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The Writing Life: Rejection

by Sherri L. Burr

To write and seek publication is to risk rejection. The Los Angeles Review of Books published a story on March 26, 2024, about the rejection letters Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison wrote when she was an editor at Random House.[i] “I found it extremely honest, forthright, and moving in ways I had not expected it to be, but it is a shuddering book and one that offers no escape for any reader whatsoever,” Morrison said to one author. Her letter concluded, “You don’t want to escape, and I don’t want to escape, but perhaps the public does and perhaps we are in the business of helping them do that.” In other words, a story can be too miserable.

I received my first rejection letter at age 16. I had pitched a story to Guidepost Magazine about an encounter with my minister. The editor found the event less inspiring than I did. Many more rejection letters and emails would follow. Rejection can be hard on the ego, but never sending anything out risks never getting published. That can create a deeper blow to our internal psyche.

When I wrote my first co-authored book, Art Law: Cases and Materials, my co-authors and I were rejected by every major legal book publisher. After a smaller publisher offered us a contract, my male co-authors insisted on going back to every major legal book publisher to let them know we had an offer and ask if they would like to match it. That attempt to leverage a small offer into a bigger one failed. All the major legal book publishers rejected us a second time.

The reception was different for my next co-authored book, Entertainment Law: Cases and Materials in Film, Television, and Music. One small publisher accepted the book based on an oral pitch from my co-author and me. I insisted we first complete a book proposal to shop to all the major legal book publishers. The biggest publisher in the genre not only accepted our book but wanted a complete manuscript within a month. I was glad that we were almost finished with the book when we shopped the proposal.

As writers who help others, we also risk rejection in our charity work. Barbara Kerr Page, who I would later work with at the Albuquerque Tribune, wrote a letter to Tony Hillerman on November 2, 1975, asking him to be a judge in the New Mexico Press Women’s annual communications contest. Five days later, Hillerman wrote the following response:

While I’m complimented by your invitation (and the flattering way you phrased it), I’m going to have to beg off this fall. Last summer (when it seemed autumn would never come) I made a whole bunch of to-do things, and I’m now facing the fact that those speeches aren’t written and the deadlines aren’t met. Therefore, I made a pledge that I wouldn’t take on anything new until I keep the old promises.

I’ve enjoyed judging for the NMPW in the past and I hope you’ll give me the opportunity in future years when I’ve better learned how to plan ahead.

Three cheers to Tony Hillerman for knowing when his plate was full and to kindly say no. This is the kind of rejection letter that we can all learn from.

Like many authors, I consider the worst kind of rejection to be silence. I would rather receive a form letter or the return of my letter with the word “NO” in big letters than silence. With silence, you are left to assume your project has been rejected or lost.

With some of Toni Morrison’s letters, she gave helpful suggestions. According to the Los Angeles Review of Book’s article mentioned earlier, in rejecting a modern Western in 1978, Morrison wrote, “It simply wasn’t interesting enough—the excitement, the ‘guts,’ just weren’t there. I am returning it to you herewith.” What a masterful way to say the book was boring.

In another rejection letter, Morrison wrote that the manuscript was “put together in a way that made it difficult to enjoy. The scenes are too short and packed too tightly. Motives were lacking.” With rejection advice like that, the author knows it’s time to return to work.

Whatever is stopping you from sharing your work for publication, do not fear rejection. You just might receive helpful advice.

Equally important, rejection letters can help prove that you are in the business of writing. From a tax perspective, even if you have little or no income, you may still be able to deduct your expenses related to your writing business. Consult your accountant on the value of rejection letters to demonstrate you sought to sell your work.

Rejection letters also call on you to have faith in your work. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected twelve times. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen’s first Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 140 times. Tony Hillerman’s first book was rejected by one New York publisher who advised him to “get rid of the Indian stuff.” At the time of his death in 2008, more than 20 million Hillerman books were in print.

Once, I received a rejection letter from an academic publisher after my book had been published. It gave me great pleasure to inform the publisher that during the year delay, my book had been published and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History. I did not receive a response.

[i] See There Is No Point in My Being Other Than Honest with You: On Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters | Los Angeles Review of Books (

Sherri Burr’s 27th book, Complicated Lives: Free Blacks in Virginia: 1619-1865 (Carolina Academic Press, 2019), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History. West Academic published Wills & Trusts in a Nutshell 6th Ed., her 31st book, on October 31, 2022. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, Burr has been a member of SouthWest Writers for over 30 years.

The Writing Life: Consuming Thrillers

by Sherri L. Burr

I love thrillers. I love reading them and watching them on big and small screens. Webster’s Dictionary defines a thriller as “a work of fiction or drama designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure or suspense.” The Amazon Prime series Reacher fits the description. I watched each episode with the same rapt attention I had previously given to reading the Lee Child books.

Season One was based on the first book in the series, Killing Floor. Season Two was based on the twelfth, Bad Luck and Trouble. I often finish a Jack Reacher novel in less than three days, sometimes in one. They compel me to keep turning pages until every word has been read. After watching the two Reacher movies with Tom Cruise, a slender approximately 5’8” brunette, cast in a role of a 6’5” herculean blonde, I was reluctant to review the streaming series. This was even after hearing Lee Child said in interview with George RR Martin in 2018 at Santa Fe’s Jean Couteau Cinema that he had inked a deal to bring Jack Reacher to life with a different actor. But then a classmate, who knew I liked the Reacher books, sent an email suggesting I watch.

