Day 9 -Three Rules of Writing the Workshops Get Wrong

In the Beautiful Failure Challenge today, we looked to Margaret Atwood’s example of “breaking through the invisible wall” and doing the hard work that you’ve been avoiding. Atwood came to the The Handmaid’s Tale after several months of working on a failed novel. I’d love to know what constitutes your invisible wall, what you’re avoiding in your writing. (Arrived at this blog out of context? Take the 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge).

Meanwhile, I wanted to take a deeper look at three rules of writing the workshops get wrong. Writers are (often erroneously) taught to avoid: genre, sentimentality, and telling instead of showing. Unfortunately, this advice leads many writers astray. Here’s some further reading on why genre is not a dirty word, why there is a place for sentimentality in writing, and why “show don’t tell” isn’t quite the whole story.

Why Genre Is Not a Dirty Word

When I was in grad school, genre was a dirty word. The last thing you wanted to be accused of writing was a thriller. There was definitely a double standard, though. I attended Southern university with a whole lot of testosterone, where half of the men seemed to be embracing the modern-Western genre by mimicking Cormac McCarthy, down to the rhythm and the beat of a sentence. McCarthy, talented as he is, is a writer I sometimes grow bored of because he often sounds like a parody of himself. Reading other people’s imitations of McCarthy is really a slog.

But genre isn’t a bad thing, nor is it the death of literary fiction. Genre is simply a way of classifying story. John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana are brilliant literary novels in the espionage genre.

Why We Should Rethink the Term Literary Fiction, by yours truly, via the Submittable blog

It’s Genre, Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It, by Arthur Krystal for The New Yorker

What Does Sentimentality Really Mean?

Writers in workshops are taught to avoid sentimentality at all costs. While cheap emotional tricks are lazy and maudlin, writers who attempt to avoid deep emotion for fear of being sentimental sacrifice the possibility of genuinely connecting with readers. Zoe Heller and Leslie Jameson address sentimentality in joint essays for the New York Times: Should Writers Avoid Sentimentality?

Sentimentality is simply emotion shying away from its own full implications. Behind every sentimental narrative there’s the possibility of another one — more richly realized, more faithful to the fine grain and contradictions of human experience. Leslie Jameson, author of The Empathy Exams


You hear it from early in your education, as far back as elementary school: Show, don’t tell. But I feel that this adage does a disservice to writers, whose job is not only to reveal a world but also to examine its implications. In truth, good fiction strikes a balance between showing and telling. Events and characters and actions are shown through scene, but we are told what they mean through interior monologue, dialogue, or an omniscient authorial voice.

Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You, tackles the question in Why Show Don’t Tell Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops, for Writers Digest.

Share in the comments:

What’s some advice you think the writing workshops get wrong?

What have you been avoiding in your writing?


Day 8 – Failing Does not Make You a Failure

Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, “I have failed three times,” and what happens when he says, “I am a failure.” ~S.I. Hayakawa

Hayakawa, author of today’s quote in the 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge, was a Canadian-born academic and politician of Japanese ancestry. After many years as an English professor, he became president of San Francisco State University. During his tenure, he had a moment of extreme unpopularity when he pulled the cords on the speaker system during a Black Panther rally calling for the establishment of a Black Studies department. Soon thereafter, however, Hayakawa relented and created the first-ever College of Ethnic Studies in America.

What does Hayakawa have to do with the idea of failing beautifully?

Our lives are beset, again and again, by failure. I’ve mentioned before that I failed a few math classes in high school and college. I’ve also been fired from jobs (always waitressing jobs) and have applied for dozens of jobs that I didn’t get. Before I found a publisher for The Year of Fog, it was rejected by just about every major publishing house, as well as every smaller publishing house. Before I found an agent to represent The Year of Fog, I was turned down by about 20 agents.

A number of years ago, I wrote a story that was rejected by Zoetrope, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and all the usual suspects. Then my agent submitted it to Playboy, and they paid me $5,000 which was way more than I would have been paid by those other magazines that had previously rejected the story. Many of them don’t pay more than a pittance. It turned out, each time the story was rejected, it left open the path for something better.

In the comments, please share a time when rejection opened other paths for you.

Not sure what all of this is about? Take the challenge!

Day 7 – Do Work that Matters to You

In today’s challenge, we talked about stripping away the inessential, the side projects that keep us from doing the work that really matters.

