by Chris Stewart

Me again, touting my new online class on The Algonkian Conferences site. Let's workshop in our pajamas!

Starts May 3rd
6 weeks
Register here.

As long as words and ideas exist, there will be a few misfits who will cavort with them in a spirit of *approfondement*--if I may borrow that marvelous French word that translates roughly as "playing easily in the deep"--and in so doing they will occasionally bring to realization Kafka's belief that 'a novel should be an ax for the frozen seas around us.'

- "In Defiance of Gravity" by Tom Robbins, Harper's Magazine, Sept 2004

AND, I would add to this quote: the frozen seas within us.

Sometimes we get too caught up in what we think we should write, or what we have always written (for better or worse –our style, our themes) and ignore or shy away from what shows up to be written. We also ignore our weaknesses – the elements of craft we are not so good at, or worse – don't know our strengths and how to take advantage of them. We vow to figure things like this out later and never do. Well, later is now!

Bring your unfinished, what you'd call your 'failed' writing (we'll address that term too), or something that's really flowing to this class–it doesn't matter. What doesn't work you can fix and what does you can make better.

You must be willing to take your work apart. Most are more willing to do this with unfinished or old material that didn't 'work,' but you will get a more immediate benefit from interacting with current material while you are in the middle of the emotional experience of writing it.

Regardless, this class is for any level of writer as we will explore both the magic and craft, the inspiration and perspiration, of writing, through analysis, exercises, opportunities (my more pleasing term for assignments), and, especially, approfondement!

You'll learn to relax, step back, and 'allow' as much as you 'shape' (craft) the story, strengthening your relationship to writing. There's a mysterious, magical something that happens during the writing process that defies explanation – ideas, characters, dialogue, plot points come to you out of nowhere. It's a kind of alchemy, a gift. Invite it. Respect it. Nurture it. Make it work for you.

Note that I said process. It's about process, not product. Anyone who has ever received those little gifts out of nowhere, had to get up and pace a room to contain his/her excitement , or fear, of what he/she was writing, had to chuck a chapter or even half a book (!), and fought with, misunderstood, then made peace with the characters in the world he/she created, has already tuned in to the joys (which can sometimes initially seem like sorrows) of process. If you haven't yet experienced these – you will!

Whether starting a story from scratch, or starting to be writer from scratch, or ready to revise a piece, you will: have a better sense of your voice and style, make friends with your strengths and weaknesses, and have a new set of tools for starting, finishing, and revising your work. You will also take more chances and risks and be more comfortable with experimentation.

And, if you are working on something you are soon to pitch to an editor or agent, you will have a deeper sense of the piece and how to express its purpose and inner workings in a query letter.

The skills you will learn in this class are especially important if you are experiencing, or have experienced, writer's block, or have trouble getting started when you sit down to write. You will learn how to turn your back on the need to be perfect, which often freezes us up. (I call it Perfect Writer Syndrome - PWS.)

You don't have to have a successful, finished product to qualify as a 'better writer' by the end of this class. It's the willingness to step back and examine your writing self and your writing style, practice, and habits, making adjustments and taking risks where necessary, that will earn you the title.

It's all about being alive to the art of writing. Your writing. It's messy, visceral, and delicious. And it comes from playing in the deep.



Trashing the Top 10 List of Advice for Writers

by Chris Stewart

I recently ran across an article in The Guardian, where authors were asked for their personal dos and don’ts. There was no indication of how or why certain writers were chosen and most of it is repetitious drivel, but let’s go through the first bunch and have some fun, and in my next post we’ll take on a sort of companion article in Salon, about readers’ advice to writers.

Here we go, starting off positive, with an open mind:

Big Yes! to Elmore Leonard’s rules about ‘said’ and adverbs. Been guilty of both transgressions myself. They just creep up on you and before you know it you are ‘gasping’ and ‘grumbling’ and ‘coaxing’ and, God Help Me, ‘trilling.’ Yes, I once used ‘trilling.’ You can’t hate me more than I hate myself for that one.

I love Diana Athill’s idea of looking at passages you love with ‘a very beady eye.’ She says to check which passages would be better dead.

