Tag Archives: Writing

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT – PART 11

Once again another edition of real-life writing in a real-life MFA program. As we’re approaching the end of the semester, I’m giving some advice to a mentee in genre writing, who’s address the topic of writing humor, among other things, like reentering the world after lockdown…

I think we’re all suffering from Spring Fever in all in variant forms. Down here in Jersey, every branch and stem burst out in buds this week, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching my husband drool and drip from every exposed orifice. Plus Monday, I had my first COVID-19 shot. I must admit, I was a little nervous (never enough not to get it), but I’ve had very little side effects beyond some arm soreness from the injection site, and feeling a bit draggy the next day. I go back in three weeks for my second and hopefully, will be equally lucky  that time. It’s going to be weird to not have to be on-guard constantly, and the world seems to be growing a bit wider every day. Makes one wonder how we’ll be reflecting on – as well as writing about –  this past year in the years to come.

Speaking of reporting, Carl Hiaasen recently retired from his long-time position as columnist and report at the Miami Herald. His final column bemoaned the sorry state of journalism, and as much as I love his writing, I couldn’t bring myself to read it, so depressed as I am at the decline of local news. My first two years as an undergrad were spent as a journalism major, and although I’ve always saw reporters as something mythic, I could force myself, at that tender age, to be pushy enough to actually become one (I don’t think I’d have a problem with it now). In any event, Carl Hiaasen is equally adept at writing pathos as he is comedy, but what I really admire about him is the wonderful way he writes dialogue. The man’s a master at it, and if you take away anything from his writing, it’s how he can push the plot along with it. And yes, he’s funny, laugh out loud sometimes, and as preposterous as his plots can be, he somehow makes them believable with the seamless way he weaves reality into it. Florida, it seems, is his first love, and he never strays far from it.

Funny you should mention funny! Humor is DEFINITELY harder to write than serious. We can always summon up feelings of sympathy or danger or even love, but making something laugh is probably the hardest thing out there. So take it as a great compliment if someone says you’re funny. If you weren’t, they most likely wouldn’t mention it at all. Actually making someone laugh is like inducing an involuntary reaction. It’s a talent and if you have it, by all means, indulge it!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Who’s funny? Am I? Sometimes I am when I try to , and other times I am when I’m not. It’s all subjective, but one thing it can’t be is forced. If it is it just comes out pathetic, and there’s nothing funny about that!

yeah, it’s hemingway, but it’s also ken burns

I was always charmed by the legendary story Papa Hemingway created on a bet, the most succinct yet heartbreaking flash fiction of all time, told in just six simple words:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

What tragedy! What pathos! But then I found out it was complete bullshit, as the story behind the story couldn’t be substantiated. Still, it was a good tale on both sides, and a good choice of carefully chosen words, and if he didn’t create it then someone else surely did. Moreover, it’s an excellent example of Getting Right to the Point. In a literary sense, that was definitely something Ernest Hemingway was an ace at

There’s certain labels you hang on Hemingway when you think of the man or the myth: adventurer, serious drinker, womanizer, the ultimate in toxic masculinity. I’ve had a hard time thinking about the way he dealt with women, Martha Gelhorn, especially, and the way he portrayed some of his female characters. Still, I’ve always respected the parsimonious way he writes, no flowery Faulkner, he. Just straight-to-the-heart or jackhammer prose. I’ve tried to emulate it it though fail often. Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.

Or miss the new miniseries by Ken Burns on PBS starting next week: Hemingway: The Man. The Myth. The Writer Revealed. I‘m always interested in a writer’s process, as it helps me understand my own. Also because I can use all the help I can get.

Housatonic Book Awards ARE NOW OPEN FOR SUBMISSIONS

The 2021 Housatonic Book Awards are now open for Submissions!

The submission deadline is Sunday, June 13, 2021.

We accept submissions in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young adult/middle grade. All books must have been published in 2020.

Please Note: We are only accepting electronic payments. No checks will be accepted. To submit, click here.

After paying the submission, please email an electronic copy (.pdf) of the book to lawlor033@wcsu.edu. If you wish to submit a hardcopy of your book, you may send it to:

Western Connecticut State University

MFA in Creative and Professional Writing

ATTN: Housatonic Book Award

Department of Writing, Linguistics, and Creative Process

Higgins Hall #219

181 White Street

Danbury, CT 06810

 

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT – PART 10

Hey, folks! I know it’s been a l-o-n-g time since I wrote under this banner, but it’s a new semester, and I’ve a brand new crop of students. For those not familiar with this feature of the blog, I’m a mentor in an MFA in Creative Writing program, and what follows here is actual advice given to an actual student under my tutelage. (How lucky can you get!) We were discussing some early writers of the Mystery genre, starting with Edgar Allen Poe and his “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which then segued into Sherlock Holmes, and some observations about genre fiction in general…

