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.
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.
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 I think “real writers” — published and unpublished — do go to conventions to listen to lectures, to rub shoulders with readers, and to enjoy themselves, to share in the community.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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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