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The very last word on bad writing advice

I don’t do a lot of these types of posts. I’ve just never really been interested in discussing the nuances of craft online. There are other writers who are MUCH better than I about offering insight on craft and do so with stunning skill in their own little corners of the internet. So I decided a long time ago that if that’s what people wanted to read, they’ll be much happier seeking it elsewhere because I won’t go on about it.

But… Certain things push my buttons and I get to a point where I can stay silent no more.

In the past week, I’ve seen three different online posts besmirching arguably the best known bit of writing advice.  Some writers, curiously, have decided that “write what you know” is BAD writing advice.  It’s so bad, they write entire blog posts about how bad it is.  Now that’s bad.

Except it’s not. Not really.

I’ve heard some people say, “It should be ‘write what you want to know….”

OK. Fine.  That’s cool too. But there’s still nothing wrong with ‘write what you know.’ Nothing. Zip. Nada.

But, Brian…

“If you only wrote what you knew, we’d never have fantasy or speculative fiction books!”

“If you only wrote what you knew, you’d never explore anything beyond your own little mundane world.”

Uh huh. Right.

You know, for writers—people devoted to creativity and exploration and turning words on their ears to expand meaning—the people who think these things can be a VERY literal bunch.


Honestly, folks, there is NOTHING wrong with telling someone “write what you know.” In fact, I think it is EXCELLENT advice for beginning writers.  Some of the first writing assignments you ever get (What I Did On My Summer Vacation) are an extension of this. Expounding on a subject we know best—ourselves—comes naturally to all human beings.  I will never be able to carry on a conversation about quantum physics with any authority, but man can I tell you everything I know about DOCTOR WHO. (Which is a lot.)

And it can be great advice for intermediate to advanced writers too….if they’re willing to open their minds a bit. (More on that in a sec.)

All writing advice—every single piece—needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes, maybe a salt lick.  Not all writing advice will work for everyone.


I’ve been told that many times. Y’know what? I don’t write every single day. I can’t.  But I get by just fine on being a writer. (See, if I was gonna make a list of “bad” writing advice, that one would be at the top of my list. Because, see, it doesn’t work for me. But I know it works for other people. And I’m cool with that. And because I know it works for other people, I’m a little hesitant to go around telling everyone what terrible advice it is.  Why, yes, I am ready to be granted sainthood.)

So, let’s take a step back and open our minds. Let’s look at “write what you know” and maybe, I don’t know, see it in a more abstract manner (or, at the very least, not so damned literally).

Maybe “write what you know” means:

–write with emotional honesty; imbue your characters with the truths you’ve discovered in your own life

–write in a way that reflects you’ve been paying attention to life here on earth and you’ve developed an opinion or two about the human condition

–write about the life you know so you’ve got a first draft and then go back and make up weird stuff so it’s all cool and everything

Maybe there’s something to this writing what you know thing after all…?

Here’s the thing: readers MUST relate to books. In some way, shape, or form. That doesn’t mean you must make your characters “likeable.” That doesn’t mean you must accurately, painstakingly depict every facet of real life. But at SOME level, readers have to find something to latch on to that they recognize (even in a futuristic world where spittle is currency and people communicate by stabbing each other in Morse code).

That’s where you’re writing what you know. You’re writing something to which readers can relate.

And you know what? If you still don’t want to do that… fine. Go, you.

Which brings me back to my point: not all writing advice works for everyone (especially if you insist on taking it at absolute face value).  “Write what you know” doesn’t work for you because you want to put a stick up your bum and believe it means you can’t write about spaceships and other things with which you have no personal experience?  That’s your prerogative. But just remember that someone else might be able to embrace those words and find the soul of what they’re trying to say when they open up their mind to what “write what you know” could mean. So maybe lay off the criticism of advice that many, many, MANY writers have used to write some really wonderful things.

If you disagree, say so below. I can take it.

