Friday, March 16, 2018

Vote in a March Madness Bracket for Book Lovers (Round 1)

Good news: We at WD may not be all that attuned to the sports world (or, at least, I’m not), but we certainly can appreciate a good tournament. It’s March Madness season, and we wanted to get in on the fun, writing style.

click to enlarge

Welcome to Writer’s Digest Literary Lunacy — a bracket for lovers of classic fiction. We want to know: Which of these classic books is the greatest? Who will win? That’s up to you. Voting starts today here on the blog and lasts until March 27 at noon. The book with the most cumulative votes will be crowned champion.


  • Round 1 | March 16 – March 18
  • Round 2 | March 19 – March 21
  • Round 3 | March 22 – March 24
  • Championship Round | March 25 – March 27

Please share far and wide so we can get as many votes as possible, and make your voice heard by simply clicking on the book cover below of the villains you want to see move on to the next round.

Check out these upcoming online courses:

The post Vote in a March Madness Bracket for Book Lovers (Round 1) appeared first on

from Writing Editor Blogs –

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Guide to Critique Group Etiquette: 9 Embarrassing Mistakes That Make You Look Like an Amateur

As a writing critique group member, you walk a hair-thin line.

On one side, it’s your duty to be ruthless—to uncover every error and inconsistency, every lazy line of prose or flabby phrase in a group mate’s writing. On the other side, it’s important not to intrude on the story elements that define another writer’s work as hers.

Knowing the difference can make or break you in a serious critique group. And it’s just one example of the unspoken rules of etiquette that many of the best use to choose (or remove) their members.

And they’re right to. Because the rules of etiquette help balance feedback, protect each member’s time, incubate talent, and grow writing skills—all vital elements of a strong writing critique group.

So how do you know where the boundaries are before you stumble into them? Here are nine mistakes it’s never okay to make.

Mistake #1: Critiquing Another Writer’s Style

Some writers prefer their sentences long and lush, unfolding slowly over clauses and subclauses until the full idea—never really realized until you reach the final word—blossoms, finally, all at once at the end. Some writers like their sentences short. Pithy. Neither are wrong.

If you think a story calls for a particular writing style, it may be okay to say so. Once. But if the writer sticks by the way she writes, it’s time to back off.

Some argue you should never touch on writing style at all.

Mistake #2: Forcing Your Personal Vision onto Someone Else’s Story

Like writing style above, a story’s overarching vision is up to its writer.

Vision can cover anything from the writer’s choice of genre, the story’s tone, or the point of view she tells it in. Hate sci-fi? Keep it to yourself when you critique that cowboy space opera. And if you’re no fan of the first-person narrative, don’t say so in your critique.

You’re a writer. You know it’s pretty much impossible to find critiquers who fit your story’s demographic. Keep that it in mind when you offer a critique, and keep your personal reading preferences out of it.

Mistake #3: Offering Solutions

Don’t feel bad if you’ve made this mistake. Many, if not all, writers and critique groups have. When your job is to help improve a story, your natural inclination is likely to offer possible solutions. Don’t.

The reason? You don’t know the unspoken expectations a writer has for her work. You don’t know the ins and outs of her worldview or the unconscious intricacies of the story she’s trying to tell. Any solutions you could offer would be steeped in your worldview, which only matters when it’s your story you’re writing.

You don’t want to accidentally muddy the author’s clarity of vision before she has a chance to find it.

Like Neil Gaiman says, “when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Mistake #4: Dominating the Discussion

Much of the value of a critique group is getting multiple perspectives on your work. That way, when you hear the same criticism (or kudos) from multiple people, you can be reasonably sure it’s an area that actually needs attention. But this only works if a writer gets multiple points of feedback.

So let somebody else speak.

Mistake #5: Ignoring the Big, Universal Issues

By now you know what you shouldn’t focus on in your critique. So what should you focus on? Pretty much everything that isn’t opinion.

For example, continuity errors—when Susie Q. had blonde curls on page five and then a brown ponytail on page six. Factual errors—when the main character’s six shooter shot eight rounds. Plot holes—when the side character had the map to the safe zone and didn’t use it to save her friends. Or word choice errors that confuse the author’s intent—like when the writer said a character was bemused when she meant amused.

Also good to note? Anything that’s confusing or unclear, characters who lack depth, and lazy prose.

(Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a writing critique checklist of what to note and what to ignore in your next critique?)

Mistake #6: Arguing with Feedback

Criticism never feels good. But the point of a critique group is to get an outside perspective on your story when you’re too close to it to do so. And the ideal critique group is one that is ruthless with your work.

You want every error illuminated. Every confusing line of prose or awkward phrase pointed out. You want every plot hole uncovered before a real reader can stumble into it.

You don’t have to use feedback that isn’t useful to you (especially if it veers into one of the intrusive faux pas on this list). But arguing will just make group members wary to share their observations. After that it won’t be long before they (or you) are left wondering why you’re in the group at all.

Mistake #7: Fixating on Spelling or Grammar Mistakes

The writing you see in critique groups is necessarily raw. Group readings are the pre-surgery consults where writers prep for character guttings, scene transplants, and other major overhauls. Most of the words you see will be rewritten uncounted times. Any thought and energy you put into making them perfect now will be wasted.

So save the cosmetic issues like spelling and grammar for the copyeditor.

Mistake #8: Being Too Honest (or Not Honest Enough)

Writers don’t join critique groups to have their egos stroked (if you did, you’re in the wrong place). Writers join critique groups to become better writers. And no writer improves if all anyone says about their work is, “I liked it.”

So get in there. Get your hands dirty. Dig out those plot holes and inconsistencies. Point out those flabby sentences and confusing descriptions. And offer the kind of feedback that helps a writer grow.

But you also know how tough it can be to separate the work from the self. Writing is personal. And if a writer walks away from a critique feeling like they shouldn’t be writing at all, the group failed. Remember it’s possible to be ruthless without being rude.

Mistake #9: Showing Up Without Pages

Oh, the ultimate no-no. Showing up to the writing group without the writing.

This is a big taboo in serious critique groups. And you know why if you’ve found yourself in a group that talks more about writing than they actually write.

Look, you can always create a writing group that’s about showing up to write. That’s a phenomenal use of time for writers who don’t have a lot of it and still want the community. But critique groups serve a different purpose. And many of them won’t let you in if you show up without pages.

Bottom line, critique groups are about improving your writing. And to do that, you’ve got to do the work.

That’s it. Now get out there and write!

The post Guide to Critique Group Etiquette: 9 Embarrassing Mistakes That Make You Look Like an Amateur appeared first on

from Writing Editor Blogs –

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

New Literary Agent Alert: Joseph Parsons of Holloway Literary

New literary agents (with this spotlight featuring Joseph Parsons of Holloway Literary) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.

About Joe:

Joe grew up in a rambling house in Ohio where books seemed to proliferate overnight, so it makes sense that after grad school at the University of Illinois, he would find his way to publishing—though not without a few detours along the way, including several years as a consultant and eight as an adjunct at Columbia College in Chicago. Most recently, Joe was a senior editor at the University of North Carolina Press, where he acquiried broadly in the humanities and social sciences, as well as creative nonfiction, documentary arts, current events, and history, including the winner of the 2017 Bancroft Prize. Previously, Joe edited the acclaimed Sightline, Muse, and New American Canon series at the University of Iowa Press. He has also worked as a manuscript editor, journal editor for the National Humanities Center, and independent editor and writer, as well as a researcher and reporter.

He is seeking:

Joe is specifically seeking contemporary American fiction, creative nonfiction, long-form journalism, and nature and travel writing.

How to submit:

Email a brief query and the first 15 pages of your manuscript pasted in the body of your email to In the email subject header, write: Joseph/Title/Genre. You can expect a response in 6 to 8 weeks.

How to Find and Keep a Literary Agent Boot Camp

How do you hook an agent right away, keep them hooked, and make the most of your new publishing relationship? In this Boot Camp, “How to Find and Keep a Literary Agent,” you’ll learn how to get a literary agent’s attention through a great submission, and also how to navigate the process of working successfully with an agent. You’ll also work with an agent online to review and refine your all-important query letter and the first five pages of your novel. Learn more and register.

The post New Literary Agent Alert: Joseph Parsons of Holloway Literary appeared first on

from Writing Editor Blogs –

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 431

For today’s prompt, write a refresh poem. Last week’s prompt was to write an annoyance poem; so this might be a great time to hit the refresh (or re-set) button. Take a deep breath. Count to 10. Write a poem.


Order the Poet’s Market!

