Exciting, But Simple

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Exciting, But Simple.

I’m not sure if there’s a sage in the world who can teach the secrets of exciting writing. If they can’t, I certainly can’t either.

Those same sages likely can’t define the various elements that ultimately define a truly thrilling novel. By exciting, I’m not speaking about a constant, continual barrage of chills and spills, page after page after page. Your intent is not to provide an unyielding roller-coaster rush, nor an incessant, thunder-and-lightning sort of excitement—but rather the finesse to transport readers to another realm and/or reveal the depths of an entirely fictive being. If successful, readers will stay with you until the final word of the last page. Exciting novels can be told in a whisper, can be written without the stench of death or the horror of mass destruction; without a single tear drop or belly laugh or even a boffo, surprisingly twisted last page that defies the reader’s expectation. Exciting novels simply must be told in exciting ways.

My idea of fictive excitement? It’s a combination of developing a witty and engaging style, an active—not passive—voice (see Active Voice and Show, Don’t Tell), and the ability to tell a complete story. Excitement is in the eye of the beholder, after all. And, in my opinion, excitement is simply a writer’s ability to prompt readers to, without hesitation, turn to the next page. And if I knew the secret formula every time I sat down to write, I’d own the New York Times Best Seller List.

I do not.

I do happen to believe that writers, like ball players, concert cellists and chess masters, are born into this world fully equipped with the ability to succeed. Some will never have the chance or the perseverance to fully explore or hone our true talents. Others will spill blood, sweat and tears, but never catch that lucky break. (Sorry, yeah, it’s about luck, too.) Sometimes, good writers simply encounter bad timing. Or the wrong agent, or editor, or the wrong publisher. And don’t think I haven’t lost a sleepless night or two fretting about that last quandary. I have.

And sometimes, the most diligent of souls, the sweetest of people, simply aren’t creative or technically skilled enough. Almost, but not quite. The world is filled with manuscripts, piled high in milk crates crammed into back corners of countless closets. As my old granny used to say, “You can’t make a Ferrari out of a Studebaker.”

She’s right. But the biggest tragedy is never knowing. Never trying. The world may indeed be overladen with Studebakers pretending to be Ferraris, but I suspect the world also has its fair share of idling Ferraris, glumly assuming they’re Studebakers. These are the writers who’ll never allow themselves the chance to experience themselves flying balls out down that literary speedway of life. And that’s a shame.

As hopeful authors, most of us are capable of crafting and honing our mechanical abilities—we can read creative writing books, we can study language and craft and attend workshops—we’re able to eventually intuit a noun from a verb. Because a writer can learn the simple stuff. But you can’t learn what can’t be taught. You can’t learn writing excitement.

So when I talk about excitement, I’m talking about a writer’s ability to create an individual style, that unique blend of panache and enthusiasm and articulation. Style can’t be bought or taught or handed down, generation to generation. Nobody taught Picasso Cubism. Nobody taught Babe Ruth to hit homers. Nobody taught Einstein to think. They each had it in ’em, all along.

If you have it—and Tom Wolff would call it the right stuff—good for you. Aim for the center field bleachers. If you don’t have it, you’ll discover that soon enough and move on. Ninety-five percent of wannabe fiction writers move on, and often to even greater endeavors. Ain’t no shame in crossing off write a novel from your bucket list, before skiing the Alps or designing a home or discovering cold fusion.

So… do I have advice for those of you attempting to determine your own stylistic prowess? (Does a goose have paté?) I can offer a few suggestions to flint that spark, to perhaps ignite something inside that might never extinguish.

Suggestion #1. New to fiction writing? Overwhelmed by the concept of writing 300 or 400 pages end-to-end? Unsure of your own abilities or talent or stamina? Start with smaller bites. Write a short story. Write an idea. Write a slice of life—a simple scene, a simple page with no beginning or no end—with no other agenda than pure enjoyment. Write for yourself. Make yourself smile. If that works… write another page. If you find yourself pouring out your soul, or simply amusing yourself with your own creative genius, perhaps you’re onto something. But writing a novel is kinda like giving birth. Give it time. Give it room. If you start pushing too hard at three months you’ll only hurt yourself, and the kid’ll be thinking WTF, mom?

