The Cure to Writer’s Block: Tell the Story Behind PostSecrets

Two weeks ago I attended the PostSecret event at Rutgers University, Camden campus with my younger sister.  For those of you who don’t know, PostSecret is a community art project started by Frank Warren a handful of years ago where people send in anonymous postcards inscribed with a secret they’ve never shared before and Frank posts a collection of them on the Postsecret blog every Sunday; some of you might remember its initial launch to fame with the All American Reject’s popular music video.

 

Since then, Frank has compiled five PostSecret books–the newest one being Confessions on Life, Death, and God

and has done hundreds of presentations on the lecture circuit.  Two weeks ago, people revealed secrets varying from embarrassing public peeing experiences, to admitting considering suicide, to getting down on one knee and proposing to a girlfriend left completely out of the loop until that moment (this kind of made my sister and mine’s lives).

Wedding Proposal Rutgers University, Camden 2011

Wedding Proposal at PostSecret Event

All it took was a single sentence; a single honest, trembling-voice sentence and the entire room felt like they knew the speaker.  Secrets are like an introduction to a person; their hopes, fears, and driving motivations.   As I sat there listening to people’s secrets, I felt like I was surrounded by characters.  When writing fiction, sometimes I have a hard time identifying what the main character’s driving motivations are; I have a hard time rationalizing what they should/would say or do because I don’t know what makes them tick.

Secrets are what make people tick.  I’ve talked about this recently concerning  family ancestors and the need to dig up those secrets to write good memoir.  When writing fiction, as the author, you need to know your characters secrets; if you know their inner-most secret, then you’ll know how they’ll react to every scene you put them in.  The audience doesn’t have to know that secret until the end of the book.  Theory: this is a good writer’s dirty little secret.

Here’s my favorite writing prompt: go to the PostSecret blog, or pick up one of the books and read until you connect with a particular secret.  Use it as the first sentence to a new story; it can be your story–one thing Frank mentioned during the event was that a lot of people have the same secret–or a fictional character’s story.  It can be a story about what lead them to admit that secret; the emotional struggle that led them to physically mail it in.

What’s your character’s secret?

Get Writing Inspiration from Your Family’s Dirty Secrets

From left to right, row by row: My great-great-grandmother (nameless), great-grandfather William Guest Hechinger, great-grandmother Theresa, grandfather Theodore and his siblings Viola, William "Dizzy," and Russel.

Secret:  I am totally obsessed with family research on ancestry.com.  I love picking family members’ brains for memories, dates, and the vaguely remembered names of cousins.  I love sifting through the scanned census records, copying out tiny details–like that my great-grandfather (a different branch, not in this photograph) worked at a cigar factory in Berks County, Pa–and patchwork piecing together generations of lives.  (The two most exciting moments for me are when I either figure out how a certain couple met and fell in love–job, church, or family friend–or when I dig back far enough to figure out which generation immigrated and from where.)   When I don’t have much information to go on, I love visiting the graveyards where my relatives are buried.  Gravestones, in my opinion, are the greatest short stories, and I love imagining what happened in-between that birth and death date.

My great-Uncle Dick remembers where everyone is buried and took us on a little field trip to Edgewood Cemetery and Temple Road Cemetery in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, this past weekend and I was able to trace back three generations in one row of gravestones.

My maternal grandparent's gravestone, at Temple Road. Mildred Bedulia (awful name, right!?) and Theodore Peter Hechinger (shown as a boy, above).

To me, researching family history is like learning the back story to a cast of characters; you dig and read until you understand their motivations, the turning-points, the red and black letter days in their lives.  You learn their occupation, their hobbies, who they lived with, and–ofttimes a surprise–how many times they might have secretly divorced and remarried.  For writers who have a difficult time fully developing their fictional characters, I think plucking someone from your own family tree is a great writing exercise.  Even if you don’t think your ancestors lead terribly important or interesting lives–or perhaps they took all their secrets to the grave–thereby denying you enough materials to write an entire book (such as the super fabulous memoir, Glass Castle, and the historical-fiction-memoir-blend Half-Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls and the less fabulous, but wonderfully titled conversation-style memoir Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness), I’m sure that there’s a family story that has been told so many times that the details are burned into your memory.  It might be small–as small as the fact that my father was a lefty, but got hit by the principal of his public elementary school so many times that he became ambidextrous–but I’m sure it’s enough to inspire you to write a historical short story.  When you have writer’s block, try to integrate a family story.  You don’t have to imagine or think-up something believable, because it’s already done for you.  You probably know your relatives better than you know your fictional characters, so use that to your advantage!

