“So, What Did You Think?” Feedback for the Ambitious Writer*

* For purposes of this article, an “ambitious writer” is one who is serious about his or her work, desiring ongoing learning and improvement. You don’t need to be published to be ambitious, but you do need to have readers to provide feedback, even if those readers are other writers.


“So, what did you think?”

As a stage performer, for many years I was on both ends of this innocent but dysfunction-breeding question. As an audience member, I would think about what I would say while watching the show, planning my words verbatim to be both honest and supportive. When performing, I stopped asking the question and instead simply thanked my friends for attending when I saw them afterwards.

Neither change created opportunities for genuinely helpful feedback. My problem in these situations was that there was no structure around what I knew and still know is a delicate process fraught with potential disaster.

So, I signed up for a weekend workshop with the then named Liz Lerman Dance Exchange on “Critical Response Process,” a feedback method developed by Liz and John Borstel: (https://lizlerman.com/critical-response-process/) To say this was a lightbulb moment doesn’t capture the relief I felt. The process was precise, respectful, and intentionally geared toward helping the artist make better work. I’ve used it with both advanced critique group and with writing classes, with both experienced writers and students new to critique who were in need of language beyond “good/bad” and “liked it/didn’t like it.” The format is simple but precise, and its specificity taught me a lot about how structure can vastly improve the substance that emerges from a critique session.

Inspired by the Critical Response Process, I’ve developed some of my own tips for giving and receiving feedback. Most people join Inked Voices in hopes of providing and receiving feedback on their writing. What follows are some concrete strategies to help critiques function at a high level, helping the writer both make progress on his or her manuscript and also evolve as a craftsperson.

Tips for Critique Groups

Discuss goals and process with your critique group when you begin, and then check in with everybody once or twice a year, to keep everyone focused and on the same page.

Create a group mission statement

Crafting a mission statement with all group members participating means clarity and collective agreement. Revisit it once or twice a year, in January or September when we’re already in the mindset of new beginnings. You’ll have new members join and it’s important that they are actively included.

In your mission statement, articulate both the ends and the means. For example:

“Our group helps writer members grow their skills and keep their motivation high to make the best work they can. Reading members provide feedback geared toward writing members’ questions about pieces they submit. The tone of our feedback is encouraging and we do not offer suggestions or technical edits/proofreading unless the writer specifically asks for them. The writing member provides a ‘wrap-up’ statement after all critiques are submitted to reflect on the feedback, how and whether it was helpful, and any other questions he or she may have.”

Tips for the Writer

While groups provide some of the structure, we as individual writers can also do a lot to co-create great feedback.

Take responsibility for where you are and what you need

Many of us never learned how to be active in the feedback process. This is quite demanding. It means being aware of our process, aware of our goals for the particular piece, aware of the type of help we need, and articulate about how to get it.

Revisiting craft books can be a wonderful refresher course, and reading new ones essential to growth. Taking classes, in particular about something you’ve never studied but that’s relevant to your work, should be standard professional development for ambitious writers. All of this helps us formulate our questions and directions when it’s our turn to receive feedback.

When it’s your turn, ask for what you need. Here are a handful of such directives that I’ve collected over the years in my quest to improve my own skills:

* I’d like to hear comments on the general flow between one chapter to the next. I’m interested in general readability, the big picture.

* Please let me know your emotional reaction to the second chapter.

* Which character(s) did you relate to and why?

* Can you tell me how you felt in the thunderstorm section and how setting did or didn’t help create tension in the scene?

* Were you satisfied by the ending? I’m interested in hearing why or why not.

* Please comment on the pacing in the restaurant section.

* I’m experimenting with form and would like to hear if the physical structure (words on the page) affected your experience as a reader and how.

This ups our game. We’re forced to consider the elements of a well-crafted piece in relationship to what we’re working on and where we’d like to focus a well-educated reader’s reflections. The more responsible we are about our process and needs, the better able we’ll be to direct the process and elicit the comments that help us the most.

Tell us what you don’t want

This is a component of what’s above, but it’s so often neglected I wanted to give it its own section. In a creative writing class I took recently, a writer asked that readers not give their emotional reactions, since she was primarily working on structure. The tricky part of this was that the main character was very provocative and controversial, triggering intense emotional reactions in most classmates. In spite of her question, the class spent the majority of the session talking about why the writer was offensive and arguing with what the main character was espousing. Sure, the classmates wanted to vent, but the writer knew the issues and she was focused elsewhere. There was no mission statement at the beginning of the class, just a general directive to help each other improve our writing. Having a specific mission statement or group goal to fall back on would have been invaluable.

Other things one might not want comments on could be grammar, a particular section of the piece, transitions, pacing…really anything you either feel is done to your satisfaction or something you’re not working on yet.

Respond graciously

When I’m in a live workshop, I have a rule for myself when it’s my turn to be critiqued. I take notes like crazy, trying to write everything down that’s said, but I never join the conversation. After the feedback period, I thank them for giving me their time and smarts and for pointing out issues I would have missed on my own. If I have a question about a comment, I’ll ask it. I never, ever, ever defend my piece “against” a comment or a note, or try to explain anything (unless I’m asked directly). Doing this interferes with trust, something essential for a strong critique group. My job is to consider all the comments, to take what makes sense to me, and to leave the rest.

Tips for Readers and Feedback-Givers 

Finally, it pays to spend a bit of time thinking about how to provide the best critique you can as a reader.

Read through the whole piece at least twice

I actually read the piece three times if it isn’t long, the first time just to enjoy and experience it as a reader, the second time to jot down general notes about feelings and responses, and the third time to do the actual critique. This way I make sure I’ve read everything and notice everything, and it puts me in a position to comment on what I might have missed my first time through, which is good information for the writer. 

Start with something positive

Did you roll your eyes? I know, I know…but the truth is, we make ourselves vulnerable when we share work-in-progress. The Critical Response Process calls this “Statements of Meaning.” When we hear honest positive feedback, or how our work touched someone we trust, it’s easier to hear about what isn’t working. It helps us feel our fellow members’ support , knowing they are trying to help us make the best work we can.

What happens if you don’t like anything about a piece? Don’t make something up or offer a comment like, “The length of your paragraphs was perfect.” Trust is very important in critique groups and praise will mean more when your group-mates know it’s honest.

Also, your experience, like every reader’s, is complex and has so much to do with who you are. Articulating why you had trouble with the piece can actually be very helpful to the writer, because chances are, if he or she submits the piece, there will be an editor who feels the same way you do.

I try to lean on my subjectivity if I’m in that position. I might say something like, “Honestly, I struggled a lot with this piece. I didn’t identify with or connect with any of the characters and it didn’t capture my attention. I wondered if it had to do with my being female and Jewish and the characters in your story were male and Christian. I also have a hard time with stories with lots of flashbacks and lots of violence.” I own my reactions and don’t pin them on the writing.

