Tag Archives: writing advice

The Writing Lab

August 25, 2016

u1866I’m enjoying THE WRITER’S LAB by Sexton Burke. Lots of cool writing prompts.

Here’s one I worked on this morning over tea on my back patio: “Write a scene during which one character reveals a powerful and emotional truth to another — without using any dialogue.”

Here’s what I came up with:

Randa’s [what was I thinking with that name? nevermind] ability to change her body had given us countless nights of pleasure. Any female body type we could imagine was ours to enjoy in the privacy of our bedroom.

But as I stood across from her in the kitchen, watching her make her skin transparent, I realized there was one type of body alteration she couldn’t do.

She wept as her skin peeled back to show me. An octopus-like mass of black tendrils enveloped the major arteries to her heart and lungs. Cancer. It pulsed in time with her heart beats.

Randa, for all her magical body-morphing abilities, could not cure herself of sickness.

The skin continued to retract down her abdomen. What else did she want to show me?

A fetus the size of my thumb floated in her uterus.

20 Ways to Help an Author Out

August 16, 2016

While at the Writer’s Digest Annual conference last weekend, I picked up this great handout from Wiseinkpub.com called “20 Ways to Help an Author Out.” I’ve taken the liberty of re-typing the tips here. Please apply them liberally to promote your favorite writer.

1. buy the book!
2. buy the book for others as a gift
3. face the book out at bookstores
4. read the book where others can see it
5. ask a bookstore employee where the book is located
6. leave a review on Amazon, BN.com, and Goodreads
7. “like” the author’s author Facebook page
8. reserve a copy at the library
9. attend the book release party and bring two friends
10. spread news of the book through your social media channels
11. arrange a connection for the author with your media contacts and people of influence
12. recommend the author as a speaker at your local library
13. if your library has an annual author luncheon or evening event, suggest the author as a speaker
14. create a Wikipedia page for the author, including details related to the authorship of the book
15. buy a few extra copies, and donate them to your local library, doctor’s office, and community center library
16. send a copy to your favorite radio show with a personalized note explaining why you liked it
17. take a picture of yourself holding the book, and post it on your social media
18. create a Pinterest board by pinning the cover, author’s photo, and any other photos or illustrations related to the author or book
19. offer to write 10 e-mails you’ll send to booksellers, librarians, TV or radio producers, book reviewers, or just to your network of friends and family
20. volunteer to help the author at book events

Interview with SF Signal

March 23, 2016

SF Signal just published an interview with me, “Plan 9” Is Back! Matthew Warner Novelizes the Remake of the Notorious Zombie Movie. It goes into the process of novelizing the Plan 9 movie and putting together Dominoes in Time. Check it out!

Unclear Writing Sends Man to Jail

March 3, 2016

Buried amid yesterday’s Super Tuesday coverage was this gem from USA Today about the importance of clear writing:

Justices OK child porn sentence in war of words

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court upheld a child pornography defendant’s 10-year mandatory minimum sentence Tuesday in a case that had both sides debating the meaning of Star Wars and sour lemons.

Six justices ruled that a federal law’s key phrase — “a prior conviction … under the laws of any state relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward” — means only that the last charge must involve children. The first two charges, they reasoned, could apply to adults as well.

Not so, Justice Elena Kagan said in a dissent joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, triggering a colorful debate over what she called the “ordinary understanding of how English works.”

“Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet ‘an actor, director or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie,'” she said. “You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast — not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander.”

Kagan added two more examples and then concluded: “Everyone understands that the modifying phrase — ‘involved with the new Star Wars movie’ … — applies to each term in the preceding list, not just the last.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the 6-2 opinion, countered with an example of her own.

“It would be as if a friend asked you to get her tart lemons, sour lemons, or sour fruit from Mexico,” she wrote. “If you brought back lemons from California, but your friend insisted that she was using customary speech and obviously asked for Mexican fruit only, you would be forgiven for disagreeing on both counts.”

