Friday, January 27, 2012

The Best Writing Advice You'll Never Get: a guest blog by E.J. Copperman

Looks like the Jersey Shore, all right.
The elusive and mysterious E.J. Copperman has long been a friend of the Reds. Rare orchid collector, bon vivant, international curling champion (we won't mention the rumors which suggest the sport is merely a cover for espionage) Copperman still manages to pen type word process write the Haunted Guesthouse mysteries. Are the tales of a ghost-ridden manse on the Jersey Shore ripped from life? Copperman isn't telling. (Showing, sure, but not telling.) We feel fortunate to get Copperman's unique take on the ubiquitous Advice to Writers.

Nobody has ever given me writing advice.

Wait. No. One person has given me writing advice, but I haven't followed it (maybe that's why nobody else has offered).

I know; I'm shocked, too. You always hear authors talking about "the best writing advice someone ever gave me," or "the one piece of writing advice I wish I'd never heard," or "the one piece of writing advice I always pass on to young writers." It seems like every writer is absolutely inundated with tips and inside information on the best way to rearrange those 26 letters in the English alphabet to somehow tell a coherent story.

Not me. The one piece of advice I remember getting--and this was in response to a direct question--was from the late brilliant comedy writer and screenwriter Larry Gelbart, who once told me (in response to deciding what to write about), "Go where the pain is."

I believe Mr. Gelbart was a genius, an underappreciated master who could make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same moment (he was also a ridiculously nice man and a gentleman). But I don't think I've ever heeded his advice. I haven't gone where the pain is. It's too painful.

Other than that, I've been on my own for quite some time now. And I don't really mind all that much. I mean, I haven't actually sought out any writing advice, although I haven't actively dissuaded anyone from offering it, either. I guess it's just never come up in conversation. I've met a good number of writers in my time, including many of the fantastically talented Jungle Reds, but I've never asked how they write, nor have they asked me. We just do what we do, and figure if anybody wants to know, they'll say so.

I really don't mind the lack of direct mentoring. I'm not sure I'd be able to implement any changes even a world-class writer might suggest. Writing is such a personal thing, after all. When an aspiring author asks, I will hand out two pieces of... I don't know that I'd call it "advice" so much as "products of experience":

1. Don't tell me about "Writer's Block." I don't believe there is such a thing. I believe writers are the best procrastinators on the planet, will do ANYTHING to avoid pulling the day's allotment of words out of their heads, and therefore have created a fictional disease that prevents them from writing. Nonsense. If you feel "blocked," write anything. It's easier to fix something you've written than to write something new.

2. Here's the exact style and method you should use in your writing: The one that works for you. If it entails getting up at 4 in the morning and working until 9, more power to you. Try not to make too much noise, because I'll be fast asleep. If your process is to write longhand with a quill pen on parchment, enjoy yourself. I am a Jobsian Mac maniac. I will avail myself of technology and write at 4 in the afternoon, when I'm awake. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. That's why there's more than one writer on the planet.

That's it. If you want more advice, you're going to have to ask questions. But I'll give you this for free, because it came from a genius: Go where the pain is.

Maybe it'll work for you.

E.J. Copperman is the author of the Haunted Guesthouse series, in which a divorced mom tries to run a Jersey Shore guesthouse that happens to be inhabited by two ghosts. The latest in the series (which can be read out of order), OLD HAUNTS, publishes on February 7. You can also friend Copperman on Facebook, chat on Twitter, or catch Copperman's blog, Sliced Bread.

Usually, we'd ask you to tell us what writing advice you've used, dear Reader. How about we mix it up this time? Share with us the most ridiculous piece of writing lore you've read or heard!


  1. Loved the post and I completely agree when you say writers are the best procrastinators! We're also dab hand at displacement activities - at least I am, when the mood takes me x

  2. EJ, loved your advice--so easy and easy to remember! I bet you have gone where the pain is--isn't that what mystery writing is all about? The pain is the murder and then what unfolds...

    thanks for stopping by and LOVE your new book cover!

  3. Okay, so the worst writing advice (or at least the silliest) I ever took was in a WRITERS DIGEST article. The author said in order to indicate your character was thinking, you should the character touching his or her head.

    Thus, in my first book, there are a plethora of chin-touching, cheek-stroking, hair-tugging, ear-pulling moments. Ruth Cavin never asked me to edit them out, so they couldn't have been too bad, but still... Needless to say, I later figured out a way to convey thoughts without having my characters smite their pates.

  4. ...smite their pates...I love it!
    Yes...I can remember reading something about giving your characters mannerisms so that readers can distinguish between them. I may have given someone a limp in my first draft!

    Julia, how did you ever manage to get the elusive Copperman here? He's like the Dos Equis man - the most interesting man in the room.

