Female

Recently, I found myself engrossed in a Twitter conversation about authors writing across divides, such as racial and ethnic. The oldest writing adage in the book is to “write what you know,” but if authors only write about what and whom they know, their characters and stories will all look and sound alike, and they will soon run out of material. In SO SHELLY, there’s a scene with a group of young African-Americans. I remember how difficult it was to give voice and action to those characters without perpetuating stereotypes. I so worried that my portrayal would be unintentionally offensive, but there was no way of really knowing. In GOODNESS FALLS, there are several Mexican-American characters, and once again, I hope that I have provided an accurate portrayal.

The conversation also got me to thinking about how difficult it is to write across gender and generation gaps. As a male writer of young adult fiction, it is especially difficult because I know that an overwhelming percentage of my readers will be women or teenage girls. Although, I recently came across a statistic in Publishers Weekly that fifty-five percent of readers of YA novels are adults, and I know for a fact that the majority of my readers are adults. So, imagine the difficulty for me, as a middle-aged male, of tapping into my inner adolescent female. I bet you didn’t even know I had one. This conundrum becomes even more dicey when, as my stories are wont to, sexual situations arise, and I am challenged with presenting an accurate rendition of the complex concerns, expectations, motivations, and reactions of my female characters. Oh, and compound the delicacy of it with the difficulty of pulling it off while not sounding like a pervy old man when those female characters are teenage girls. Fiction ain’t easy!

In the end, the best that an author can do when crossing racial, ethnic, and gender divides is to be particularly sensitive; to maximize his empathetic powers’ and to draw from his observations, his own life experiences, and from those life experiences that have been shared with him by members of the subset of which he writes. At the very least, his portrayal should avoid the perpetuation of stereotypes.

Book Readings

In a recent interview, I was asked how I decide which portion of my novel to perform during a public reading. I used the word “perform” because for a reading to be successful, it must be a performance. This can be a major block for authors lacking a theatrical flair. It’s exceedingly difficult enough to pry people from off their couches and from their computers to take the trouble of getting themselves to a local library, university, or bookstore for a reading. If all the author provides is a vocalization of what the reader could have done for himself at home, there is very little likelihood that reader will be entertained or ever attend another reading. The best readings I’ve attended have been like one-man plays in which the author adapts his voice, facial expressions, and body language to match the characters for whom he speaks. Therefore, my first criteria for choosing an excerpt for reading is to choose a section heavy in dialogue and play the roles I’ve created. Said another way,  I avoid reading long blocks of explanatory text, especially that which does little more than establish setting or directly characterize.

A second criterion pertains to how long the book has been available to the public. If the reading is to take place in the weeks to first few months after the novel’s release, I prefer to read from the beginning. There is no better place to start, and the reading will often serve to whet the appetite of the audience and to inspire their purchase of the novel. However, if the novel has been on shelves for months, and there is a good likelihood that a large portion of the audience will already have read the book, I like to choose a section that works as a self-contained mini-narrative even when excised from the story as a whole. I often find these excerpts buried in the sub-plot of the novel. I have found this sort of audience to find greater satisfaction by such a reading.

A third consideration is the make-up of the audience. I often change my choice of material at the very last minute based upon those actually in attendance rather than those “ideal readers,” to borrow Stephen King’s title,” I had imagined would fill the seats. For example, in my debut novel, So Shelly, the teenage characters use a fair amount of what many would consider vulgar language, including the “F”-word. If I notice a number of young children or elderly patrons, who are typically the ones most offended, I will read from a sectionthat makes minimal use of that sort of language. Although I relish the opportunity to offend my readers beliefs and values as a means of forcing them to examine them more closely, offending the reader or audience through the use of vulgarities is a cheap trick of little substantive value.

Finally, the most important criterion in choosing an excerpt for performance in a public setting is to select a portion which can be read in no more than fifteen minutes. If I go beyond that, I find some grow restless and lose interest. Remember, these are readers. Let them read.

Interview at Wastepaper Prose

I’m honored to be included in Round Three of the “Author Insight” series at Wastepaper Prose. The Q and A appears one question at a time on Tuesdays and Thursdays over the next few months. Check it out at http://www.wastepaperprose.com/

Don’t Quit Your Day Job!