Sotomayor’s interpretation prevailed, which was bad news for Avondale Lockhart, whose enhanced sentence for child pornography was based on a prior conviction of sexual abuse involving his 53-year-old girlfriend. He argued that the tougher sentence was intended only for those whose prior conviction involved children.

During oral argument in November, the dispute was close enough to convince Justice Antonin Scalia that the verdict should tilt in Lockhart’s favor. “When the government sends somebody to jail for 10 years, it has to turn sharp corners,” he said. “It has to dot every I and cross every T. It has to be clear.”

Scalia’s death last month left only eight justices to decide the case, but his influence lived on in the opinion and dissent. Each side cited his influential book, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, written with Bryan Garner, to bolster its case.

So, there you go. Proof that copyediting saves lives, my friends, and the pen is mightier than the sword, and so on.

Seriously, though, this is an example of how critical it can be to write clearly. In the case of Avondale Lockhart, it sent him to prison for an additional ten years. For what it’s worth, I agree with Justice Kagan. But this is the U.S. Supreme Court, and their word is final. In light of that, and assuming the statute was not actually intended to send someone like Lockhart to the clink for an additional ten years, how should the statute have been written? Here is an alternative. Incidentally, it uses the Oxford comma, which I think also adds clarity:

a prior conviction … under the laws of any state relating to sexual abuse or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward, aggravated sexual abuse, or sexual abuse

All I did was reorder the list items so that the crime related to minors comes first. The problem, though, is that it’s clunky as hell. Perhaps it should have been like this:

a prior conviction … under the laws of any state relating to: (a) aggravated sexual abuse, (b) sexual abuse or (c) abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward

The Supreme Court should have remanded the case to a fact-finding court for further testimony about the statute, if it hadn’t been done already. An expert witness in English grammar could have shed some light on this. Or how about (gasp!) calling in the actual legislator who wrote the law to testify about what he/she intended?

TV appearance: Taco Society Presents

February 20, 2016

During Tony Tremblay’s recent trip to Virginia, I was fortunate to be a guest on his cable-access TV show, “Taco Society Presents.” It was a wide-ranging interview with Nanci Kalanta and Tony about my different books, writing process, and home life.

Here’s the video, queued to begin at the start of my interview. Also be sure to watch Nanci Kalanta’s interview immediately before and Dave Simms’s interview afterward.

Keep Trying

November 19, 2015

BJJ championship match.Ever heard the sailing term “in irons”? It means your sailboat is pointed straight into the wind so that wind can’t fill your sails. The jib and mainsail luff about, and it’s damn-near impossible to get moving again.

Having your writing rejected or criticized can have the same effect. One of my mentees is dealing with that special hell of creative depression right now. My answer is what I would tell any beginning writer dealing with self doubt and rejection. After all, it’s what I tell myself every day:

Get used to it, because it doesn’t matter how good of a writer you become. People will continue to find flaws in everything, and it’s just a matter of deciding what feedback you agree with.

Writing can be a tough craft to get down, and the only thing for it is to keep trying. I’ve lately been analogizing the process to learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu. We recognize there that everyone has certain inherent attributes — youth or weight or athletic ability — that might make them more or less talented. There’s nothing to be done for that. But everyone, no matter how stunted or brilliant, still has it within them to earn a black belt through hard work. All it takes is time on the mat.

So we’ve all been there. Many of us often revisit there. I get rejected all the time, and it frequently leaves me depressed. Rejection sucks every time. But I’m in it for life, no matter the outcome, so I’ll keep trying.

Keep writing what brings you pleasure. Don’t worry about what genres they’re in or whether you’re writing in too many. Just do it until you find your own voice. Categorization will come later.

Article about Emotional Dark Fiction

October 22, 2015

Writing Emotional Dark Fiction: A Letter to My Estranged Father at Fictorians

Writing Emotional Dark Fiction: A Letter to My Estranged Father at Fictorians

Fictorians has published my article, “Writing Emotional Dark Fiction: A Letter to My Estranged Father.” It was painful to write, but I should have done it years ago.

