Tag Archives: Writer

Some of my favorite editors OF ALL TIME

Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So come closer and listen to what I’ve learned from experience: Editors are a writer’s best friend.

Not when they’re patting you on the back, because anybody can butter you up.

They’re your best friend when they take a red pen and blast through your complicated writing pets, when they check your wildest instincts and find order out of the natural chaos that comes from banging on the keyboard to create anything of length and importance.


The secret to writing is editing, and you can’t edit your own stuff. Not at first.

So it’s wrong to say that every writer needs an editor.

You need more than one, if you want to get serious about any sort of real writing.

It’s like building a house. As a writer, you’re trying to do it all: draft the blueprints like an architect, pour the foundation, frame it, plumb it, siding, drywall, flooring, cabinets, painting–the whole thing.

Every step is important. And getting the right editors is like hiring great subcontractors.

My bias is to think of structure first, because if the blueprints are bad, it doesn’t matter how pretty the carpentry is, and how great the writing is line by line.

This is why every professional architect hires an engineer to do the math and make sure the foundation is strong enough to hold up the house, that the roof won’t blow off and your beams are big enough to handle the load.

So you need different editors for different things. The best possible professional editor for the structure, the blueprints. Then beta readers to look over the whole thing another time, looking for medium-size problems. A line editor to smooth things out and make it all pretty, and finally a proof-reader to take a microscope to the entire thing and make it as flawless as possible.

That sounds like a lot, and most pro editors can wear different hats. But I’m going to argue for dividing it up, because when you’ve been staring at the same thing for weeks, or months, you stop seeing things. A fresh pair of eyes is always smart.

Even though I’ve always had editors, starting way back in college when I was putting out newspapers, there’s a natural inclination for writers to screw this up, to see using editors as some kind of sign of weakness. The thinking goes like this: “Hey, I have (1) a master’s degree in creative writing or (2) have been cashing checks as a journalist for years or (3) am far too talented to need the crutch of a professional editor, which is for wannabes who can’t write their way out of a paper sack if you handed them a sharpened pencil.”

I’d did editing wrong by having friends and family beta read, or asking fellow writers who yes, wrote for money, but cashed checks for doing something completely different.

And it was a waste of time.

Here’s how I learned my lesson, and no, I am not making this up: On a whim, I posted a silly ad to sell my beater Hyundai and romance authors somehow found my little blog that started from that. Pro editor Theresa Stevens got there somehow and I started talking to her, and on a whim I did her standard thing to edit the first 75 pages of a novel, the synopsis and query letter. I didn’t think anything of it and expected line edits. Dangling modifiers and such.

But she rocked.

I learned more, in the months of editing that entire novel, than I could’ve learned in ten years on my own. It’s like the difference between a pro baseball player trying to become a better hitter by spending six hours a day in batting practice, alone, versus one hour a day in hard practice with a world-class batting coach. I’d pick the batting coach, every time.

As somebody who used to lone-wolf it, let me say this: I was wrong.

And so on this Friendly Friday, I want to plant a big smooch on editors of the world, and encourage writers of all backgrounds and specialties to see editors in a different light. That having an editor isn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength. That it says you’re crazy serious about what you do and not afraid of working with the best of the best rather than a cheerleading squad of yes-men who think your 947-word epic about elves with lightsabers riding dragons is the best thing ever.

That it’s not about you, and doing whatever you want, but about making the finest product you can give to readers.

So I want to give a shout out to Theresa the Stevens, who has taught me much, and Rebecca Dickson, my uncensored female doppleganger, and to great beta readers and editors like Alexandria SzemanJulia Rachel BarrettAnna Davis, Mayumi, Donna — because just like a single person can’t be expected to build a beautiful house alone, a smart writer gets help and advice from the smartest people possible.

Find one of those smart people with a red pen.

Hire them, hug them, listen to them, buy them flowers when you succeed. But use them, if you’re serious. And if you’re not serious, hey, take up bowling or whatever.


Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.


Filed under 6 Friendly Friday

I won some literary award, and it was awesomesauce

Every fiction writer should do three things:

1) Go to writing conferences – to learn all they can, make friends and put a serious dent in the hotel bar’s supply of Guinness (mission accomplished!)