(PS—Also, do the people who rail against this advice ever stop to realize that most non-fiction relies on writing what one knows?  Seems to me there are a lot of short sighted fiction writers who are ready to sully the good name of a really EXCELLENT piece of advice because they can’t see beyond their own fictional constructs. I have YET to hear a memoirist decry “write what you know.”  Just sayin’…)

(PPS–Also, if you tell someone ‘write what you know’ and they do… You know what? You just got them writing. Give yourself a cookie.)

Published in: on March 5, 2014 at 2:26 pm  Comments (1)  

I put a spell on you

Thanks again to all who came out for the book launch party at Red Balloon on Sunday.  So good to see all the smiling faces.  If you couldn’t make it, I’ve got a few more events scheduled—in both the Twin Cities and Iowa—in the coming weeks. Please come (see sidebar for details)!

So. Halloween.

Those who know where I work know that Halloween is taken VERY seriously. Every year, all the departments pick a theme and dress accordingly. There are prizes for best costume, best department, etc. So as I prepare for tomorrow’s costumetravaganza (sorry, can’t tell you what our theme is yet on pain of torture), I thought I’d take a stroll down memory lane and revisit past costumes themes over the years.

winnersHere I am in my publicity days (I think this is circa 2006?) Our theme was 80s pop icons (that’s me as DEVO; you might also see Debbie Gibson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and Alice Cooper). I think we won best department that year. We’d also won the previous year for our theme: Six Degrees of Johnny Depp. We all came as different JD characters. Sad I can’t find a photo of that. I was Edward Scissorhands.



Don’t have a group photo here. This was also from the publicity days. Our theme was “Seven Deadly Sins–Minnesota Style.” I was Lust (that’s me in a portable bathroom stall, tapping my foot like Larry Craig). 2007, I believe?



halloween catsI moved to acquisitions in 2008. Our theme that year was famous cats. That’s me as Catbert.

stephenkingstephenkingaddamsfamilyThe next year, we were the Addams Family. So can’t believe we didn’t win best department. We nailed it. I won a prize for double duty as Uncle Fester and Thing.

stephenkinghalloweenThen our theme was Stephen King. Not sure this was one of our better years. That’s me as Kathy Bates (MISERY).



I was out of the office the year we did Ghostbusters (sad) but last year we did the Scooby Doo gang (I’m the ghost).  I thought we did pretty good here as well.

And this year’s theme?  Wait and see….


This year’s theme: Alice in  Wonderland. I am the Card Guard.






Published in: on October 30, 2013 at 10:34 am  Comments Off on I put a spell on you  

The Best Man

There’s a story I tell about my friend, Mark.mark

I’ve always had a hard time making friends. It’s never been easy for me. I’m awkward and tongue tied and I can be kind of boring. Most of the friends I’ve made in my life, it’s because I sought them out. It’s because I found them interesting and made an effort to get to know them better.  This is true of very nearly every friend I have. In fact, I can only think of two people where that’s not true.

Mark was one of those people. He was someone who sought me out. He insinuated himself into my life. There’s nothing stranger for someone who’s struggled to make friends to suddenly find himself at the business end of attention. To this day, I don’t know if I would have sought him out, but I’ll be forever grateful that he took the initiative.

In 1987, as a senior in high school, I was cast as Snoopy in a community theatre production of YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. This was a big deal. For a high school drama student, a community theatre show was the brass ring. It was the next step up. You were, to quote Steve Martin, somebody.

That was where I met Mark Wilson Scarborough. Mark was 11 years my senior, a well-known reporter for the local newspaper, and one of the smartest guys I’d ever met. As Snoopy, I shared much of my stage time with Mark, who played Charlie Brown. That alone should have been a natural segue to friendship.

But our friendship continued offstage. We spent many late nights in his apartment, him talking about the women he loved, me dreaming about becoming an actor. (Neither of us, it should be said, had much luck in these varied regards.)  He was an historian, an old soul in a young body, a clever writer, and kind to a fault.

