As wordsmiths, many of us rejoice in a single fact every day: Writing is not math.
But still, in creative writing classes and workshops, at conferences and indeed here and there in how-to books and magazines (including this one), it may sometimes seem like there’s a formula for good writing, even for approaching the writing life the “right” way. You’re given absolutes and adages that come to be accepted as truth and add up, almost without anyone noticing, to a set of—gasp—rules.
You’ve heard them over and over, the basic writing equivalents of 1+1=2: “Show, don’t tell.” “Write what you know.” “Silence your inner critic.”
But in writing, 1+1 isn’t always 2—sometimes, 1+1=10. Sometimes, it’s best to tell, and not show. Sometimes, you have to break the rules.
Thus, we polled 10 of the best-known gurus of the craft and asked each one to sound off in support of a so-called “rule,” and to play devil’s advocate with another. In the spirit of rulebook rebellion, we encouraged them to respond in any way they saw fit. Their answers, paired here, range from classic wisdoms to alternative riffs to awesomely schizophrenic takes that, we hope, all serve to convey a key fact about writing: When it comes to the page, things are anything but black and white.
Writers often lament the abundance of conflicting advice out there, but the fact that there are perfectly valid points to be made on both sides of the aisle can actually be a good thing. This gray area is what makes writing an art, and not merely an equation with a single solution—and it’s what gives writers (that means you!) the freedom to interpret any rule through the lens of their own talent, and to make it work (or boldly defy convention) as only they uniquely can.
We hope the following pages will help you do exactly that.
#01 Write What You Know.
FOLLOW IT: To be sure, this timeless rule can produce bland protagonists, sleepy settings and plots so mild that if you blink you’ll miss them. But in my view, the rule doesn’t mean to record what’s ordinary, but rather to bring out in your story what is personal, passionate and true.
Those of you who are underwater demolition experts or brain surgeons may be feeling smug. Your story already is ahead of the pack, right? Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. Exotic subject matter or an exciting milieu do not necessarily make a story gripping. If you’ve ever read a dull biography or an historical novel that’s too research-heavy, then you know what I mean.
“Write what you know” means to write what you see differently, feel profoundly and know is important for the rest of us to get. You don’t need to have lived an extraordinary life or have a unique subject. You need only an original outlook and a fresh purpose for writing.
In fiction, a small-town librarian can be captivating if she, say, classifies her neighbors according to the Dewey Decimal System. In nonfiction, what’s interesting about Alaskan sled dogs? Well, nothing, really—until you capture the beauty and tenderness of the human-animal bond and detail the life-and-death drama of the Iditarod.
The point is, writing what you know means finding what is extraordinary in that which is ordinary and, conversely, discovering what is universal, meaningful and human in that which is uncommon.
Hey, you can always research what you don’t know. But you can’t fake what’s in your heart. Say what matters. That’s writing what you know. — Donald Maass
BREAK IT: “Write what you know” is a poor adage for a writer. Think about how little we know. We should not limit ourselves. This is why we have imaginations. Clouds, zebras, grilled cheese sandwiches, water, mountains and shoes don’t. Only humans are gifted with imagination. We should exercise our human potential, stretch ourselves beyond our borders.
When you write what you know, you stay in control. One of the first things I encourage my writing students to do is to lose control—say what they want to say, break structure. I often assign them to write about topics like, “what I’m not thinking of,” and “what I don’t remember.” Assignments like these lead to the underbelly, to the dark, rich, hidden life of your wild mind. You may know your neighborhood, but what lurks beyond the familiar, safe streets?
A writer’s job is to give the reader a larger vision of the world. We need to move into the mind of someone in the Congo, Portugal, Brazil, feel into the life of grass and bees, conjure up a horse’s day. All things are speaking. They have different languages; maybe a rock completes the pronunciation of only one syllable every two years. Our job as writers is to listen, to come home to the four corners of the earth.
Be curious: Who is that woman buying five lemons and two peaches at the grocery counter? What does her purse contain? And what does she dream at night?
Only you, the writer, care. Don’t let her disappear out in the parking lot and into oblivion.
— Natalie Goldberg
#02 Hook Your Readers on Page 1.
FOLLOW IT: One thing I love about my Kindle is that I can view a free sample of the first few pages of a book. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve saved by learning, usually within a few moments, that a writer is rude.
