Thursday, January 31, 2008
Interviewing Your Characters
When planning a novel, how much planning is appropriate to go into it before you sit down and start spitting out dialogue and narration and description and rough draft? This is a question I’ve been struggling with lately. I once took a creative writing class where the professor absolutely firmly insisted that we not plan at all, that we let it be “organic.” However I’m sure many of you can attest from experience that it’s a lot easier to get where you want to go when you have a road map.
I’ve stumbled upon a couple of good ideas for effective brainstorming that I’m sure aren’t at all new—“there is nothing new under the sun”—but which I hope might help you in negotiating the need to plan and the need to keep your novel a natural, organic growing process.
Earlier this month, I began developing a character for a novel by “interviewing” him daily on paper. I called him Simon. I asked him questions about his life: things like who his favorite comic book hero was as a kid, and what he wanted to be when he grew up. I asked him about his hopes for this story, what truth he wanted to convey with it, and what he thought of some of the other characters in my developing hypothetical cast. Sometimes I couldn’t think of anything “important” to talk about with him, so I just shared whatever was going on with me. The hard day at work I had, the fears that lingered about my ability to write. Sometimes he comforted me, sometimes he laughed at me, but always he pushed me back into the writing seat and challenged me to do proper justice to his story. I became committed to him and to his story, by the simple act of keeping in daily contact with him on paper.
Now, I can’t yet verify all of the benefit of this approach. My focus actually shifted at some point to another character in the story and to his plight, and I think Simon may have to step back into a more minor role so that this character can be more central. But at least Simon is someone I feel like I know, not just a wallflower whose face I have to consult my high school yearbook for! And I’m confident Simon will continue to help me by pushing me to get this story out.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
OPTIONS FOR BOOK REVIEWS AND BOOK REVIEWERS
I love newspapers. As someone who was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised there and in nearby New Jersey, I often feel as though I grew up with The New York Times. I certainly remained attached enough to that paper to maintain a subscription while also subscribing to The Washington Post when I lived in DC and to the Globe for the many years I lived in the Boston area. I'll confess that I've never had occasion to read or subscribe to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), so I had no legitimate reason to add my signature to the petition you may have heard about last year, asking the AJC to maintain its stand-alone book section—and to keep it under a specific longtime editor's control.
Newspapers have been facing struggles for quite awhile now. And book sections aren't isolated in their suffering. Sure, I've had editors responsible for book coverage tell me they couldn't take a review pitch because space was too tight. But other section editors have said exactly the same thing, responding to other article queries. Sometimes my accepted work has been delayed (and delayed) before finally being published, thanks, I've been told, to those very same space constraints.
But rumors of the demise of the book review are, I think, at least somewhat exaggerated. I'm not ready to buy into the gloom and doom scenario quite yet. For one thing, I don't believe that all the new strategies newspapers are trying—like combining book coverage with opinion writing and/or other arts and culture writing—are quite so catastrophic as some people have suggested. I don't remember how many years ago the Globe created a hybrid "Ideas" section for Sundays; I think we all weathered that change pretty well. After all, some of us believe that ideas rest at the heart of the very best books; it's a natural combination.
Maybe I'm also not quite so demoralized by shrinking book review pages in certain Sunday newspapers because, frankly, I uncover a lot of good book coverage elsewhere. As a reader—and as a book reviewer—I find encouragement and inspiration in the many magazines, literary journals, Web sites, and various "niche" publications that also provide good discussion of books, authors, and writing. Beyond that, I frequently see books reviewed and authors profiled in "other" newspaper sections (think about travel-related books you've seen covered in travel sections, food-related titles in food/dining sections, and so on).
But what if you're an aspiring or veteran book reviewer who has been alarmed enough by recent cries from certain quarters of the reviewing community to believe that the end is, in fact, dangerously near?
Where can you look?
Let's take an example. Let's consider, first, one book published last spring and think about venues where you, as a reviewer, might have sought to place a piece about it outside newspaper book reviews.
In June, Random House released Connie Schultz's...and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man. Schultz, who won a 2005 Pulitzer for Commentary, is married to the junior United States Senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown. The book is essentially her memoir of Brown's most recent campaign.
Now, maybe the Atlanta Journal-Constitution will no longer be able to review this book. And quite possibly Schultz's own paper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, shouldn't. So where else might you reasonably expect to find the book discussed/reviewed?
Which publications might you have queried yourself?
I'd have looked to regional magazines (in this case, those focusing on Ohio). Or Schultz's alumni magazine (she's a 1979 graduate of Kent State University). Or magazines or Web sites that focus on American politics.
I'd also have considered venues especially interested in promoting women's/feminist writing, and/or interested in issues relating to marriage and family. And given Schultz's journalistic accomplishments and prominence, let's not forget the many trade publications/sites for writers and journalists (including this one!)
Are you starting to see the possibilities?
So no matter what you're hearing, don't succumb to despair quite yet. You can still do your part to sustain serious thinking and reading and writing about books, even if you have to do it outside the Sunday newspaper book review sections. You may have to think a little more creatively, and do a little more research. But if you really want to read about books, and write about them, and expand others' literary awareness (and even get paid for the privilege), you still can.
(c) 2007 Erika Dreifus
Erika Dreifus is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and for Chattahoochee Review; she regularly publishes reviews in both. The author of The Practicing Writer's Directory of Paying Markets for Book Reviewers Erika has also had reviews appear in venues as varied as the Boston Globe Sunday travel section, the Christian Science Monitor, Community College Week, JBooks.com, The Missouri Review, and Our State. See some of these reviews archived on her Practicing Writing blog: http://practicing-writing.blogspot.com
and Erika's website: http://www.practicing-writer.com
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Fall 2007 Second Place Winner! Pam Hawley
In Pam Hawley’s 2nd place winning piece, “The Pink Dachshund,” a surprise is waiting for the reader, just as the author was caught off-guard when this true story actually happened to her!
Pam lives, works, and loves life in Baltimore, MD. She has been addicted to the craft of writing since childhood and spends much of her free time writing short fiction, creative non-fiction, and content for her blog at http://sixweasels.vox.com. Pam earned a BA in English and a certificate in writing from the UMBC in 1994. She currently earns her living as a project lead and manager at the same university and is hoping to make her break in the world of fiction writing. She shares her home with her boyfriend and two ferrets, Vinnie and Ginny.
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WOW: Pam, congratulations on winning second place in the contest! When you read the prompt, did the idea for your essay about your boss just pop into your mind? Did you have to do any brainstorming first?
Pam: Actually, when I first read the prompt, nothing that came to my mind gave me that “zing” feeling that happens when you know you’ve got a good idea. It happened about a week later, when I was talking with a friend about work issues. My mind just started backtracking to that first “real” job, and my gruff boss moonlighting as a clown. Then I remembered the prompt. Sometimes I just need to put something in the back of my mind and wait for it to click like that.
WOW: I know what you mean. A writer’s mind always seems to be working even when we aren’t aware of it. Your essay was so easy to read—almost like a story. What are some techniques you used to put elements of fiction into your nonfiction essay?
Pam: Well, the incident I wrote about happened over 10 years ago. So when I was writing, I had to sort of visualize and recreate events the way I would if I was telling a story. I can’t remember the exact conversation I had with my boss that day, so I took the gist of it and tried to create an exchange that would convey how I felt and how I thought he was feeling.
Overall, I think there are a lot of similarities in writing fiction and nonfiction, and I used them in this essay. You often have to weave people, places, and events into a story in nonfiction just as you do in fiction. You have to be descriptive and paint a picture with words. I find that when I write fiction, much of what I’m writing is inspired by people or events in real life. So flipping the coin and using fiction-writing techniques in nonfiction isn’t all that different.
WOW: So much fiction does seem to be based on real life events or people, even if authors don’t always admit it. Sometimes, favorite pets even make it into a writer’s work. What about your ferrets? Have they ever made it into your stories or essays?
Pam: Not yet. Although years ago, I hosted a Web site on ferrets at Suite 101, and I’ve been toying with the idea of a children’s book with my ferrets as the main characters. Their antics are regular features in my blog, though. I love posting photos of them and creating captions of what I think might be going through their minds at that moment.
