Tag Archives: experience

#atozchallenge M is for Mentor


by Lillian Csernica on April 15, 2019

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One of the best things a writer can do is find a mentor.

Writing is a lonely business. We have to isolate ourselves, otherwise we’d never get any writing done. When it’s time to emerge from that productive isolation, it helps to have a supportive community of other writers. What helps even more is having a someone who’s been there and done that, who is doing it right now, and can offer support and advice about the process.

Joining a writers group can be one way of building a community and perhaps even finding a mentor. I discuss the pros and cons of writers groups here.

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What can a writing mentor do for you?

Writing advice — The best way to find good guidance on how to improve your writing is to ask someone who has achieved at least some publishing success. Call me old-fashioned, but I respect the gatekeepers. Editors and publishers with established track records of professional success. Writers who have had fiction accepted by them have proven their level of skill. Both the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Romance Writers of America have mentor programs. If you’re writing in these genres, give them a look.

Professional etiquette — This can encompass everything from how to approach publishers and agents to coping with the perils of volunteering for a writers workshop. The experience and perspective of a good mentor can alert you to pitfalls and make sure you present your best polished professional demeanor.

Marketing tips — Writers who have a sales record will most likely acquire some familiarity with the tastes of the editors to whom they send their fiction. This familiarity arises in part from the submission process, but it can also be informed by face time at conventions. Getting the inside scoop on marketing trends is a wonderful thing.

Coping with rejection — There are three basic stages: form rejection, checklist rejection, personalized rejection. Given the speed of submission managers and email replies, the odds have gone up somewhat in terms of getting actual comments on submissions. That being said, it still takes experience to read such comments and understand their meaning. I was overjoyed the first time I got a rejection from Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine that included a comment about looking forward to seeing more stories from me.

Coping with success — This can be worse than rejection. Why? Because while success breeds success, it also breeds anxiety and pressure to perform. Not every idea will turn into a winner. It becomes a numbers game, which means a lot of hard work. In retail, I learned the 80 20 Rule, aka the Pareto Principle, which says 80% of your results will come from 20% of your activities. Having a mentor will help you learn how to spend your available writing time wisely.

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Filed under #atozchallenge, Blog challenges, Conventions, creativity, editing, fantasy, Fiction, Goals, publication, science fiction, Writing

The Hazards of Writing What You Know


I wrote this post two and a half years ago. In the wake of the Orlando shootings and the discussions about issues related to that horrible event, I feel it’s relevant to make these points again.

Hopes and Dreams: My Writing and My Sons

by Lillian Csernica on February 16, 2014There seems to be more and more talk these days about the importance of diversity, inclusive viewpoints, and using language that carefully avoids triggers and hostile buzzwords.

What we have here is a mine field.

Let’s consider the Bogeyman of our times, the Straight White Male (SWM).  How is a SWM supposed to write about characters with whom he has absolutely nothing in common, no points of cultural similarity or emotional resonance?  As a drastic example, just to make the point, imagine a single, childless SWM attempting to write a story from the viewpoint of an African-American lesbian who has two children from a relationship that occurred when she was a teenager.  Even if the SWM knows a woman who fits this description and goes to her for research and feedback on his manuscript, he’s still in the position of a deaf person…

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Filed under editing, Family, Fiction, Goals, historical fiction, history, Lillian Csernica, neurodiversity, perspective, publication, research, Writing

The Top Five Reasons Why You Need an Editor


by Lillian Csernica on May 12, 2015

Last week somebody out there in Twitter Land had a free copy promotion going on.  I followed the link.  The book looked interesting, a collection of short stories that promised suspense and paranormal chills.  So I downloaded it to my Kindle.  One evening, after the work of the day was done and the kids were asleep, I settled down in happy anticipation.

I was disappointed.

Typos.  Punctuation errors.  Grammatical errors.  Awkward sentence structure.  Stilted dialogue.

