Tag Archives: Writing

My week in Write

Image by Grant Snider

I’m away from home this week, spending some time away in seclusion to work on my WIP. I’ve always wanted to do this, cloister myself in a pretty place where I can be alone to create. I’ve been here since Monday and so far, I’VE FUCKING WRITTEN EXACTLY TWO PAGES!! This is sooooooo far away from the page count I wanted to accomplish (somewhere between 50 and a jabillion), and I feel like a cross between a rank amateur and the worst kind of slacker. BUT, I did have a bit of a breakthrough today. I’ve always thought that when so-called “writer’s block” hits, it’s because you’re approaching the page wrong, and what you need to do is take a 180 degree turn and come at it from another direction. So between that and a) making chicken salad from rotisserie chicken b) watching the shitstorm on the news c) eating cold pasta out of the leftover box from the restaurant, and d) pulling my pants up because I forgot to bring a belt, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I found out sometimes to go forward, you need to go back, and just the like foundation of a building, give your story enough support so what comes after doesn’t crumble. Turns out you can’t write all that foreshadowing if you have no structure for it to cast from. So I had to go back and give all those twists and turns a solid basis, and NOW, my story makes so much more sense. In fact, as I originally wanted to do, I’ve set my story up for at least another, if not one more, sequel. Now all I have to do is write it, but you know what? Once you’ve got the map, it’s so much more easy when you know where you’re going.

By golly, I do think I’ve reached the cocktail hour. Cheers!

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2018 Housatonic Book Awards – Submission Deadline June 15th!

The MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University and its alumni organization, the MFA Alumni Writers Collaborative, are now accepting submissions for the 2018 Housatonic Book Awards.

Granted to a book of short or long fiction published in 2016 or 2017. The award includes all forms of fiction, both literary and genre (mystery, fantasy, science fiction, thriller, etc.). The Award carries a $1,000 honorarium in exchange for appearing at the January residency of the MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University (the first week of January) to give a public reading and a one-day, three-hour workshop with MFA
students. The Award also includes a $500 travel stipend and hotel stay during the residency. Please see 2018 Housatonic Book Awards Form for more info.

Tips from the MFA Pit Part 3- The World I Know

Although the Spring semester ended last month in my MFA program, I thought I’d give you the benefit of one more of my genius insights to hold you over until Fall. In this edition of Tips from the MFA Pit, our grad student asks the question: as an African-American, can she rightly write a white character? (Don’t you just love that alliteration??) She’s considering doing this for her current work-in-progress…

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I heard a quote once from Sofia Coppola, a writer and director in her own right, and the daughter of famed auteur Francis Ford Coppola: “I feel everyone should tell what they know in a world that they know.” I found this to be quite revelatory as it struck home for me, in a way so different from the old writer’s saw, “Write what you know.” How is it different? Because you’re writing what you know in the world YOU inhabit, and only you can know exactly what that is. You fear you will be plagiarizing if you write too closely to another story. But how can that be when you’re writing from within your own world? No one can inhabit your body but you. No one but you knows better what’s going through your brain. Only you can see from your perspective. There are lots of people who have written about ocean voyages. Or living in the Wild West. Or about cops chasing robbers. Or about falling in love. But no two stories are the same. Author Jodi Picoult’s novel Small Great Things is about an African-American nurse who works in a hospital and experiences racism firsthand. So does that mean there could never be another book about African-American nurses? Well, for one thing Picoult is white and not a nurse, so right there her points of reference will be unlike yours. You will always give your own story your own unique perspective if you write from within your own experiences and impressions.

Being white myself, I could never presume to know how it feels to be a person of color. So does that mean I could never write a black character? I hope not because I have. First and foremost, there are experiences we all share—we eat, we sleep, we love, we work, we despair, we hope, we laugh. We are all human. But there are things outside the realm of our shared similarities that are thrust upon us by society. For these, I strive for understanding. I try never to assume, and rather than rely on generalities, I write what I know in a world that I know. If it’s outside of our shared experiences, I do the research to get to know it better, or I don’t write it at all.  I read a book called Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and it gave me great insights into the black experience, while simultaneously making me reconsider what it means to live my life as a white person. It gave me a greater understanding of both experiences, and hopefully it’s something I could translate into my characters of color. But will I ever be able to write with the unique perspective of an African-American? No, and not for the seemingly apparent reason. I couldn’t because I could only write from within my OWN unique perspective, and that will always be colored by my own experiences within my own world. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make it as real as I could.