Mark came into my life at a critical time. My “rebellious” years as a teen hit late, and Mark was there to give what guidance he could. He stood by me in the toughest of times. He helped me keep my head screwed on when there was a very real chance it could come off altogether.

Mark was the first non-family member I came out to. He was instantly supportive and offered encouraging words, knowing what I was about to embark on in letting others I loved know.

Even when our career paths took us in different directions, we always stayed in touch. When I got married to my wonderful husband in 2010, I asked Mark to be my best man (which I’d done for him when he’d gotten married years earlier). Just weeks before the wedding, he called to ask when the big day was. “It’s 10/10/10!” I yelled at him. “It’s impossible to forget. We picked that date so YOU would remember it!” (Did I mention he could be forgetful?) But he was there that special day and I couldn’t have imagined it without him.

The last ten years ago had not been kind to Mark. But no matter the problems—with his career or his love life—he soldiered on, tired smile and all.

Mark passed away unexpectedly on Monday. When my father called to tell me on Tuesday morning (my birthday, no less), I could hear he was choked up. I immediately assumed something had happened to my brother or sister. Hearing Mark’s name totally blindsided me.

I won’t whitewash history. Mark was an acquired taste. He could be forceful and stubborn and opinionated and for everyone who adored him and admired these qualities, someone else sneered at the mere mention of his name. His honesty could blister but his generosity was second to none.

It’s been a pretty tough week. Tomorrow, my husband and I are headed to Wisconsin for the funeral. They’re planning a “celebration of Mark’s life.” I really want to do that. I really want to celebrate this wonderful man who made such a difference in who I am, what I believe, and what I want to do with my life. It will be hard. But I owe him a celebration.

Some very lovely things are being said about Mark online. It’s a nice balance of fond remembrances and acknowledgment that he could be…a handful. (I think he’d like that.)

Of course, what I’ll always remember about Mark is that HE sought ME out. He was the first person I can remember who wanted to be my friend. No one else can claim that. And I’m really lucky to say that honor belongs to him.

Published in: on June 13, 2013 at 10:52 am  Comments Off on The Best Man  

My favorite teacher

“Your son has a gift!”

That’s how my husband’s professor effused about him to my in-laws just before commencement yesterday. She was referring to the fact that she’d observed him working with medically fragile and non-verbal children while student teaching for his master’s in special education this past year. And she couldn’t help but note that he has a way of getting through to them.benjgrad2

I guess you could call it a gift. That certainly implies that it’s not learned but more natural. But I like to think it goes beyond that. I, too, have seen my husband work with children. He’s been a teacher for over fourteen years and, even outside the classroom, he relates to children like no one else I’ve seen.

Children gravitate to him. In some invisible realm we can’t measure or detect with science, they instinctively know that he understands them. Maybe it’s empathy. I can see how you’d call it that.

The closest I’ve come to locking onto what it is—my husband’s gift—is to label it as compassion. And even that description seems inadequate. What he does—something that seems to require no effort on his part, and yet often requires Herculean diligence in most of us—is more than just pausing to consider someone else’s perspective. He connects on a level so deep as to be indistinguishable from the person he’s connecting with.

I’m not deifying him. My husband has his bad days. He’s had those kids in his classroom that many would label unreachable. But I’ve seen him walk back into situations that seemed hopeless, determined to try and try and try because he can’t not try to find that connection. Like a laptop constantly in search of a wi-fi signal. But his battery doesn’t die. If anything, the need to find that signal makes him stronger.

Whether or not he knows it, my husband has taught me a lot. About love. About strength of conviction. And about compassion. He stands today as the person I most want to be like. I can’t shake the feeling that if I could tap into whatever it is that fuels his compassion and access even a fraction of what’s there, I would be a better person. I know this.