These were not the errors of just one author.  These mistakes were present in three different stories by three different authors.  None of the stories in that collection was fit to be published.  How do I know?  Who am I to judge?  I’ve worked as a slush reader for a fiction magazine.  I’ve been reviewing fiction for over twenty years.  I’ve published a novel via traditional publishing, aka the hard way.  I’ve also published over thirty short stories.  I have the experience and the credentials to know the difference between the work of a professional writer and somebody who still has a lot to learn.

As long as there are wannabes, dilettantes, and tyros in the world, there will be some form of vanity press.  Unfortunately, the wonders of the Digital Age have made available to people at every level of writing skill the opportunity to “publish” their writing.  I have to say this.  Just because you can churn out something that looks like a short story, or is long enough to be classified as a novel, that does not make you a writer.

I see far too many people swanking around these days referring to themselves as “authors.”  Having a book to sell has become a fad.  There was a time when going to a seance was the thing to do.  Then Houdini started busting the fakes and the con artists.  Remember when everybody had a Pet Rock?  That was just silly.  Billy Ray Cyrus had his one hit wonder days with “Achy Breaky Heart” and all over the country people were line-dancing to that song.  Now anybody and everybody can slap together their own version of Tolkien Lite, put a cover on it, and fling it out into the electronic marketplace.

This makes me angry, and I’ll tell you why.  Far too many people want to be “authors.”  They don’t want to write.  They don’t even understand the difference.  They do not respect the art and craft of writing.  They do not respect the writers who have spent their lives doing their best to improve their work, to polish their style, to honor the unspoken contract with the reader that says, “You pick up my book and I will give you a story worth reading.”

Having said all that, allow me to offer these thoughts on why an editor is an essential part of a writer’s life.

1. You don’t think you need one.

If you really believe you don’t need an editor, then I hope for your sake that you have some variety of OCD that has made you go over your manuscript with a microscope.  Even then, because of your familiarity with the story and the words, your brain may commit what’s called “closure” and prevent you from spotting an error.

2.  Unless you have an English teacher for a beta reader, odds are good your writer friends don’t know much more than you do.

The best writing teacher I’ve ever had knows all the technical terms for all the nuts and bolts of grammar.  Thanks to him, I know the difference between an “adjectival phrase” and a “predicate phrase.”  I know about the inner essence of sentences.  And I still don’t know much.  If I hadn’t kept that teacher’s handouts, most of what he taught me about the inner workings of what people call “microwriting” would have fallen out of my memory.  My point here is that not many people make it their purpose in life to understand exactly how the English language is supposed to work.

If you’re in a writer’s group or a critique group where all the other people are at the same level of skill and accomplishment, how are you and the rest of the group going to grow as writers?  If you don’t know what you don’t know and nobody there is a qualified authority, you may be able to do each other some good with regard to plot, character, setting, etc., but you aren’t going to bring your manuscript up to the best, most marketable standards.  There are people who know how to do that.  Those people are called editors.

3.  “Fresh eyes” are essential for spotting any mistakes.

Time and effort have proven that I write five drafts before I have what I consider a complete story.  That’s true whether it’s a short story or a novel.  By the time I’ve finished the fifth draft, I’ve caught most of the obvious errors and I’ve cut as much as I know the story does not need.  By this point the story is so familiar to me that I’m sick of looking at it.  Now is the time to hand the manuscript to somebody who has never read it.  If you want to be really drastic, give the story to somebody who does not like that particular type of story.  Me, I don’t read Westerns.  They do nothing for me.  Since I am not likely to be caught up in the story, I will be paying greater attention to the word choices, the grammar, the punctuation, and any typos that pop up.  If one of my writer friends wanted me to beta read a Western manuscript, it would be an uphill battle to draw me into the story and make me feel sympathy for the main characters.  If the writer succeeds in doing so, that really counts for something.

4.  I don’t care how much experience you have, there will be a misspelling or typo lurking in there somewhere.

Believe me when I tell you there are few things more painful that seeing your work in print and THEN spotting the typo, the renegade comma, or the missing word that totally screws up the meaning of that sentence.

