icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

About Writing Right: The Blog


"When I complete the volcanic seven summits. If I wrote a book about my experience climbing all of these peaks. Would you be interested to read it?" That was the fairly straight-forward question someone asked on Quora the other day. Here's how I responded.

*     *     *

I think Joseph came closest to the truth when he said you need a hook for your "travelogue." I wouldn't call it that as much as a memoir, but still, he's right.


I'll take his response a couple steps further, though. I've never heard of you; so, why would I want to read about yet another Volcanic Seven Peaker? If you were going to be the first, you'd have a little stronger hook that could snag the interest of a major publisher. In reality, though, you'd be the twenty-fourth. I don't see how that would be a big plus for attracting very many publishers or readers. If any.


Coincidentally, the honor of being the first climber to conquer the non-Volcanic Seven Summits (the highest mountains in each of the seven continents of the world) goes to Texan Richard Daniel "Dick" Bass, an American businessman, oilman, rancher, and mountaineer, who was born in Tulsa in 1929 before moving to the Lone Star State to help his family run their businesses. He co-wrote a book about his climbing adventures entitled Seven Summits. He also owned Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah for forty-three years. In fact, that's where I met him and accepted his dinner invitation to my son and me. I later wrote an article about him for the Milwaukee Journal or someone. Read More 

Be the first to comment


When a writer wants some tips on starting a new book without having any idea of where it's going and what it will be about, you have to wonder: Is this guy serious? Here's how I responded to just such a query.

*     *     *

I've read the responses to your question from two other people so far and found them, uhh, really interesting. Also, really wrong and patently ridiculous. Why do so many people insist on answering question to which they have no logical response and obviously no knowledge? Beats me. So, let's get down to brass tacks with a question right back at you.


Question: What are some ways to fail at life?


Answer: 1.) Don't plan ahead. 2.) Don't anticipate anything but instead play everything "by ear." 3.) Don't learn anything more than you pick up in your daily activities. 4.) Don't, by any means, put yourself out or stress over anything.


Those are the only ways to proceed if you want to guarantee you're going to fail at life. On the other hand, if you want to succeed either at life or at starting a new book without knowing what the hell you're getting into, I suggest you turn out the lights, crawl into bed, and go to sleep. Read More 

Be the first to comment


A screenwriter asked the other day what adapting a screenplay to a novel would cost. Here's what I told her.

*     *     *

Does $100,000 sound reasonable? I didn't think so. How about $80,000? No? Okay, but here's the problem we run into for any amount of money.


Screenplays and novels are totally different creatures. Novels are far more complex and require more literary knowledge than screenplays. Infinitely more. That's both because novels have a more complex structure, more "moving parts," and because they're the end result of one writer's work (with very rare exception). Screenplays are collaborative efforts. Sure, a freelance screenwriter may write his entire 90-110-page first draft by himself, but by the time the script is made into a film, several dozen to several hundred people have contributed their expertise to the transformation. That includes five, six, eight, or even twelve different writers or more, all taking your baby out for a walk around the park.


That explains why really good novelists have very little trouble transitioning to good screenwriters, but very good screenwriters nearly never work out to be good novelists. Not only are most novels three-to-six times longer than the average feature-length script, but also they contain far more interrelated elements that must all work together. There's simply a far greater learning curve (and experience factor) in producing a well-written novel than there is in producing a top-notch screenplay. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Here's a question that pops up from time to time: Is it best to stick to one or two genres when writing, or is it better to write in multiple genres?


Actually, I prefer writing in multiple genres. I think that's a fantastic way for a writer to hone his literary skills and expand his horizons. Writers who write in one or two genres only are pigeonholing themselves and stifling their creativity. No one genre possesses all the challenges that numerous genres combined do.


My first ever published book was a nonfiction tome on growing trees and shrubs indoors. My second was a Romance/Action-Adventure novel set in an exotic foreign locale. As a rule, I enjoy writing fiction more than nonfiction, but I have a degree in journalism and have worked as a reporter, columnist, and newspaper and magazine editor for years; so, nonfiction has kept food on my table and butter on my bread. Both sides! In all, I have published probably tens of thousands of articles and columns on a wide range of topics.


