Reading as a Writer

I am co-chairing the New England Crime Bake this year. I have a few duties that weekend, mostly involving making announcements, greeting people, and helping make the weekend run smoothly. I am also going to do an interview with our Guest of Honor, Elizabeth George.

I’ve already begun to prep for the interview. Though I can’t read (or, in most cases, re-read) her entire canon, I polled a few friends, and have a list. I started with A Great Deliverance, her first book, while I was on vacation. The book was published in 1988, and I read it over twenty years ago. I remembered the story line, though I didn’t remember all of the details.

While I’ve always written, twenty years ago being a writer was barely an idea, so I read the book as a mystery reader. This time, I read it as writer. What a layer to add to my appreciation of Ms. George’s first book. New observations include:

Meeting the characters. The book introduces her cast of characters, including and especially Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sargent Barbara Havers. She neatly weaves in tremendous amounts of backstory without slowing down the tension of the book.

Using different points of view. Ever since I wrote my thesis on Agatha Chrstie’s use of point of view, I always notice how authors use it, particularly in mysteries. Ms. George uses third person, from multiple points of view. In some instances, she moves in very closely to a specific character and his or her thoughts. In others, particularly when she moves to Lynley and Havers, she creates distance.

Setting. The Lynley books take place in England, even though Ms. George is an American and lives in the States. Twenty years ago, I considered that a fun fact. Now, as a writer, I have to wonder about the amount of research she must have to do.

The series. She is eighteen books into this series. She also has a YA series. (My nieces are reading those books as well, so I can get a second hand reader experience. You can’t turn off reading like a writer, and first impressions get skewed. But I digress.) I have to wonder if she had any idea that she’d still be writing these books twenty-five years in. Don’t worry, I’ll ask her about that.

Re-reading A Great Deliverance with my writer’s hat on has been a great experiment. I’m looking forward to more of my homework, and to learning by observing.

How about you? Have you reread anything now you are writing? Do you ever get stuck looking at the mechanics of a novel, forgetting to just go with the flow of the prose?


Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series, which debuts this fall.

Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Embrace Your Dark Side

charging knightI once wrote a post called Get Mad: Marketing from Your Dark Side. I’ve mentioned it before briefly in the context of Terry Pratchett’s passing, but I’d like to come back to it again because I recently read two blog posts that touched on how artists use their personal fears, conflicts, and even tragedies to infuse their art with passion that resonates far beyond their own experience.

In my original post about marketing, I talked about how a strong brand is defined as much by what it stands against as what it stands for:

Without an opposing force, a hero is just a person who is going through the motions.

Without an opposing force, there is no fire in the hero’s soul. There is no sense of greater purpose, no fierce commitment, no do-or-die mission.

Without an opposing force, we never get to see what the hero can really do.

Like it or not, your enemy is a big part of who you are and why you are.

As writers, we are defined in a similar way – not just by what we write, but WHY we write it. Often the “why” behind what we write is grounded in some deep ache or longing, desire for justice, or mission to be a voice for the voiceless. These voids and wrongs that need righting are our “dark side.” They are the issues and experiences that touch us so deeply that we feel compelled to write about them.

Over the weekend, I read an interesting piece by Scott Belsky on Behance’s 99U blog. In Creativity is Nourished by Conflict, Belsky tells the tale of his friend, the young musician Rachel Platten, who – after ten years of relative anonymity – just hit big with “Fight Song,” an anthem that was born out of her own fears and frustrations:

This song is Rachel’s first major hit (we’re talking morning shows, rabid fans, sharing the stage with Taylor Swift, etc.), and like all great art, it came from a dark place: desperation, exhaustion, and the desire to prove oneself amidst universal doubt.

And then this morning I read The Secret of All Art (cc Louis CK, Kurt Vonnegut, JK Rowling, Casey Neistat, etc.) by James Althucher in which the Choose Yourself author talks about the importance of having an “emotional anchor” for your art:

Heres what I think all great artists do:

– They have a deeply personal emotional anchor they can tie their work to:

For Kurt Vonnegut, he was dramatically effected by the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, where he was a prisoner of war.

