Word By Word

March 2018


Tips From My Father


My dad turns 89 in a few days. When I add up all the pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned from him over the years, I’m left with a cup that overfloweth.


In his 70s and 80s, my father has written seven novels—a series called The Columbiad—which follows a bright young man through the tumultuous 20th century. It’s loosely autobiographical, and has kept my dad with his head down at his desk in rural Maryland for the better part of the last dozen years. The last of the series is due out in June.

Perhaps the way to tell that I’ve listened to my father’s advice is by action: I’m following in his footsteps and churning out literary fiction. My debut novel is almost two years old and a second is out on review. I’m deep into a third and have the idea for a fourth. At this rate, I can only hope to achieve what my dad has accomplished as I age onward.


Here are 10 writing tips that I’ve picked up along the way in my writing career, many of them directly from my father:


1. Read voraciously


2. Research era that you’re writing


3. Employ dialogue liberally


4. Validate certainties; readers count on you to cement inevitabilities (i.e. the sun will rise each morning and, yes, it will also set each night)


5. Consult the dictionary and thesaurus regularly—keep them both handy and open


6. Edit, revise, slash, repeat


7. Understand that all characters—protagonists, antagonists, even all your minor characters—mirror humanity


8. Evaluate every scene and “linger in the good scenes”


9. Know that first 10 pages are critical to draw reader in; spend as much time on these pages as on any, including the ending


10. Join critique groups and be willing to listen to advice


In this lonely writing journey, it’s good to be reminded of ways to improve craft. It’s also important to connect with other authors in person and through social media. I’m a member of six author sites, and there’s always someone posting or responding.


Just last week, I had a panic attack when I read that a new novel was recently released chronicling the same event at the heart of my third novel. I turned to fellow and sister authors for solace.


The best advice I received that night (and more than 100 authors responded) was this: “Tudors. Period.” I had to laugh aloud. There are perhaps thousands of novels recounting the Tudor Period and new novels are published every year on this same subject. And here I was crying in my soup that one other novel was out on the same topic as mine.


My dad’s best advice last week (keep ‘em coming, Dad): remember that our readers are out there, clamoring for more.



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