  5. I'm starting to be really glad I never got much writing advice. Then again, if I had, maybe I'd be better now--who's to know? It was very difficult for Julia to lure me here, Ro: She asked.

  6. E.J. you're right. Gelbart was a genius. I own all the paperback books in his MASH series. MASH DOES HOLLYWOOD, VEGAS, PARIS etc. He is one of the greats. And if this is the man you follow, you will be great also.

  7. I once read that libraries will only shelve a book as a mystery if a murder occurs in the first 50 pages.

    This is baloney as my books rarely have a murder before 100 pages and always seem to wind up on the mystery shelf in libraries.

    My way of working is to introduce characters, let us see them interact and then the reader can speculate when a murder occurs.

    So the advice is spot on. Go with what works for you. Who said, "There are only 3 rules for writing, but nobody knows what they are?"

  8. "Who said, "There are only 3 rules for writing, but nobody knows what they are?" "

    Rhys, I think that was W. Somerset Maugham, who also said "Writing is mostly inspiration, and I see that I'm inspired every morning at 9 o'clock."

  9. Love this post! I've absorbed so much writing advice over the years that at times the voices in my head cause my words to plug up entirely.

    But THE worst came from a local novelist and writing-workshop guru, who is a local cottage industry. He's a first-person writer, and his mantra in his workshops was, "Hide the 'Is'." As in, when writing in first person it's lazy, "commercial," horrible writing to actually use "I." Hide them ALL!

    It was ridiculous. All his acolytes ended up writing in a passive, fragmented, subject-less way. It was like coming out of the world's worst MFA program.

    Worse yet, I attended one of his weekend workshops, and I dared to bring a piece in third person. He basically said that he couldn't do anything about people who wanted to write novels you'd only find in the mass market paperback racks at airports. I cried in front of everyone -- and I'm not crier.

    I didn't write for a long time after that, and then my writing voice was effed up for a long time too.

    Sorry going on a little long but I still get mad thinking about it!

  10. Lisa, one of my major writing goals is for one of my books to end up mass market paperback racks at airports. I suppose one person's horror is another person's dream.

  11. Sorry, Nora, but Gelbart had absolutely nothing to do with the MASH books or the movie--just the TV series. But he was undoubtedly a genius.

  12. Thanks to another Jobsian Mac maniac, for the best advice I never got. And reminding me to listen to myself! Nice post.

  13. great post! The best advice I've gotten: My editor said to tighten tense moments...I think it works. Julia's advice was funny though; when I'M thinking I always touch my head :-)

  14. Great post, EJ!

    Rhys, I'm with you. The worst advice. I got was that a murder mystery had to start off with the murder or discovery of the body. I did this with my first book, but in the second one, I had so many suspects at the party where the murder takes place that readers were confused trying to learn who all these people were right at the beginning. So the murder takes place at the end of chapter 2, and it's so much better.

  15. That's the creepiest suggestion I've ever heard, and my last book was called She Felt No Pain from a Browning poem about a sociopath murdering his lover.
    Just not sure I want to read or write that kind of book. Oooo.

  16. Years ago I shared a panel with a writer who claimed she learned to write by re-typing a Sidney Sheldon novel. She recommended her method to about 200 people in the audience. I haven't seen her name on any bestseller lists, however.

  17. Oh, Nancy! If you're going to use that technique (?), why not at least choose a better novelist to retype? Or one with shorter books?

  18. I once read Joan Didion used to write out Hemingway books in longhand, to see what it felt like to write that way.

    Can that be true? Would that even--work?

    Or is that the best procrastination EVER?

    EJ-lovely to see you! xoox

  19. Lovely to see you too, Hank! Amazing advice from everyone--and I mean "amazing" in the literal sense.

  20. They say that great humor is born of great pain. I figure that should make me the next Groucho, but so far all I get is Harpo, with occasional cameos by Chico. heh

    Anyway, great post (as always!)

    You'll be vindicated to know that I am procrastinating right this very moment, as I have some writing to do for school. (My personal procrastination projects will have to wait until after this semester. :)

  21. Susan Navidad, sanavid66@yahoo.comJanuary 31, 2012 at 12:45 AM

    "I want to curl up with Deborah Crombie's No Mark Upon Her

  22. Loved hearing Hank, Deborah and Rosemary in Dallas. BTW, where were they selling those skinny margaritas??

  23. MM, turned out skinny margaritas use Splenda, hmmm...but you can;t take the calories out of tequila. (As my mother used to say!) (And wasn't ALA terrific??)

  24. I want to curl up with Deborah Crombie's "No Mark Upon Her"

  25. What a great post. We're always hearing there are certain ways we must do things, and a lot of it's bunk. Figuring out what works for us is the key. So true about writers being procrastinators, too. Must be in the blood!

    Oh, and best advice I've gotten? Write the book YOU want to.