Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
March 4, 2022

Get Out from Behind the Keyboard

by James R. Preston

“Real writers just write.” 

“Chain yourself to the keyboard and type till your fingers bleed.”

“You need a seatbelt. Stay in front of the keyboard.”

“Just tell your hoodlum friend outside you ain’t got time to take a ride.”

          — “Yakkety Yak” The Coasters, 1958

Indeed. Yakkety Yak.

You do have time. In fact, you need time to take a metaphorical ride. 

So, sneak out the back door, ditch your work (pounding that keyboard), and let’s talk about other things besides writing that you can do to further your career. C’mon. . .come with me. I’m the hoodlum at the curb with the motor running.

C’mon, let’s take a ride. 

Over a year ago, here at WITS, we talked about dealing with the dreaded blank page. We talked about story elements like plot, character, setting, and denouement. But there’s more to what you can do to grow as a writer, maybe a lot more. And it can be a fun ride. 

What else can you do to get better at the art and craft we all love so much?

On this trip, we’ll pass huge gatherings with thousands of people, classrooms with students taking notes, and small groups of like-minded writers. We’ll crank up the radio and cruise around the outskirts of the writing world. 

We’ll look at conventions, classes, writing groups, and we’ll have a good time!

I’m glad you’re along for the ride. Here we go. 

Attend a Convention

Once upon a time I sat in the opening keynote speech at a major writing convention and heard a big-time New York agent say, “Real writers aren’t at conventions — they’re at their desks, writing.”  Yes, friends and neighbors, I heard it and I actually knew the speaker. We’d shared a ride in from the airport, among other contacts. 

Well, after chomping down on the hand that was feeding him, he later tried to walk back what he said explaining how conventions are good. He wasn’t there next year.

But . . . Could it be true? Could he have been right?

No! I don’t buy it. I think “real writers” — published and unpublished — do go to conventions to listen to lectures, to rub shoulders with readers, and to enjoy themselves, to share in the community. 

It’s an understatement to say there are many, many conventions to choose from. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of all shapes and sizes. Here are some great ones.

All of them have thousands of attendees, and all feature the biggest names in their writing universes. Smaller ones for mysteries include Left Coast Crime and Men of Mystery. Note: the latter has been virtual for the last two years. 

So, how do you pick?

Forget analyzing in terms of location, cost, time involved, blah, blah, blah. I say go for the writers in attendance. If that means you have to skip one year to budget for the writer you really want to see, do it. 

I once took time off work to hear a writer I admired when he lectured at Goldenwest College here In Huntington Beach. He didn’t draw a very good crowd, maybe a dozen, and I stayed around afterward to thank him . . . and ended up sitting around for almost half an hour shooting the breeze with Frank Herbert. Yeah — Dune’s Frank Herbert.

I told him how I’d read Dune when it was serialized in Analog; he asked about my stories (the first had appeared in Analog) and it was amazing. Years later I got to relate that story to his son Brian, who was glad to add it to his collection of anecdotes about his dad. 

I say look for writers you want to see. 

And you learn, often unexpected nuggets of information you never would have found out otherwise. 

The first time I went to an event called Men of Mystery I looked around the room at 500 mystery readers— 90% of whom were women. And I thought: why, that’s my audience! That information alone was worth the price of admission. 

Take a Class

Note that here I am talking about in-person physical classes, not virtual. We’re out from behind the keyboard, remember? Cruisin’, interacting with other writers. Having said that . . . 

Sure, you can learn a lot from a good writing class. For one thing, the assignments will force you to write. But — choose carefully. For example, I took a “Creative Writing 101” class at a local community college, and found that I didn’t fit in with 19-year-olds fulfilling a GE requirement. 

As with conventions, my advice is to look for an instructor with credentials you respect. If she writes your kind of book that’s a huge plus. 

Join a Writing Group

Absolutely, for a number of reasons. One — you get feedback. Look, my wife taught English for her whole career and she’s always my first reader, but she’s my wife

A writing group is a double-edged sword because in addition to getting feedback you will be expected to provide some of your own. 

Speaking of my wife, one time a friend of hers, a fellow teacher, asked me to read her romance novel and comment on it. After the usual caveats I agreed. I reviewed it like I would any story from an aspiring writer, and to be honest, I had to tell her it needed work before it could be sent out to agents. After a while she spoke to me, but she never asked me for advice again.

But I'd told her! I warned her that I only knew one way to critique and she assured me that was what she wanted. You will have to learn to evaluate the feedback you get .

Here’s my rule of thumb on evaluating feedback: if they all say the same thing — they’re right.