When it comes to writing books, again, nonfiction sells more than fiction; so, publishers are always anxious to find a hot nonfiction topic that they know will put dollars in the bank. Those nonfiction books pay the freight that allows publishers to dabble in all areas of fiction, ranging from genre to experimental—even though far more novels end up losing them money than making it. I've written nonfiction books on virtually every topic imaginable, from science and technology to how-to guides, self-help, sports, legal, biography, history, environmental, pond-keeping, computer technology, gardening, ethnicity, big pharma, and even cancer and holistic medicine. (It helps to be an effective researcher!) Read More 

Be the first to comment


Someone asked me the other day how I respond to unwarranted, bad reviews of one of my books. Can you guess how I replied? Check it out here:

*     *     *

Wow.Do I have the one perfect answer to this question. (Are you glad you wrote in, or what?). And it's this: Write him back with something along these lines: "You f***ing icehole. How stupid are you? How could you have missed all the salient points of my book and gone off on your obvious vendetta against me? You'd better just crawl back under the rock you came from, you disgusting SOB, because you're slime!"


And believe me, I've responded just that way to the more than thousands of reviewers over my 250-some published book career over the years.


In my mind.

That's the secret. "In my mind." Outside of that, keep it to yourself.


You get a great review? Contact the reviewer and thank him or her. You get a scathing review, swallow it. Otherwise, you run the risk of starting an Internet Range War. And that never works out to an author's advantage. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Somebody wrote in anonymously the other day and asked how much it costs to hire a ghostwriter for a book. He also wanted a little information on where to find one and how the ghostwriting process works. A lot of ground to cover. Fortunately, I had my jogging shoes on.

*     *     *

I don't know many ghosts personally, but I know their price range is all over the chart. For wannabes and newbies, you can get one fairly inexpensively. Expect the finished product—as well as the experience of working with the ghost—to reflect that. In short, the saying "You get what you pay for" is no truer than when hiring a good ghostwriter.


I've been a published writer and editor for half a century and a book doctor and ghost for two or three decades. I charge only a flat rate (no estimates or hourly rates) and provide a contract guaranteeing a final price, date of delivery, and all the other usual suspects. My charges vary greatly, depending upon the complexity of the project, the difficulty I foresee in working with the client (some are much easier to work with than others), and my availability.


As far as the process goes, you as the story originator would turn over to me as the ghost an outline, rough draft, sketch, audiotape, transcript, or anything else that sufficiently conveys the concept of the book you want to end up with so that I am able to deliver it to you. Unlike many ghosts I've heard people talk about, I'm nonjudgmental, and I don't have a a fragile ego. My goal is to work quickly and efficiently to deliver the product my client wants and deserves. Read More 

Be the first to comment


I ran into someone who asked for some examples of book covers that were unique, interesting, and creative. Here's what I came up with.

*     *     *

I can think of several I've used over the years--each one more original than the last. For example:


This book, About Writing Right, works because of the simplicity of its design. Yet, it underwent some sixty or seventy subtle changes to incorporate just the right elements, in the right size, and in the right place. The typeface is clean, clear, and to the point. Yet, the placement of the words draws attention to them. The blue "questions" appearing behind the title have been deliberately shadowed down through use of transparency, and the one and only illustration toward the top shows an interesting arrangement that only another writer could appreciate. Ahh, the smell of old books! You just can't beat it.


This book, whose title is obvious, is the first in An Islands Murder Mystery series and shows the ideal setting of a harbor in St. Lucia. The placement of the seaplane is at such an angle as to make obvious the fact that it has just taken off and is in its climb, denoting action (of which there is plenty in this Caribbean-centered murder mystery loosely based on a true story). The plane plays against the placid scene of yachts and boats at moor below. The choice of colors further adds to the overall allure of the cover and reflects the drama inside—ranging from Garifuna tribal members, beautiful precocious women, and electrically charged excitement. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Someone wrote in and assked if a person can make "changes" to another author's copyrighted book and republish it. I know, I know. But read on anyway to see how I answered.

*     *     *

Sure. Absolutely, no problem. Just make sure you have tons of money in a bank account somewhere, because you're going to need it.


