Tips for Writers: The Author as Optometrist

One of the hallmarks of great literary fiction is its attention to character. Every story needs a plot, of course, and a setting, but even the most exciting story set in an exotic location will lose the reader if the characters are not compelling. Writers sometimes take their characters for granted, however. Aren’t they just people, after all? And aren’t we all people ourselves? How hard can it be?

In a seminar I taught this past weekend at WriterHouse in Charlottesville (which, by the way, is a great place to find writing guidance or a community of writers, or both) we explored various techniques for creating memorable characters in fiction. We looked at examples from classic and contemporary fiction and considered what seems to work well. We discussed whether characters need to be likable or relatable, as some critics have said. We talked about the special challenges of writing about characters outside of our own experience—a different gender, race, culture, age, sexual preferences.

And we talked about the author as optometrist.

Say what?

I suggested that it’s important to remember that there’s a distinction between the character the author has created and the perception that other characters and the reader have of that character.

The foundation of creating great characters is learning to know them even better than we know ourselves. There are the obvious physical characteristics we need to be aware of in order to show them to the reader: height, weight, hair and eye color, tattoos, race. But characters are much more than their outward appearance. What are the character’s religious beliefs? Is she a regular church-goer? A non-traditional seeker of spiritual growth? What is her temperament? Does she have an anger-management problem? A personality disorder? Is she taking medication to control it? What is her level of education? Is she using her education and, if not, is that frustrating? Does she have a career? Or just a job? Or not? What’s her family life like? Politics? Taste in music? Film? Literature? Who’s her best friend? In whom does she confide when things get dicey (as they must)? What car does she drive? What car would she like to drive? Sexual turn-ons and turn-offs? What does she regret?

The character profile thus generated will prepare the writer to present as part of the story authentic responses to any situation that arises. How will your character react if she is confronted by a professional rival? Or a mugger? What will she do if her efforts to get a job are frustrated? What will she do if she suspects her husband of cheating on her? Or if her son is arrested? Not all of the details from the profile will appear in the work explicitly—just as much historical research will be left out for the sake of concision—but the total profile will inform the writing. The better the writer knows who the character is, the more credible she’ll seem on the page.

But perception of the character thus created is a separate issue. The author/narrator is like an optometrist in this regard, placing a filtering lens between the reader and the character. The lens can sharpen the image or it can distort. In many cases, the image will be blurry at first, but gradually come into focus as the filters gradually fall away.

Tips for Writers: Chaise Longue

The main character in my novel in progress is at a hotel and goes to the pool where she reclines in a . . . chaise longue. Longue, you ask? What the heck is that?

Too often, I see the term “chaise lounge” used in place of the correct form, “chaise longue” (plural: chaise longues).

Here’s what Garner’s Modern English Usage has to say on the subject: “Many people commit the embarrassing error of saying or writing ‘chaise lounge.’ The problem is that ‘lounge,’ when put after ‘chaise,’ looks distinctly low-rent.”

The correct form, “chaise longue,” is French, meaning “long chair.” The incorrect form is so common, however, that it may eventually be accepted. Not yet, though, at least not in my book.


Tips for Writers: Using the Possessive with a Gerund

moduleCASE80I’m currently working on revisions to my novel manuscript. I’ve been over the draft numerous times, so I’m not finding a lot of typos or grammar errors. My focus this time through, rather, is on style and continuity.

But I am spotting the occasional error, and I want to bring one of those to your attention.

I had written, “. . . hitting the road without him catching on.” In doing so, I had made an error that I frequently catch in the writing of others: failure to use the possessive noun or pronoun with a gerund. The sentence should read, “. . . hitting the road without his catching on.” In my defense, I think I was thrown by the preposition, which normally would take an objective pronoun, as in, ” . . . hitting the road without him.” But the real object of the preposition is “catching on,” so the modifier must be possessive.

I’m glad I caught the mistake. For a full discussion of the issue, check this out: Using the Possessive Case with Gerunds.

“Shut up!” he explained.

shut upInvariably in a fiction workshop the subject of dialogue tags will come up. A dialogue tag is the bit that’s slapped onto the end of the stuff in quotation marks. “It’s critically important,” he said.

Conventionally–at least these days–writers are advised to stick with “says” or “said” (depending on the tense being used) for dialogue tags, with an occasional variation either for variety’s own sake or because what the passage is meant to convey. It’s not inappropriate to use “replied” or “answered” if the dialogue is given in answer to a question, for example. I generally avoid other tags, though, and that’s what I advise other writers. In fact, even “said” can often be left out if it’s clear who the speaker is.

The dialogue itself should be able to convey this meaning, however, so that we don’t usually need “shouted” or “exclaimed” or “screamed,” or whatever. William Noble has an excellent discussion of this subject in Shut Up! He Explained: A Writer’s Guide to the Uses and Misuses of Dialogue, now available in an inexpensive Kindle edition.