I wrote the blurb, the back cover copy for my new book and I really liked it — funny, interesting, it would make people want to read the story. My publisher sent it to several readers and writers. 

“It’s too long.” 
“It gives away too much.” 
“It’s boring.”

I loved it, but I dumped it without a second thought. 

Be prepared for anything in a critique. I had a reviewer pull a gun on me. More on that thrilling episode later. 

The Common Denominator to All of These

Pro — Gets you out from behind the keyboard.

Con — See Pro. 

That’s right, in the final analysis you could spend all your time in classes and at conventions and never type “Once upon a time . . . “ Let alone “The End.”

One of my best teachers, reviewers, and readers is a writer named Paul Bishop, author of Citadel Run, Tequila Mockingbird and others. He told me of a woman in his class who had been ready to start her mystery for over a year, “Just as soon as I find out what the FBI building looks like.”

My guess is she’s still waiting. 

Circling Back to the Gun Story

Oh, right, I promised to tell the gun story.

Detective Bishop was sitting with me going over his comments to my thriller Read ‘Em And Weep. He’s now retired, but back then he was on the LAPD. He reached down into his boot top and pulled out a small revolver to show me something about the weapon.

Here’s another rule of thumb: when the reviewer does that — pay attention to what they are saying

My guess is you will select a combination of the above and do as much or as little as feels right. But there is one thing I know you will do. You guessed it.

The One Thing You Must Do . . . 

Read! Read like a mad person. Read like a writer. Read!

Take a book apart like I did one of Bob Crais’ thrillers. I’ve talked about this before. I admire Bob Crais’ work enormously and when I was switching from science fiction to writing mysteries, I took apart a novel of his called Lullaby Town.

Remember how in The Wizard of Oz Dorothy is warned not to look behind the curtain? Well, I looked. I broke that book down scene by scene on 3” x 5” cards. I read it like a writer. I loved the book then and I do now, but I can’t go back and reread it. I know it too well. Sigh. 

I’m a confirmed book guy. I love holding the printed pages, carefully inserting bookmarks, writing my name inside the cover.

But when I’m working I read electronic copies. The Notes feature in iBooks and Kindle is revolutionary. If you’re not using it — start. I can mark a brilliant sentence without leaving the page, and it’s not on a scrap of paper or a stickie that I can lose. Go through one your faves and see if they use a structure with Plot Points 1 and 2 and a clear watershed midpoint. Mark those spots. 

Let’s say it again: read like a writer. 

So we’ve cruised by conventions, stopped in for a Coke at classes, filled up with gas at writers groups — how long can I drag this out? Drag? Sure, maybe till the flag drops and the race is on. Ok, I quit. 

lt’s up to you. Bring in the dog, put out out the cat, and get out from behind the keyboard!

Now it’s your turn. (I could work in something about kicking in money for gas here but I promised I’d quit.)

Do you go to conventions? Take classes? Are you in a writers group? What works for you and what doesn’t? And have you met an author you admire? Who were they and what was it like? It’s time to share. Who have you seen? Who would you like to meet? After all, we're all cruisin' in this writing hot rod together.

* * * * * *

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries and two historical novellas set in the swingin' sixties. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill, one of the historicals, "a historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten." The hat is Robicheaux's Dock & Bait Shop, New Iberia, LA. It was captured at Bouchercon Chicago.

 James' web page is www.jamesrpreston.com

Top Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

22 comments on “Get Out from Behind the Keyboard”

  1. I'd go cruisin' with you to all the fun spots, James! I don't get out from behind my keyboard nearly enough. But I read like a maniac. 🙂

    1. Hey, Jenny, all your work on Writers in the Storm counts! You have mucho contact with the outer world. Still, I'd like that cruise. Put the top down, crank up the Beach Boys and roll! Thanks for the comment!

  2. It's all about balance, especially when you do this work part time and do something else "for a living." But I definitely recognize that LOTS of things that aren't exactly writing are vital to my writing practice. Good post! @samanthabwriter from
    Balancing Act

    1. Samantha, you are so right! Larry Niven talks about how he did nothing but write, full time, for a year before he began to sell. He could do that because he's one of the Doheny heirs. Most of us, like you say, have a balancing act to deal with. Have you got any tips on how to measure out your time? Do you say, "Ok, I should spend an hour getting in touch with old friends?" or words to that effect? I know that's my problem.
      Thanks for commenting!

