Writing Essentials I — No Distractions

thumbnail_IMG_20170618_163810328 cat (2)My cat is old now and after his breakfast and a bit of play time, I can count on him to settle down in his basket by the window. But then, after a while, he wakes up and seeks me out to demand petting time. I’ve learned that, writing or not, I may as well give in. He will win. He always wins. He has his ways–persistence, pestering, entitlement, confidence, or simple obstruction. He’s predictable in his habits (aren’t we all) and I’ve learned from experience that the interruption will only last for 20 minutes or so. Still, it’s hard to regain momentum, to recapture where I was in my writing when I was forced to leave off. Life is full of such challenges. That will never change. It’s up to us writers to figure out how to deal with them.

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The List–For Now

There’s something artificial about any numbered list of “bests.” Criteria are fluid and subjective. You can cheat by allowing for “ties” and end up with more than the stated number. Or heck just make it the “50 best” say, rather than the 10 best or whatever. My own list of 10 all time favorite novels is constantly changing. I add new ones as I read them. I remember ones from the past that need to be included. But, for what it’s worth, here’s the list as it stands right now, in NO particular order.



Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keys

night flight


Night Flight, Antoine de St. Exupéry

tree brooklin


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith





color purple


The Color Purple, Alice Walker


age of innocence


The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton


The Circle


The Circle, Dave Eggers



The Wall 2


The Wall, John Hersey


grapes of wrath


The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck


Pere Goriot


Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac



cry beloved


Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton




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No Comparison Part III

Ivan IlychHaving made all those comments encouraging each of us not to compare ourselves with other writers, I admit to being the worst offender. It seems to be human nature to do this, and maybe there’s not really much we can do to control it in ourselves. In “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Tolstoy (that genius) writes “. . . the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, ‘it is he who is dead and not I.'” (Emphasis mine.)

DesiderataMy favorite quote in relation to making comparisons, however, is from “Desiderata,” Max Ehrmann’s classic poem. “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater or lesser persons than yourself.” In fact, nearly every line of this poem can be taken as advice for writers. It’s worth re-reading from that perspective, interpreting those lines as advice to authors. Try it.

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No Comparison, Part II

love machineThere is a famous incident about Jacqueline Susann. She was on an episode of The David Frost Show, which aired on July 16, 1969, promoting her novel The Love Machine. After a discussion of Susann’s appeal and business tactics, a critic, John Simon, spoke up. He demanded to know whether Susann was trying to write art or trash. Jackie did the best she could to counteract his apparently hostile challenge and the exchange became heated and snarling. What I wished then, and now, is that someone had brought up the obvious point. Those are not the only two choices and I refuse to be trapped into thinking they are. I refuse to accept what is a false dichotomy. John Simon, it seemed to me, was just trying to create a stir. Whether he intended to hurt Ms. Susann, I have no idea. But I would have wanted to ask him, “Okay, in which category do you place Kipling? Douglas Adams? Maeve Binchy? But mostly, why is there a need for categories at all?” compareVery few of us writers will end up in the same class as either, say, Toni Morrison on the one hand or [fill in the name of some trashy writer here] on the other. There’s a ton of great writing out there in between the extremes that will never win the Pulitzer or the Nobel but is still worthy and entertaining. My last post counseled all of us writers not to compare our output with others. Likewise we need to avoid denigrating the quality of our own work by wishfully comparing ourselves to Jane Austen or Philip Roth. I had a writer acquaintance a few years ago who had a very successful career writing romance novels. Yet she fell short of her own ambitions. “The novel I wish I could write is ord pepe 3Ordinary People [by Judith Guest].” Meanwhile, most of her friends would have killed to have had her level of success. Sure, we all want to be the best writers we can be. But writing quality, like quantity, is all on a continuum and we each have our place on it.

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No Comparison, Part I

compare1Occasionally my electric company sends me a charming, colorful letter informing me that I am using far, far more electricity than most of my neighbors who live in dwellings of a similar square footage to mine. The flyer includes “tips” on how I can use less. I can only surmise this is the same tactic employed by traffic control officers when they put those “your speed” signs along surface streets. Studies have shown that those signs do indeed cut down on speeding. But if this electric company letter is meant to shame me or increase my self-monitoring of electric use, and thereby help me cut back, it’s not working. We’re all for saving energy, but we’re already doing all we can, including the measures suggested by the flyer. But, consider this: I know my neighbors. Many of them are single. We, on the other hand, are a two person household. All of them work at jobs outside the home, so they’re gone all day during the week. A couple of them travel extensively, sometimes being away for a month at a time. Of course they are using less electricity at home than we are. If any of them retires, or adds a partner or other person to the household, their home usage will likely increase. Suddenly it will appear as though I have “improved,” relative to others, when in fact I haven’t changed a thing. Comparisons, with little or no context, mean nothing.

This is a long way of saying, when you are a writer, don’t compare yourself to anyone. I see messages frequently on the forums that I belong to about other people’s output. This one writes four books a year, or that one has published 80 stories in her career. My production seems piddling by comparison. But I don’t know the details of those writers’ lives, what circumstances they have, where or what they’ve published, or under what conditions.

On the other hand, I don’t want to compare myself to my other writer friends who are still struggling to publish their first piece, and maybe have been for years.

It’s like the old gravestone verse:

gravestone“Remember me as you pass by, As you are now so once was I, As I am now so you will be, Prepare for death and follow me.”

We’re all on the same path, just at different points along the way. You (and I) are ahead of some and behind others. Accept that. Then take the next step, whatever that may be for you. I’ll have further thoughts on this in my next post.


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It’s All Subjective

subjectivityA couple of years ago I entered a short story contest. There were three anonymous judges. Since they were anonymous, I have no idea whether they were editors, fellow writers, agents, writing teachers or other. Even though this was a no-fee contest, each entrant still got a summary of the scores. I did not win. But it was the scores that were illuminating. One judge loved the story and gave it the highest marks on all criteria. Another judge felt the opposite and gave it all low marks on each point. The third judge graded the score right down the middle, halfway between excellent and not worth the paper it was printed on.

I told this to a writer friend of mine and he had the perfect response. “It just goes to show how subjective anyone’s response is to any piece of writing.” It didn’t mean it was a bad story. If it appealed strongly to one person, it will appeal strongly to some other editor down the road. So, as I said in the last post Turnaround, the only appropriate response is to take another look to see if it can be improved, then find another market and send it off.

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turnaround2I got another story back a few days ago. No surprise. I had sent it to a top market where there’s a ton of competition from big name authors. Nevertheless it’s always worth a try. (Well, almost always.) Within days of the rejection, I had that story out to another publication. This is one case where I know the advice from successful writers is spot on, and I act on it as conscientiously as I can. Know the markets, keep your best work circulating and keep good records of where stories have been. It’s about increasing your chances of acceptance. It’s about keeping hope alive.


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