Of course, you can't make "changes" to someone else's book and republish it under your name--or any name, for that matter. That would still be misappropriation and copyright infringement. Copyrights exist for a reason—and preventing misappropriation of creative or intellectual property is number-one on the Hit Parade. When you infringe upon someone else's IP, you're depriving that person of the potential ability to generate income and notoriety from the work over which he has sweated, often for years. No matter how you slice it, that's a big no-no.


Now, you can completely rewrite an existing book about the same topic or genre as the original book and publish that under your name. But it must be a completely new work written with completely different wording that makes it a unique publication in itself. The same holds true for book cover art. Artists, designers, and photographers, too, are protected from misappropriation of their work. Unless you take an existing copyrighted image and completely transform it into something unique, you can't use it without permission. Read More 

Be the first to comment


A fairly thoughtful writer asked the other day when it's necessary to develop a second character in a novel. Here's what I said.

 *     *     *        

Good question. Complex answer. Let's see if I can nail it for you.


All novels require at least "a" well-developed secondary character. And sometimes several. That's because all novels have conflict. Your protagonist doesn't float through life without a care, or it wouldn't be much of a story. As a protagonist, he or she needs full development so that the reader will empathize with him and want to learn more—including what happens to him in the end.


The same is true for the antagonist. The reader has to find out enough about him to want to continue reading, to try to figure out what motivates him, to feel some sort of empathy toward him, as rotten as he may appear to be. Readers thirst for the knowledge of what motivates various characters to act. As an author, you have to provide that knowledge for them without revealing too much.


One of the largest failings of novelists, both established and newbies, is to paint their antagonists with the broad brush of negativity. He's harmful because he's pure evil. He eats, sleeps, and drinks evil. He worships the devil. He reeks of bad breath and alcohol. After all, we want the reader to know who the good guy is versus who the bad guy is, don't we? Read More 

Be the first to comment


Someone wrote in the other day to ask for my tips on how to write the details of a chacter without getting bogged down and turning the reader off. Here's what I had to say on the subject.

*     *     *

Easy-peasy. Here are the best ways to detail a character—most of them unknown to mere mortals and virtually universally unpracticed by anyone, sad to say.

  1. Devote an entire paragraph or even a page or more to a character's description so you're sure to get everything you can think of down on paper all at once—not! That is the numero uno mistake that most writers make, including so-called professionals. Approaching character description in that way is totally amateurish and self-defeating. Instead, incorporate bits and pieces about the character over the first several times he appears in the book. Then, add additional tidbits as the opportunities present themselves later in the book, dropping another detail here or there. Think of your description as a series of building blocks. You add one here; you add one there. In time, the building is complete. But you never try constructing the entire building all at once.
  2. Have other characters drop bits and pieces about your Character A for you. You know: "The thing I like most about Jack is that he's reliable. If he says he's going to do something, he does it." Cross one character trait off your bucket list! I used just such a technique in Solid Stiehl—The Death and Life of Hymie Stiehl, in which a student points out the great man to his college journalism instructor. Stiehl and the teacher soon become close friends and go on to solve a series of bizarre murders together. Of course, you can also have multiple characters talking about Character A, too. You know, as in one charcter likes this about him but hates that, while another character thinks he's too conceited and a third likens that "conceit" to self-confidence. The possibilities are endless. Read More 
Be the first to comment


The topic of my preferences in writing books came up the other day when someone asked if I do one book at a time or several, and why would I recommend that to others. Interesting. Here's how I replied.

*     *     *

Aside from being an improperly crafted question (does "to do" mean "to read" or "to write"?), it's also petty silly, which I have a feeling you already know. The only answer is actually a non-answer. You "do" whatever works best for you. Doesn't that make sense? If not, keep on asking strangers how you should govern your life. I'm sure you won't lack for suggestions.


What worked for me as a novelist when I began my literary career half a century ago was writing one book at a time. I had neither the skillset nor the ambition to tackle more than that. Today, I have numerous novels underway at any given point in time plus countless ideas for more, although I normally work, again, on one at a time. When I'm satisfied that that work is finished, I tackle one of the others in my stable. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Have you ever wondered how you can create a unique book when it's eerily similar to another book that's already been written? Good question.


First, ignore the similar elements between your book and any other, and see your story in your mind as if it were playing out as a movie on a screen. Describe it to yourself. Fine-tune it. Flesh out the weak spots and trim the dead weight. Then, push the original story as far from your mind as possible. After all, there's a reason for the phrase, "There's nothing new under the sun." That applies to books as well as life in general. Get used to the fact that your book, no matter how unique you think it is, will be "similar" to another book or two or ten thousand in one way or another. So?