130,000 people died in a single day. Compared with 90,000 in Hiroshima. Kurt Vonnegut survived and his job after that was to dig up all the bodies.

When he ANCHORS a book (in Slaughterhouse Five, for instance, he anchors to the most horrific moment of his life – Dresden), he can go CRAZY after that: time travel, other planets, placing the author as a side character in the book, all sorts of experimentation.

It doesn’t matter because he can always pull back to the emotional anchor when he needs to. And then we all relate.

No emotional anchor = no art. No meaning.


So, while your stories may reflect what you find beautiful and precious in this world, remember that they are also a place where you can do battle against the darkness that would harm the things you hold dearest. And know that your most powerful writing will often be born of that dark side and your impassioned willingness to fight it with everything you’ve got.

Oh, and by the way, writing from your dark side can make a difference in the world. In her recent Writer Unboxed piece, The Power of Fiction, Jo Eberhardt shares some fabulous examples of how different stories changed the world, one life at a time. Pretty inspiring stuff.

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

Weekend Edition – Writing and Money Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Let’s get down to brass tacks: Writing and Money

Art by Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void

Art by Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void

I realize that this little blog post is to the topic of writing and money as one ice cube is to the 200,000-ton bulk of your average iceberg. Nevertheless, the topic has been on my mind lately so I’m going to go ahead and share my ice cube’s worth of random thoughts.

I have been self-employed since my divorce in 2007 – first as a web development project manager, but since about 2009 as a copywriter and content marketer. I may still be driving my 2002 Pathfinder and wearing many of the clothes that I packed for my move out of the “marital home,” but I have also managed to successfully maintain an income that’s kept me and my daughter well housed, well fed, and – while not exactly living in the lap of luxury – happily enjoying life’s little pleasures.

It hasn’t always been a clear or easy path, but I wouldn’t trade a single day of it for a “secure” job as a full-time employee.

··• )o( •··

Most of us drag around some kind of emotional baggage related to money. It might be guilt or fear or a lifetime of feeling undeserving. Throw a creative pursuit like writing into the mix, and you have the added “fun” of doing battle with the “starving artist” stereotype (unheated garret, anyone?).

I’m sure I have yet to plumb the depths of my own money-related hang-ups, but the one that consistently surfaces each time I get brave enough to sit down across the table from this particular demon is the unfounded belief that I can only make “real” money (aka, the kind of money that pays the rent and utility bills) doing work that is a) difficult, b) business-related, and c) let’s just say not all that close to my heart.

Because I’ve bought into this belief, I’ve allowed my fear to keep me from even experimenting with different kinds of writing business models. Despite the fact that ten years ago I would not have believed I could support myself doing what I’m doing today, I seem unable to take a similar leap of faith to the next step in my writer’s journey. The crisis of divorce (and the prospect of being unable to stay home with my then three year-old daughter) pushed me to jump into the wild world of freelancing without a shred of experience or much of a safety net. You would think that after all these years (and learning first hand that I can do this) I would have developed the courage to jump again, but – no. I have replaced my former doubts about my ability to become a freelance writer with a new set of equally limiting doubts about being able to make a freelance living doing anything other than the kind of work I do today.

··• )o( •··

I try not to beat myself up about these doubts. After all, they seem to be a natural and hard-to-shake part of the freelancer feast-or-famine mentality. After nearly twenty years of working jobs with steady paychecks, my transition to a freelance lifestyle included its share of sleepless nights wondering where the hell the next gig (and infusion of cash) would come from. I had to work hard to learn to believe and trust that the “next thing” would show up when I needed it.

So far  (knock on wood), it always has; but that doesn’t put my anxiety to rest. On the worst days, I can even use my past good fortune to convince myself that my luck is due to run out. (Talk about self-sabotage.)