Actor Alan Ritchson looks like he stepped off the pages of the novels. The handsomely muscular Ritchson does not disappoint as the nomadic former Army officer with a penchant for bringing vigilante justice to lawbreakers.

In Season Two, Jack Reacher reconnected with his old army buddies to track down who is killing off members of their former squad. The minute an episode was available, I watched. Each of the eight episodes was equally entertaining.

I did not feel the same way about another Amazon Prime show, Citadel, which popped up as recommended after I finished Reacher. Fittingly, Citadel opened with a train wreck because the storyline was a train wreck. The series jumped frequently between timelines and time zones with little to distinguish between them other than a date. The actors looked the same and the settings were often the same. By contrast, Reacher used a different setting and color palate to indicate flashback scenes. Also, Reacher only showed flashbacks to advance the present story whereas Citadel whiplashed all over the place with limited connection between the scenes. The ending to Citadel was equally messy when it revealed (spoiler alert) the hero was the villain that caused the disaster. Yikes!

Curious, I looked up whether there would be a Season Two of Citadel. Even though Season One was considered a bust with audiences (apparently, my opinion was universally shared), Amazon renewed Citadel because it had invested $250 million in the first season. Apparently, the decision-makers never heard of “sunk cost,” the economic theory that suggests cutting losses when the original investment has failed. By contrast, Reacher, which cost much less to produce, became Amazon Prime’s biggest streaming hit ever.

Another book thriller recently caught my eye. Author David Baldacci released The Edge as a follow-up to The 6:20 Man. The second book in the series based on ex-Army Ranger Travis Devine was as engaging as the first. I listened to the audio version before deciding to purchase the book. Within 36 hours, I had finished all 403 pages. Baldacci’s character Travis Devine shares a professional pedigree with Jack Reacher. They are both West Point graduates who became officers in the Army and seek justice.

Consuming thrillers can be helpful to the writing life. By transporting us into other worlds, thrillers give us a break from current projects. With thrillers, we vicariously adventure to places and with types of people who would never otherwise cross our paths. Thrillers remind us to make our work compelling. We want our readers to consume every word.

Thrillers also prompt us to determine what is commercial. One author friend told me she won’t start writing a book unless she knows her publisher plans to purchase it because she doesn’t want to psychologically invest in creating characters she may need to abandon. Lee Child, and now his brother Andrew Child, create the Reacher books knowing there’s an awaiting audience.

Avoid the Amazon Prime-type decisions to renew a global train wreck like Citadel just because of the initial investment of time and money. Strive, instead, to create work as compelling as a thriller with intrigue, adventure, and suspense that captivates your audience from beginning to end.

Sherri Burr’s 27th book, Complicated Lives: Free Blacks in Virginia: 1619-1865 (Carolina Academic Press, 2019), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History. West Academic published Burr’s Sum and Substance Audio on International Law, 4th Edition, her 32nd book, on October 30, 2023. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, Burr has been a member of SouthWest Writers for over 30 years.

An Interview with Author John L. Thompson

John L. Thompson is a graphic designer and an author of long and short fiction in several genres including crime fiction, thriller, and sci-fi. He published two books in 2021: Monkey Wrench, the second novel in his crime fiction Truck Stop trilogy, and the nonfiction release It’s a Lonely World: An Indie Author’s Journey (Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them). Visit John on his website at, on Facebook and Twitter, and on his Amazon author page.

What sparked the story idea for the Truck Stop trilogy?
Working as a diesel mechanic for the better part of thirty years, writing the story came naturally. I worked at a truck stop a couple decades ago that resembled an old western honky-tonk. The supervisors were trying hard to hang on to the dying age of Outlaw trucking. They wore all the western clothing, the custom boots, the whole shooting match. They reminded me of characters out of the 1973 film Walking Tall except they resembled the bad guys…a lot. They ran the place like mafia henchmen. It seemed natural to include that fun fact in the story line. I show the dark underbelly of a chain of truck stops. Mix in a mob group, a couple of down-on-their-luck diesel mechanics looking for lost mafia money, and finally a woman with a hidden agenda, and you’ve got a story.

What is your elevator pitch for Monkey Wrench?
George Olsen’s life is one big lie, and he is proving to be a problem in the WITSEC program. All he wants is his old life back, but then again, there’s that mob group wanting him dead. When he hears about an old flame moving to town, he takes a chance to step outside the protective boundaries set by the US Marshals, only to find that people are still looking for him.

Who are your main characters? Will those who know you recognize you in any of these characters?
The main character is George Olsen. He has many names within the story due to the fact he hates life in the WITSEC program. He botches living in one place only to find himself in another state under a new name. This habit eventually leads to further issues. As far as using real life people as characters in my story, I did in Truck Stop (book one), but I mixed character traits to make it impossible to tell who is who if the real-life person reads the story. Some of my friends caught on to this and were happy to see they were in my book.

Why did you choose New Mexico as a setting for the book?
Monkey Wrench continues after the events in Truck Stop. Choosing New Mexico as a setting was natural selection. I keep with the adage of writing what you know. It was easier to write about the places mentioned. Even though Monkey Wrench takes place in several states, New Mexico was obvious. Not only do I live here, I try to center all my stories within New Mexico.

What is the most challenging aspect of writing a series?
The challenging aspect of writing this series is trying to remember all the details, such as character traits and plots from one book to another. I had to go back over Truck Stop for details of the crime in question. In another instance, I had forgotten a character’s last name. You would be surprised how often a writer can forget the small things. Detail is critical.