Suggestion #2. Chances are, if you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. As a reader, what excites you? When I write, I keep a favorite novel on my desk and, most mornings before I begin working, I pick a random page and begin to read. Sometimes I read a few paragraphs, sometimes a few pages. I read until I’m filled with awe and appreciation and amazement that, yeah, that’s great stuff. And I can do it too.

By reading snippets, I’m not suggestion that you emulate a writer’s style or content—my attempt isn’t to plagiarize substance or verbiage—I’m simply trying to jump start my own creative juices by absorbing another writer’s creative juices. It’s the literary equivalent of a Vulcan Mind-Meld.

Suggestion #3. Concentrate on dialogue. If not on quantity, then on quality. The eyes may be the portal to the soul (as the poets like to say), but in fiction, dialogue is the portal to a character’s soul. (See Dialogue.) I personally believe dialogue to be the single most important asset to a unique voice. Try writing a few pages of dialogue; two people simply talking to each other. No other modifiers (i.e.; he said sweetly, or she chuckled insanely.) Simply two voices. Don’t think about it—just begin a dialogue. You might be amazed at how spontaneous (again, as in don’t think about it) you’ll find a situation (no matter how irrelevant) developing. For instance (and with zero contemplation) here’s my brain’s random output:

S’up?”
“Nada.”
“Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Been busy.”
“Is that your elephant?”
“Nah. My mom’s.”
“He’s big, huh? What’s his name?”
“Buster.”
“Buster?”
“He don’t come when you call him, though.”
“No, I don’t think he’d give a shit.”
“Unless maybe you have ice cream.”
“Peanut butter?”
“Strawberry.”
“Man, you’d think peanut butter, huh?”
“Seriously, yeah. But Buster’s always been his own pachyderm.

Random, unrehearsed, out-of-nowhere stuff.

Why dialogue, you ask? Why spit out words without deliberation or expectation? Because you’re removing all mental parameters and preconceived notions about your writing. Fictional dialogue (like IRL dialogue) can be as ethereal, as eccentric, as quirky as your brain is willing to stretch. You’re disrupting the organizational structure of a few trillion synapses by crayoning outside the lines.

Will this sort of nonsensical (or at least unprepared) dialogue translate into a story? Maybe. Probably not. But do realize that you’re channeling your inner self here. You’re allowing yourself, if only for a moment, unfettered creative freedom—and mental exercises such as this may lead to a little personal insight about your own creative abilities. Creativity begets creativity after all.

Again, refer to Rule #3: Write to please yourself. If you find yourself writing for the various expectations of a vast and often fickle audience audience, you’ll eventually lose yourself in the crowd. Even if you’re successful, sooner or later you’ll maybe even sell your soul. So read a ton, learn the craft, study the mechanics of writing—and then write whatever makes you happy.

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The Greatest Gifts

eileen-blog200x200As a writer, I’m deeply aware of how wonderful it feels to be contacted by someone who’s read my work and felt moved enough by my ideas to reach out and let me know how much I’ve touched them. That’s why, as a reader, I’ve personally never been shy about reaching out to those authors whose works have in turn touched my own heart, to let them know that their effort has not been in vain.

Some of my most treasured friendships have arisen from these connections. And of the countless times I’ve reached out to thank a writer, nearly all have responded with gratitude for having been well received. I suspect it’s because a writer’s life can be a lonely path. It may take years for a book to move through a writer’s mind, heart, hands and down onto the page, and from there to make it into printed form for consumption by the public. During that long and thankless time, we writers are typically plagued with bouts of self-doubt. We’re convinced our work will be unpublishable; our ideas will seem worthless or too mundane; our energy will have proved to be utterly wasted. We’re also occasionally accosted by people who – with the best of intentions – wonder aloud why we don’t go out and get ‘real’ jobs. Our friends and family members have been known to “helpfully” bury us beneath distressing statistics about the failure rates for new authors, and inundate us with articles that discuss how impossible it is to get readers to notice new books.

