Blast from the Past: Writers’ Groups

Recently I was asked about how to put together a writers’ group. How often should it meet? How many members are ideal? Who should you include… or be wary of?

I recommended that a group meet every couple of weeks. And that every member should be required to bring new material to every meeting. And that a good size for a group is 5-8 people.

As for who to include, or not… here’s some advice I offered a few years ago. It still holds.

Writers’ Groups

I’ve mentioned my writers’ group before. It’s helpful, stimulating, forces me to set frequent deadlines, and provides camaraderie and inspiration. It works because we’ve learned how to give and receive constructive critiques, and because we’re all writers who are passionate about seeing our work published. We don’t dink around at our meetings. If we want to do that, there’s always Friday night, and the pub. Instead we print copies of the piece we’re sharing, read it aloud, get immediate feedback, and then either wallow in the warm glow of praise or attack each other with fingernails and pointy pens. No, not really. We wouldn’t damage pens – what kind of writers do you take us for?

There’s a lot to be said for writers’ groups, and plenty of places online where you can get good advice about how to run them successfully. For example, check out the 6′ Ferret Writers’ Group. So I’m not going to write a How To. But I do want to offer a few thoughts on How Not To. Specifically, I want to pass along some warning signs. These are people you want to be careful about working with in a writers’ group. If they sound like members of your group, you might want to gently urge them to move on to another activity. If any of them sound like you, then it might be why your last group suggested that you switch to scrapbooking.

And no, none of these archetypes are members of my own writers’ group. These are composites of people I’ve heard about over the years, drawn from the Live and Learn Files.

The not-such-a-wannabe. “No, I didn’t write anything for this meeting. I’ve been too busy. But I’m thinking of writing about camels. Or maybe space flight. Or my warts. What do you think I should write about? I mean, after I organize my closet. I won’t have time until then.” Members need to write, every time, or they need to leave.

The Egotist. This person comes in two forms: the diva, who monopolizes the group and draws their fawning attention, until it all becomes heroine worship; and the sneakier version, the earnest questioner, who absorbs lots and lots and lots of comments on his work, and then when it’s another writer’s turn, always brings the topic back around to his own piece again. “You’re so good at dialogue. How could I do something like that in my piece? How does dialogue work, anyway? I was thinking of doing…” And on and on.

The artiste. Her work has to be perfect. She frets over every single word. She frets so hard that she’s only written one page in the last year. Which she brings to every single meeting, and reads each time, so the group can help her decide whether anybody sounds more poetic than anyone in the opening paragraph.

The jealous artiste. She did a degree in Creative Writing. She’s going to suffer for her art. And so are you, because you don’t have a BA in Creative Writing and yet have the nerve to write fiction. Or as one such person said to me, “I hate your stories. But I suppose the world needs a lawyer with a sense of humor.” (Okay, so this particular person wasn’t a composite.)

The Black Hole of Need. “My third grade teacher told me I couldn’t write. He destroyed my self esteem.” That must have hurt. But honey, you’re 45 years old now. “I just can’t feel that anything I write is any good, because my teacher told me…” Agh. It’s good. It has nouns and verbs. It’s fine. But next time, please type it on a piece of paper and print copies for us, instead of reading a Haiku from a crumpled cocktail napkin. “Why? You don’t like it, do you? You don’t think it’s any good – you think I’m worthless, don’t you? Just like my teacher!” At this point, switching to Finnish, or declaring that from now on the group will only be speaking in tongues, might be the only thing that stops this person.

The paranoid. Sits gripping that single copy of the piece she’s brought to the first meeting, lips pursed, glaring suspiciously at everyone else. “Before I read, I need to make sure you have a confidentiality policy, and that it’s in writing. This is copyrighted material, and it’s so explosive that I can’t risk anybody stealing my idea.” Get rid of this person. Now. Before you get sued.

Some Thrillerfest highlights

Thrillerfest 2016 was exhausting in the best way. I taught a master class to a small group of newer fiction writers. I talked about how to make stories suspenseful. I managed not to cringe and hide under the table during the “Sex in Thrillers” panel. I heard David Morrell interview Walter Mosley. I visited Brooklyn, where the locals tried to make me feel at home by taking me to an Austin-themed bar (see above: Velvet Willie Nelson). I got in an argument with a New York City cabbie. In French. And I got to dress up and spend the evening at the Thrillerfest banquet with my son Mark.

What a life. I’m lucky to live it.

Hello from Thrillerfest

New York City

I’m in New York City for Thrillerfest. It’s the week when we authors descend on the city to practice the dark arts of suspense. And eat Reuben sandwiches.

Yesterday I taught an all-day workshop on writing, and this morning I taught a session on creating suspense on the page. My voice is already gone. So if you’re at the conference and strike up a conversation, I’m not giving you the silent treatment. I just can’t talk too much.