Yesterday was the end of three long years of work to earn his master’s. In the fall, he’ll start work in the Minneapolis school district, doing a job that fulfills and exhausts at the same time. I know he’s up to the task. There’s just no way I could be prouder of him.


Published in: on May 17, 2013 at 8:20 am  Comments (1)  



Published by Algonquin Young Readers
ISBN: 978-1616205058

Coming April 2016.  Pre-order here:

Barnes and Noble

In the center of the verdant Monarchy lies Dreadwillow Carse, a black and desolate bog that the happy people of the land do their best to ignore. Little is known about it, except for one dire warning: If any monarch enters Dreadwillow Carse, then the Monarchy will fall. Twelve-year-old Princess Jeniah yearns to know what the marsh could possibly conceal that might topple her family’s thousand-year reign of peace and prosperity.

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Emberfell, where everyone lives with unending joy, a girl named Aon hides a sorrow she can never reveal. She knows that something in the carse–something that sings a haunting tune only Aon can hear–holds the cure for her sadness. Yet no matter how many times she tries to enter, the terror-inducing dreadwillow trees keep her away.

After a chance meeting, Princess Jeniah and Aon hatch a plan to send Aon into the heart of the carse to unlock its darkest secret. But when Aon doesn’t return, a guilt-stricken Jeniah must enter the carse to try and rescue her friend–even if it means risking the entire Monarchy.

” Farrey weaves a captivating and suspenseful tale of the power of female friendship and the pain of growing up. .”

Starred Review–Kirkus Reviews

“The labyrinth of characters and dilemmas expands as the novel progresses, culminating in a rewarding ending that highlights the importance of embracing emotions, curiosity, and measured choices.”

Publishers Weekly

“This book is wise and wonderful.”
– William Alexander, National Book Award-winning author of Goblin Secrets

“Mesmerizing . . . This is an adventure story, yes, but it is something more—it is a story of the transformational power of curiosity, tenacity, and courage.”
– Kelly Barnhill, author of The Witch’s Boy

Published by HarperCollins Childrens

ISBN-13: 978-0062049346

Now available through:

Barnes and Noble

Jaxter Grimjinx and his family haven’t had much time for thieving. Through no fault of their own, they’ve been too busy saving the day. But danger in the Five Provinces is only just beginning. The Palatinate Mages are almost ready to unveil their master plan, and legendary monsters will soon roam the land once more.

Then Jaxter’s sister, Aubrin, is kidnapped by the Mages. It seems she has a power greater than her family ever realized, and she may be the key to the impending battle for the Five Provinces.

Jaxter will do anything to get his little sister back—even if it means pulling off the greatest heist of his life and starting a large-scale rebellion.


“The Grimjinx family remains as delightfully sneaky as ever… the action is rollicking and fast-paced… Full of twists, monsters, cool magic and cooler anti-magic, with underlying family warmth and a creative crescendo.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Farrey has concluded this series with gusto and heart. Jaxter, along with his family and friends, are unforgettable, resilient, and realistically portrayed. The humor hits the mark just right and never tries too hard. This is a winning series that deserves a home in every library.” (School Library Journal)


Published by HarperCollins Childrens

ISBN-13: 978-0062049315

Now available through:

Barnes and Noble

Jaxter Grimjinx is back. Trouble is brewing in the Five Provinces. Mysterious magical artifacts have gone missing from the royal vaults. Master thieves from a secret society known as the Shadowhands are disappearing. And without explanation, the High Laird has begun imprisoning the peaceful Sarosan people.

Jaxter Grimjinx suspects all these things are connected, but after the tapestry fiasco that nearly destroyed Vengekeep, he knows better than to get involved. Then he and his parents receive a summons from the Shadowhands—a summons that they would be foolish to ignore—and Jaxter is thrust into the heart of the conspiracy. With the help of a few new friends and an old friend he would rather forget, Jaxter will have to delve deep into some long-buried and dangerous secrets.

