Getting That Writerly Feedback


While on the subject of editing, here are a few of my rationales for how I go about that process and a few bullets regarding reviews and edits. Your process will certainly be different, but maybe there are a few takeaways here for you.

I don’t choreograph my novels, except when I expect a lot of characters and/or subplots. And what this means to my writing process is a lot of harm scrum writing, a plot line that is disjointed and distorted (although I’m getting better at initially assembling a coherent plot with a proper palate of characters). The quality and consistency of my prose gets worked out fairly well during incremental editing of sentence structure, imaginative word selection, and voice. A savvy reader will appreciate this, but said reader and those who simply read for plot pleasure usually don’t take the time to savor our writing style. This doesn’t mean you should be sloppy in that regard; it simply means be aware of the different motivations and expectations of readers and do what you can to accommodate them.


It’s important to get reader feedback, too. And recognize there are four basic kinds of such legitimate feedback:

  1. critique groups. These can tend toward the nit-picky, but such encounters may be your writing’s first valid exposure to how readers see your writing.
  2. comments by independent editors you engage, or once you’ve signed a publishing contract, the publisher will almost always require an editor to look the work over. Here, publishers often look for certain structures in the writing they seek to publish, and your editor’s comments may be to accommodate this.
  3. reviews on websites and the like, such as Goodreads, Amazon, and  Barnes & Noble. These will be the first place readers will test-drive your completed and published works. Solicit these even before the book is officially published.
  4. Magazine and newspaper reviews. Here, your validation of such reviews can be complicated. These reviewers often evaluate the writer through the work, meaning the critic may like your writing, but for various reasons not like you. Or vice versa.


Don’t feel put off during any of these review stages. However, don’t always take them in toto. This is your work, your reputation on the line, so only take from these what you believe will improve a particular work or your writing in general.


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Sharpening The Pencil



I’m not tired of fiction writing, by any means. But I do tend toward predictability if not occasional outright laziness in my writing, and that’s why I’m spending time editing a 20+ year-old piece of poetry. Now, I don’t pretend to be a poet, nor do I fully understand contemporary  poetry. And that’s why this perhaps overlong piece looks and sounds like 1930s verse. But its use to me is to sharpen the macro view of what I’m trying to say here – and to make every word count.

I recently submitted a rather old novel manuscript to an indie editor for advice on how to sharpen the story – if indeed it needed such. According to AB, my editor, it needed a complete redo. And here’s where I both encourage and and caution writers in following in my footsteps. I learned years ago that editors won’t spend the time with a manuscript that you the writer will; consequently, they likely will not see the story as you do. But such editorial looks will allow you to see how your story seems to interested readers.

In my case, the editor was frustrated with the supposed genre and what exactly the story is about. The manuscript was intended to be about two old friends reencountering one another after some thirty years’ absence. And as often happens, the old friendship still has heft, but it also has difficulties in the extreme. And I wanted to use a geophysical phenomenon as a metaphor for the friendship, which makes the story more literary than commercial genre. And so, after a cordial Skype meet-up with AB, I decided to rewrite to make the story center more on the two main characters than on my supposed plot. Take about killing off some of your best stuff!

But back to the poem.

When writing short or long fiction you can sometimes get away with the occasional bad writing and a de-emphasis on cohesive story. Poetry, however, will tolerate neither. Poetry does have its freedoms, to be sure, but the more you exercise those freedoms the sharper the piece’s language has to be, the more crystal clear the overall effect of the poem demands to be.

So I’m struggling through this in order to sharpen my prosaic pencil. But i’m not being so mercenary as to consider this poem to be the literary equivalent of slave labor. After all, I do like to write poetry, too. Just to give you an idea of what I’ve been doing, here’s a sample of the poem’s beginning, intended to be modern and metaphysical. DIVISIONS is the first section of three parts, and this is how that section begins.



Morning sun, warm on my back,

your breath smells of salt.

Is it your smile

that thrills me so,

or the raucous tune I hear

bouncing over the ocean?