Regarding your reading this week: I’m sure that the genre Poe, if not invented, perfected, seems to modern readers a bit trite. But what eventually become cliché does so because it works. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. Last week I talked about the similarities in particular genres that eventually morph into expectations in them. With mysteries, there’s a crime, a body, clues, and the eventual unraveling. With mysteries, as least in what we’re examining here, we see “sidekicks,” at least with Dupin and Holmes. They’re not only assistants but sounding boards, a physical as well as literary device to work their theories out loud. A twist on this, at least from my perspective, is the TV detective, Columbo. He used the perpetrators themselves as his assistants, always demanding “…one more thing” of them to solve the crime. Either way you want to work it, perhaps it’s a technique the protagonist uses instead of deep POV as he works out the crime.

Writing evolves, and as does story form. What seems stiff now was fluid then. Jane Austen’s dialogue, even though a master of story form, seems rigid to modern readers. Where Dupin used what amounts to soliloquies to get his plot points out, she employed The Letter, to me the most annoying form of info dump. But back then the form was new. Since, it’s been used with annoying frequency, especially in YA fiction (but then everythings new when you’re that young!). My favorite technique, which I use in my own writing, is to dispense information on a need-to-know basis, like dropping breadcrumbs on a trail, very much apropos in the mystery genre.

Valuable advice, indeed!

Why we love those bad, bad boys Revisited

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Yes, another revisit. I’ve been busy! I promise, I’ll have a new entry next week! But this is for all you romance writers out there.

We’ve all read about them. Those incorrigible, gorgeous rakes who don’t give a damn about stealing your company, raiding your trust fund, double-crossing the best friend or breaking your heart. He’s the one with the best lines even though they slice to the quick, telegraphed from a mouth crooking sardonic and eyes that flash and burn. He’s always the snappiest dresser with the shiniest shoes and the most expensive jewelry, more often bought with your line of credit. If he gets in a fight he wins without mussing a hair, and that slight nick high on his cheekbone only makes him more dashing. His voice is smooth as silk and it rumbles through you like an electric charge, as he’s talking you out of your clothes and everything in your wallet. He’s on everyone’s A List, is invited to all the best parties, frequents the finest restaurants and clubs, and is only seen with the most beautiful woman. He has the tightest abs and the broadest shoulders, is tall and lean and impossibly gorgeous. He’s the consummate lover but he’ll never fall in love, yet he’s what every woman wants and what every man wants to be. In film he’s Gordon Gekko the ruthless arbitrageur of Wall Street, in romance, he’s the pitiless rake, Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, in Lisa Kleypas’ wonderful novel, The Devil In Winter. And for all their cunningly manipulative ways, we are unabashedly drawn to them like magnets to metal filings. We worship them, adore them, envy them, lust after them. Only to be cut down and debased and betrayed over and over again. So why in the world are we continually drawn to this bad, bad boys?

Because oh…how we love to see them fall!

And when they do, it’s usually spectacular, a crash and burn of epic proportions. But then we get to witness the most marvelous thing– their redemption–and what a fascinating thing that is, watching these fascinating creatures evolve, scrabbling their way back to the top–and to us. It’s a precipitous climb, full of switchbacks and reversals, but when they finally learn their lesson, we get to wallow in their devotion, their bad, bad ways making them oh-so-good exactly where we need them.

Romance writing is all about the resolution of conflict between two protagonists so love can bloom, and there’s nothing like a rake whose odds are so out of favor, it almost seems impossible he’ll ever end up redeemed. But it also  makes the most compelling reading. Give me a good old bad boy any day, as they’re the most challenging and certainly the most fun. Because as everyone knows, that’s all we girls really wanna have anyway.

Diagnosis: Writer – Five Sure-Shot Symptoms

vintagetypewriter_93579-758x485Okay, I’m being lazy. I’d rather repeat this old post than think of something original. But it’s a good post, and I’m right in the middle of revising something I wrote years ago, so this re-posting an old post fits perfectly into my writing life right now. Even so, it does offer some valuable advice, not only to you, but to those irritable people who keep interrupting you to say, “What is it you do in that room all day’?” Arrrgh! So this should help you answer them. Because the first step to a cure is to admit you’ve got an addiction. But in this case, a very good one. Read on…

No, you’re not crazy, even though your friends and family think you are. Even so, you have to admit that at time, you do seem a bit “off.” Still, how do you measure crazy against what accurately borders on obsession? I was thinking of this last weekend while lunching with some fellow writers, wondering whether they’re afflicted with similarly bizarre affectations, or if I was I suffering in silence. Odd or not, it’s made me realize that dammit, I must be a real writer, because although I’m not cutting off an ear or anything for my art, I sure am suffering some peculiarities. Such as:

1. Post-it Note Addiction – It’s true. I carry them everywhere. I have pads of them on my desk, in my purse, in the pocket of my course binder. I whip them out to jot down lines of dialogue, character descriptions, plot lines–even the premise for this post. They’re all over the place in my office, and when I’m on  the road and inspiration clocks me, I jot down my genius and stick them to the inside of my wallet so I don’t forget. By the way, they’re also good for shopping lists, as you can stick them right in front of you on the inside of the shopping cart.

