Best writing advice? READ

Reading everywhere photo

Jakub Pavlovsky

A couple of years ago, the Odyssey Writing Workshop in New Hampshire invited me as a guest lecturer and asked some interesting questions. (Slightly abridged)

What is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

One young and aspiring writer unforgettably told me that she “didn’t have time to read.” I knew then that she would never really be a writer.

Reading is the primary education for any writer.  You need to have an inoculation of language in your writerly stream before your own words can take form. People who don’t read never develop the love and the reverence for the written word, how then can they hope to tease out its wonders?

If you are serious about pursuing writing as a craft, as a vocation, as a career… well… Read, Write. Practice. It comes only with practice, this inner instinct about whether something you’ve just written is good, or if there is something wrong with it, and what, and how it needs fixing.

I remember writing a page and half of something once and stopping and staring at this thing I had just produced and coming a realization that what I had there was a dense–a very dense–summary of the thing I needed to actually write. Eventually that page and a half turned into nearly three chapters of the final book. But without the millions of words of practice I had already put in… I would not have known this, recognized this, figured out what I needed to do to fix it.

So–two very obvious pieces of advice.  Read.  Write.

Rinse and repeat.

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

I always wrote seriously. I won national writing awards when I was a pre-teen. I sold stories way way wayyy back… for pretty much almost nothing. I was into my 30s when I wrote the first published book, Dolphin’s Daughter, a collection of fairy tales.

As to what I was doing wrong… I don’t think I was doing anything “wrong.” I was not ready. That doesn’t mean I was wrong. I was raw, and unpracticed, and maybe sometimes hasty (I learned the more intricate truths of self-editing as I went along). I was… young. With some writers maturity comes early–with others, you have to grow into it.  

Here’s an example–at age nineteen, I wrote a novel about the Matter of Britain, from the POV of Guinevere that almost got published. An editor who was quite taken with it, enlisted the aid of a very senior beta reader–a man who was a Big Name in South African publishing at that time (that’s where I was living). The only problem was that he was very much a High Literary Guru, and entirely the wrong audience for my work. He nixed the Guinevere book and it didn’t go anywhere after all.  

His report began like this: “I have no doubt that this is a writer who is destined for great things in times to come.”  Unfortunately that was followed by the proverbial BUT. His objection was that my story lacked, in his words, “…what Kazantzakis called ‘madness’…” That was true, because I was young  and my understanding of what drove that story–betrayal and adultery and sexual obsession–was limited and flawed. I would write a very different story if I were writing that thing today.

In other words, he was probably totally right. Although I hated him for saying so at the time.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

I have no idea. What sells or doesn’t sell is so, so subjective and audience-driven. Luckily there are as many kinds of readers as there are writers and there is an audience for any storyteller. The problem is connecting with it, of course–and sometimes you connect on the level of a Gaiman or a Rowling, and sometimes you barely scrape together a fiercely devoted but numerically small following. In my mind it never mattered whether it sold–it mattered whether it connected.

How many stages does your work go through? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft? How much time is spent in revision?

I tend to blurt out a very clean “first draft” but that’s because I don’t really just put down whatever comes into my head. In some sense my truly awful chaotic first draft tends to get distilled into a second iteration while still inside my head, and it’s the “second draft” that becomes my “first,” in a way. 

Then it gets tossed to what I am very fortunate in having–an in-house editor, my husband, who is a professional in that field and who is always my first reader and my first editor. He’s pretty damn ruthless and does not pull his punches. When he tells me there is a problem there usually is. That’s my polish pass–taking his suggestions on board, going through the manuscript for anything that I myself may have missed or want to add. Then I’ll let it sit for a little while just until the image and the imprint of it drains from my system, and I”ll give it another reading, another once-over, cold.

After that, it’s ready to go out.

But revision and rewriting is my least favorite part of this whole process. I will do the edit and the polish and the rewrite–but I won’t bury myself in those. They, to my mind, are just the final tweaks. My work has already been done.