WOW: Oh, so you have a blog? They are so fun to read and write. Why did you decide to start a blog? Does it have a specific purpose or is it just a place for you to write?
Pam: My blog is basically a journal that I choose to keep online instead of with pen and paper. I enjoy the interactivity of being part of an online community and exchanging ideas and experiences. Growing up, I kept paper journals, but I never stuck with them. I’ve been blogging in various places since 2001, so I guess the “sharing” element of writing online keeps me motivated. The other great thing about blogging, at least for me, is that I can capture bits and pieces of thoughts and ideas that might lead to essays, stories, or articles when I have time to go back and think about them. My blog is like a collection of post-it notes I can’t lose.
WOW: I love that description—“like a collection of post-it notes I can’t lose.” I never thought about it that way. Maybe all writers should have something like that. You seem to be full of ideas and really motivated. Have you set goals for yourself? Where do you see yourself in the future?
Pam: In the short-term, I hope to transition into making writing my primary source of income through gradually taking on freelance opportunities and continuing to submit my work to a variety of online and print publications. In the long-term, I’d love to complete and publish a collection of short stories and possibly a novel someday.
WOW: Wow! It seems like you have a definite direction for where you want to go with your career. That is something we all can learn from. So, you are interested in breaking into fiction with short stories and a novel? Tell us more about this.
Pam: My current project is a collection of short stories. My father owns a small local pub in the Baltimore area, and over the years, I’ve met some very interesting characters and heard some incredible life stories there. I’m the kind of person who likes to sit back and listen when someone with a few drinks in them wants to talk, so I’ve heard tales ranging from life working in the circus to finding true love at 80. I also see a lot of interesting happenings there. So, the collection will be a combination of the stories I’ve heard and snippets of various events. The stories and snippets will be fictional but based on what I’ve seen and heard over the years. A pub, especially one that is more of a local hometown place than a see-and-be-seen kind of venue, is a great place to find writing material.
WOW: I bet it is. It’s also interesting that your real life is making it into your fiction writing again, like we were talking about before. I, for one, am already interested in reading your short stories inspired by the pub! It sounds like the kind of stories I love. It seems like you are already on a great writing path. What did this contest win do to help lead you toward those goals?
Pam: Most importantly, it really boosted my confidence! I read the entries of the other contest winners and runners-up and was incredibly proud to be included in such a talented group. I have done a wee bit of freelance writing and worked on various creative projects for years, but I have just lately begun seriously thinking about finding a way to earn a living doing what I love –writing. This is one of my first contest entries, and winning really helped me believe I have the ability to do that if I put my mind to it.
WOW: Those are very inspirational words, and some we can all learn from. It’s really important to do what you love and also to get a little boost along the way. We all know writing can be a hard journey. Your bio also mentions you have formal college training in English and writing. Do you feel this is helpful to you in accomplishing your goals? Were these difficult programs?
Pam: Earning my English degree was a huge help to me in becoming a better and more disciplined writer. I’m sure my writing courses were difficult, but I honestly had so much fun completing them that I really don’t remember them that way! What was truly most helpful about being in a college writing program was being surrounded by instructors and students who loved writing as much as I do, sharing ideas and techniques, and critiquing and being critiqued. I miss that, which is probably another reason I started blogging.
My college advisor, who was also a freelance journalist who supported his wife and children by writing and teaching a course here and there, used to tell us he wallpapered his home office with rejection letters. He really helped me toughen up and realize that if I wanted to make it as a writer, I’d have to accept that not everyone would like what I’d created and rejection would be part of my reality.
WOW: Yes, unfortunately for all of us, rejection is part of the writing world. I love that he wallpapered his office with the rejections. I usually throw those letters away, but I know lots of writers who save them, too. So, how do you get all this writing done when you have a full-time job?
Pam: This is probably the hardest thing for me. What works best is giving up all other responsibilities, such as cleaning house and grocery shopping. I’m kidding … kind of!
Right now, I accomplish my writing time by getting up with my boyfriend, who has to leave for work at 5:00 am, and using the wee hours of the morning to write. This gives me roughly two hours before I have to start getting ready for my own day job. I used to try writing at night, and sometimes still do, but often find that my hectic job has sucked away all my creative energy for the day. When I get home, I just want to veg out or play. Writing while still in my PJs and drinking my morning coffee, before I get too far into the day, works best for me. On the weekends, I often spend time writing or researching publishing opportunities, but I also try to give myself a break from both writing and work – time to just get outside, snuggle up with my boyfriend, watch some football, read a good book, or play with the ferrets. I figure that if all I do is work and write, I’ll run out of inspiration. So, I try to find time to just “be,” too.
WOW: Thank you so much, Pam, for taking the time to answer our questions today. You have shared with us a lot of great tips and words of wisdom. Do you have any other tips for people who want to enter future contests?
Pam: I’m new at contests myself, but I think what I’d say is to make sure you get something out of the experience whether or not you win. You can do that by crafting entries that you really enjoy writing or that help you work on a tone, type of storytelling, or style you’d like to practice. That way, you can’t lose! If you enter contests with prompts, choose one that inspires or “speaks” to you somehow, rather than trying to force an essay or fiction piece out of a prompt that leaves you feeling blah. The next prompt may be the one that awakens your personal muse.
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To check out Pam’s blog, please see http://sixweasels.vox.com. To see more about Pam, go to http://www.associatedcontent.com/user/49060/pam_.html
If you haven’t done so already, please read Pam’s award-winning story, “The Pink Dachshund,” at http://wow-womenonwriting.com/17-FE1-FallContest2008.html .
And remember, every Tuesday we'll be featuring an interview with one of the top 10 winners from the Fall 2007 Essay Contest. So, be sure to check back and see who's up next!
For more details on WOW! Women On Writing's current contest, please visit:
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WOW! THE LIAR'S DIARY BLOG DAY
“Fiction is lies. There is the Great Lie, the simple fact that the story is a story and not reportage. Fiction writers, therefore are liars—and they have to be good ones.”
In celebration of The Liar’s Diary Blog Day, we've decided to take a twist on the subject, and honor all great fiction writers as “liars.” Strange, I know. But, when you think about it, what do we as fiction writers do? We take in our surroundings, alchemize them, and then distill our distorted prose onto the page. Is this wrong? No. Without exaggeration of character and plot, our stories would become a tedious read. Who wants to read straight facts? And what are straight facts anyway?
Our impressions of what we see are our filters. Our perceptions, senses, and emotions create our own unique realities that make our “real” stories fiction. Even in the truest form of journalistic reporting, we are still susceptible to passing judgment.
I always thought it was funny when my hubby would tell me that he only reads “true stories,” which include conspiracy theories, urban legends and such. “How can you consider those true? What is truth? And what does it matter anyway if the story is true?” I’d say. He’d go into long diatribes of what he considered facts, but my response would always be the same: you believe what you want to believe.
As fiction writers there are many techniques of lying we can use to flesh out our characters and distance them from ourselves. One is viewpoint. We can choose to limit the viewpoint to one character, or several. We can choose omniscient and tell the story from a godlike perspective. We can use third person and jump from one person’s thoughts to the next. We can use second person and talk to someone like we were writing a letter.
Another technique is exaggerating, or emphasizing, certain characteristics of those around us. By picking out the most interesting traits of someone we know in real life and amplifying them, we create a dynamic character that will capture our readers.
Of course, there are more subtle ways of altering the truth—name changing, physical descriptions, jobs, hobbies, etc. But even these things you need to be careful with. You never know which friend in your distant past will pop up wielding a subpoena.
I was talking to an author the other day that told me she takes events in her life, funny situations, and incorporates those moments into her characters. Like sprinkling a mixture of special seasonings on a casserole. This seems to be a very good way of “lying.” By taking bits of truth and making them your own, you are creating a fictional world with multidimensional characters that will still ring true on the page.
Remember: you are leading the reader. Your reality is their reality, without them realizing it. If you’re a good writer, they buy into your lie and are swayed by your words. This makes for compelling fiction! So, next time when you think about the word “liar,” just remember that when it comes to fiction writing, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
What is The Liar’s Diary Blog Day?