Occasionally, I come across material that is offensive in some way. This is very, very tricky because writers are entitled to free expression. All characters, at least in fiction, can show up, including ones we find repulsive. My strategy is to be honest because, again, if the piece strikes you in this way, it’s likely an editor will have the same reaction. I also once again lean on my subjectivity in how I phrase my comments. One story I read was a sci-fi fantasy YA piece and there were four girls and one boy. Guess who was fixing the spaceship when it broke down? No, this isn’t offensive in and of itself, but it certainly perpetuated stereotypes about what girls and boys are capable of. My comment went something like this: “Wondering if you considered having one of the girls be the mechanic on the spaceship? I’ve seen boys and men in this role pretty much exclusively and it might be interesting to offer young readers something different here.”

There are “sensitivity readers” who look at literature for bias, usually in terms of race, class, gender, sexual identity and orientation, religion, and culture. (http://writeinthemargins.org/sensitivity-readers/). This is somewhat controversial because it can clash with free expression, but I think it’s important because it provides writers with information that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Making the changes is then up to the author.

Be precise

This is a skill we develop with practice, which includes reading (if you don’t read regularly, I strongly suggest setting an achievable monthly goal, even if it’s modest). Making notes in the margins or on a device about sentences or words or sections of a piece you like or don’t like and why is great practice for flexing those critiquing muscles.

I am sometimes lazy and write things like “lovely!” and “beautiful image.” There’s nothing wrong with those comments, but they don’t necessarily give the writer concrete information. Something like, “I’ve read a lot of sunset descriptions, but here, having the sun ‘slide’ down the sky touched me both because I was able to picture it vividly but also the verb invoked the main character’s lack of control, of things ‘sliding’ out of her hands.” We can’t be this precise every single time but it’s something to aim for.

Ask questions

In the Critical Response Process, step three is about turning opinions, or judgments, into neutral questions. I like this idea of getting curious about something that strikes you in a negative way. I like to give the example of a play which was critiqued in dress rehearsal. In the entire last scene, the lights were down to about 10%, making it very hard to see what was going on. I jotted down “the lighting didn’t work for me” as I watched. But then, since we were utilizing the CRP, I asked the director, “Can you tell me about your choice to use dim lighting in the last scene?” He said he wanted audience members to feel confused and lost, like the main character in the beginning of the play. This was, in fact, what happened, so I did not give my opinion during the last step.

There are other questions that can help orient a writer in ways he or she hadn’t thought of. Asking about the writer’s intention overall for the piece, about background information, about choices like POV, about what number draft you’re reading, or about any character information you don’t have are all examples. One of my critique partners is phenomenal at this and my revisions are so much more layered and deep after she’s given me feedback.

Giving and receiving feedback is a challenging but rich process, an opportunity for all of us as writers and as readers to develop our skills and help each other grow. If you have tips or pointers about what’s worked or what hasn’t worked in your group, please leave them in the comment section.

Happy critiquing!

About the Author

Gail Marlene Schwartz’s story, “Chosen,” was a winner in Lilith Magazine’s2017 fiction contest. Her work has been published in anthologies including Breaking Boundaries (Rebel Mountain Press, 2017), The Stand (Polar Expressions Publishing 2017), How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting (TouchWood Editions, 2013) and Hidden Lives (Brindle and Glass, 2012). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Quarterly, Room Magazine Online, Sunday@6, and Wilde Magazine. She is working on her first novel. Gail sunlights as a copywriter (www.gailwrites.net) and lives in southern Quebec with her wife and son. www.gailmarleneschwartz.com.

An Octopus Among Us

Roof Octopus, by Lucy Branam
Release Date: March 1, 2018
Sleeping Bear Press

Inked Voices member Lucy Branam was writing short fiction when she wrote the first draft of a story about an octopus. It occurred to her that the idea might make a compelling picture book. The book’s publication moved forward after Lucy attended SCBWI Mid-South Conference the fall of 2015. She had a productive one-on-one session with editor Sarah Rockett. Sarah gave Lucy notes, Lucy redrafted and resubmitted, and in a little under a year, Lucy had a contract.
From the opening pages, Lucy adeptly transports us into the fantasy world of Roof Octopus. 
    Her mother looked out, too. “I don’t see anything.”
Then a tentacle dropped down from above and wrapped itself around the fire escape railing.
The author grabs young readers by the tentacles of a whimsically crafted, larger-than-life sea creature who’s come to visit us in a city. Protagonist Nora makes first contact with the octopus. Of course, adult characters are unsure how to react or interact with their new neighbor.
We’re so immersed in the story, so captured by moments of magic and surprise, we’re unaware of the beautifully wrought gears behind Lucy’s work. Her words are animated with a clear understanding of a child’s world and concerns.

Brazilian illustrator Rogério Coelho has the temperament and skills to match Lucy’s. He creates a diverse urban landscape that is enchanted and embellished. The author and illustrator worked individually, often the case in debut books. But, the illustrations are so in sync with the words that the direct inspiration of the writing on the pictures is obvious.

Lucy, a recent college graduate, studied creative writing and graphic design. For, the moment, she’d rather work with other illustrators she admires than illustrate her own stories. Lucy does not have an agent, but has new stories in the works.
Lucy’s favorite childhood picture books include:

The Night the Scary Beasties Popped Out of My Head by Daniel and David Kamish

Piggies by Audrey Wood and Don Wood

Lucy’s Picture by Nicola Moon

My Friend Harry by Kim Lewis

Stellaluna by Janell Cannon

Harry and the Terrible Whatzit by Dick Gackenbach


Some picture books Lucy enjoys despite first reading them as an adult:

The Dark by Lemony Snicket

Those Darn Squirrels! By Adam Rubin

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman

Congratulations, Lucy!

Mona Kanin
Mona Kanin has been writing stories since the 3rd grade. Her first manuscript was a fictionalized novel based on the life of her family’s mutt Gigi. She began her adult life with an MSLS from Simmons College and a job as a children's librarian at the Boston Public Library. She also attended courses at the Center for Children’s Literature. When she and her young family moved to Washington, D.C., she segued into a long career as a writer and producer for non-fiction film and television. Today, she works on various political projects and writes picture books from her home in Brooklyn, New York. She's happy to belong to and contribute to the Inked Voices community.

Show and Tell: Why Writers Need to Do Both

Note from Brooke: This post is by Inked Voices member writer Melissa Gardner. Sometimes we are lucky enough to host her for small group workshops, and she does professional critiques for writers, too.

Every writer knows the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” We’ve heard this admonishment in writing classes, we’ve heard this advice in workshops, and we’ve read this adage in countless books on craft. In fact, we’ve heard “show, don’t tell” so often that many writers have come to the wrongful conclusion that showing is “good” and telling is “bad”—yet, this simply isn’t true. As writers, we need to both show and tell.