Is there a scene in the book that you’d love to see play out in a movie?
Not so much in Monkey Wrench as I would Truck Stop. I envision a single scene in Monkey Wrench where the main character Olsen is thrown in jail after a bar brawl. His background check is a bit spotty, and he is detained because the local cops believe he might be hiding who he really is. He confesses who he is and the cops think he is bluffing. At least until Olsen’s handler in the US Marshals shows up to bail him out. It is a mix of comedy, and it shows just how serious a predicament Olsen is in if he ever leaves WITSEC.

What would you like readers to know about It’s a Lonely World?
Basically, the premise behind Lonely World is that Indie Publishing is a lonely project for just about anyone involved in the self-publishing world. Many people believe that authors write the book and that’s it. Few people realize these same authors wear many other hats. Not only do they write the books, most will design their own book covers, perform editing, learn the marketing angles, and finally try to sell a few books. Some authors are proficient at selling their books, but the fact is, the majority of Indie authors fail in selling their books. This is discouraging for many and some give up on the dream of being an author. Lonely World is kind of a motivational book for authors. Eventually, I’ll have to update the material, but it points out my own personal successes and failures.

What prompted the push to begin this project?
I started writing and publishing stories some fifteen to twenty years ago. I met many, many great writers within the Indie community who were just awesome people to talk with. Many encouraged newer authors to keep writing and trying to publish. Fast forward to present time, I find many of those authors no longer in the writing world. The reasons are numerous as to why. Some had passed away, some found the journey too damn difficult to balance with marriage and a 9-to-5 grind. Others just gave up chasing the dream of being an author. I wanted people to know that there are those out here who really want you, the writer, to succeed.

This is your first nonfiction release. What unique challenges did the work pose for you?
Actually, writing Lonely World was natural. I didn’t feel like there was any stress to writing it. I wanted to be open and honest, but not discourage people from wanting to be a successful writer. I wish for anyone wanting to be a writer to keep chasing the dream and never let go. I have seen people struggle for years to be a published writer and also become a success, so I know it can happen.

What was the expected, or unexpected, result of writing It’s a Lonely World?
The best feeling in the world is being told, “Hey, I bought your book, read it and liked it. I even continued writing when I was about to give up.” I can appreciate those kinds of compliments.

Who are your favorite authors? What do you admire most about their writing?
There are many to note, but off the top of my head, I admire Philip Jose Farmer, Barry Sadler, Ray Bradbury, Robin Moore, Dashiell Hammett, Carsten Stroud, Ian Fleming, and Philip K. Dick. The reasons are numerous but these authors are literary giants who left a huge footprint within their genres. I love to read their stories and have for decades now. They told stories that were worth reading and learning about character and world building that are believable and relatable.

What kinds of scenes do you find most difficult to write?
Romantic aspect. It is truly difficult to write a believable and relatable romantic perspective in any story line. At least for me, anyway. Most importantly, I don’t want to write scenes that are too graphic in nature. I must have balanced the romantic aspect well enough in Truck Stop. Everyone has said it is believable.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I have multiple stories in the oven. One book I’m working on that has my interest is a graphic novel, which will be completed sometime next year. I’m not going to spill the beans yet on title or subject. I have an agreement with the artist to withhold info until he gives me the green light. Let’s just say, the story is one awesome ride in the making. I’m also working on a sci-fi thriller titled Puzzle Man. It is a story that I have had on my mind, and on several computers, for the last ten years. It is going to be a “Rip Van Winkle” kind of story, and perhaps a little bit of my own personal story thrown in.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

Embracing Writer Fatigue

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245Listen. Hear that? It’s the non-sound of laptops and word processors sitting on desks and collecting dust. It’s the white noise of writers everywhere giving up, of promising writers being sucked into the black hole of Writer Fatigue.

Webster defines fatigue as weariness or exhaustion from labor. The thesaurus offers burnout as one synonym. Fatigue. Burnout. Such innocuous words to describe the miserable state into which nearly every writer falls at some point.

I recently spoke to a woman in her sixties who has been writing since college. Throughout her school years she received kudos on her style and creativity. No one was surprised when she began to write in earnest. So, for the past twenty years she’s written romance novels. But none have been published. The woman decided to throw out all her manuscripts rather than leave them for her progeny to deal with. She wondered what happened to the promise that if one never quits writing, success will eventually come.

I don’t have a sure-fire answer for that. But I do have a couple of ideas.

Someone said the definition of “crazy” is to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Other than wanting to be someone who has written rather than someone who writes, I believe many writers lose that loving feeling for the craft when their expectation of speedy publication isn’t met. Convinced that all they have to do is just more of what they’ve been doing—only harder—they grow jaded as time marches on and no agent picks them up. Some, blessed with a more entrepreneurial spirit and less vulnerability to the purist’s litany of reasons not to do so, finally opt to self-publish.

I’m not making light of the virtues of tenacity and determination. But getting ahead in today’s publishing world apparently takes more than that. It requires the ability to change with the times.

But (my inner Jane Austen retorts), the long-dead Agatha Christie is still selling like hot cakes. True. And so is the Bible. But until your name becomes a household word, you’re going to have to offer something that sets you apart from what every other writer is offering. To quote one agent I recently heard speak at a writers conference, “Please, do not send me even one more vampire novel.”

Which brings us back to the need for change. The Chinese even generated a book on the subject. The I Ching, or Book of Changes, is purported to have been written over five thousand years ago. Change, irony intended, is here to stay.