Today, January 29th, over 300 bloggers, including bestsellers, Emmy winners, movie makers, and publishing houses have come together to talk about THE LIAR'S DIARY by Patry Francis.
Why? To give the book the attention it deserves on its release day while Patry takes the time she needs to heal from cancer.
First, you need to know something about Patry Francis.
From Susan Henderson of LitPark:
What if you worked for years as a waitress and then went home at the end of the day to your husband and four kids, and in those rare minutes of free time, you dared to dream that one day you might write a book? This is the story of my friend, Patry - a story that leaves out years of false starts, revisions, and rejection slips. It's a story that writers know intimately, though the details are different. Every one of us is well acquainted with the struggle of getting a story on paper, of honing it and believing in it enough to send it out, only to receive rejection, or worse, silence for our efforts.
Imagine, after many years, you beat the odds. You finish that book. You find that agent who sells your manuscript. Your dream is about to become a reality. But just as your book is due to be released, you discover you have an aggressive form of cancer.
Patry's story struck such a deep chord with many of us, not just because she is our friend, but because those of us who know her or read her blog have relied on her company through the ups and mostly downs of trying to write and sell a book. She is our buoy. She has shown us time and again her great gift for shedding light in the dark. Even her blog post about her cancer showed this - in her greatest time of need, she was still somehow comforting all of us and showing us glimpses of joy.
About THE LIAR’S DIARY:
Answering the question of what is more powerful—family or friendship? this debut novel unforgettably shows how far one woman would go to protect either.
They couldn’t be more different, but they form a friendship that will alter both their fates. When Ali Mather blows into town, breaking all the rules and breaking hearts (despite the fact that she is pushing forty), she also makes a mark on an unlikely family. Almost against her will, Jeanne Cross feels drawn to this strangely vibrant woman, a fascination that begins to infect Jeanne’s “perfect” husband as well as their teenaged son.
At the heart of the friendship between Ali and Jeanne are deep-seated emotional needs, vulnerabilities they have each been recording in their diaries. Ali also senses another kind of vulnerability; she believes someone has been entering her house when she is not at home—and not with the usual intentions. What this burglar wants is nothing less than a piece of Ali’s soul.
When a murderer strikes and Jeanne’s son is arrested, we learn that the key to the crime lies in the diaries of two very different women...but only one of them is telling the truth. A chilling tour of troubled minds, The Liar’s Diary signals the launch of an immensely talented new novelist who knows just how to keep her readers guessing.
And now, here are Patry's words: "Though my novel deals with murder, betrayal, and the even more lethal crimes of the heart, the real subjects of THE LIAR'S DIARY are music, love, friendship, self-sacrifice and courage. The darkness is only there for contrast; it's only there to make us realize how bright the light can be. I'm sure that most writers whose work does not flinch from the exploration of evil feel the same."
Find out more about Patry Francis by visiting her websites:
We want to thank Susan Henderson of LitPark and Karen Dionne of Backspace for organizing this wonderful blog event. Also, we wish Patry Francis a big, heartfelt cyberhug, and send our blessings for a swift recovery.
Monday, January 28, 2008
There always seems to be this continuous argument about whether or not writer's block exists. Each writer has their opinion, and each has their tricks to avoid such a phenomenon. But I must say I believe less in writers block and more in Life Block from the events surrounding me in the last few weeks.
It's not that my creative spark is running on the last piece of coal, but more that my mind is overwhelmed with the crazy stuff going on at my house. I won't go into detail, but I must say I feel like a character in one of my own stories heading toward the climax. Everything that could be going wrong is, and there doesn't seem to be a way out.
But how do we conquer these times of Life Block and step back into our writing life with more inspiration?
Part of it is taking the time to wade through the craziness of our own lives before sitting down at the PC to crank out character, plot, and word count. If we try to force out the things that are vital to our WIP without taking care of the nit picky items surrounding us, we won't be able to deliver quality work. I know for me the nasty to do list on the fridge tends to haunt me while I'm at my keyboard, and no matter how many words I want to get done in a day I fall short because my mind is on other things.
So sometimes you have to take a step back from the keyboard and deal with the odds and ends piling up around you in order to sit down with your WIP and have a clear head to pump out the best you can offer.
Is there something weighing on your mind, this Monday morning? Something that's keeping you from those amazing words you know are in your head. My suggestion is to take the time to push through those odds and ends in order to let your creative mind fly.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Creative Cross Training
Throughout the eighties, The School of the Art Institute was firmly entrenched in the movement toward multi-disciplinary arts. It made perfect sense─art, dance and music programs across the country were being relentlessly cut from school curriculums/budgets. Why not train students with an eye toward multi-disciplinary arts—creative diversity? It made sense, and it explains why I spent nearly an entire decade becoming “creatively challenged” in a good way.
I threw clay vessels on a potter’s wheel in the morning, ran off to a vocal class in the afternoon, and jammed at night with the folk guitarists at Chicago’s famed Old Town School of Folk Music. And then there were my ballet classes, and my pursuits as a culinary bread sculptress, all in addition to my studio art work, and art education classes.
For me, “creative cross training” defines the core of my creative energy. And I know firsthand the power and fluidity “creative cross training” can instill in other writers. Champion athletes cross train; why not writers? Leonardo Da Vinci engaged in creative cross training—talk about a hunk of creative muscle.
It’s a fact—not a myth—creative cross training strengthens and deepens the very insights we need as writers (humans) to create. And frankly, without a bit of cross training, our writing can and will lack the fresh perspective it needs to keep our words from becoming stale.
In her Creative Writes Newsletter (http://www.kporterfield.com/writes/Creative_Writes_29.html) Kay Marie Porterfield writes . . . we writers often find ourselves sitting glassy-eyed and motionless in front of the computer monitor or a legal pad for hours on end. When the writing isn’t flowing we sometimes struggle to fit the words in place, using the same set of skills and obtaining the same joy that comes from working cross-word puzzles.
Painting, drawing, photography, sculpting, stand-up comedy, dancing, quilting, learning to play an instrument, scrapbooking etc. it doesn’t matter where we journey in the name of “creative cross training”; it’s all good in the name of taking what can sometimes become a monotonous brain drain and using it to stretch our imaginations.
Step away from the page—away from writing from time to time—to challenge yourself creatively. You’ll be rewarded with unexpected ideas and renewed energy. Embrace your creative nature/process by allowing it to expand from time to time into new areas. Take creative risks. Take a poetry class! Glass blowing! Roam the aisles of your local hobby store! Go dig out that adult-ed brochure from your community college that you tossed into the trash. You’ll be a better writer and more creatively well-rounded for having done so—and some would say, you’ll live longer for having done so. The way I look at it, the longer I live, the more time I’ll have to write.
But, no writing for me today; once I launch this blog, I’m going to sit down and create a collage from pics torn from a stack of old magazines cluttering the corner of my bedroom. I can’t remember the last time I made a collage—and that’s exactly why I’m going to make one today!
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Finding Inspiration in Familiar Tales
Re-imagining/re-writing old tales is not a new idea. In fact, as a middle-school teacher, I read many of them. I often asked my students to re-create their favorite fairytales. Now as a writer, I can better appreciate the value of the exercise. It’s a great creative tool – especially for those of us who hate starting with a blank page or have a hard time creating a new character from scratch. It’s also easy to do. Based on what you know about a character, ask questions about their story, family, and personality. See if what you think you know about them holds up as you create a character profile. Who knows, you may breathe new life into an old favorite or create a new character that you can use.
For example, The Looking Glass Wars is the first book in a trilogy by Frank Beddor. The author recasts Lewis Carroll’s Alice as a young princess, Alyss Heart, who flees the high-tech, magical world of Wonderland after her parents are killed in a murderous rampage lead by Alyss’s aunt Redd. Alyss finds herself in Victorian London, and after a series of circumstances meets Lewis Carroll, who promises to write her story. She tells him her violent and heartbreaking story, but Carroll creates a whimsical, nuisance story instead. In the end, Alyss battles Redd for possession of the throne.
What impressed me most is the creative way that the author approached an old, beloved story. Frank Beddor’s Wonderland is rich and vivid, modern and fantastical. His card soldiers are high tech robots; the Cheshire Cat, a shape shifting assassin; the Queen of Hearts is the maniacal Redd, determined to behead anyone who gets in her way.
