The Craft of Writing by Holli Castillo

Promoting seems to be the topic of the day. And why not? Every writer wants to sell more books.  Sometimes, though, it seems as if promotion is taking precedence over writing.

So you’ve finished writing the book.  Or maybe you’ve finished writing your tenth book.  You find a publisher or you self-publish.  Either way, your book is out there, waiting to make the New York Times Bestseller’s list.  So you promote, promote, promote, trying to spike up sales and get your name known by more readers.  And while you’re promoting this book, you start writing the next.  And the process starts all over again.

Somewhere in there, it seems as if we start to lose the focus on the craft and improving our writing.

Showing our works to critique groups, family members, editors, etc., can help us find typos, errors, plot holes, and other mechanical problems with our work, which definitely can improve the finished product but doesn’t necessarily improve our writing.

I spoke to a fourth grade class this year about writing.  I had previously spoken to a third grade class where the students were more interested in how to get published than they were on the actual writing process.  This fourth grade class, however, was all about the writing.  They asked practical questions about how to start writing, how to combat writer’s block, and how to create characters and plots.  They also asked me what I thought was the most important thing they could do to become good writers.  I focused on three things, all of which I think are applicable to every writer, regardless of age or experience.

The first one is just to write.  Even if you think you’re writing garbage and even if you know what you’re writing is never going to see the light of day, write it anyway.  It’s the equivalent to exercising a muscle.  If you have writer’s block, move on to a different project or a different part of your story or write about the block.  If your novel is giving you trouble, try writing something different, like a poem or a short story. If you keep writing something, anything, eventually you will get yourself on track to what you really want to write.

The second is to read, especially in the genre in you write in.  Reading other mystery writers always puts me in the frame of mind to write, which helps me when I’m stuck.  I don’t think any writer can ever read too much.  You have no idea what your subconscious mind may pick up while reading someone else.  And if what you’re reading turns out to be poorly written or not up to your standards, that can be the motivation you need to finish your own work, knowing you can do better than some of the fluff that is out there.

Third, and what I stressed most with the students, is to never stop learning, even after you get published and even if you become rich and famous from writing that NYT bestseller.  For the students, that meant staying in school, taking as many writing and literature classes as possible, and possibly studying writing in college. 

For adults, it means seizing every learning opportunity possible to perfect the craft.  This can be as diverse as taking a course or workshop in writing at a local university or community college to taking an online workshop to reading a book about writing. 

Learning opportunities don’t have to break the bank.  I look for free workshops, webinars, and articles about writing online when I do promotion.  I also check the local paper and screenwriting websites for free information.  Screenwriting websites offer more free teleconferences and webinars than some other forms, and for a novelist, the advice pertaining to writing is pretty on point.

I am not suggesting for a second not to put in the promotion hours.  Obviously, you could write the most moving and meaningful piece of work on the planet and it wouldn’t make a difference in the real world unless someone actually read it.  What I am suggesting is that while you are doing that promoting, and while you are working on that next project, you should continue to learn new skills to make your writing better.

A million years ago I was a gymnast–second in the state in my division.  All season long my team would practice five nights a week perfecting what we already knew how to do.  When the season ended, we would practice new skills to see if we could get them and perfect them for the following season.  Year round we did strength training and dance. 

I think of writing in these terms, like an athlete practicing a sport, repeating old skills while learning and honing new ones, getting stronger and more polished, getting better and better, until he or she is finally able to deliver as perfect a finished product as possible.  Because when all of that promoting does work and readers buy our latest book, we want it to stand out from the plethora of other books in the market and the other books they have read.  And we want to know, and we want our readers to feel, that our latest book is an even better read than our previous ones.

Blurb for Chocolate City Justice
Coming 2014

New Orleans prosecutor Ryan Murphy is back at work after being shot and is assigned a plum of a case- a drive–by shooting of a child’s birthday party, with the whole thing caught on videotape, including one of the shooters being tossed from the van at the crime scene after being shot himself.  But common in New Orleans, things aren’t always what they seem and Ryan ends up investigating a possibility that’s dangerous even by New Orleans standards.

When Hurricane Katrina takes a turn in the gulf, Ryan has every intention of evacuating with her family.  But trouble has a habit of following her, and when she does an unexpected favor for a friend, she ends up the target of the gang she’s investigating and misses her chance to escape the storm.  But she's not worried.  She's handled some of the worst criminals the city has to offer, and hurricanes never hit New Orleans. Right? What could possibly go wrong?

Jambalaya Justice now available

Bio: Holli Castillo is a Louisiana appellate public defender, former New Orleans prosecutor, and an award-winning novelist/screenwriter.  Her first novel, Gumbo Justice, was released by Oak Tree Press after being delayed when she was incapacitated for a year due to a head-on collision with a drunk driver. This was followed by the second in the Crescent City Mystery series, Jambalaya Justice, with the third, Chocolate City Justice, scheduled for release in 2014.  Holli resides in the metropolitan New Orleans area with her husband, who is the model for Big Who in the series, her two daughters, two dogs, and two deaf cats, one of which is instrumental in solving the mystery in Jambalaya Justice


Holli Castillo said…
Marilyn, thanks so much for having me today.
Holli Castillo said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
I love Holli's books--if you want to visit New Orleans without actually going there--read any of her books.

And she's given some really good advice here.
M.M. Gornell said…
Excellent post, Holli, and I so agree with -- "never stop learning" Continued success writing!


Anonymous said…
Holli's books sound exciting and fun--I can't wait to start reading them! Holli, great advice, especially on the subject of the dreaded writer's block. Thanks!
Holli Castillo said…
M.M., Lorna and Amy, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you found my advice useful. And thanks again, Marilyn, for having me and for the props on my books. It isn't always easy knowing how much to include in setting to try to put the reader into the middle of things. Holli
Patricia Gligor said…
I love your Crescent City Mystery Series and I can't wait to read "Chocolate City Justice." I've been to New Orleans twice and, when I read your books, I feel as if I'm back there and in the middle of a mystery!
Janet Greger said…
Great advice.
JL Greger
marja said…
Excellent post, Holli. Great advice for all of us,not just the children. Thank you!
Marja McGraw
Eileen Obser said…
I'm glad to read you here, Holli, and to learn what you tell other writers, of all ages. As a teacher of creative writing for so many years, I carry the same message: write, don't worry about selling it or whether it's the best you'll ever write. And read. And keep learning. Thanks for all the great comments, and thank you, Marilyn, for hosting Holli.

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