For example, there’s some mystery surrounding my maternal grandfather (see above).  In the top photograph you can see him, his siblings, his father, mother, and maternal grandmother.  The story goes that the mother, Theresa, ran off with another man, leaving William with four children to raise.  Financially, he couldn’t do it.  So he put his daughter, Viola, on a farm and put the boys in the Home for Friendless Children.  It was basically an orphanage, but the Hechinger boys got treated better because their father would visit them once a week and give a little money to the Home.  He didn’t like talking about it so we don’t know what daily life was like.  All we know is that at one point, the three brothers ran away and never returned to the Home.  We don’t know if they made it on their own, or if they moved back in with their Dad.  Isn’t that story just ripe for the writing?

P.S. If you’re particularly interested in family stories, what they mean, and considering writing down all of yours, I’d highly recommend Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins, a book I’m halfway through reading and loving.


The 4 Rules of Polite Simultaneous Submissions

I’ve read blog posts before where people claim that it’s “rude” or, at the very least, makes them extremely uncomfortable to simultaneously submit their writing to multiple journals or to multiple literary agents.  This is ridiculous!  Think about it.  If you have submitted your manuscript to a single literary agent, the wait time is, perhaps, eight weeks.  If you’re a betting sort of person–particularly a slots machine player–you know these odds are totally not in your favor.  And getting your writing published is already an upstream battle; simultaneous submissions is one of the tricks (a completely fair and legal one!) to increase your odds of becoming a published writer sooner.  The same goes for short stories at literary journals.  You have to expect rejection at least a few times–even the greats were rejected before they were discovered; wouldn’t it be better to submit to five places all at once, get four rejections and one acceptance in the same span of wait time, rather than doing it single file and having to wait years, perhaps, to get a “yes”?

Not only does it harm yourself as a writer, but journals and agents expect simultaneous submissions because it’s what smart writers do; it’s part of the industry and as long as you politely warn them in your cover and/or query letters and promptly withdraw your work from consideration elsewhere it is perfectly acceptable.

How to Simultaneous Submit your Work without Stepping on Toes:

1.  Read the fine print.  Make sure that the literary journals and agents you’re submitting to accept simultaneous submissions.  (Most do and they’ll mention it on their submission guidelines page; for example, see fugue, CutBank, and So to Speak.  Those who are morally against the practice also mention it there.)  There is nothing worse that simultaneously submitting something and then withdrawing it from consideration elsewhere when they don’t approve of the practice.  You might have burned a bridge with an editor and a journal so they won’t even consider your work again.  (This is not meant to scare you off!  As long as they say they don’t mind simultaneous submissions, you’re golden!)

2.  Only submit your story to a handful of places.  You don’t want to spread yourself too thin or do more work than you have to.  If your submissions are well-targeted–meaning you’ve read the journal before, or, in the case of a literary agent, have read their bio and are positive you’re writing fits their criteria–then you shouldn’t have to submit it one thousand times, so writing one thousand letters all at once would be wasted effort.  Personally, I submit a story a maximum of four different journals at a time.  And for queries, I usually send letters out in batches of five at a time.

3.  Submit in tiers.  In these batches of submissions, don’t submit to the New Yorker and you’re local no-name literary journal at the same time.  What if that local no-name journal accepts your work?  Great, right?  But then when you go to withdraw from the New Yorker, what if the editor says “that’s such a shame, we were really interested in publishing it.”  The New Yorker is a much better publishing credit–and a paying market–than the local no-name.  But, the polite rules of the industry are that you must accept the first offer and turn down any successive ones.  So to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, group together journals and literary agents in order.  In the case of journals, submit to the most competitive, bit-of-a-stretch-chance ones first.  Then, once you’ve heard back from all of them, go down a tier and submit to a batch from that level.  Same goes for literary agents.  Submit to your top five favorite, all-star, dream agents first because they might be interested.  You never want to be disappointing that one editor or agent responded first.  You should be equally happy to have gotten accepted by any single person in the same tier.