The 2018 Poet’s Market, edited by Robert Lee Brewer, includes hundreds of poetry markets, including listings for poetry publications, publishers, contests, and more! With names, contact information, and submission tips, poets can find the right markets for their poetry and achieve more publication success than ever before.

In addition to the listings, there are articles on the craft, business, and promotion of poetry–so that poets can learn the ins and outs of writing poetry and seeking publication. Plus, it includes a one-year subscription to the poetry-related information on All in all, it’s the best resource for poets looking to secure publication.

Click to continue.


Here’s my attempt at a Refresh Poem:

“& when the power returns”

think about those frantic moments
when the power went out & laugh
because it was never that bad
& turn everything back on & bask
in the glow & hum of electricity


Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He actually finds time away from electricity very refreshing.

Follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.


Find more poetic posts here:

The post Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 431 appeared first on

from Writing Editor Blogs –

Why I Write Poetry: Candace Kubinec

In 2017, I started a “Why I Write Poetry” series of guest posts. I’ve already received so many, and I hope they keep coming in (details on how to contribute below). Today’s “Why I Write Poetry” post comes from Candace Kubinec, who writes, “I was a dreamer, not a writer.”

Candace writes and dreams from a comfy chair in Western Pennsylvania. Oh, she has had a few poems and short stories published here and there, but the joy, for her, is in the writing.


Master Poetic Forms!

Learn how to write sestina, shadorma, haiku, monotetra, golden shovel, and more with The Writer’s Digest Guide to Poetic Forms, by Robert Lee Brewer.

This e-book covers more than 40 poetic forms and shares examples to illustrate how each form works. Discover a new universe of poetic possibilities and apply it to your poetry today!

Click to continue.


Why I Write Poetry: Candace Kubinec

Candace Kubinec

Well, the short answer is, “I don’t know.”

I was that child with her nose in a book. The girl who created imaginary worlds in her mind, but never scribbled them on paper or kept them locked away in a diary. I was a dreamer, not a writer.

I received no writing encouragement or accolades from teachers or parents. I didn’t know I could write and was happy reading the words of others and keeping mine to myself.

A college English course was the clincher. One of my papers was used as an example of how not to write. That sealed the coffin on any wisp of writerly dreams that may have been swirling inside me.

Until one day…

However, the wisp would not stay confined. It showed up in a young mother’s journals and work related articles for industry newsletters until, many years later, it finally found release in a Poetic Asides April PAD I somehow stumbled across. That first poetry challenge was what pried open the lid of the box where my words had been hiding.

Poetry is elemental – like oxygen. From birth we breathe – in and out, our hearts beat to a primal rhythm. It is inside each of us.

Children learn by rhyme. Old folks remember through rhyme and rhythm when language fails them.

Somewhere, in between, caught up in school, jobs, families, we lose track of that feeling. We tamp it down with practicality. We forget. Our eyes are shielded to the diverse beauty around us, the things that make that rhythm beat inside us with joy, and wonder, love or sadness.

Maybe it’s a nursery rhyme read to a child or grandchild that causes the beat to begin, deep within, once more. Maybe it’s a song we hear – and suddenly our toes or fingers are tapping, our hearts respond, or maybe it’s a random poetry prompt.

So, I guess, I write poetry to remember, to feel that primal rhythm, to find the beauty, and, just maybe, to reawaken that feeling in others.


If you’d like to share why you write poetry, please send an e-mail to with a 300-500 word personal essay that shares why you write poetry. It can be serious, happy, sad, silly–whatever poetry means for you. And be sure to include your preferred bio (50-100 words) and head shot. If I like what you send, I’ll include it as a future guest post on the blog.


Find more poetic posts here:

The post Why I Write Poetry: Candace Kubinec appeared first on

from Writing Editor Blogs –

Monday, March 12, 2018

Script Classics: Nicholas Meyer—The View from the Scribe

Some writers struggle in transitioning from one type of writing to another, but Nicholas Meyer has conquered many forms. Learn Meyer’s cross-format storytelling processes and what encouraged him to write his memoir, The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood.

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray’s full bio.

Some writers struggle in transitioning from one type of writing to another, but Nicholas Meyer has conquered many forms. Learn Meyer’s cross-format storytelling processes and what encouraged him to write his recent memoir, The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood.

