- Why writing outside our genre is essential to honing our writing skills.
- How screenwriting and short stories can have a positive impact on our writing abilities.
- More editing resources for writers.
It forces me to explore styles and genres I might otherwise have avoided. It’s a terrific way to hone your skills.
Welcome to the twenty seventh episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with writer Michael Hill about his wide writing experience and editing resources.
Arthur: Tell me about your writing journey. When did you start writing and how did you get to where you are today? Are there successes and failures you learned from? How did you – and how do you continue – to hone your writing craft?
MKH: I’ve been writing most of my life. I wrote my first story, The Bug, complete with stapled pages and an illustrated cover when I was eight years old. Recently I shared a photo of it on my Twitter account, making a joke that I’ve been in the self-publishing game since 1975.
However, I didn’t get serious about writing until high school. I took a creative writing class which required a new story every week. I was turning in a story a day. My teacher, Louise DiMeo, was terrific and encouraged my enthusiasm. I sometimes submitted stories written on napkins because an idea hit me at lunch and I didn’t have my notebook. By my senior year, the head of the English Department, Arthur Groth, took me under his wing and gave me more challenging assignments. My favorite involved being given a story started and finished by my favorite author, Stephen King, and I needed to write the middle. Mr. Groth submitted it to a writing competition, and it resulted in a newspaper story about me.
After high school, I pursued a career in film and television production. I spent two decades in the field, working first as a writer and performer for a sketch comedy program, before moving into video editing and producing for networks like CBS, ESPN, ABC Sports, A&E, and Outdoor Life.
During that time I sold non-fiction work published internationally to magazines and websites. I wrote several feature screenplays and spec scripts for shows like The X-Files and Millennium. However, none of them sold.
It wasn’t until I retired from film and TV, about five years ago, that I returned to writing fiction again. I took part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and wrote my first novel. Since then I’ve written three more. Over the last three years, I’ve also worked in a creativity challenge hosted by Zoetic Press, called Write Like You’re Alive. Because of the rigorous schedule (31 pieces in 31 days), it forces me to explore styles and genres I might otherwise have avoided. It’s a terrific way to hone your skills. The short stories I crafted there became the contents of my first published book, a collection called Anansi and Beyond: Short Stories, Magic, and Nightmares.
This year I completed my first romance novel, A Different Time, and I’m now in the process of gaining literary representation.
Arthur: I loved your novel, A DIFFERENT TIME. Incredible. What was your inspiration behind the story? What made you write it?
MKH: The novel began as a short story I wrote in 2016. The original idea sprang from a conversation with my daughter. She had committed to a 365 Project where she would take a different photograph each day for a year. I loved the idea and thought about a story where someone in the future found those photos and connected with them. As I made notes, I changed the format from pictures to a video diary, and the story took off from there.
In November of 2017, I wanted to again take part in NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t yet have a book idea in mind. I looked over the material I’d written in the previous year, and the story about the 365 Project seemed to have the most potential for expanding into a novel. So although I’d never undertaken writing a romance novel, I accepted the challenge.
Screenwriting is a great way to sharpen your skills with dialogue and learning to maintain forward momentum in a story.
Arthur: You’re a screenwriter also. Do you feel screenwriting and novel writing go hand-in-hand? Are there certain skills or mindsets that screenwriters can learn from novelists, and things novelists can learn from screenwriters?
MKH: They are different animals. With a novel, you have the freedom to explore the nooks and crannies of your story or delve into exciting side characters. You can’t generally do that with a screenplay. Also, because filmmaking is a visual medium, you don’t have the luxury of getting inside a character’s head to reveal her thoughts and feelings, unless you resort to voice-overs, which you should avoid.
Screenwriting is a great way to sharpen your skills with dialogue and learning to maintain forward momentum in a story. In a script, every scene must have a purpose. It should either reveal character or move the story toward its conclusion. For me, that has made my novel writing leaner and more focused.
Arthur: What is your editing process? Do you have access to an editor? What are editing resources a writer could pursue if they don’t have the funds for a good editor?
MKH: My first pass at editing involves the use of software designed to flag grammatical errors, redundancies, and other problems. However, what I’ve learned is there’s no substitute for a flesh and blood editor. I’m fortunate to have one of the best on the planet. My editor is a gentleman named David Taylor (@theditors on Twitter) and I can’t say enough about him, he’s fantastic. A great editor does more than just correct mistakes; they improve your book.
That’s what happened with my novel, A Different Time. I had written a strong ending, but when David read it, he immediately saw a way to improve it, and he was right. There is no question the editing work by David Taylor elevated my book.
I know finding the funds to pay an editor can be hard for new writers. But it’s such a critical part of the publishing process, and it doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. Some exceptional editors work for reasonable rates. If you’re planning on submitting your manuscript to a literary agent or publishing house, invest a few hundred dollars into a professional edit.
If that isn’t possible, then perhaps you can rely on the help of fellow writers to proofread your work and make suggestions, but the results won’t be the same as hiring a pro.
There’s no substitute for a flesh and blood editor.
Arthur: How are you publicizing your work? Is there a strategy which yields a better return on the marketing investment?
MKH: I’m atrocious at publicity. A writer should discuss his or her work, almost anywhere, anytime. I’m terrible at it. For promotion, I’ve bought advertising on Twitter and Facebook and focused it on the appropriate demographics for the material. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been very successful for me. A big reason is there’s a tremendous amount of book solicitations already happening in social media. It’s at a saturation point.