10,000 Hours, More or Less

September 15, 2015

This is so inspiring:


74 Year old earns his BJJ black belt. Technique demonstrated: kimura joint lock from guard. Click to watch.

In a nutshell: James Terlecki, 74 years old, just earned his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He started it when he was 61. Thirteen years to a black belt is a normal time range in this martial art.

It’s inspiring because it gives me confidence I’ll get there one day, too. I started shortly before my 40th birthday, and it’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I’ve often felt it’s been more difficult for me than for others on account of my age.

Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in something. In the time since his book came out with this claim, he has said this doesn’t necessarily apply to sports, which may rely more on genetics, and psychologists have disputed the figure as being over-inflated. I think it’s safe to say, however, that after that much practice, you’ll have achieved something in the endeavor.

I calculate that since I began BJJ in February 2013, I’ve invested between 400-500 hours in training. Right now, it feels like 10,000 hours until mastery — or at least until a black belt — is about right.

I’ve spent considerably more time in the pursuit of the writing craft. Have I spent 10,000 hours there? Hell, I don’t know; maybe. Am I a master at it? Certainly not, but because it’s my life’s work, I know more than the average bear. Maybe by the time I’m 74, I’ll have something worthy to show for my time. That’ll be 32 years down the road.

The way I figure it, I’ll be 74 one day no matter what (and hopefully still alive), so I might as well go for it.

In the meantime, congratulations to James Terlecki. I think most of us want to be you one day.

The Top Ten Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing

August 14, 2015

by Nicole Cushing

Seven years ago I started to seriously focus on building a writing career, and it’s been a long, hard road to this place where I now stand. A lot of good things have happened along the way. My novella Children of No One was nominated for a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award. My new novel Mr. Suicide has been praised by three of the authors I’ve long-admired: Jack Ketchum, Poppy Z. Brite, and Ray Garton. I’ve recently seen my work translated into German.

But none of these successes came easily. I had a lot to learn. (And not all the lessons were about the writing craft itself; many had more to do with how to play well with others — while still preserving my individuality and self-respect.)

So, keeping that in mind, I’ve prepared a list of the top ten things I wish I would have known when I started writing.

  1. The publishing business may work quite differently from your day job, with a different culture and different expectations of how people interact. People network differently than in some day jobs. People market and promote projects differently, too. And while there are helpful professional organizations, as a freelancer you don’t have an HR department just down the hallway where you can file a grievance in the event things go seriously awry.
  1. When you’re just starting out, you’re probably not as strong a writer as you think you are. You probably have the ability to occasionally turn an interesting phrase. That’s why you think you can do this job. But you probably don’t yet know how to write a story or novel. It will be helpful, in the long run, to lose just a bit of your confidence. That way, you’ll become teachable.
  1. Don’t take rejection personally. When you’re sending unsolicited work to editors or agents, the default setting for their responses is no. It takes something truly special (and/or right up their alley) to flip them over to yes.
  1. Sometimes, especially early on, your work will be rejected because it isn’t an effective story. It doesn’t do what a story is supposed to do.
  1. As you advance in skill, you’ll get rejected simply because your work doesn’t dovetail with the tastes of the editor (or the college kid who is reading the slush pile). And, in the case of novels, rejections may be due to market conditions (your book may be good, but hard to sell to the masses).
  1. One day, you’ll get out of the slush pile. People will be asking you for stories. In fact, so many people will be asking you that you’ll have to turn some of them down. Yeah, I know…doesn’t that sound sweet?
  1. Remember what I said up in #9, about the need to lose a bit of confidence when you’re starting out? Well, at some point, after honing your craft for a few years, it will be important to reclaim it. Confidence is the fuel that enables you to take risks — both artistically and commercially. Taking risks is how we all grow. Confidence also shields you from all the crap that will inevitably come your way. Bad reviews. Sales that are a bit worse than hoped. Wavering support from family and friends. Worries that you’re foolish for pursuing your own goals instead of The One True Path to success that’s fashionable among all the writers this year. Every writer encounters at least some of these issues along the way. All of these can be survived with the help of confidence. (It may not be pleasant, but you’ll survive.)
  1. In any given group of writers, there will be a few blowhards and abrasive egomaniacs. In some cases, you just have to learn to tolerate them. But, in many cases, you don’t. When dissolving a connection to a toxic acquaintance in the writing game, you don’t have to scold them in person or publicly denounce them on social networking sites. You can just walk away and never look back. They’re usually so wrapped up in themselves that they won’t even notice.
  1. Be yourself. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true. Long-term, sustainable success won’t come from parroting whatever’s commercially viable at the moment. It’ll come from those stories that skitter out from the darkest recesses of your nightmares.
  1. Writing is the hardest work you’ll ever do and the most fun you’ll ever have. If it’s not approached as work, then you likely aren’t going to improve your craft and complete tasks. If it’s not — at some level — fun, then why keep doing it?

