My Non-Advice for Aspiring Writers

May 21, 2018

I'll be among the panelists at an upcoming writers' workshop, so I'm brushing up on my advice for fledgling novelists. I'll trot out the tried-and-true adages: show, don't tell; read your dialogue aloud to road-test its authenticity; edit yourself mercilessly (don't count every word, but make every word count); be smart and strategic in submitting your work for publication . . . stuff like that. But I always feel a bit like a fraud when giving advice. I mean, what do I know? Yes, I've had a modicum of success in the publishing business, but maybe I'd have had way more had I played my cards differently. I certainly didn't follow a specific path; I just kinda bumbled my way along, learning by trial and error. The fact is that creative writing is an intensely personal endeavor. One-size-fits-all just doesn't apply, particularly considering fiction's inherent subjectivity. So maybe I'll try a different tack. Maybe rather than advising aspiring writers what to do, I'll advis...

Ouch. That One Got to Me

May 9, 2018

I frequently visit a news website that offers an engaging mix of political, cultural and editorial content. It’s a strictly digital publication, one of the earliest in the nascent days of the internet to try to charge for subscriptions. The subscription model flopped – too much content was available for free to motivate readers to cough up any spare change – so the site bit the bullet, dispensing with subscriptions and relying solely on advertising for revenue. Now, it’s trying again, offering free basic access to the site but reviving subscriptions and promising all kinds of goodies for the takers. Visits to the site are periodically interrupted by appeals to subscribe. Like the vast majority of readers, I’m guessing, I simply X out the “Subscribe now!” window and continue gorging on the free content. Until today. The ads usually emphasize the what's-in-it-for-you angle: exclusive in-depth features, expanded interactivity, columns and essays otherwise unavailabl...

Accent-uating the Positive

May 8, 2018

I write in a Southern accent. Well, not all the time. Only when I’m writing personal messages or social media posts. The twang evaporates when I write novels. I’m not talking about dialect or jargon or patois. I’m talking about nuance, inflection, affect. I just noticed it recently. When I’m writing professionally, I use things like exclamation points and adjectives sparingly. Less is almost always more, in my estimation. But in personal correspondence, my drawl comes through loud and clear. I tend to get so gosh-darn effusive that the words splat onto the page like water balloons. So why the difference? Why do I communicate so differently in my own voice than that of my characters? I think it’s because of my mom. She had a truly beautiful voice – rich, honeyed, sonorous. Not only was it the first voice I ever heard, but it was the voice that read to me. I still remember her lilting cadence when she read me “Madeline” as I snuggled against her on the bed....

Dancing About Architecture

April 20, 2018

As I wrote my latest novel, which incorporates my love of music into the plot, I had all sorts of déjà vu moments. The book is about a teen playing in the garage band. This was my actual life as a teen, so the subject matter would seem to be a no-brainer, right? Not so much. Writing it reminded of when I taught my kids how to drive and suddenly had to articulate hard-to-explain concepts. The concepts were hard to explain not because they were complicated, but because driving is so instinctive, so intuitive, so gut-check-ish. Or at least it feels that way once you’ve been driving a while. So, for instance, I helpfully taught my kids that you put on your brakes when . . . when it’s time to put on your brakes, that’s when! Or you merge into interstate traffic by . . . by merging into interstate traffic, that’s how! Having to put these concepts into words strained my brain, and this at a time I was already in full sensory-overload mode. (Fearing for your life when your f...

Less is Generally More

April 17, 2018

Show me the last five emails you wrote. I’ve never actually said this, but this is my temptation when people ask me to assess their writing. Trust me, I feel incredibly presumptuous giving writing advice (and incredibly flattered anyone would ask), but since some people DO ask, I feel compelled to pass along information that is as helpful as possible. And since I’m generally not in a position to read people’s manuscripts (refer to my pesky day job as evidence of how lucrative a typical fiction-writing career is), I’m tempted to counsel aspiring writers to take their own inventory. That’s where their last five emails come in handy. The way I figure it, the surest sign of literary talent is writing consistently well in every form of communication. Even grocery lists hint at skills invaluable in crafting a novel: Did you spell “cantaloupe” correctly, or at least abbreviate it understandably? Did you categorize your items by section, suggesting an efficient and we...