2) Hire an editor before unleashing their 650-page epic fantasy novel about elves with lightsabers riding dragons

3) Enter what they write into literary contests

So I’ll talk about those things a little, but first: a little dance. Because I am not so jaded that winning some award makes me shrug, or throw it on the ground. No. I am a happy, happy camper.

The PNWA lit contest isn’t something run out of some dude’s garage. It’s a big shebang, and I’m happy to have been a finalist in 2011 and taken 2nd in 2013 in Best Mystery/Thriller for FREEDOM, ALASKA.

i request the highest of fives

Also, they write you a check, and checks are always good.

Why are literary awards different?

Here’s the deal: journalism awards and such are great, and yes, it was fun to win those as a reporter and editor.

HOWEVER: even if you win the Pulitzer Prize, which is like having the Gods of Journalism descend from heaven and place a solid gold crown upon your head, it doesn’t really change things that much. You don’t suddenly get showered with cushy jobs, minions and fill your swimming pool with Benjamins when you’re not on the lecture tour, giving speeches for money and wearing disguises to avoid all your journalism groupies, which don’t exist, but should.

Unless they moonlight as a TV pundit on the Sunday shows, even the best journalists don’t become (a) rich, (b) famous or (c) rich and famous. There are all kinds of world-class reporters and editors who work at the best newspapers and magazines in the world, and you wouldn’t recognize them if you ran them over with your car. Which is too bad. These folks are rock stars.

So: journalism awards look good on your resume.

Literary awards are different. They can truly change the arc of your writerly career.

Anyone who’s written a novel knows that literary agents and the publishing world in Manhattan swims in sea of slush — of pitches, queries and actual 400-page books, with 99 percent of it being unpublishable, but somebody’s got to search through all that stuff to discover the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.

Mostly, though, they chew through the slush pile like it’s Snuffy the Seal.

So being able to say hey, this novel already got judged in a literary contest and was found very worthy — that’s a foot in the door. If you win and show up at the writing conference, agents may talk to you. That’s a good thing.

My sister got her start in Hollywood by winning the biggest screenplay competition, put on by those Oscar folks at the Academy, and that sucker comes with a $30,000 fellowship and a lot of prestige. Does it open doors? You bet.

Why go to writing conferences?

Fiction is tough. Writing a novel, to me, is the Mt. Everest of writing, the toughest thing we pen monkeys can tackle. Millions talk about it, and maybe even try, but few make it. And that’s fine. Nothing worth doing is easy.

If you’re going to do it, don’t use your own pet theories or simply read books about it. Get real advice and mentoring from people who’ve been up to the summit and back. Get some climbing partners. That’s why you go to writing conferences.

The great thing is writers like helping other writers. In some professions, there’s all kinds of rivalries and secrecy. Writers aren’t built that way. They’re happy to help fellow writers. You’ll see best-selling romance authors hanging out with newbie thriller authors. Nobody cares. There are no real cliques.

I’ve met all kinds of authors at writing conferences — folks like Chris Humphreys, Bob Dugoni, Barry Eisler, Lee Child and Joe Finder — and you learn a lot from listening to them speak, getting a book signed or talking to them in the hotel bar. There isn’t an author I’ve seen who didn’t take time, even if they were the keynote speaker and a bazillionaire bigshot, to talk with everybody.

Also, writing is a funny business. Some of my best writing buddies are romance novelists. That’s who I tend to work with when throwing ideas and drafts around. They rock: they’re organized, smart and know how to collaborate.

In fact, I’m gonna join the RWA and hit their ginormous conference next year to drain THAT hotel bar of its supply of Guinness.

Why enter contests?

First, because it makes you focus. There’s a real deadline, and people writing novels know how endless the slog can be. A contest kicks you in the behind and makes you start sending things out the door.

Second, because you need to test yourself, and push yourself, and get real feedback. Contests will do that. Even if you don’t place, or win, the judges will send you feedback. 