When we write a scene and/or use direct dialogue, we are showing. Showing is used to capture what is happening in a specific moment of time, seeking to create an immersive experience for the reader. We want the reader to feel and see what the character feels and sees in a vicarious way.

When we write to provide information, we are telling. Telling can be used to establish a setting and mood, introduce character, move quickly in time, and/or set up a scene. We want to guide the reader through the story in a way that provides the reader with the information they need while keeping the reader engaged and interested. In a sense, we are preparing the reader for what’s coming up next.

For example, consider the first chapter of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Before we see Bilbo and Gandalf’s first scene together, Tolkien takes the time to tell us about Hobbit holes and provides a condensed summary of Bilbo’s family history. Because Tolkien does this, we are prepared for what’s to come: we understand the setting, we know a bit about Bilbo, and therefore the scene where the two meet makes sense to us.

However, telling doesn’t just have to occur at the beginning of a book or story. For example, in Rowling’s Harry Potter series, she often condenses months of time, summarizing what’s going on at Hogwarts, in between important scenes in the novels. These passages move us quickly through time, yet keep us interested and engaged in the life of Harry.

The most important reason to both show and tell is pacing. We can’t ‘show’ everything in a story; doing so grinds the narrative pace to a halt. As Jerome Stern states in his book Making Shapely Fiction, “Showing…takes a lot of space.” If we do nothing but show, the reader becomes bogged down in the excessive details and sensations.

A better rendering of the phrase “Show, don’t tell” might be: Don’t show when you should tell and don’t tell when you should show. Use “showing” for scenes that are key to the overall narrative. These should be the places where you want to slow the pacing down to highlight the scene’s importance. Save “telling” for places where you need to move things along in the narrative, but still need to provide information to the reader to set up the next important scene in the story. By using both, you’ll keep the reader engaged and successfully guide them from beginning to end.

About Melissa Gardner

Melissa Gardner has been writing since she learned her ABCs. Her love of stories and storytelling was fostered by her grandmother who read to her daily. Melissa received her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Seattle Pacific University and is now working on two short story collections. She has taught at a variety of universities since 2005, and currently teaches literature and fiction writing classes online for Southern New Hampshire University. Originally from Pennsylvania, she now lives on the Gulf Coast with her husband, three cats, and Monty, her ball python.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Frank Flaherty’s “Getting Your Story Moving” lectures. Melissa Gardner has also given several talks for Inked Voices, on dialogue , point of view, and narrative structure. All of these talks are included in Inked Voices membership.

My Year Reading Books About Writing

Note from Brooke: Today’s post is from Heather Pagano. I’ve been fortunate to hear about this journey in drips throughout this year and hope you find her conclusions as helpful as I do!


“I don’t read books about writing.”

I’ve said these words, or some variation on them, so many times. For years this was my mantra, part of my identity as a writer. I feared getting stuck in the morass of advice books for writers, becoming a wannabe who collected writing books and thumbed through their pages, now and again, like some kind of armchair travel novel. I truly didn’t want to read about writing, I just wanted to write.

My aversion to writing books meant I didn’t have much experience reading them. I’d enjoyed a few behind-the-scenes reads that explained the writing process of an individual author I admired. It was fun learning more about the authors and how they approached their craft. But none of these books helped me understand what I should do when I sit down to write, and my personal writing process remained unchanged.

In fact, I didn’t have much of a writing process. For me writing had always been a strange mix of intuition and tireless effort. I’d be struck with an inspiration, write a draft, revise it, and send it to an editor. I put in years of work, writing dozens of short stories and several novels with little more guidance than knowing what I loved to read. Once in awhile I got lucky and published a story, but I never knew what had made that story work, while another did not. And I grew overwhelmed by serious problems in my novel drafts that I didn’t know how to address.

Then near the end of 2016, my husband, who has always been interested in screenwriting, purchased a video lecture course by Aaron Sorkin. I sat in on a few lectures out of curiosity, and my main takeaway from the series was a burning curiosity to read Sorkin’s highly recommended Poetics by Aristotle. I was all the more intrigued because the teacher in a writing class I’d recently taken had also highly praised Poetics.

Reading Poetics revolutionized my idea of what it means to tell stories. In particular, Aristotle’s discussion of medium, our basic genres (tragedy, comedy, epic), and plot structure not only resonated with me, but gave me some great aha moments that later came in handy while wrestling with my own drafts.

I loved Aristotle’s practical advice and no-nonsense approach. He never shied away from explaining what made a story great and what made a story stink. Unfortunately only fragments of his brilliance survived the ravages of time. Still, I couldn’t believe how valuable his advice was to me as a modern storyteller.

Poetics gave me reason to hope there were other books that could help me improve my writing. I began a quest to search for writing books with potential to teach me how to become a better writer. Together with my husband, we declared 2017 our year of intensive reading about writing.

The first step in organizing our year of writing study was to zero in on the specific aspects of writing we wanted to improve. As a novel and short story writer, I focused on story structure, editing, and writing exercises.

Next we needed to find the best books on these subjects to include in our study. We read reviews and tried to get a feel for which books had most helped other writers. Whenever possible we chose books written by authors whose work we love, and we learned to recognize a great teacher when we started reading one.

We approached our study with a spirit of adventure. We had great discussions about points the authors were making, agreed and disagreed with the authors and with each other, and looked for examples of techniques we were learning both in the fiction books we were reading at the time and in favorite novels we both knew well. When we read something that resonated with us or that explained something in a useful way, I took notes. If a book didn’t resonate with us or turned out not to have value for our goals, we were never afraid to abandon the book mid-read. And we were always open to steering our intended study plan in a more fruitful direction as we learned and put knowledge into practice throughout the year.

Most important to me, at the same time we dove into our reading, I kicked my writing practice into high gear. At the end of every study session I was eager to try out what I’d learned with my current works in progress.

Books on Story Structure

Since we’d read Aristotle’s Poetics I should have been ready for the overlap between drama and story structure. But I was still surprised that the best books we found on story structure came from the fields of screenwriting and playwriting.

If I could only suggest one single book on story structure, it would have to be Story by Robert McKee. McKee is a guru in the screenwriting industry. He breaks down the elements of story design and explains act structure, scene design, and character. McKee makes my job as a writer clear: to move the reader through a series of emotional peaks and valleys and reach a highly charged climax. Better still, Story explains how to construct that experience. McKee’s writing style is designed to help the student learn. He’s engaging and organized, stating a thesis and developing it with further explanation and entertaining examples. By the end of every section, I felt like I owned the information. McKee may have written this book for screenwriters, but Story tops my list of of books to improve storytelling in any medium.