So go ahead and write your story without fear. No matter how similar you think it is to something else, you will always be giving it your own unique spin. In fact, you can’t help it as long as you stay as close to your own truth as possible.

Logic of an Alpha Male

Here’s a rerun of one of my more popular blog posts from a few years back (with a bit of updating). Sorry, but my brain is still on vaca and won’t cooperate. But try to enjoy it anyway.

One of the basic tenets of romance concerns the hero and heroine overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to fall in love. It doesn’t matter if he is a detective, a duke or a ditch-digger—or if she’s a countess or a coder or a feminist attorney. Their problems can be of class differences or underlying neuroses or even as simple as she hates men who wear Panama hats. Whatever the bone of contention, it has to forceful enough to cause night sweats and fever dreams, yet still won’t stop them from crossing mighty rivers or hacking through buffalo grass to get to each other. And nine times out of ten, it’ll be the hero doing the hacking because as sexist as that sounds, most romance readers still like their men physically stronger than they are.

All right…don’t get your knickers in a twist. There are reasons for that, and if you’ll just calm down a second I’ll tell you what they are. First off, romance heroines are strong women. That’s right–tough, inside and out. They’re also smart enough to spot a sniveler a hundred yards off. So of course – and here’s the logic – a strong and smart woman is not going to be looking for a weak man. It just wouldn’t make sense, because if he was, she’d barely give him the time of day. She’d not only be looking for her equal, but someone who could knock her off her feet. He can’t be anything less than an Alpha Male, someone powerful, smoldering, unrepentant. And looks alone aren’t enough, because our smart and savvy heroine can get anyone she wants with a crook of her little finger. Her man, in any form he takes, has to be everything she’s looking for plus. Plus equaling that inimitable quality only she can define, and recognizable the moment she meets him.  Because when she collides with someone who can actually challenge or even best her, it’s such mind-blower she’s instantly intrigued, whether for good or for bad, for love or for hate. And from there, the chase begins.

I can hear you saying, but that’s not realistic. Most men have foibles, shortcomings, are far from perfect. But this isn’t the real world, my dears–this is fantasy. Yet in so many ways, it isn’t. Fact or fiction, real life or not, don’t we all realize something in our object of affection that no one else can? Aren’t we privy to insider info maintained for our eyes only? Of course we are. Because only when we’re in love do we open up our hearts, to share the things no one else can see, to an enraptured audience of one. Who would want it any other way?

Do the Dig

There are some writers who are under the impression that just because they have Google bookmarked, all their research is at the end of a few keystrokes. Would it be that easy there’d be no need for museum or historians or libraries or for that fact, real live human beings. I know from teaching Research Writing at the college level that the internet is a mere starting point. That what you find online, at least with some topics, could barely scratch the surface, and that anyone who thinks they could begin and end with Wikipedia is surely in a severe state of delusion. Unless you’re creating your own world from scratch, research is essential not only for credibility and accuracy, but also for the sheer fact there’s always someone who’s willing to challenge the veracity of your story.  And this goes double for the MG writer. Those kids love to show up their elders!

So where do go besides online? Look, I’m in no way denigrating what the the internet has to offer. It’s a vast compendium of information, but it truly is a jumping-off point. But jump from there indeed, as its best function is a kind of a GPS towards the path you can take. Let’s say we were going to write a book about the Battle of Trenton, (where did you think I’d start this search from–North Dakota?) You know the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware? Well, that began the Battle of Trenton, and there’s a park you can visit where he embarked in Pennsylvania and disembarked in New Jersey. There’s a museum on the PA side, where you could no doubt speak to a park ranger or docent who can divulge some trivia, or visit the very spot where the General jumped the bank. Then you can take the bridge to the Jersey side where George alighted, and follow the Revolutionary trail to Trenton to the Old Barracks Museum where the Continental troops surprised the Hessians on Christmas night. Or if you want to shoot for as much accuracy as possible, you can wait until Christmas Day morning, and watch live reenactors reenact the Crossing from PA to NJ. From there you can continue on the Revolutionary Trail to downtown Trenton and onto Princeton. But if you want to really go deep, you can stay in PA and visit the David Library of the American Revolution, a specialized research library dedicated to the study of American history circa 1750 to 1800. See where I’m going with this?