After reading this book, I decided to give re-writing a favorite story a try. You can use a character from any story, but I like to use fairytales and legends because the characters are flat and easy to manipulate.
So far, I’ve discovered that the Gingerbread man was a general in a clone army, and Rumplestelskin and his wife filed a custody suit again the royal family for breach of contract.
So the next time you need to boost your creativity, try visiting some old friends. They may provide the key to sparking your imagination.
Friday, January 25, 2008
A Great Writing Resource from a King
Out of the hundreds of writing books that line library and bookstore shelves, my favorite, and the one I actually use, is Stephen King’s On Writing. And my love for his writing book does not stem from my love for his other work. I respect and admire him as an author, but frankly, his tales give me nightmares. I love his writing book because it is honest and funny and practical. Any writer of any genre can use this book to improve his or her craft!
One of the reasons I love his book is because it is an autobiography as well as writing advice on the craft. The autobiography should be inspirational to all of us who complain and hate “our day jobs.” Whenever I am whiny about not being a full-time writer, I try to think of King and his description of doing laundry for a seafood place. I won’t go into it for those of you possibly eating while reading this blog, but let’s just say, being a little tired from working with kids all day is a piece of cake compared to King’s job before he was famous.
But his writing advice is what makes me open the book again and again. It is what makes me share the book with my friends and critique group members and now, all of you. Two of his tips have stuck with me and have worked their way into most of my writing as well as the editing and revising advice I give to my Editor 911 clients (Editor 911 is what I call my small freelance editing business). The first is to use adverbs sparingly (even though I used an adverb right there.) King believes, and I agree, that some writers rely on adverbs to convey their message instead of using stronger verbs or nouns or even dialogue. He gives several convincing examples of how adverbs are really not needed. He also makes the wonderful point that when you do use an adverb every once in a while, it makes an impact on your reader and doesn’t get lost in a sea of adverbs. Of course, he states this point with several humorous examples and in a more poignant way, so check out his book to learn from the master.
The second piece of advice he gives also makes it into my writing, especially into my current ya novel. He says when he reads a description of a character in a novel, he doesn’t need to know what they are wearing. He can open up any clothes catalog to see people and their outfits. He wants to read descriptions that make a picture of the person in his mind with whatever clothes he wants to put on that person, unless the clothes are EXTREMELY important (such as the case of Monica Lewinsky’s dress.) He wants descriptions, of course, but again, I’m going to refer you to his book to find out how to do this!
I hope you will check out his book, which is also available as an audio book, so you could actually listen to it on your commute back and forth to your day job. That way, your free time can be spent putting his advice to work on your latest manuscript.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
A Vanishing Art
Nearly 25 years ago, my grandmother moved from the home she had lived in for approximately 40 years and moved to a nursing facility in the same town. She was 86 years young at the time, and her mind was still as clear as the water she’d carried to her dad in the fields as a young girl. But physically, she’d started experiencing fainting spells, and my dad – an only child - decided it would be best if she had 24/7 care.
The summer following the move, my parents, sister, and myself, along with my two-month old daughter, cleaned my grandparent’s house, dividing memories and possessions among us. In some ways, we were careful to preserve the past, but in another sense, time was of the essence, and it seemed like we threw away quite a few relics.
While we were going through her “secretary”, we stumbled upon a wonderful treasure: letters that my dad had written to my grandparents. Grandma had saved every one of them. I could remember dad getting out the old Smith-Corona manual typewriter and writing a letter to them each week.
But another thing we discovered were notebooks – the old steno notebooks with the purple covers – filled with grandma’s handwriting. She never learned to type, and computers were definitely not around much during this time. She sent a letter to our house each week, too; each note handwritten. I can still see her distinctive style because I saved one of her notebooks. My mother and I have the majority of grandma’s recipe cards, each recipe kitchen-tested and grandmother approved, written on 3x5s along with helpful hints for the next time she made the dish.
Fast forward 20-some years and a similar situation presents itself. I still have the first note Scott gave me. It’s a combination of a thank you note for a sweatshirt I gave him and a grocery list for the weekend. I can’t part with it. I also can’t let go of a note I made from an email where he asked me 10 questions. I took notes and organized my thoughts on paper before replying. And there are birthday and Valentine’s cards that are too precious to part with. It’s a personal connection between the two of us, and I refuse to let it go.
Why is this important? Because handwriting – especially letter writing – is a dying art. Sure, technology offers countless advantages, but there is something about a handwritten letter, note, or card that offers a glimpse of the writer’s personality. Handwriting, itself, is a powerful tool. There’s something about the curve of a ‘c’, the tilt of a ‘t’, and the loop of a ‘y’. Handwriting is sexy, alluring, provocative. It’s a symbol of personality and penmanship. It affords a preview of what energy lurks inside each writer’s fingertips. And…it’s a national treasure that is losing ground, thanks to the convenience of the keyboard.
January 23 is National Handwriting Day, dedicated to the honor of John Hancock. (OK, so I’m a day late, but I did blog about it on my personal blog!) But I will admit, that I generally write first drafts on paper. There’s something about the feel of the pen between the fingertips and the hand grazing across the paper. Plus, since I’m a visual learner, I need to see the edits and rewrites on the page. I long to see words crossed out, arrows showing where passages should be moved, and paragraphs numbered so they can be rearranged.
Maybe handwriting is an obsessive-compulsive thing for me. I even have two pens I prefer to write with: a Papermate Flair, magenta-colored, or a Papermate Profile. They fit my hand and they are easy to manipulate.
Yes, handwriting just might be an obsessive-compulsive thing for me.
Writing by hand lets me see my thought process – or my lack of. That is something a word processing program can’t do because once your finger presses the delete button, your original thought vanishes before your eyes.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
All Words Are Not Equal
I have always loved words and enjoyed writing that challenges my vocabulary. Words are like pieces of an intricate puzzle, and when I write, I fit them together. Since my youth, when reading, I’ve recorded or “yellowed” words with which I was unfamiliar. In junior high, we were assigned vocabulary words to be defined and used in sentences. I tried to make each sentence a little story. I could have taught a class on run-on sentences. But all words are not equal.
I still have a tendency to write long, convoluted sentences. Now, as a freelancer, I’m challenged to shorten my sentences and use simple, concise language. My current writing teachers all admonish me to reduce “big” words and cut wordy sentences.
Factoid: Racecar, kayak and level are palindromes i.e. spelled the same whether read left or right.
Writer’s Digest offered an interesting analogy that has helped me understand the necessity of concise writing and the relative importance of parts of speech: writing is like an automobile. Verbs are the engine, nouns are the passengers and adjectives and adverbs are tails fins, hood ornaments, bumper stickers and other decorative paraphernalia.
If concise is good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for me.
Factoid: Dreamt is the only English word that ends in the letters “mt.”
Below are some ways to put your writing on a diet while increasing the flavor.
• Excise empty intensifiers: these are the adverbs that I now eschew like a dieter eschews sugar: extremely, very, absolutely, unusually, really, particularly. These words are acceptable in conversation but water down writing.
Factoid: Stewardesses is the longest word typed with only the left hand.
• Some adjectives are just “nice” and add nothing to the sentence. Example: The beautiful sunrise warmed the hills. In this case, beautiful adds nothing. Use the “nice” test.
Factoid: There are two words in the English language that contain all five vowels in order: abstemious and facetious.
• Sometimes adverbs can be replaced with verbs and that will energize the sentence. Example: The sun was intensely hot could be converted to the sun scorched the skin.
Factoid: Lollipop is the longest word typed with only the right hand.
• One of my big problems is “he said” plus an adverb. I usually want to add loudly, softly or some other “ly” word to the “he/she said.” If more is needed, the first lesson I learned as a writer applies: instead of telling the reader, show the reader with action. For example, “he said vehemently” could become, “he said, pounding his fist on the table.”
Though lean and mean is better writing for the novice, if I attain any writing stature, I will know how to write wordy, convoluted sentences that I prefer. I only hope I get paid by the word!