“Farrey’s prose is arch and vivid, creating by turns giggles, groans, and elevated heartbeats.”– Booklist

“An adventure filled with twists, turns, and unexpected connections.” –School Library Journal


Published by HarperCollins Childrens
ISBN: 978-0-06-204928-5

Now available through:

Barnes and Noble

Enk vessera, enk talmin.

You can’t convict what you can’t confirm.

Jaxter Grimjinx is a born thief. At least, he’s supposed to be. For generations, the Grimjinx clan has produced the swiftest, cleverest thieves in Vengekeep.

The problem is, Jaxter is clumsy. So clumsy that in his first solo heist, he sets the Castellan’s house on fire and lands his family in gaol. Even Jaxter’s skill for breaking magical locks can’t get them out of this bind.


A Fall 2012 Junior Library Guild Selection.

Winter 2012-2013 Kids’ Indie Next List

Best Children’s Books of 2012  (Kirkus Reviews) 

Named to the New York Public Library’s list of Children’s Books: 100 Titles for Reading & Sharing, 2012

Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2013

“Farrey’s rich fantasy hits the ground running and never lets up.”

Starred Review–Publishers Weekly

“Farrey creates a complete and satisfying read with this coming-of-age novel.”

Starred Review–Shelf Awareness

“There couldn’t be a more likable family of thieves.”

Kirkus Reviews

“In a nice twist on Harry Potterlike fantasies of wizards in school, Farrey launches a rollicking saga of life among the Grimjinx, a clan of petty thieves, fortune-tellers, and the ultimate saviors of their Middle Ages–esque world.”


“A charming story that’s at times laugh-out-loud funny but also a satisfying fantasy, offering a magical world and sometimes hapless hero that will strike a chord with fans of the first volumes of the Harry Potter series.”

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“This book has something for everyone: prophecy, mystery, adventure, magic, and humor.”

Jack and Jill Magazine

“With great humor and dexterity, Farrey creates a new fantasy world where magic is kept in check, only popping up once in a while to bite our heroes on the bum.”

A Fuse #8 Production

“[A] lighthearted and freewheeling fantasy.”

Minneapolis Star Tribune


“Part of the fun is the many twists and turns that appear out of nowhere, often from one page to the next.”

–Benjamin Boche,

“Humorous and inventive. I’m eager to read the second book in the trilogy!”

–Joseph Delaney, bestselling author of the Last Apprentice series

“Enticing, lively, and wholly engrossing, this book takes us on a journey as twisty and treacherous as an old castle staircase.”

–Anne Ursu, award-winning author of Breadcrumbs






Published in: on June 28, 2012 at 6:05 am  Comments Off on MIDDLE GRADE  

The Biggest Loser

How quickly the mighty have fallen.

Right on their toukiss.

You may recall that I won last year’s Bet. You may recall that I gloated with fervor as I handed the title of “Miss Candor Sends Her Regrets” to Andrew Smith so he could write a short story around it. You may recall a victory jig (well, maybe not, as I did it when no one was around; rest assured, there was a jig).

This year’s Derby? Didn’t work out as well for me.

I came in last. Well, last in our group of four. Not dead last, thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Although my horse was uncomfortably close to that ignominious spot.

I’m not alone. Catherine lost. Kimberly lost. Andrew won (both our bet and the race; his horse actually came in first, something I didn’t even come close to with last year’s victory).  And now, as I do the Walk of Shame to my laptop, I must write a short story using a title provided by Catherine, whose horse came in ahead of mine: “All of Nature Abhors a Vacuum.”

It will not be a roman a clef using my cat as a protagonist.

I got off lucky. Last year, Catherine gave Kimberly the somewhat problematic title, “Uncle Mo’s Gastrointestinal Tract.”  Maybe Catherine regretted that, so she went easy on me. (If she didn’t regret it then, she must be regretting it now that Kimberly has given her the title, “Uncle Mo Holds a Grudge.” Why do I have the feeling that, if this Bet continues to be a regular thing, Uncle Mo will be making a perennial appearance…)

We have a deadline of June 1 to do our stories, whereupon the three losers will post their stories (Kimberly will be using Andrew’s supplied title, “The Flat Tire Man”) on our respective blogs for all to see.