My runner-up favorite story structure book also hails from the film industry: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Snyder hits on many of the same principals that McKee explained so beautifully in Story, but adds step-by-step techniques and processes I found incredibly helpful when plotting. Save the Cat stresses the pitch, or logline of a story. Being able to tell anyone what your story is about in a few words is an invaluable skill. I also loved the way Save the Cat breaks down genres into categories helpful to writers. Don’t expect to see reader-defined genres such as romance or science fiction in Save the Cat. Instead, Blake categorizes story types to teach writers how to fulfill readers’ emotional expectations for each archetype. And, of course, Save the Cat is famous for its Beat Sheets. Beat Sheets brought me to a whole new understanding of pacing and crafting the emotional shape of a story. Save the Cat is tied to a thriving online community where you’ll find examples of Beat Sheets for both film and fiction writers.

Two honorable mentions in story structure books:

1 The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Egri wrote the book in the 1940s and his intention was to instruct playwrights. McKee’s Story covered much of the same material in a more updated and engaging way, but a few of Egri’s insights are gems that made it worth the read.

2 Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell. This is a deep dive into story and plot structure from the perspective of character. I expected this book to be all about antagonists, but it covers antiheroes and dark heroes, as well. BB&B reads more like a collection of essays than a through-composed instructional book, but if you’ve already gleaned the basics from McKee or Save the Cat, then your characterization skills could definitely get a boost from this read.

Books on the Editing Process

Once a writer has structured and written that well-honed first draft, what’s next? Time for editing.

Editing is a tough skill to teach, but Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King takes on the task and succeeds. Browne and King discuss the role of narrative summary and characterization, proportion and POV, paragraphing and unintended repetition. I found the chapters on dialog mechanics, dialog editing, and interior monologue particularly useful. Browne and King’s advice plays in my head every single time I sit down to write or revise. I loved that the authors weren’t afraid to call out editorial style in this book, and were upfront giving opinions on how to edit so writers look and sound current, fresh, and modern.

I reveled in Browne and King’s nitty gritty details of what to do when I’m editing. But if all this sounds way too technical and you’re looking for a shorter overview of the editing process, I’d also recommend The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. Bell offers great advice (my favorite: read your work aloud to yourself). The Artful Edit was especially enjoyable to read because its examples chronicle exchanges between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor while they collaborated on The Great Gatsby.

Books on Writing Exercises, Inspiration, and Idea Generation

Keeping a fresh crop of new story ideas flowing is important for writers. Writing exercises can help with this, while improving overall writing chops. I found a few fantastic books that made writing exercises fun, educational, and inspirational.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft was one of my favorite 2017 reads. I consider Steering the Craft to be a book of writing exercises. Le Guin certainly offers pithy advice and great insights in the text, but her expertise prompting students to learn by writing makes this book shine. Her exercises gave me a far deeper understanding of POV than I ever had before and really got me thinking about person and tense. I also cultivated a stronger appreciation for the sound of the words I choose. Since I’m a fantasy writer and long-time fan of Le Guin’s fantasy novels, I expected to come away from her writing exercises with a boatload of fantasy story ideas, but that’s not what happened! Instead I ended up with many intriguing characters, settings, and conflicts that are great fodder for mainstream fiction or as stories in a number of genres. In fact, by turning some of those exercises into actual stories, I also learned invaluable lessons about what it takes to develop an idea or a character into structured plot.

If, like me, you find joy and value in writing exercises, here’s one other book that was tremendous fun: The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry, a comedian who is absolutely passionate about poetry. I chose to include a book on poetry in our year of writing study both because I wanted to better appreciate the poetry I read, and because Ursula K. Le Guin and Susan Bell taught me to pay attention to how my writing sounds. Poetry is fantastic training in the sound of words! I also learned how to evaluate the rhythmic structure of the English language, and I experienced the power of alliteration and rhyme. As we read The Ode Less Travelled, I developed a spreadsheet full of wonderful terms such as dithyramb, trochee, and pyrrhic substitution. Pretty geeky, I know, but such a delight for the word connoisseur. The Ode Less Travelled is brimming with creative poetry exercises that let me shake off the stiffness I often feel when confronted with a rhyme scheme or syllable count. The book makes writing poetry fun and approachable. Writing a poem is now something I look forward to between drafting and editing projects.


Our 2017 year of writing study has been a fantastic experience. It helped me create a personalized, step-by-step process that takes me from that first flash of inspiration to a finished draft ready to send to an editor or share with my critique group. Having the resources to develop my own personal writing process has worked so much better for me than using the process of another writer or a set of techniques recommended from a writing class.

What’s more, for the first time in my writing life, I can answer the question: “how is your story going?” or “what progress did you make on your writing project today?” I know and feel good about what I’ve accomplished and have a realistic understanding of what work remains.

Our year of study has also given me the context I needed to understand and take action on suggestions made by editors and critique partners. And I feel much more confident when giving feedback to other writers.

I’m so glad I softened my attitude on reading books about writing. But the good experience wasn’t all about attitude. Targeting specific topics for our study helped make it worthwhile. Having a study buddy to keep me motivated and have great discussions with was invaluable. And thanks to my careful note taking, we can spend December reviewing, summarizing, and synthesizing the most important points we learned.

But, the coolest part? I never once used my year of reading about writing as an excuse to avoid sitting down to write, and all the hard work that entails. In fact, I ramped up my writing time while we were studying this year. That meant what we were studying was never theoretical, but of crucial importance to how I was going to approach my current works in progress later that day.

Whatever your goals are for the coming year in continuing to hone your craft, I wish you fantastic resource books, intriguing study, and lots of writing.

Links to the Books

Poetics by Aristotle

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting  by Robert McKee

Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need  by Blake Snyder

The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives  by Lajos Egri

Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction  by Jessica Page Morrell

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print  by Renni Browne, Dave King

The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself  by Susan Bell

Steering the Craft  by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry

About Heather Pagano

Heather is excited about building a career as a fantasy and magical realism writer and has found Inked Voices a fantastic place for resources and support. Language, philosophy, and music have a big influence on her writing, as do the many places she’s lived. After growing up in small town Iowa, Heather studied classical trombone in Upstate New York. She’s since lived in Italy and New York City. Heather now lives in Silicon Valley, California, a creative type happily adrift in a sea of technologists.


Planning Your Writing for 2018: a Perfect Task for December

The holidays are a nutty time of year. For me, there’s just too much going on with coordinating gatherings on both sides of the family, buying gifts for a growing list, and attending yet another special celebration at my children’s school. As much as I love the festivity of December, the external demands overwhelm me and sometimes I want to go find a cave and hibernate.

Instead, this year, I retreated inside my head to work on a writing plan for myself . I wanted to take a bird’s-eye view of my writing to assess where I am, and then create a path towards my goals. With a limited amount of writing time, I need to be very intentional about how I use it.

