Write or Die-Valuable Tips to Keep Your Writing Alive

The home of Victor Villaseñor, So. California
The home of Victor Villaseñor, So. California

Write or die.

This is the message my October writing life sent me. To that end, I went on a writing retreat with my group, WOmen Who Write (WoWW), attended SCWBI’s Writer’s Day, enrolled in an online University of Iowa workshop (free), and attended the Los Angeles Writer’s Digest Conference.

I’m a little tired from all this, but I have to tell you about our writing retreat in Carlsbad, California and share some writing tips.

We, eight women, arrived at Casa Villaseñor by way of Airbnb, never expecting to meet the esteemed writer Victor Villasenor, author, and owner of the home. After producing nine novels, 65 short stories and close to 300 rejections, he sold his first novel, Macho!, which the Los Angeles Times compared to the best of John Steinbeck.

Rain of Gold became a national best-seller and translated into seven languages. Another of his books was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I mention this about the author because his body of work evidences his persistence as a writer, the write or die philosophy.

We were surprised to find Mr. Villasenor on the grounds of the home. He was in another house (his casita) because he was finishing up a new novel. I can’t tell you what it’s about but I can say his joy of finishing the work was shared with all of us.

Through conversation, I picked up some valuable writing tips and I’m sharing these with you:

Every sentence needs to do one of the following:

  1. Scare the brain

  2. Touch the heart

  3. Inspire the soul

“Writing is about the moment, you are nowhere else, you are totally there…cause the person to live the moment with you.”-Victor Villaseñor

A few of us made a mad dash for our writing projects and examined our first pages. Sure enough, there was plenty of revision to work on.

The local chapter of Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrator’s (SCWBI) put on a “Writer’s Day,” at the Cal Lutheran University campus.

I attended a panel composed of literary agents and editors which I enjoyed. This is what they look for when they decide to read the first page of a Middle Grade or Young Adult work:

  1. Is the language child or teen-focused?
  2. Are there too many characters?
  3. Do I know whose story this is?
  4. Is the writer guilty of violating R.U.E? ( Resist the Urge to Explain)
  5. Where are we in the scene?
  6. Can I get a sense of the protagonist?
  7. Is the description embedded in action and dialogue?
  8. Do the details further the story?

If your first 250 words make it pass those eight questions the agent may read on to the next page. I venture to guess these tips apply to most fiction.

The esteemed University of Iowa, Writing Workshops has a free online course titled “Storied Women.” You can get a lot of writing bang for no bucks if you take this course. Although the course started Oct. 21, 2016, it doesn’t close until next month. You can still view the video’s and notes on voice, identity, point of view, plot, and structure.


Closer to home was the Writer’s Digest 2016 Writers Conference in downtown Los Angeles. I chose to drive into LA rather than stay at the storied Westin Bonaventure.

Friday traffic was crazy with the rain and the morning commute. The skyscrapers blended into the bleak sky, dark jackets and umbrellas scurried on the sidewalks.

On Saturday morning, the downtown was eerily quiet. No rain, no rushing, no noise.

The Westin Bonaventure-Los Angeles, downtown.
The Westin Bonaventure-Los Angeles, downtown.

I have to say, Writer’s Digest gives good workshops at a reasonable price. Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, presented last night. Alas, no photo of Ms. Smiley, but you can see some interesting photos of the Halloween Party (which I didn’t attend) on Twitter. Look under #WDNWC16. I do love the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Writer’s Block” costumes.

My favorite workshop was “Openings That Sell,” presented by literary agent and editor, Paula Munier.

“This is why I keep reading,” she began. Your first pages must have:

1-Strong voice

2-The level of craft is high

3-The character makes me feel something: there is an emotional impact in the first scene

4-Something happens (aka you have an inciting incident, a call to adventure)

5-A unique story or a story with a unique twist.

6-There’s a market for this story. 

7-The writer has gained my confidence and the page passes “the ahh test.” They provide a certain kind of experience.

8-It’s clear what kind of story is being told by the language.

9-The prose is clear, clean, and concise. Opt for clarity all the time.

10-Free of grammatical errors.

A great story is life, with the dull parts taken out-Alfred Hitchcock

Larry Brooks presented “The Most Important Moment in your Story.” There was a lot of material in this workshop about concept, premise, and the dramatic arc. He has a website, StoryFix.com, where you can visit and read all the good stuff he has for writers.

I hope you found some tips in this post to use or share.

Keep calm and write on.


Autumn Revisited

My autumn Bougainvillea
My autumn Bougainvillea

On this Saturday morning there is a damp coolness in the air. The skinny birch trees in my backyard are almost naked of their yellow leaves. The only spots of color are from the Miami Pink bougainvillea climbing up the stucco walls towards my Talavera sun goddess mask. Only in Southern California can you have bouginvillea plants alive in late autumn. Well, maybe Florida too.

This poem, by Frank de Jesus Acosta, was on my Facebook feed this morning. Frank shares his poetry with those who subscribe to his Facebook. On many mornings I find that his words resonant with me, lift me up, make me pause and think, and overall contribute to my day. Thank you Frank.

The colors of Autumn sunrise in LA-Albert Valles, Photographer
The colors of Autumn sunrise in LA-Albert Valles, Photographer

Autumn Revisited

The morning chill is brief

in the city of angels

Once the sun gives rise

to November days

Autumn paints orange-red leaves

gently falling off balding trees

A many colored quilt

blankets lawns and quiet walkways

This Saturday seems sleepier than most

all at once I yawn and smile

A long list of chores lies on the table

where it will likely see tomorrow

Days like these are made

to find the sweetness of life

A psalm of praise, a song of renewal

random acts of loving kindness

A bike ride to the park, my paradise

island of green in an ocean of concrete

I walk barefoot in the green cool grass

resting against a tree to watch the children play

Unfettered minds releasing their genius

creating new worlds of harmony and joy

Cities made of caramel stones

lollipop trees and chocolate milk rivers

Closing my eyes, their chatter and laughter

brings enchantment to a broken world

A circle of elders drum and sing

wafts of burning sage evoke a prayer of thanks

Releasing my spirit from worry

trials and troubles that weigh down dreams

An Autumn day is healing and joyous

if you surrender to its beauty

I lay me down on my bed of grass

searching the clouds for the face of God

A cool breeze caresses my sun kissed skin

I realize, God resides in all creation

The Creator is breath in water

spirit fire of all life in earth and heaven

A grandmother and child pass me hand in hand

and the arc of living is revealed

We are one inter-dependent circle of blood

spirit, heart, and mind; cradle to grave

As the chill returns slowly to the afternoon air

a list of things undone invades my sanctum

Defiantly I mount my rubber wheeled steed

to find the highest point of landscape

From where I can bid this day farewell

with its sweetness and its freedom

This Saturday seemed sleepier than most

and all at once I yawn and smile

As the world around me grows glowing orange-red

I feel the presence of God in the Autumn sunset

Poem by: Frank de Jesus Acosta