It’s so easy to get caught up in all of the things we think we need to be doing–the committees, the social engagements, the group activities that take a lot of time without giving much  back. I would never suggest that anyone give up meaningful and necessary responsibilities in order to write. These include, of course, your kids, the work you do that pays the bills, volunteer work that is deeply meaningful to you.

But I think most of us have time-sucking responsibilities that we could eliminate. For example, if committee meetings leave you feeling as though you’ve wasted your time (we’ve all been on committees where conversation revolves around dull minutiae that could easily be dispatched through email), maybe there’s a way to gracefully pass on your spot to someone else or limit your attendance at in-person meetings. If you feel as though you’re always running to social engagements you don’t want to go to, there are polite ways to refuse. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your writing, as well as for those you really love, is to give up something that is taking up time without adding value to your life, something in which you don’t think your role is essential.

For years, I’ve been on the board of the Authors Guild. I do this work because it matters to me. Because our advocacy for authors in terms of fair contracts and copyright is personally and professional meaningful, the time I spend on it always feels worthwhile.

Likewise, I would never sacrifice the time that I spend with my son–just playing Monopoly or going to his favorite lunch spot or watching a movie. Time with our kids is so fleeting, I believe it should always be a top priority. I also love chaperoning field trips and volunteering in the classroom, because to me, that is valuable time spent understanding my son’s world. But I have learned through trial and error that there are a lot of school “obligations” that are a waste of time. For years, I attended the annual moms-only fundraising lunch at my son’s school, which involved an odd shopping hour and a sad fashion show sponsored by an exorbitantly expensive local clothing retailer. I went because I felt that I had to, despite the fact that it took the entire day and made me both bored and uncomfortable. While many of the moms at the school are incredibly interesting, I found that luncheons and playground chatter don’t facilitate getting to know them on anything more than a superficial level. The last couple of years, I realized I could just buy a ticket to support the fundraiser, then stay home and do the work that matters to me (not to mention that pays the bills) on the day that the luncheon actually came around. And I could see the other moms on my own terms, in an atmosphere where we could have meaningful conversations.

When it comes to the non-essentials, the things we do merely out of a sense obligation or an inability to say no, try to think of  ways to take part in the things that are important to you without throwing your time away. For example, you can skip the meeting itself and ask someone to fill you in on the important points. If you like the relationships you’ve fostered through your book club but get bored of the books, you can go for a walk or have drinks with a couple of people in your book club instead of spending hours reading the book a book that doesn’t interest you.


“Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.” – J.K. Rowling

Watch J. K. Rowling’s hilarious and inspiring TED Talk, The Fringe Benefits of Failure

Join the conversation in the comments section: what is something you can give up that will free you up to do the work that matters?

Join the 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge.

Day 6 – Try Something New

Today, I challenged you to try something new in both your writing and your life.

I don’t consider myself to be natural cook. I’m not one of those people who can just throw a few ingredients together and come away with something amazing. However, once every couple of months, I try to cook something challenging that involves a technique I never tried. Not long ago, I hammered out some chicken breasts and wrapped them around an elaborate mushroom filling. Even if it doesn’t taste that great or look that great in the end, I feel pretty good about trying something new, and hey, at least now I know how to hammer a chicken breast.

I frequently take online classes in subjects I know nothing about–coding, law, economics–just to buzz my brain a little and expand my horizons.

In her 12-part series on healthy living for The Mayo Clinic, Katherine Zeratsky explains why it’s important to try new things. She suggests a number of ways to try new things, one of which is to break with routine.

Try that in your writing today. Find a new space to write. If you always write with a laptop, try a pen and notebook. If you always start where you left off, try starting at the end of your story instead.

Just make it fresh. When we as writers get lulled into a sense of complacency, when we keep doing the same thing over and over again because we think it’s something we’re good at, we don’t give our stories and novels a chance to go deeper, to get stronger, to grow as we grow.

What new thing are you trying today? Please share in the comments.

Day 5 – Why You Can’t Hack Your Writing

Today in the 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge, we talked about the buzzwords every writer should ignore if you want to be a really good writer: productivity and hack my writing.

After all, writing takes patience. It’s important to get the words on the page, and I encourage you to do it in whatever way you can. But there is no substitute for the long, hard, thoughtful work of writing.

I rode the productivity bandwagon for a couple of years. I’ve downloaded more productivity apps than any one person can possibly use, but all they really do is take up space on my phone and take up precious time. How many times have you downloaded an app that’s going to make you the world’s most productive writer, only to see frustrating hours swirl down the drain as you try to remember your password, recover lost data, or figure out how to get the thing to work?