Perfect lead in for a more updated version of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s ‘murder your darlings’ (it was Arthur Quiller-Couch, not Faulkner who said this, though Faulkner did change it to ‘kill your darlings') – which passages are Better Off Dead?

Think of your unhappy reader chasing after you like that paper boy on a bike, wherever you go, night and day, screaming, “I want my $14.95! I want my $14.95!”

Next! I’m sorry, but Margaret Atwood is just odd. I’m not a fan of her writing (I can hear you gasping with horror – Oh shut up; it’s a free country), I only liked The Handmaid’s Tale, but that’s not really relevant. What’s odd are her first few suggestions about taking pencils on a plane and how to sharpen them and a reminder to bring paper (DUH. For heaven’s sake, are we first graders here? We can handle the writing materials part, Margaret, make yourself useful!).

She wastes 5 of her 10 with nonsense, and the last 5 don’t contribute much either. Rudimentary stuff. The only useful thing: “Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.”

So I’ll stop whining about Margaret Atwood and move on to whining about Roddy Doyle, who seems to have a similar brain fog as Margaret, advising us to keep the online browsing to a minimum, use a thesaurus, and give in to temptation to do household chores once in a while. Wow, this is mind blowing stuff, isn’t it? These are almost patronizing suggestions for those of us who are looking for some meat on the bone. His useful bits, “Do feel anxiety – it's the job,” and “Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones.”

If you haven’t given up on writing entirely and decided to go to medical school where at least you get to dissect dead people and SEE something, here we are at #5, Helen Dunmore. I’m sorry, who? I actually know who Helen is, but at this point I’m wondering if we’re ever going to hit a really heavy-hitting, popular, mainstream writer that most people know and would therefore listen to. We need some name recognition here. Not everyone reads Orange or Booker Prize winners.

(By the way I did that for a few months and was not impressed. I had to quit after Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which was wretchedly bad and is now being made into a movie! That book had more holes than a moth-eaten sweater.)

Her advice starts off promising, “Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue,” “Listen to what you have written” (for rhythm, because jagged places could be clues to what you don’t know yet), and “Read Keats’ letters” and then fizzles out into things like: read and rewrite, go for a walk, know that you can write and have a family, join a professional organization, and more of the same.


Geoff Dyer is next and his entry is a turn in a new direction – a turning of the top 10 pieces of advice into a flash fiction piece of such edge and wit that we’ll forget we wanted to read a list in the first place and just admire him instead. Every suggestion is couched in a personal story to show how clever he is. It was entertaining, I’ll admit. His best bit, “Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.”

(Brief intermission: I think these writers should have had a word limit for each answer, and maybe some 'dont's' on how to give a good list so they didn’t get so deeply mired in the obvious suggestions that everyone and their grandmother can give you.)

Anne Enright does a little better, and I like her tone. She seems very sensible and down to earth and wry. The kind of person you’d like to have in your critique group. She would bring booze and brownies. How can you not like someone who says right off the bat, “The first 12 years are the worst”? I wouldn’t say her advice is earth-shattering, but there is a recognizable kernel of truth and feeling behind each one.

I will forgive her #9 (“have fun”) for #10, which is rather inspiring, “Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not ­counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.”

Do you hear that? Weekends off everybody!

Richard Ford’s list is more the kind of quote a reporter would get from someone if they caught him coming unawares out of the men’s room. It’s full of don’ts. It’s usually better to tell writers what to do than NOT do. Don’ts are easier to think of, and if you’re on the receiving end, checking them off in your head because you’re guilty of them, you pretty much lose the will to live, let alone write a book. Dos are harder to come up with and make people feel more empowered. His best, “Try to think of others' good luck as encouragement to yourself.” That’s a toughie, but it’s true.

Jonathan Franzen. Now we’re talking! Great writer. Great advice. Direct, meaty, witty (effortlessly witty, Geoff). Interesting, thoughtful stuff you can put into practice. My two faves, “Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money,” and “You have to love before you can be relentless.” That last one takes your breath away – socks you right in the stomach.

Esther Freud. Now this is just getting silly. There’s so much repetition of the same dull advice, that I’m wishing the writer of this article had taken most it! The only useful one, “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn't use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.” Still, she had the good sense to know she wasn’t doing us much good and stopped at 7 suggestions.