2. Drinking Hot Liquids Cold – During the winter months I usually have a cuppa something at my elbow while I’m writing, but I have to tell you, I can’t remember the last time I actually sipped it while it was still hot. Usually the cream’s left a sheen on the coffee, or the tea’s soaked down the string to the tag, an “accident” puddling on my desk, whatever’s in the cup long, gone cold. The opposite effect is true in the summer, when I never seem to sip anything cold: the ice just a memory, the glass dripping condensation. I should probably just yank a bottle out of the cabinet and forget about it. Either way, it all ends up the same place: room temperature.

3. Vitamin D Deficiency – My last routine blood screen had everything come back normal except my Vitamin D level. Apparently deficiencies of this vitamin, which is created by sunshine, can cause depression, chronic fatigue, weight loss (I wish), diabetes, heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis. In addition to a disease I thought went out with the nineteenth century–rickets! “It’s not unusual to see decreased Vitamin D levels in the winter,” my doctor had said. “But yours? Don’t you even step out on the porch?” All right, I guessing the LED glow from my laptop isn’t enough, so I suppose it’s supplements until the snow melts and I’m hitting the sidewalk again.

4. Plot-related Memory Loss – Has this happened to you? You’re driving along, trying to work out what exactly Protagonist A is going to leave on Protagonist B’s doorstep, and the next thing you know you’re sitting in the parking lot at work, with no idea how you got there. Or you’re in the shower and you’ve just thought of the perfect setting for your heroine’s vacation. But there’s this bottle of conditioner in your hand, and you can’t remember if you washed your hair first. Whether you’re staring at blank walls or losing threads of conversations, it’s not early dementia–it’s Plot On the Brain. And trying not to think about it only makes it worse. Better to lock yourself in the closet and get it down and over with.

5. You Do It Anyway – This I have found the most telling. You’ve written a bunch of novels, a dozen short stories, more than a few essays, innumerable blog posts, even kept a journal for more years than you’d care to own up to. And although you’ve had some limited success, though nowhere near where you’d like to see yourself, you keep doing it. You finish one piece then start another, because you know if you don’t your axis will tilt and forget the Vitamin D–you’ll feel a deficiency worse than if all the chocolate in the world suddenly disappeared. You can’t help yourself, even on the days when that rejection shows up in your inbox, you still want to do it. You’ll cry and curse and hate the world for stopping you from doing what you can’t seem to give up. But then all of a sudden that perfect line plants itself in your head, and you’re back to doing it anyway. You’re so pathetic. Maybe. Maybe not. But oh man, sometimes it’s such a bitch being us.

Okay, enough whining. Back to work.

 

Writing in the time of pandemic

I haven’t said much about the virus in the months that we’ve been locked down and out of our normal lives. Mostly because I’m not one to give oxygen to something so disruptive, as maybe it’s best to ignore the worst and carry on. But it has been disruptive and it has been the worst. I haven’t been on campus since Spring Break, and teaching college remotely is a bullshit substitute, long lost of it’s novelty of biz-cahz uptown and yoga pants downtown. I miss the the color and variety of campus life, I miss the one-on-one interactions with my students, I miss my zany colleagues, and let me tell you, I even long for those interminable committee meetings. (Even shrinking my Zoom screen to play “Spelling Bee” or Free Cell is dull next to inter-departmental drama.) As bad as my campus being compressed to the confines of my 10 X 12 home office, that’s not the worst. Not by a major long shot. It’s the loss of my writing mojo.

One would think with the shrinking of my social life, I’d revel in the time left over to create. That all those evenings and afternoons I spent in exterior pursuits could now be devoted to the interior ramblings of my imagination. If it only were that easy. After spending the greater part of the spring and summer polishing off and perfecting my latest novel to send it out on the market, I’ve been made painfully aware of the dismal prospects of getting it sold. One would think that editors, locked out of the offices, the cocktail parties, the author events, etc., have nothing better to do than read and revel over each and every one of our magnum opi. But let me tell you, that is an assumption I was a fool to make.  This business is tighter than ever, and with so many people self-publishing, mid-list books are no longer much of a priority. Not that I think selling isn’t still a possibility–oh don’t get me wrong. Persistence always pays out in the end. I’ve sold before, and I will sell again. But the unoccupied mind is a fertile playground for despair, and one imagines all kind of scenarios, and most of them hardly uplifting. And that wreaks havoc on creativity, especially when you’re trying to work on The Next Greatest Thing. You’d be surprised what a frenemy the Pandemic becomes, as a wholesale excuse to flee the dreaded Empty Page for Netflix. (Watched “Queen’s Gambit” in just two sittings last week!) So what does one do when the writer no longer feels like one?