Writer-director Nicholas Meyer (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)

When asked to name his profession, Nicholas Meyer identifies himself as a “storyteller.” It has never much mattered to him in which venue—books, movies, television, or the stage—those stories are told.

Meyer has repeatedly taken a free-range approach to creative expression over the course of a remarkable writing career in which he has authored novels, nonfiction books, stage plays, radio dramas, and reviews. Storytelling is what he does.

Meyer has directed a number of excellent films, but is perhaps best known for being an expert screenwriter who creates smart, sharply constructed, and enormously entertaining scripts filled with engaging characters and clever, literate dialogue. With the September 2009 publication of The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood, Meyer has added memoirist to his considerable list of accomplishments.

Written in a witty, engaging style and chock-full of intriguing tales of Meyer’s experiences in the Hollywood trenches—as well as insightful observations about art, craft and life—the book recounts Meyer’s journey from a Manhattan childhood filled with books and music and movies, to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, to a job in the New York headquarters of Paramount Pictures (that had him writing press kits by day and penning spec scripts at night).

A gig as a unit publicist on Paramount’s 1970 smash hit Love Story led to Meyer’s first script sale (to Howard Minsky, Love Story’s producer) and his first publishing deal (a “making of” book aptly called The Love Story Story). The money earned from those transactions financed a move to Los Angeles where Meyer began writing TV movies and low-budget exploitation features.

The long WGA strike of 1972 gave Meyer the time to write his first novel— the Sherlock Holmes-meets-Sigmund Freud adventure,The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which became a best-seller and was followed by two more Holmes tales—1976’s The West End Horror and 1993’s The Canary Trainer—as well as the non-Holmes-related novels Target Practice (1974), Black Orchid (1978), and Confessions of a Homing Pigeon (1981).

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution served as the springboard for Meyer’s jump into the screenwriting big leagues because he refused to sell the screen rights unless he was also permitted to later write the script for its 1976 film adaptation, an assignment that netted him an Academy Award® nomination. Meyer next wrote and directed (his debut) the classic H.G. Wells-meets-Jack the Ripper time-traveling adventure fantasy Time After Time (1979). He was then drafted to write (sans credit) and direct Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), the tremendous creative and commercial success of which revived the moribund franchise (which had stalled following the artistic failure of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture). Khan led to a decade-long association between Meyer and the crew of the Starship Enterprise that saw him co-writing 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and co-writing and directing 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Throughout his involvement with Trek, Meyer continued to direct films that he wrote (Company Business—1991) and some that he didn’t (The Day After—1983, Volunteers—1985, The Deceivers—1988), while also earning a reputation as an ace script doctor due to his (mostly uncredited) rewrites on films such as Fatal Attraction (1987). Since the early 1990s, Meyer concentrated primarily on screenwriting, with Sommersby (1993), The Human Stain (2003), and Elegy (2008) among his many produced credits. At the time of this interview, he has an adaptation of Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt for director Martin Scorsese waiting in the wings. (Editor’s note: Meyers’ version of this film was never produced. Deadline recently announced Scorsese’s plans to finally make the Roosevelt picture with a new script, written by Scott Bloom.)

Meyer spoke with Script about his new book, his work as a screenwriter, and the current state of the movies.

What motivated you to write this memoir?

Nicholas Meyer: The writers strike. Every time the Writers Guild goes on strike, I write a book. We weren’t allowed to write scripts and I had to find a way to keep cash in the pipeline, send my kids to school, blah, blah. My agent suggested I write it, and it was such a kooky idea that I thought “Why not?” I remembered a line from the movie Ninotchka that I always loved where Melvyn Douglas turns to Ina Claire—she’s the Grand Duchess Swana and they’re White Russians living exiled in Paris. He’s sold her memoirs, The Scandalous Life of the Grand Duchess Swana, and he says, “Darling, we won’t have to worry about our future if you’re willing to let me raffle off your past.” So I guess that was it.

You’ve written in so many forms. Do you find it difficult to go back and forth between them?

My inclination is to say no—that I think as far as both content and form, I am refreshed by change. Just doing different things keeps me interested. In fact, I know that when I am writing screenplay after screenplay after screenplay, I do experience a kind of fatigue which I can only hope doesn’t manifest in the work, but is certainly an impetus to vary the diet.

All of your scripts are so well structured. How much do you think about structure when writing?