What’s a writer to do? Besides not throwing in the towel, one way to keep up is to embrace current publishing reality and make shifts in one’s own writing style.

Basics do still count. Never really good with grammar, syntax, or modifier placement? Go to for Purdue University’s free online writing lab. Audit a continuing education class in creative writing. Join a writing organization (such as SouthWest Writers) and connect with the published and as yet unpublished. Join a critique group. Subscribe to writing magazines or E-zines to remain current on what’s happening in publications. Enter contests.

And every How-To now sitting in my bookcase includes a section on the importance of making time to write. Some successful writers commit to writing a specific number of pages daily, while others suggest setting aside certain hours of each day to do nothing but write. Either choice is apparently not as important as is the consistency with which one practices it. Pick whatever fits your lifestyle, and stick with it.

And according to Stephen King, one of the most important things for writers to do is read. Read at the doctor’s office, read while waiting for a flight, read in the john. Mr. King says stuffing our heads with the works of others, besides giving insight into what’s selling, will feed our creativity and help shape our styles. Reading someone else’s work energizes our own.

Science tells us black holes are not the empty spaces they appear to be. They are so dense and their pull so powerful, even light cannot escape. Stephen Hawking says black holes slowly give off bits of radiation until they explode in a supernova of energy. They aren’t just sitting in the void, waiting for Godot. They’re working toward a goal, absorbing stray stars, planets, and cosmic trash. They’re changing, getting ready to become something else entirely. Revising themselves.

So, I’m off to Barnes & Noble, where I plan to gorge myself on anything that looks interesting. I’ve decided to embrace my Writer Fatigue and make it work for me. You’re welcome to come along. A latte, soft chair, and an endless supply of the hottest-selling reading material seem to be in order. Onward.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the July 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The Writing Life: Basic Principles from Dear Abby

by Sherri Burr


In a “Dear Abby” column appearing in local newspapers on September 10, 2013, the famed advice columnist received this query:

…I’m wondering if there is a basic principle you abide by in order to help guide you when giving advice. ~ Curious Reader

She responded:

I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose it’s something like this: Show up for work ready to put forth my best effort. Be honest enough to admit that not everyone agrees with me or that I’m sometimes wrong. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Don’t pull any punches, don’t preach and always try to be succinct.

Reading her response, it occurred to me this advice applies to the writing life.

First, writers need to work in a disciplined manner at a home office or designated area. Phil Jackson, a retired jockey who penned the memoir On a Fast Track, writes from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the week in his home office. Western author Melody Groves, a retired school teacher, writes Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. When Groves taught, she wrote between 4:45 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. She views writing as a job to be taken seriously, as if paid hourly.

Others who have full-time jobs may write in the mornings before the rest of their home crew awakes, or in the evening after their family sleeps. As a university professor, Kathy Kitts wrote nonfiction from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and fiction from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Personally, I write in 90-minute blocks throughout the day. I read a New York Times article that praised the virtues of taking breaks after each 90-minute session.

Whenever you choose to write, show up, ready to put fingers to keyboard, pen to paper, or voice into a device of your choice.

Doing your best may vary from day to day. Sometimes, you arrive at your designated writing space with ideas flowing and ready to produce. Other times, your mental processes struggle. For those moments, consider playing Mozart, Vivaldi, or other music in the background or through your ear buds to stimulate your brain. In his book The Mozart Effect, Don Campbell extolled the ability of music to stimulate creativity. He subtitled his work “Tapping the power of music to heal the body, strengthen the mind, and unlock the creative spirit.”

Dear Abby’s next piece of advice admonishes to be honest enough to admit not everyone agrees with you or you’re sometimes wrong. This is important when seeking feedback from critique groups. Not everyone is going to consider that the words you put on paper proclaim you to be the next Shakespeare. It’s important for writers to be open to receiving criticism and admit editing is necessary.

When Dear Abby wrote, “Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” she was quoting the oath administered to witnesses in legal proceedings.

This oath applies whether writers pen nonfiction or fiction. With nonfiction, because the reader expects the words to be true, the author should so deliver. Memoirists who shade the truth to make their stories more dramatic have been immensely criticized, and publishers have sometimes pulled their work from the market. With fiction there must be truth in the emotions of the characters, even if the words are products of an author’s imagination.

Years ago, I took a Dramatic Writing course at the University of New Mexico with famed professor Digby Wolfe who had written for Laugh In. An important exercise called “Truth or Fiction” required each student to write and stage a short play for class. Then the audience had to guess whether it was truth or fiction. Wolfe urged his students to produce both their nonfiction and fiction with emotional richness.

Dear Abby’s final point is: don’t pull punches, don’t preach, and always try to be succinct. For writers, the first maxim relates to not softening the emotional blows of your words. Let the characters go for broke, no matter how hard the story may be for the reader to consume. If told effectively, the reader will obtain the moral without needing to be preached its ethical underpinnings. Being succinct requires not wasting words. For example, Melody Groves is fond of eliminating the word “that” from work she critiques. She finds “that” often unnecessary and once the writer thinks about it, he or she agrees.

To summarize, writers must show up to produce their best work. Be honest, be succinct, and don’t pull punches or preach.

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

What Writing Books Don’t Tell You

by Kirt Hickman

I do a lot of critiques, and I see similar mistakes in submission after submission. Eventually, I began to realize that the problems I see most often are those that I didn’t learn from writing books. For whatever reason, these key pieces of advice have managed to slip through the cracks. Writing books don’t discuss them, or the books contradict one another, leaving writers floundering for the correct answer.