The ebb-and-flow nature of the freelance world means that – like most self-employed folks I know – I tend to say “yes” to almost every job that comes my way. Most of the time this works out fine. Sometimes, I wind up regretting it. (There are some jobs that aren’t worth any amount of money.)

When I’m suspended in limbo between gigs, coming off a particularly hellatious project, or just feeling a little insecure, I reopen my ongoing investigation into the different ways writers make money. You know – just for “fun.” I look for writers who have crafted an even more flexible, consistent and fulfilling writing life than I have. (Because, at these low points I figure there has got to be a better way.) I look for alternative business models, interesting product launches, and unique publishing strategies.

··• )o( •··

Very few writers make a full-time living writing fiction. There are many complex reasons for for this sad-but-true reality,  including (in no particular order) the labyrinthine mess that is the traditional publishing industry, the equally confusing sprawl of the burgeoning self-publishing trend, the post-Kindle challenges of convincing the average person to pay more than $.99 (or, in some cases, anything at all) for a book, the Herculean effort required to get noticed in the saturated book market, and so on.

The fact that we can’t all be J.K. Rowling or Stephen King does not, however, mean that there aren’t many writers who make a good living with a variety of writing-related jobs and projects. The “entrepreneurial writer,” a creature of the Internet age, typically builds his or her writing business around multiple streams of diversified revenue that may include fiction and nonfiction book sales, blogging, copywriting, speaking, teaching, etc.

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn is a champion of the “author entrepreneur” and very generous about sharing what she’s learned on her own journey from business consultant to full-time author/speaker.  She even periodically shares detailed information about how her overall revenue breaks down across the different parts of her writing business. Joanna’s content is helpful – informative and inspiring in a step-by-step, “real world” way.

Of course, there are the anomalies of the self-publishing world – the Kindle Millionaires like Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and J.A. Konrath – who have cracked the code to making a very nice living selling fiction via Amazon’s Kindle platform. The stories of these self-published stars offer inspiration of a different sort – more Cinderella story than Penn’s nuts-and-bolts breakdown.

When the Internet begins to lure me farther and farther down the rabbit hole and away from any relevance to my current life (I mean, let’s be honest, I’m not going to become a superstar Kindle author any time super soon). I forcefully guide myself back to articles that are more directly related to my current earning potential as a content marketer. Alexandra Franzen’s 50+ ways to make money as a writer is one interesting take on the topic. Peter Bowerman’s down-to-earth, no-nonsense voice at The Well-Fed Writer is always a comfort. And there are others out there who share their stories and advice freely on their blogs: James Chartrand, Ed Gandia, etc.

And then I suddenly realize that my investigation has brought me back to where I started. Though I struck out in search of the new, the bold, and the creative, I have come full circle and am once again focusing my attention on what is instead of what might be – what I have already achieved instead of the things that would push me outside my comfort zone and into the next part of my adventure.

··• )o( •··

It’s at this point in my well-worn routine that I come face to face with the real question: Why not me?

My inner critic is practically salivating to answer this one. That insidious voice hisses eagerly in my ear, mocking me for daring to think I might succeed without experience, training, or a massive audience. Who am I, the voice asks earnestly, compared to these obviously more qualified individuals about whom I’ve been reading?

I am momentarily cowed by this line of questioning, but then I counter with a question of my own: who were they when they started?

Everyone has to start somewhere. Who’s to say that these superstars and role models didn’t come from beginnings as modest as my own? Who’s to say they didn’t face the very same demons jeering me today? In fact, is there any other way for them to have embarked on their writer’s journeys than as a nobody, a newbie, a wannabe? My guess is that there is no more fertile soil for success.

It’s cliche, but it’s also true that the people who succeed are the ones who show up. Stellar talent, unique concepts, and connections in high places are nice, but optional. The one non-negotiable is showing up. You have to be brave, be bold, and do the work. You have to leap into the gap even though you’re not sure you have wings. That’s how we learn to fly.

