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I know I’m not in the majority when I recommend that you get involved with a writers’ group. Dean Koontz apparently loathes them, Harlan Ellison despises them, and I’ve read advice from dozens of other pros whose work I love and whose opinions I value who say writers’ groups will do everything from steal your soul to cause your writing to break out in pox.

Nonetheless, I strongly recommend that you get involved with a good writers’ group when you’re getting started. I credit what I learned from my early groups (plus enormous amounts of hard work and persistence) with leading me to publication.

The Unknown Writers’ Group and Schrodinger’s Petshop (Essentially Bizarre, But Cats Like Us) pushed me to succeed.

But I was lucky. I got in on the ground floor of each group, and each group was good. I heard horror stories of other writers’ groups in the area (we acquired a lot of their fallout members) and discovered that not all groups are created equal.

In this column I’ll assume that you have at least one writers’ group in your area with an opening. (Many places do. If you don’t, we’ll fix that in a later column.) Print this list off, take it to a meeting or two with you, and keep your eyes and ears open. Here’s what you look for.

Good, Bad, or Ugly?

Rule #1

  • Does the group have a clearly defined goal, preferably in writing?

This can be something as simple as “We want to see something new from each writer at each meeting,” or as elaborate as a mission statement. However, if the members of the group haven’t taken the time to define their purpose, they probably don’t know where they’re going. And neither will you.

Rule #1 Example

Purposes and Goals:

Schrodinger’s Petshop, established in May of 1988, grew out of a core of aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers who wanted to write better and sell our work, and who weren’t able to find a writers’ group or program that met our needs and interests. We’ve met on a regular basis since, constantly growing and changing to meet the needs of our admittedly esoteric membership.

Our main goal is to help each other get published. We do this by presenting and participating in workshops on our varied areas of expertise, by reading and critiquing each other’s work, and by encouraging each other to submit finished works. We also provide networking, contacts with professionals in the field, and a chance to meet other local talents with similar interests.”

(This is a quote from the Schrodinger’s Petshop Handbook, which I wrote in 1988. It was the keystone to our keeping our group good. If you’d like to read the complete rules, here’s the text. )

Rule #2

  • Does the group have any interest in the type of writing you want to do?

This may seem irrelevant to you—you may be thinking “We’re all writers, right? They’ll be glad to help me.” Unfortunately it isn’t true. The worst horror stories I got were from writers who wanted to write SF or romances and attended meetings at the other large local group in the area. They found themselves and their work attacked as substandard, unworthy, and stupid—in spite of the fact that many of them did very good work. They were not, you see, considered sufficiently “literary” to be worth anybody’s time.

Rule #2 Example

Writer Requirements:

We are open to members of all levels of experience, and of all ages and interests. We have members who are experienced in novel-writing, in short-fiction writing, in non-fiction, and in poetry. However, we are strongly biased in favor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (speculative fiction) subject matter. We are not a general-interest writers’ group. If you want to write mainstream or non-fiction or works in other genres, but have no interest in speculative fiction, we are not the group for you.

While we have a great deal of fun at our meetings, we are not geared toward socializing. We are a working writers’ group, and our main premise is that writers write. If you join, be prepared to read what you are working on, to take criticism, and also to give it. We’ll help you achieve your goal of getting your stories into print—your goal is one we share.

Welcome to Schrodinger’s Petshop.”

Rule #3

  • Does the membership arrive and get to work, or does everyone just stand around and talk about writing?

Pretty early in the meeting, everyone should start moving toward the chairs. Manuscript pages ought to start appearing in hands, and pens and notepads ought to come out. You should see people beginning to discuss the writing they have in front of them, in whatever critique format they use.

The group should not spend more than half an hour hanging out and gossiping.

Rule #4

  • Are there any rules for people who are criticizing each others work to follow?

This is so important. One nasty writer with a mean streak can destroy a talented beginner, and use his critique time as a way to grind the “competetion” into powder. This is stupid, it sucks, and it’s pointless.

There is a better way. Critiques should deal only with the work, should be constructive, and should be short. If one person takes more than ten minutes to discuss a piece of work, that’s a good sign that the meetings are poorly controlled.

Rule #4 Example

Schrodinger’s Rules of Critiquing:

1) Critique the writing, never the writer. Never say, “You are…” or “You should…” Instead say, “The writing is…” or “The story should…”

2) Find what is right in each piece as well as what is wrong.

3) Don’t say, “This is how I would write it;” how you would write it isn’t the point.

4) Remember that subject matter is personal. You don’t have to like a story to give it a fair critique.

5) Remember what your biases are and critique around them.

6) Remember that real people wrote this stuff, and real people have real feelings.”

Things you may not say while critiquing.

“That’s awful.”

“That’s stupid.”

“You couldn’t write your way out of a paper bag.”

Rule #5

  • Are there any rules for people whose work is being criticized to follow?

Again, this is essential. People get very defensive when others are telling them what they did wrong, and their first impulse seems to be to argue. The critique-ee needs to have rules to follow, too, and the first of these needs to be “Shut up and listen.” If people have taken the time to read or listen to what you wrote, take the time to hear what they have to say about it.

Rule #5 Example

Schrodinger’s Rules of Being Critiqued:

1) Listen. The person who is speaking has taken the time to listen to your work, and wants to help you find ways to make it better.

2) Wait until everyone has finished critiquing before making comments.

3) Explain only if necessary. Don’t rebut.

4) Take notes.

5) Realize that everything can be improved.