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Fall 2007 Third Place Winner! Dianne Greco
Dianne Greco's story, It Could Be Angels, won Third Place in WOW!'s Fall 2007 Essay Contest. Not bad for her first ever contest entry! Today we chat with her and find out why she entered, what it's like to score big on your first try, and what's next for this Port Jefferson, New York writer on the rise.
WOW: Congratulations on winning third place in WOW!'s Fall 2007 writing contest! How do you feel?
Dianne: I am surprised, excited and ecstatic!
WOW: What a great reaction! You mentioned in your bio that the WOW! contest was the first essay contest you ever got up the nerve to enter. How did you convince yourself to do it?
Dianne: In the past, I have written to authors of books that I enjoyed and have always received wonderful responses. I asked the author of the fabulous book, Around the Next Corner, Elizabeth Wrenn, how she got started and what advice she would give to an author wanna-be, and she suggested writing contests. Well, after searching on the internet, I found the WOW! website, liked the upbeat feel of it, and decided to give the essay contest a try. I figured I had to start somewhere, and WOW! seemed like a good fit. Boy, was it ever!
WOW: Thanks for the kind words about WOW! We appreciate it. Your essay about a good deed resulting in good karma was both touching and laced with humor. Has your good luck continued since the wallet incident?
Dianne: I consider myself very blessed with good things in my life. I can't say that the wallet incident changed anything, but perhaps it has helped to continue the path to good karma!
WOW: Well, that's a good path to stay on. What were some of your biggest challenges in writing your essay? What did you do to overcome them?
Dianne: I think my biggest challenge was my own fear. Fear of the unknown, failure and/or rejection. You know, normal every day stuff! But they say nothing changes unless something changes, so I bit the bullet and submitted my entry.
WOW: Common fears, indeed. What a great outcome for your bravery though, a third place win! You've also completed a novel. Can you tell us about that? What did it take to complete that big goal?
Dianne: My novel, The Hands of Grace, is about a recently widowed woman who is just starting to get her life back on track with her high powered job in NYC, her teenage son, and a new residence on Eastern Long Island, when out of the blue, she gets fired. The story tells of her rebirth into a new life at the hands of her very dear, eccentric and elderly neighbor, Grace, and she learns some tough lessons about life, love and trust along the way. This was a labor of love started years ago, dropped and picked up again many times, depending on what was going on in my "other" life.
WOW: Sounds like an interesting book! What other projects are you working on?
Dianne: I am currently finishing the sequel to The Hands of Grace, titled The Heart of Grace. I am in the editing stage right now, which, as I'm sure you know, could take forever...
WOW: Yes, that can be a long process. Good luck with the revisions. Could you tell us when and where you usually write? Do you have favorite tools or habits that get you going?
Dianne: I work full time, so I usually write at night. It is my relaxation. I find that if I just do a stream of consciousness thing, ideas flow at random and then later on I can organize them into the story.
WOW: That's very motivating for writers who may only have time in the evenings for writing. You've accomplished a lot despite other big responsibilities. Have you found inspiration from other books or authors you could recommend?
Dianne: Oh yes! As I mentioned, Elizabeth Wrenn. I also enjoy Jan Karon (the Mitford series) Joan Medlicott (another dear who actually answered an e-mail!) There are so many wonderful authors, new and old, who give me such joy. I would have to compile a long list to include them all.
WOW: Great recommendations. Do you have any writing goals for the New Year? How's it going so far?
Dianne: My one goal is to finish the edits on The Heart of Grace, but I will take it slow to be sure I do it right. I also wouldn't mind getting my first novel published! That would be the cherry on top!
WOW: We hope that wish comes true for you, Dianne! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us today. One final question: If there was one bit of advice you could pass on to other aspiring writers, what would it be?
Dianne: Write, write and keep on writing. Ask questions of authors that have been where you are, and then (and here's the rub) LISTEN!
If you haven't done so already, please read Dianne's award winning story, It Could be Angels.
And remember, every Tuesday we'll be featuring an interview with one of the top 10 winners from the Fall 2007 Essay Contest. So, be sure to check back and see who's up next!
For more details on WOW! Women On Writing's current contest, please visit:
Monday, January 21, 2008
The Health and Well-being of a Writer
So many of us as writers seem to take better care of our characters health than we do our own, for hours on end we sit and right about the perfect lives of our characters. How healthy they may be, etc.
As women having families, we also take better care of the kids and our spouses than we do ourselves. Well ladies, it is time to strike out!
It is time for each of us to get into some better shape so that we can continue to sit for hours on that chair at that computer typing the ultimate story.
There are a few exercise breaks that you can actually do at your desk to help keep you stretched and limber.
For your arms and fingers: First press your hands together as you are pressing move the fingers together side to side this will help loosen the tendons slightly so that you can go back to pounding on those keys. When you are ready to begin typing remember the “old school rule” Keep your wrists up and slightly arched only allowing your fingers to move over the keys, this will help in the prevention of carpel tunnel. If you are in the middle of a thought and aren’t typing it is all right to rest your hands on the bottom of the keyboard, but remember to raise them back up to type once again. You may notice an increase in your typing speed as well.
Rotate those shoulders forward and back, this will loosen up the shoulders, which we need if we are holding them in the same position for long periods, keep yourself as limber as possible.
You neck: It probably gets rather stiff holding it in the same position. Take a break, first, tip your head forward toward your chest, then lift it back looking towards the ceiling, then back forward and back once again. Now, don’t forget to go side to side, look to the left then look to the right.
How about those rears girls, does it feel like its falling asleep. There are a couple of quick exercises. Place your hands on the arm rests of your chair, if you have them, using your arms and your legs, push yourself up with your leg muscles hold for a moment then release, do this a few times, it will tighten yet loosen the muscles. Another good recommendation, place a small pillow near the lower portion of your back, this will help to alleviate some pressure as well. It places your lower lumbar into a better position for sitting, when doing so for long periods of time.
Another good way to loosen up the butt muscles, stand in front of the chair, then act as if you are going to sit, but, hold the pose right above the seat for a few seconds then stand back up, you may need to place your hands on the desk in front of you for support this move can be tricky, but beneficial.
Finally, ladies, once you have completed your writing for the day or for that period of time, take a little walk outside, either around the yard or around the block. Keeps the circulation going.
Last but not least, don’t forget to get plenty of rest. I know you are thinking the same thing I do “Yeah, right, like that will happen.” But, if you can squeeze in at least 8 hours of sleep, you will reap the benefits for your health.
These few tips were given to me by a dear friend who is a chiropractor. She sees many people on a regular basis that suffer from tons of sore muscles caused by sitting all the time at their computers. She stated that by taking these few measures, it will improve your health significantly.
Happy Writing Everyone!
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Mississippi Writers Guild: An Inspiring Story
Recently, I had a chance to talk with Anne McKee, the Executive Director of MWG and a founding board member. Anne’s enthusiasm is contagious. “We are a fun organization and in addition we are a grass-roots nonprofit where we meet the people, encourage all writers, published or not, and always, always seek out the little intimidated creative hearts who feel as if what they have to put on paper is of no consequence.”
Kudos to Anne and MWG! I love their mission, and all the fantastic events that they put on. If you are in the area, or simply would like to attend one of their conferences, please find out more by visiting their website: http://www.mississippiwritersguild.com
Anne was kind enough to share part of a recent interview she conducted with MWG founder, Richelle Putnam. So dig in and learn more about the guild, and what benefits it has to writers everywhere.
By Anne McKee
Mississippian, Richelle Putnam, is a multi-published/award winning poet, songwriter, musician, playwright, and writer for children, but more importantly, Richelle extends her talented hands, the hands of an artist, to fellow Mississippians whom also have creative writing dreams.
It was in 2005 that Richelle felt the burden to establish a writing organization for the state of Mississippi as the result of her efforts to locate a writers support group in the state. She had attended writing conferences, workshops, and retreats sponsored by the states of Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, New York, and Georgia, but she yearned for a Mississippi group.
Thus, Mississippi Writers Guild (MWG) was born, and through the dreams of a writer who longed to join with others, and to learn and promote the craft of creative writing, the Guild has grown rapidly throughout the state.
ANNE: Has there been great excitement with Mississippi Writers Guild?