That’s why, for me, it always feels like a bit of a miracle whenever someone reaches out and bridges the time-space continuum that exists between that original struggle of my sometimes painful process and this place I am today, just to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, you…great job. I loved your work. It moved me; I’m forever changed for having read this book. Thank you so much for having written it.”

In those precious, quiet moments of heartfelt reconnection with my own past efforts, I can at last feel vindicated for having stuck with a project; for not having chucked it during one of those dark and lonely periods when feedback was nonexistent, and when all I had to rely upon was my faltering faith in myself. Moments such as these are, at times, exactly what it takes to keep me going – to inspire me to sit down again and breathe life into yet another labored page.

We like to think of Muse Harbor as a place where we, as writers, are helping other writers reach new readers. As part of that commitment, one of our most sincere desires is to serve as a well-lit way station where those readers can connect with the writers who’ve moved them, and who have maybe even changed their lives for the better. So if you’ve read a book by one of our authors and have loved the message it sent, the story it told, or the characters that the author has breathed into life…please. Reach out and say so. I promise you, every writer feels an endless hunger to hear that. And don’t be surprised if you make a new friend for your efforts. As a person who toils in solitude, I know I’ve developed an appreciation for all of these human connections that nourish my soul. It’s a beautiful gift, and it’s free. All the greatest gifts are.

 

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Simple, But Exciting

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Simple, But Exciting

If I could distill the fundamentals of potentially great storytelling, my advice would be this: Keep it simple, but exciting…exciting, but simple.

While such advice may seem paradoxical (“Paint it black, but paint it white.”) you’ll find a marvelous co-dependency at play in writing a novel that: A) moves the story forward with clear, comprehensible language, without confusing or unnecessary intrusions, and; B) imparts a breathlessness, a passion, a cerebral metamorphosis that transforms the reader’s reality into a fictional realm of your choosing.

One manages such duality by keeping: A) the fundamentals simple, and; B) your voice exciting.

Simple: The mechanics and structure of your writing, the clarity of your language. (In other words, grammar.) Note that simple doesn’t mean uninteresting or brief—nothing synopsized, summarized or truncated—but rather articulate and concise.

Exciting: The unique personality of your style and voice, the ebb and flow of your journey (that is, the structure of your plot), your joie de vivre. Your subtle—but oh-so-witty—nuance. Your tantalizing dialogue. (See Exciting, but Simple. Also see Dialogue.)

Even those writers who attempt to climb (metaphorically speaking) the Mount Everest of epic adventures or those who navigate the Pan’s Labyrinth of complicated plots, the basic mechanics of fiction remain fundamentally simple: Write in clear, precise sentences. (That’s Rule #7, by the way.) Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession of relevant information. Don’t stuff various, complicated ideas into a single sentence. Give yourself permission to expand complex ideas into multiple sentences or paragraphs.

Think of writing a novel as being similar to a long trek through the Sahara. As a reader, I’m following the trail you’ve intentionally set out on page one. I must be able to follow (e.g.; comprehend) each footstep you take along the way. A misplaced thought or a convoluted sentence will give me pause. What did you mean? A muddled page and I may be stymied. A misplaced or badly written chapter and now I’m lost in the arid wastelands. Where am I? Which way did you go? Lose readers midway through that proverbial desert and they’re likely gone for good.

My advice? Don’t get deviously clever or snarkingly cute with readers. Don’t withhold necessary information or keep secrets—intending a sleight of hand later in the story. Yes, your characters can be mysterious, but no, your prose shouldn’t be. Do not write under the influence of an advanced thesaurus. Do not assume readers will meticulously ponder your words attempting to comprehend your subliminal brilliance, your existential aura, your interpretive, Nureyev-like rond de jambe. Sure, your plot can be multi-layered, but not your innuendo. Maintain a precise, lucid writing style. Once again—for emphasis!—write in clear, precise sentences.

Three Simple, Necessary Components

We’ll utilize three necessary components to successfully navigate a story—and we’ll continually weave these elements throughout our novel, like the spiraling filaments in a thread.