6) Be willing to make changes. Conversely, don’t change anything you feel must remain in order to make the story yours.

Things you may not say when being critiqued.

“You’re wrong.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries.””

Rule #6

  • Does the group have set guidelines for behavior, and a way to remove troublesome members?

Shouldn’t be necessary, should it? After all, everybody’s an adult. Or at least literate. At least that’s the theory.

In fact, however, a removal rule is necessary. You can get a great group together, and you can be having wonderful meetings, and someone will unsuspectingly bring the Writer From Hell with him to a meeting. This writer will ignore the rules, attack the other writers, try to hog the meeting, refuse to even consider changing a word of his precious story, and make life miserable for everyone.

The group MUST have a way, stated in advance, of getting rid of this nightmare.

Example #6

Membership Guidelines:

Attending meetings is a privilege and not a right. Memberships can be revoked—for failure to follow critiquing rules, for failure to follow protocol in being critiqued, or by a general vote of the other members.”

Rule #7

  • Do the people who are there like each other?

If the other folks at the meeting spend most of the meeting talking about what a bitch Dorothy is or how they suspect John is writing in English as a poorly-learned third language, or if they snap at each other, cut each other down, or are brutal with each other’s manuscripts, RUN AWAY! They will be no kinder to you and your work.

You’ll need a few meetings to get a feel for the group dynamics. You’ll usually find that the group falls into one of the following types:

  1. Circle of Friends
  2. Master and Students/Slaves, or
  3. Sharks and Dinner.

Rule #7 Examples

  • Circle of Friends
    Usually a group of writers all working on about the same level.Either nobody has published yet, or a few have started making small sales, or everyone has started selling, or a bunch of pros got together to hang out on Saturday nights.Sometimes you can find a Circle of Friends open to people working at all levels, from beginner to pro, but this has to be a group that is very tightly run or it will end up being a Master and Students group.

    Schrodinger’s Petshop managed to be an all-levels Circle of Friends for years (though the group did eventually disintegrate), but while it held together we were careful to enforce the handbook rules, we threw out anyone who broke them, and we had no group leader, by design.

    We also actively recruited beginners. Most groups aren’t like this.

    In general, your best bet for a writing group will be a Circle of Friends on your level.

  • Master and Students
    Usually a group put together by one pro and open to beginners.This is generally designed as a teaching group, with the pro as the teacher, and this kind of group can be either good or terrible, depending on the pro.

    If you have someone who loves to teach, who is genuinely interested in seeing the members get published, and whose work appeals to you enough that you think you could learn from him, then a Master and Students group will be okay.

    If, however, your existence in the group is solely to provide ego-boosts for the master, then you end up with a Master and Slaves dynamic, and you aren’t likely to get much that will help you get published.

    Listening to the master read a new chapter of his book every week on the theory that this will allow you to see a work in progress, while never getting to present your own work, is a sure sign that you are in the presence of a raving egotist. Say bye-bye.

  • Sharks and DinnerAny tightly knit clique that tears apart those not in the Inner Circle.

    In a Sharks and Dinner group, you’ll notice all the signs of evil in the first meeting or two—people afraid to read their work to others, people speaking viciously of those not present, brutal critiques of works that are read, open hostility toward anything not written in the group’s approved style or genre, people that come to one meeting and never return, and a general Fall of the House of Usher darkness.

    NEVER join a Sharks and Dinner group. Remember, even if they let you be one of the Sharks… when they smell blood in the water, sharks will eat their own.

Rule #8

  • Does everybody bring work to each meeting, or do you hear from the same three people?

In general, avoid all groups where you get to hear from only one or two writers, and everyone else sits around and talks about what they’ll write someday.

Rule #9

  • Is anybody happy to see you?

Do people make an effort to include you? Did anyone ask you your name? Did you like anyone there?

Furthermore, are you happy to be there? Do you look forward to going to meetings? When you get home, do you want to write, or do you want to smash your computer to pieces and investigate careers in ditch-digging?

If it isn’t fun, if it doesn’t add something positive to your life, don’t waste your time.

NOTE: If this article resonates with you, and you want to meet other writers who share your passion and who are working in a friendly, supportive environment, come hang out with us and make progress on your writing in my free writing community.

Reader Bonus: 396 Books and Other Resources Writers Recommend

I used to have a lot of fun with the folks on my list back when I only sent emails to one group of people.

Well, I’m back to just mailing to one group of people. So I’m saying it’s time to have some fun again.

This is what my list guys and I built together back when — still cool and useful years later.

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And it reminds me of the days when I loved getting email, back when I heard from people I liked about things that interested me.

I want that back — not just for myself, but also for you. Email that’s only the good stuff.

Let’s make that happen.

Holly signature

Fiction And What Could BeThe objective of writing science fiction, fantasy, (and fiction in general) is to explore the world of what could be, what should be, what should never be — to challenge your own assumptions, to discover, uncover, or invent new ways of thinking about life and new ways of seeing the world, humanity, and life, to expand beyond what is.

Standing directly in the road to this exploration is the politically correct stance that (if you’re white) you have no business using elements of anyone else’s race or culture for your own personal gain.

The problem with this is that if you’re a science fiction / fantasy / speculative fiction writer, it’s your damn job to reach beyond your world and the way it works to understand life lived in other ways, other places, and other times, to turn all of that inside out and sideways, to ask questions about it and answer them with actions in your work, and to then present what you’ve created for people who are capable of appreciating that the world they live in is bigger than they are.