But I was reminded of this discussion recently in a workshop. We had finished going through the submissions from the writers and the workshop leader, Sarah Bowlin, Senior Editor at Henry Holt, handed out copies of “Just So” by Edith Pearlman, which appeared a few years ago in Virginia Quarterly Review. Early in this terrific story we get this exchange of dialogue:

“You compassionate people,” said the younger just last week, making compassionate rhyme with terminate.

“You’re verbing an adjective,” smiled Tony, verbing a noun.


I love this dialogue, but in the class I objected–as I do whenever I encounter it in student writing–to the use of “smiled” as a dialogue tag. For one thing, Tony’s response is funny, and so I would already guess he’s smiling. But more importantly, “smile” isn’t a verb of speech. We can speak words by saying them, shouting them, yelling them, whispering them, etc., but we cannot “smile” words. One can smile while saying them (although even that’s tricky), but there is no sound associated with smiling. Bowlin thought it was fine, as long as it wasn’t overused, and obviously Pearlman’s editor at VQR didn’t object strongly enough to change it.

If I had been the editor, however, . . .

Tips for Writers: Where should I submit?

resources_TipsForWriters1As most readers of this blog know, I publish an annual list of the top literary magazines. Many people have told me how helpful the list is, and I’m happy to provide this service. You can see the 2015 lists–one each for Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry–here: Literary Magazine Ranking. (Access to the lists is free; donations to support this blog are welcome.)

Because of the lists, I am frequently asked for advice as to where a particular writer should submit his or her work. Without seeing the work, of course, it’s almost impossible for me to give reasoned advice, and I certainly don’t have time to look at others’ work to make that judgment. But I thought it might be useful to give some general tips related to this issue. Beginners, especially, might find it helpful.

1. Tiering. I created my ranking system so I could submit to magazines that are roughly equal in stature. If I’m going to send out five submissions at a time, I want to make sure that an acceptance won’t lead me to have to withdraw from a far superior magazine. So I aim high on the list, and as the rejections inevitably roll in, I’ll move to the next tier down.

2. Reading Journals. This should go without saying, but the advice is often ignored. Before you submit to a journal, you should read at least one issue. Easy to do if it’s an online magazine, a little harder if the journal is print only. But really the only way to know if your work is suitable for, say, Tin House, is read Tin House. Most journals do publish realistic fiction in contemporary settings, so if that’s what you write then you have a lot of options. But if you’re writing science fiction, your options are more limited. Read magazines to find out what their range is.

3. Follow the Guidelines. Always, always, always review a particular magazine’s submission guidelines to see what they’re looking for in terms of format, including word count. Magazines vary widely, so be sure to give them what they want. It’s not that hard, especially in the age of online submission managers.

4. Think outside the list. As wonderful and helpful as my rankings are, they only include a fraction of the magazines you might submit to. For example, I am the editor of Prime Number Magazine, a publication of which I am quite proud. However, because we have not yet won a Pushcart Prize or a Special Mention, my own magazine isn’t on my list of the top magazines. What’s up with that? Especially if you’re interested in online publications–to reach more readers, for example–you need to check other sources, such as,, and Poets & Writers to find out which magazines are looking for your work.

5. Proofread your work. Wherever you decide to send your stuff, proofread several times. Even if your style and subject matter are perfect for a particular magazine, errors may cause it to be rejected.

I hope these basic tips are useful.

Tips for Writers: Learn “Buoyancy” in the face of rejection

buoyTips for Writers: Learn “buoyancy” in the face of rejection

I have a writer friend who moderates a private online discussion called R.I.P – Rejection Isn’t Personal. The point of the group is to remind the participants that the writers who get published are the ones who didn’t give up. It’s a crucial point to remember.

Coincidentally, I’ve just read Dan Pink’s book, To Sell is Human, which I discussed in general terms here. The book begins with the notion that these days more and more of us are in sales, whether were actually engaged in selling a product or we’re trying to convince someone of an idea.

Writers, it seems to me, do both. In a chapter called “Buoyancy,” Pink discusses the “ocean of rejection” that people involved in sales face. Staying afloat in the face of that ocean—buoyancy—is one of the essential attributes of effective sales.

Pink breaks buoyancy down a little differently than I’m going to, but there are essentially three elements that I think work for writers.

First, enter the process of submitting your work not with arrogance—“this is the best story ever written”—but with a mixture of confidence (otherwise, what’s the point of getting out of bed?) and humility, asking yourself, “Is this the right market for me?” Second, to the extent possible, surround yourself with positivity. You can’t manufacture acceptances of your work, but you can spend some of your time interacting with positive experiences—friends who understand you and appreciate your work, for example. If you dwell on rejection all the time, that’s going to be a downer, so you need to have some balance in your writing life. The third element is perhaps the most directly applicable to what we do as writers—don’t explain rejection to yourself as “permanent, pervasive, and personal.” It’s not any of those things. And that’s what brought my friend’s R.I.P. discussion to mind. Develop an optimistic view of your rejections—they are temporary, rather than permanent; specific, rather than universal; and external, rather than personal.