Neil Gaiman stopped at 8 but should have stopped at one. His first one was, “Write.” Is that supposed to be funny? Or is Neil giving us The Zen of Writing Lists of Advice to Writers?

David Hare. PD James. Al Kennedy. No comment. In the immortal words of a Monty Python sketch, I’d be deliberately wasting your time. Hey, they should have asked John Cleese or Terry Gilliam!

Al Kennedy does give us something that I would suggest applying to these lists, “Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don't automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.”

I’m finished torturing you. Your reward for reading this is that there’s better advice in part two of the article, though there is, again, more repetition. I do love Colm Toibin’s suggestion to stay in your ‘mental pajamas’ all day. Ah, yes. That resonates.

I doubt that these are truly the rules by which these writers live. Maybe some of the ideas, but there’s a certain self-consciousness to writing a list like this. In compiling it, you’re not thinking of yourself only, you’re thinking of all the hungry writers who are going to print out your list and carry it around in their wallets, pulling it out on the dark nights of the writer’s soul (of which there are many) in order to cheer them, like The Little Match Girl with her matches.

And we know what happened to her, now don’t we? Who wants to be responsible for that?

So, no, I won’t be giving you my list.

Read the article here: Advice to Writers

Chris Stewart is program director for literary arts for the state Arts Council in Maryland. Her current project is Sense and Sensibility-inspired - following the imagined course of study Marianne Dashwood vows to enter into at the end of the novel: Register for her new online class: Revisioning Your Fiction or Playing in the Deep at


How does an unknown author become a Kindle bestseller?

We asked novelist Elisa Lorello to share some of her insight in how her first novel,
Faking It
, peaked to number 6 on the Kindle Bestseller list during the last week of January with her second book, Ordinary World, positioning well around number 40.

By Elisa Lorello
I wish I could give you a formula for my recent success as an Amazon Kindle bestseller. I've been going back, trying to re-trace my steps, and the best I can say is that all the pieces fell into place at the right time. I can, however, give you the pieces. They're the four Ps of marketing: product, price, place, and promotion.


I had written my novel, Faking It, from 2004 to 2006. I spent much of 2007 querying literary agents, and while each query resulted in rejection, some agents requested the manuscript and gave me feedback that prompted me to revise the novel further. In late 2008, I decided to independently publish through Despite the rejection from agents, I believed in my novel, believed in its quality and appeal, and believed a readership existed, waiting for it. Approximately six months later, in June 2009, I published it on the Amazon Kindle.

But I also have to talk about the Kindle itself as a product. My sales numbers began to skyrocket Christmas week, as I had predicted they would, and kept going up. With the Kindle being Amazon's best-selling product of all time, I knew that excited new Kindle owners (my sister being one of them) were going to want to use them, and they were going to want to buy as many books as they could. Which leads me to the second P…


Pricing, especially for e-books, has been under some scrutiny. Most Kindle users refuse to pay anything over $9.99 for an e-book. And although Amazon lost the recent pricing battle with Macmillan, read the discussion forums to get a sense of what Kindle owners want. Reading those Kindle discussion threads significantly played a role in my decision to price Faking It at 99 cents. (I had originally priced it at $1.99, with Amazon discounting it to $1.19 before they stopped discounting Kindle books.) Many indie (independently published) authors price their books under two bucks in order to entice readers who otherwise wouldn't give an unknown author a chance.

But doesn't that devalue my work and deprive me of royalties? Well, yes and no. Of course I would love to charge at least five dollars for my e-book. My book is worth that, and more. But the question is more about priority. Do you want royalties, or do you want a readership? And can you get one without the other? I wanted a readership. Thus, I lowered my price to 99 cents in September. With each month, sales numbers rose. And, as previously mentioned, by Christmas week my sales really skyrocketed.


Because I had independently published Faking It through prior to publishing on Kindle, I had a head start on getting out the word. I made bookstore appearances, gave a local Raleigh, NC television show interview, and jumped on the online social networking bandwagon, taking advantage of Facebook and Twitter. In conjunction to publishing on Kindle, I launched a 30-day blog tour. I also found the aforementioned discussion forums on Kindle (and learned when it was and was not appropriate to give my novel a plug).