Unlike most Americans, I have lived in non-white, not-English-speaking countries. I’ve also lived in Alaska in the late 1960s where the BIA (I’m not a fan) was the majority of the government.

In writing my fiction, I borrow liberally from my experiences in these other places. They were mostly not fun though they were extremely educational, and they made me an outsider for most of my life — which it’s useful to be if you want to be a writer of fiction that lives off the beaten track.


My favorite main character of all the main characters I’ve written is black. Her name is Cadence Drake. I’m WELL aware that there are lots of folks who dislike the fact that I — a whitish American woman (more of a brown-rice beige, actually) of unknown but decidedly mixed ethnic heritage — have the temerity to write science fiction novels in the first person as a black female.

Brief interlude while I answer the one person who just asked, If you don’t know what your ethnic heritage is, how do you know it’s mixed?

I know because my irises are a splotchy mix of blue, yellow, reddish brown, and dark brown, and the hair on my head contains straight blonde hair, curly red hair, wavy brown hair, straight thick black hair, and thin, fragile, kinky black hair. And now, a fair amount of gray. I’m betting that my relatively recent ancestors represent every broad racial group on the planet.

Back to the objections for me writing a black main character.

Never mind that she kicks ass. Never mind that she’s the perfect person for the series and the overall story, never mind that she represents what I value in human beings and what I value in the world I live in.

I’m not black. So how dare I?

And the answer to that of course is that I dare because like all my fictional characters, Cadence Drake is me when I am being someone else. She shows an essential aspect of the universe I want to live in, the one where color of skin is irrelevant, where gender preferences are all acceptable, where humanity has conquered the stars and its prejudices equally…

But where the problems of power and its inevitable corruption of those who seek it still exist, and where people have found new ways to manipulate that power over each other.

Cady lets me tell my story better than any other character I could have created. Her existence as my main character shows what matters in her universe, and also what doesn’t.

So to my question:

If you’re a writer, what boundaries have you crossed in the pursuit of your fiction?

What boundaries are you afraid to cross? And why?

This is only a question for other writers.

The Forward Motion Writers’ Community

I created and for about half a dozen years I ran a free online writers community called Forward Motion. I don’t anymore, but Forward Motion is huge, growing, still free, and still wonderful. It’s now owned and run by my friend Lazette Gifford. Check it out.

It is entirely possible to become a writer completely on your own. A lot of writers go this route. It can be slow, it can be damned hard, it can be lonely. You can end up making the same mistakes over and over because the lack of feedback makes it tough to figure out what you’re doing right, and what you’re doing wrong. But it can be done.

It’s equally possible to find out everything you need to know from reading books, or taking classes led by professional writers, or attending a select few workshops led by professional writers. This route can be expensive. And no matter what classes you take, or what degrees you get, results are no more guaranteed than if you did it yourself.

You can also join a writers’ group. Or a community. I’ve done both, and as long as you get a good group or community, I recommend either one.

Forward Motion is a good community where full-time professional writers, complete beginners, and everyone in between, gather to discuss the ins and outs of publishing in a friendly, helpful fashion. But they don’t just talk. They also do. Writing your first novel and sending it off is a sort of rite of passage there; I cannot count the number of “someday I’m going to do this” writers who became “have written and submitted first novel, working on second one now” writers while I was there. And the numbers just keep growing.

People there treat each other well. There are few flamewars, and those are short-lived. Flames get the flamers kicked out. Writing is the core around which every other discussion circles. It’s a very focused place, thought an awful lot of fun, too. If you have something you need to know, you can spend a couple of weeks looking your answer up in books, or God only knows how long taking classes or attending workshops until you find your answer, or you can go to the main FM board and just ask. Usually within an hour or two, and sometimes within a couple of minutes, you’ll have a handful of useful answers from people who have already done what you want to do.

The community operates on the Pay Forward principle, which is that, in exchange for the help you get there, you then go out and help others. The members are some truly wonderful people. The place is fun. It’s inspiring. People there accomplish things. They write books, submit them, sell them.

And it’s FREE. Completely free. Just remember to pay forward.

Writers’ Block: Losing (and Regaining) Writer’s Hunger

At the heart and soul of writing is the desire to write. And your relationship with writing, like all other relationships, can atrophy from the day-to-day wear of disappointment, from lack of support, from lack of feedback, from lack of incentive, from just plain exhaustion, and from a thousand other things. It can be as tough to maintain love in a long-time marriage to writing as it is to keep the love alive in any other relationship. Maybe that sounds improbable (after all, how can writing be both your job and your romance?) but it’s true.

And the really silly thing is that the same things that will keep your personal relationships alive will keep your writing alive, too. If too much drudgery and lack of attention have left you and your writing not on speaking terms, here are some strategies for putting the hunger and the passion back in your romance.

  • Make dates

While it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense to take your writing out to dinner or to a movie, it makes perfect sense to make dates with a local writers’ group, or with a friend who writes. Give yourself one night every two weeks, or one afternoon a month, where you can give yourself over to the luxury of talking about writing with other people who are equally smitten by this passion of yours. Use these dates as an opportunity to ‘get dressed up’—that is, to prepare some writing to take along and show around.

If you don’t have a local writers’ group and would really like to start one, you can find out how some friends of mine and I put together a writers’ group that made all of us better writers and got some of us published by clicking on the Schrodinger’s Petshop Members’ Handbook_

  • Bring home flowers

Well, not really. Bring home books instead. Books about writing, books you wish you had written, books about subjects that interest you but that you know nothing or next to nothing about … surround yourself with words that inspire you, words that entice you, words that tempt you, words that make your heart beat faster.