Filter Words
I first learned about the damage filter words can do in a critique that David Corwell wrote for me. Later I found an article that called them “viewpoint intruders”—an apt name, because that’s what they do. These are words like saw, felt, heard, watched, etc., that take the reader out of the character’s point of view.

Consider this example from a critique submission, in which the filter words are shown in bold text.

Clara looked around at her fellow passengers. She overheard snatches of conversation in Italian. She saw parents feeding snacks to children, even a breast-feeding mother.

Here, the reader isn’t looking at passengers, overhearing conversations, or seeing parents feed children. The reader is standing at a distance, watching Clara as Clara looks at, overhears, and sees the action of the scene. These words have become a filter between Clara and the reader.

The author can eliminate the first sentence because Clara doesn’t see herself looking around. The rest of the passage can be written without filter words:

All around Clara, people spoke in Italian. Parents fed snacks to their children. One woman nursed her infant.

Notice that the original narrative focuses on Clara (Clara looked, she overheard, she saw), while the revised narrative focuses on the things Clara is focused on (people spoke, parents fed, one woman nursed). This is as much an issue of character viewpoint as it is an issue of narrative style. When you write, don’t focus on your viewpoint character. Rather, focus on what your viewpoint character is focused on.

Prepositional Phrases
Many books will tell you to omit any word that’s not absolutely necessary, and that’s good advice. What they don’t point out is that those unnecessary words often appear as prepositional phrases. Examine every prepositional phrase in your manuscript. Does it provide information that’s both new and necessary? Consider this example:

Chase stood among the clues in the cockpit and let them tell their story.

If the reader already knows Chase is in the cockpit, write this as:

Chase stood among the clues and let them tell their story.

Depending on the context, you may only need:

Chase let the clues tell their story.

Now you’re writing a tight narrative.

This one I learned from Larry Greenly at an SWW meeting years ago. The word that is often used unnecessarily. It becomes a speed bump that slows down the reader. Consider the following example, excerpted from a letter my hero wrote to his daughter in my own science fiction novel Worlds Asunder:

I’m writing to let you know that my homecoming will be delayed. I know that you and the girls were looking forward to seeing me, but a case has come up that will delay my departure.

Wherever you see the word that, delete it and read the sentence without it. If the sentence still makes sense, omit the word that. In this example, only the third occurrence of that is necessary.

I’m writing to let you know my homecoming will be delayed. I know you and the girls were looking forward to seeing me, but a case has come up that will delay my departure.

Direct Address
Direct address occurs when a character says the name of the person he’s addressing:

“What time is it, Jennifer?”

She consulted her watch. “Four o’clock, Tommy. Why?”

“Already?” He snatched up his backpack and bolted for the door. “Jennifer, my mom’s gonna kill me.” He didn’t even help clean up the toys they’d strewn across the living room.

Some books advise writers to use direct address as a way to avoid attributives. I disagree. Notice how much more natural the dialogue feels when I move the characters’ names from the spoken lines to the dialogue tags:

“What time is it?” Tommy asked suddenly.

Jennifer consulted her watch. “Four o’clock. Why?”

“Already?” Tommy snatched up his backpack and bolted for the door. “My mom’s gonna kill me.” He didn’t even help clean up the toys they’d strewn across the living room.

Widow/Orphan Control
Widow/Orphan control is a function in MS Word that tries to prevent a single line of a paragraph from appearing at the top or bottom of a page. When this function is turned on, it creates a variation in the number of lines from page to page. It looks sloppy. Turn this function off in the “Format Paragraph” menu, under the “Line and Page Breaks” tab.

Many books advise proofreading carefully. In my experience, that’s not enough. You must have somebody else—a qualified editor—proofread your work. Writing books do not sufficiently stress the importance of this. When I started paying a proofreader to go over my submissions, I began placing in contests and getting positive replies from editors and agents about 50 percent of the time. Prior to that, I received nothing but rejections. Don’t underestimate the power of proofreading.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Lessons from the Life of Tony Hillerman

by Sherri Burr


Tony Hillerman, the author who exposed the Navajo way to millions of people, passed away on October 26, 2008. After moving to New Mexico in 1988, I mentioned to a University of New Mexico colleague that I was looking for a writer to speak to my class the following spring. She recommended I read The Ghostway and The Dark Wind. I became a fan and wrote Tony.

For a humble person who reveled in his Oklahoma farm boy roots, spending time with lawyers and lawyer-wannabes was not Tony’s idea of fun. But he was also a teacher at heart and always willing to share, even with not-so-modest attorney types.

After publishing three books in 2004, I was invited to join First Fridays, a group that Tony and several of his writing pals started in the 1960s to share knowledge about the publishing industry. One morning a couple of years ago, I received an email seeking someone to drive Tony, now in his 80s, to the next meeting. I immediately volunteered.

Driving Tony Hillerman was a gift. Even as he struggled with health infirmities, he quipped, “Don’t get old.” Here are a few other tips from a great writing mind:

Tip 1: Take Time to Observe the Clouds
“Look at those clouds,” Tony said as we walked to my car. “Don’t they remind you of a flock of geese?” Other times, he would notice horses in stalls or dogs wandering the roads. His books are filled with elegantly described settings. I realized that he could write so vividly about New Mexico and Arizona because he was constantly observing the environment.