Third, because it can open doors. At some point, you’ll want to get the thing published. Being a finalist or contest winner can make you stand out a little, to show you’re more serious than the average bear, or at least more serious than these bears.

So: circle a lit contest deadline on your calendar, hit a writing conference and hire an editor. You’ll learn a lot, and thank me later. It’s a much better plan than banging on your keyboard, all by your lonesome, for the next two years.

Related posts:


Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award.



Filed under 5 Random Thursday, Fiction, Housekeeping, Red Pen of Doom, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers

Writers: can you do it in FOUR WORDS?

That’s the acid test for every writer: four words.

If somebody in line with you for the Largest Latte Known to Man asks what you’re working on, can you explain it in four words?

How about eight words?

Because if you can’t, you’re not really done.

What if I told you ... how to get to Sesame Street?

And I don’t care that you’ve spent the last seven years locked away in a French monastery, slaving away 25 hours a day, eight days a week to perfect (a) The Great American Novel, Even Though It Was Written in France, (b) the movie script that will turn Hollywood on its ear and stop it from spending $250 million apiece on Michael Bay explosion-fests involving robots that transform into cars or whatever  or (c) a punk-rock masterpiece with song after song with lyrics so beautiful, and rebelliously ugly, that anyone who listens to it quits working for The Man and buys an electric Fender so they can learn the only three chords you need to know to become AN INSANE ROCK GOD.

So let’s get down to it. If you haven’t already, read these posts to get all educated and such, even though it is technically cheating — because today, there is a quiz.

Continue reading


Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, The Big Screen

Why critique groups MUST DIE

Every writer gets the notion — from college, from movies, from the Series of Tubes — that they should be in a critique group.

This notion is seven separate types of wrong.

It’s time for critique groups to go the way of the rotary phone — to make way for something better, faster and stronger.

Peoples of the interwebs: critique groups are obsolete

A critique group is useful for certain things:

(a) university professors who want students to break into groups and leave him alone for the next 45 minutes,

(b) writers who really, really like to read their work aloud,

(c) literary snobs who like to say silly pretentious things about the work of others, and

(d) happy writers who like to socialize with fellow writers and talk smack about the craft while drinking bourbon.

Sidenote: Yes, your particular critique group is wonderful, and you couldn’t live without it. No worries. I’m not driving to your house with the Anti-Critique Group Secret Police to disband it or anything. Also, your critique group’s amazing bylaws and secret handshakes mitigate all the typical disadvantages of plain old boring critique groups that are not nearly as awesome. 

Reason No. 1: Critique groups take far too much time

During college, sure, you’ve got time to sit in a group, read chapters aloud and debate what Susie really meant by having the protagonist drink a bottle of ketchup in Chapter 2.

Once you graduate from college, get a job, get married, buy a house and have little pookies, THERE IS NO TIME for this type of nonsense. Do I have three hours to drive to somebody’s house, listen to chapters read aloud, then talk about what I remember of those words and drive home? No. I have ten flipping minutes to write silly blog posts.

People who write for monies, full time, do not gather around a table to read their text aloud while fellow writers and editors listen carefully and ponder the words. It does not happen.

Reason No. 2: Editing as a group is dangerous and slow

Anything written by a committee will stink up the joint, right? Writing is a solitary act.

Editing is, too. You write a thing, then you give it to an editor.

Typically, there are different levels of editing: at a newspaper, you ship your text to the city editor, who gives it the first whack and focuses on the big picture. Later, the draft goes to the copy desk for a different type of editing, more of a polish and proofing.

Also, editing it best done on a keyboard, or with a red pen. Not out loud in a social group, where peer pressure and weird dynamics can screw up a draft in two seconds flat.

Reason No. 3: Critique groups can’t handle most things we write today

Short stories and novels. That’s what critique groups are really built to handle.

And they do a bad job on novels. Why? Because reading a novel in tiny chunks every week will (a) take forever and (b) turn the focus onto pretty words rather than structure and story. You need to see the entire airplane before you can say, with authority, whether it’ll fly or not. Peeking at tiny pieces of it all year doesn’t work.