Personally, (and I know this sounds about as sexy as unwrapping a mummy), non-fiction books about archeology, anthropology, and ancient cultures and civilizations really float my boat. I get goosebumps just looking at them in bookstores—tomes with titles like Renaissance Diplomacy, Ancient Inventions, The Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins, Life in a Medieval Village … I renew my romance with the writer in me by reading them, and throwing myself into those long-lost times and places, touching those foreign soils, hearing those forgotten tongues. And when I can feel them in my marrow and in my breath, I find that I’m usually full of excitement about writing again.

  • Listen to what your love is saying

You’ve been plugging along on the same novel for five years, doing a chapter a year more or less, writing and rewriting the first five pages, and frankly you’re bored stiff with the people who inhabit the book. They lost your attention a long time ago, and have failed to do anything interesting enough in the last couple of years to get it back. But you don’t want to be one of those writers who has twenty three-chapter novels stuck in a box under your bed (which is admirable of you, incidentally) so you grit your teeth and refrain from killing of those bores, and swear that you’re going to get to the end of this novel or die.

Well, you just might. Die, that is. Don’t let a book kill your writing. Sometimes you have to figure out what it is that you love, and what it is that is keeping you from what you love. You love the writing. Your passion is for the act of sitting down and putting words on paper, telling stories, weaving webs.

You do not love the individual book (and, believe me, when you’re entangled in the middle of one, I know this is a tough distinction to make). The book is going to be gone from your life sooner or later, and another book will take its place. And another, and another. They will leave you, they won’t call, they won’t visit. Only the writing will remain, but nurtured, the writing will sustain you, and will grow stronger and more beautiful with the passing of time. Just like your other loved ones.

Kill that five chapter book that’s been eating your heart out, and sit down and do a timed writing about the story that’s waiting to be born in you right now. About who you want to meet on the page. About the city or the land in which you want your new, wonderful tale to travel. Or (and I know this sounds weird, but it works) do a timed writing in which you ask your writing where it wants to go, and let it tell you in the first person.

  • Wrap yourself in Saran Wrap

I couldn’t resist the image. Sorry. But it is, in a goofy way, applicable. Do something with your writing that you wouldn’t normally do, or wouldn’t do in public. If you would never consider writing poetry, then write ten poems. If the very idea of erotica makes your ears turn pink and your palms sweat, write the raciest scene your mind can conjure up. If you only write literary fiction, break out and write the climactic scene from a murder mystery or a romance novel. If murder is already your thing, write a pastoral medieval literary scene.

What you’re doing here is, a) having fun by doing something you don’t have to expect yourself to be good at, and b) stomping hell out of your internal censor, who will be so shocked by your rebellion that it will shut up for a while and let you write what you want to write. If it starts to nag again while you’re making progress, telling you you’re no good and that you don’t know what you’re doing, you can always threaten it with more erotica or sonnets to your refrigerator.

  • Go someplace special together

If you write science fiction or fantasy (or to a lesser degree, mysteries) you already have a ready-made special place where you and your writing can go. The SF/F field is loaded with wonderful conventions. Find ones where more panels are dedicated to writers and books than to role-playing gamers and media fandom—you want to be inspired, and you’ll get the most inspiration by meeting the writers, editors, publishers and agents who bring out the sorts of books you want to be doing. The mystery field has, from what I’ve heard, far fewer conventions, but a much higher percentage that feature writing.

If you aren’t writing in either of those two specialties, you can still look into writers conferences put on by state and regional writers’ associations. I’ve served as faculty at one of these, and have attended one other, and I’ve decided they aren’t for me, but they’re evidently the thing for a whole lot of other folks.

And don’t forget taking along a notebook and pen when you go places you’ve never been before, (no matter why you’re there), to record images that surprise and tantalize you.

  • Remember anniversaries

Keep track of the dates of your successes, no matter how minor they may seem. The day you get up the courage to mail something off for the first time, your first rejection slip, your first personal rejection from an editor, your first acceptance in a non-paying market, your first acceptance in a paying market, your first acceptance in a pro market—all of these count. Put them up in your workspace, and celebrate them as proof that you’re working and producing and improving.

  • Make plans together

Plan to do both great things and small things with your writing. Plan to finish a story for a specific market. Plan to complete the first draft of your new book before you celebrate your next birthday. Plan to research agents and publishers. Plan to enter a contest. Plan to compete for a writing grant or a residence at a writer’s colony. Write your plans on index cards, along with the date that you planned them. On a second line, write in the date that you want to accomplish this goal (try to find a happy medium between raging optimism and head-in-the-sand conservatism). Leave a third line blank, and fill in the date that you make each of your plans a reality.

You and your writing were in love once. You can be again. I hope these suggestions help you get there.

Special thanks to Becky Shank, who asked the question that inspired this article.

NOTE: If you’ve found this article helpful, and if you are currently suffering from writer’s block, I built a small class to help people overcome it — frequently in just an hour. If you’d like to take a look, it’s How to Beat Writer’s Block.


The Future of the Forward Motion Writers’ Community

Note: I created the Forward Motion Writers’ Community in its first iteration back in late 1997 or early 1998, and was both its administrator and a very active participant for about five years. That has changed. The following is my letter to the community, posted Nov. 13th, 2003.