Structure is the most important thing to me in a drama. For me to get going, I really have to have an over-arching conception of how the thing is supposed to work. And the details of it, I suspect, are much less important to me because I always think if I get that big thing right … then I’m inclined to be much more comfortable doing what I’m doing. Once I know where I’m starting and where I’m going to end, the middle is going to take care of itself.

I think there also ought to be room … for a kind of spontaneity. When I was at the University of Iowa, Max Shulman, who was a very well-known humorist of the time, came to visit at the Writers’ Workshop. He’d written some novels and I remember somebody asked him, “Do you always have an outline when you write a novel?” And he said, “Of course! I would no more start a novel without an outline than I would start a car trip without a road map.” I remember thinking, “God, it sounds like a potentially boring trip,” because if you’re completely bound to the road map, you would seem to deny yourself the possibility of a spontaneous or meaningful detour.

The analogy that I give myself [about outlining is that] once I have the over-arching thing, the rest of it is a little bit for me like headlights on a car at night, which is [that the outline] illuminates the next stretch of the road, but it doesn’t illuminate the whole thing. You just make the assumption that by the time you catch up to where the headlights are, they’ll illuminate the next stretch of the road. You’re trying to strike a balance between a structure that seems to accommodate the over-arching purpose of telling this story on the one hand and on the other to give yourself room or latitude to wander, to be spontaneous, and to fold all that stuff into the larger skeletal supports.

Done Outlining and Reading to Dive In? Think Again!

You’ve done a number of projects based on preexisting material. Can you talk about your approach to adaptation?

Well, my answer will be discursive because I think in the larger sense that some part of me does respond to the challenges and possibilities of adaptation rather than coming up with things out of whole cloth that are completely original. Not that I’ve never done it; just somehow, without being self-conscious or selfaware, where I seem to gravitate [in my career] has to do with adapting or extrapolating from something that someone else has created.

I think it always begins with love. When I did the Sherlock Holmes thing, [my feeling] was “I’ve read these stories, I’ve loved these stories, I wished these stories didn’t end.” [They] spoke to me in a very specific way. I knew, without being able to analyze it or tell you just what it was, how this was supposed to work. I was never terribly fond of any of the Sherlock Holmes movies—they always seemed to me to sort of miss what Arthur Conan Doyle was about. For example, I knew that Watson wasn’t supposed to be an idiot—I always thought the movies got that wrong with Nigel Bruce, because I could never figure out why a genius would hang out with an idiot. So, I set out in a way, on a purely instinctual level, to rectify what I considered to be what they’d gotten wrong.

For Time After Time, a friend of mine showed me a story he was writing, and again, I would never have dreamt up H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper in a million years. Funnily enough, he said his book was inspired by The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, so he was adapting me who was adapting him. But I liked his idea very much, and I started to play with it and I optioned it and that’s how that worked.

Star Trek was interesting because I didn’t know anything about it. I’d never seen it. I’d look at the guy with the pointy ears when I was channel surfing and I just kept going. But when somebody actually got me to sit down and said, “Here, pay attention to this,” I started to think about it. The thing that unlocked it for me was when I had a midnight epiphany that this was Captain Horatio Hornblower, only set in outer space, and I thought, “Oh, I know how to do that,” because I always loved Captain Hornblower, so … I just put in the bells and whistles. Otherwise, it was very traditional in the sense of being sort of Hornblower pastiche.

But there are other things that you do—The Human Stain (an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel), for example, which was utterly mystifying to me [until] quite by accident—and I cannot stress what an accident it was—I was sitting in the bathtub and suddenly the structure revealed itself to me. So, it’s an intuitive process and I don’t know where my ideas come from; I only know when they come. They come when you’re either falling asleep or waking up or sitting in the tub or doing the laundry or building model boats or working on plumbing. In other words, your hands are employed, but your brain is sort of free to float around.

Screenwriter Insight: Wonderstruck’s Brian Selznick Draws the Adaptation

Could you talk a little bit about your writing process?

Well, it really depends. If I’m adapting a book, one of the things that I have been doing for years now—just as a way of familiarizing myself with the material and memorizing whatever it is—is I start by getting out a legal pad. I read page one and I simply write down a sentence or two about what happened on page one, and then I go on to page two and so on. At the end of every day, I transcribe my legal pad notes into a computer, at which time I’m also rewriting and embellishing them from my memory of the book. This routine has nothing to do with the screenplay. It’s a way of forcing yourself into a rather intimate conjunction with the book. I’m learning it [and] all along the way I’m playing with the problems in my head that are being posed—“Do I really need this?” “Do I want that?”