Traditional critique groups are bullocks when it comes to editing blog posts, speeches, opeds, screenplays, newspaper stories, magazine features, obituaries and haikus. That’s right, haikus. YOU CAN’T HANDLE THEM.

Reason No. 4: Because I say so

That’s it.

I could put some bullets beneath here, if you want to make it official. Here you go:

  • Because
  • I
  • Say
  • So.

Let’s invent something new

Now, there is a place for some kind of thing that’s LIKE a critique group, except better, faster and stronger.

Everybody needs an editor. And the more important a thing is, the more you should hire a professional editor who actually does this stuff for a living. But for a whole bunch of things that we write — including silly blog posts — hiring a pro would be a waste of money and time.

So let’s invent a new Writing Monster that’s better, faster and stronger.


The Writing Monster should be flexible, able to handle the editing of any kind of writing, whether it’s a little blog post, a speech, a short story or a screenplay.

It should also expose people to new ideas and new ways of looking at writing, and inspire us to rip the pages out of stupid pretentious books.

And it should expose us to different types of writers and editors, not just fellow writers who have the same exact skills and writerly prejudices.


The Writer Monster Thing should use this thing we call the Series of Tubes and travel at the speed of light rather than the Speed of Steve’s Subaru as you carpool to Jane’s house for the critique group and hope that she didn’t make that bean salad again.


The Writing Monster should be strong and resilient, living in the cloud and forging connections with writers and editors anywhere, like the Borg‘s hive mind collective.

BTW: Resistance is futile.

The Writing Monster will NOT die because Steve moved to Idaho or Jane discovered that she hates Tyler’s novel and, to be honest, his stinking guts.

Also, the Writing Monster will focus more on short, important things like concepts, pitches and structure. Things that take up less than a page. (Kristen the Lamb is onto something with her Concept Critique Group idea.)

The alternative is spending every week for the next year dissecting Steve’s 125,000-word epic about vampire elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs and Jane’s memoir about growing up on a potato farm in Idaho.

Now, I have the guts of an idea, and a burning desire to blow up critique groups in an explosion that will make Michael Bay jealous. But that’s a post for another day. So: shoot me your crazy ideas in the comment section.

Related posts:

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

The evil secret to ALL WRITING – editing is everything

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Evil storytelling tricks NO ONE SHOULD KNOW


Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.



Filed under Fiction, Red Pen of Doom

Writers: you are REQUIRED BY LAW to visit Livia’s brainy blog

You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to write books or become, I don’t know, the governor of Alaska.

Don't let the hat fool you. Beneath that hat is the brain of an actual brain scientist who focuses her powers on using science to help writers. She is not a wannabe gangster, at least not that I know of; maybe she does use her giant brain to rob banks or mess with the stock market . Go visit her blog.

HOWEVER: There is an honest-to-goodness neuroscientist grad student at MIT who uses serious brain Science to help writers craft amazing things. Yes, she may look 20 years old, and frankly, she could be 12 or 257 years for all I care, because she is a freaking genius.

Her blog about using brain science to help writers is seven entirely separate types of awesome, and it is a public service to writers all over the planet.

Governments should give her big fat tax subsidies. Billionaires riding around on their yachts should take a second to write her a grant or six.

If you’re a writer, a reader or at all literate in the English language, go visit her blog to get educated and enlightened. She also has a book, which you can purchase with your fake digital monies over the Series of Tubes.

You can also follow the whippersnapper genius on the Twitter at @lkblackburne

For people who like things all neat and organized:

A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing


Livia Blackburne on the Twitter:



Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.


1 Comment

Filed under 6 Friendly Friday, Barons of the Blogosphere, Worthy citizens of the Twitterverse

Writers: enter this 200-word flash fiction contest – DO IT NOW

The writers that I know and love all do the same thing: they write more than they talk.

And to them, 200 words is nothing.

Bam, here you go. Next?

So use your clickity mouse and get your penmonkey behind to this flash-fiction contest, over at the Soul and Sweet Tea blog.

DO IT NOW. Then come back here and I’ll tell you a secret.

Joey the Francisco of Soul and Sweet Tea

Joey the Francisco of Soul and Sweet Tea, a great blog for writers and book lovers. Go visit it.

