Posts Tagged ‘advice’

Event Workshop by Yours Truly

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

Photo credit: Pam Vaughan

Photo credit: Pam Vaughan

I’m excited to share that The Writer’s Loft in Sherborn, MA has invited me back to present at their lovely writing center. Last time I talked about how authors can market themselves to independent bookstores. This time I’ll be leading a Build-Your-Own-Event workshop. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. Okay, I can: I am VERY excited. When I worked at the bookstore, I would get calls all the time from debut authors on our event schedule who were nervous because now that they/their publicist had booked them an event, what were they supposed to do? Was anyone going to come? How could they prepare? So I can’t wait to help writers and illustrators at all stages in their careers learn to be both practical and creative with their events. And to send them on their way with a concrete plan. Come join us on October 1st at 2pm!

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Hope you can be there or help spread the word. If you’re interested in this workshop but can’t attend, reach out or leave a note in the comments and we can work something out in the meantime. Or if there’s enough demand, maybe the Loft will invite me back!

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Mothering as Writer, Writing as Mom

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

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In an online mom’s group I belong to, a fellow mom posted this article by Kim Brooks about the intersection (or lack there of) between creative work and parenting. I’ve thought a lot about this particular topic because it was one of my biggest fears in becoming a parent: that I would be subsumed by motherhood and lose my creative identity. It is hard, especially in that first and second year of parenting, when there’s no sleep and no end in sight and your child needs everything from you to find the mental capacity to cultivate any kind of creative space that doesn’t involve playdough or fingerpaint or Duplo blocks.

Brooks doesn’t offer solutions in her article, so much as shifts in perspective. She talks about the “literature of domestic ambivalence,” books about (and likely by) women who struggle in the cracks between the desire to be an artist and the desire to be the perfect mother. I imagine it as a sort of blanket of creative ennui and I’ve been there. But that way also lies self-pity. How do we break out of the cycle of doubt that says if we can’t be superior in all things it isn’t worth trying? That art-making and mothering are mutually exclusive? (more…)

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Big Story Questions or What’s So Hard About Writing a Novel?

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

My W is a little lacking...

I’ve started my writing workshop through Grub Street and last week was my first opportunity to bring a piece of writing in to share with the group. Typically, one brings or email copies of one’s piece to other members of the class who then read and makes notes on it at home for discussion the following week. This class is a little different; we bring in copies for the class but instead of getting to take it home and ruminate on it, we read it aloud and discuss it right there in class. And we only get to bring in five pages. I can already tell this will be an adjustment.

The benefit to this on-the-spot kind of workshopping is you get immediate first impressions: this works for me, this confused me, etc. But it’s also a challenge because sometimes it can be hard to get at the root of why something works or doesn’t work in the ten minutes we have to discuss the work. Is it just something is phrased awkwardly? Or is there something fundamentally problematic with the character’s motivation or conflict? Perhaps that’s the point: it makes the writer do the work of sifting through the questions to figure out which speak to larger issues in the novel, which are scene specific, and which are irrelevant without the context of the rest of the piece.

(In classes like this I tend to talk to much as it is, so it’s a little bit of a challenge for me to have to whirl out a thoughtful critique on the spot without just babbling stream-of-consciousness style at the author and sucking up everyone’s time. So clearly a skill I need to develop.)

The positive feedback I received for my five-page scene: “Evocative, loved the descriptions, great tension, really felt pulled into the world.” Constructive critiques: “Was confused about the protagonist’s age; the characters give in too easily; dialogue on the final page falls apart; confusion about the mechanics of going to the Valley [the land of the dead].” But the biggest question was: “What ties the characters to this place and community when their life is so hard? Why don’t they leave?”

(more…)

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Pondering

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

From Nancy Kress, talking about her new book Yesterday’s Kin on John Scalzi’s Whatever.com:

A concept is not a story. To turn my enchantment with mitochondrial DNA into something with the possibility of enchanting anyone else, I needed characters, plot, conflict, setting. This stalled the entire project for a year, while I pondered. Pondering is what writers do best, since it has the virtue of feeling productive without the pain of actually confronting a keyboard. Eventually, however, pondering must end and writing begin. For SF, aliens are often a good place to start.

Why yes, Nancy, that’s in precisely. Adding your fascinating book to my to-read list as we speak.