There’s a scene in Talyn where Talyn is offered the choice between a magnificent banquet that represents just about everything in the world, including power and adulation on the one hand, or on the other hand a single canteen of cold water and a sword.

She is a warrior, and the warrior’s way is not the banquet, the adulation, and the power. With real regret but also understanding of who she is and what she must do to continue to be who she is, she chooses the cold water and the sword.

I find myself with the same decision. This place is a writer’s banquet, and for some years now it has been a home for me — a place to be as well as a place to pay forward. It has been one of the driving forces in my life, sometimes a compelling addiction, sometimes a hideaway from the frustrations of work. I am tremendously pleased with how it has turned out — how much the community as a whole has embraced paying forward, how very alive this place is. It has brought all of you here, and you are individually and as a group, proof that there are good people on the Internet, and that good people gathered together can do some amazing things.

But on the other hand, there is cold water and a sword.

My heart, my head, and my gut have all been telling me for a couple of years now that I need to get off the Internet. When I write, my mind twitches between the fiction I am writing and the article I could do about the fiction I’m writing, about the useful lesson I have just figured out, about the thing that just happened that I could blog. Every time it twitches, I stall.

I’m not a teacher. I’m not a non-fiction writer. I’m not a blogger. I write novels. They’re my sword. And I find that in spending too much time at the banquet, my fighting skills are suffering, my sword is blunted, my focus is scattered.

It’s time to take up the sword again, to sling the canteen over my back. It’s time to go.

I wanted to tell you all goodbye. To thank you for being a huge part of my life for these last five or so years. I want to encourage you to keep writing, to believe in what you’re doing, to pay forward so long as paying forward doesn’t damage your work.

I want to reassure you — Zette has proven to be superb at administrating this place, and come the first of the year (unless she wants it sooner) the place will be hers. The community is still growing and it has grown beyond me. It is its own place now — not my place, but Forward Motion. And while the fact that it continues to add members is good, a much more important fact is that its members are working. You’re helping each other, you’re moving toward publication, setting goals and meeting them, writing stories and books and sending them out. I look at your Pilgrimage pips and your badges of accomplishment, and remember when some of you came here having never finished anything, and see that you’ve now finished a novel or several, or short stories, or articles in Vision and know you’ll be doing more. You’re wonderful.

Zette is, too, and though she is not thrilled with this unexpected bump, the community could not be in better or more dedicated hands. Starting now, any donations go directly to her. Please also continue to support Vision with your articles — some of you came here because others of you took the time to share what you had learned, and some of you are writing because others of you had just the right piece of inspiration to get each other moving. Vision for the last three years has been tangible paying forward, and its current issues and archives are rich and deep because you have made them that way.

Your domain is paid for for the next ten years — I took care of that when I got FM its own site. Because the software licenses are non-transferrable and I haven’t yet been able to work out an exception, I’ll maintain contact with the software manufacturers for the chat room, the community calendar, and the boards, so you’ll stay with current software, and won’t have to buy anything new until you’re ready.

Please know that leaving is not easy for me. Over the past two or maybe three years, I have come right up to this point numerous times — my heart and my head and my gut don’t get together on too much, and when they do I know I should listen. But I didn’t want to. I’d talk to Zette, I’d talk to Sheila, I’d try to figure out ways to keep the community going once I was gone, and then I would back off. I wanted to be with you, so I stayed.

But I keep coming back to my dilemma: the banquet, or the water and the sword.

I’m older, the writing is physically more demanding than it was ten years ago, I have very little work time, I cannot afford the twitches in my mind that take me from story to article to blog entry to website.

It’s time I listened to myself. Time I did what I have known for quite some time now that I have to do.

With my love, and my best wishes, and my hopes that someday if I run into you at your booksigning or at a con where you’re a guest, you’ll tell me “I was at Forward Motion, and I’m doing this full time now,” I’ll say goodbye.

Be well. Believe in your dreams. Help the next folks coming up the mountain behind you. Thank you for sharing these years with me, and making them wonderful. Thank you for being wonderful. Know that I will miss you more than words can convey.

Holly signature

Quoted in PublishersWeekly.Com

Here’s the article.

And here’s the full text of the interview I gave:

1) How do you use your website and other online sites (other people’s blogs, your publishers’ websites, etc.) to encourage people to read your work?

I stick pretty close to home where promoting my work goes — what promotion I do, I do almost exclusively on my own site. However, I have a large, fairly popular site, and over the years, have been adding and tinkering and building things into it. I started writing articles about writing as part of my “pay forward” philosophy; I was the beneficiary of encouragement and advice from some fine pros when I was getting started; these pros had benefitted from the help of pros when they were starting out. The philosophy each passed to the next was that none of us beginners could truly pay back to those who had helped us, but we could pay forward to the next writers coming up. I took that charge seriously, and ever since, have done what I can to pay forward.

For example:

Between 1997 and now, I’ve written more than 100,000 words of free writing advice which I’ve posted on my site, accessible to anyone who cares to read it. (

I also set up a little bulletin board in 1997, and a few people who had met me at conventions and participated in writing workshops I taught at them dropped by and wanted to talk more about writing. Our conversations drew in others, and before long I had a thriving little working writers group. And then a largish working writing community. And then a huge one. I kept everything free, from online classes to discussions to crit groups. When I could, I paid for everything, though at times I had to depend on donations to keep the doors open. Being a full-time writer dependent entirely upon writing income does have its downside. I chose moderators from the most enthusiastic and even-tempered members, we all volunteered our time, and we learned as much as we taught. I ended up spinning the Forward Motion Writers’ Community off into its own site at the point when it had over 2000 members and was taking me roughly forty hours a week to participate in and run (while still writing full time and raising a family); I gave it to a writer friend of mine (Lazette Gifford) in November of 2003, and it currently has over 9000 members, and is still growing. It’s also still entirely free (though Zette, too, accepts donations) and is staffed entirely by volunteers, some of whom have been moderating since not long after I took on moderators. It maintains the same “pay forward” philosophy I started it with, and I’m tremendously proud to have had the hand I did in its creation.