The kind of revisions I find myself doing most often tend to be two of my husband’s favorite editorial caveats. There are scenes which I may have avoided writing and fleshing out for whatever reason, and they need more development–and I have to go back and fix that. Or there are scenes which I fleshed out a tad too much, and which actually need condensing. I’ve done both. It’s story, and pacing, that I sometimes do need to pay closer attention to.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

My husband has these things he calls my “weasel words” and he goes after them with a passion and a vengeance. I then need to go through my manuscript expunging wishy-washy descriptors like kind ofsort of, almost, nearly, apparently,  and the like. I get told very firmly to decide what it is that I want to say, or what is going on, and to go there, and to stop dancing around the edges.

A writer’s work is often done in solitude, but the writer often craves community. Do you find community or solitude more helpful.

A lot of my writerly interactions actually comes from a network of online friends–and while it is nice to meet those friends every so often at conventions and what have you, my email and chat exchanges are not bounded by geographical proximity. Some of my best friends are in the Antipodes, for Heaven’s sake. But yes, there IS something very nice in just hunkering down over a cup of coffee and hashing out a plot point or whining about current woes.  

But honestly, these days if you and your chum are both on something like Skype, for instance–you can share an hour of writing time while connected and bounce things off each other in real time that way. The Internet is a gift for those of us working alone in our cubbyholes and offices. The whole entire world is just on the other side of our monitors and only a point and a click away. Use that. Find a community. This is your tribe.  Find a way to talk to each other.

Plotters use outlines while pantsers write by the seat of their pants. As a self-identified pantser, how do you make your plots powerful and unified?

Things… worlds­­­­­… live in my head.  Some people may need to have all of that down on a piece of paper before they can make sense of it.  Me, I carry the whole dream inside until it is ready to come out. I’ve occasionally written down things like family trees, but most of the time, it all lives inside.  And it is a messy complex complicated tangle. If anyone could see the inside of my head during the writing of a complex novel it would be a lot like looking at the back of a tapestry–where chaos reigns, and threads intersect and stretch across other threads and interconnect and tangle–and it all looks impossible and utterly without meaning. But on the other side, the tapestry, there is a real picture that you can see and everything makes perfect sense. And there are times that the picture that emerges, when I am done, is a surprise even to me.  That’s what being a “pantser” means.  A plotter would be doing things on a pre-printed canvas or meticulously counting stitches.  Pantsers connect threads by instinct working from the back of the tapestry and somehow… somehow… get the picture right on the other side of the fabric without ever seeing it being made.

15 Words

15 has created an infographic for language enthusiasts called “15 Words You Never Knew Came from Literature.”

Some of the books featured in this image include The Hobbit, Catch-22, and Gulliver’s Travels.

See the whole infographic HERE

11 Types of People You Meet In Book Clubs

Not every book club is perfect, Kate Erbland writes in Bustle, and most of them involve a strange coterie of very different personalities with very different tastes, all battling it out to have their literary opinions be heard. She tells us about the 11 types of people who will bring passion to your friendly local book club.

For example:
NononoThe Deep Dissenter
No matter how carefully everyone picks each month’s book selection or how smoothly the discussion is guided, the Deep Dissenter finds something to pick apart that no one else noticed. Perhaps the author of this month’s book has a “better” novel you should have chosen instead or there were simply too many pages in the latest selection, no matter what, she’ll find fault anywhere and everywhere.

Read the rest HERE

It’s going to be a busy year

I’m racing along so fast this year that my head is spinning madly. This is the state of play…

February:Dawn of MagicThe fourth and final Worldweavers book, “Dawn of Magic,” has been cleared for landing. Before you order a copy, you might want to do some catch-up by re-reading books 1 through 3. (all now available as paperbcks from Sky Warrior Books) – because this fourth one is the finale, and it looks back over its predecessors with affection…

I’ve always had a soft spot for this book and I can’t wait to share it with you all. I think it winds up the Worldweavers series beautifully. It’s nothing short of the story of how the soul of human magic was lost – was STOLEN – and there’s an expedition to take it back, leading straight to the heart of the Alphiri Crystal City where Thea has to face some of her greatest fears and make some tough choices, the Trickster finally finds his true role in the grand scheme of things, and Nikola Tesla rises to meet his destiny.

RandomThere is also a reading for “Random” at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at Village Books here in Bellingham. If you are in the area, please come along,

I”ll be glad to see you there!