··• )o( •··

In the end, the thing about writing and money is that the writing has to come first. I don’t just mean that you must deliver the work before you can get paid; but also – and more importantly – that your choices must be driven first by creative impulses, not money. As a single mom, I know only too well the real-life necessity of including financial factors when deciding how to spend my precious time. However, I also know that consistently putting financial considerations before artistic ones is like building your own prison – each time you choose money over passion placing another brick in the wall.

Though I am deeply grateful for the writing life I have created so far, I do feel like I need to create some windows and maybe even a door or two in the walls of this structure. It’s scary to  think about removing pieces of what I’ve already built, but I know that unless I start blowing out some walls, the view will never change and I’ll never find the openings that lead to new and exciting spaces in my writer’s world. It will take a both intentional plotting and opportunistic pantsing to craft the next iteration of my writing life, and I’m excited about both parts of the adventure.

How about you?


What I’m Writing:

hello strangerI’m happy to report that I’m gently easing back into my morning journaling practice. It felt strange, after all those long weeks of absence, to return to the page. I felt like I was having coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I was happy to be there, but felt slightly awkward and even a little guilty for the long time apart. I didn’t know what to say at first, but once I settled in, the rhythm of the words began to flow the way it used to. The comforting familiarity returned and I lost my inhibitions.

Since getting back to this routine, I have noticed that my other writing  – blog posts, columns, even client work – seems a little easier. It’s like the free-form nature of the morning pages has begun to untangle what was becoming a bit of creative gridlock in my head. The experience reminds me that we cannot work all the time. We must sometimes come to the page simply to play – to dabble and meander and muse aimlessly about everything and nothing. Otherwise, our minds become rigid and unyielding. Everything about our work tightens and closes up. This is not a good place to be, no matter what you are writing.

Do you have a warm-up or letting-loose routine that helps you clear your head and get the juices flowing? Have you ever fallen out of sync with that routine and started to feel the effects of the loss?


What I’m Reading:

book nightbirdI bought Alice Hoffman’s middle-grade novel Nightbird for my mom as part of her Mother’s Day gift. The film adaptation of Hoffman’s Practical Magic is one of my family’s favorite movies, so I thought that we might enjoy this contemporary fairytale set in a fictitious Massachusetts town not that different from the one we live in.

The tale had many of my favorite elements – magic, spells, a good witch, a small community, and even owls. There was a bit of mystery, a bit of history, and the touch of several romances strung out over the centuries.

This wasn’t a story that had me sitting on the edge of my seat, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. It was the comforting kind of read where you know that everything is going to turn out alright in the end, so you aren’t troubled if you have to set it aside for a few days. Things were, in fact, tied up a little too neatly at the end. Though I’m all for happy endings, the perfection of the way things worked out felt a little contrived. Though one might argue that this is appropriate for the intended reader (middle grade, not adult), I would counter that there are many middle grade books that handle difficult situations in a more realistic manner.

Despite the Hollywood ending, I enjoyed Nightbird.  It was a quick read that let me escape for a few hours to an idyllic town in rural Massachusetts – a place with pink apples, black owls, and a magical history.



A break from the blogs …

silent treatmentI took an unintentional break from blog reading this week. The pockets of time usually reserved for reading blog posts were spent on other things, mostly “real life” things. But, perhaps the pause in my blog consumption was well timed since it dovetails with the start of my friend Shanna Trenholm’s annual social media sabbatical – The Silent Treatment.

She hasn’t yet posted about this year’s time away from the Internet, but here is last year’s Silent Treatment announcement post, and here is her wrap-up of what she learned after last year’s second annual sabbatical.

I don’t know that I’m ready to unplug from social media completely, even if it’s only for a month, but I love the concept behind her time away from the noise of social media. Learning to not only exist, but to work amidst all that chaos and distraction is a serious challenge for writers. Maybe I could start small with a week or even just a few days away.