Please! Let your lyric wash

Over me like a new reality.


But a question darkens the thought –
What need do I have of a new reality?

Perhaps there’s need enough

in this early morning chill

to root me in this world forever.

I dare not rise above the water’s

surface, shivering, blind with hunger,

And beg for what’s already mine.



Have you seen beyond

The clouded window? Cold rain

Begins to slant over distant waters.

Can you recall The One?


Mighty sea, mother eternity,

I once rose above you, and

dark forces spirited me away

to a shining city, streets

paved with the salt

of imperious science.

It was there I lost myself

in idleness and poverty.


Do you abide such lassitude?

Only under the spell of

asymmetrical moments.

Infinite sea, your limits

taste the world at every turn.

For the sake of my illumination,

why does my awe of you

seem so much like fear?



Walking barefoot through

this place of dual worlds

is difficult        better still

to touch the face of The One.



I’ve abandoned friends for this,

my surrender to your waves.

I baptize myself then dive

to calmer water where

something of the past

endures, then I bolt upward,

tumbling and rolling with salt

on my tongue and sand in my suit.


Is it really possible to be born

anew in each moment

in these self-same bodies,

wave after wave,

resisting the undertow

water dripping from my nose?

I fear I’m a silly knave destined

To learn the same lessons over and over.




What do you know of the sun,

the solar orb of Helios?

does his solitude

encompass The One?



Noon, and I walk the crystal

sands and watch the crabs dance,

living their measure of life.

Here at the edge,

the moveable frontier,

neither sea nor sand exist.

Here, new elemental forces

are bent on being born.


Dare I speak of what is real

in such a place?   Perhaps not.

Hang reality, I ask for silence.

But a fertile mind knows

no silence. It’s an ocean

of thought, torrents of it,

spreading its fantasies across

a universe of time and space.



The day quickens.

Do you hear the echoing gulls?

A cloud of hearts

Beating within The One.


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Humanizing A Legend


The Kid, by Ron Hansen

Over the years Ron Hansen has been perhaps my favorite contemporary writer, and as far as I know, I’ve been a loyal reader, having read every published piece he’s written. Even met him years ago in Atlanta, had the opportunity to chat briefly with him that evening. The thing about being so familiar with another writer’s work: the other’s writing – both the good and the not-so-good – becomes glaringly obvious.

Hansen’s work has been largely historical fiction, from other legendary western heroes to Hitler to somewhat contemporary religious personalities. Most fiction these days virtually requires saturating the writing with historical data from the book’s era, and Hansen seems to have the best historical resources of any contemporary writer. The danger in using such amassed research material, though, is in overusing it, and Hansen seems increasingly liable in this regard. Another danger, and this is merely the other side of the coin in using research material to that extent, is in allowing the characterization and storyline to suffer because of it. This too seems to be an indulgence that Hansen owns, although reviews indicate he gets away with it.
In the case of The Kid, the author seems compelled to use every bit of minutiae at his command, particularly the brands of clothing, including and especially hats. The operative rule here is generally “Does this information help depict the story’s landscape? Does it help set the story’s mood and aid in allowing the characters to come alive?” In this novel, for perhaps its first half, the narrative flow bogs down from an excess of such detail, as if the reader must assay these story characteristics through a microscope instead of enjoying them in panorama.


But invariably, as in this novel, Hansen’s work planes out and the writing gains its necessary use of the author’s “camera” in negotiating close-ups and panoramas, in exposing Billy the Kid’s true character, and in pacing the story. And, as in other of his works, Hansen’s insight into the import of his subject’s place in history always seems unique, provocative and, more than likely, ultimately accurate. As I continually state, no piece of writing, especially fiction, is perfect, and while sticking with Hansen’s books sometimes takes patience, that patience is always rewarded.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars


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Are We Not Boyle?



I’ve complained here before that writers shouldn’t use fiction to advance their personal causes or issues. Never say never, of course, and it took author T. C. Boyle to show how to have your agenda and tell a good story too.