Beyond that, I offer free chapters for most of my books, as well as peeks into the creative backgrounding process that gave birth to them, from maps and costume designs to language development and ship design ( I also offer a few free e-books, an expanding selection of e-books for sale, and I discuss life as a full-time writer in my weblog, Pocket Full of Words ( which is open to everyone, and which gets regular traffic from both writers and readers.

2) What do you do that you think is unusual or particularly innovative?

The community was innovative; it was however, as noted above, a full-time job, and I already had two of those.

My weblog is daring, though I don’t know if that makes it innovative. I talk honestly about the writing; about how I do it, about what life as a writer is like, about how things go wrong as well as about how they go right. This is no doubt risky from the standpoint of appearances; reports of a glossy stream of unending successes would no doubt make me look like a golden girl, and might be better for sales. But I haven’t done any of the articles or the weblog as a marketing tool; in fact, I never allowed or used advertising in the community, and only recently added ads for a few of my books to the weblog. And I don’t flog my books. I discuss them as I’m writing them, sometimes posting snippets of the work in progress, or grumping through stalls, tailspins, and false starts. And I’ll do an announcement when a books hits the shelves. Then, though, I move on.

I’ve written and self-published a couple of writing books, and intend to self-publish more in the current series. The regular reaction I get is “Self-publishing? For a writer with nearly 30 novels out through major publishers?” Yes, for the following reason: I approached my agent with the idea of doing some non-fiction, because I love to write about writing, and while she liked the work I presented her with, she pointed out that non-fiction writing books would not sell as well as my fiction books, but would still count as my most recent numbers for any future sale, either fiction or nonfiction. No writer needs a precipitous drop in numbers. But I wanted to do the writing books. People have been requesting them for years. So. I decided to do them on my own, as a little sideline thing, where the only person who needs to know my numbers is me, and where I can keep them in print as long as I care to. A friend helped me build a web store, Shop.HollyLisle.Com, (, I wrote a second writing book, titled _Holly Lisle’s Create a Character Clinic_, and I put it up, along with an e-book by fellow pro Lynn Viehl (hers is Way of the Cheetah, about her technique for writing prolifically). I’m republishing my out-of-print backlist, adding a little quality fiction by other writers, and I’ll be doing more in the Clinic series, with books on worldbuilding, plotting, storyshowing, and revising and submitting work. I’m presenting the books as e-books, but am also working very hard to get the bugs out of offering print copies. With luck, those will start being available in the next month or two.

I do offer an affiliate program for people who are interested in advertising my shop’s books ( — as far as I know, that’s fairly innovative for an author, though it’s common enough in other kinds of Internet businesses. The program is very new, and it’s quite small so far, but people are making a little money at it (I pay nice percentages on sales) and it does bring new people to the site. So I’d say it’s a good deal all the way around.

I’m low-key about selling my work. That’s innovative. It might be nuts, but it’s innovative.

3) What’s your philosophy regarding free downloads of your writing?

I’m much in favor. I have three available at the moment, two novels and my first writing e-book, which was a bestseller at for quite a while, until I decided to take it down and make it a free give-away.
The novels are _Fire in the Mist_ and _Sympathy for the Devil_, my first book and another very early novel, respectively, both downloadable from the Baen Free Library, at (
My first writing e-book, _Mugging the Muse: Writing Fiction for Love AND Money_, is available as a free download with any purchase at Shop.HollyLisle.Com, or at

4) Do you think more people find your website from your books or the other way around?

I suspect more readers find my site from my books, and I know more writers find my books from my site. But I don’t know whether I have more readers or more writers on the site, and of course the two groups overlap hugely. A lot of people find the site. I know that, and I’m grateful for them, however they get there.

5) What advice would you give to beginning writers who want to promote their work online?

Don’t shill your books. Give something of value to Internet readers, make your work accessible and let people know that the same person who has given them something they can use has also written a few books. Then allow them to approach your work in their own time, rather than shoving your work at them. The Internet is, unfortunately, all about shoving advertising in people’s faces. If you want to be innovative … don’t do that.

Holidays in Hell and Other Delights: A Worldbuilding Workshop

Things get lost on hard drives, and then one day when you’re in the middle of hunting for one thing, something else turns up that you forgot you wrote. And this is that — a rediscovered writing workshop I built back in 2006 for my Forward Motion writers in the first writing community I built. Resurrected here for your uses now. — Holly

You’re galloping along on your novel, which is set in Hell. You’d like to develop a bit of Hellish culture, do some solid background and worldbuilding, and give your readers something to think about. You develop your map, your government, your… er… seasons, and finally your calendar.

At which point you pull up short.

You’ve used a variation of the Gregorian calendar, but reversed it. You still have a December 25th. But obviously your little devils, demons and imps aren’t going to be celebrating Christmas.

So… what sort of holidays do they celebrate in Hell?

This all goes to worldbuilding, and the importance of holidays and celebrations to human beings (and by extrapolation, perhaps to aliens and fantasy creatures, too).