Rude? Am I overstating it? What’s ruder than being a bore?
I’m no busier than you are. I have a family, co-workers, things to do, places to go. When I set aside time to enjoy a good book—even if settling in before a fire with what our British friends call a “cozy”—I want to be engaged from the first sentence and held throughout.
I recently critiqued a beginner’s manuscript that began, “I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage …” Well, if it’s an adage, it’s old, and if it’s an old adage, yes, we’ve all heard it. So why in the world would you want to start your novel with that?
Most experts advise starting with or quickly getting to an “inciting incident,” or at least something that implies that a main character’s status quo has been interrupted.
You tell me. Would you be more gripped by an old adage, or by something like, “When he kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her at dinner, Elizabeth believed only Ben’s goodbye”?
It’s not gunfire, not murder, not mayhem. But I’m betting you want to know what’s going on and will stick with me until you find out. —Jerry B. Jenkins
BREAK IT: The single most common problem I see in student manuscripts is that they are incredibly confusing. They are incredibly confusing because student authors often refuse to orient the reader by providing basic dramatic circumstances, such as where we are, and what’s happening, and to whom. Instead, we’re plunged into a kind of ectoplasm of vivid descriptions and incisive observations. I refer to this style of writing as hysterical lyricism.
The central reason student writers succumb to this is because they’ve been told over and over that they have to “hook readers on Page 1.” They assume that the best way to do this is to dispense with all the “boring background” and get us right to the fancy prose.
I’m thinking now of a student story I read recently in which we’re trapped inside the head of a young man who is creeping up to a house in the middle of the night. It’s obvious the young man is extremely nervous, but it takes us 12 pages to figure out why: because he’s creeping up to the home of his pregnant girlfriend, with whom he hopes to elope. Why couldn’t the writer simply have told us this up front? Because he wanted to “hook the reader,” and he assumed that clarifying what the story was about with a little carefully deployed exposition would be boring.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What the reader seeks to learn above all is whom she should care about, and what those characters want or fear. Readers deserve clearly told stories, not high-watt histrionics.
#03 Show, Don’t Tell.
FOLLOW IT: Of course you should show, not tell, but what does that mean? Your mind must be trained like a mirror to reflect reality. You must transmit experience so the reader also experiences it. “I had a nice trip,” tells us only that a journey was involved. An LSD trip or an excursion to a museum or a voyage down the Nile? We don’t know. We need details to let us envision where you’ve been.
Writing is a visual art—and a visceral, sensory art. The world is not abstract; it is full of particulars. Those school assignments of “what I did on my summer vacation” actually had potential. Instead of embracing them, though, I wrote out of fear: I had a good time. It was very interesting and fun. I told the teacher about my summer vacation and gave her nothing at all. What if I’d shown her instead? My mother dyed her hair red, smoked Marlboros, while my sister and I played Parcheesi on the back porch, sitting on the cool cement. My father ate an early dinner of steak and iceberg lettuce each night before he left to tend bar until 5 a.m.
This is what was real for me in my 11th summer. It would have given my teacher a chance to know me better, bringing my life into vivid focus. This is what a writer must do: Lay out all the jewels for us to behold. To only tell about them is to hide the emeralds from view. Alas, then no one will ever know.
BREAK IT: OK, OK. Generally speaking, this rule is sound. Make it concrete. Externalize that which is internal. Use a slap instead of a slow boil. A single four-letter word in dialogue can do the work of a whole paragraph. Yeah.
Except … there are times when what you want to capture on the page is intangible. You can’t see it, weigh it, smack it or lick it. You have to trap a wisp in words. Trying to turn it concrete only causes it to evaporate.
It’s the change of mood in a stadium when the fans know, with bitter certainty, that their team is about to lose. It’s the buoyancy of the new spring fashions. It’s the intuition out of nowhere, for no solid reason, that she’s going to leave me.
So, how to break this rule? Realize there can be tension in the invisible. It can’t be found in what’s invisible, per se. But it can be found inside he who’s experiencing that which is vapor.
The trick to telling is to base your passage in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, in subtext, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment.
You can’t measure change in that which is static—say, the boulder your protagonist sits on to make big decisions. The rock doesn’t change. The drama is inside. Telling doesn’t ignore tension, it just snatches it from the air.