When I’m [ready to begin writing], what’s really important to me is “What is the first thing you want to see in this movie? What is the first image?” And once I’ve got that image, then: “Okay, what do I want to see next?” And so on, keeping in mind as these images are unfolding the over-arching structure that you had in your head.

When you began directing, did that have any influence on the way you wrote scripts?

I became much better in terms of understanding the relationship between words and pictures. And I became much less profligate with words—particularly spoken words—once I understood how much disproportionate time they were capable of taking on the screen. [There is a] relationship between words and pictures in movies—and I’m not of the school that believes that words don’t have any importance. I think they have enormous importance, but I think if you are not careful and use them injudiciously, what would work on the stage, where the words come first, [the effect of those words] can be dissipated, their potency eviscerated, if too many of them are employed, rather than just very, very specifically used.

I always use an example from a movie called The Sundowners—a Fred Zinnemann picture about [Australian] sheep drovers. A drover and his wife pull up next to a railroad station in the outback in a buckboard and there are three lines of dialogue. The man says to the wife, “You stay here and I’ll get paid,” and he leaves. The woman sits in the buckboard when a train pulls into the railroad station in front of her, and there’s a lady in the train powdering her face in a compact. She’s wearing a silly city hat, and she looks out over the rim of her compact and sees a lady her own age staring at her from a buckboard, someone wearing a silly city hat—and who doesn’t have makeup but has the dust of the trail on her face. These two ladies stare into each other’s lives in a series of close-ups. Then the train goes chugging along, the woman returns to her compact, and the husband comes back to the buckboard where, in addition to the dust of the trail, he now sees two tear streaks coming down the cheeks of his wife. He says the second line of dialogue: “What’s the matter with you?” There’s a long pause and she says, “Nothing, really.” And he sees that something is the matter and puts his arm around her and they drive away. That’s screenwriting. Every line of dialogue in that scene lasts—it has its purpose. It’s wonderfully economical.

How have movies changed since you began writing, and where do you think we’re headed?

I don’t know where we’re headed, but I’m very disappointed in where [movies] are now. We’re very, very frightened to make movies about people, and we’re very, very frightened to make movies that have a narrative. [The studios] are frightened of story. It’s as though you’re putting demands on an audience that is so attention-challenged that no shot can last more than four seconds, and God forbid, there’s any content that deals with anything that is about anything except self.

I think part of [the problem] is that a lot of the public are so frightened. The world we live in seems to have progressively become so terrifying—vanishing polar bears, global warming, terrorism, the economy—that nobody wants to see a movie where real people are struggling. Studios respond by saying, “Okay, we’ll make videogames, we’ll make franchise things, but we won’t make a movie about sheep drovers in Australia, that’s for goddamn sure.” Studios used to make movies about anything. There was enormous variety, and audience would come out for different things. Then, once the sort of marketing people took over the function of what movies got made, then it just became what movies you can market and the bandwidth got a lot narrower. Movies now only seem to fit into genres, and they’re either based on theme park rides or wind-up toys or videogames—or they’re slasher movies or they’re teen gross-out [comedies]. And the studio will spend $200 million to make some comic book that doesn’t cross over, but they’ll give away Slumdog Millionaire. It seems to me to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of lowering expectations and playing to the lowest common denominator, which makes it not a very interesting experience to be a moviegoer—I mean, if I have to see the car blow up one more time, I’ll scream.

On the other hand, the idea that movies may be branching out to different venues and there may be ways of bringing down the costs and the distribution may open up the content possibilities. And I’m hoping that that’s going to be the case because a lot of times you look in multiplexes and they’re all playing the same movie … and then when [quality] movies do show up, [audiences often] don’t come out for them. It’s almost like people say, “Well, I’d rather sit in my home and use Netflix or whatever than actually go out,” but to me watching a movie on TV is like being kissed over the telephone. I want the theatrical experience. I want the popcorn. I want to sit there with a bunch of other people and I don’t know them, they don’t know me. The phone is not to ring while I’m there, no one’s to knock on the door, the kid isn’t crying, and I will sequester myself for the essentially fragile experience which is an artistic encounter. Comedy or drama—it doesn’t make any difference to me. I just want to be taken on a journey and be absorbed in human beings and their dilemmas as depicted.