Have you ever taken a leave of absence from the digital life? How did you make it work? What differences did it make in your creative life? 

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin price of anything thoreau

Here’s to facing your (money) demons, getting to know yourself (again), and finding pockets of quiet amidst the (Internet) chaos.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

Friday Fun – Favorite Weather for Writing

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: We’ve written before about our favorite time of day to write, but today we’re thinking about which kinds of weather inspire our muse – sunshine, rain, fog, wind? Is being snowed in more inspiring than a summer afternoon with the windows flung wide? Which of Mother Nature’s moods gets your fingers tapping on the keyboard?

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: Rain inspires contemplation, wind makes me happily restless. I believe fresh air is a good ingredient for any art, including writing, so a day that invites open windows and provides a good cross breeze is a good day for penning my thoughts. Pretty much any type of weather other than what we’ve had this week – hot and humid – feels like a good fit for creative endeavors. This oppressive summer scene mostly makes me want to zone out in front of the A/C. But, a writer must write no matter what the weather, so despite the fact that my fingers have been sticking to the keyboard, I’ve still been tap-tap-tapping away at various deadlines. Yep – tapping away, and dreaming of crisp, clear fall days. ;)

photo by M. Shafer

photo by M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin: No matter the weather, writing’s still work. It’s easier to work when I don’t want to go outside and play – and I like to play outside in all seasons. So rain, excessive heat, fierce winter – these are times I’m happy to be inside, staring out.




wendy-shotWendy Thomas:  I have to agree with Jamie and Deborah, as a writer I am forced to write in all kinds of weather in order to make deadlines so I make do with what I have. But the type of weather that *really* inspires me is very specific.

I grew up in the sight of water on the coast of Connecticut. There is no better day than an almost cool one (cool enough so you need to pull on an over-sized, ocean-faded sweatshirt) that is a little overcast and maybe even has a fine spray of salt water in the wind. There have to be seagulls flying and screeching overhead and it’s the absolute best if you are close enough to hear the waves constantly lapping at the shore.

Forever and always, those are the conditions under which I could write for miles.


Writing a blog – freedom of speech, controversy, and social media

This is the last week of teaching my college online course on writing and marketing a blog. Here are some more of my notes from the class.

Freedom of speech vs. what’s inappropriate (and possibly punishable)

We all know that in America we have freedom of speech. But we also have a few protections from some people’s outrageous speech. People are not allowed to say things that aren’t true, especially if it hurts someone’s “standing in the community.” If someone says something that defames (injures a reputation) of another person – then that is considered slander and it is punishable in a civil court.

Slander involves the oral “publication” of a defamatory remark that is heard by another, which injures the subject’s reputation or character. Slander can occur through the use of a hand gesture or verbal communication that is not recorded. Libel, on the other hand, is the written “publication” of a defamatory remark that has the tendency to injure another’s reputation or character. Libel also includes a publication on radio, audio or video. Even though this would be considered oral, or verbal, communication to someone it is actually considered to be libel because it is published in a transfixed form.

Libel is what you have to be very careful about in your blogs. You are always allowed to have an opinion. “She acted like she was suicidal” but you are not allowed to state a fact that is untrue “she is suicidal.” Most of you will probably not have to worry about it, but you need to know that nothing disappears on the internet. Ever. If you say something about your boss or your work, it will eventually be found and it will live on forever to haunt you.

The simple solution is to not post that kind of information in the first place.

My general rule is to write “happy” things. It’s simplistic but it works. I don’t bring up hot topics (religion, guns, abortion) in any of my posts and I am very careful to make sure that if I am stating an opinion, I preface it with something like “in my opinion. “ or “I believe …”

Controversial Topics

So what do you do if you’ve said something controversial that has hit a raw nerve and people are responding in a negative fashion?