Below, I’ll share the approach I took to writing my plan. This is a simple, working document, influenced by my background in strategic planning and more recent experience in curriculum development. The plan includes four sections:

  1. Assessment
  2. Vision
  3. Commitments
  4. Action steps.

Three tips before you start…

  1. As you create your plan, remember that it is a working Maybe you’ll show it to a friend or to your writing group for feedback or accountability. But your plan is mainly a functional object. Hold wordsmithing until the end, or skip it entirely.
  2. Be honest with yourself about what is realistic. Most writers have additional responsibilities. At the same time, allow yourself to dream and think big, especially in the early drafts.
  3. Think about how you’ll get things done in addition to what you want done.

An Assessment of Today

A good plan starts with an assessment of where you are now. How do you feel about your writing? What have you accomplished this year?

Here are some additional questions to consider. Answer the ones that resonate with you. Your responses could be on craft, writing process, or the business of writing.

  • What areas are you confident in?
  • What areas are you less confident in?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What could you improve?
  • What is your writing process?
  • How is your writing process going for you?

Also think more deeply about your accomplishments – the things you did in 2017 (or to this point, if you prefer). Here are some examples:

  • Reading: books read, both books you read in your genre and in other genres
  • Writing: words, pages, or manuscripts written
  • Submissions: queries sent, manuscript requests, agent landed, acceptances
  • Writing groups: did you participate in a group, critiques given
  • Community: did you engage with the literary community and how
  • Business of writing: actions to further you as a professional writer
  • Marketing: actions taken to market your published work
  • Personal development: courses, agent/editor critiques, self-study

Did you surprise yourself after putting this information together?


Put that assessment of today to the side for a moment. This next section is about looking forward to where you want to be. You’ll look at this at a high level first, and then break it down further to your commitments for 2018.

Here is a choice of two prompts to get started. Write your response in paragraph or bullet form.

  • Envision yourself as the writer you want to be. How do you feel, what are you working on, and, possibly, what have you accomplished?
  • What are your goals? Note: these can be writing craft or process goals, or goals associated with getting your work out into the world.

Don’t worry about whether your goals or vision are “good” or done correctly; just get your thoughts down. For example, on my list, I included having more creative energy, building my poetry skills, and getting a children’s book published.


This section is a summary of what you will commit to do in 2018. I’ll keep it on my desk as a high-level reference.

If you’re a visual person, try this: put “current you” on the left side of a piece of paper. Then put “future you” on the right side. In the middle, brainstorm actions that bring you towards your goal. Bulleted lists or mind maps work well, too.

Focus on the process you’ll use, rather than the outcomes. These are things that you can do to achieve your goals. Another way to put this: ask yourself “how?” and “what do I need to do?” For more on setting process goals, check out James Clear’s article, Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

Here are some examples.

  • If you are a novelist, consider committing to a writing schedule that will enable you to produce the volume of words needed for a book, instead of putting “write a novel” on your list.
  • If your goal is to get your short stories published, you could commit to sending a number of submissions, researching markets for your work, or taking a class to improve your craft.
  • To have more creative energy, you could commit to a weekly writing time, an earlier bedtime, yoga or other exercise, or coaching.
  • To get a book published, you could commit to a queries goal, a weekly writing time, or seeking professional feedback.
  • Whatever you write, consider committing to reading in your genre. You’ll improve your craft, educate yourself on the market, and re-energize.

This was a highly iterative process for me. As you can see in the examples, there are many ways to pursue a goal. Your choices will depend on where you are as a writer today. And we can’t and shouldn’t try to do everything. After thinking through the time it would take to achieve my commitments in the action plan section (detailed below), I had to dial back. After all, this is a working plan, and I want to be able to execute on it.

Action Plan

This is where you get specific with how you’ll achieve your commitments. Here are some questions to consider. Write out responses to the ones you need to answer for yourself.

  • How much time can you commit? Be honest about your time, whether that’s cutting down on your social media use to find time, or scaling back your plan.
  • How much money can you spend? Do you have a budget for your writing?
  • When will you work through your plan? Consider blocking time on your calendar, picking a consistent time, or building in deadlines.
  • Where will you work on your plan? Do you have a designated space for your writing? Might you plan a retreat or writer’s vacation?
  • What tools and resources do you need? Do you need a new notebook and pen? Books or classes? A desk? Decide what’s necessary and budget for it.
  • Who will you work with on your plan? Could a critique group or accountability group help you? A writing coach?

Your action plan will be specific to your commitments, which were shaped by your goals. For a person who is working to establish a writing routine, it could be as simple as this:

I will get up early on Tuesday mornings (when) to write for one hour (how much) at the local coffee shop (where). That day, my husband (who) will prepare the kids for school and drop them off. I’ll tell my sister (who) that I’m doing this and ask her to check in with me when we chat.

I’m working on improving elements of storytelling and on strengthening mindset, so my action plan includes a simple curriculum of books and articles. I researched books (what), pulled articles, and organized them by quarter. I had a sad face moment when I realized I could only reasonably cover seven books next year. I’ve put the others on a side list in case I get ahead. My calendar is marked for January “study time” and writing time (when). And I’ll share my progress with my Wordies in my accountability group (who).

After completing your action plan, review your commitments and make any adjustments. I went back and forth between these two sections several times.

Final thoughts

Take this process to the level of detail you’re comfortable with. Your plan should chart your course and push you off the dock, but allow for some flexibility and surprise. Remember, this plan is primarily for your eyes and is meant to be a working plan, not a writing exercise. Mine landed at about 2 single-spaced pages.

Put your plan in easy reach of your writing area and review your progress periodically. You can and should tweak it as needed. To remind myself of that fact, I’m saving my plan as a draft, and will title any changes as new versions.

Happy planning! Let me know how it goes for you in the comments below.

Cheers to a productive, intentional 2018 for your writing!

Brooke McIntyre
Brooke McIntyre is the founder of Inked Voices, helping writers write more and write better through its platform for online writing groups and its app Ink On. She’s passionate about using technology to facilitate peer learning, about connecting with people on a human-level on the web, and, of course, about writing. Brooke received her undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and her MBA from the University of Michigan. She lives with her husband, two kiddos and their muppet of a dog in Brooklyn.

Word Mandalas

We write, we collect words, we move forward. We build a portfolio word by word, piece by piece.

This time, however, let’s veer off in a new direction. Instead of thinking of our words as inviolate, start thinking of them as ephemeral. And when I say this I don’t mean our words don’t matter or they aren’t important. I mean we should recognize they come to us through an act of creation: they already exist, but we use our creativity to pull them from the ether.

To illustrate, write a paragraph or a scene or some other chunk of words. Next, destroy it. Yup. Throw it away. Delete it. Toss it in the dumpster. Light it on fire and watch the smoke wend its way back to the ether.

Why in the world would we create something just to destroy it? Because it’s an exercise in impermanence and abundance.

Buddhist Monks invest hours upon hours creating sand mandalas then ceremoniously destroy them. The intricacy, the beauty, the divine representations are swept away in one definitive action. Though I am not comparing myself to the spirituality of a Buddhist Monk, I appreciate the meaning and intent behind their action.