Last fall, I signed a two book deal with a major publisher for a healthy advance, especially according to the standards of the fiscally-conservative period the publishing world is currently experiencing and by virtue of my being a first-time novelist, yet tomorrow, I will return to the classroom and resume my job as a high school teacher and adjunct professor. Some of my friends, relatives, and colleagues wonder why I haven’t already retired from education and assumed a career as a full-time author. Let me explain.

 The reasons are many. Most importantly, I love the classroom. It is my soapbox, my stage, my therapist’s couch. Secondly, as an author of YA novels, teaching also keeps me in touch with my audience. It provides me first-hand knowledge of the language, interests, concerns, behaviors, tastes, etc. of the very readers of whom and to whom I write. Thirdly, I need to feel part of something larger than myself. Should I sit alone in my den, day after day pounding out sentences, I would soon be crazy. I want and need to belong to something that’s larger than myself for both my sanity’s sake and for maintaining a sense of perspective. Lastly, it would be foolhardy to walk away from a job that provides a steady income, health insurance, and a generous retirement system for one that guarantees none of those benefits.

 Although it is disheartening to the many who dream of signing a book deal in order to escape the drudgery of their work-a-day world in order to live the romantic life of an author, the fact is that dream is for most writers untenable – at least without giving one’s life over to some form of Bohemian existence, free from the responsibility of providing for a spouse and children. And, by the way, for the vast majority of published authors, the life isn’t so romantic anyway. Besides, the money isn’t as good as it seems.

Let me perform a quick case study using the figure of an advance of $100,000 (mainly, because I’m not very good at math and this is a nice, round figure). That quoted advance is a pre-tax amount. Between federal and state taxes and the self-employed business taxes which the author will be required to pay, somewhere between 40 – 45% of that advance the author will never see. Nor will the author see that advance in one lump sum; rather, it will be spread over a number of payments. For example, in my case I will receive a total of six payments as I meet deadlines set by the publisher. As for royalties, the author does not receive a penny until he has covered his advance, which in many instances never happens. At a 10 – 12% cut of the cover price of each hard back sold (the percentage changes for paperback, mass market paperback and e-book sales), that’s a lot of books that need to be sold to cover the advance, especially for a debut novelist lacking an established audience.

 So, I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon, and will continue to try and squeeze in as much quality writing time in my already overloaded schedule as possible. For anyone who is fortunate enough to sign with a large publisher for a significant advance, my best advice is to immediately hire a financial planner and start saving your receipts.

Reading and Writing

One of the most common bits of advice rightly given to aspiring authors is to read. Although I wholeheartedly agree with the benefit of reading regularly – especially in one’s genre and from acknowledged masters both past and present – since I’ve lived through the nearly four-month long process of revising and rewriting my first novel with my editors, and I’m currently redrafting the second novel as part of the two-book deal, I find that I rarely have time to sit down and read for either pure enjoyment or professional growth. When I do make the time, one of two outcomes usually occurs; both of which can be inexpedient to my own projects. The first common result is that I become so engrossed in the novel that I have difficulty putting it down and walking away in order to work on my own. The second, more debilitating, if less frequent, result is that I find myself discouraged by attempting to pursue a career in a field crowded by so many masterful storytellers.

Whatever modicum of success I’m able to claim as a soon-to-be-published author, I’m quite regularly humbled by the genius of the authors I read during my leisure. Sometimes, I’m so humbled in comparing my own work to theirs that I wonder why I even bother. The good news, however, is that after a few moments of struggling with a paralyzing sense of inferiority, I find the self-doubt disappears and that it is replaced by an even stronger sense of motivation to work harder at my craft, to elevate my skills to the level of these exemplary writers.

The novels and essays of my all-time favorite novelist, David Foster Wallace, always leave me feeling this way. Recently, the wit and poignant observations of Sam Lipsyte in The Ask caused me to marvel at his talents, and the sublime lyricism of Colum McCann in Let the Great World Spin has simply left me in awe of his poetic narrative skills. Simultaneously, I love them for the heights of genius to which they inspire me to aspire and hate them for setting the bar so damn high.

How about you? How do you reconcile the time demands required of pursuing your own writing projects with the need for professional growth through reading? Who are some of the authors whose genius sucks the wind right out of your belly and your sails?