A more effective approach is getting your manuscript into the hands of a reviewer with a large following of readers. A favorable recommendation from them can translate into a sales boost. But again, the sheer volume of work getting published makes it very difficult to even get your book into the review pile. Most times, you need to submit your manuscript several months before your release date.
I wish I had a more helpful answer, but marketing for self-publishers is challenging.
Arthur: You have a short story collection available as well. Do you prefer writing shot fiction or longer works? Why? Do you think it could be beneficial for writers to attempt both forms?
MKH: I started out writing short stories, and I’ve always had a love for it. As a kid, my favorite writers all wrote excellent short fiction, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Poe, and Lovecraft. However, the truth is it’s hard to sell short stories now. Back in the 1950’s, there were many publications dedicated to short-form fiction, but that’s not the case today.
The one advantage to writing shorter material is it’s easier to finish. Some writers struggle with completing a book, and it’s understandable. Novels are complicated things with lots of moving parts. Short stories can help writers get into the habit of finishing their work and that’s important. Meanwhile, they are also honing their storytelling skills.
The ability to set my writing apart from others happened over time as I developed my own voice.
Arthur: Do you write more in one genre over others? How do you set your writing apart from other works in that genre?
MKH: Most of my work tends to be in the horror or science fiction genres. That’s the stuff I grew up reading and still enjoy. But getting involved with things like creativity sprints, where you are challenged to write something new every day is a great way to explore genres and styles that are unfamiliar. It’s how I ended up writing a romance novel.
The ability to set my writing apart from others happened over time as I developed my voice. It’s the result of writing and reading a lot. I started out emulating the work of my favorite writers, but eventually, I found my style, and now I’m working to improve it.
Arthur: Are there genres outside of your comfort zone you hope to write one day?
MKH: Well, writing a romance novel was indeed outside my comfort zone. Currently, I have several projects in various stages of development. There’s a science fiction thriller novel I’ve completed the first draft of, a non-fiction book about animal rescue I have outlined, and a series of children’s books I’m considering. So, I’m kind of all over the place.
Getting involved with things like creativity sprints is a great way to explore genres and styles that are unfamiliar.
Arthur: With today’s changing technology – hard copies of books to ebooks – and social media, what kind of writing advice or help do you think modern writers are craving most?
MKH: I think despite changing technology, a writer’s needs stay the same. I’ve been active in online writing forums for over a decade, and you see common requests: how to overcome writer’s block, tips for marketing, help with query letters, and feedback on their material. Being part of these communities, or even better, a dedicated writers’ group is an excellent way to get insight and answers to questions.
Arthur: How do you practice your writing craft when not working on your current work in progress?
MKH: I keep trying to improve my work by challenging myself to compete in things like creativity sprints, free writing, flash fiction, exploring new forms like poetry or songwriting, and entering events such as NaNoWriMo.
Short stories can help writers get into the habit of finishing their work and that’s important.
Arthur: I’ve asked other writers about their writing tools, such as pens and notebooks they use. What are your writing tools? How do you keep track of your ideas for future stories?
MKH: When I was much younger, all my writing happened on paper. But as my desk became cluttered with piles of filled notebooks, my ability to find things written in them, diminished significantly, and I knew I needed a better way to work.
I’m a technology junkie, and once I got my first computer in the late 1980s, I never looked back. My primary writing system now is a Windows PC, with dual monitors, and all my writing software installed (Scrivener, Word, Grammarly, ProWritingAid, MasterWriter, and Evernote). I also have a laptop, and an iPad I use occasionally, with a Bluetooth keyboard. I have Scrivener installed on all of them, and I sync my work with Dropbox. That allows me to pick up right where I left off, regardless of which system I’m using.
All my ideas get logged and organized in Evernote. It’s installed on all my devices and my iPhone too. That’s a big help for me because I don’t always have a computer with me, but I don’t go anywhere without the phone. So it’s perfect to make quick notes about a story, or a piece of dialogue, or a random idea that pops into my head. The architecture of Evernote software makes it super easy to find whatever I’m looking for when I need it. The basic app is free, but I pay for the upgrade which provides unlimited storage. It’s about 5 dollars a month, but well worth it for me.
Arthur: Bill Ricardi talked about his writing space and how it allows him to focus on his craft. Tell me about your writing space. Are there specific attributes to your work space which help you focus on your writing? How do you free yourself from distraction when you’re in the middle of a writing session?
MKH: My writing space is perfect for me. The desk is in the corner, there are no windows, and I can close the door and be free from any interruptions. My computer has dual monitors, so I have my work-in-progress open on one screen, and the other is used to view research, writing aids (thesaurus, dictionary), or notes from my editor.
The computer is connected to the Internet so I can conduct research, but that means I have to resist the urge to check emails or visit social media while I’m working. I’ve conditioned myself to avoid those things until I’ve completed my daily writing session.
Depending on what phase of my writing I’m in, I may turn on ambient sounds like rain or ocean waves. Sometimes I’ll play classical music or jazz at a low volume, and other times I work in silence. The one thing I never go without is a cup of coffee.
A great editor does more than just correct mistakes; they improve your book.
Thank you so much, Michael, for sharing your editing and writing resources with the writing community here at Strange World and in the INTERVIEWS FROM THE VOID series. Be sure to check out more of Michael’s work and his short story collection.