When we create—and then destroy—we have a concrete example of how our work is fleeting, how nothing is permanent. This helps us to appreciate what we have now, for now. We cannot write to our full potential while we fret about the past or fear the future. We can only write for now. When we live and create in the present our words will resonate with genuineness.

Destroying our words with intention helps us to feel less attached to—and enamored with—them. Be honest: back in your younger days when you wrote, you knew your prose was absolute and unequivocal genius. You believed in it. You loved it. You were certain it would endure the test of time, and the world would recognize you as a writing wunderkind. You couldn’t conceive of how editing would improve upon perfection. Have you looked at those works of pure genius lately? If you have, then you know why we cannot become enamored with our work.

By letting go and then creating more, we learn to trust that our creativity and our words are abundant. We don’t have a finite cache of words inside us which we must conserve and dole out in trickles lest the well runs dry. No. We have an abundance of words. By destroying some then writing more, we learn to believe we possess all the words we will ever need. They’ve always been there and always will be.

Finally, by mindfully tossing our work, we open our mind to editing. Think about it: isn’t editing merely throwing away the bad words—the ones we initially thought were good enough to write down—and replacing them with others? When we learn that it’s ok to destroy some words and write more, our editing prowess is heightened.

Go ahead. It’s ok. Chuck ‘em. There are always more where those came from.

John Caruso
For as long as John can remember, creativity has bubbled through his life. From his days as a young boy recording off-the-cuff "radio plays" on an old Sears portable cassette recorder to starting his own photography business to playing tin whistle in a Pogues/Waterboys cover band to writing two novels in search of a publisher, John has been delighted by all endeavors creative. Even a 20+ year detour into the nine-to-five world of not-for-profit education and outreach couldn't deter him from seeing the beauty in everyday moments and easily-overlooked details. Finding art in the mundane is his daily quest, and one which can produce some extraordinary truths.
Currently, John is teaching creative writing to elementary and high school students, editing a daily newsletter for employees of a major pet food company, and writing his weekly ImPROMPTu posts for the Inked Voices' group of the same name. He's photographing both for art's sake and for commercial ends. He's shooting a second cookbook. And somewhere in the moments in between he's writing a book on "everyday creativity."

Fostering Great Group Dynamics

Note from Brooke: Today’s post is from Rose Wachowski, group leader of Novel Review, a small critique group of novelists here on Inked Voices. Thank you, Rose!


We’ve all been there. You join a new group, excited, motivated. This will be the one. The people who will toil with you to improve your writing. You introduce yourself and wait. Hours. Days. A week. Nothing but crickets. Finally, a small chirp. “Oh hi. Haven’t been online in a while. Welcome.”

Not the overwhelming embrace you were looking for, but it doesn’t matter. You’re here to write. You want to be a good group member, so you read other submissions first and dig deep for meaningful comments. You spend hours and submit the critiques. Were they too harsh? Not harsh enough? Or worse yet, somehow, wrong?

Now, you take your turn. You’ve spell-checked your submission, grammar checked it, printed it out and read it to your dog. You’re proud of it. Almost tentatively, you press “Post.”

You check hourly, then daily. The critique period nears the end. Your first critique comes in and your precious baby is a colored mess of comments. That’s okay. That’s why you’re here. You dive in. Every comment is negative. No indication the reader liked any part of what you wrote.

Bing. Email informs you another critique is ready. You brace yourself. This person has left a single comment in the General Description. “Good, I guess. Not really a genre I enjoy. There’s a few places where the pacing got slow and you need to amp up your tension.”

You head for the Review section to follow up. “A few places? Any hints?” For days, your questions go unanswered. Then, “I don’t remember. Things are a bit busy now. I’ll try to be more specific next time.”

Next time? There won’t be a next time.

# # # # #

Let’s try again…

The Idea

As a new member, you check out the group expectations before requesting an invite. You consider the demands of your life and the size of the group. This is important to you, so you’ll make the time to complete critiques and stay active in discussions. You request an invite.

Strong Opening

You join the new group. Within the first day, the group leader has welcomed you. They introduce themselves and give you a quick blurb about their work in progress. You are pointed to the Files area where you find Critique Guidelines, a list of Writing Reference books, and a Synopsis from every member. Within the first few days, every member has taken time to welcome you.

Show, Don’t Tell

You were searching for an active group, so you’re going to show this by participating. Inked Voices provides mechanisms for group discussions and individual messages. Your new group uses these tools regularly. Instead of Facebook, Texting, or a game of Candy Crush, you read the blog and poke around in the forums. A group member has taken advantage of one of the free lectures and they share what they’ve learned.


Since discussions are common in this group, you find it easier to post one yourself. You ran across a great tip on how to keep motivated during the busy summer months, so you post a summary and a link to the article. The rest of the group jumps in to share what keeps them motivated. On their way to work, one member passed a souped-up pickup that reminded them of your story. They made your day by taking a moment to mention it, so you respond, expressing your gratitude. Another member revamped one of their characters, another asked a craft question, and another won a contest. These Discussion threads don’t come every day, but when they pop up, every member takes a moment to respond. This only takes a few minutes out of your day. Instead of detracting from your writing, it keeps you interested.

Plot Twist

A member has a plot hole and can’t figure out what to do. The group gets creative and decides to meet in a Chat room for an hour. The discussion allows for immediate feedback and by the end of the hour, the member is full of ideas and can’t wait to dive back into their writing.


In the beginning, the excitement keeps you on schedule with your posting and critiquing. But a few months in, your job gets crazy (or it’s the holidays, or a relative gets sick, or you have a baby). You haven’t been on the website for a couple weeks. You may not even realize it’s that long until you get a message from a group member asking if you’re okay. You respond, then take a minute to explain your situation in the discussion area. You won’t be able to get to a critique before it expires. Can it be extended? The group leader extends it for a week. The group tells you not to worry. Next time, you’ll let them know ahead of time. You deal with your crisis without feeling like you’re letting the group down. When it’s over, you consider taking a breather and letting the group slide, but you’re a writer, so you recommit.

# # # # #

Group dynamics come from conversations beyond critiques. These dialogs allow the members to relate outside of the submission arena and in the process, enhance each other’s craft. When a writer shares what they’ve written, they share a piece of their soul. Feeling connected makes it that much easier.

What has worked well within your group? Take a moment to share below!

About Rose Wachowski

Rose Wachowski is a computer programmer by day and a writer by night.

She has written three novels (paranormal, sci-fi, and fantasy) and is utilizing Inked Voices to turn them into something readable. She enjoys the whole process: improving her craft, writing new material, working with other writers, and revising completed works.

Special thanks to her Novel Review group for all their input on not only her writing, but also this post.


Interview: Debut Author Melissa Stoller on her new chapter book and writing process

Brooke: I’m so pleased to have member Melissa Stoller on the blog today to celebrate the release of her debut chapter book The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – Return to Coney Island, and talk about her process.