RICHELLE: It's been absolutely excitement from day one to now and the excitement never wanes. There's always something new and there's always something going on. It has been a long, tiresome journey, but it's the kind of journey, that say, a marathon runner does. You may get tired on the journey, but you're always looking at the goal, the ultimate goal, and so you just keep going. As we (the original board) got together and started coming up with our bylaws and going through all of the legal aspects, which is not fun, but is just part of it, we were all willing to take the time out of our schedules to take all of the proper steps, form a corporation, board of directors, and file for our 501c3, which is a journey in its self, because it's not easy to obtain one of those.
RICHELLE: Actually, I contacted the founder of Florida Writers Association, Glenda Ivey, and that's where I got all of the information on steps that I would need to do, and then I began searching for Mississippi writers who would be interested with partnering with me in this venture. The very first one I ever talked to was Keetha Reed. She had already seen the need for this type organization in Mississippi and she and I began to email. She found two other writers out of Jackson Mississippi who had also expressed the same desire to have a writers’ organization in Mississippi, and we began meeting in Jackson and talking about forming Mississippi Writers Guild. But as that went on, like I said, it really is a long tiresome journey and some of the people did not have the time to put forth, at that time, and two of our first members of that little group had to drop off. Then I met Anne McKee in Meridian Mississippi and she was so excited. She and I were able to meet all of the time and finally it left Keetha, Anne and I as the basic foundation people.
ANNE: Can you relive the excitement of the first event?
RICHELLE: Oh, gosh, it was exciting. It was in Nov of 2005 and we had two events planned for that day. Our first early event was at a beautiful, historic home in Meridian Mississippi, Merrehope, and we had so many people that the entire place was filled with writers anxious to come out and share their work. We had every kind of writing that you can possibly imagine and that excitement carried over to the night event of Literary Artists on Stage at The Daily Grind, a coffee shop in Meridian Mississippi. It was from Literary Artists on Stage we grabbed Ralph Gordon and Daniel Lee and from there we formed our foundation executive board for Mississippi Writers Guild.
ANNE: In order to be a member of Mississippi Writers Guild, does one need to be published?
RICHELLE: No, in fact you don't really have to consider yourself a writer. We have so many who come to Literary Artists on Stage only to listen. There are a lot of readers who appreciate the craft of writing, and without writers we would not have communication anywhere. In every area of communication there first has to be a writer.
I do believe that people can learn to write better. You can teach a person to be a creative writer and learning the craft is a very, very important aspect.
Anyone can be a member of Mississippi Writers Guild and can be a lover of reading or a respecter of writers to enjoy the journey with us, and never even have put a letter on a piece of paper.
ANNE: Is the event, Literary Artists on Stage, unique only to Mississippi Writers Guild?
RICHELLE: Literary Artists on Stage was, of course, the opening event for the Guild. It was to draw writers. What is different and unique about Literary Artists on Stage is that it's not just a Poetry Slam or it's not just a reading. All writers of every walk in life are invited to share their work. You may be a poet, or an essayist. We've had skits, and songs.
We want all writers to be able to come together for the love of their craft and not only recognize each others talents in their specific genre or category of writing, but to get excited about all categories of writing. You may not realize what you might want to pursue next. I know when I hear poetry even though that was actually not a category that I pursued as a writer, I got excited about that category, and I decided I would love to write poetry. It really urged me and prodded me to learn more about poetry, and I started journaling in poetry. I realized that learning poetry not only helped me in my rhythmic writing, but it also helped me in my writing of fiction. I think any writing enhances the other writing.
ANNE: Mississippi Writers Guild is busy with chapters throughout the state and each chapter is making their contribution to literary events. Each group is styled by the needs of their individual chapter, and the Guild comes together at certain times of the year, one of which is the annual writing conference. Could you tell the readers about the first writing conference?
RICHELLE: Our very first writers conference was at Eagle Ridge Conference Center, August 3, 4 2007 and we had an awesome slate of speakers. We had as our keynote, Joshilyn Jackson, author of, Gods in Alabama and Between Georgia and her coming book, The Girl who Stopped Swimming. She had earned many awards for her first two books, and she delivered the keynote address on Friday evening. We also had for our Saturday workshops, our all day workshops, Joshilyn Jackson, Barbara Garshman, Garshman Productions, author of Create and Sell a TV Series, was the Saturday keynote speaker. Barbara is an Emmy nominated producer of the daytime soap, Guiding Light. John Rawl from Y'all Magazine. Charles Tolbert, New York City literary agent/attorney. Rebecca Jernigan, playwright, poet and member of Mississippi and Southern Artist Roster. John Floyd has published over 500 short stories and winner of 2007 Derringer Award for mystery fiction. C. Hope Clark of Funds for Writers. I think Hope presented one of the best workshops I attended at the conference where we learned of funds available to help writers financially.
ANNE: Could you tell the readers about the 2008 writing conference?
RICHELLE: It's going to be at The Battlefield Conference Center in Vicksburg Mississippi on August 15, 16. We already have three wonderful speakers lined up. We have Tom B. Sawyer, who was the head writer from Murder, She Wrote, and he is excited about coming to Mississippi. Cheryl Sloan Ray who is a freelance writer and specializes in magazine writing. Sue B. Walker, the Poet Laureate for Alabama, and her resume is outstanding. We already have other speakers who we are still waiting to hear from, in fact, two that could not come this year, Regina Brooks from Serendipity Literary Agency, and Jennifer Pooley from William Morrow Books both had conflicts for 2008, and have asked to be able to be speakers for our 2009 conference, so we already have two speakers for the 2009 conference. People are excited about Mississippi and the conference. I think that each year is going to get better and better.
ANNE: Please tell the readers about the 2008 MWG Spring Retreat for membership.
RICHELLE: The MWG Spring Retreat will be on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2008, April 5. Our Gulf Coast Chapter affiliate, Gulf Coast Writers Association, Philip Levin, is the President, and they are hosting our very first Spring Retreat.
I know everyone has burned in his or her memory Katrina and that Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We are hoping to bring some life to the Coast, and to have our first event there after that tragic event. They (the Gulf Coast) are still rebuilding, and we are excited about being able to go there. John Floyd, who was one of our conference speakers, from Jackson Mississippi will be the facilitator for the Spring Retreat.
ANNE: If someone would want to support Mississippi Writers Guild but did not want to become a member, what are the opportunities?
RICHELLE: We have many sponsorship opportunities. We do have people who will give us a little donation after attending one of our events, like attendees at Honoring Historic Mississippi Writers. We are now approaching businesses that would like to partner with different art organizations and educational facilities.
We are in the process of getting up Friends of Mississippi Writers Guild, for those who really admire the writers because they are readers.
ANNE: What is ahead for MWG in the New Year?
RICHELLE: We are really excited about partnering with Michael Garrett who has his own web site and business called, Writing2sell. He teaches, How to be Published Workshops. We have partnered with him to do five writing workshops all over the state of Mississippi during 2008. He (Michael Garrett) does not teach how to write. It's never too early to learn all of the aspects of writing, and he teaches all over the south. (See our web site for a listing of locations, dates and times).
Plus, there are so many talented Guild members. We have Guild sponsored workshops at libraries for children. One member, Daniel Lee, does a wonderful workshop, The Science of Science Fiction, and children love it. Anne McKee and I partner together doing our Mississippi Heritage Program at Head Start Schools and public libraries. I have done writer workshops for several years now, and another member, Sarah Mutziger, a storyteller, is really awesome. Guild member, Virginia Dawkins, is published in several Cup of Comfort books and shares writing from personal experience.
ANNE: It seems as if Mississippi Writers Guild has a story to tell. Why do you think this two year old organization has been nominated for the most prestigious arts award in the state of Mississippi, The Governor's Arts Award for Excellence 2008, and how do you think it came about?
RICHELLE: It came about through the excitement. I think that not only has Mississippi Writers Guild become an organization on paper, it has become an organization as a volunteer organization. MWG is out there all of the time. We volunteer for other arts organizations and other events.