Easy, you ignore them. Remember that even bad publicity is good publicity. I have had occasional negative remarks on my blog and I just let them roll off my back like water off a duck. (But remember that my blog topics – “children and chickens” – don’t tend to draw out the negative people – what are they going to say? Chickens are dumb??) Don’t try to fight a negative remark some people (trolls) just put them up there for sport and trying to fight them is the proverbial throwing of gasoline onto a fire.

If you think there is a clear misunderstanding, go ahead and attempt to explain your point, but if the comments just return with more negativity – drop the discussion. Try to remember that a negative remark on a post is *not* a negative remark about *you.* (I know, sometimes that’s easier said than done, it can really hurt when people say nasty things about you.)

If someone is vulgar or leaves a particularly nasty comment, feel free to delete it. This is your blog after all, just as you would pick up some garbage thrown in your front yard by a stranger; feel free to clean your blog of garbage that may be left by others.

Facebook, Twitter, and Google+

For the most part, these are the quick differences between these social media platforms:

  • Facebook posts share a graphic and tell a short story or they tell why you should follow a link to read another story.
  • Twitter tweets immediately grab attention and divert you to somewhere – think of those exciting headlines we talked about. They are also used to make comments on someone’s posts. But remember that space is limited so you really only get to “talk” in bites.
  • Google+ posts are shorter than Facebook but longer than Twitter, these posts include graphics and the audience tends to be a little more high-tech. Google+ tried, but it never really gained traction (but you should still use it to get your blog posts out to another audience.)

As an exercise, take a blog post you’ve already written and then create a post for Facebook, Twitter and then Google+


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). ( She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

DNF a Book

Vintage Books copyright Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon

© Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon


I remember the first time I saw the acronym in a Twitter conversation between an editor and an author. I politely intruded to ask what it meant.

Did. Not. Finish.

What? Read a book and not finish it? Back then, I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the concept. I was fairly new to the romance genre at the time and was thoroughly enjoying everything I was reading. Prior to that, my love of reading had taken a back seat to my life as a working mom and a visually impaired person who struggled to read small print. Then came the Kindle and my reading addiction kicked into high gear. Not finish a book? Perish the thought! These days I’m an avid reader and more than one book has moved to my DNF list. In the last six months, I’ve had two solid DNFs and a few books that I’ve set aside to come back to with a fresh perspective.

Making the decision not to finish a book does not come easily to me. As a writer, I know the author has poured their heart and soul into the creation of the story. I really want to respect their efforts, but if I’m halfway through a book and every time a main character appears on the page, I want to slap him or her, it’s probably better for me to put the book down.

I should clarify that I’ve completed books that have made me angry. It’s not a different perspective that makes me put a book down, it is usually characters that whine or plot lines that are clichéd or make no sense to me that make me want to throw my Kindle across the room.

When I looked at the titles I put down, there’s no rhyme or reason. There were books by traditionally published authors, and by indies, books by established authors and newbies alike. I haven’t finished books from authors that I’ve read before and authors that are new to me. As a writer this diversity interests me. I’ll admit, I’m much more likely to give an author I’ve read before a another chance after a DNF as opposed to a new-to-me author. I have to remind myself that you can’t please everyone all the time and the book I chose from a new-to-me author might just have been a blip on the backlist. I try hard to really give a book a fair shake. Before I put it down, I will usually come back to a book once or twice before I finally say enough is enough, I’m not finishing this one.

Most of my book recommendations come from trusted sources on Twitter. In general, when I buy books, I don’t look at reviews. I might look at how many stars a book has, but I typically read the description and if that appeals, I’ll download a sample. If I like the sample, I’ll buy the book. if I REALLY like the book, I’ll write a review.

If I do abandon a book THEN I will check out the reviews. Most of the time, others have encountered the same frustrations I have with a story. That always makes me feel better “Whew, it’s not just me.” Without fail a book that has driven me crazy, makes someone else deliriously happy. This phenomena actually makes me happy. I truly appreciate that there are different strokes for different folks. It gives me hope that when I finish my novel and when it gets published (power of positive thinking FTW), there will be people who hate my story, but hopefully there will be people who love it too.