Originally published in Script magazine November/December 2009

Get ready for more screenwriting articles and interviews when Script merges with Writer’s Digest in 2018 to bring all writing resources together on one powerful, newly-designed site at! Learn more about our expanding community here.

Want to learn more about adaptation? Download our on-demand webinar,
Adapting Your Novel Into a Screenplay: Take the Story from Book to Script


The post Script Classics: Nicholas Meyer—The View from the Scribe appeared first on

from Writing Editor Blogs –

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors That Earn 5-Star Book Reviews


Novelists live and die by reviews, yet uncovering what garners a gushing ovation or blistering takedown is often a mystery. A professional critic lays out what it takes to earn five-star book reviews.

There I sat, the lone book critic at a lunch table full of established novelists: Nicole Peeler,
Victoria Thompson, Lee Tobin McClain, Rebecca Drake, Anne Harris.

They were all instructors at Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program—one of the few graduate curriculums in the country specializing in writing commercial fiction—and I had just landed a job as a program mentor.

For two decades I’d been working as a freelance genre fiction book critic for outlets such as, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the Chicago Tribune. After sharing my credentials with the group, some of the writers began telling stories about mediocre or bad reviews they’d received at different points in their careers from one or more of the companies I’d listed.

All eyes were on me—and not in a good way. I was inundated with questions: “Who are these people that write reviews? How do titles get chosen for review? How are books judged? What exactly constitutes a ‘starred review’?”

Some answers were easier than others. I told them that critics, while anonymous at companies like
Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and BlueInk Review, are highly knowledgeable in the categories they review. Editors at the respective companies pick releases to be reviewed from the numerous galleys and advanced reader copies (ARCs) that arrive in the mail every week, and from that stack assign books to their reviewers.

Yet when it came to the specific criteria for judging a book, I could only explain how I, personally,
critiqued novels. While part of my responsibility is to qualitatively compare titles to other releases in a specific genre or category—and to sometimes put a noteworthy work into historical context—I approach my job as a universal reader of sorts. I’ve always devoured books. As an introverted kid growing up in the ’70s, I read anything I could get my hands on—classic sci-fi and fantasy, pulp mysteries, horror, even “adult” novels like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Harold Robbins’ The Adventurers, which my mother had secretly stashed away in her nightstand.

As a reviewer, not much has changed since then. I enjoy all genres and have reviewed thousands of titles in hundreds of subgenres ranging from apocalyptic fiction to zombie erotica. (Yes, there’s such thing as zombie erotica.) In the end, genre categorization matters little to me—it’s all about the story.

With that in mind, I decided to formalize a universal framework through which I process and analyze my various reading experiences. While there are undoubtedly specific narrative elements I look for in particular genres (pacing and tension level in thrillers, for example), there’s a pyramid of qualities—a Hierarchy of Needs, if you will—that I seek in every story. While highly simplified, it’s this structure that dictates whether I give a book a positive or negative review.

These five criteria will not only provide a glimpse into how a veteran book reviewer dissects and evaluates a novel but, hopefully, make you look at your writing in a different light. See for yourself: Does your work-in-progress have what it takes to earn a positive review?

The Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs: How to Earn Five-Star Book Reviews

1. Readability

A book’s degree of readability is the base layer of my reviewer’s pyramid, and the foundation for any good story. The quality of a novel—narrative clarity, narrative fluidity, having a coherent storyline—is directly related to the number of times I put that book down. Some are so bad, so poorly written, that I struggle to get through a single paragraph without wanting to walk away. Others have such a fl uid plot that I find it virtually impossible to stop reading—Tad Williams’ The Witchwood Crown and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass being two such examples of utterly readable, page-turning novels.

I’ve read a lot of “unputdownable” books over the last few decades, and the vast majority of these all have something in common beyond a clear and fluid narrative: The stories have noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. It’s a small thing, but a great way to compel readers to keep reading. How can you put a book down when every chapter begins and ends with a cliffhanger sequence, bombshell plot twist or powerful statement? When I consistently find these elements in a novel, I know the author fully understands the significance of readability.

Conversely, novels that aren’t as readable—that are poorly written with awkward sentence structure, a confusing storyline, weak chapter beginnings and endings—are almost asking to be tossed aside. This may sound obvious, but if you can’t compel a reader to read your story, then you need to focus more on your craft before penning another book.