Tip 2: Be Generous with Your Writing Earnings
On one occasion, we pulled up at a stop sign as a panhandler approached with a sign. Tony took out his wallet and handed the man $10. Wow, I thought, how generous. At that First Friday meeting, Tony said he had recently opened a letter and a $100 bill fell out. The woman wrote of having borrowed his books from the library all these years and realized that he was probably missing some royalties. Lesson learned: generosity is returned many fold.

Tip 3: Keep at It
Tony’s debut novel The Blessing Way received 101 rejection slips before being picked up by Harper & Row in 1980. Along the way, agents wanted him to change the location of his books from the Navajo reservation to Santa Fe and to alter Joe Leaphorn’s identity. He stuck to the truth of his stories, and you should, too. After bemoaning the dozen rejections one of my manuscripts received, I realize I have to send it out 89 more times.

Keep the faith and keep writing. Tony did and we are grateful that he lived.

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

This article was originally published in the January 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

An Interview with Author Shirley Raye Redmond

Shirley Raye Redmond is an award-winning author of dozens of nonfiction children’s books, several historical romance novels, and over 450 articles. Two of her children’s titles have sold more than 200,000 copies each. Her newest release, Viper’s Nest, is a romantic suspense novel set in Jacksonville, Illinois. She is also a conference speaker and has taught courses at many venues across the U.S. including the University of New Mexico–Los Alamos campus and the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference. You can read Shirley Raye’s contributions to the Stitches Thru Time blog, and visit her at her website, on Facebook, and

VipersNest200What is the elevator pitch for your newest novel, Viper’s Nest?
A handsome history professor and his widowed research assistant find themselves in danger when they explore an old insane asylum slated for demolition, unearthing a scandal someone is willing to kill for to keep secret.

Tell us about your main protagonists and how they differ from those in your other novels.
Most of my other novels are historicals, so Wren and Allan differ mainly because they are contemporary characters. It was a relief to work with personalities living in the present day. I didn’t have to concern myself with accidentally using anachronistic language, for instance. Also, Wren is a widow with a young daughter. This made for some interesting motivational considerations as I wrote the story.

Why did you decide to use the particular setting you chose?
I actually had a private tour of the Jacksonville Insane Asylum many years ago before it was torn down. The history of the place intrigued me, as well as the logistics of its once-bustling kitchen with small underground railroad cars used to transport meals throughout the institution via tunnels. Also, Mrs. Lincoln was a patient there for a while following the death of President Lincoln. The old place oozed dramatic possibilities.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Originally, I wrote about my tour of the asylum for an SWW nonfiction contest many years ago. The article about humanitarian Dorothea Dix took second place. I later submitted the same article to a Writer’s Digest contest, and it earned an honorable mention. Both judges encouraged me to “do something” with all the historical information I’d collected. Trying to transform an article into the basis of a suspense novel was a real challenge.

This seems to be a departure from your previous fiction projects of “sweet” romance and inspirational historical novels. Why did you choose to go in this new direction?
There is a romance entwined in the plot of this book, too. Actually, my very first novel for grown-up readers was a romantic suspense, Stone of the Sun, with a lot of historical detail about Cortez and his Aztec mistress. In a way, Viper’s Nest is the same sort of novel—romantic suspense with all the historical trimmings—even Nazis, everyone’s favorite villains.

fairies150You also write nonfiction books for children. Explain why your latest children’s title Fairies! A True Story (Random House) was one of those “think outside the box” moments that really paid off, and why you love talking about this book.
Fairies! A True Story is my fourth nonfiction Random House title. I was browsing in Page One bookstore some years ago and noticed their pirates and fairies sections—hot topics for kids’ books at the time, and I wanted to do something along those lines, too. My editor warned me that the market was glutted with books on those subjects. So instead of trying to write a whimsical tale to rival the Tinkerbelle ones, I started doing research on fairies and fairy sightings. I was surprised how much information there was out there—too much to cover in one short children’s book. When I bought a used copy of Jerome Clark’s book Unexplained and read about the Cottingley fairy photographs, I knew I had something I could sink my teeth into. That was the “think outside the box” moment for me: instead of writing about fairies in a fictional way, I would report on an actual event and write a nonfiction books about fairies. The Frances and Elsie fairy story is fascinating because it could only have taken place when the technology of photography was fairly new. I was delighted when Random House bought the rights to one of the actual Cottingley fairy photographs to use at the back of the book.

What would you say to someone who says writing for children is easy?
Many people have mistakenly suggested that writing for children must be easier than writing for adults. That’s not always true. For instance, Random House is extremely dedicated to facts and truth for young readers. I had to document every fact, every bit of information in the fairy book for my editor, who then had the material vetted by an expert in a related field. Also, the clothing and artistic depictions in the illustrations had to be as accurate as possible. For instance, the illustration of the camera used by Frances and Elsie when taking the Cottingley photos is based on an old photograph of the actual camera they used. It can be a challenge to come up with text and illustrations that are both accurate and appealing for young readers while still creating a mythical mood or playful tone. When writing a novel like Viper’s Nest, the historical information can be tweaked here and there and editors usually don’t get their knickers in a twist over it.

What first inspired you to become a writer?
As soon as I read Little Women when I was in the 6th or 7th grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer like Jo March. When I sold my first newspaper articles to the Pacific Stars and Stripes and The Morning Star (I was a teenager on Okinawa at the time), I knew I was a writer. There was no turning back for me from then on.

What would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today?
I would attend more writing conferences and take more courses in marketing. I started out as a journalism major and later earned my M.A. in Literature. I did take one marketing elective ages ago. Everything I learned in that class is still useful for me today. But as a lit major I never even learned how to write a synopsis or book proposal or query letter. Thank goodness for SWW conferences and workshops! That’s where I learned those valuable skills.

