The 6 Secrets Every Writer Needs to Know

Me, cheerful, despite the doomsday speech.

My May 2011 commencement address was so bad, so completely depressing rather than inspiring, that it’s the only Bloomsburg speech in the past three years that isn’t posted on YouTube.

Officially, Eduardo Ochoa, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education, “discussed how Bloomsburg University has prepared students to be active and engaged participants in the global economy of the twenty-first century.”

In reality, the speech was about how, considering the economy, we would have to retrain for new career paths at least five times before retirement. Either because there weren’t enough jobs available for whatever major we were currently graduating with that day (are you getting the warm fuzzies yet?), or to get a better position, or simply because the industry we started out working in would go extinct. He talked about how we would be forced to professionally reinvent ourselves several times to stay employed; we’d have to go back to school, get master’s degrees in completely different topics, maybe even start at the bottom rung and intern in a completely different field. He talked about how our current degree would probably expire and be worthless in the next five years, but, at least, the skills we had learned in our time at Bloomsburg (this is the encouraging part) would help us as we reinvented ourselves over and over again, struggling to hold a job. The ability to learn, to ask questions, and to think–abilities we allegedly could never could have acquired without the university’s help–were the invaluable lessons Bloomsburg had gifted us.

Let’s just say that Neil Gaiman’s commencement address made me wish I had been a super-senior at the University of Pennsylvania this year instead.

For all you unemployed, underemployed, and menially employed liberal arts graduates–you English majors and Graphic Art majors; you Creative Writing, Painting, Sculpting, Music, and Interpretive Dance majors–here’s a little secret advice, from Neil Gaiman to you:

Ever since I listened to the speech a few days ago (and then re-listened a few times since then) I’ve been repeating the one part, about the mountain, over and over in my head. With each story I’m editing, each article I’m starting to write, each hour I spend on Twitter or watching reruns of Law and Order, I think “Does this take me towards or away from the mountain?”

I have two mountains in my life:

  1. Become a published author. Specifically, a published fiction author. Maybe a memoir too.
  2. Have the most awesome, friend-filled, adventure-filled, fun personal life possible.

In the arts, in writing, and,  in my opinion, in any career, if your only life goal is a professional one, you’re going to miss out on so much living. I’m starting to realize that I spend a lot of time–way too much of it–doing stuff that takes me on a steep hike in the complete opposite direction of my mountains. Mostly, I’ve got some really awesome opportunities on my plate, things that are practically a short cut to my mountains, but I’m prioritizing other things, thereby burying the good stuff at the bottom of the pile. I’m starting to carve those distracting activities out of my daily routine. And I’m suddenly having so much more fun and so much more time to create good art.

To the Glitter End . . . Get Your Nailpolish Stories Published!

I’ve heard a lot of people wonder aloud who the lucky guy is who gets to invent awesome crayon color names for a living (did you know there’s 120 core Crayola color names?). Seriously, can you imagine coming up with brilliant creative names like “macaroni and cheese” and “mango tango” and getting paid for it? The same goes for nail polish colors. “French Quarter for Your Thoughts,” “Ski Teal We Drop,” and “Barefoot in Barcelona”–what great names! And, as Nicole Monaghan, the founding editor of the flash fiction online journal, Nailpolish Stories, believes, what a great inspiration for a story!Fiction submissions must be 25 words, exactly, not including the title (and the title has to be a nail polish color). Ms. Monaghan is looking for stories that use powerful language, a minimum of adjectives, and that stuff a lot into a little space. Check out the full submission guidelines here.

Even if you don’t end up submitting to the journal, I’d encourage you to use this as a fun writing exercise. There are so many different nail polish colors–you could get lost in the amount of inspiration they offer!–and it doesn’t take long to write a 25 word story. I wrote ten one afternoon and loved the ideas they sparked up. Write a whole bunch and get your creative writing juices flowing! Maybe it’ll end up being the first sentence to your next novel!

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.


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?