2. Immersion

I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-allnight-till-your-eyes-bleed” reads) but to experience the story intimately, living vicariously through the characters.

This trick is accomplished through a continued focus on setting, rich description and atmospherics. I
don’t want to experience the story as a detached viewer looking down at what’s happening—I want to feel like I’m in the story.

The litmus test for this is easy. If I become so engaged with a book that I lose track of time—if I glance at the clock and hours have passed by—you’ve succeeded in drawing me fully into your read. Writers who are absolute immersion masters (think Cherie Priest, Justin Cronin, Charlaine Harris) are so good at captivating description that weeks, months and oftentimes years after reading
their novels I can still vividly recall specific scenes.

This layer is where many writers stumble, and here’s why: While they may excel at world-building and meticulous description at the beginning of a novel, once the action and adventure ramps up, they not only lose focus but completely ignore description altogether. I’ve seen this happen countless times in every genre: rich description for the first 100 pages or so, then almost nothing in the final 200.

It’s called literary escapism for a reason. If I can’t lose myself in a read—from beginning to end—then I haven’t fully escaped.

3. Character Depth and/or Plot Intricacy

Three-dimensional, interesting and identifiable characters bring emotional connectivity and intensity to the read. If your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the narrative impact of your story is inevitably going to be negatively impacted. Emotions wield power. If you can bring your readers to tears, make them laugh out loud or scare them to the point of checking under the bed, then you’ve succeeded on some level.

Creating authentic characters to whom readers can relate is a solid achievement—but an obvious word of warning: Stay clear of clich├ęs and stereotypes. Overused conventions—like the Chosen One in fantasy who is consistently a white male, or the emotionally damaged billionaire entrepreneur in erotic fiction who needs to sexually dominate his love interest—even if brilliantly rendered, will underwhelm and disappoint more than a few readers (and reviewers).

Now, the reason I include an “and/or” between character development and plot intricacy is because, in some rare cases (particularly in mainstream thrillers), a novel with an impressively knotty storyline can still succeed with relatively cardboard characters.

Which is why plot intricacy is key: Why read a novel where you can accurately predict what’s going to happen after a few chapters? (I do that quite often. After reading the first chapter or two, I’ll jot down a prediction in my notes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve guessed the ending correctly.) I just finished reviewing a brilliant historical mystery for Publishers Weekly that was filled with so many plot twists I was left guessing until the last few pages.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or a thriller or a romance—the plot has to be intricate enough to keep your reader simultaneously engaged and a bit off balance.

4. Originality and Innovation

This one ties in with embracing originality, be it atypical characters or unconventional story structure. So many books out there today are built upon unoriginal, rehashed, derivative storylines. I read a lot. And I get bored easily, especially when reading the same basic story arc again and again.

My advice? Don’t play it safe. Write a story that you’ve never read before. In a 2016 Goodreads interview I conducted with fantasy novelist Michael J. Sullivan, author of Age of Myth, he said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. It just matters if it’s being done well now.”

I love that quote. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-envisioned or reimagined, but be innovative—put a new twist on an old mythos, turn a stereotype on its head. Have the courage to be creative!

5. Thematic Profundity

In the introduction to the 2006 reissue of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 Hugo Award–winning classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mary Doria Russell writes, “You’ll be different when you finish it.” That’s my hope for every novel I pick up—that within the story there will be some kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, some kind of revelation or insight that will change the way I look at myself and the world around me.

A novel that holds this kind of thematic power—as well as the other aforementioned elements in the Hierarchy of Needs—will get a starred review from me every time. Stories, no matter the genre, have the power to change lives. Novels like Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We have irrevocably changed who I am. After all, that’s the ultimate goal, right? To write a commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel that is both entertaining and enlightening.

Evaluating a novel is a cumulative process. Those with masterful character development but zero immersion will still receive a poor review, for example, while a thematically profound read with excruciatingly bad readability will receive a terrible review.

May this Hierarchy of Needs not only make you more aware of how your writing is experienced by readers—and jaded book reviewers like myself—but also offer up a few invaluable insights that can be used to improve your craft. Who knows, maybe my next starred review will be yours.

Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

Check out these upcoming online courses:

The post Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors That Earn 5-Star Book Reviews appeared first on

from Writing Editor Blogs –