Pink also suggests sending yourself a rejection letter before you even submit your work. Anticipate what the editor/agent/publisher might say about your story. List the reasons the work is being rejected, including the irritating phrases we all hate in rejection letters. (Ironically, writing the rejection may help you identify some soft spots in the work you are submitting, so you can strengthen it before you do the real submission.)

And if you don’t want to write your own, Pink refers us to the Rejection Generator Project at Check it out. As if you don’t get enough rejection letters already.

The book has another chapter that writers may find useful, one on pitches, and I’ll do another post about that in the near future. In the meantime, I recommend the book, and if you have a chance to catch Pink speak in person, go for it. He’s both entertaining and, er, persuasive.

Tips for Writers: LitMag Submission Season

MagazinesIt’s September, and that means a lot of my writer friends are gearing up their submissions to literary magazines, many of which close to submissions over the summer. Many of us have our favorites, but for writers who are just beginning to submit their work for publication, figuring out WHERE to submit can be daunting.

It’s important to know where your work fits and which magazines publish that kind of work. You wouldn’t send a short story to a magazine that publishes only poetry, and you probably shouldn’t send a realistic story to a magazine that publishes only speculative fiction. Know your own work, and know the market.

How to know the market? There are resources available, including Writers Market, Poets & Writers, NewPages, and Duotrope. One of my favorites has always been the listserv run by Allison Joseph: CRWROPPS.

And then there’s my Literary Magazine Ranking. This is a list I update every year based on the Pushchart Prizes. I originally created the list several years ago to help guide my own submissions. Many people find it helpful.

These resources are just starting points, however. The best way to know the market is to read widely. Subscribe to magazines, if you can, or seek them out in libraries.  And good luck with your submissions!

Tips for Writers: New Pages lists Independent Bookstores

Bookstore IndieWriters know bookstores, right? We shop there and often give readings or signings there. The big chains (is that word still plural? is there anyone besides Barnes & Noble at this point?) can be inaccessible for emerging writers, so for most of us it is the independent bookstores who are our friends. Frankly, Indie Bookstores aren’t always easy to deal with either, but it’s relative.

If you’re planning a book tour in support of a new release, one thing that might come in handy is a list of independent bookstores. You could search on, but you may be missing something if your search parameters aren’t just right. New Pages has produced a resource that might be helpful. It’s a pretty comprehensive list of independent bookstores in the US and Canada, organized by state. If you notice that your favorite store isn’t listed, drop the folks at New Pages a line.

Tips for Writers: Conferences and Residencies

rainbarA friend just wrote and asked me if I knew of a list of writers conferences and residencies. The best one I know of is the one at Poets & Writers: Conferences and Residencies. It’s pretty thorough, I think, and has pretty detailed listings.

For example, here’s the listing for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (a social event for which is pictured with this post). And, of course, the listing includes a link to the conference’s website, for more complete and current information.

AWP also has a good directory, which is here: Directory of Conferences & Centers. (The listing for Sewanee is similar but not identical to the one in P&W.)

So if you’re looking for a writers’ conference or residency, those would be the first two places I would check. If you know of other lists or guides, please mention them in the comments below.

ETA: Shame on me for forgetting about another great list, this one maintained by New Pages. Check out their Writing Conferences & Festivals page!

Tips for Writers: Talk to People

introduce-yourselfThis isn’t a writing tip, exactly. It’s more of a marketing tip, and one that I expect many writers will find hard to follow. But here it is: talk to people.

What? Me? I’m an introvert. I can’t talk to people!

Sure you can. I went to an art fair this weekend. Our local community art center has an annual event called Art in the Park, which draws exhibitors from all over the region displaying paintings, photographs, sculpture, and various crafts such as ceramics, woodwork, and jewelry. This year the weather was fantastic and it looked like there was a big crowd. I browsed all the booths. At many, the artist was either absent or was sitting in a chair at the back of the booth, or even outside the booth. Some of the artists nodded and smiled or said hello, and let me browse unmolested. From the browser’s point of view, that was great.

But in one booth, the artist greeted me, said his name, and offered his hand to shake. He asked my name and a pertinent question or two. Then he guided me toward one of his items and suggested I might like it. Another potential customer came in and he repeated that tactic with him, then returned to me with an apology. I browsed a bit more, we chatted, and I bought something. That’s right–his pitch worked on me!

Possibly the artist was just being friendly, and maybe he’s always friendly. But I bet he sells more by being friendly than he would if he just sat in his chair and waited for a customer to pull out his wallet.

I’ve noticed the same thing in bookfairs. The authors who just sit back and wait for buyers to walk up and engage them are missing out. And this applies in bookstores and other venues where you’re doing a signing. You have to be out front, engaging with the buyers. As much as you want to be just a writer, there’s no getting around the fact that you’re also a salesperson. Grouchy doesn’t sell. Friendly does.