4.  Be honest.  In your cover letter, don’t conceal the fact that you’re simultaneously submitting your work.  Just throw a sentence in there: “This is a simultaneous submission, but I shall notify you immediately should it be accepted elsewhere.”  And then, if you do get accepted elsewhere, let the other journals/agents know.  Don’t try to get a single story published multiple times.  It’s dishonest, will hurt your career because word will get around, and might also lead to copyright legal issues.

So while you’re waiting to hear back about that one story, go submit it again somewhere else!  Or if you’re waiting to hear back from that literary agent, send it to another one in the mean time!

Chapbook Contest–Poetry, Fiction, and Non-Fiction

On the ride home from work yesterday I got the germ of a new book idea.  I want it to be a collection of creative non-fiction essays organized around a theme.  Aside from basically everything David Sedaris writes, there aren’t many non-fiction short story collection books for sale in stores.  So I was wondering, how does one get them published?  And where do they get them published?  Do you get an agent or go straight to a publisher?  What publishers are actually interested in that kind of manuscript? Obviously everyone is interested in David Sedaris because he’s awesome: 

To me, this book idea feels a little bit like a poetry chapbook, which I’m more familiar with, and I know there are oodles of poetry chapbook contests out there where people can win money and get published all at one, so I figure there’s got to be similar contests for other genres, right?

False.

I found a few fiction chapbook contests–Gold Line Press, for example, has one (deadline 11/1/11) where you can win $500 and publication with an ISBN number–but only one non-fiction one.  They don’t have the deadline posted for this year’s competition, but it’s hosted by AWP and has been an annual contest since 1975, so it seems like a pretty safe bet that the contest will be held again.  If you have a similar manuscript done or in the works–they permit some of the short stories to have been published elsewhere first, so you could try to assemble some previously published stuff into a submission–then read the info below and submit!

AWP Award Series:  The Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, The Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction

Who/What is Illegible:  The competition is open to all authors writing in English regardless of nationality or residence.   Only book-length manuscripts are eligible.

What They Want:  Poetry-48 pages minimum text; short story collection and creative nonfiction-150-300 manuscript pages; novel-at least 60,000 words.

How They Want It:  Snail Mail.  Manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced on good quality paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches. Poetry manuscripts may be single-spaced. Photocopies or copies from letter-quality printers are acceptable, but dot matrix is not acceptable. Manuscripts should not be bound or in a folder; they must be binder-clipped or rubber-banded together.  See more submission guidelines here.

Fee?  $30

Prize:  The Donald Hall Prize for Poetry is an award of $5,000 and publication for the best book-length manuscript of poetry. This competition is open to published and unpublished poets alike. The Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction awards the winner $5,000 and publication. Winners in the novel and creative nonfiction categories receive a $2,000 cash honorarium from AWP and publication. The Award Series conducts an evaluation process of writers, for writers, by writers. AWP hires a staff of “screeners” who are themselves writers; the screeners review manuscripts for the judges. Typically, the screeners will select ten manuscripts in each genre for each judge’s final evaluations.

Good Luck!

How I Wrote My First Book in a Rage and Survived

Inspired by a recent post over at storytelling nomad’s blog about authors who are evasive when answering the question “how did I start writing,” I thought I’d elaborate a bit, personally.

I’ve already mentioned my notebooks/journals.  After reading the entire series of Amelia’s notebooks, I wanted to write funny records just like hers.  My first couple notebooks had a lot of doodles similar to Amelia’s notebooks and perhaps slightly copycatting the Lizzie McGuire cartoon (remember that show??)  My desire to keep journals was further fueled by the Princess Diaries series.  All through my childhood, I was the bookiest bookworm you’ve ever met and my parents further encouraged my writing goal by sending me to book-writing-and-making summer camps at the local community college and reading camps at the local library. (These, I insist, were NOT lame.  I enjoyed the experiences very much and am extremely fond of the little paperback books I made.  They sit in a place of honor on my shelves).

Anywho.  That’s how I started writing.

At those summer camps, I wrote a couple of short picture books which usually starred a talking animal as the main character.  But my first real chapter book was a totally different experience.