Holidays fall into several basic categories:

  • Religious
  • Civic
  • Historical
  • Corporate, and
  • Odd

Religious holidays seem fairly tame on the surface, but dig a bit deeper and the possibilities are endless. Along with such quiet holidays as Christmas and Hanukkah, consider such gory holidays as Aztec sun festivals where sacrifices got their hearts ripped out, and such complex holidays as observances of the births and deaths of saints and martyrs by the sometimes highly-specialized groups who consider themselves watched over by those saints or martyrs.

Civic holidays are those declared by governments, for whatever reason. Everything from Labor Day picnics, Presidential birthdays and Western Culture Week to town bicentennials, tank parades through Red Square, and Guy Fawkes Day are civic holidays. Staged riots and protests can be, too, if they’re backed by the government, scheduled, planned, and on the public calendar well in advance of their dates.

Historical holidays tend to be days of remembrance, and since the things people choose to memorialize in historical holidays tend toward major disasters, these generally aren’t a lot of fun. Days commemorating attacks, battles, victories and even defeats and massacres fall into this realm.

Corporate holidays are holidays created by interested corporations in order to Sell Stuff. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Secretary’s Day, Sweethearts’ Day, National Hat Day, International Hula-Hoop Day, and Universal Pepsi- Drinkers’ Week are all examples (some fictitious) of corporate holidays.

And then there are Odd Holidays. These tend to be local, and have a rich and weird tradition behind them. If your town puts together a celebration each year in which a naked woman rides through town on a horse covered only by her hair while people stand in the streets purposely not looking at her, just because some chick once did this, you are participating in an Odd Holiday. Ditto voluntarily running through the streets in front of a herd of stampeding bulls, and taking turns jumping naked into frigid water through a hole cut through the ice of a local pond, followed by racing like madmen for the steambath while smacking the snot out of each other with pine

Odd Holidays have the potential to be ludicrously fun, and all you have to do to create one is make up the story of the guy who did it first, five hundred years earlier.

Time to develop the holidays.

Here are the questions you ask yourself for each type of holiday.


(Go through this question list for each religion in your universe that you decide to use)

  • One god (or anti-god) or more than one? List the gods’ names.
  • Do the gods have birth or death dates? List relevant dates.
  • Do they oversee specific facets of human life, like farming, fishing, housekeeping, childbirth, etc.? List areas of specialization.
  • Have they intervened in human affairs in specific instances, either in mythology or in fact? For example, did Smard, God of Lightning, smite the invading, armor-wearing Pettites on the Fifth of Togush? Bet they celebrate Smardstuurm Day.
  • What about saints and martyrs? List any of those that interest you, along with their histories and associations.
  • Any holidays of other religions that this religion wants to eradicate? Figure out ways that the religion can absorb these holidays and alter them to fit its own needs.
  • What are the key features of the religion? Deep piety, self-sacrifice, reproduction and expansion of the people, wild and unbridled lust? Some holidays will emphasize ways of encouraging people to participate in these major values.



  • Who rules the area now? List names. These folks may get their own days.
  • Who ruled it in the past? List names. Those still held in favor by the current regime may have their own days.
  • Which groups of people are in favor with the current regime? Soldiers, medical personnel, priests, cowboys, hunters, laborers, miners, strippers? Consider holidays for these groups.
  • What civic virtues would the current regime like to encourage? Honesty, industriousness, keeping the streets clean, eating more meat, enlisting in the military? Give these desired virtues their own holidays.



  • What wars have your groups won and lost?
  • Name the wars, give them dates, then give them holidays.

Now think smaller.

  • What significant battles were fought in each of these wars?
  • Where were they fought, and who fought them?
  • Any special heroes?
  • Any special causes?
  • Why didn’t Helen of Troy get Helensday?

These smaller events will be great for local holidays.

Now think sideways.

  • Any bizarre, humiliating, or weirdly appalling events in the national past?
  • Any attempted overthrows of government that resulted in the would-be usurpers blowing themselves up?
  • Any battles lost because the war-elephants came down with horrendous diarrhea on the night before battle? (I confess I can’t think of how you’d celebrate a holiday based on this event, but I’d love to find out.)
  • Any great terrain discoveries? Where, what, when, and by whom?
  • Any famous people whose lives changed their world, either for better or worse? Who were they, when were they born, when did they do their greatest thing, and when did they die?



  • What are the major products mined, harvested, raised or manufactured by your people?
  • Which of these products are most necessary?
  • Which of these products are most profitable?
  • Which of these products were seriously overproduced last year, causing falling prices and a need for someone to come up with a new killer app to use them? For example, if you really need to get rid of vast oversupplies of corn before your storage of it causes vast oversupplies of mice, what events could your folks create for National Create-With-Corn Week?



What are the weirdest sects, weirdest events, or weirdest people in your chosen area?

List a few of these, and come up with holidays to celebrate their achievements. (If you need help with this one, you need only go as far as the Guinness Book of World Records, Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not, and reality programs on television for inspiration.)

So back to Holidays in Hell.

I think we have Demon Days, the Impstravganza All-Souls Festival and Bazaar, Torturers’ Day, National Temptation Week, Creative-Uses-for-Middle-Managers Month, and The Feast of All Gluttons (where gluttons make up the main course).

And of course, Lucifer Day. Or maybe every day is Lucifer Day in Hell.