Of the 32 books you’ve written, which one did you enjoy writing the most?
I have a sentimental attachment to Stone of the Sun, which was my first novel. It opened many doors for me, including write-for-hire projects. But writing and researching Patriots in Petticoats, Heroines of the American Revolution (Random House) was probably my favorite writing project. I wanted to include lesser known girls and women, such as Kerenhappuch Turner and Dicey Langston. These women were from the southern colonies—one tends to think of Betsy Ross and Abigail Adams and others from Pennsylvania and New England as our only colonial heroines. I visited out-of-the-way battlefields and small historical societies and enjoyed lots of little adventures along the way. I have received many delightful letters from girls writing social studies reports about one of the obscure heroines I mention in the book and was so pleased when the Bank Street College of Education in New York named the title as one of the best children’s books of 2005.

What can fiction writers learn from nonfiction writers?
As a journalism major, I was taught to get to the who, what, when, where and why quickly and succinctly—in the first paragraph, if possible. Some fiction writers forget to answer those questions within their stories. Frequently, I have found myself wondering what happened to a secondary character that appeared in the first half of the book but simply disappears in the latter half, and what about that missing locket alluded to in the third chapter? Keeping the 5 Ws in mind when writing and revising would be helpful for fiction writers, I think.

Also, nonfiction writers are taught to write magazine articles with enticing lead paragraphs that lure busy editors. I have tried to use intriguing opening lines in each of my novels, too. Stone of the Sun begins with, “She’d witnessed a murder—or so she’d been told—and nothing would ever be the same again.” My Regency novel Prudence Pursued opens with, “You should not wear that to the pox party,” Prudence Pentyre said, indicating her younger cousin’s dress of light green Italian silk. “I recommend something with short sleeves which allows you to expose your forearm to the lancet.”

What advice do you have for writers who are still striving for publication?
Set both weekly and monthly goals/deadlines for yourself. Write them down and work diligently toward achieving them. Buy an appointment book and schedule time for writing, rewriting and research. Your “great expectations” will be easier to achieve when you have established in writing what they are.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (and what writers can learn from him)

by Lorena Hughes

RopePoster2The other day an old college friend of mine invited me to the Hitchcock Film Festival in a downtown theater I thought had closed  years ago. This art-deco building (circa 1927) has been presenting some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films every Friday night for the last two months.

The movie we watched was Rope (1948) with James Stewart. It’s already been three weeks since I saw it and I’m still thinking about it. Funny because that same weekend I watched Gravity—an expensive display of special effects that Hitchcock could have only dreamed about—and a story that values life above all (almost the exact opposite of Hitchcock’s film). Yet, the movie that keeps popping into my head is Rope, one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known films and produced over 65 years ago. Perhaps if I explain more, you’ll understand why this film impacted me.

Rope was inspired by a famous murder trial from the 1920s. Two affluent college students decide to kill one of their classmates for the simple thrill of killing. As followers of Nietzsche’s philosophy, they believe themselves to be intellectually superior to other mortals and, therefore, above the moral laws of “ordinary” men. They think they can plan and execute the perfect crime and, to make it more thrilling, they hide the corpse inside a chest of books and invite the victim’s friends and parents to a dinner party. In very Hitchcock fashion, they set the dinner buffet on top of the chest.

James Stewart plays the clever schoolmaster who inadvertently instilled this philosophy in the two murderers. Of course, one of the guys is terrified of getting caught, but the other one seems to almost want his former teacher to discover them so he can admire their “masterpiece” crime. The success of the film is in the juxtaposition of tension (anyone could open that chest since the hinge is broken), dark humor (not only in the party set up but also in the dialogue), the motive for the murder (I’ve never heard of something more original) and the Big Question of whether or not the guys will get caught.

But this film was fascinating in both content and form. The entire story develops in real time, in one single setting, and the cuts are nearly imperceptible—one continuous scene with very subtle transitions (Hitchcock focuses on a jacket or an ornament to make his cuts seamless.) It’s no surprise that the film was adapted from a play. In addition to this novelty, we have another element that struck me as original: the camera tells its own story.

Let me explain without ruining the film for those of you who’d like to watch it. Have you noticed how in children’s picture books sometimes there is the story the text tells you, but there are minor stories that you can only see in the illustrations? (this is where a very talented illustrator can thrive). Well, Hitchcock does something similar twice. While the characters are speaking, the camera is moving around them or is focused on another object, making the conversation inconsequential and the visual action what really matters. This is something I haven’t seen in contemporary film making. When dialogue is present in a film, it always supersedes anything that may be going on in a scene.

Because I have a tendency to write complex novels with abundant characters, I always admire writers and directors who can tell simple stories. The plot here is simple: will the guys be successful at hiding their crime?

So here are some of the lessons I learned (as a writer) from this film:

1.  It’s okay to write a story that develops in a short amount of time (and how challenging that is!).

2.  People can have the strangest motives for committing a murder (and the more original, the better).

3.  Keeping the tension in a story is key.

4.  Add humor whenever you can (even if it’s dark).

5.  Plot twists and complicated storylines are not always required to write a gripping tale.

6.  Build a complex backstory (even if you don’t mention all the details), and the story and characters will seem more realistic and believable.