Why do this?

I’ll tell you why.

  • First, you need a break — something to write with no pressure, no worries. Whether you’re a screenwriter or speechwriter, a newspaper reporter or a novelist, IT IS REQUIRED that you stretch a different writing muscle sometimes. You can’t keep doing the same thing forever. The contest includes a bunch of photos as writing prompts. People of the interwebs, this is easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
  • Second, the person behind this blog, Joey the Francisco, is not only a crazy smart writer (a scientist type, and president of some nuclear medicine shebang). No. She’s also kind, witty and a writer of thrillers. Trifecta, people. Ta-righ-fek-TAH.
  • Third, I am a secret GUEST JUDGE for this contest.

Don’t tell anybody. That would ruin the secret.

Pretend you don’t know or ask Will Smith to wipe out your memory of this post, along with your memories of WILD WEST, BAD BOYS 2 and I AM LEGEND, which put the B in Boring despite featuring mondo zombies. I did not think this was possible.

How can a movie with zombies be Snooze City? Then again, LAYER CAKE is (1) a mob movie, with (2) all kinds of action and violence that (3) starred Daniel 007 Craig, and it was perhaps the most boring movie on the planet until HUGO came out. My God.

Back to the flash fiction shebang: Have I been a judge of literary contests before? Sure. This is not my first rodeo. Have I competed in rodeos before? No. Cage matches to the death against mountain lions and bear? Also no.  They are my neighbors, and as long as they leave me alone — and I consider pooping on my land at 3 a.m., when I’m asleep, as leaving me be — then I’ll leave them alone.

HOWEVER: those were Serious Contests about Serious Things, and what I wrote for comments was seriously tame.

This is pure fun. So go, do it, be wild. Write whatever you want for 200 words. THIS IS AMERICA, unless you are in Canada, the UK, Australia or whatever. Either way, I am pretty damn sure writing flash fiction won’t get you a visit from the secret police, unless you’re in Syria, North Korea and about six other places I can’t remember right off.

While we are at it, and because it’s Friendly Friday, this blog we’re talking about — Soul and Sweet Tea — is good stuff. Go show Joey the Francisco some writerly love by subscribing to the blog and following her tweets . She is not annoying and would never pimp books 25 hours a day, eight days a week, because she has wonderful manners, even on the Series of Tubes.

Note: Some folks have reported TECHNICAL PROBLEMS with posting their brilliant 200 words on Joey’s blog. Do not erase your flash fiction or fall into a steaming vat of despair. Post those 200 words as a comment here and I’ll send minions to get those words to Atlanta in time for the contest deadline (Sunday).


Filed under 6 Friendly Friday, Barons of the Blogosphere, Worthy citizens of the Twitterverse

Why are all writers lazy bums?

I don’t really think writers are lazy bums. I just want us all to talk about the elephant in the living room.

Why does writing TAKE SO LONG?

The average person types 50 words per minute.

And that’s slow. I type about 80 or 90. Faster, if I have coffee.

Quicker if I have coffee, a deadline and something to look forward to after.


Image by bitzi☂ via Flickr

Here comes the math.

Fifty words per minute =

  • 3,000 words per hour
  • 24,000 words per eight-hour day
  • 120,000 words per week

That’s a ton of words. An incredible amount.

Let’s do a little more math to see how much we should be cranking out, if we’re not surfing the net, Twittering our lives away and checking out Facebook photos all day.

Here come the word counts:

  • 200 words = letter to the editor
  • 500 words = five-minute speech
  • 600 words = news story
  • 800 words = oped
  • 1,000 words = 10-minute speech
  • 1,000 to 3,000 words = profile or magazine piece
  • 1,000 to 8,000 words = short story
  • 3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
  • 15,000 words = screenplay
  • 20,000 to 50,000 words = novella
  • 60,000 to 200,000 words = novel

If you work an honest 40-hour week, you should’ve produced 120,000 words.

That’s eight screenplays or 200 newspaper stories.

It’s 40 keynote speeches or one entire novel. In a single week.

Nobody writes that much. NOBODY.

Continue reading


Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday