How I Learned to Write

Totally triggered by the most recent PubCrawl Podcast episode about author career qualifications, I got thinking about what’s helped me develop into the writer I am today. Writing is so much more than sentences and grammar (though that’s obviously a pair of critical variables) and learning how to write requires so much more than a creative writing degree (though it helped kickstart me in the right direction).

I learned how to give constructive feedback and absorb criticism thanks to creative writing workshops in undergrad.

I learned about story in those same workshops. 

I learned how to write powerful sentences and build logical paragraphs writing dozens of research papers as a history major. It’s also where I kicked my purple prose habit.

I learned how to accept rejection from rounds of literary magazine submissions.

I learned how to finish a book in NaNoWriMo. 

I learned about pacing and voice by reading reading reading. 

I learned about dialogue from Girlmore Girls.

I learned how to be succinct when writing my pictorial history. (Word count restrictions!) And Twitter, maybe. And my flash-fiction phase. 

I learned about scene structure from a SCBWI conference workshop led by the superb Laurie Calkhoven.

I learned about plotting and structure and beats at a writing conference talk by the fabulous Chris Grabenstein. And by reading craft books.

I discovered revision tactics by reading the blogs of authors I admire.

I learned how to revise on book #4. By pulling the story apart and refashioning it back together, over and over. And by following my critique partners’ advice.

I’m excited to see what the next writing break through might be. :]

Alphabet Soup: Skip the MFA and Read A-Z Instead

When I was nearing the end of my undergraduate career, a lot of professors started to ask me what I was going to do. More specifically, they assumed I was going to graduate school and would point blank ask what program I was heading off to.

It shocked them when I told them that in fact I was going to a six-week publishing program and then planning to enter the real-world job market. Many of them told me it was a mistake.

It’s been more than a year since I graduated now and a year since I started my job and I still don’t think it was a mistake. I own a condo now. I live in a really neat part of the country, only ten minutes from the US Olympic Rowing practice center, (I just found this out, cool, right?) while most respectable Creative Writing programs are in the sticks of Iowa or Texas (this is a generalization, I know, but it’s kind of true, so let’s move on). When I read articles like this I feel even better in my decision; I graduated debt-free, but would have had to take on loans for an MFA. Sometimes, in the corner of my mind I wish I was still in school so I could write all the time, but then I remember how I actually have more time to write now than I ever did in school, with all those time-consuming general education requirements and exams that, now, seem like such a ridiculous waste (they told me that I could not graduate without taking College Algebra, The Planets, and Exercise Science; they would, they promised, “help me in the future” in some way. I would like to call that bluff. Even as a creative writer, none of those classes even gave me a new experience that would offer even a tid-bit of inspiration for a story).

I understand that MFAs are great, fantastic, life-changing decisions for some people. Annie, for example, (who recently pointed out that it’s national “YA Authors Talk About Higher Education and How It Affects Your Finances” week) loved her MFA experiences and believe they helped her reach her goals (her debut novel is forthcoming from Candlewick).

But, personally? I’m done with learning the theory of craft; I want to see craft in action and practice it over and over again myself.

The best way to do this, I’ve determined, is to read and write A LOT in my own self-designed MFA, of sorts. The poor-mans, free-public-library degree. I’ve always been an avid reader (I’ve read 45 books so far this year, per Goodreads) but this blog post by Joëlle Anthony gave me the idea to really focus my reading time into a study:

After ten years of interest but no book sales, I decided I needed to make some sort of change. I contemplated things for a while and came to the conclusion that many of the successful writers I knew had a lot more education than I did, so I immediately determined that’s what I needed—someone to tell me how to do this writing stuff. After all, my degree was in theatre, not literature or English.

Not surprisingly, all the writers I asked chimed in about the merits of Vermont College’s MFA in writing for kids. I decided that’s what I needed. Unfortunately, what I also needed was the twenty grand to make it happen. When I realized the money wasn’t going to miraculously show up in my savings account, I knew I’d have to move on to Plan B: I’d get all those Vermont College graduates to simply tell me what they learned and it would be almost like going myself.

Right?

Yeah…not so much.

However, when I asked for more information about the program, one writer answered me in specifics that changed my life. She told me about the coursework, which sounded interesting, and the guest writers who came in to lecture, which I really wanted to hear, but then she offhandedly mentioned that they also “require participants to read 200 books in their genre.”

Read a lot of books? That’s it? That’s all I had to do? I loved to read!

I could do that.

For free!

So, this is the plan, for now. Let’s see how far it gets me.

(Image: State Library and Archives of Florida, Creative Commons)

Dear Indie Presses: Claire Lawrence’s Book Will Knock Your Socks Off!

Who, you may be asking, is Claire Lawrence? For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her or taking one of her (spoiler alert!) fabulously inspiring creative writing classes, Claire Lawrence is a Creative Writing professor at my alma mater, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania (and, I should mention, one of my favorite people in the entire world). A Utah native who got her PhD in fiction from the University of Houston and has been published widely in journals such as Terra NovaGulf Coast, Puerto del SolTerrain, and The New Earth Reader, among others. Claire maintains a lovely blog, Wish You Were Here, all about writing, mothering, partnering, running, professing, and mindfulness. With all these activities and responsibilities–not to mention several bouts of flu that have been making their repetitive rounds at her home this winter–she obviously has a lot on her plate so even though she loves to write, she doesn’t have a huge amount of time to submit her work. Namely, this means that the novel she wrote over seven years ago–which was successfully picked up by an agent, but less successfully picked up by a major publisher–spends a lot of time on the To-Do list.

Enter me.

Acting as her Official Book Submitter, I am researching smaller publishers. These are perfectly respectable presses–ranging from university presses to independent presses–with awesome book lists who accept query letters from the authors themselves and don’t require literary agents as the go-between. My goal is to find her book, Rooted in the Sky, a happy published home.

With her permission already in hand, I will be blogging about independent presses, generally, and Claire Lawrence’s Grand Journey to Becoming a Published Book Author, specifically.

I’m super excited because, honestly, submitting writing is my favorite part of the process. I love researching potential publishers–looking at comparable titles, checking out their cover designs and general marketing strategies, writing and rewriting the query letter, sealing the envelopes with a lick, stamp, and prayer, waiting with bated breath and loads of hope–and this opportunity gives me the chance to do all that fun stuff without having to wait to have my own novel-in-progress polished and ready!

I hope you’re all as excited as I am!

How to Edit Out the “Boring” in your Writing

I wrote a particular short story (fiction) two summers ago and was pretty proud of it. I did everything you’re supposed to do–give it to other people to critique, let it sit untouched in a drawer for a couple weeks before reading it again–and after several rounds of editing over the course of a few months, I felt good enough about it to submit it to a slew of literary journals.

It slowly got rejected, one at a time, and has been waiting for a response at one hold-out journal for over a year. This week, I decided it was time to dust it off and submit it for another round of publications. To refresh myself on the story and get a good idea of what journals might be interest, I reread the story.

And I was horrified by the writing.

It wasn’t bad, exactly. I still loved the story idea, but the thing that really nagged me was that there were clunky stage directions everywhere that were:

  1. Boring;
  2. Dragging down the pace of the plot; and
  3. Unnecessary boring details.

What do I mean by stage directions exactly?

Well, here is an example of some of the original sentences:

George clicked the garage door opener. He scurried under the lifting door to lean over and sniff the tuna fish cans he had prepared the night before.

George put down the platter and ran back to the house. He returned with a gallon of bleach.

He dropped the empty bottle next to the platter, grabbed hold of the rope ladder, climbed up, and squeezed through the tree house’s child-sized doorway.

And here’s what they ended up being after some very necessary cutting:

The cans of tuna fish were artfully arranged on an antique silver platter, its surface etched with delicate curlicues, which he had polished for the occasion. George sniffed the food and smiled.

Grinding his teeth, George ran back to the house to fetch a gallon of bleach.

Feeling light-headed, he clung first to the rope ladder as it swayed with each step and then to the tree house’s child-sized doorway as he squeezed through.

There’s less “he did this here and then he moved this way and put this thing down and picked this thing up.” I don’t need to say he opened the garage door. The reader doesn’t care if he opened the garage door. If they know he’s in the garage, they can assume the first part. The reader doesn’t care if he put something down first before leaving. And the reader certainly doesn’t need to have it spelled out for them that the character climbed the rope ladder. In the original I was telling stage directions rather than showing what the character was up to.

I feel better about the story, now, and more confident that future editors will enjoy the piece more/give it the time of day. And the editing was easy, in a way, because the stage directions were glaring at me, begging to be sliced, while the rest of the prose was able to stand pretty much unscathed. But I’m rather upset that I wasted time submitting a sub-par story and even more upset that even though I certainly didn’t rush through the rewriting and editing stages, I didn’t notice that it needed work.