(Pssst. Don’t tell my fellow writers but I’m done with my story. I couldn’t sleep Saturday night, I got an idea, and I ran with it. But don’t spread it around. I don’t want them to be jealous or anything. Besides, who knows, I may decide I hate it between now and June 1.)

So, stay tuned in a month for an original short story titled “All of Nature Abhors a Vacuum.” (You know, the one that’s already done. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.)

Published in: on May 7, 2012 at 8:32 am  Comments (1)  

Defending the MFA

I’ll start by stating something that I hope is obvious: No, you don’t need an MFA to be a writer. You don’t need an MFA to get published.

It’s been fashionable in recent years to bash MFA programs.  The criticisms are many:

MFA Programs churn out cookie-cutter writers who all write exactly the same.

There may be a modicum of truth to this. I don’t think any program encourages this.  It makes me think of the armed forces, where the first goal when you enlist is to break you down and strip you of your individuality in the belief that you will be more efficient if you’re just like everyone else.  In an MFA program, you just can’t let ‘em do that.

MFA Programs are only about literary writing and are useless if you want to write genre or commercial fiction.

It’s true that most MFA programs I know focus on literary fiction, mainly in what is assigned as reading.  And the snobbier programs make no effort to hide their disdain for genre/commercial fiction. If that’s your interest, I recommend doing your homework before signing up for one of those programs. But understand: the building blocks of writing are the same no matter what. If you get fed a diet of literary fiction, you can’t help but use that knowledge to write your vampire novel.

MFA Programs are full of pretentious, turtleneck-wearing snobs.

Actually, I think they stopped wearing turtlenecks about 30 years ago. But, yes, you’ll see these people too. While they were in the minority, my program certainly had them.  They all subscribed to the “mercy is for the weak” school of critiquing, where close friends were vaunted with praise while anyone not in the clique was vivisected. In many respects, it resembled high school.

MFA Programs bilk people out of money by imparting knowledge you can get by reading a few books.

See, here’s where I take exception. And I take a lot of exception.  For a while, the number of “I hate MFA” or “You don’t need an MFA” blog posts had dwindled but recently I’ve seen a few more crop up. (I won’t link to them because, well, if you’re that curious, do a Google search. I’ve no desire to send them traffic.) The crux of the argument is, “If you really want an MFA, go read these five books on craft, join a critique group, and **poof**, you’ll have your MFA.”

The problem I have with this approach is that it fails to take a very key part of the process into account: the fact that not all people learn the same way. Or at the same speed. Or respond to the same sort of stimuli.  This approach offers a cure all for a population of writers with very diverse backgrounds and capabilities for learning.

I’ll tell you what an MFA program did for me. It gave me context.  It was part reading books on craft and part reading examples of writers doing interesting things and part experimentation. And it was interaction. See, that’s how schools work. We don’t just throw books at kids and say, “There’s your education.” Teachers guide and help provide context to what can be an overwhelming sea of information.

That’s what I wanted. From years of reading, I knew a lot about writing. It was almost instinctual. But when something didn’t work for me, I had a hard time articulating why. The MFA program gave me the vocabulary I needed. It helped me identify flaws in my own writing, (“It’s not working, Brian, because your main character isn’t doing anything!”) and be precise when providing constructive criticism for others.

You could give five books on craft to five different writers and they’ll each walk away with five different ideas of what was said.  One of them might absorb the information completely and come away a better writer. Someone else, who doesn’t learn well visually, might come away as stupefied as ever.  Not their fault… they just need some context.