    2. Samantha, as the gal who works more than full time and writes when she can, I hear the word "balance" like it's in Swahili. I don't know how to do it! So I just do the next thing and when I get stressed out, I take a break and READ. 🙂

  3. I'm usually the mischief maker luring people away from work! I love this, James! Too often we forget to take those breathers and refill our tanks. My favorite convention is the Surrey International Writers Conference. I haven't been recently, but I've met some fantastic people there. Wally Lane (who teaches script-writing) was there one year when I was at a booth. His wife and I became friends, and I still value their friendship. Once when I was doing a speaking gig to a potentially hostile audience, Wally and some friends drove up to support me. Changed the mood of the entire event. Those external connections are amazing.

    1. Deleyna, you are so right! I met a thriller writer named jack Bowie at a convention and we have stayed in touch ever since. And when I bought the "Robicheaux's Dock & Bait Shop, New Iberia, LA " hat James Lee Burke's daughter - who was speaking - noticed it and pointed me out as part of the audience. At that convention I met a lady who became my agent.
      Thanks for sharing!

      1. Isn't it amazing how a little thing like a hat can help make a connection? Wonderful!

        1. I talked to Burke's daughter later and she said her sister made the hats! She was glad I bought one, and I have treasured it ever since. Thanks for the opportunity to share the story.
          Oh, the agent I met. Nice lady, big Hollywood agency, she changed jobs & there was no room for me. Oh, well.

  4. Great advice, James. I do all of the above--in their own time, of course. With the pandemic few are in person these days, but each of the road trips (even the virtual ones) you've suggested refills my creative soul in different ways. I find them all invaluable.

    1. You bet, Lynette! it's too easy to sit and struggle with a story and forget that there are other people who are doing the same thing. For me, virtual isn't as good as in-person, but I'll take it over no contact at all. Are you planning to return to live events now that the pandemic seems to be receding? I am, but I'm not sure how soon.

  5. Wonderful suggestions, James!

    I truly miss attending conferences in person. I hope we will be able to get back to that soon.

    Now and then I'll take an online class.

    I left one critique group and joined another. Writing, like life, is full of changes.

    1. I'm with you, Ellen. I may go back to Left Coast Crime soon. Your comment on critique groups is very telling. I'd like to see a Writers in the Storm essay on how to choose one, and -- more importantly -- when to make a change. I should do a search, there may be something in the archives, but things have changed so much since COVID that the situation is radically altered. i know that no less a big-time writer as James Rollins regularly thanks his critique group.

  6. James, thank you! It was a great ride. And it reminded me of what I've done right and what I still have to do. I met my weekly writers group at a convention. It was my first convention years ago, as a sheepish new writer, I ran into John Peragine, and because of him have spent the last several years in a weekly Skype/Zoom (etc) meeting with a group of us he brought together to support each other through this writing thing. Oh, and many of the folks I met have been intimately involved with WITS. Even as a born and bred introvert, I really do miss the in-person conferences sooooo badly. I also met some really great folks at Ara Grigorian's Novel Intensive. Great course, great people. You've also made me remember I need to get back out from behind this covid-enhanced introvert-support veil, now that things are getting better, and start going to these venues again, as they open up. I can't be complacent and stay within those comforting connections I've already made. Great post.

    1. You're not he only one who needs to get back to in-person events, Miffie. The last live event I went to was Left Coast Crime in San Diego in March of 2020. I was scheduled for a panel discussion, book signing, and hosting a table at dinner. Well, a fan took me out for pizza after my panel on Thursday. When I got back to the hotel I had a message from Mysterious Galaxy saying they were packing up my books & the convention was over. I didn't know if I should be disappointed or delighted that I got to do my panel. And that's just about it for live events. I'm ready to get back to them! I'll keep an eye out, maybe we'll bump into each other.

      Thanks for contributing!

      PS And Mysterious Galaxy, the convention bookstore, was awesome! Sent me a royalty check and everything. If you're in San Diego, stop in.

        1. I felt so sorry for the people on the committee, who had worked for -- what? Two years at least, to get the convention and then do all of the planning. They had T. Jefferson Parker as a headliner! Then it was shut down after one day. Tragic!

  7. Hi James!
    I have it on very good authority, that friend of your wife took your advice to heart and found "her tribe" at RWA and the Orange County Chapter of RWA years ago. And she will thank you forever for telling her where to go to find "genre specific" help!

    1. Aw, shucks, Fae. Glad it worked out.
      For those who don't know, Fae writes the P.R.I.S.M. sf novels. Worth checking out! And she is living proof of the value of getting out from behind the keyboard.

    1. Thank you, Denise. This was an enjoyable essay to write -- in my mind I got out from behind the keyboard!
      Thanks again.

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