Have you ever had this happen to you before? Long after you’ve submitted some writing, you realize that it needs a ton more work? What sort of boring stuff do you tend to include in your writing, but edit out later?

(Image, No Copyright, National Media Museum)

Writing is Like Digging for Diamonds

I was once told that writing is like excavating diamonds. Raw diamonds are naturally stuck in big chunks of worthless rock that is in turn buried deep in the mud. Stories, similar to diamonds, have an essentially perfect, natural form and the writer’s job is to chip away all the rock and crud until the pure diamond is exposed.

I’ve been toying with this idea for a long time and I like it, in theory. It makes the purpose of editing rather clear: all the superfluous descriptions, dialogue, and scenes that add no real value to your writing is the worthless crud you need to scrape off the diamond. Story therefore already exists, lurking beneath the surface, perfectly formed. It’s just waiting for the right person with the right excavation tools and skill set. This doesn’t mean that everyone can succeed if they start digging. Even if the diamond already exists, the writer could leave too much “in the rough,” or could possibly dig up only a portion of the story, thereby reducing its ultimate value. A one-caret diamond might be great, but not compared to the ten-caret diamond you might have just broke it off of.

I’m not sure if this is true for fiction writing, because when I write fiction the story is always evolving and I don’t think I ever end up writing–or excavating, as the metaphor would say–the original gem that I expected to dig up out of my imagination. But I do believe this metaphor is true when it comes to creative non-fiction, or memoir.

Like most writers, I normally go through drafts and drafts and more drafts when I’m writing a fiction story. But when I’m writing a piece of memoir, I have to stew on the moment, the specific memory or event that I want to write about. Because to me, it really only happened one way. There is only one way to tell it. And I have to wait for the correct sentences to float to the surface of my imagination:

  • Using a metal detector, I search over wide areas looking for the hidden treasure. I dig up a lot of worthless dirty pennies along the way.
  • Once I’ve located a diamond, it’s time for the careful process of chipping away the crud still clinging to it.

When I wrote my most recent memoir piece, “What to Expect While Grieving for Your Father,” I only wrote it once. In fact, it was already completely written in my head before I wrote it down.

I used to drive 2.5 hours from university back home for occasional weekend visits and holidays. I like to drive late at night when it’s dark and nobody else is on the road to cause traffic congestion or stress. Free of distractions, the title popped into my head first. Then the first line, “Usually, the first question people ask is how long it’s going to take before you ‘get over it.'” Then the whole first paragraph and then the entire story gurgled up out of my subconscious, bursting with the desire to be written down in its pure unadulterated form before I dropped it back in the mud. For the rest of the ride, I repeated those sentences over and over to myself so I wouldn’t forget them. When I snuck into my mom’s house at 1 AM, I wrote the whole story down, as fast as I could, before falling asleep.

Honestly, I don’t think I altered more than a few words here and there, to avoid repetition, when I edited that story the next morning. To me, then, memoir is already written. It’s just a matter of mining out the perfect gem.

What do you think? Do you agree with the diamond-digging metaphor?

(Image, Creative Commons, The National Archives)

Perks of Being A “Jersey Girl”

1. Cheap gas that someone else pumps for me
2. Jersey tomatoes (taste so much better than Pennsylvania ones)
3. Jersey corn (can you tell I’m thinking about summer and gardens?)
4. Jersey Devil Press, an online literary journal that has some really impressive content and one I’m looking forward to submitting to! (Thanks go to Carol Deminski for inadvertently introducing me to the small independent press with her story “The Fortune Teller,” a clever take on the Jersey Devil’s plight and personality.)

For those of you who follow sports, you already know that New Jersey’s only professional sports team, the Jersey Devils, is based off a hugely popular local myth about a monster–“most commonly described as having the body of a kangaroo, the head of a dog, the face of a horse, large leathery wings, antlers similar to those of a deer, a forked reptilian tail, and prominent, intimidating claws”–that stalks the Pine Barren forests of southern New Jersey.

A bit of a rare bird in the literary community, Jersey Devil Press is super up-front, offering all the answers any writer could ever want or need on their website. For example, despite the fact that New Jersey is now and forever associated with Snookie and the Jersey Shore, Jersey Devil Press clearly states that they are not impressed with the association and in fact strive to “publicly decry the downfall of humanity that is Jersey Shore.” Thank goodness! My respect for them improved several notches. (Not that it wasn’t already pretty high, after reading their most recent issue. Seriously, I don’t care if you don’t have time; make time to read “About the Hiding of Hidden Treasure,” by Kimberly Lojewski. It’s gorgeous and probably one of the best things you’ll read this month. No seriously, go read it right now.)