Or maybe I was struck speechless when I saw that Walter Mosley was also giving a talk to the conference: Plotting the Unconscious. WALTER MOSLEY. I sat in the front row, gasping in fangirl awe. I would have screamed like a teenager at a Beatles concert but, fortunately: my voice was already gone.

More reports to follow.

(Obligatory view from my hotel window: looking south across 42nd Street.)

Q & A: How can lawyers become novelists?


I used to practice law. Now I write thrillers. Because of this, other lawyers write to ask me how to switch careers. And I recently taught a seminar on this topic at an American Bar Association conference. So I thought I’d share some of the most common questions I’m asked, and the answers I’ve given.

“How do you get published?”

Write the best book you can.

This is first, last, everything. Honest to God. Before you do anything else, write the book. Rewrite it. Edit it. Get feedback. Set it aside for a few weeks. Reread it. Polish it. And while you’re doing this, read, read, read. Read every novel in the genre you’re writing, to learn as much as possible about how great books are put together.

“What was going through your mind when you sensed you the need to switch careers? Did doubts arise? When did you write (time of the day)? At what point did you know it was time to jettison the law job for good?”

I always loved writing, and when I was practicing law, I found ways to write… short stories, freelance essays for small magazines, and of course a journal. After a few years as a commercial litigator I knew I was ready for a switch. I segued into teaching, and eventually wrote a publishable novel. This was after years of false starts and half-baked attempts that ended up in the filing cabinet.

I never doubted that I wanted to write fiction. I frequently doubted that I would get anything on the bookshelves. I had to be willing to carve out the time—in the evening, on weekends, after office hours—to write. I never gave up a job to write full time. I only got the opportunity to do that once my first book was bought by a publisher.

Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance!

I know many lawyers are / become writers, but it appears that you have done it successfully. At this point, since my books are ideas, notes, and outlines, and my law practice is very busy and profitable, it is hard to know what to do. Should I look for an agent or go the self-publishing route? What did you do and what would you recommend?

Going from practicing law to writing for a living was a long transition. Basically, I went from practicing commercial litigation to having three kids to teaching Legal Writing in the Writing Program at the University of California Santa Barbara, where I concurrently wrote short stories and magazine pieces, to making my first attempts at a novel. It was when all my kids were finally in school that I found the time to finish that first attempt at a novel… which wasn’t very good. And then to start again from scratch with something new, to finish that and finally, several years after I first dreamed of writing a book, to get that novel published. And then to write a sequel, and turn it into a series, and write a second series, and several stand alone novels—it’s a long road!

If you’re interested in writing, my only advice is to WRITE. If you want to write fiction, you’ll need to have a completed, polished manuscript before you start querying agents or consider self publishing. If you’re writing non fiction, and you want to go with a commercial publisher, you’ll need to work up a book proposal outlining the story, your qualifications to write it, and what kind of readership it would find.

My novels are published by Penguin Random House, and I’m happy about that. If you want to self publish, you need to be prepared to become a publisher and to do everything that goes with it: editing, cover design, marketing, publicity, and distribution. It should be a well-considered decision. And of course, once you become a writer, you’re self-employed, running your own business in an industry that’s in the throes of change. It can be a wild and bumpy ride. It’s a ride I’m glad I took—if you have a passion to write, work on getting the manuscript or proposal ready to go, then take it from there.

I hope this helps. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it—only passion and hard work.

Writing: You Can’t Do It All At Once

A while back, I was asked to write a guest blog post on the writing process for Southern Writers Magazine. I’m cross-posting it here. I hope it will give y’all some reassurance that writing takes time, and work, and that it’s all worth it.

The Writing Process: You Can’t Do It All At Once

Writing is a process, we hear. But what does that mean? That writing is like assembling cars on a factory line? Like baking a cake, or giving birth?

For me, process means I spend months brainstorming ideas for a novel, and sketching character biographies, coming up with plot twists, and researching topics that range from cryptology to cat burglary. It means I outline the story: the beginning, the middle’s big turning points, and the ending. It means I pound out a rough draft. (So rough, I could glue it to a belt sander and use it to grind down metal filings.) It means I revise that draft once, twice, maybe three or four times, adding more plot twists, pruning dead ends, and turning cardboard characters into living, breathing, bleeding people who launch themselves at the world and at each other.

Process means that writing a novel is a multi-faceted, multi-layered endeavor. Which means you can’t do it all at once.

So, if you’re gazing into the abyss that is your writing project, feeling overwhelmed, lean back. Repeat after me: One step at a time.

It took me years to figure this out. When I first attempted to write a novel, I had no idea what I was doing. I just hammered out a story featuring an embryonic version of my series heroine, Evan Delaney.

In the first version, Evan’s entire family disappeared. Ooh… it was a mystery. The problem: Evan spent 20 pages sitting in her brother’s empty living room, having flashbacks about her childhood, before noticing that nobody was home. It was lumpen. In the second version, a bunch of amateurs pulled off a sting. That version had witty dialogue, a cast of hundreds, and a major issue: I called the novel a murder mystery, but nobody in the book actually died.