My writing mentor, Doris Betts, once told me that either you’re a novelist or a short story writer, that trying to be both will diminish your talent at the one you’re really good at. This doesn’t daunt the best writers, though. Consider the ones who continue to try, including T. C. Boyle. I’ve read some of Boyle’s long fiction and quite a bit of his short stuff, and while he’s a most capable writer across the board, I think in his case Doris was right; Boyle’s gift is in short fiction.


Which brings me to his story, “Are We Not Men?” in the November 7, 2016, issue of New Yorker magazine. Boyle apparently worries, as we likely all should, about the dark side of genetic manipulation. Gene tinkering hasn’t hit society full bore yet, which demonstrates another “ism:”social phenomena are born and have their first pronouncements through the arts. But back to how a skilled writer might editorialize and still have readers enjoy it.

I won’t go into a lot of boring classroom analyses here – just read the story. As you do, you’ll come across freakish, cross-bred pets which, if that were the sum of Boyle’s story, this reader would grind his molars, roll his eyes, and find a way not to notice Boyle’s wit, his cross-breeding of French and English. But he rolls all this into a family/marital drama I daresay everyone in the US of A can relate to, even laugh at.

This then is the trick, fellow writers: be subversive. grind your axe if you must, but slip it into a witty, trenchant story. All things register in fiction, perhaps in multiple readings, but they do register.


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A German Interlude



The House By The Lake, by Ella Carey

Genre blending is the new passion in writer land. We’re mixing non-fiction with fiction, memoir with fiction, fictionalized essays, and perhaps more I can’t think of at the moment. The skill in writing such blends into a cohesive whole is no small feat, and Ms. Carey has done a good job, in her case, of merging history with fiction.

The story is in two parts, alternated. First, grandfather Max asks Anna to go to his old home in Germany and retrieve a mysterious object that’s suddenly grown dear to Max. The rest of this part of the story has her doing so, with the help of German lawyer Wil. The second part is essentially a series of flashbacks to Max’s early life in Germany prior to WWII, and his love affair with a now-mysterious woman, Isabelle.


The book is at its base a romance novel, easy fodder for reading groups and clubs. Still, Ms. Carey structures her story well and steers fairly clear of the romance cliches. The manner in which she alternates in time takes some getting used to, but the separate parts begin to cleave to one another as the story progresses. This is Ms. Carey’s second novel, and it shows the skills necessary to develop strong characters and blend them into fictionalized history.

My rating: 17 of 20 Stars


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Making Room For The New


It’s an urge I get once in a while – to replace some of my rattier things, something I don’t do often until I’m threadbare. New bed coverings, new area carpets, getting rid of old things from my marriage, too.

And here’s another thing:

I’m getting rid of my inventory of books written by yours truly to make room for the anticipated influx of new.

The prices are bargain basement. In away I hate to do it, but it’s time to try to increase my readership. You can go to my website – this is the only place you’ll find these prices – here, where you’ll find more about the books, including some great book trailers, then click over to the “STORE” page to make these unbelievable purchases.

I know you’ll enjoy what you find there.

A Really Great Review

Collateral Damage NEW Cover copy 3

We writers read for enjoyment, yes, but try as we might, we find ourselves sizing up the competition. At first we gain prototypes from which we learn. As we continue to grow in technique and possibly in talent, we try to fit ourselves into the panoply of writers: the famous, who make the money; the geniuses, who give us new structure and vocabulary; the storytellers, who hold us speechless as we turn page after page.

This is largely what we writers do when we blog books. But occasionally we grab the brass ring for ourselves, and something we’ve written becomes praiseworthy in the eyes, the ears, the mind, of prominent reviewers. I received such a gift this weekend – – praise for my latest, Collateral Damage and Stories. What transpired? Have a look:

Asheville_Citizen-Times_20160724_D03_2-REVIEW_Collateral Damage and Other Stories_Bob_Mustin

Thank you, Rob Neufeld!