The internet is  essential to modern-day research, but there’s nothing like getting your sneakers dirty walking it down. Information doesn’t magically appear online, as there’s always someone hitting the road chronicling it first. But you shouldn’t take anyone’s impression as the last word. Get out there and form your own interpretation.  When you do, even if you’re writing about ancient Egypt, it will seem as fresh as the day it happened.

Housatonic Book Awards are now open

2018 Housatonic Book Awards – Open for Submissions!

The MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University and its alumni organization, the MFA Alumni Writers Collaborative, are now accepting submissions for the 2018 Housatonic Book Awards.

Granted to a book of short or long fiction published in 2016 or 2017. The award includes all forms of fiction, both literary and genre (mystery, fantasy, science fiction, thriller, etc.). The Award carries a $1,000 honorarium in exchange for appearing at the January residency of the MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University (the first week of January) to give a public reading and a one-day, three-hour workshop with MFA
students. The Award also includes a $500 travel stipend and hotel stay during the residency. Please see 2018 Housatonic Book Awards Form for more info.

Tips from the MFA Pit, Part 2 – Writer’s Logic

Guess what?! The font of advice from the MFA pit just keeps spouting! More valuable info from an actual MFA in Creative Writing mentor to actual MFA students! This week we’re looking at writer’s logic, that little voice in your head that shouts, YES! KILL HIM! I DON’T CARE IF HE’S THE BEST CHARACTER YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN! HE MUST DIE! DIE, I SAY! Mwwwahhhha-ha-ha!! Anyway, this student was having thesis issues, as they couldn’t figure out what direction to take their characters, who were turning out static and one-dimensional. Consequently, the student couldn’t get comfortable with the thesis they were already fifty pages into. I suggested at maybe they weren’t really into the story, that maybe they should consider on writing in genre-that seemed to be the focus of most of their reading (MFA programs have a LOT of reading in the student’s genre or concentration) So they took me up on that idea, but still…
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I’ve been reading your pages and I’ll get back to with comments this weekend, if not before. The important thing is you’re more comfortable with this story, and that’s good. It means you’re finding which genre is right for you. And  you’re right—you will get to a point where the story just pours out of you. The characters will be telling YOU what they want to do. That’s because by that time your story will develop its own logic, and the characters will start acting the way that you designed them to act. Their actions will seem more realistic to how they would react in certain situations. If one character likes to think things through, they won’t suddenly act rash. You will know what direction to send them in as you’ll know that’s how they would handle a certain situation. The same thing with plot elements. You will know intrinsically what the end result will be, because the logic of your story will drive the plot in a certain direction. I’ve heard writers say, “Oh no, I think I have to kill Character X.” They don’t want to, but event sometimes force your hand, and it wouldn’t make sense if you didn’t. “X and Z have to fall in love.” Because if they didn’t, your story wouldn’t make sense. In essence, you’ll just know. I maybe have said this before, but this is why I don’t believe in Writer’s Block. It’s not that you’re stuck. It’s just that you’re fighting the logic of your own story. If you let it flow like it should, it almost always works its way out. The key is not fighting it. When you don’t, chances are your plot will free up and your story will start flowing again.

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And I have to tell you that my advice to this student has seemed to have worked up. They’re well over halfway into the new book and genre, and the story is indeed flowing well. It may turn out I’m just the best writing mentor ever!

The book (lurking) under the bed

If you’re like me, you probably have a book under the bed that hasn’t seen the light of day for quite a long time, and there’s a damn good reason why it’s there. Of course I’m speaking metaphorically when I say under the bed, as most digitally-attuned don’t do paper anymore, and haven’t for a long while. But there was a time when all submissions were typed, tucked in a box, and sent off to New York either Postal Book Rate (cheap and snail-ly) or FedEx (for we oh-so-serious writers), only to have it returned immediately, or a year later after idling awhile in the publisher’s slush pile, a crookedly-photocopied form rejection tucked in the box. To make your repudiation hit home even more, your opus was returned in your own postage-paid box. I say this quite fervently, there’s nothing that’ll give you all the  worse feels than having financed your own dismissal. So after being denied, rebuffed, nixed, and bounced, what can you do with this creative disaster, this repudiated pariah, this literary Loch Nessie,  other than hide it with the other monsters under the bed?