In still another version, I spiced up a slow scene by introducing a revving engine and a blinding set of headlights. The characters dashed to safety, and then the would-be thriller screeched to a halt, because I had no idea who was at the wheel or why they were after anybody. I was a deer in those headlights, broadsided by the realization that I had no plot.

That’s when I taught myself to plan novels so they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And as few blinding headlights—and other clichés—as possible.

I learned how to construct a plot: a big, strong story that builds to a conclusion that’s surprising yet inevitable, with strong, sympathetic characters in action under pressure, facing the hardest choices of their lives. Now, with twelve novels published, I know that this is the work I’ll tackle whenever I start a new book.

Process means that your writing has to develop, evolve, and grow. All that takes time. One step after another. Embrace the journey. You’ll get there.

Upcoming events: ThrillerFest 2016


Next month I’ll be taking part in Thrillerfest in New York City. This year I’m teaching at Craftfest and Master Craftfest. And I’m on a couple of panels. If you’re coming to the conference, I’d love to see you.

PROMOTION, SALES OR REVIEWS? Lessons Learned From The Front Lines
Friday, July 8
10:20 – 11:10 a.m.

Saturday, July 9
2:00 pm – 2:50 p.m.

It should be fun.

Blast from the past: Writing Myths

I’ve just crawled from the writing bunker. Draft 2 of NEW NOVEL is complete. After staggering to the kitchen and eating an entire bag of tortilla chips and a box of See’s Candy to recover, I stood on the porch with my fists in the air, howling in victory. Or maybe I turned on the Cavs-Raptors game. Somebody had their fists in the air. It was either me or LeBron.

Then, filled with energy, I sat down to blog on the topic of do’s and don’ts for writers. An hour later I was still sitting here, staring at the blank screen. Draft 2 of NEW NOVEL had drained all new words from my head. At least for today.

So here’s a blast from the blog’s past.

Writing Myths

I’ve recently encountered some misconceptions about writing. Let me dispel them.

1. Writing requires inspiration. No it doesn’t. Inspiration – a sudden brilliant idea, a flash that stimulates creativity – is wonderful and thrilling, but when you’re writing a book, constant inspiration is not necessary. And if you want to finish that book, you can’t wait for inspiration to strike. You have to sit your butt down and put your fingers on the keyboard and type. Word after word after word.

To me this seems self-evident. But at a friend’s book launch recently, a well-educated couple asked me how often I write. Every day, I said. They looked surprised. Really… every day? Yes. They looked utterly confused. Even if I don’t feel like it?

At that point I realized (a) they thought writing consisted essentially of inspiration – that it could only take place when the muse descends and sprinkles her fairy dust; and (b) they thought writing was essentially a lightweight activity, the transcription of fairy dust into frilly words. A hobby, that is. Self-indulgence.

Repeat after me: if you want to write a book, you have to treat it as a job. Because it is. It’s a fabulous job, but it’s work.

2. Anybody can write a novel. Believe it or not, the last time a friend said this to me – flipping through one of my novels before tossing it aside – I kept a smile on my face. A rigid, homicidal smile. Jurassic Park? he said. Piece of cake. Crime novels? Just kill a bunch of people, pick the killer from the surviving characters, and you’re done. Takes a couple of months, max.

Needless to say, he has never gone on to write a novel. He can’t spare the time. And I’m still smiling.

3. Reading fiction is a waste of time. I’ve written before, with frustration, about fictophobia: the refusal to read fiction. Since publishing my first book I’ve been shocked by the number of people who tell me point blank that they won’t read novels. Fiction is frivolous, they say. Or it’s not “real.” Or, horribly, it doesn’t “increase their productivity.” I hear this from people who read only self-help books.

I think such people misunderstand what story is, and what it does. Story is more than frivolity, more than escapism. Story teaches us about the world by drawing us into the lives of characters as they strive, risk, fail, and triumph, often in dire circumstances, sometimes while faced with desperate choices. Story is about morality, selflessness, maturity, dignity. It’s about humanity.

Strangely, the people who read only self-help books (in bed, with the television tuned to CNBC so that even their final moments before sleep will be “productive”… sometimes clutching a yellow highlighter so they can highlight the crucial bullet points that reveal how to lose weight, get rich, and find a mate) tend to be the same people who tell me anybody can write a novel. Though generally they don’t want to write books but screenplays. Movies take only two hours to watch, after all – could it take much longer than two hours to write a screenplay? And screenplays sell for shitloads of money… right? Writing a screenplay, that’s not a waste of time, because it will make them rich and famous. And isn’t that what counts? It must be. They highlighted that bullet-point in the self-help book.

All I can say to these folks is, good luck.