#04 Write “Shitty First Drafts.” (Really, do you have a choice?)
FOLLOW IT: Of course not. So let it rip. You have nothing to lose—as long as you make a deal with yourself: No one will ever see it.
This is the thing about writing fiction: You’re alone. You work on your sentences, again and again. You have a chance (emphasis on chance) to seem smarter in your final draft than you were in your first. Your character may not have the right rejoinder today, but by next Thursday she may come up with something that is witty, urbane and wise—and, despite your hours of labor, it may even appear to be spontaneous.
I play a little guitar and I love to get together with other musicians. It’s the opposite of what writers do: Musicians can jam. It’s not solitary, and what you hear is what you get—goofs and all.
For writers, the first draft is a solo improvisation, littered with sour notes and botched chords. But all the while, you’re trying things out, seeing what works, what fits. This is why you write that shitty first draft: to see what you can’t (or shouldn’t) do before you discover what you can do. And with revision and a little patience, no one will ever know that your first draft existed.
BREAK IT: You will not write a shitty first draft. Not because you shouldn’t, but because you can’t. Now, let’s clarify. A first draft can certainly be rough or sloppy. Pieces may not fit together because you’ll undoubtedly change your mind as the story evolves. Chapters 1–3: Jane is a divorced obstetrician locked in a struggle with her ex-husband. Wait—it works better if he’s her current husband (Chapters 4–5). Wait, I just thought of a great operating- room scene; I’ll make them surgeons! (Chapters 6–7). And so on. Don’t stop and rewrite; just keep going. Who knows what other wonderful ideas might occur to you?
Your first draft will be a mess, but that doesn’t mean it’s “shitty”—because you can write only as well as you can write. Relax and let it flow. Trust that your voice, imagination and sense of character will be present from the first paragraph on. Then, in the second draft, sure, you can a) rewrite everything that doesn’t fit your final concept, b) change any word choices that need refining and c) research details you neglected while you were so caught up in writing this exciting tale.
A mess can be fixed. Shit is just waste. And a first draft is never wasted.
#05 Write EVERY DAY.
FOLLOW IT: Many people want to have written. Writers want to write. Every day, all day! (But, alas, the world beyond the writing room intrudes. And there are all those books to read!) It’s the doing, the intense activity of the mind, that fascinates the writer and allows her to shape order from chaos. Writers write. Writing is work. And you go to work every day. It’s not a choice. If you don’t punch in, you lose your job.
Understand that writing isn’t for everyone, and if you find yourself resisting the activity, maybe you should rethink your commitment to the craft. It’s OK. Maybe you haven’t found your passion yet. We all find time to do the things we love.
But if you’ve tried to quit and catch yourself back at the desk—well, then don’t give up. Give in. The good news is that all your writing doesn’t go on at the desk. It goes on while you’re out in the world. Carry a pen and a notebook; gather evidence. You think differently with a pen in your hand. And you observe more keenly. You learn to pay attention; you keep your senses alert. The notebook becomes a repository and a source of material. It becomes a refuge. Go there when you need to think. Writing, you realize, engenders more writing.
And everything you write today informs everything you will ever write. —John Dufresne
BREAK IT: Don’t write every day.
I’m a big believer in word quotas. Some of the earliest, and perhaps still the best advice I ever got, was to set a quota of words and stick to it. I used to do a daily count. But a thing called life would intrude and I’d miss a day. Or, there were times when writing seemed like playing tennis in the La Brea tar pits, and that’d be another day I’d miss.
Such days would leave me surly and hard to live with.
Then I switched to a weekly quota and have used it ever since. That way, if I miss a day, I don’t beat myself up. I write a little extra on the other days. I use a spreadsheet to keep track and add up my word count for the week.
I also intentionally take one day off a week. I call it my writing sabbath. I find that taking a one-day break charges my batteries like nothing else. Sunday is the day I’ve chosen. On Monday I’m refreshed and ready to go. Plus, my projects have been cooking in my subconscious. The boys in the basement, as Stephen King puts it, are hard at work while I’m taking time off.
I also advocate taking a weeklong break from writing each year. Use this time to assess your career, set goals, make plans—because if you aim at nothing, there’s a very good chance you’ll hit it. —James Scott Bell
#06 Kill Your Darlings.