In no particular order, or importance:

• Scene-Setting. As a reader, I want to be grounded early in each new chapter or scene. Give me a glimpse of where I am, and who I’m with and, if appropriate, when. (After dark? Before lunch? Late autumn?) Depending upon one’s writing style, setting a scene can be elaborate enough to fill several pages (a la George R.R. Martin), or as sparse as a few suggestive words. For instance:

I’d spent half the night searching in vain for Patrick McMartin. I walked into Charlie’s ramshackle Bar & Grill a little before ten-thirty. The place smelled like old cigarettes and older sweat. You know, the kind of establishment where patrons paid in dimes and quarters, where cockroaches and winos came to die.

Meaning that we’re not obliged to fill pages and pages with unnecessary minutia. As my old granny used to say, “You don’t need to eat the whole pig if all you want is a slice of bacon.” So it’s okay to impart juuuuust enough information to ground readers in a scene, to establish the where and when, perhaps the how or why—and to reveal any pertinent changes that might have transpired between the previous scene and this one. If the current location, time, characters present (…etc.) are similar/identical to the previous scene, then additional scene-setting may be minimal or unnecessary. Your job is simply to be sure that readers remain grounded in the reality of each particular moment. (For more details, see Scene-Setting.)

• Character Development. Give readers enough initial information to  identify (or at least tease) the relevant strengths and weaknesses of every major character. Not all at once, of course, but after giving readers an initial visual (or emotional) rendition, continue to reveal additional quirks and idiosyncrasies, little bits of nuance here and there throughout the novel. Creating memorable characters often relies on highlighting subtleties—physical, emotional, psychological, unusual—all at an appropriately opportune time.

• Plot Development. Reveal essential information that continually builds or strengthens your plot. Keep pushing the plot forward, either aggressively or subliminally, but constantly toward an inevitable conclusion of your design.

Note that, in each scene you write, you’ll combine elements of scene-setting, plot development and character development. Include nothing else. Seriously. If you find yourself writing material that doesn’t A) further the plot, B) further develop a character or, C) ground the reader in time and place, those scenes probably don’t belong in your novel. (And if those scenes somehow feel intrinsically important to the story, look closely—they’re likely touching upon one of the above ingredients.)

These three key elements, by the way, comprise Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. In novel writing, nothing else matters.

Okay, so here’s a brief hypothetical:

Barnaby awoke before dawn, shivering beneath the insufficient weight of a blanket that smelled of manure and wet straw. The frigid air lay heavy with smoke drifting from a myriad of scattered campfires that burned in the meadow. He gazed upward through the misty tendrils, into a coal black winter’s night. High amid the heavens, he could see the constellation Orion. The hunter.

…Come daylight, he knew, they would all become hunters.

He could hear a distant murmur of sleepless men, of braying horses. Somewhere in the tall grass, a young soldier sobbed. Even though he’d slept, Barnaby instinctively sensed dawn’s approach—soon the drums and bugles would beckon the war, and with its arousal, an unmitigated savagery would descend upon the brigade. Before sunset, many of those stirring restlessly around him would lay dead.

Not long ago, he might have wept at the thought of the carnage that morning would bring. But staring into the heavens, he wished for only solace. He longed for an eternity absent of fear, of hatred, of misery. For the first time since the fighting had begun, Barnaby found himself anticipating the absolute surrender of death, and relished its embrace.

…….….……
In the above paragraphs we find a piecemeal semblance of scene-setting and character development, although not much plot. Yet by the end of the passage, we infer a battle’s brewing (basic plot development) and, if properly scene-set, we suspect our character to be a soldier of some bygone era. Campfires. Horses. Bugles. Even by the discreet choice of names—Barnaby—the writer implies a subliminal clue. No, we don’t know which war…but we assume we’ll be told fairly soon and, if the writing moves us, we’re willing to wait. Nor do we have a clear physical description of Barnaby (our protagonist we presume, although still uncertain)—and yet we’ve glimpsed the lost fear in his soul. Another important character trait.

By juxtaposing well-considered snippets of information, each sentence becomes an integral piece of an enormous puzzle, yet none of the overall picture which will be revealed in haste. The writer utilizes only those pieces that properly fit, and has already begun interlacing individual filaments (of plot, character and grounding) that will eventually weave into a narrative tale. We may not know key elements of the character until far into the novel. We’re learning about this man piece by piece. We may not learn about the writer’s true intent in telling his story—perhaps not the war itself, but rather a young man’s journey to find himself, through various aspects of fate. The writer’s only begun to build a mystery of voice, of plotting, and yet each sentence is precise and methodical, like so many footprints in the sand, one after another after another in meticulous formation toward an inevitable conclusion.