Melissa: First, thanks so much for interviewing me, Brooke! I’m so happy to be part of the Inked Voices community and I’ve really enjoyed participating in workshops with you!

B: Where did you get the idea for the book? 

M: I’ve been thinking about writing this book for years! The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – Return to Coney Island is actually based on the story of how my grandparents, Jessie and Jack, met on the Coney Island trolley. My grandmother Jessie was a natural storyteller, and I always asked her to tell me stories about when she was a little girl. This was my favorite story. I live in New York City and enjoy visiting Coney Island. In fact, in 2001, I wrote an article about planning a day at Coney Island and included my grandparents’ story. Also, I have a huge snow globe collection. This idea has been marinating and simmering for a while and it finally came together in this time-travel chapter book adventure series.

 B: When did you start working on it? How did the project evolve over time?

M: I finally started writing this story into book form about two years ago. At first, I thought it might work as a picture book. But as I wrote, and the story and characters developed, I realized it was better suited as a chapter book. I really enjoyed having more freedom of word count and more ability to draw out the story over ten chapters, which the chapter book format allowed. I also included an author’s note describing my inspiration for the book, as well as a Family Book Club Guide at the end that includes questions for discussion, and related enrichment materials: a snow globe project, apple crisp recipe, family connection projects, and links for extended research. I think parents and educators will appreciate the opportunity to continue the discussion and creativity with their young readers through this Guide.

B: What are your plans for the series?

M: I’m so excited about this book series! My next book is The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – The Liberty Bell Train Ride. Twins Emma and Simon shake another snow globe from their grandmother’s collection, and are transported to Philadelphia in 1915. They witness the Liberty Bell making its last trans-continental train ride to San Francisco. And they realize that their Great-Great-Aunt Lucy was one of the schoolchildren who signed a petition bringing the Liberty Bell to California. When trouble brews, the twins and Aunt Lucy must help the Liberty Bell get back on track! All the books will include the twins connecting with an ancestor and of course they’ll have lots of adventures together. I’m so thankful that I have several more books in the series planned with Clear Fork Publishing, with the very talented Callie Metler-Smith illustrating.

B: Tell us about your path to publication.

M: I included the world-famous Coney Island Cyclone roller coaster in Book One – Return to Coney Island (it’s also featured on the cover!). And I feel like my path to publication has been a bit of a roller coaster ride itself, with lots of ups and downs, and twists and turns. I’m a lawyer, and also worked as a legal research and writing instructor, a legal career counselor, and an early childhood educator. I tried to write pictures books around twenty years ago when my oldest daughter was born. When I received MANY rejections, I put that aside and instead I wrote parenting articles and co-authored a book called The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading.

But I had joined SCBWI years ago and always kept current with my membership and with industry news. The creative writing bug kept nagging at me and so a few years ago, I started to become very active again, attending more conferences, signing up for writing classes and writing challenges, joining critique groups, and reading and practicing everything I could about children’s book writing. I feel like I’m finally stepping off the roller coaster onto solid ground!

B: What have you learned about your writing process over the course of the project?

M: Over the course of this project, I’ve learned to keep going and keep writing! With the longer format of a chapter book, I developed an outline that I followed to make sure the story arc remained tight and flowed well. That’s not to say that I wasn’t flexible . . . I was. I added in story points and deleted ideas that weren’t working throughout the process. And I had to delete certain scenes that I liked that just didn’t fit (but maybe they will reappear in some form in a later book!). Also, I was careful about researching period and location information from the 1920s. Finally, with the longer chapter book, I tried to make sure all the characters acted consistently throughout the story and had distinct personalities that I could build up even further as the series developed. My mind is constantly buzzing with snippets of dialogue or adventures the characters may face as they move through the series. It’s been as exciting as an amusement park ride so far!

B: You’ve had a good deal of workshop experience. What advice do you have for people to get the most out of a workshop? 

M: I love workshopping ideas and drafts, especially with Inked Voices! I have participated in three Inked Voices picture book workshops, and I get so much from them each time. I’m thrilled to say that my debut picture book, Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush, will debut with Clear Fork in 2018! I’m so excited to share this story about art, magic, and creativity! And as you know, Brooke, this was a story I workshopped with Inked Voices (although it had a different title then). I’m really looking forward to joining your new workshops this fall with some brand new picture book stories.

I love having new people read and comment on my picture book drafts, and the Inked Voices community has been so supportive and generous with ideas and insights into my work. I also love providing feedback because I feel that I learn so much through reading and commenting on other people’s work. Also, the agent or editor advice in the final webinar session is so helpful in putting it all together! To get the most from the workshop, it’s so important to be open to constructive criticism and critiques and to be willing to spend time being helpful to the other participants.

When I give critiques, I use the “sandwich” method – I first share several positive comments about the draft, then I include several specific areas that I feel could use improvement, and then I end with more positive overall comments. I learned this as a legal research and writing fellow in law school and used it as a legal writing instructor in two law schools. I think it’s really an effective critique method. 

M: What is your revision process? 

Usually, I get an idea about a title or a story line pops into my head. I jot it down right away so it I don’t forget it! Then I think about it for some time. After that brainstorming period, I write a first draft and then put it away for a little while. I do edit that first draft as I go along, but I mostly try to just get my ideas down on paper. Then, I go back and really start the revision process. I don’t number my drafts because there would be too many! I first revise big picture issues like story logic, character and plot, the story arc, making sure the story has enough emotional resonance and layers, showing not telling, leaving room for the illustrator, and more. I’m also wordsmithing as I go along. But I do also revise separately for small picture issues like word choice, grammar, and syntax. After all that, I send my draft to my critique group and to any workshops or critique professionals. Whew…that all takes so much time and effort, but I think it’s in the revision process that the magic of writing occurs.

B: Thanks for being here, Melissa! I loved hearing about the inspiration for the book. And I’m looking forward to buying a copy from you! 🙂 Congratulations! Check out Return to Coney Island here.

M: Thanks so much, Brooke! See you in our workshop group this fall!


About Melissa Stoller

Melissa Stoller is the author of the debut chapter book The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – Return to Coney Island(Clear Fork Publishing, July 2017); the debut picture book Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush (Clear Fork, March, 2018); and The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork, April 2018).

Melissa is a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, an Admin for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, an Assistant for Mira Reisberg’s Children’s Book Academy, and a volunteer with SCBWI-MetroNY. Melissa writes parenting articles, and has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, and early childhood educator. She lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. Find Melissa online at www.MelissaStoller.com, MelissaBergerStoller (Facebook), @MelissaStoller (Twitter), and Melissa_Stoller (Instagram).

Brooke McIntyre
Brooke McIntyre is the founder of Inked Voices, helping writers write more and write better through its platform for online writing groups and its app Ink On. She’s passionate about using technology to facilitate peer learning, about connecting with people on a human-level on the web, and, of course, about writing. Brooke received her undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and her MBA from the University of Michigan. She lives with her husband, two kiddos and their muppet of a dog in Brooklyn.

