Posts Tagged ‘Advice’

Interview with author John Donohue

July 7, 2011

During our most recent residency, one of the dominant tips shared by authors, producers, and editors was that physical activity is not only great for the body but also for the mind of writers. Whether it’s to clear our minds and set the tone for the day by taking a creative walk or unwinding with yoga after a long day of editing and revising, physical activity can not only keep our blood but also our creative juices flowing.

One writer who takes the body and mind challenge to heart is John Donohue, author of the award-winning Connor Burke martial art thrillers Sensei, Deshi, and Tengu. An anthropologist who researches and trains in the martial arts, Donohue is associate editor for the Journal of Asian Martial Arts and member of the advisory board for the National Association of Professional Martial Artists. A black belt in karate and kendo, and a faculty member of the Albertus Magnus MFA program, Donohue resides near New Haven, Connecticut.

Donohue has just released his latest novel, Kage: The Shadow. Here’s a brief synopsis of the latest Connor Burke adventure:

In the withered and unforgiving landscape of the American southwest, Connor Burke must pierce the cloud of mystery surrounding the death of notorious ‘mystic’ and best-selling author Elliot Westmann. Hired by the deceased’s estranged daughter, Burke discovers that Westmann’s unfinished manuscripts may contain cryptic details that local border smugglers might kill to keep secret. As Burke digs deeper, facts get convoluted and events get downright dangerous. He soon realizes that he is in way over his head. His only hope is to take matters into his own hands, using his fighting skills and the aid and guidance of his warrior teacher Yamashita.

Here in this Q&A, John chats about his love of martial arts and the balance it provides for him in his writing life:

John, your involvement in martial arts has fed your creative life in many ways. Not only is your Connor Burke series centered on martial arts, but you’ve also credited the sport for developing discipline and persistence. How else has martial arts contributed to your writing life?

Much of the training in the martial arts stresses practice, repetition and the virtues of deferred gratification. The techniques involved are built on the rudiments of human movement, but refined and combined in a way that ultimately (hopefully) leads to a type of elegance.

It strikes me that writing is very much the same type of endeavor—one built on the mastery of rudimentary skills that are then combined to create (once again, hopefully) something of beauty.

Another important lesson learned from the martial arts is that you’re not always going to get it right. You’re going to make mistakes or fail. In sparring, you’re going to get beaten. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t keep at it. I often come across writers I teach who are almost paralyzed with fear—fear that they won’t get it right, fear of criticism. It’s good that they care so much about writing, but if that care keeps you from writing, you need to let that fear go. It’s like crossing swords with an opponent in kendo—if you worry about getting hit (because you will get hit, it’s the way it works) it just makes things worse. So when talking with students about writing, I laughingly use myself as an example and say that while I take my craft seriously I also abide by the motto that “hey, it ain’t Shakespeare.” It’s very liberating.

Do you have a set regime or daily routine? Do you work out and then write or vice versa? What do you find most helpful to motivate you through the day?

Like most writers, I have a day job. Which means I write when I can.  Quite often, I spend the middle part of the weekend writing. When I’m on a real roll, I’ll steal away in the evening to do a bit as well.

I do try to get a daily workout in—even if it’s just a long walk in the woods. I find that I can focus a bit on my writing when I’m walking or running or on the elliptical machine. While the body is chugging along, my mind is free to focus on the latest knotty problem or great idea in the writing project I’m working on.

As for motivation, I’m a big believer in “chunking it”: I break things down into manageable chunks—goals to achieve–and try to do that. Otherwise the prospect of writing a book seems daunting. I also keep an Excel spreadsheet tally of chapters, words, and pages completed. Every time I finish a chapter I enter it in and the spreadsheet shows me my progress. Silly, but I like it.

Some writers find it hard to break away from the computer. What advice might you offer for those of us who are a little more, um, ‘sedentary’ in our writing lives?

It’s easy to get lost in the writing process—after all we create little worlds with our words and enjoy exploring these worlds. But we still have to live in the real world. And being more active means that you can enjoy this world a little bit more (and perhaps a little bit longer).  Plus, I find that I’m more focused when I’m fit. The time I take away from the keyboard doesn’t detract from my writing. It actually helps me work through things. Then I can come back to the desk and get going again.

And you don’t need to sign up for the Ironman contest. A nice walk is a good way to start. How hard is that? If you’re really obsessive about writing, bring a friend or significant other along—you can bore them to tears as you talk about your project.