AbducticonAbduction: my first SF humor.

More about this – oh, MUCH more! – closer to the release date – you’ll see it here first!

In addition to my new book, there is Rainforest Writers Retreat where I have two possible projects I am still dithering about which I want to work on.

Later in March, there will be a book event for “Random” in Seattle at University Book Store. Again, if you’re local and I missed inviting you, please forgive me, and please come!

April: I think I have time to take a breath, but it’s going to be busy because it’s going to be ramping up for the release …


… of “Wolf”, the second of The Were Chronicles book. Exact release date not yet fixed.


Going to Odyssey Writing Workshop as visiting speaker. The annual summer writing workshop is an in-person, six-week workshop held on the campus of St. Anselm College, Manchester, NH. Guest Lecturers for the 2014 Summer.

They did an interview with me, here:

Then I hope to go on a little mini book tour on the east coast. Watch this space.

July: My birthday. I’m taking a bit of time off.


Worldcon, Spokane. Worldcons are always intense and fun. With several new books out… I am going to be BUSY at this one.

Not sure about September and October but there’s Orycon in November.

And then it’s Christmas again.

There goes the year.

I think I’d better stock up on caffeine.

FREE ebook

I will send a free ebook version of Random, Book 1 in my YA series The Were Chronicles, to the next 10 people who pledge to leave a review on Amazon.

To accept the offer, just send an email HERE with the subject line “Free Random Offer”
(1) a valid email address to send the ebook to
(2) a single sentence in the body of the email acknowledging that a review will follow.

I hope you love the book, but reviews, of course, need only be honest.

Amazon finally has the print version back in stock.

Pop-Up Books, not just for children anymore

When paper engineers turn their talents to books, the end result is the wonderfully tactile experience of pop-ups, Off the Shelf tells us.

You may think of pop-ups as solely the realm of children, but the books on this list are equally entertaining for adults, too! Each page will pull you into the sophisticated, multi-sensory world of intricately crafted paper scenes from classic literature to abstract art, cultural icons to poetry, wondrous creatures to mind-bending alphabets, and even a book that teaches you how to do-it-yourself.

For example:

M.C.-Escher-Pop-Ups1M.C. Escher Pop-Ups
by Courtney Watson McCarthy

The mesmerizing work of Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher has fascinated viewers for more than seventy years. His illustrations constantly play with our perceptions of reality by layering multiple conflicting perspectives. This book presents some of the artist’s most intriguing works in original three-dimensional pop-ups.


See more HERE

Open Letter to the Man offended by Locally Laid

(If these eggs were available to me here in Bellingham, I’d certainly buy them.)
Locally laidResponse

Dear Mr. (name withheld),

Thank you for reaching out to let us know your opinion of the Locally Laid Egg Company…

Here’s why we named our company, Locally Laid. We are the first pasture-raised egg company in the Upper Midwest providing you with eggs which are laid locally….The average food product in this country travels some 1,500 -2,000 miles from farmer to processor to distributor to your plate. That’s a lot of diesel burned and C02 pumped in the air. Our cartons travel a fraction of those miles.

We’ve turned down lucrative contracts that would have taken our eggs out of the area because of our environmental stance. Plus, we plant a tree with every delivery we make to offset our minimal carbon footprint.

Read the whole letter HERE


Google aims to be your universal translator. Its Translate app has the ability to instantly converse with someone speaking in a different language, and the capability to translate street signs into your native language.

That’s a godsend, because not everyone speaks Klingon, you know.

Oldest Facebook user celebrates 107th birthday — Edythe Kirchmaier, born on January 22, 1908, is the oldest registered user on the popular site.

Illinois Law Allows School Officials to Demand Students’ Passwords

Read more about the troubling law HERE

Quote of the Day
QUOTE Review~~~~~
Alma Alexander     My books     Email me

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What do YOU like?

Jennifer Schaffer of BuzzFeed has selected some of the most beautiful sentences in literature (below), and that made somebody ask me about what I like in my own works.