They also answer some more practical things, such as:
What They Want: short fiction stories sub-4,200 words that “straddle the line between speculative fiction and literature.” There’s a more detailed list of what they don’t want, too, so don’t disappoint them.
When They Want It: Anytime, day or night.
How They Want It: Via Submittable (a.k.a. formerly known as submishmash)
Simultaneous Submissions? Yes.

Multiple Submissions? No. Only one story at a time, please.
Accept Previously Published Material? Yes, but share that information in your cover letter. They won’t publish anything that’s already available elsewhere online.
Paying Market? Nope. As they explain, they’re poorer than you are. And if you’re a starving artist, that’s saying something, now isn’t it?

Submission Response Time: Less than twelve weeks. Query if you don’t get a response within that time.

Does Your Writing Reek Enough to Pass the Five Senses Test?

I’ve been reworking a short fiction story for the past two weeks and though I really liked the idea, and was growing increasingly fond of many of the sentences and some of the full-length scenes, I could tell the story wasn’t really popping off the page. If I were being honest with myself, I knew it was a little flat. I kept adding more and more description, attempting to make the settings and characters come alive through elaborate imagery. But depending so heavily upon sight was leading to some clunky, wordy, never-ending paragraphs. According to “The Art of Literary Olfaction, or Do You Smell That?,” by Jill McCabe Johnson over on the Brevity blog, my writing didn’t stink enough. The solution to limp prose? Make it stink to high heaven.

Literally.

Smell, according to Johnson, is a powerful writing tool:

Smell speaks to our primal mind. The importance of including the sense of smell in our writing is not just to follow the age-old advice to “use sensory language” to engage the reader, though smells can engage the reader more deeply and directly than any other sense. More than that, smell acts like a laser, cutting straight through to our emotional cores . . . Smell . . . has a direct line to our pre-cognitive brain functioning and the emotional memories associated with each odor. A writer’s references to the other senses help readers create an imagined facsimile, but with smell, readers just know.

It’s such a simple thing, but upon reviewing several samples of my writing, I realized that I rarely include scents.

You might not realize it, but most of your favorite books snuck in some distinctive odors. Take Harry Potter, for example. The Amortentia potion wouldn’t mean much if, to Hermoine, it didn’t smell like “freshly mown grass and new parchment and–” something else associated with Ron. Maybe smell is the secret ingredient used by the great and the published?

And though this other fabulous blog post by Sammy, “Writing in Style, or Style in Writing,” over at Stet That returns to the sense of sight, it reminded me how important it is–and how non-verbally descriptive it can be of both the character and the situation–to shine a brief spotlight on their choice of wardrobe. As Sammy wisely puts it, “black clothing doesn’t make your leading man a bad boy, but it’s still making a statement.”

With both those suggestions in mind, I added the scent of burnt coffee and some cheap foam flip flops and–I know this might sound cliché–my story suddenly had new depth to it. Just by adding a detail about one of my character’s five senses, it led me to write more details about other senses, and even led to some more character motivation:

Original prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car to follow him into the building. In the waiting room, Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.

New, invigorated, smelly, and well-dressed prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car. The heat of the summer-soft tar seeped through her foam flip-flops, burning her feet, and she scurried through the parking lot like she was escaping a runway of hot coals. The faint smell of burnt coffee greeted her, and the smell grew stronger when she walked into the waiting room. Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.

I know that there was a lot more rewriting and development in the second example than the strict insertion of (some of) the five senses, but by integrating touch and smell, the details led to more details and really fleshed out the moment. Personally, I’m pretty pleased with how it’s developing.

Now your turn. Will your writing pass the “Does My Writing Stink?” Test?

Randomly select ten pages of your own writing, and count the number of times you’ve referenced odors. Award yourself one nifty Nose for every reference to odor, then use the scale below to rank yourself among your fellow writers. Note: references in your writing to freshly baked bread, cut grass, flowers, or ground coffee count as only half a Nose. [Click here to find out what your score means.]

Speaking more broadly about all the senses, I think having 3/5 senses (or include the sixth sense, if you prefer) per page is a solid win. In my opinion, though, 5/5 might be a sensory overload for the reader. I say this because, unless your character is a chef, you can’t have them tasting something every scene, your characters can’t constantly be groping things to describe their texture, and you don’t want to overdose on the odors. Do you agree or disagree? What’s the perfect balance?

What are some of your favorite sensory-satisfying scenes? And what do they score?