The MWG event, Honoring Historic Mississippi Writers, is not about writing, but about writers. To pull yourself away from your own projects in order to honor a historic writer and to keep them alive through that program and through research by becoming that person shows the caliber of the members of MWG who just aren't about their own work. We are a volunteer organization and we care about Mississippi and we care about our students and we care about people in Mississippi or outside of Mississippi who have a writing dream. We help them to pursue that dream.
We encourage writers to go to our MWG web site and look around to see what things they can find and what avenues they might go down. Also, there is a contact number to contact us and we get questions all of the time. We recommend that you connect with someone first, someone you trust, because so many scams would love to grab a first time writer. Unfortunately scams thrive on writers who don't know what to do.
And a final thought: if you are a new writer and if you are considering writing, don't let it be a flashing thought, because it will come back, and rather than just thinking about it, go on and take that first step. Contact us or another writing organization and get those questions answered that have been nagging you and going on and on in your mind. Don't put it off any longer. Our web site, www.mississippiwritersguild.com.
Anne McKee's closing remarks for WOW readers:
I thank Richelle Putnam for taking time to thoughtfully answer questions about Mississippi Writers Guild. It is my hope that in some way a writer will be inspired and encouraged to continue their quest into the magical world of a creative writer.
Anne McKee is the Executive Director of Mississippi Writers Guild and a founding board member. She is an award-winning playwright with three plays produced during the year of 2007. Anne is a humorist, public speaker, newspaper columnist, speechwriter, creative writing workshop facilitator, and has been published in several southern journals. Anne has a passion for encouraging new writers.
Internships: Not Just For College Anymore
Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations concerning my internship with WOW! Women On Writing. The two most frequent questions:
“Cool! How’d you find that?”
“Aren’t they for college?”
Not at all. Online internships can be a valuable resource in building a writer’s skills, adding experience and gathering clips for the portfolio. They’re worth a look.
Aren’t They For College?
As an English major, I hoped to participate in a writing internship or co-op during college. Since I was a full-time older student who also worked to support herself, that wasn’t an option.However, I discovered that the communications division of the Christian campus group I belonged to was looking for interns for the fall, but my application was forwarded to their media production division because they felt that that could be a better fit for me.
I was accepted, and the fall after graduation, moved to Wisconsin. As a production intern, I wrote scripts, assisted in filming video pieces, and transcribed interviews, among other tasks. Once I returned to my home state, family obligations restricted travel, so I searched for online opportunities.
As a result, I worked as a research assistant for Writer Mama author Christina Katz. And currently, I intern for WOW!, blogging monthly and assisting with the Premium-Green newsletter.
How Did You Find That?
I found my internships because I subscribe to the WOW! and Writers On the Rise (Christina Katz’s) newsletters and applied for their calls for interns. Your favorite search engine will yield numerous writing newsletters to check out and possibly register for. Look into others such as:
The Practicing Writer
Freelance Writer Online International
You may not find something right away, but performing a through search may yield the opportunity you’re looking for.
So if you’re looking for ways to develop and expand your writing skills, consider an online internship. They’re not just for college anymore.
Friday, January 18, 2008
It May Take Too Much Time
Looking through an old folder recently, I came across a heavily marked draft of some work, a piece of writing now finished, which I am proud of in its final form. I forgot how much work had gone into that project until I saw evidence of all the editing. Some writing just takes a lot of pondering and polishing, and viewing those particular pages reminded me that the effort in that case was well worth it.
Writers will freely admit they don't bang out first drafts that are ready to go out into the world as soon as the ink dries. Therefore, there is no need to expect perfect first pages. A certain amount of changes will be needed. If you need a lot of time to get a piece right, I now tell myself, then so be it. When it's done, you will have something in hand you're pleased with, even if it took some effort, perhaps more effort than it might take someone else.
Good writing takes time. It’s okay to create many drafts before there is something worthy to show. No one sees the process! No one knows about the earlier drafts! What matters is that you end up with a finished product that's good--no matter how long it took you to get there.
Plus, as Ernest Hemingway said, "It's none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way."
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Women as Writers: Take What's Useful...
I read it in Alice Walker: A Life, where she recalls one encounter with a woman she upset with her assertion that having more than one child hampers a woman's full creativity (I'm paraphrasing). Ms. Walker, of course, only had one child. The woman who reacted was bothered by the assumption, prompting her to write a letter to the author, who in turn told the woman that she should take what is useful and ignore the rest.
On one hand, I often say that same thing: take what is useful and ignore the rest. On the other hand, it does nag at me when I continue to run into the idea that women aren't allowed their full creativity when children come on the scene. When men become fathers, no one expects them to stop writing, but for women, who most often are the primary caregivers (whether they work outside of the home or not), unless she's a bestselling author, she can be expected to put her writing on the back burner.
If you've always been a writer, this can be akin to setting your dreams on the back burner, on a low fire and watching it slowly die.
Yes, it can be more difficult to find time to write when you have children, but if writing is truly your passion, what you were called to do, then it shouldn't matter if you have one child or five or ten. We all find time for what we truly value, whether it's reading, exercising or scrapbooking.
Of course, this may hit closer to home if you're a mother, but whether you have children or not, take what's useful: you're a writer, and ignore the rest: the idea that women always have to sacrifice the best of themselves.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Baby-steps to Fiction
I’ve never been officially trained in short-story writing or any kind of fiction. I surfed the web and found a site that explained the typical components of a plot. I mulled over the definitions of the lead-in, the precipitating incident and the rising action. Climax and falling-action seemed understandable, though tricky to write. I had to look up denouement on several sites to get a clear idea of this concept.
I knew I needed to take baby-steps to learn to write short fiction. The thought of starting with the lead-in and writing the climax and denouement without a plan made me slightly short of breath. I only had about a half an hour before naptime was over, so I knew I couldn’t write for very long. With all of this information swirling around my head, I developed my own short fiction writing exercise that I could complete in about half an hour.
Here’s what I did. I told myself to write one sentence for every basic plot structure component. That meant only one sentence for the lead-in, the precipitating incident and so on. Here are the plot components I used and here is the first paragraph that I came up with (color coded of course):
When I was a child I lived in the mountains of Colorado. One summer we went away on vacation for a few weeks and came back to find our house robbed and ransacked. As a child I couldn’t understand why some of my larger, more expensive toys were gone. My mother circulated the rumor that my brother’s friends, knowing from my brother that we were out of town, had been the perpetrators. Nothing came of those rumors, however, at least nothing concrete that brought my toys back. So I did without my toys and eventually forgot about them.
I was surprised by how things turned out. It seemed like I expressed an idea very completely and in a more satisfactory manner than my usual fiction ramblings. It also surprised me because, though had its own mini-plot, it seemed like this piece could be a small piece of a larger story.
Later that week I did the same exercise again, only this time I had two sentences per plot element. This is what I produced:
In a cold, quiet forest, a small squirrel ran up a lodge-pole pine tree, skipping from one trunk to another, gripping the bark with its claws. Below the now sky-borne squirrel, the lumbering of a brown bear on its water path broke into the quiet of the forest with snapping of twigs, the rustling of leaves and the bear’s own heavy, rumbled breathing. The bear descended the hill in front of him, following his normal route to the small silvery pond for a drink of water. But the bear stopped; no ordinary animal possessed that smell. Through the trees at the edge of the pond a man in a red and black plaid flannel shirt and jeans was squatting, filling his silver water canteen. The man turned suddenly, sensing the nearness of something; in what seemed like the same instant the bear sprinted and lunged at him. The man fumbled at his waist, trying to get something free. His gun went off, the sound reverberating through the trees, through the silence, shattering the stillness. The gun was flung from the man’s hand at the onslaught of the brown bear’s attack. The man attempted to fight the heavy bear with his fists and with swift kicks before the beast was upon him, pinning him to the forest floor. The two creatures resisted each other in a few tense moments of struggle before the man was overcome. The last sound the man remembered before fading into blackness was the bear’s lumbering breathing at his throat.
I hate writing stuff that twinges of tragedy, but this is what came to mind that day (interesting how mood can affect our writing). It was satisfying to me to being able take baby-steps to understand how my own writing style can interact with plot structure. This exercise challenged the way I thought about writing fiction but it also stimulated my creativity and excited me about the possibilities that fiction might hold for me.