5.  There is always room for improvement.

I don’t ask my beta readers for help until I’ve take the manuscript as far as I can possibly go.  Before I give it to them, I do my best to make sure the manuscript is so clean it sparkles.  There’s no point in getting a second opinion on mistakes you know you’ve made.  If you’re hiring an editor, there’s no point in spending money just to be told what you already know.  Make sure your writing is as good as you can possibly make it, then get that second opinion.  As hard as you’ve worked, there will still be other word choices, other possible plot twists, other ways to write a given character’s dialogue.

These are strong statements, I know.  What do you think?  Do you agree?  Do you think I’m full of hot air?  Do you believe there’s no difference between an author and a writer?  Tell me how you you feel about all this.

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Passion vs. Marketing


by Lillian Csernica on July 10, 2014

When I started writing I’d go nuts with a new idea.  I’d sit there with my pen and notebook or I’d be at the keyboard just going at it like lightning.  Some ideas were big enough to carry me along for days.  The characters just kept talking or fighting or having adventures.  The worlds kept opening up to me, demanding a record of all their details.  I’d end up with some really hot stuff, but a lot of it was middle, sometimes an ending.  I had to go back and figure out the whole story so I could fit this smokin’ hot piece of writing into it.

These days I’m a little more cautious.  I watch the sound and fury inside my head and think about it for a while.  Novel or short story?  One book or three?  One genre?  More than one?  I tend to evaluate my ideas in terms of marketability.  While this is a practical approach, it also takes some of the fun out of that first rush of inspiration.  I do think about the nuts and bolts such as plot and character.  Those can also be approached from a marketing standpoint first.  A lot of editors want to see POC characters, LGBT characters, and stories that speak to what happens in their lives.

If somebody asked me, “So where is the best place to start?” I’d have to say, “What do you want?  Where are you in your writing, and where do you want to go?”  When you have a new character that you’re all excited about, run with it.  Interview him or her.  Let that character talk to you and tell you the kind of stories your best friend might tell you at 3 a.m. after a long night and some hard times.  It doesn’t matter how much or how little of this material you use.

IT’S ALL WRITING, and WRITING IS GOOD.

Then there’s the other approach.  You’re watching the market listings.  You see a new anthology that wants stories about capturing endangered alien species for the Intergalactic Breeding Program.  It just so happens you wrote a paper on the rare Checkerboard Chameleon that is rumored to live out in the wilds of Madagascar.  Looks like you’ve got what you need to start building a submission for that market.

Hold it.

Step back for a minute.

Yes, you have serious knowledge about a rare species and its habitat.  Have you been to Madagascar yourself?  If you have, fabulous.  If you haven’t, you can probably work around that.  Do you have field experience going out and capturing live specimens?  If not, you’re probably going to want to talk to somebody who’s done it and knows the pitfalls.  Then you have to write the story, and rewrite it, and maybe have your expert look it over.  When the story is done, you send it off to the market and cross your fingers.  Your personal credentials will help, but the bottom line is the story.

All of this takes TIME.

What happens if that market rejects the story?  Here you have this custom-built piece of fiction that represents a whole lot of time and energy.  Are there any other markets out there where this story might stand a good chance of being accepted?

Now we have come full circle.  That is the magic question you want to ask yourself BEFORE you sink all that time and energy into writing the story.

If the answer is yes, there are at least five or six other markets where your story fits the guidelines, then go for it.  Be realistic.  Don’t stretch the boundaries of likelihood just because you’re all hot and bothered about this one story idea.

If the answer is no, fall back and rethink your approach.  There may be other markets where your expertise will give your odds a boost, and the story you come up with will have broader marketability potential.  Maximize your investment of time, energy, research, and submission duration.

Passion, inspiration, drive, are all important to the creative process.  Marketing strategy is crucial for business success.  Knowing how to walk the line between them takes experience.  The more you write, the more you submit your stories, the more you learn about yourself, your work, and the business of writing.

May your burning desire to write remain an eternal flame.

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