And, no, having an MFA doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a good writer. Just like going to med school doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a good doctor. (As the old joke goes, what do you call the guy who finished last in his class at med school? Doctor.) But I’m willing to bet that if you go and put in the work, you’ll learn something that makes you a better writer.

To sum up:

–You don’t need an MFA to write or be published.

–MFA programs can help guide writers who learn at different speeds and with different styles gain a better grasp of craft.

–Stop slamming MFA programs, you dork.

–I’ve shared this link before but it’s definitely worth sharing again.

Published in: on September 19, 2011 at 7:01 pm  Comments Off on Defending the MFA  

What the death of soap operas tell us

Today’s true confession: I used to watch GENERAL HOSPITAL.

I got hooked as a kid in the late 70s/early 80s when the Cassadines attempted to freeze the world with the Ice Princess.  (Mom was watching it and it had a sci-fi angle. How

Elizabeth Taylor as evil matriarch, Helena Cassadine. Do NOT mess with her.

could I not watch?)  Over summer vacation, I continued to watch it off and on, even when the sci-fi like stories stopped, into the early 90s.  I’m stunned to learn that many of the characters that I watched back then are still on the show today (some even played by the original actors).  Haven’t tuned into GH for quite some time, although they’ve tried their best in recent years to lure me back (Robert Scorpio and Anna Devane came back?!?).

But soap operas are dying.  The last few years have seen these daytime staples, some that started as radio programs back in the ‘30s, get picked off one by one.  ABC recently announced that two of its juggernauts, ALL MY CHILDREN and ONE LIFE TO LIFE, are being cancelled, leaving GENERAL HOSPITAL as the sole soap (for how long, no one knows).  NBC long ago vanquished most of their line-up (DAYS OF OUR LIVES remains) while CBS clings to THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS and THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (again, no one knows how long they’ll last).

What does this have to do with anything, Brian?

I think it’s very telling.  It’s the clearest evidence there is that storytelling tastes evolve.  This is absolutely true of individuals.  If it wasn’t , we’d all still be reading picture books exclusively (not that there’s anything wrong with adults reading picture books).  As we mature, our tastes change. We require different sophistication in storytelling.

What’s interesting about the demise of the soaps, in my mind, is how it demonstrates this can happen across a culture as well. In fact, I think if you were to look at TV writing by decade, it would be very easy to see how the way stories are told has changed. Compare a sixties sitcom (I DREAM OF JEANNIE, let’s say) with something more contemporary (RAISING HOPE). We see a lot less slapstick today (although sometimes, in the case of the BBC show MIRANDA, it still works).  I think the last time we had a sitcom dealing with some sort of magical premise was in the eighties (I could be wrong; it may have spilled over into the early 90s). Nowadays, magic seems reserved for drama. Strangely, our sitcoms have become more grounded in reality.

I had a bit of a rude awakening recently when I had a chance to stream some episodes of SCARECROW AND MRS. KING, a show from the 80s that I LOVED.  Let’s just say it didn’t stand the test of time. I often think of 80s TV as high on concept with very archetypal characters. Plot holes in the writing and implausible situations were irrelevant as long as the PREMISE was intriguing.  A show like SAMK wouldn’t fly today on the sheer implausibility of the government hiring a scatterbrained housewife to regularly work with one of their top agents on matters of national security.  No one would buy that today.

The soap opera successor?

Does this mean our tastes have become more sophisticated? Not really. Look at GLEE. In fact, I might have expected a resurgence in the popularity of soaps, given the success of GLEE, which shares many of the same storytelling elements as the soaps (extreme melodrama, fly-by-night relationships…maybe soaps can be saved by some in-your-face musical numbers).