You can have good cry or a  primal scream, and after a good drown in wine or chocolate or Cheetos, figure out why it was under-the-bed-worthy in the first place. Or you can let it molder under your bed or in your hard drive your flash drive or your cloud, and dig it out some time later, and rework and update it until it’s resubmittable again. Though if you do, let me add a few words of caution.

Sometimes editors or agents will give you what’s called a “good rejection,” offering what they found not to work and what would, and maybe even adding they’d take another look after another going over. Sometimes this can work, especially if the ed/agent likes your writing style but wants to see how you rework it first. Often they’ll give your tips, but often they won’t, and there’s no guarantee they’ll take it in the end. It’s the chance you take, because you can get caught up in an endless cycle of revision, especially if the ed/agent wants you to take the book where you may not be adept at. There are writers I know of who were even willing to write outside their comfort zone just to pander to an editor’s taste, ending up in a genre they have no business writing. As hard as it is to accept, some books just belong under the bed, as some just can’t be updated, the original concept may be too trite or convoluted, or your writing style may have changed. Or–and this is a distinct possibility–your skill may have advanced to the point you’ve outgrown the book. Yes! You may be too good for yourself.

So do we go spelunking under the bed and give what lurks there another go? Only you can answer that. Nothing is as comfortable as the familiar. Though nothing is quite as exciting as discovering the newest version of yourself.

Tips from the MFA pit – Part One

Readers of this blog may have noted I teach in an MFA in Creative writing program. From day one students work on what will eventually become their thesis, as well as study the history of their chosen genre, their work process, and a few other writing subjects. Along the way, I dispense advice on all of the above, and dang it! if now and then I’m just chock full ‘o wisdom. I’d like to share a few of those pearls, and what follows is ACTUAL ADVICE FROM A REAL-LIVE MFA MENTOR! To a real-live student (who shall remain nameless lest anyone find out she’s actually listening to me…) Today’s entry is on craft, starting with a lesson on those pesky Voice Tags, and ending with what’s commonly referred to as “Info Dumps…”

VOICE TAGS
You say you hate using voice tags. Well, I don’t know of anyone who loves using them! The thing is it’s not the voice tag itself, as much as indicating in some way who’s doing the speaking. You can also do this by including an action or a reaction by the speaker. For example:
Lana fell back against the bed. “I can’t believe how tired I am.”
“There’s no place to go, so I may as well go home.” Then she closed the door behind her.
Or in a conversation…
Jane knew better than to argue with her sister. Amy, as the eldest,
always believed she was right. But when Amy said she’d rather stay home, Jane took it as the last straw.
Jane stared at her. “You can’t be serious.”
“You better believe I am.”
“But what about the kids?”
Amy shrugged. “They’ll have more fun without me.”
When you have a back-and-forth dialogue, it’s understood that each character takes a new line. You introduce the first character (Jane), then it’s understood, from a previous line of prose (Jane knew better…) that this would be a two way conversation. You just can’t let it go on too long without indicating the speaker, as the readers lose track and it becomes confusing.
Actually, you can write a whole book without using a voice tag doing the above. But sometimes you just have to use them. Especially in action scenes when you want your writing to be more immediate. Too much description can slow the story down. With action, you use short, clipped sentence to show immediacy, and strong voice tags add to the mood or action.
“Shut up,” he snapped, slapping her.
“Yes I’ll marry you!” she cried.
“I’ve never met anymore like you,” he whispered, his voice hot against her ear.
If you find yourself thinking hard and long about which voice tag to use, then you’re using too many variations of them. Use “said” for a statement, and “asked” for a question. Too many variations become clunky, and they draw attention to themselves. After a while, “said” and “asked” become invisible, and that’s what you want. In essence, only use them it its absolutely necessary for clarity.
CHUNKS OF INFORMATION
As I noted before, you want your reader to ride along for the discovery of your plot, and if you “tell” it instead of “show” it, you’ll have your reader bored by page two. This is absolutely essential: you need to grab your reader on the first page. Even better than that – in the first paragraph. The first line. You can’t expect your reader—or an editor or an agent—to wait until Chapter Six for your story to take off. Because what you’re asking is for them to have all this background information in their head that they need to remember BEFORE they could follow your plot. It’s like asking them to learn how to read all the manuals on how to fly a plane before they could ride in one. Divulge your information on a need-to-know basis. Reveal the information as the characters live it. Don’t rob your readers of the delight of discovering it for themselves.