FOLLOW IT: To fine-tune your prose and kill your darlings—those bits of work you’re so blindly in love with that you can’t recognize when they bog down or misdirect the story—you must eschew love in favor of a ruthlessness that could make you a prospective bride on “The Bachelor.” Address the page as if you are your own worst date. Easily bored, you pick away at perceived flaws and shortcomings. You find anecdotes and pointless witty banter tiresome. Precious wisdom makes you run. You find yourself being wary of everything, asking, “Does this really need to be here?”—because you know every scene, character and word is crucial.
But how do you really know which darlings should be killed? First, get some distance. Put your manuscript away for a few weeks so you can come to it with fresh eyes. When you begin to edit, read every word aloud, slowly—it will give you focus. I find that it also helps to think of your work as a producer thinks of a film. Words are like money. Spend them wisely. Each scene and actor is expensive, and so you must include only what you really need to tell your tale. And if you find yourself saying, “But I love this idea!” that should be the first thing to become suspect.
After all, everybody knows, including those hapless TV bachelors, love hurts. —N.M. Kelby
BREAK IT: Yes, it’s still me: I’m of two minds on this. First of all, who came up with the idea of killing your “darlings”? It appears to have been William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mark Twain. No one seems to know for sure, but I say, Who cares? They’re all dead. The pressure probably killed them.
This approach to editing is the most dangerous tool in your repertoire. We write for the beauty of the well-turned phrase and the surprise of unexpected wisdom. So why “kill” these darlings? True, every word counts, but fiction is a journey. Your reader has her bags packed and is ready to go. Give her an adventure.
How do you strike a balance between economy and beauty? Practice. Read your manuscript aloud and imagine being at a cocktail party. You’re telling a story to someone you’ve just met. Think about what would interest or delight her—not you.
Rather than killing your darlings, hide them in well-marked files. You may use them later. And don’t let the pressure get to you. We should approach the page as a dog approaches an open car window. We have to stick our heads out, let our ears flap and watch for bugs in our eyes. We have to be in and of the moment. We have to let our hearts fly.
#07 Develop a Thick Skin.
FOLLOW IT: The key word here is ìskin,î as to be differentiated from “skull.” This is not meant as an invitation to disregard constructive criticism but, on the contrary, to recognize it as essential to your progress as a writer. If nine out of 10 readers think your opening page is confusing, or your plot never goes anywhere, they are almost certainly right. It is your job to put aside your narcissistic attachments to the text in question and listen, to recognize your weak spots.
The key to making it as a writer—as any sort of artist, actually—is developing the capacity to question your decisions without succumbing to the opera of self-doubt. You have to recognize criticism and rejection as a necessary step in the process. Being thin-skinned (i.e., defensive, resentful, arrogant) is not an option.
I’m not suggesting that you should be happy when you get a rejection or your story gets trashed in workshop. It hurts. You have every right to return to the privacy of your room and scream/weep/punch the wall. But after you’ve gotten the rage out of your system, you also have an obligation to recognize in these disappointments the seeds of your own improvement. Because if you can’t accept your failures at the keyboard—if you retreat into grievance—you simply won’t get any better. The idea is to toughen up your hide, without hiding from how tough our task is. —Steve Almond
BREAK IT: thin skin leads to avoiding sharing what you’ve written on topics that are important to you. But thick skin leads to shutting out information about where your writing hasn’t yet made full contact with others. Rather than developing a thick skin to shield against criticism, I recommend facilitating others in providing feedback that will allow you to skirt the issue of being thick or thin skinned. Here are three steps I teach writing group members for providing painless responses to one another’s works-in-progress:
1. Identify words that stick: Ask trusted readers to let you know what words and phrases linger. It’s easier to listen to what isn’t working when your readers have proved they were listening.
2. Focus on feelings: Ask readers to tell you what feelings they have from reading your work, both feelings they believe are in keeping with your intention, and feelings of being left out or confused. This can help you realize where you’ve led readers astray.