The antidote to all of this hacking and “producing” is to simply sit down in a quiet place with a pen and a notebook, or with your laptop if you prefer, and write.

That said, there are two things that have helped me. One is Pomodoro, an app ($1.99 on the itunes store) with no bells and whistles. You simply decide how long you want your writing bursts to be and hit start. I set mine for 30 minutes of writing, with 5 minute breaks, with a ten minute break after the fourth writing period. The reason it helps is that it doesn’t do anything except keep you in your chair. You commit to spending one or two or three pomodoros, however many you want, doing nothing but writing. During your pomodoro, you’re not allowed to check email, answer the phone, get up for coffee, anything (that’s what breaks are for). Trust me, it works.

The other one that works for me is the Freedom app for your desktop or laptop, which locks you out of the internet for a pre-determined period of time. If we’re honest, a great deal of our writing time probably goes down the endless rabbit whole of the Internet. Freedom locks you out, so you can’t surf.

Have you tried the slow writing challenge yet? (You found it in the Day 5 email from 10 Days of Beautiful Failure). Please share your experience with the challenge below. How did it go? How did it feel to write with no anxiety about how much you were going to write? Is this something you would be willing to incorporate into your daily writing practice?

Day 4 – Why Failed Projects Aren’t a Waste of Time

On Research and the Story: Why Failed Paths Are Rarely a Waste of Time

In today’s challenge, I talked about my unexpectedly liberating and joyful research into a centuries-old mathematical proof, The Goldbach Conjecture, during the writing of No One You Know. What I didn’t mention was that, after the book came out, I was somewhat nervous about meeting actual mathematicians on my book tour, because I was certain there was a great deal I didn’t get right.  I did indeed meet a number of mathematicians, all of whom were very kind, and some of whom were quite instructional.

Here is what one mathemetician/reader had to say about the book (bolding mine):

Math gets mentioned frequently throughout the book…Most of these quotes and references are used correctly, but an occasional slip-up (e.g. her summary of the Collatz Conjecture as “A sequence of natural numbers always ends in one”) and the fact that the mathematical content is primarily made up of these quotations from others suggest to me that the author herself is not well versed in mathematics.

So, it would be possible to say that I failed at the math in my novel, as I had failed at math, again and again, during my college years. On the other hand, another mathematician had this to say:

To a non-mathematician concepts are presented in an interesting manner and can serve as a gateway to further reading.

We balance success with failure. We take the good with the bad. If any math-phobics like myself ended up reading more about the fascinating Goldbach Conjecture, or found their way to the wonderful little memoir A Mathemetician’s Apology, I succeeded!

Many years ago, long before Tivo and Netflix and on-demand, back when I had to go to a basement room of the university student center to do internet research, I had a character who was a satellite dish repairman. Even though it was a story about a young woman’s uneasy relationship with her father, I felt that there were fascinating associative possibilities in work of satellite repair. I learned a lot about satellite dish repair. Only a tiny fraction of what I learned made it into the story, “Satellite,” (collected in The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress) but what remained made for a much richer story.

When we’re writing, most of us go down a number of paths that don’t ultimately pan out. That’s okay! Unused paths have a way of forking out to other paths that may take your story in a completely unexpected direction.

Instead of thinking of failed paths as a waste of time, think of them as a necessary diversion on the way to where you’re going.

Join the conversation:

  • What is the role of research in your writing?
  • Can you think of a time when research has led in an unexpected direction that broadened your novel or story in interesting ways?

Day 3 – Famous Writers Who Failed First

Explore. Dream. Discover

If you were the kind of kid who made less than stellar grades in some subjects because you became obsessed with exploring something off the syllabus, you may have been destined to be a writer. I spent just about every math period in high school writing, and my grades bore that out.

There is a noble tradition, in fact, of writers and academic failure.

The list of celebrated novelists is filled with people who did poorly in school. Roald Dahl was told by an English teacher that he would never amount to anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald, as we discussed yesterday, never finished at Princeton. Paste Magazine published a list of famous writers who never went to college. Many of them barely graduated from high school.

A passion for writing, a devotion to reading, and intense curiosity can transform dull students into great writers. As a parent, I value curiosity far more than grades, because a child who is capable of developing a passionate interest and following it through is likely to be more successful and happier than one who simply follows orders and does well on tests.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do… Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. ~Mark Twain

What are you curious about? Are you currently in the process of researching something? How has curiosity informed your writing? Please join the conversation in the comments section!