On Mentoring and Staying Humble

July 1, 2015

BJJ red belt Mark Twain takes on a mentee.

BJJ red belt Mark Twain takes on a mentee.

Made two choices in the past week — three, if you count my new commitment only to write in sentence fragments.

(Okay, two. Although I have a new love for sentence fragments.)

The first is to sign on as an official mentor in the Horror Writers Association. I’ve been paired with a beginning writer, whom I’ll advise for the next year.

The second is to return to the Borderlands Boot Camp for Writers in 2016 as a student/grunt. The last time I attended as a paying student was 2005. I’ve returned several times since then as a guest “dramatic reader” for Sunday writing exercises.


I’ve been submitting for professional publication now for 25 years. Does that make me qualified to hold forth to my HWA mentee, who is eight years older than me? If yes, then why return to a workshop conference normally populated with writers who’ve only had a few years of professional experience?

Oddly, you might say, I credit my newfound passion for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu martial art with guiding me through this. In BJJ, there’s an unstated distinction between talent and experience. Talent is that thing you bring to the mat: it’s inborn, you have no control over it. You might genetically be a jiu-jiteiro genius, and you might not. But whatever talent you have won’t emerge without experience. Experience is signified through the belt-rank system. White belts are still learning their basic skills. Blue belts have learned the basics. Purple, brown, black, and the legendary red belts have progressively customized those skills to themselves as individual artists.

I now look at the writing craft the same way. I don’t necessarily have more talent than the guy composing his first short story. He might have more. But what I do have is experience. He’s a white or blue belt, and by virtue of how I’ve spent my time, I’m a black belt. That’s what gives a black belt its color, after all: the grime of work.

With this metaphor in mind, I return to the writing craft with a more humble and generous mindset. As an HWA mentor and an informal mentor to some other friends and family members, I understand these writers may have just as much or more talent than I do. But I still have things I can show them. Paradoxically, this means I teach myself; it’s a truism that you don’t learn a skill until you teach it. It’s only at that point that you examine what you do and why you do it that way. I’m also helping others because I have mentors like Thomas Monteleone, who runs the Borderlands Boot Camp. As he’s told me, he has had mentors, too, and now he feels an obligation to give back.

As for returning to the Boot Camp as a paid participant, I equate it to the fun prospect of attending a particularly good black belt seminar hosted by Leo Dalla. This is a chance to study with writers who’ve earned their fourth- and fifth-degree black belts, so to speak, who’ve been around much longer than I have, and who can help me refine my skills. Even people who’ve been at it 25 years have something to learn. And along the way, I’ll benefit from that teaching-to-teach-myself blowback effect mentioned above. I’m doing it because I love the writing craft, and I can think of few weekends more pleasurable than sitting around analyzing plot and character development with like-minded folks.

Why am I doing these things? Because I finally have the right perspective on who I am and where I am.

Now if I can just land that literary agent.