3. Trust curiosity: When readers tell you where they wish to know more, you can then recognize what is not yet on the page. Using this approach, you can also translate harsh comments. “Too wordy” becomes, “I feel overwhelmed here instead of clear about what is going on.” “Incoherent” becomes, “Something seems to have been skipped over; I miss knowing what it is.” “Awkward” is, “I miss the writer’s voice.” With these responses, you can head into revision hurt-free and eager. —Sheila Bender
#08 Silence Your Inner Critic.
FOLLOW IT: Writing is a lot like golf, only without the beautiful scenery and checkered pants.
To get any good at the game, you have to practice like mad, usually under the watchful eye of a good teacher. You have to think a thousand little thoughts as you work on various shots.
But when you get on the course, you must put those thoughts aside. If you don’t, you’ll freeze up and play rigid.
You have to train yourself to go with the flow and trust what you’ve learned. After a round is the time to think about what went wrong and devise ways to improve.
Same with writing. When you write, write freely; let the characters live and breathe. After you’re done, read it over and fix things. I like to check my previous day’s work, edit lightly, then move on.
Study books and articles on writing, get feedback from a critique group. But when you write, write. That’s how you truly learn.
Practice writing for five or 10 minutes at a time without stopping. Write anything—essays, journal entries, poems, diatribes, letters to yourself. You’ll soon learn to keep that inner editor at bay. And the best part is you don’t have to wear checkered pants to do it.
—James Scott Bell
BREAK IT: “Don’t listen to your Inner Editor,” everyone tells you. But, really, can you help it?
Like it or not, your Inner Editor is there, even while writing those horrific first drafts. Otherwise, how could you choose between “blue” and “azure”?
I suspect that our pre-occupation with the notion of an Inner Editor has to do with the idea that she knows more than we do, that she’ll guide us around the rocks and shoals that lie just beneath the surface of our prose. The problem is that we often think of our relationship with her as being adversarial.
So it’s a matter of perception. Your Inner Editor is there to help you, but too often you behave as though her sole purpose is to ruin your fun and make you sit up straight at the table. Instead, consider her a gentle, benevolent influence, the flashlight in hand as you wend your way down the dark path of each sentence.
Your Inner Editor isn’t a friend but a guide. You don’t want to get too close to her, because it might result in bad advice—or, worse, she might remain silent at a crucial moment. Think of her as a Word Whisperer. And if you listen carefully, you might hear her say “blue.” —John Smolens
#09 Read What you Like to Write.
FOLLOW IT: This seems self-evident, but in fact the rule is more layered and subtle than it first appears.
The rule implies (although it doesn’t state it directly—how much can you get into six words?) that it matters how you read. You must do it not only as a reader, but also as a writer. Readers get caught up in the story, immersed in the setting, absorbed in the plot. Writers, on the other hand, study how these results are created.
So, when you come to a really good scene, interrupt the reading process to figure out why it works so well. When you come across bad prose, mentally rewrite it. When you find something really good, make notes so you can steal the technique later (this is called “an act of homage”).
Equally important, the rule implies that you should have a genuine liking for your genre, rather than picking one because it’s hot or marketable. Read what you not just like, but love. Then write it. —Nancy Kress
BREAK IT: Don’t disregard this rule, but don’t let it limit you, either—because it’s not enough to read what you like to write. A writer has to read everything from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investi-gations to the backs of cereal boxes. The writer’s problem, and his opportunity, his obligation, is to know the world. Imaginative writing is a craft that favors the diligent and informed over the inspired and indifferent. You need to know the world, and you also need to develop your craftsmanship. The best teachers of fiction, for example, are the great works of fiction themselves. You may learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Chekhov’s “Heartache” than you could in a semester of Creative Writing 101.
The key is to read like a writer, which means you read everything twice. When you read a story the first time, just let it happen. Enjoy the journey. When you’ve finished, you know where the story took you, and now you can reread, and this time notice how the writer reached that destination. The first reading is creative—you collaborate with the writer in making the story. The second reading is critical. If you read widely and voraciously, you won’t like everything you read, but you can still learn from it. You may not appreciate Henry James, let’s say. You’re put off by his aristocratic ladies and gentleman. That’s fine, but don’t let your irritation keep you from learning nearly everything you need to know about free indirect style by reading this master storyteller. —John Dufresne
#10 If You Want to Get Rich, Do Something Else.