While the demise of soaps is sad in that it marks the end of an era, it’s not really surprising. Art is far from a constant.  Just as the tastes of viewers (or readers) have changed, writing styles have evolved over the years as well.  It’s not always immediately obvious. Every ten years or so, some writer, feeling vilified, attempts to prove that editors today don’t know what they’re doing. They take something like JANE EYRE, submit it as their own work, then gloat as it gets rejection after rejection and claim that editors are stupid. But, really, the editors are responding to the current market.  JANE EYRE, if it didn’t already exist as a classic, wouldn’t sell in today’s market. The tastes of readers have changed. And so has the way we write.

The clock is ticking...

We can argue ad nauseam as to whether or not this is a good thing. You might say that things like TV and movies have fed society a diet of easy, making it harder to appreciate the lush prose that once was a hallmark of good writing.  Maybe.  In the end, I don’t think there’s any way to fight it.  I think it can be a tricky balance for a writer, trying to write what they want but also keeping up with the times.  Does that mean you have to rewrite everything you’re doing and mimic the style of whatever’s at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list? Absolutely not. If anything, it’s more important than ever to be a unique voice, shouting against the din.  But it’s also important to have a strong understanding of where writing has been and where it’s at.  It’s often hard to predict where it’s going. I think that’s because it’s up to those unique voices to set the course. To be something unlike anybody’s seen and to be prepared to go with the flow. Daytime soaps kept their heads above ground as best as they could. In the end, the formulas that once made them successful are what brought them down.  The key to having a successful career as a writer? The ability to adapt.

Published in: on August 29, 2011 at 8:35 am  Comments Off on What the death of soap operas tell us  

Scenes from my day #3

(Scene:  Talking with Another Female Co-worker near our cubicles.)

ANOTHER FEMALE CO-WORKER: I was looking through the birth announcements in the paper and found a couple that had named their baby girl Krypton. Krypton! Why name her after Superman’s home planet?

ME: Maybe she was named after the element. Maybe it was a toss-up between that or Gadolinium. I think she got off easy.

(ANOTHER FEMALE CO-WORKER stares at me for five full seconds, shakes her head, and walks away.)

You think I got it bad? My brother Lithium can't go near the psych ward without getting accosted.

Published in: on August 25, 2011 at 10:38 am  Comments Off on Scenes from my day #3  

It’s all about the execution.

There’s a lot of advice out on the web on how to write a book. Some of it’s good advice, some of it’s awful.  What I’m noticing, though, is a dearth of information on how to approach writing a book.  This unsung step is crucial to the development of any novel. It’s where ideas are nurtured and shaped. It’s where worlds are born and characters are birthed. It’s where inspiration and intuition conspire to parent dreams.*

Here, then, is my contribution to this seldom discussed piece of craft.


1.    Get an idea (check the Sunday paper, sometimes Target has a sale).

2.    Make sure it’s a really good idea. Ask your cat. If she sleeps, it’s a really good idea.

3.    Research the YA market and learn that someone else did your idea.  Sort of like how you planned, only better.

4.    Buy a live chicken, some salt, and a ceremonial dagger.

5.    In a field near a graveyard at midnight, draw a pentagram with the salt and sacrifice the chicken.

6.    Curse the name of the author who stole your idea. Said curse might include, but should not be limited to, poxes, bodily leakage, poor judgment, spontaneous combustion, spontaneous tap dancing, unrelenting sorrow and porridge, intermittent gravitas, and mistaken identity.

7.    Google the author to see if the curse worked.

8.    If the curse did not work, repeat with step 1.

9.    If the curse worked, supply me with a list of ideas you’d like me to stay away from and I’ll do so unreservedly thank you very much and my you’re looking nice today unholy one.


*=Yes, I”m aware of how completely awful that metaphor is. I’m giving it to you as a gift. Consider it a weapon the next time someone criticizes your writing.  Whip that puppy on them and watch their brains implode. You can thank me later. Or now.

**=Please note that while the term “YA novel” is used, these methods can be invoked as you approach writing just about anything. The advantage of using this as you prepare to write a grocery list is that the chicken doubles as both sacrifice and dinner.


Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 7:13 am  Comments Off on It’s all about the execution.