Monday, April 27, 2009

On 26 Things I Learned about Writing at the Muse and the Marketplace

This weekend I attended Grub Street Writer’s annual writers’ conference in Boston, “The Muse Muse and the Marketplace.” In addition to receiving one-on-one feedback from an agent, I attended four sessions on various aspects of writing (Elinor Lipman, Bret Anthony Johnston) and getting published (Lisa Genova, a panel of agents) and a luncheon with keynote speaker, Ann Patchett (she was witty and informative!). In reviewing my notes when I got home rather than just putting them away, I gleaned the following advice/observations, organized by general topic. I like to think I was practicing some of these, but it never hurts to be reminded. Many of these came with illustrations.

On point of view (POV):
1. Point of view all comes down to selection of events and selection of details.
2. To pull off first person central POV (as opposed to peripheral), you need a distinctive and original voice. First person central is deceptively easy. “How the story is told is as important as the story itself. If anyone else tells it, they will get it wrong.”
3. For every one thing a character notices about another character, we should learn three things about the character doing the observing.
4. When you put one character in the position where they know more than another character, you create tension.

On sharpening your writing:
5. Establish a sense of your main character on page one. You want people to care.
6. Agents are looking for an excuse to stop reading; don’t include details/incidents early that make them question your logic, your research, etc.
7. Don’t write about the weather or the sky unless it’s relevant to your story.
8. Use salient details to move the story along or help us see a person or setting.
9. Sometimes there is no substitute for a well-placed adverb.
10. Some ambiguity in story endings is okay—either this or that happened. Use an epilogue if you need to wrap things up. But don’t have a character stare out into the abyss.
11. Make the reader an equal partner—don’t keep them guessing about what is happened, has happened, don’t trick them.
12. Save your “cuts.”

On dialogue:
13. Watch putting too much exposition in your dialogue.
14. Oscar Wilde said, “The essence of dialogue is interruption.”
15. When you use the word “said” or “says” in your dialogue tags, they disappear as compared with other synonyms (e.g. replied, affirmed, concurred, etc.)
16. Use said or says frequently to avoid confusion about who is speaking.
17. It sounds phony to use a person’s name in dialogue.
18. Some words are inherently funnier than others, so be mindful of the effect you are creating—e.g. haddock vs. filet of sole.
19. Emotions can be conveyed by the quality of the speech, not just the content (e.g. when happy, use run on sentences).

On writing in general:
20. Don’t count on your muse to appear! Be disciplined about your writing; this is a job.
21. Don’t keep beating a dead horse—be ready to dump your project if it isn’t working.
22. Remember that research is where we go to hide when we don’t want to work.

On publishing:
23. Make sure your book fits into a genre, or your book may be difficult to sell.
24. Network and use any referrals you can as you seek an agent, as referrals will more likely lead to an agent reading your work.
25. Self-publishing is not the kiss-of-death it was even a year ago, thanks to the success of originally self-published books, Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader and Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, but you will need a good hook (e.g. a place, a topic).
26. Prior to publishing, put excerpts, FAQs, readers’ guides on your website, design a cover.

Not too shabby for one day of my time. Thanks, Grub Street!


  1. Thanks so much for postiing these notes. While some are not unfamiliar, I like the way you have presented them, and knowing the context from which they arose adds a little punch. Thanks again!

  2. Thanks! I'm a great believer in stating the obvious! You think you know something, and then you go back and look at what you've written, and there they are, those glowing little writing sins. Belle