If you're still concerned someone may compare your work to a previous tome, emphasize the differences. After all, you're the author; you can write whatever you want. Be more detailed. Place your book in a different part of the world. Populate it with different characters, different places, different descriptive narrative, and different dialogue. Set it in a different time period. Use your own literary voice, of course, and not the other author's. (Which, I would hope, you're beyond temptation to do in the first place.)


For instance, you're writing a book about the Civil War and how your main southern belle falls in love with her cousin's fiancé but marries a scallywag who abandons her to her beloved Tara in the end. Oops. Let's revisit that one a bit. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Someone new to writing asked on Quora the other day what the rules are for using mythology in fantasy fiction. Here's what I told him.

*     *     *

Good question. When it comes to writing fantasy and using mythology within your novel, you need to pay attention to the three Cardinal Rules of Inclusion. They are, in strict numerological order:1. Write correctly (grammatically); 2.Write effectively (phrasiologically); 3.Create the best damned, riveting, can't-put-it-down book you can possibly write (storyologically).


That's it. Also sometimes known familiarly as The Holy Trinity, those are the only rules you have to follow in writing fantasy while employing mythology as a literary tool. Wait a minute! On second thought, those are the only rules you have to follow in writing any fiction—period!


See, fiction is fiction because it's not nonfiction, poetry, or an aardvark. It's made up. It may be based upon a true story or true incidents, but it's still primarily manufactured in the writer's mind. That's what makes it so enjoyable. Both to write and to read. If it had a bunch of stodgy old rules bloating it, it would no longer belong to the writer but, rather, to a board of semi-retired, semi-cognizant rule-making academicians sitting around a big walnut table somewhere, deciding on what the writer can and can't do. If that were the case, we would never have been blessed with one thousandth of the great works of art that have graced our tables over the eons. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Someone asked a complex question online the other day: A character in my book loses his eye. Can he regain the eye or should I just keep the eye lost? Interesting. Here's how I responded.

*     *     *

I can answer this question for you—absolutely and without a doubt. Here's my suggestion:


Quit writing. Go into politics or get a plumbing apprenticeship or become a veterinarian or sell cat litter in a pet shop. I'm dead serious here. I've been writing for half a century and have 250 conventionally published books, both fiction and nonfiction, and tens of thousands of published shorter pieces to my credit. I've taught Creative Writing Workshop at the college level in Chicago and elsewhere. And I've worked as a professional book, newspaper, and magazine editor and run my own Websites for decades. My point is, I know what I'm talking about. And what I'm talking about is this:


Anyone who is floundering to the point of not knowing a basic premise of the novel he or she proposes to write and must instead ask a group of total strangers for advice is nowhere near ready to write a book. Period. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Someone asked an interesting question online recently. It was "What's the best way to learn to write a book?" The author implied that he has several books he'd like to write but doesn't know how to go about doing it. My response to him may surprise you.

*     *     *

The best way to learn to write a book? How about the only way! If that's what you and twenty million other Americans want to know, I have the answer. I also know you won't like it.


Hire a mentor.


And no! I don't mean just anyone. I mean someone with a proven record of his or her own conventionally published books plus articles, blogs, and short stories. And someone with a history of teaching fiction writing or journalism or nonfiction writing or whatever area you're interested in pursuing.


That leaves in the dust about 98 percent of all writers advertising their skills and availability to mentor up-and-coming young writers. If they advertise for clients, they're not for you. If you stumble across them and they don't have dozens, if not hundreds, of their own conventionally published books and thousands of short pieces to their credit (verifiably—no taking their word for it), forget them. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Have you ever wondered if, after stumbling upon a really unique and dynamite idea for a screenplay, you could actually pitch it to Hollywood? If so, join the 50 million other writers who were wondering the very same thing. Here's the simple answer: Yes, you can. That is, you can pitch it, but you can't sell it.


Huh? you say. Why is that?