One last note: When is simple too simple? When simple becomes passive. So keep your simple sentences active. (See Active Voice.) For instance:

Passive: John was sleeping. (Simple? Yes. Exciting? No.)

Active: John’s snoring reverberated through the house with the fury of an approaching thunderstorm. (Better.)

Remember: Simple, but exciting.

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The Vision Thing

eileen-blog200x200As the author of Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life, and as one of the three cofounders of Muse Harbor Publishing, it falls upon me to articulate The Vision Thing. This project landed in my inbox because my life’s work focuses on the exploration of new ways for people to be in healthy relationships with one another, and – by extension – with the larger living world that connects us all.

Perhaps it’s a happy accident, but we at Muse Harbor consider ourselves to be equals. We love each other unconditionally, and we treasure our personal friendships. Above all, we each honor the crazy, flawed, wonderful, brilliant, amazing, creative and unfathomable beings we are. We’re learning how to rely with gratitude upon the unique skills and talents that each of us offers without defining whose skills should be worth more. For us, being in a healthy relationship means the love will always matter more than the work; but when it’s time for work we serve each other as well as we possibly can. We do so because we’ve come to realize we need each other if any of us are to thrive.

Being in a healthy relationship also means we’re dedicated to serving you—our authors and readers—so you can get the most out of what we’re co-creating. We want our writers to be able to afford to keep on writing, and we want our readers to be able to access as many books as they care to read. Our low prices and high author payout rates have been designed to serve that purpose. We trust that if our writers succeed and our readers enjoy their books, we’ll do just fine.

When we sign a new author we do so because we love the material. We’re acknowledging that we trust in the author’s vision and ability to refine it, and feel confident we can add value to the project. And whenever you purchase a Muse Harbor book, know that we’re committed to ensuring you’ll be getting a book worth reading.

Our favorite motto remains: “No fun, no do.” We strive to discover if the trust, friendship and openness we’re fostering in our new business model will birth a higher degree of excellence than does the decaying corporate model, which thrives by provoking fear and stress in people to induce greater productivity…but at what price? Perhaps joy, passion and gratitude will prove better fuels for the engine of human creativity over the long run.

We’ve made it our mission to build a safe harbor for authors, yet we’re conscious of the fact that we’ve plunged headlong into the oceanic abyss of a new business model without protective gear, so drowning remains a distinct possibility. We don’t pretend to have all the answers for what makes a successful company, or what compels a reader to select this book over that one. But we do love to tackle new challenges, so testing this kinder, gentler business model makes waking up every day a joy for us all (at least most of the time!)

I hope these words have helped illuminate what we’re attempting to do. Perhaps, if nothing else, they may move you to check out the books we’re currently offering. For some time now we’ve been searching for a pithy way to describe who we are, and what we hope to achieve. How about this: “Buy a book; save an author. Buy two books; support a new paradigm.”

You can find more of Eileen Workman’s posts on Reality Sandwich

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Good Writing, Bad Advice

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Good Writing, Bad Advice.

My name (once again) is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. My job is to: 1) read manuscripts, 2) reject most of them as incompatible with our needs, 3) accept a limited number of promising tales for potential publication, and; 4) edit the living daylights out of those same pieces—then expect the writer to do likewise—before MHP commits to a publishing contract.

I have few friends.

However, I do have a modicum of knowledge for those of you seeking advice. Whether you’re already a contracted MHP author, a promising talent or simply passing by, I can offer a bit of insight. Because I certainly know what excites me as a reader.

Might I impart any significant pearls of wisdom on this page? I offer no assurances. Nobody in this business—in any business—can guarantee success. Finding a publisher is sometimes more luck (sadly) than skill. More good timing than dedication. Sometimes it’s who you know. Sometimes it’s who your daddy knows. Success is a subjective son-of-a-bitch with a chip on one shoulder and a crazed twinkle in its eye.