Pretty soon, the word of mouth took on a life of its own, and I didn't have to work so hard. By late fall, reader reviews came in, and the majority were four and five stars. (By this time I had also released Ordinary World, the sequel to Faking It; in fact, I launched it on Kindle before paperback!)

I had also become a regular participant on a Facebook discussion forum for Aaron Sorkin fans (the page was created by Sorkin when he started writing The Social Network, but was deleted shortly after filming wrapped). I rarely, if ever, talked about Faking It (except to let Mr. Sorkin know that I had mentioned him in my acknowledgements as one of my favorite writers). But as the other regulars got to know me, they purchased my novel and kindly mentioned it on the forum, offering praise and promotion of their own.

Part of promoting yourself means knowing when not to give your book a plug, but rather just relax and have fun and take pleasure in the interests of others. I've stopped following authors who tweet the same message about their book (and nothing else) day after day, or only use their Facebook page to talk about their good reviews. I have more fun tweeting about things that have nothing to do with my novel, and I find that when I do get around to plugging Faking It or Ordinary World, the results are much more effective. More importantly, I support other authors - especially indie authors - as much as I can, either by hosting them on my blog, re-tweeting their messages, or recommending their book on Facebook or the Kindle forums.


This is probably where timing came in. I was able to ride the wave of social networking, and the readers did the rest. Likewise, as mentioned, with the Kindle being the number one Christmas gift, I now had access to the very readership I sought. Every time I appeared on a blog or posted a message on a discussion board, my exposure increased. Twitter followers re-tweeted my messages, and Faking It appeared on Kindle book review blogs recommended as a good book at a good price. E-book distribution has really opened up thanks to sites like Scribd and Smashwords, not to mention Kindle and Barnes & Noble allowing free e-reader software downloads, and Kindle now being accessible on Black Berry, iPhone, iPod Touch, etc.

For every recommendation and positive review, my books rose in the ranks. From there it became a spiral reaction: The higher the ranking, the more people downloaded the book. The more they downloaded the book, the higher the ranking rose. To my utter shock and delight, Faking It peaked at number 6 on the Kindle Bestseller list during the last week of January with Ordinary World positioning well around number 40. (At the time of this writing, Faking It is number 50, and Ordinary World
is number 176. Both are in the Top 100 in Genre Fiction and the Top 20 in Contemporary Romance.) I had gone from getting 50 downloads in one month back in September 2009, to 50 downloads a day in late December, to 50 downloads an hour (it peaked at 150 an hour at one point!).

There's an X-factor to all of this. No one knows how or when all these things align - believe me, I wish I did. I've tried to pinpoint the exact moment these four Ps converged, and who or what made the difference, but I really don't know why it skyrocketed as quickly as it did at the time it did. I also have no idea how long this success will last.

My numbers have dipped quite a bit in the last two weeks (this could be because people are watching the Olympics rather than reading books, so I'm curious to see if the numbers change in the coming weeks). However, some doors are opened now that weren't previously, and it'll be interesting to see what happens in the coming months. I also plan to start experimenting with pricing, especially as Amazon's author royalty rates are scheduled to increase dramatically in June.

If there's any advice I can give you, it's to start with your product - that is, make your book the best it can be. A readership is waiting to embrace indie authors, but they are holding those authors to high standards. They want to read books that are challenging, entertaining, and, most of all, well-written and well-edited. Pricing your book cheaply doesn't give you permission to publish a cheap book. Above all, work on your craft.

Also, be persistent. My success didn't happen overnight, even though it sometimes feels like it did. I spend a lot of time following up on promotion, reading blogs and discussion forums, responding to readers, etc. It's just as much work as writing the book itself. Some days it doesn't pay off. Other days it pays off in ways I'd never dreamed. Get the word "can't" out of your language. If you believe something can't be done, if you believe you are limited, then your biggest limitation is you.

Faking It and Ordinary World are currently available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords for 99 cents, and at in paperback (Faking It is also available in paperback on and in paperback). You can follow Elisa Lorello on Twitter @elisalorello, Faking It Fans on Facebook, or "I'll Have What She's Having": The Official Blog of Elisa Lorello.
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