Wiping Away Her Tears

April 9, 2018

She couldn’t wipe away her tears. This is the image that’s haunted me most since I lost a friend to ALS several years ago. I’d worked with Gina right out of college, then moved on and lost touch other than exchanging delighted hugs if we happened to see each other on a sidewalk or in the mall. She was an incredibly warm and vibrant person – sparkling brown eyes, a hearty laugh – somebody easy to reconnect with in an instant. We were about the same age, and our catch-up conversations reflected the pressing concerns of youth: ten extra pounds, the grocery stores that wouldn’t double our coupons, those darned downtown trains that always tied up traffic during rush hour. . . But mostly we laughed and reminisced about our fun-filled, adrenalin-fueled, friendship-rich stint at the local newspaper. Until her little girl was diagnosed with cancer. That’s when our chance encounters turned somber and soul-searching. That’s w...

Taking It, Making It, Faking It (Time, That Is)

April 5, 2018

“When do you find the time to write?” This is what I’m almost invariably asked when people find out I’m a novelist. And, believe me, I understand the question. Competing activities that have threatened to nudge my fiction-writing into oblivion throughout my life have chronologically included Brownies, band practice, existential teen angst (quite the time sucker), college finals, wedding-planning, labor, midnight feedings, toddler tantrums, T-ball, parent-teacher conferences, existential teen angst (this time my kids’, not mine, but even more of a time-sucker the second go-round), furniture rearranging, bathroom-disinfecting, etc. Oh, and a day job. Toss that pesky day job into the mix and time starts to seem as scarce as, say, political integrity. Still, I’ve squeezed fiction-writing into all these activities and more, because asking when I find the time is like asking when I find the time to eat crème-filled donuts. Some activities are simply so sacred that...

Channeling Dad in My Characters’ Names

April 2, 2018

“That’s kinda weird. . . .” I remember getting a lot of feedback about the name of the protagonist in my 2014 young-adult novel, Thirty Sunsets. Her name is Forrest, and several stymied readers asked where it came from. Um . . . I dunno. Where does any name come from? Your family? Your favorite soccer player? Your imagination? Some combination thereof? My chief motivation in giving Forrest her name was that I wanted to recreate my dad’s penchant for assigning stream-of-consciousness nicknames to his kids. Dad’s original nickname for me, for instance, was “Christine Clam” (he was channeling Jackie Gleason, for TV trivia buffs who go waaaay, waaaay back), but the name continually evolved. Whatever iteration happened to trip off Dad’s tongue at any given moment might be a one-time deal, or it might stick for a while. “Clambo,” I think, had the longest run. I, as the saying go...

Music to My Ears

March 29, 2018

The longer I write, the more I find myself turning to songwriters for inspiration. I co-wrote the songs included in my most recent novel, "All the Wrong Chords" (the EP, "All the Wrong Chords" is available on iTunes or wherever digital music is offered), and I love the economy and discipline required in crafting lyrics. Sure, there’s something very satisfying about finishing page 312 of a novel. But it’s nothing short of sublime to find that single word that adds grace, profundity, scansion and meter to a song lyric. It’s one thing to tell a story when time and space are limitless. That’s a primo reason novel-writing is so deliciously indulgent. But in songs, time and space are always limited. If you’re going to tell a story, inspire an emotion or create a connection in the confines of sixteen or so lines of copy, you’d better have a laser-like focus on what makes people tick. Great songs never take shortcuts. Great lyrics never settle. Great songwriters never fake...

My Writing Tips for Kids

March 28, 2018

When I visit schools as a guest author, I share a sneaky little secret: Good math skills open math-related doors. Good athletic skills open sports-related doors. Good interpretive-dance skills open interpretive-dance-related doors. But good communications skills? They open virtually every door. A strong command of the language makes people assume you’re smart in general. Isn’t that incredible? Very few other skills have such an all-encompassing effect. Nothing’s wrong with those other skills I cited (and best of luck with interpretive-dance aspirations), but those who take the time to cultivate communications skills will reap advantages in every area of life. That’s a lot of bang for the buck. And how exactly do you cultivate those skills? Here’s what I tell kids: 1: Be a reader. I’ve actually known writers who try to skip this step, but it can’t be done. Trying to be a good writer without being an avid reader is like trying to be a chef with only three ing...

© 2018 Christine Hurley Deriso