Articles: Reading, Writing, Living, and Other Dangerous Endeavors


Nothing is simple, though sometimes things do a wonderful impression of being simple. For example:

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Simple, right? At least until you go down to the cellular level, look at the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, look inside the cells that carry the oxygen and the cells that receive it, follow the paths of the neurons that carry messages from your brain and your spinal cord to your lungs.

Then it’s not simple at all.

But in spite of life’s complexity, it’s possible to simplify the complex, to break massive tasks into doable steps, to tuck away the myriad complications behind a shield that lets you move from day to day, from word to word. To set aside awareness of the size of a task and embrace the beauty of ‘breathe in, breathe out.’

Life runs better when you know how it works… AND how to focus on the simple paths that allow you to do complex things.

Like write books.

Like build the life you want to live.

Like make the choice to experience joy in a world that focuses on everything but.

So the many essays and workshops in my Articles section and all of my classes focus on doing that: On exploring the complex and creating simple paths through it.

Read, write, and live with joy.

Holly signature

Holly Lisle




Do Writers Need College To Write?

Writing With Integrity: Why Everyone SHOULDN’T Like You

Life Changes Writing; Writing Changes Life

Money From Nothing: The Economic Value of Writing Original Fiction

Apples, Bananas — The Writer’s Need for Experience

That Our Reach Exceed Our Grasp

Ideas: A Hundred for A Dollar

Your Book Is Not Your Baby

Could vs. Should and the Price of Your Dreams

Say What You Mean

Everyday Courage and the Writer

The Perfect Busman’s Holiday

Live to Write Another Day

Deeper People: Putting Yourself into Your Characters

One Good Enemy

Finding Silence

Writers’ Block: Are We Having Fun Yet?

Writers’ Block: Losing (and Regaining) Writer’s Hunger

In Search of Impossible Goodness

Dvorak Typing Part I: With Fingers Struck Dumb

Dvorak Typing Part II: Three Months Later

Common Ground: Holding Community Together

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QUIZ: Are You Right for Writing?

QUIZ: Want to Save the World Through Typing?

QUIZ: Your Unfinished Manuscript: Burn It, Bury It, or Let It Live?

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Writing FAQs

My Three Most Frequently Asked Questions

FAQs About Editors

FAQs About Going Pro (Legacy Publishing Version)

FAQS About How to Write

FAQS About Commercial Publishing (Publishing-House Publishing)

FAQS About Literary Agents (For Legacy-Publishing Writers)

FAQS About Money (Legacy-Publishing Writers)

FAQS About My Writing Articles

FAQs About Persistent Misconceptions

FAQs About Self-Publishing

FAQS About the Business of Writing

FAQS About Worldbuilding

Miscellaneous FAQs About Writing

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How to Write Something GOOD from a Prompt

How to Get There from Here: The Magic of Goals

How To Write For YOUR Right Audience

The Writer’s Toolbox

How to Create a Character

Creating Conflict: or, The Joys of Boiling Oil

Finding Your Themes

How To (Legally and Ethically) Steal Ideas

Ten Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice

How To Write Suckitudinous Fiction

How to Collaborate — and How Not To

How To Write Time and First Person

How Much of My World Do I Build?

Worldbuilding — Rollicking Rules of Ecosystems

How To Worldbuild Magic: Short Rules for Real Worlds

The Rules of Matrin’s Magic

Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure

Honing Your Talent: A Workshop

Pacing Dialogue and Action Scenes — Your Story at Your Speed

How I Drew A Map and Sold Three Books And A World

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or How to Choose a Writers’ Group

How to Start a Novel


How to Finish A Novel

How to Revise A Novel

How to Format a Manuscript

How to Query an Agent

Designing Your Writing Career

How to Quit Your Day Job to Write Full Time

How to Tell Who WON’T Make It in Writing (and How Not to Be That Writer

How To Work With An Editor (Legacy Publishing Version)

Learn How To Create A Professional Plot Outline

Scam-Spotting: If It Looks Like A Scam, It Probably Is

The Character Workshop — Designing A Life

Dialogue Workshop

Maps Workshop — Developing the Fictional World through Mapping

Scene-Creation Workshop — Writing Scenes that Move Your Story Forward

The Description Workshop

Timed Writing Workshop — Freeing Up the Subconscious in Writing

Exercises in Timed Writing — Freeing Up the Subconscious in Writing

Workshop: Visualization for Writers

The Serendipity Workshop: Lost on the Border at Twilight

Novel Pre-Writing Workshop: Better Questions Make A Better Book

One-Pass Manuscript Revision: From First Draft to Last in One Cycle

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How to Write Flash Fiction that Doesn’t SUCK (Free Membership, Free Class, Free Friendly & Well-Moderated Writers’ Community)

Create a Character Clinic

Create A Plot Clinic

Create A Language Clinic

Create A Culture Clinic

Create A World Clinic

How to Write Page-Turning Scenes

Title. Cover. Copy. Fiction Marketing Workshop

How To Motivate Yourself

How to Write Short Stories

How to Write Villains

How to Write Dialogue With Subtext

7-Day Crash-Revision Workshop

The Publishing While Broke Workshop

How to Find Your Writing Discipline

21 Ways to Get Yourself Writing (When Your Life Has Just Exploded)

24-Hour Intensive: Find Your Writing Voice

How to Beat Writer’s Block

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How to Write a Novel

How to Revise Your Novel: Get the Book You WANT from the Wreck You Wrote

How to Write a Series: Master the Art of Sequential Fiction

How to Think Sideways: Career Survival School for Writers

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