I was in 11th grade and was in an AP English-Creative Writing class.  My teacher was not terribly enthusiastic about teaching and was usually unprepared.  That particular day he had given a little speech entitled “Every Great Book Idea Has Already Been Written So It Is Pointless to Try and Write A Book.”  I’m not sure why he thought this was a good topic for a Creative Writing class, but I was angry.  I went home after school, locked myself in my room, and wrote a middle-grade fantasy novel about a curmudgeony old king who’s family motto was that life wasn’t worth living because every experience had already been lived at least once before and about the two kids that go on a quest to prove the king wrong.  It took me nine hours and I never went back to edit it.  But if I ever get it published, I am sending a copy to my old teacher and:

  1. Hope that he feels the sting of my pen; or,
  2. Realizes the error of his thinking and realizes that awesome new books are published every day, the book in his hand being a key example.

Then I went off to college.  I wanted to major in Creative Writing, but every college I visited told me that I needed to double major–or at least minor–in something else too, or I would have nothing to write about.  Being that historical fiction is my favorite genre of all time, I double-majored in history.

The capstone of the history major is a class called Research and Writing and I decided to make the project do double the work for me.  I picked a historical figure who’s never had a middle-grade fiction book written about her (I’m keeping it a secret so that my book is still the first.  So those of you who know what I did my project on…shhh!  Our little secret!) and then spent four semesters researching her.  I read over 100 books, a dozen articles, watched twenty movies and television shows about her, and even listened to every single song that references her in some way.

You know those authors who say they have to know the character as well as their best friend before they can write the book?  Let me just tell you, I knew the character inside and out.  Writing the book was easy after all that research.  (It took longer than nine hours, of course; it wasn’t that easy.  A semester for the first draft and four more months for the desperately needed rewrite).

How did you get into writing?  What was your experience writing your first book like?  What inspired (or enraged) you?

Dear Authors: How Dare You Kill Off Your Main Characters

SPOILER ALERT!  I will be discussing details of the books One Day by David Nicholls and The Sight by David Clement-Davies that will generally spoil the endings.  You’ve been warned.

The first time I read a book in which the narrator died, I was morally offended.  I had fallen in love with the character and then a few chapters from the end they had the audacity to die on me.  To me, it felt like the author had cheated, had lazily given up on telling the story properly, and had maybe even broken a cardinal writing rule.  I figured the rest of the book was worthless and refused to finish it for weeks.  But the story haunted me and I sullenly picked it back up.  The rest of the book was told in the voice of the main character’s twin (they were both wolves) and it was just as wonderfully told as the rest of the book had been.  The Sight has stuck in my mind ever since because it was the first and only book where I encountered that kind of narrative daring.  It did something I didn’t think it was possible to do and it did it well.

However, it’s tricky and the execution is critical.  I just finished reading One Day and was equally horrified by the author’s choice of event turns.  “Then Emma Mayhew dies, and everything that she thought or felt vanishes and is gone forever.”  Seriously?!

Though the book is told in the third person, it basically has two narrators, Em and Dex.  A few chapters from the end, Em is killed in a biking-car accident and the rest of the story is told from the very drunk, very depressed, very pathetic point of view of her husband, Dex.  While as I forgave The Sight because it redeemed itself, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive One Day.  I’m sad I wasted so much time finishing the book, to be honest.

What do you think?  Have you ever read a book where the narrator dies?  Do you approve, disapprove?  Are you as morally offended by the idea as I was?

This is True Memoir, Honestly!

Back from vacation and ready to dive back into the writing world.  During downtime at the shore house I managed to write a new creative non-fiction short story (no title yet, I’m stuck*).  I realized earlier this afternoon that nearly all my publishing credits are creative non-fiction, which is strange because I actually consider myself a fiction writer.  I mentioned this realization on the phone with my boyfriend (he’s still at the shore, lucky duck) and he was like, “I hate to tell you, but that’s what you are.  You’re good at it.  You’re good at fiction too, but, well, you have a lot of interesting stories to tell that are true.”  This worries me.  I’m only 22-years-old.  Sure, I’ve had some unusual and interesting experiences, but won’t they run out someday?  I could practically hear my boyfriend shrug.  “Then you’ll resort to fiction, I guess.”

Do memoir writers have a great deal of anxiety over this?  Do they force themselves to go on adventures that they wouldn’t normally have just to create content?  Do they fake the meaning of events and memories for the sake of writing something?  Is this kind of anxiety what leads to fictionalized memoirs?  What do you think?

*It’s about safety, family, over-protective fathers.  Anybody got a title suggestion?  I’m thinking “Safety First” is too hokey.  Yes or no?