I always feel crazy guilty when I don’t finish a book, (thus the multiple attempts), but I have to remind myself that just like life is too short to drink bad rum, it’s too short to waste time on books that frustrate me.

Sometimes I will FORCE myself to finish a book, but when I do that it is a conscious decision. I have a pad of paper beside me and I’m taking notes on what I think the author did wrong or the things about the story that were making me nuts. Thus making my torture an educational experience.

Do you finish all the books you start?

Do you finish most of what you start?

Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. You can find her on Twitter @Fearless. She blogs at and she is a regular contributor to the Concord Monitor. Her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe. She is currently working on her first novel, a work of contemporary, romantic fiction.

Entering Contests

In 2005, I won a local writing contest; as a result, I’ve frequently been asked to judge it. (image:

In 2005, I won a local writing contest; as a result, I’ve frequently been asked to judge it. (image:

Like many writers, I’ve submitted short stories to contests, hoping that my work would win and fearing that my entry would be far outclassed. But I’ve not entered many contests, mostly because I figured if I had to pay someone to read my work, I’d do better investing in an editorial reader to give me meaningful feedback.

I have submitted work to contests with no entry fee – and I’ve won prizes: both money and recognition, but neither fortune nor fame. In 2005, I won a local writing contest; since then, I’ve frequently been asked to judge it. This has given me a new perspective on contests and how winners are picked.

At first, I was one of five judges. We all read all the entries, then met to decide the winners. Some years, the winning entrance was obvious – not always because it was so good, but because the competition was weak. Other years were more contentious. Several stories were prize-worthy, and we each argued for the one we liked best. The final result was a compromise amongst the judges, and not necessarily about the work.

Write Action sponsors an annual writing contest.

Write Action sponsors an annual writing contest.

This year, I’m judging the prose entries myself. The responsibility is large, and I’m taking my time. Happily, this year’s entries are the best I’ve ever read and a big change from the last time I served, when the writing was poor and the presentation worse. Manuscript Matters. Submitting a story to a contest or agent or editor is like sending it on a job interview, and it should go out looking its best. This year’s submissions all arrived as clean copy in black ink on white paper in twelve-point type. They’re easy to read, and I’ve been able to get lost in the stories without having to fight my way through fancy fonts, blue and/or bold ink, and other typographical devices that detract from the words.

The words are good, the stories touching, entertaining, imaginative, and varied. I’ve enjoyed reading them, and I’ve read them all twice. I’ve read my favorites several times more.

These submissions are so good, that picking a winner is hard. So I reread them, arrange them in my order of preference and let them rest. I’ve been doing this every few days for over two weeks, and the winners are starting to emerge. I keep placing the same story on top of the stack; that’s the one I’ll call First. Another week of reading and rearranging has helped me settle which stories will come in Second and Third. Of the other four, I’ll recommend one for Honorable Mention.

I’m taking my time because judging a contest is entirely subjective, especially with stories that are both well-told and well-written. Rereading has allowed me to attend to the finer elements of craft: voice, point-of-view, use of language, development of suspense, narrative arc, metaphor, and meaning.

But that’s me. Another judge might choose differently.

Based on my experience judging, here’s my advice for entering contests:

  • A writer can control craft, so submitting absolutely excellent work is key – but still no guarantee. How your work fares depends both on the quality of the other entries and on the subjectivity of the judge. Neither are elements a writer can control.
  • Follow the contest guidelines precisely; this is an element a writer can control. A smart writer does this with all submissions, not just contests. Everything else is a crapshoot.
  • Consider submitting to journals during their open reading periods instead. Most contests cost money, and most open-reading periods accept submissions for free.
  • It bears repeating: send only your best work.

Good luck!

photo: M. Shafer

photo: M. Shafer

The 2005 prize-winning story Marlboro Music became a chapter in Deborah Lee Luskin’s award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness. Learn more at