But knowing how to write well doesn’t hurt. And knowing a few rules won’t hurt either. Success may be elusive, but to an unprepared or apathetic writer, success is little more than a pipe dream.

Do you know the Numero Uno, Most Common, Most Discouraging, and the Tragic Likely Outcome of all novel writing endeavors? It’s not finishing the book. Losing interest or losing your way, losing your nerve or losing your religion. It’s fear of success or fear of failure or fear of wrestling all those words into place, from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.” Although if you can overcome that particular obstacle, you’re already closer to success than most.

 Finish the book. That’s Rule #1.

In this and subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to reveal what MHP seeks in terms of a desirable manuscript, although—bottom line?—it’s a polished, professional voice. Yes, voice. We’re far more likely to accept an uncanny voice over a fancy plot structure. Lock two characters in a dark closet, give them great dialogue and personalities worth exploring, and we’ll consider that manuscript more closely than a story about brain-sucking aliens coming to digest Earth. (Although if your aliens have quirky, well-constructed personalities, we’ll look at them, too.)

Let’s face it, only so many plot-lines exist in literature. They’ve all been covered ad nauseam. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy is eaten by giant squid. (It’s been done.) But a unique voice is yours alone. Exclusive. Inimitable. Priceless. For a writer, a unique voice infusing excitement into a distinctive character is money in the proverbial bank.

Okay, enough preamble. Although I do have one significant bit of advice to share: Don’t listen to anybody (and certainly not to me) if the advice doesn’t resonate. Go with your gut. Go with your own instincts. By all means, listen selectively to proffered advice—accept feedback when it’s constructively given, but I suspect some 80-90% of what you hear won’t work for you. However, that remaining 10-20% might may prove priceless. So do keep an open mind! (See Confronting Criticism.) Remember, success is as much about breaking rules as following them. If it feels right, crayon outside the lines. I think Gandhi said that. Maybe not.

To illustrate, here’s a true story. This one still gives me nightmares. I still wake up cringing.

The most single, most horrific, most god-awful perverse piece of advice I’ve ever encountered occurred during a writers’ conference. (And a writers’ conference can be a wonderful, magical, scintillating experience… but, again, be careful who you listen to.)

One evening, a panel of “experts” bequeathed their brilliance to a capacity filled auditorium of eager, fledgling writers. An attendee stood and asked a panelist a question, and in doing so happened to mention that her nearly-completed novel filled some 360 pages. About 90,000 words.

Without a moment’s preamble—without a speck of empathy or a grain of intelligence—the so-called expert replied, “It’s too long. Cut twenty thousand words.”

This Expert of Knowing Everything While Knowing Nothing had no clue about the nature of the story or its genre, or of the writer’s level of craft, the tenor of the book. Simply “cut it.” The writer was, of course, crushed. And I have never forgotten my frustration over that absurdly idiotic remark.

Should anyone tell you to arbitrarily cut (or add) pages without otherwise knowing your story—it’s intent and purpose—smile politely and walk away. I’ve read too many manuscripts that feel truncated and unfinished… only to discover that the writer had been previously advised to “cut, cut, cut!” without further direction or counsel. In desperation, many writers blindly begin hacking all the style and nuance from an otherwise excellent story.

Think of a novel as a living, breathing person. If I feel that your story needs to lose a bit of weight, I’ll not advise you to remove its liver or stomach or left arm. The process is to shrewdly exercise your book—trimming adverbs, adjectives and excess verbiage like so many bloated fat-cells. Little by little. Or feed it more Skittles, should the opposite be true.

I acknowledge that the above-referenced workshop occurred before the Age of Internet Publishing. Stricter rules applied once upon a time (although stupidity didn’t count back then, either). And I continue to hear agents and editors and the so-called “people in the know” advising writers to cut or add pages, to alter a manuscript in order to satisfy some personal itch or the guidelines of a publishing system that no longer exists.

The biggest problem today? No one’s certain of the new rules yet. But in this rapidly changing paradigm of 21st century novel writing, here’s my best advice: Trust yourself—and hone those basic skills of storytelling in the (somewhat paradoxically) simplest, yet most exciting voice you can muster.
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