High Flying Writing (Without a Net)

I enjoy when pithy sayings impart big knowledge. I like when they get me to think. Most quotes and aphorisms meander in and out of my consciousness. But one quote sticks with me:

“Leap, and the net will appear.”

It’s generally attributed to John Burroughs, but I’ve seen it referenced as a Zen proverb and cited by many writing and spirituality authors. In my moments of writing (and living) clarity, I readily embrace it. Take risks. Breathe through your comfort zone. Try the new. Don’t be afraid of failure. What a lovely, creativity-percolating state of mind!

Unfortunately, I tend to forget it at times of stress or self-doubt. I lose my faith in the universe. I roll up into a tight ball of safety and “the known.” Not only do I not leap, I back away from the edge altogether. When I do this, my writing suffers. I would also assert my living suffers.

If we stay cloistered in a narrow comfort zone constructed of limiting beliefs about our talent and creativity, we never give ourselves the opportunity to grow. We do not explore the invigorating, fertile garden of creativity. We stagnate.

By its nature, creativity is about taking risks. It’s about exploring new ideas, new connections, new perspectives. If we hide in our shell of familiarity, we cannot be creative. And if we aren’t creative, we aren’t writing. We write to express truths. We write to explore the world around us. We write to discover. The way to write with “genuine-ness” is to be a part of the world, not to wall ourselves up from it.

Like most nuggets of profound advice, “leap, and the net will appear” is simple but not easy. Our vestigial lizard brain continually warns us about dangers. It keeps us from putting our hands in the fire or eating that odd-looking berry. It serves us well, thank you very much, by keeping us alive. But writing and creativity–even living a full, rewarding life–is much more than simply staying alive. If that were the case, we’d all be automatons or ants. We are not. We are creative, imaginative, vital beings capable of recognizing fire not only as something to be feared but also as a means to warmth, bread, and shadow puppets. We eat and enjoy blackberries, strawberries, and gooseberries because someone leaped.

“Leap, and the net will appear” means it’s OK to take risks. It’s OK to explore. It’s OK to leave our comfort zone behind because the universe is a supportive, encouraging entity. If we know risk is eliminated from the equation, taking a risk becomes easier. And when we take risks, we grow, explore, and, most importantly, create.

It’s easy to stay locked in our thought shell, writing variations on the same themes and characters we’ve written dozens of times. I know because I do it. I lose sight of leaping–or, more accurately, I lose faith the net will appear. But in my moments of clarity when I run up to the edge and refuse to hesitate, I find my fingers flying over the keyboard or my pen across the paper. I feel light. I feel unstoppable. I feel like I’m writing.

John Caruso
For as long as John can remember, creativity has bubbled through his life. From his days as a young boy recording off-the-cuff "radio plays" on an old Sears portable cassette recorder to starting his own photography business to playing tin whistle in a Pogues/Waterboys cover band to writing two novels in search of a publisher, John has been delighted by all endeavors creative. Even a 20+ year detour into the nine-to-five world of not-for-profit education and outreach couldn't deter him from seeing the beauty in everyday moments and easily-overlooked details. Finding art in the mundane is his daily quest, and one which can produce some extraordinary truths.
Currently, John is teaching creative writing to elementary and high school students, editing a daily newsletter for employees of a major pet food company, and writing his weekly ImPROMPTu posts for the Inked Voices' group of the same name. He's photographing both for art's sake and for commercial ends. He's shooting a second cookbook. And somewhere in the moments in between he's writing a book on "everyday creativity."

Siren Song of The New

I’ve been thinking about the evolution of writing tools over the course of my career. With the dizzying array of programs, apps, and web-sites, writers have unprecedented access to tools, training, and research. Technology has fundamentally changed the way we write. But as anyone who’s read a fairy tail knows, you can’t always trust Leprechauns, Genies, or Rumplestiltskin. Wishes granted aren’t always wishes fulfilled.

I perfectly understand how easy it is to become enamored with shiny new tools and toys while forgetting the grunt work. Whether it’s obsessing over finding the best pen (I’m looking at you Parker Sonnet fountain pen), the best notebook (I love Leuchtturm 1917s!), or the best word processor (hello Scrivener and Ulysses), we are drawn to finding the perfect tool to magically make the act of writing feel more natural.

But as they say when they paraphrase Francis Bacon: Technology is a great servant but a bad master. Don’t let the “magic of the new” rule your writing. Use it wisely. Use it efficiently. But never mistake technology for work.

Back in my typewriter college days I insisted those newfangled computer things were nothing but trouble. I remember Tiffany Corgan losing her entire senior thesis when a thunderstorm knocked out both of recently installed campus computers. Game. Set. Match.

Then a year later, I became acquainted with the office’s old Apple Macintosh at my first job out of school, its glowing monochrome gently ushering me into a new technological future filled with easy corrections and (almost) effortless dot-matrix printing.

Since then, I’ve seen so many iterations of Windows, Macs, and even a few Linuxes. I’ve seen flip phones become proto-smart phones become release after release of iPhones. With every technological stride, with every new piece of hardware, with every software innovation, I bought into the promise of easier writing. However, as is usually the case with tricksters, each next-best-thing makes the elusive pot of gold that much sparkly-er and harder to grab.

While process and mechanics may improve, the simple act of putting one word after another remains constant. This is why technology’s siren song can easily shipwreck us on the rocks. We are seduced into focusing on how the next major release or long-anticipated update will finally be The One to solve our problems. But we are looking at it all wrong. Our problem isn’t how we record our words, but rather how we craft them.

Now before I start hearing words like “Luddite” or “Gutenberg Hater,” I want to say I am not anti-technology. Anything which can free up our mind to spend more effort on stringing words together gets a big thumbs-up from me. But I have to be very conscious to not get swept up in finding the definitive device or app–and the definitive ones after those–at the expense of just sitting down and writing. By all means, make technology your servant. Just don’t let it become your master.


John Caruso
For as long as John can remember, creativity has bubbled through his life. From his days as a young boy recording off-the-cuff "radio plays" on an old Sears portable cassette recorder to starting his own photography business to playing tin whistle in a Pogues/Waterboys cover band to writing two novels in search of a publisher, John has been delighted by all endeavors creative. Even a 20+ year detour into the nine-to-five world of not-for-profit education and outreach couldn't deter him from seeing the beauty in everyday moments and easily-overlooked details. Finding art in the mundane is his daily quest, and one which can produce some extraordinary truths.
Currently, John is teaching creative writing to elementary and high school students, editing a daily newsletter for employees of a major pet food company, and writing his weekly ImPROMPTu posts for the Inked Voices' group of the same name. He's photographing both for art's sake and for commercial ends. He's shooting a second cookbook. And somewhere in the moments in between he's writing a book on "everyday creativity."