FOLLOW IT: I have to concede that if you want to get rich, in the monetary sense, you should probably do something besides write. But for me, it’s enough that writing makes me rich in other ways. I was poor when I wasn’t writing, when I didn’t trust the value of taking time to put my heart and mind on paper, when I thought that because I wasn’t already published, my desire to write was dilettantish. It wasn’t until I started taking writing classes that I began to grow out of the poverty of not trusting myself as a writer. In those early classes, I recognized that I felt better on days I wrote than days I didn’t write, that my classmates’ writing and discussions about writing enriched my world.
Thirty years later, I’m wealthy by many accounts: My writing has helped me understand those I love and myself, sustained me through the tragedy of losing my son and allowed me to write him and my late father back to life—I can see, hear and feel them. More than I ever believed possible, I’ve reached the hearts and minds of others through my writing, whether I’m well paid for that or not.
Recently, my 8-year-old grandson, who had purchased a copy of my memoir and been first on the book-signing line after my reading, interrupted our family’s adult dinner conversation. “Grandma,” he said, smiling at me, “your book is good.” How could I feel any richer? —Sheila Bender
BREAK IT: It may seem disingenuous for one who has, in essence, hit the lottery to tell you why you should buy a ticket.
But forget 70 million copies of Left Behind books sold in a decade. Before that tidal wave rolled in, I was already making a good living as a full-time freelance writer. My annual income was in the six figures, and my wife and I were going to be able to pay off our home and put our three sons through college.
Why? Because I was never one to be cowed by statistics, bleak as they might be. Nielsen says the average book published in the United States sells fewer than 250 copies a year and fewer than 3,000 overall. Of the 1.2 million titles Nielsen tracked in 2004 (publishing’s heyday), 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies; only 25,000 sold more than 5,000.
If those numbers set you back on yours heels, freelance writing may not be for you. But if you’re the type who hunkers down and works, who reads and studies and grows, determined to hone your craft and defy the odds, you can be among the few who make more than a living at writing.
If you were drawn to writing partly because so few succeed at it, you can be the one who excels. Give yourself wholly to your art, and be the one. Be the one.
—Jerry B. Jenkins
Meet our Panel of 10 Writing Experts
Steve Almond is the author of the story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the nonfiction books Candyfreak, (Not That You Asked) and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. He has also self-published two books, including This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, a title on the psychology and practice of writing.
James Scott Bell (jamesscottbell.com) is a bestselling suspense novelist and writing teacher. His latest book is The Art of War for Writers. A former fiction columnist for WD, he has taught novel writing at Pepperdine University and at conferences across the United States. He lives and writes in Los Angeles.
Sheila Bender is the author, most recently, of the memoir A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. Bender pens articles for Writing It Real (writingitreal.com), her online magazine for those who write from personal experience or teach others. She is an adjunct faculty member at Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz.
John Dufresne is a fiction writer and teacher whose most recent book is Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months. He also is the author of The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, as well as several novels and short-story collections. He lives in South Florida.
Natalie Goldberg is the author of 11 books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold more than a million and a half copies, Thunder and Lightning, Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Wild Mind. She teaches writing workshops and retreats at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, N.M. View her schedule at nataliegoldberg.com.
Jerry B. Jenkins is the author of more than 175 books, including Writing for the Soul, and the owner of the Christian Writers Guild and Jenkins Entertainment, a filmmaking company. His writing has appeared in Time, Reader’s Digest, Parade and dozens of other periodicals. Twenty of his books have reached The New York Times bestseller list (seven debuting at No. 1). His newest novel is The Last Operative.
N.M. Kelby is the author of The Constant Art of Being a Writer: The Life, Art and Business of Fiction, the short-story collection A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts, the bestselling novel In the Company of Angels and several other books. Her novels Whale Season and Theater of the Stars have been optioned for film, and she is working on a novel about the French chef Escoffier.
Nancy Kress was WD’s fiction columnist for 16 years. She has published 23 books of fiction and three about writing, and teaches fiction writing at various venues around the country. Her most recent novel is Steal Across the Sky.
Donald Maass is a literary agent whose New York agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the United States and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and The Fire in Fiction. He also is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives.
John Smolens (johnsmolens.com) is the author of six novels, including Cold—which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—and most recently The Anarchist, as well as a collection of short stories, My One and Only Bomb Shelter. He is a professor of English at Northern Michigan University.