Does nutrition also play a role in your writing life? Or, when no one is looking, do you snack on fast food? Come on. You must have some ‘bad’ habits, right?

I am abundantly supplied with bad habits, nutritional and otherwise. But interestingly enough, I don’t usually eat or drink much of anything when writing. I occasionally brew up some coffee, but it almost always sits there and gets cold. Because when I’m writing, I’m writing.

Speaking of discipline, how do you balance your writing and teaching? You’re very prolific, yet you devote much of your time to student writers. Does the one activity feed the other? How so?

For me, teaching is a real treat. I spend much of my time at administrative duties at my college, so being able to walk into the classroom in the MFA program is like a holiday. I enjoy talking with student writers, of exploring issues and problems with them. I find that, as often as not, they’re teaching me things. In addition, when I have to prepare for a class, I need to think through my ideas about writing and set them down. It often helps me to formalize ideas that have been swirling around in my head but I haven’t had time to formally express them.

Your latest book in the Connor Burke series, Kage: The Shadow, follows Burke as he discovers mysteries buried in the unfinished manuscripts of best-selling author Elliot Westmann. Do you yourself have many unfinished projects? Were they deliberately abandoned or are any of these projects ones you may return to at some point?

Like every writer, I have “the bottom drawer.” It’s the place where finished (yet unwanted) manuscripts go to die. Or to age. I have had the experience of tossing something into a drawer only to pull it out a few years later and find that a publisher is interested.

Currently I have two novels in the drawer—Wave Man, about a mob leg-breaker who develops a conscience and is trying to get out of his life, and The Qi Eaters, which is a paranormal thriller with Asian mystic overtones.

I’m working now on the next book in the Burke series, but also have at least three other novel ideas in various stages of development.

Finally, you’ve found a nice balance between teaching, writing, and staying physically active. Do you have any tips to offer emerging writers?

You’ve got to keep at it. Think less. Do more. Stop worrying—most of us aren’t going to get rich and it probably isn’t going to be Shakespeare—but it’s important. And hard. So it’s worth doing. The Japanese martial artists have a saying: “hakka yoi”—keep at it.

So that’s my advice—hakka yoi.


Thanks, John!

Visit author John Donohue’s website here.

Read a preview and purchase Kage on amazon here.

Ten Ideas for Keepin’ it Real

May 12, 2011

Preparing for writing success demands common sense and self care

by Gale Martin

You’ve just completed your novel, your memoir, or your chapbook. You’ve gotten strong feedback from your beta-reader(s) or an outside evaluator through the Wilkes University Creative Writing program where you’ve received unprecedented access to the almighty gatekeepers—agents and editors. Maybe you attended a conference and pitched your book to an agent who requested a complete manuscript. Nothing can stop you now. Surely, you’ll have a publishing contract in hand within months, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. According to Putting Your Passion into Print, more than 150,000 books are conventionally published every year. That’s an incredibly large number of publishing opportunities compared to the number of screenplays actually made into feature length films every year. There’s plenty of room for good books—yours included.

Statistics such as ‘less than five percent of popular booksellers total sales are bestsellers’ provide reason enough to be optimistic that you may one day join the ranks of published authors. That is, if you don’t expect too much success too soon. That’s the fastest route to burnout. Expecting to be the next overnight writing sensation might be the single greatest handicap to the writing career you so desperately seek. Prepare instead for a long slog. Commit yourself and your faculties to writerly habits and a lifestyle that can sustain you and your writing career.

Keep writing.  After I wrote my first novel in 2005, I was so proud of the fact that I’d completed a work of fiction, I used to carry it around with me wherever I went. After a few months, a pair of tired arms, and only one nibble from an agent, I realized that completing a novel was only the beginning of my writerly journey. I began writing flash fiction, short stories, and humorous essays while I began plotting my next novel. One of the writers I follow on Twitter who is also a literary agent never sold his first book—the one he was certain would sell. But sold plenty after that. So, keep writing. It’s never good to pin your hopes to one manuscript.

The Raven's Bride by Lenore Hart

Not to mention that editors and agents want writers who are good for more than one book. One of the Wilkes’ faculty members Lenore Hart sold her latest book The Raven’s Bride before it was written. Her publisher was banking on Lenore’s reputation for producing another publishable novel.

Keep submitting other work elsewhere.  As long as you continue writing, you’ll not only be honing your craft, have work to submit to publications and contests. For most of us, rejections far outweigh acceptances. You have to submit a critical level of work before the odds start turning in your favor. Once they do, every acceptance is validation to stay the course and builds confidence which you’ll need for more rejections and the inevitable slog.

Set reasonable goals.  In recent craft classes at Wilkes, writer Lori A. May shared a framework for goal setting for a rich, focused writing career. Her model encourages writers to think in bigger chunks beyond the next story, the next month, the next acceptance. Set goals that will stretch you. But don’t doom yourself to failure either by comparing yourself to someone who’s achieved instant publishing success or setting irrational goals, such as, “Will have literary representation in one month.” Perhaps you won’t. I just interviewed a writer on my blog Scrivengale who has published four books but doesn’t have an agent. Make your goal instead, “Will query five agents every month.”

Volunteer to judge a contest. Reading others writers’ work with whom you’re not competing head to head, within your cohort or in the Wilkes program in general, can be eye-opening. It’s a productive way to learn from others’ mistakes and successes while being a good literary citizen.

Look for outlets to read your work. If none exist, create one. One of the great privileges published authors enjoy is the chance to read their work in public venues. In the Wilkes program, students are given several opportunities to do that. Once you’re out of the program, it’s one of the things you miss most.

Public Readings Provide Exposure

At least I did because I love reading my work. Not seeing anything available in her hometown, one of the students in my cohort Ally Bishop went out and created an outlet for writers in Central Pennsylvania to read their work—published and unpublished—readings in which I’ve taken part. I know other Wilkes students are following Ally’s example, approaching galleries, book shops, and coffee shops about offering literary readings.

Get a writing group together. Writing is an insular life. If you don’t have an editor to give you pause to think about your narrative arc, to redirect your work, you would probably benefit from participating in a writing group. I said a writing group, not a shredding group. I’ve been in a shredding group—an utter waste of time and potentially devastating. If you can find a handful of other writers committed to careful reading and constructive criticism, it helps fill the gap left between working with a faculty mentor or a professional editor and writing in solitude.

Explore other avenues of sharing your work, like Scribd. I just learned about, a social publishing site, where tens of millions of people share original writings and documents. One young woman who wrote a memoir but couldn’t obtain any interest from a conventional publisher, shared her memoir in segments on Scribd, obtaining three thousand readers per post. Few bloggers can attract that volume of readership. It may be worth your time investigating.

Write something for sheer enjoyment. I’m not sure where I heard about this online writing community at The Write Idea, an international group of poets and prose writers, but for three years now I have participated in a nine-round fiction contest with some of the most generous, talented writers I’ve ever met. It is sheer fun to receive the prompts, chat them up on the site, and see how everyone fares following each round of judging. This contest is something I do just for the love of writing and as such, the sustenance it offers me is invaluable.

Create something for sheer enjoyment. I read Jane Friedman’s blog There Are No Rules  regularly, which is how I learned about Scribd. In one of her columns, Jane also mentioned a site called, which allows writers and other creatives the chance to create a free splash page, in lieu of a full-blown website. It was a great exercise trying to encapsulate my writing experience and persona into a splash page and lots of fun doing so.

Strive for a more balanced life. Shortly after I finished the Wilkes program, I needed a month to thaw out, having combined my studies with demanding full-time jobs. Then I looked around my very untidy house, threw myself into some cleaning projects, and planned an anniversary celebration. I also recommitted myself to regular church attendance and singing in the choir, which meant rehearsing one night a week away from my *sigh* laptop, which I was certain was attached to my fingers. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the level of life balance I enjoyed before I began writing creatively, but the writing schedule a master’s or MFA program demands wasn’t going to sustain my marriage or a life well-lived. I simply had to make some changes.

To outsiders, it may appear that I’ve ratcheted down my expectations for my publishing career, but that’s not an accurate assessment of my approach to my post-Wilkes writing. I’m merely steeling myself for a long slog but fully intending to appreciate any smaller success along the way.

Gale Martin

Gale Martin has been writing creatively since 2005. Recent accolades include first-place in short fiction from the 2009 Writers-Editors International and Scratch writing competitions. She also received her first Pushcart Prize nomination in 2009 for a short story published in Greensilk Journal. Her work has appeared online and in print in various publications such as The Christian Science Monitor, Sirens Magazine, Duck & Herring Company’s Pocket Field Guide, and The Giggle Water Review and in several anthologies. She hosts a writing blog called “Scrivengale.”

She hosts an opera blog, “Operatoonity,” and is the accredited Metropolitan Opera reviewer for Bachtrack, an online site featuring classical performance. She lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which serves as a rich source of inspiration for her writing.