Am I touting this as a way to write short stories? No, not really. For me these were exercises, ways to slowly but surely push me out of my non-fiction comfort zone into a new world of short fiction.
-Susan L. Eberling
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Nancy Wick's Essay Posted on skirt!
Fall 2007 First Place Winner! Nancy Wick
Luck? Coincidence? Does it really exist? What about karma, serendipity, or missed opportunities? These were some of the questions posed by WOW! Women On Writing's first ever, essay contest. And now we have some answers!
Nancy Wick has been a writer and editor for 30 years, working in newspapers and magazines, and has won both regional and national writing awards. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Speech and Drama from the University of Missouri and is a former film and theater critic. She also earned a doctorate in communication at the University of Washington. Now that she is nearing retirement from her job as editor of the faculty/staff newspaper at the UW, she has started a small editing business, EnLightened Edits. She enjoys working on many kinds of writing, but is especially fond of character-driven novels (both genre and non-genre), psychology/self-help books, essays and memoirs.
We welcome Nancy and congratulate her for winning First Place in the Fall 2007 Essay Contest, sponsored by the Globe Pequot Press’ skirt! books. If you haven't done so already, please read Nancy's award winning story, Cookie Magic. Then come back and join us as we chat with a talented writer and a remarkable woman.
WOW: Congratulations on your First Place essay, Cookie Magic! Nancy, your story is truly inspiring. I want to thank you for sharing your journey as a single mother—I know it’s a tough path to tread, but your story remained upbeat and inspirational, despite what you were probably enduring. After your break-up with Bob, what made you choose Seattle, Washington as a place to move to?
NANCY: People laugh when I say this, but I actually chose it in part for the weather. I’d been living in the Midwest, where the summers are terribly hot and humid, and I HATED that. I wanted someplace that was cool year round, but without a lot of snow. I was also looking for a more liberal place with lots of cultural outlets, such as live theater. I considered several cities, but Seattle was the one that had everything. And no, I don’t mind the rain.
WOW: Well, you're a better woman than I am! I'm a little spoiled from living in Southern California—we don't get much humidity, or much rain. But I do love Seattle, the culture there is vibrant. So, how did you first get into editing for the faculty/staff newspaper at the University of Washington?
NANCY: A friend of mine’s co-worker was the neighbor of my current boss. She told me about the job opening—at that time as assistant editor. Back in the Midwest, I’d worked for a daily newspaper, so I had the relevant experience. Working for the university allowed me to stay in journalism, but without the evening and weekend hours.
WOW: That's definitely a bonus! And now that you’re nearing retirement, you’ve started a new business, EnLightened Edits. I’m sure our readers would love to know more about what kinds of services you provide.
NANCY: I provide a variety of editing services. I can, if people want, simply read what they’ve written, correct all the spelling and grammatical errors and suggest clearer ways of saying things. I also can offer what is called developmental editing—an evaluation of a whole manuscript that points out strengths and weaknesses and makes suggestions for improvement.
WOW: In your bio you mentioned character-driven novels—do you write fiction as well?
NANCY: I’ve tried to write fiction, but unfortunately I’m not very good at it! But I read fiction constantly, and in my business I especially enjoy working on novels. It turns out you can be good at evaluating the kind of writing you’re not good at doing.
WOW: True, but it takes an avid reader. Since we’re in the midst of our January, “Reader’s Issue,” who are some of your favorite authors?
NANCY: There are so many, I hardly know where to start. I love Marge Piercy, Alice Hoffman, Anne Patchett, JoAnne Harris, Anna Quindlen, etc., etc. For mysteries I love Elizabeth George, whose work transcends the genre.
WOW: Oh, I love her! To me, your story, Cookie Magic, could work as fiction, although, it's more dynamic as an essay. From reading your story, I have to ask, are you still in touch with Brenda today? She seems like such a fabulous friend.
NANCY: No, Brenda moved to Tacoma a couple of years after I moved out (which I did because she’d gotten a job in Tacoma and was selling her house), and I lost touch with her. I’m very grateful to her for her help at that time.
WOW: And how about your son, Ian? What is he doing now, and has he had a chance to read your winning story?
NANCY: Ian is a computer guy who is working with databases. He hasn’t yet read the story, though I’ve told him about it.
WOW: Well, I'm sure he'll be proud. We had a lot of entries this season, how does it feel to win First Place?
NANCY: I’m thrilled, of course. When I read the other two winning essays, I was very impressed and thought maybe they should have won. Pam and Dianne, kudos to you. I felt as if I’d really met Pam’s boss when I read her essay, and Dianne – what an experience, to find the owner of the wallet in the manner you did!
WOW: There were some very good stories, and I enjoyed them all. It's always such a tough decision for our guest judges...and for the writers. When you first saw the prompt, did you automatically know what you were going to write about?
NANCY: There are many “coincidences” in my life that I could have chosen. I gave it some thought, and decided that this one fit the prompt the most closely—the idea of coming upon something by accident that made a real difference in your life. From there I simply sat down and wrote about the incident as I remembered it. Fortunately I’ve always kept a journal, so I was able to go back and get some details about that time.
WOW: Journaling is something I totally recommend as well, but sometimes you look back at your casual writing and notice it would take a lot to make it into a story. Did you have to do a lot of editing to tailor your essay?
NANCY: I did quite a lot of editing. I have a friend, another writer, to whom I show most of my stuff—especially stuff that I intend to submit somewhere. It was her suggestion that I start at the bank. My initial draft started with the background of how I got to Seattle. Once I changed the lead, the rest followed, which is kind of how it always is in journalism. Getting the opening right is really important. After that it was a matter of cutting to make it tighter and making sure I was using the most effective words to tell the story.
WOW: I agree, the hook is the most important, and you did it so well! You really captured the reader with the first sentence. It's no wonder you've also won regional and national awards for your writing. Please tell us more about those—you have bragging rights!
NANCY: There are two organizations that evaluate writing such as I do in my job—the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ). Both have regional and national competitions. I’ve won regional SPJ awards in various categories —best magazine article in education, for example. (I write for the alumni magazine as well as the newspaper.) I’ve also won an award in the national CASE Best Articles of the Year category. And last year, my assistant editor and I won a national CASE award for writing in an internal publication.
WOW: Congrats on those, Nancy! And from your bio, I know you were also a former film and theater critic. Many of our freelance writers would consider that a dream job. Do you still do this today? And do you have any tips for breaking into the business that our freelancers should know?
NANCY: No, I don’t do it anymore. I think anyone considering this should remember that as a critic, you get to go to everything—the stinkers as well as the great films. The newspaper I worked for only used staff writers as critics, so it was a matter of being on staff and continuing to ask for those assignments. Larger papers sometimes hire freelancers. I’d say the best approach is to find out from the paper’s entertainment editor whether they hire freelancers. If they do, attend a few movies and send in sample reviews so they can see what you can do.
WOW: I think I'll use that advice the next time I'm at the movies. So, what do you do when you have some free time?
NANCY: I read, of course. I go to movies and live theater. I used to do line and square dancing and would like to get back to that.
WOW: Do you also have a set writing schedule?
NANCY: I get up at 5 a.m. every morning so as to have time to write before going to work. My goal is to do something five days a week—even if it’s only 10 minutes worth.
WOW: That's an excellent goal to have. So, what are your goals for 2008?
NANCY: To get my website for Enlightened Edits up. It’s nearly ready, and to do more editing, which I really enjoy. I also want to keep submitting essays to publications and competitions.
WOW: Thank you, Nancy, for taking the time to chat with us today! Do you have any tips for our ladies who are entering writing contests?
NANCY: Just keep entering. Don’t take a loss to mean your writing is worthless. I’ve lost more contests than I’ve won, but I keep trying because I know every judge is different and you never know who will respond to what you do.
If you haven't done so already, please read Nancy's award winning story, Cookie Magic. And stay tuned for Nancy Wick's award-winning story to be published on the skirt! magazine website: http://www.skirt.com
And remember, every Tuesday we'll be featuring an interview with one of the top 10 winners from the Fall 2007 Essay Contest. So, be sure to check back and see who's up next!
For more details on WOW! Women On Writing's current contest, please visit: