Great writing tips from Sleuthfest and James W. Hall

By Christine DeSmet

 I attended Sleuthfest in Deerfield Beach, Florida, a few days ago and wanted to report on why James W. Hall got a huge standing ovation.

Many of you know him from his fabulous suspense books set in Florida and starring Thorn.

Jim keynoted our very own Writers’ Institute in Madison one year, so it was a pleasure to see him again.

When James Patterson didn’t show for the Sleuthfest luncheon, Jim took the podium and filled in without skipping a beat. He delivered super tips about writing. Plus, Jim Hall had great jokes!

No joke here:  I loved his analogy about writing about bananas. Jim said writers too often start out writing about bigger things about life but should instead write about the bananas. Here’s the hierarchy that he pointed out:  The bottom of the ladder is specificity, the banana. That leads to the next rung up the ladder of words, fruit (a broader term). Next comes “food.” Then “nutrition.” Then “life.”

Too often we’re consumed with how to write about “life” when we start a novel.

Jim said, “The beauty is the banana. We care about the banana world. These [specific] things create emotion.”

He also loves Elmore Leonard’s rule:  Cut the stuff people skip anyway.

Jim also advised:  “First show your character in action.”

To learn how to write well he said you only need ONE book to learn from. What is that magic book? The novel that you loved reading. Diagram it. Study its architecture. Borrow the architecture and write your story using it.

You’ll soon find your own original voice and sense of story structure taking over, so don’t have fear that you’re relying on your admired author too much. Using a skillful published author’s excellent novel as a template acts like a booster rocket for your prose.

Other tips if you want to be a writer:

Turn off the internet.

Ignore all the rules and make your own list.

And quit if you can—it solves a lot.

Snowflakes and Student Updates


Yesterday in Madison, the air was swirling with the most gorgeous snowflakes.  I snapped a few with my phone on my way to work and I thought I’d share a few – especially for those of you in warmer climates.

I have a few student and instructor updates to share, as well:

  • Jessica Vitalis, Atlanta, signs agent and wins contest

     Jessica Vitalis is now represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch Literary with a middle-grade novel called Nothing Like Lennon.

    The novel subsequently won first place in the Middle Grade/YA fiction category of the Southern Breeze conference sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

    Jessica credited her attendance at the spring UW-Madison Writers’ Institute conference, the June Write-by-the-Lake Retreat master class with Christine DeSmet, and Angela Rydell’s critiques for playing important roles in her career launch.

    “The coaching I received from Angela and Christine provided industry knowledge and confidence necessary to develop a winning query.” Her query was spotted at WriteOnCon (an online conference for children’s writers) and she received an offer of representation 24 hours after submitting the full manuscript.

    Congratulations, Jessica! You can find her at and at Twitter: @jessicavitalis.

  • Tim Caldwell of Mount Pleasant, Mich., published in literary journals

     Tim Caldwell’s short story, “Time and Again,” has been published by the Ginosko Literary Journal, Edition 15.

    Another story, “The Library,” will appear in Westview, a semi-annual publication from the Language Arts Department of Southwestern Oklahoma State University.

     Tim honed his writing with UW-Madison Continuing Studies Critique Services, working with Christine DeSmet.

  • Our own Laurie Scheer wrote a guest post for Jane Friedman’s blog:  “How to Tell If Your Story Idea Is Mediocre – And How to Improve It”.  You can check it out here.
  • Valerie Poulin, Toronto, published in literary magazine

    Valerie Poulin’s article, “Family Connections: Photographs,” was published Nov. 27, 2014 in the literary magazine and online blog called, The Rain, Party & Disaster Society.

    Check it out:

    Valerie was a student in the UW-Madison Continuing Studies online course, “Creative Nonfiction 1,” with instructor Wendy Vardaman.

  • Author JZ Howard has participated in our Weekend With Your Novel and Writers’ Institute events over the past two years. Laurie Scheer has also critiqued this volume of his work entitled All of Me Wants All of You. The book has just received the Inspirational/Romance Fiction Gold Award from the 2015 Illumination Book Awards.  Here is further information.  Congratulations to JZ!  (You can read more about the Illumination Awards here – JZ’s book is #15.)

Hope you’re all having a fantastic week!IMG_9567


Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop & Retreat Wrap-Up

What a wonderful Write-by-the-Lake!  It was so much fun getting to chat with many of you in my little temporary office in “Resource Cove.”  My student helpers and I made over 2,000 copies in that little room!  You all were working hard!

Those of you who follow us on Facebook have already seen many of these, but I thought I’d share them again just in case.

I might be biased, but I think Madison is such a lovely city – don’t you?


The storm approaches from across Lake Mendota on Wednesday morning. That would make our third tornado warning in two days!


We saw quite a lot of this last week, didn’t we?


Luckily, though, we did get some little pockets of sunshine, too. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, the forecast often included “sun-breaks.” I love that term. I think those little sun-breaks inspired many of us to use our ice cream coupons!


Lovely Lake Mendota. It’s so calm without those gale-force winds, isn’t it?


I love this view of the Historical Society and the Red Gym. (It’s the view out of the third floor ladies’ room, funnily enough!)


As you can see, lots of us didn’t get a great night’s sleep on Monday night / Tuesday morning.


Calm waters are a good thing!


On Thursday night, the Pyle Center threw a little party – delicious appetizers and the musical talents of Mike Massey (who would win a Madison Area Music Award a few days later!) and Francie Phelps. We were all so glad the weather held!


Another view of Thursday’s rooftop gathering.


A little panorama of a very moody-looking lake.


Ice cream for dinner. “Union Utopia” – vanilla with swirls of fudge, peanut butter, and caramel. Now I’m thinking I should get that for dinner tonight, too!

IMG_8762_edit IMG_8841 IMG_8890_edit IMG_8904 IMG_8905 IMG_8925 IMG_8929So wonderful to see you all – can’t wait for next year!