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Lessons Learned from an Ill-Timed Writing Workshop

Lessons from a Recent Writing Workshop

Earlier this month I took part in a "first pages" workshop on Inked Voices, a website that facilitates virtual writing groups. This workshop offered feedback from a literary agent for the bargain price of $75.

Unable to pass up such a deal, and desperate to make progress on a novel that has languished for two-plus years, I signed up.

In full disclosure, I was completely unprepared. The workshop evaluated those carefully crafted opening scenes that will either draw in a reader or consign your literary brainchild to the slush pile. My first pages consisted of a brain dump spewed out to test the direction of my latest outline, the fourth or fifth for this project. Submitting that garbage would have wasted everyone's time and my money, so I spent five days (when I should have been reading and critiquing) rewriting my crappy draft. This process left me with just over one week to read and review the work of my fellow participants.

At the end of the two weeks, I had spent twenty hours or so rewriting my pages and critiquing peer submissions. My takeaways from the experience include the following:

Deadlines are my friends. Having a specific submission date kept me moving forward. Even though I posted my pages late, I still made more progress than I would have on my own.

Studying craft is mandatory. Because I've struggled with this draft, I've read several books on structure in recent weeks. Doing so helped me to identify the flaws in my draft during the rewrite, and it allowed me to pinpoint what didn't work in peer submissions.

Apply what you learn. Learning the craft in theory only goes so far. We still have to figure out how to implement these techniques in our own writing. Going in, I had an excellent idea of which aspects of my submission worked and which ones were likely to belly-flop.

Critiquing work builds editorial muscles. We often struggle to recognize the flaws in our own work, but those same errors leap from the page when we didn't commit them. Practicing this type of objective review helps us apply the same critical eye to our own stories.

Different readers offer different value. Even though no one else read my genre (urban fantasy), their feedback as readers provided great insight into which sections needed more explanation. Part of the writing process involves learning how to determine which feedback enhances your vision of the story and which does not.

In the end, the exercise confirmed that I'm not only learning craft, but also discovering how to apply it to my writing and to my reading. Such tangible takeaways can be invaluable when undertaking a project that literally spans years, where the ultimate payoff may go no further than a self-awarded foil star for participation.

A member of the MWA-NY board, Mistina Bates made her short fiction debut in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Books, 2010) and is currently working on an urban fantasy/paranormal suspense novel. She slings words for a living as founder and president of Market it Write, a content marketing agency based in northern New Jersey.

Seeing the Blind Spots in Your Manuscript


Whether it’s 75,000 words or 120,000 words, almost a ream of paper or a 1.5-megabyte file, what’s sitting in front of you is more than your novel’s manuscript. It’s actually . . . you. Your mind, your soul, your fears, and your loves.

If it’s not, maybe you should consider non-fiction.

Oh, it also consists of your blind spots.

All but a select few of us have blind spots about ourselves. Therefore, it follows that a manuscript created in your image (i.e., your image of the world and the characters you created to inhabit it and live your plot) is also subject to blind spots.

A professional reader, editor, agent, or fellow writer can often see things you can’t. Not so much the big obvious notes, but the little tidbits and details that are easily glossed over while one is deep in the writing process, seeing only the scene before him, hearing only the dialogue the characters are currently speaking. That state of consciousness when writing is the tactical aspect of the craft.

Strategic analysis requires objectivity, and it is easier for the person who didn’t author the work, someone who is unemotional, unattached, and has no memory of the pleasure and pain of birthing your book.

If the above sounds obvious, imagine how obvious conflicts in story structure, missed opportunities, inconsistent character nuances, and plot peccadilloes are to someone with skills, reading and paying attention to these details.

Can my friend point out these blind spots?

If your friend is an editor, professional writer, or reader, then “yes.” Otherwise, friends are mostly just impressed that you actually finished a book. They don’t want to hurt your feelings or discourage you. And they are right! In most cases, our friends can only criticize but not constructively critique. When a professional spots an issue, she can often make suggestions or propose work-arounds that a friend can not.

What can I do?

I get it. Sometimes professional help is out of financial reach, or it’s an uncomfortable ask. If this is your situation, divorce yourself from the work.

If you are working on a screen, print it out or vice versa. Change the environment you read in. (I go to the beach.) As much as humanly possible, rinse all knowledge of the story from your mind. Some folks even read their work backward or in jumbled chapter pieces. This approach takes you out of the momentum of the structure that you know so well and forces more attention on the words on the page. Under that attention, the smaller arcs and the minor shadings appear more clearly.

Here’s a tip if you are doing this yourself: If at any point you find yourself skimming your own work . . . stop!

Skimming means one of two things, both not good.

1) What you are reading is filler, or inconsequential to the story, and it needs to be cut.

2) You know where the story is going, and you are impatient to get there. In that haste, much is missed.

One last note, don’t even think of doing this until the second or third draft. My simple rule for beginning writers is true for us all:

The first draft is you telling YOU the story! 

Your first draft is not meant for any other eyes. This school of thought offers some freedom: namely, you don’t have to sweat the small stuff, grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc. What matters is getting the story on the page.

In the next pass, you can address all those issues and get character names right and check facts and add color, location, furniture, drapes, weather, and maybe a sub-plot or two. But first get the story down.

I can’t tell you how many shiny, well-polished manuscripts have been excellently edited, painstakingly researched, and excruciatingly detailed but still don’t hold together as a readable story. And that is purely a first draft problem, a malady that all the gloss of publishing can’t fix.

Tom Avitabile is a senior v.p. in advertising, as well as a writer, director, and producer with numerous film and television credits. His recent trilogy of novels chronicle the exploits of Science Advisor to the President “Wild” Bill Hiccock. The first of this series, The Eighth Day, became a Barnes and Noble #1 bestseller. His latest hardcover novel, Give Us This Day, also became a number-one bestseller. 

Mug Shot: Jen Conley

Jen Conley's short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Needle, Crime Factory, Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen, and many others. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books and is one of editors of Shotgun Honey. Her story collection, Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens is available now.

Tell us about your latest project.
Last May my first book was published, a collection of crime stories that take place in one the more rural areas of New Jersey, the Pine Barrens.

When and how do you find time to write?
Whenever I can find it. I teach middle school and I'm a mom, so my writing time is limited. I am off in the summer, so I tend to write a lot then, or I try to. It's funny — when having large blocks of time to write sometimes gives me writer's block. As for the school year, I write Saturday mornings and afternoons and during the week, usually I write for a bit at night before I go to bed.

How much and what kinds of marketing do you personally do?
I have a website, which I think every author needs these days. People need a place to find you. I think Twitter is an excellent source for writers, although I find Twitter very fast and you need to be sharp to be a decent tweeter. I'm pretty quiet on Twitter but I use it to promote my writing or if I'm hosting a Noir at the Bar. I use Facebook the most. It seems to be the right pace for me and I think it's been the main source of getting the word out that I have a book.

What fictional detective would you like to be and why?
I don't know about fictional detective but I think I'd like to be Sam Gerard in The Fugitive. Or I want to be Tommy Lee Jones as Sam Gerard in The Fugitive.

In five words or less, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
"Don't write until you're 30."

I stole that from Annie Proulx, who said don't write until you're 50. Of course, it's not meant to be taken literally, but the idea of it makes sense. I think young writers should be writing, but it's more important to read and watch films and good television, maybe take an acting class, read more, and you also have to live — go somewhere different, work different jobs, listen to people of all walks of life . . . and read even more. All of this will help a writer figure out their writing style, the life themes they'll be writing about. I also think your 20s are the time to explore, and your 30s can be your time to reflect. This is all very hippy-dippy, and I'm more of a cynical northeast woman, but I know a lot of writers and most of them seem to have gotten serious about their writing when they were in their 30s.

The other reason to go out and live, is because you need to figure out how you feel about the world. If you don't have your own take on the world, as a writer, you don't have a personal authentic view of the world, and you end up mimicking. I can only speak for myself, by as a reader, I want something from the writer, some bit of empathy, a glimpse into how they see the world. If you don’t know how you see the world, you will mimic someone else's view, and you won’t move anyone doing that. Even in genre writing you have to come at it with your own take.

My Favorite Crime Movie: In Cold Blood

As a 14-year-old in 1967, my principal reason for living was marathon listening to Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Distraction arrived at the end of the year in the form of a movie that immediately earned lifelong status as my favorite crime flick. From the standard list of film genres, it also rates near the top of my favorite drama and horror films. The accolades do not stop there. It was based on a book that is one of the best and scariest crime novels ever penned.

I am talking about Truman Capote's literary masterpiece In Cold Blood, and the black-and-white cinematic tour de force of the same name written for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks. It’s rare that both book and film work so magnificently. It happens here largely because both are honest, in depth studies of two soulless men stalking a twisted version of the American dream. The movie’s semi-documentary style is so authentic that at times it seems captured by the omnipresent security cameras we now endure in our post 9/11 world. That’s real. And real is scary.

The opening scene ushers the coming horror with a desperate warning from a muted jazz trumpet as a Kansas City-bound bus barrels straight toward the audience. From that head-on crash into our sensibilities, we’re essentially made accomplices to Dick Hickock’s and Perry Smith’s perverse road trip that unfolds in episodic chiaroscuro. From car, to motel, to roadside toilet, to flashback, and back to car — we witness the slow peeling back of their scorching pathologies.

We do not view the home invasion and quadruple murder until the middle of the film, long after fate has taken us by the hand. When we finally suffer their loathsome deed, it’s a morbidly visual patchwork of our most iconic fear — that of waking to find nervous, whispering men standing in our darkened bedroom. As bystanders, we see the victims grasp that these men are true sociopaths and that they will not live to see morning.

The final third of the film is a prison drama that ultimately delivers the audience a classic catharsis. We journey through our killers’ interrogation, trial, stint on death row, and finally their respective slow walks up the staircase to a hangman nicknamed “We the People.”

Perry Smith’s final words are, “I’d like to apologize, but who to?” The answer is: to us, the spectators of his wasted life. The dramatic soundtrack of his slo-mo execution is age old, but works with ageless theatrical impact: the beat…beat…BEATING of the human heart. It increases in volume. Then fades. Then stops.

I first saw In Cold Blood in Richmond, Virginia, a few weeks after reading the controversial non-fiction novel for extra credit as a high school freshman. Over the years, the film’s capacity to terrify has never dimmed, particularly the eerily transcendent performances of Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as Smith and Hickock. In his original four-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that the two are “so good they pass beyond performances and almost into life.”

Hollywood, too, knew it was important. In Cold Blood was nominated for four Oscars: Best Director, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score for Quincy Jones. It deserved to win all four. The fact that it won none was, itself, a crime. But then, it was up against In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie & Clyde, and Cool Hand Luke. Wow, good for you, 1967. What a great year that was for high quality crime movies!

—Gray Basnight

Gray Basnight’s forthcoming novel, The Dear John File, a thriller centering on discovery of a secret FBI diary revealing historic government crimes, will be published in 2018. The Cop with the Pink Pistol, singled out by Library Journal as Novel of the Month, was published in 2012. Shadows in the Fire ( 2015) is a Civil War historical set in Richmond. Prior to writing fiction, Basnight worked for 30 years in New York City broadcast news as a producer, writer, editor, and reporter.

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