I must have written five or six million words in my lifetime so far, published two million or so of those, so finding “a favorite sentence” is something of a challenge, and I don’t know if my readers would respond to the same things. But here are some of my favorites:

I looked at her and I saw an ocean; I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw a suburban fishpond with a couple of tired koi swimming around in circles. ~ Random

For every color there was a dark twin, a shadow, and it  came to him in hues and nuances, just as he had dreamed, but he could not close his eyes to any of them, could not unsee. ~ Color, Human Tales anthology

And, since I don’t write sentences so much as paragraphs, there is this from my novel, Midnight at Spanish Gardens:

The passageway between a couple of blank brick walls widens abruptly into a courtyard. There is a doorway, dark now, with some sort of gilt writing on the glass. An accountant, maybe, or a dentist – i forget what it was,and maybe it even changed once or twice during  my time here. And across the courtyard, dimly lit, a coy sign above the door, there it is, the Spanish Gardens. It does not look very Spanish. it certainly does not look anything like a garden.
Tuck EverlastingSuggested by Emily W., via Facebook Creative Commons / Flickr: michael_wacker

51 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences In Literature

She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together. ~ —J. D. Salinger, “A Girl I Knew”

We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered. ~ Tom Stoppard, Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead

At the still point, there the dance is. ~ T. S. Eliot

See all the sentences HERE

Read. Write. Rinse and repeat.

I’ll be be a guest lecturer at the Odyssey Writing Workshop this summer and during an interview at the website I was asked: What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers? My answer:

Reading is the primary education for any writer. You need to have an inoculation of language in your writerly stream before your own words can take form. People who don’t read never develop the love and the reverence for the written word–and how, then, can they hope to tease out its wonders?

Beyond that, if you are serious about pursuing this as a craft, as a vocation, as a career… well… Write. Practice. It comes only with practice, this inner instinct about whether something you’ve just written is good, or if there is something wrong with it, and what, and how it needs fixing.

I wrote a page and half of something once and stopped and stared at it — it was a literary neutron star, a very dense summary of the thing I needed to actually write. When I did what needed to be done, it turned into nearly three chapters of the book. But without the millions of words of practice I had already put in… I would not have known this, recognised this, figured out what I needed to do to fix it.

So–two very obvious pieces of advice. Read. Write.

Rinse and repeat.

Read the whole interview HERE

16 of the creepiest snowmen who ever existed
Too many of them“You may have never realized Frosty was a horror film,” Chelsea DeBaise says at Dose, “but you will now.”

See the other snow monsters HERE

WOW. Just *WOW*.

Beautiful dark twisted fantasies: the world’s most ancient trees

From 4,000-year-old pines in California to Welsh yews carved into pulpits, photographer Beth Moon has spent 14 years traveling the globe in search of exquisite trees.
Heart of the DragonHeart of the Dragon, Yemen, 2010, Beth Moon


Living in a tree

Forget staying grounded, I want to live amongst the trees in the most epic tree houses ever built, Beej Rudd says at Dose.

Me too.
Three Story TreehouseThree Story Treehouse – British Columbia, Canada

Other great tree houses HERE

I’m glad Dian Fossey is included in this list. She’s always been a heroine of mine.

Women of National Geographic
Jane GoodallJane Goodall touching hands with a chimp – Photo by Hugo Van Lawick  

Jane Goodall’s story of a young girl who loved animals and dreamed of going to Africa—and who found a way of making that dream come true-is also one of the great scientific sagas. Goodall’s longstanding study of chimpanzee behavior at Gombe Stream, Tanzania, demonstrating how closely chimpanzees resemble humans-and humans chimpanzees-has caused a revolution in how we understand ourselves.

Other Women of National Geographic HERE

These 17 Places Hold Millions Of Secrets That Have Yet To Be Discovered.

If you think libraries are just for nerds and librarians telling you to “shhhhhhh”…. well, you’ve never been to these libraries.Trinity College Library of DublinTrinity College Library of Dublin

More libraries HERE


At Bustle, Caroline Goldstein offers great writers’

Pieces Of Writing Advice To Pull You Out Of Your Lonely Black Hole

Read them all HERE

Quote of the Day

I know you’ve heard all your life, ‘Write what you know.’ Well I am here to tell you, You don’t know nothing. So do not write what you know. Think up something else. ~ Toni Morrison

Alma Alexander      My books      Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.