You want answers? Comfort? Companionship? You’ll get none of it out of me. Well, maybe that’s not true–companionship maybe, as I have a feeling I’m not in this alone. Although most fiction writers pride themselves on the ability to build vibrant worlds out of nothing, they still need reality as an engine for creativity. And because of that, we’ve also been known to live too vividly inside our heads conjuring up all kinds of horribleness. I’ll never finish this book. Who am I to think I’m a writer? No one will ever buy this crap. If I send this out it’ll only get rejected. I have writer’s block. I’ve lost my imagination. I can’t write. I never could. I suck.

Yeah, that’s me, and I suppose that’s been you at one point or another, and never more than now. But maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves.  These are extraordinary times. I’ve even heard them compared to World War II in the sacrifices we’ve had to make, the pain we’ve had to endure, the doctors and nurses and essential workers our fighting men and women at the front. It’s hard to concentrate on fantasy when a trip to the grocery store has all the potential of making our worst nightmares come true. Maybe we need to give ourselves a break, redirect all that bad energy into good. Give grandma a phone call. Send a tray of cookies to the local ER. Drop a box of groceries at a food bank. Donate to your favorite charity.  Your writing life will come back to you. There are others whose loss is much more concrete.  In the meantime, between now and the vaccine, there’s still room enough in our heads for hope–and even perhaps a dream or two.

HUMOR FOR COPY EDITORS (AND PROOFREADERS, ENGLISH TEACHERS, ETC.)

• An Oxford comma walks into a bar where it spends the evening watching the television, getting drunk, and smoking cigars.

• A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.
• A bar was walked into by the passive voice.
• An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.
• Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”
• A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.
• Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.
• A question mark walks into a bar?
• A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.
• Papyrus and Comic Sans walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Get out — we don’t serve your type.”
• A mixed metaphor walks into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.
• A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
• Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.
• A synonym strolls into a tavern.
• At the end of the day, a cliché walks into a bar — fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.
• A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a cute little sentence fragment.
• Falling slowly, softly falling, the chiasmus collapses to the bar floor.
• A figure of speech literally walks into a bar and ends up getting figuratively hammered.
• An allusion walks into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol is its Achilles heel.
• The subjunctive would have walked into a bar, had it only known.
• A misplaced modifier walks into a bar owned a man with a glass eye named Ralph.
• The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.
• A dyslexic walks into a bra.
• A verb walks into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.
• A simile walks into a bar, as parched as a desert.
• A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.
• A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walk into a bar and the bartender nearly chokes on the irony.

DUH! it’s nanowrimo!

I CANNOT believe it’s 18 November, and I forgot to give my annual plug for National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo! Maybe because I’m so swamped with grading and thesis reviewing I don’t have time to write myself. Fine writer I am! I still should find the time to jot down something (well, maybe that’s what THIS is. But still. NaNoWriMo is still the greatest thing ever, because even if you’re not planning on starting a new novel, you can still use it to continue on with your current work-in-progress, spiff up an old one, or give yourself a virtual kick in the pants. Or as they put it…

Every story matters.
Let’s start writing yours.

Writing a novel alone can be difficult, even for seasoned writers. NaNoWriMo helps you track your progress, set milestones, connect with other writers in a vast community, and participate in events that are designed to make sure you finish your novel. Oh, and best of all, it’s free!

Yes, free is always a good thing. And so is the sense of community you get . There are local chapters as well, so you can keep that community spirit all year long, with the great events they sponsor. There’s even Camp NaNoWriMo for the youngsters. In any event, it’s never too late to get started.

Now–get that butt in the chair and start creating some genius!

Throw away your thesaurus and use these words instead

Yes, Biden won. He did. That’s reality. (YIPPEE!! btw). But at least for the present, I’m tired of being a pundit. I’d rather be a writer instead. But I’m too exhausted by the last few weeks to rub two coherent thoughts together (See? Even splitting infinitives). Then I saw this on a social media site, and it’s exactly what I need today. See how many of these words you’ve actually used in your writing. I for one have used several, but my absolute favorite of the list has to be cattywumpus. I have no idea what it means, maybe something akin to kerfluffle, but I’m definitely going to have to find an occasion to use it.