7.  For your ending, keep your audience guessing until the last possible moment.

8.  Suppress the desire to make your main characters a) always sympathetic and b) always safe. Let them make mistakes.

And here are some of the lessons I learned (as a human):

1.  Life is extremely fragile and can end in an instant.

2.  There are a lot of crazy people out there.

3.  Never befriend someone who admires Nietzsche!

And just for fun (and because I like lists), some of the trivia I learned about this film:

1.  James Stewart was not happy with this role.

2.  Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for Stewart’s role, but he declined.

3.  The real-life case which inspired this film, Leopold and Loeb, was never discussed or acknowledged by Hitchcock to any of his writers or cast members.

4.  The attorney who defended Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow, delivered one of the most famous speeches there is against capital punishment—and saved their lives. Both got sentenced to life in prison (plus 99 years each for kidnaping).

5.  According to several online reviewers and the scriptwriter himself, there is a homosexual undertone in the film between the main characters (Leopold and Loeb were allegedly a couple). This may have been the reason why the film didn’t do so well in the box office and why Stewart was not entirely happy with it.

6.  This film is said to have been a reaction to WWII and Hitler’s belief in the superiority of one race (man) over another.

Are you a Hitchcock fan? Do you think there’s a contemporary director who compares with him?

LorenaHughes2Lorena Hughes was born and raised in Ecuador. At age eighteen, she moved to the US to go to college and earned a degree in Fine Arts and Mass Communication & Journalism. She has worked in advertising, graphic design and illustration, but her biggest passion is storytelling. Her historical novel set in South America, The Black Letter, took first place in the 2011 Southwest Writers International Writing Contest (Historical Fiction category), an Honorable Mention at the 2012 Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, and was a quarter-finalist for the 2014 Amazon Breakout Novel Award (ABNA). She is represented by Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency and is a freelance writer for What’s Up Weekly. You can find her on Twitter at

This article was originally published on The Writing Sisterhood blog and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The Late-Blooming Writer

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245You’re over fifty, your kids are raised, your relationships are simple, you’ve learned most of life’s lessons firsthand, and now you want to write. Welcome. Welcome to the ranks of Late-Blooming Writers. As one of the aforementioned, I’ll share some of the bits and pieces of information gleaned along my path toward publication.

First, set a goal. Want to write meaningful poetry? Want to knock out a bestselling novel? Write down what you want to make happen. And then put it someplace where you’ll see it. Often. Next, stretch your brain-muscle. A good way to do that is to meditate. Thousands of pages of research indicate that meditating a few minutes a day will change the actual physical make-up of your brain. So will Sudoku, or jigsaw and crossword puzzles. And you’ll need to grow a tough skin. Not the kind that insulates you from the world, or squeezes the juice from your sensitivities. But the kind that allows the slings and arrows of rejection to roll harmlessly off as you do the trial and error thing to find your Writer’s Voice.

Then you’ll need to bone up on the basic rules of grammar and the elements of style. Strunk and White offers a small but priceless treasure trove of style tidbits. Besides learning the difference between showing and telling, you’ll need to use strong verbs, stay away from passive voice, and use few, if any, adjectives or adverbs. Oh, and you would be wise to eschew any iteration of the verb “to be.” You get the idea. Just as with any craft, you must first learn the rules, beginning with the basics.

Pitfall number one: Writer Entitlement. It’s an interesting but recurring phenomenon in wannabe writers, that their opinions about their own writing skills outshine the reality. I’ve read this in countless articles and blogs, so there must be something to it. We’ve always been told how well we write, so we figure our success is assured. However, none of us have been born with the Consummate Writer Gene already firmly installed. The kind of writing that gets published requires hard work and focused attention, followed by vigorous, time-consuming (often painful) revision.

Pitfall number two: Memoirs. Once you’ve generated dozens of chapters of the novel you can’t quite finish, after writing several essays and short stories, and once you’re absolutely certain you’ve reached the apex of writing competency, you’ll find yourself considering the possibility of writing your memoirs. Some would say it’s never too early to chronicle your life experiences. But unless your aim is to produce something solely for the historical value it might have to your family, it seems to me a better idea to put a memoir on hold—at least until after your first book is published. Although your life has doubtless resembled a roller coaster in its hairpin curves and surprising twists and turns, it’s tough to sell a memoir until someone, somewhere, knows your name. That is, unless you dated someone famous and decide to write a kiss-and-tell. Note: Just a suggestion, but if you want to write your memoirs as revenge for a lifetime of wrongs, you might consider finding a good attorney to cover your back. Libel suits can be expensive indulgences.

Pitfall number three: You believe the only-partially-true statement that all one has to do to achieve publication is to write. A lot. But the sad truth is it takes much more than cranking out ream upon ream of verbiage to make one’s way into the semi-rarified strata of published writer. Unless writers have occasion to be catapulted into the focus of the national news media, they must learn the ropes of the publishing industry, subscribe to various writers’ magazines and e-zines (or better yet, start one), join critique groups, build an extensive platform, and basically eat, drink and sleep writing. The key is to never stop learning and revising yourself.

Pitfall number four: You fear time is against you. Late bloomers often fall victim to this downward spiral of thought. You grow more and more impatient as the days, weeks, and months go by and your folder of rejections thickens. But hang in there. The process will not be hurried. Google writers who were published after the age of fifty and revel in the knowledge that you’re not alone.

The good news is that hundreds of books have been written on the subject of writing. Everything from workbooks to software is available. Pick one and get started. You’re on the ground floor, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Good luck. And as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us every one.”

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at:

This article was originally published in the January 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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