Here's the distinction. You can pitch an unfinished screenplay but can't expect to sell it because you're an unknown talent with an unseen commodity from a writer with a nebulous history. Can you guarantee a producer or director that you can meet deadlines? Deliver on your promises? Sustain a script from opening setting to final scene? Work with other writers to refine your script as called for? Of course not—not by a long shot. Not if you worked from now until doomsday to do so. And I know that to be true because you never would have considered the possibility if it weren't.


In addition to that, you don't know anyone in Hollywood, meaning no one has had any experience working with you; so, no one can attest to your talent, character, morals, and work ethics. Nor can they know how pliable (translation: cooperative) you are to work with. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Somebody wrote in the other day, asking which is easier to adapt to film--a novel or a screenplay--and why. Here's what I told him.

*     *     *

Hmm. Methinks thou art a trifle confused. Asking that is a little like asking which is the tastier fruit, an orange or a shoe. There is no comparison because a screenplay is the film in written form. It's the directions for every character, setting, and scene within the film. I suspect the confusion arises from your using "screenplay" when you meant to ask which is easier to adapt, a novel or a stage play (which is the written form of a theatrical or stage production).


While neither is a breeze to adapt to film due to film's unique reliance on camera placement, evolving scenes, lighting, special effects, etc., I think I would prefer adapting a stage play to film due to the fact that the stage play has already blocked out the dialogue, scenes, flow, and other elements necessary for a visual presentation—that is, a performance. In so doing, it has eliminated all non-visual aspects of the presentation commonly contained in a novel. Read More 

Be the first to comment


Someone expressed concern about the possibility of including fictional work within a nonfiction book. Is that possible? Here's how I replied.

*     *     *

Absolutely a nonfiction book can have a fictional story within it. Especially when used to illustrate a point or shed light on a specific topic, ethnic group, or culture, fictional tales shared throughout history can be potent teaching mechanisms. Even though these fictional stories are part of the larger work, the book still remains nonfiction, or a factual work, because the main body of the work is nonfiction.


For instance, in a recently published book on Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of a major Indian tribe in modern history, I used Cherokee and other tribal tales to enrich an understanding of the complex cultures of Native Americans. Within the book, (following each nonfiction chapter), I interwove various indigenous tales, such as The Mother and the Corn, The Long Way Back, The Cherokee and the Women, The Ending of War, The Lost Cherokee, The Race Between the Crane and the Hummingbird, Two Wolves, and The Coyote and DeathRead More 

Be the first to comment


Someone asked the other day what I thought a good writer would charge to ghost an article for him. I had to think about that for a while, even though I've been ghosting for others for years. Here's what I finally came up with.

*     *     *

What you'll need to pay to hire a quality writer to ghost an article for you depends upon a number of factors, of course. Among the things I need to know before accepting an assignment are these:

  1. The complexity of the article's subject matter. Is it a piece on the health advantages of owning and caring for pets, or is it an explanation of the Theory of Relativity? That makes a huge difference because that will determine how much research I'll have to invest before ever setting pen to paper. For me, as for most other folks, time is money.
  2. My familiarity with and appreciation of the subject. If it has something to do with writing, publishing, or English grammar, I'll take it. I'll even give you a cut rate. If, on the other hand, it's a look at why sexual identity is no longer strictly a binary consideration, I'll take it, too. But I'll have to double my rate.
  3. The deadline. If I have a long lead time, I can charge somewhat less because I'll be working on other projects in between. If you're on a tight deadline, though, that's another matter, and I'll have to take that into consideration when setting a price. Read More 
Be the first to comment


I stumbled across a forum question online the other day, and it went something like this: Before an author reaches out to publishers and agents, what should they do? Well, of course, I couldn't resist. Here's how I responded:

*     *     *

Wow. You and your solo respondent (so far) share the same impediment. Before an author reaches out to publishers and agents, they need to improve their grammar. Get it? If not, read it again, because both of you failed a basic literacy test called English Grammar 101. Here's why that matters.


No matter what else you provide along with your approach to publishers and agents, a misuse of the English language will land you in the trash can before you can even ask, "Did you receive my query on …" Remember: Nothing turns off a publisher, editor, literary agent, or anyone else in the field of publishing faster than poor grammar.


Now, assuming you went scurrying to your latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk, discovered your mistake, and corrected it, you'll still need to do a couple other things prior to contact. Here they are: Read More 

Be the first to comment