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Rebooting your writing, Part 1:
Tips & Tricks

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

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I had an important critique session with my writing buddy last week, where we looked at a story I had written over eight years ago, while I was in college. It got me thinking about the challenge of revisiting old works, when it’s worth working on them and when to let them exist as moments in a learning trajectory. So this is a two (possibly more) part blog post where I’d like to talk about “rebooting” old stories and pieces for the writer you’ve become.

My senior year of college, I was frantically trying to write stories to fill my senior honors thesis. I brought one to my thesis advisor who read it and said “Nope, sorry, you have to re-write the entire thing.” At the time, I panicked and opted to bury the story rather than tackle a rewrite. And I thought: How would I even go about rewriting a story I’ve already written?

Since that time, I have gone back and reworked a number of old stories, both on my own and in workshops. This is challenging for me because I was so proud of these pieces at the time I wrote them. I worry that I’m breaking something by revisiting old works. But that is a fallacy. If one breaks anything in the process of revision, it’s a breaking open, finding the story’s molten, malleable heart, and turning it into something stronger. In some ways I feel I owe it to my younger self to make her stories the best they can be. There are things I can do in my writing now that I couldn’t before; really zero in on voice, vocabulary, silence, the arc of a story. I’ve read, written, and listened more. I have more to bring to the writing desk today than I did when I was twenty-one.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned about rebooting writing – from writing workshops, talking with authors, and from my own experience. Any of these points speak to you? Anything you might add?

You know a story is worth a reboot if years later…

… you are still thinking about the characters/setting/style.
… the ending/beginning/middle still bothers you.
… you are kicking yourself for inaccuracies that you could now address, now that you know better.
… a reader keeps asking “whatever happened to that thing you wrote about…”
… the topic is still relevant/newly relevant.
… you always wondered what happened next. (Or before. Or to that other character.)

Starting the writing reboot:

Give yourself time… and space

The most successfully rebooted stories are ones that have been languishing for awhile. It gives you the space to have some emotional distance from the original circumstances under which you wrote the story. It also lets you read your own work within the context of everything you’ve read/written since you wrote it. It is much easier to immediately identify problem areas.

Identify the problem areas

What feels the weakest about your story? What makes you cringe, skim, or causes your “cliché” alarm go off? Start there. In my case, I felt the structure was mostly sound, it’s the language that needed improvement. So I started cutting, re-writing, and polishing all the middle bits.

If you have trouble identifying these issues yourself, have a trusted reader take a look at it for you. You don’t have to listen to everything they say, but it’s nice to get a different perspective. Especially if you don’t have the luxury of time/space yourself, they’ll be able to approach it with more emotional detachment.

Attack!

Save the story with a new name… StoryReboot.doc. Open a separate blank document as well. Then go to town. Copy out sentences you love. Jot down little notes (does the timeline make sense? what year did things happen? why does she have green eyes at the beginning and dark eyes at the end?) and start taking a machete to your story (or a scalpel, depending on the kind of work it needs. It’s okay, it’s still there, safely ensconced under it’s original filename on your hard drive. This is a fresh start.

Some reboot techniques:

  • Try a fresh point of view. First person can feel restrictive; third person can be broad; second person can feel intimate. What does the story really need? Perhaps a secondary character can offer a different perspective.
  • Cut the first paragraph. Or page. Or three pages. Read carefully and figure out where the story really starts to take off. Have your story start there.
  • Add tension and conflict. What is the main source of tension in the story? Is there one? This is something I struggle with. Sometimes you need to add an extra layer of pressure on your characters to really see them shine. Sometimes this can come in the form of another character (competition, bullying, guilt) or in the form of a situation (impending deadline, a critical choice). If your characters are forced to make choices, you as the writer will be forced to make choices.
  • Change the choices. Related to above – add a different tension by having your character make a different choice. Start with the big choice of the story and see if a change takes you some place stronger. No big choices? Why not? What are the small choices they make and what does that say? What would it say if they were different?
  • Language refresher. I once wrote a story where I tried to describe everything in as much detail as possible. It was a good exercise, but didn’t make for a strong story. So I went through and literally cut every other sentence. Not surprisingly, very little true content was lost. It may feel like you can’t cut anything, but I promise you can. Copy the sentences you love into that other document if you’re worried about losing them. And then take out all those extra adjectives.
  • Sensory details. Think about the sensory experience of your story and try to put us there. What does it smell like? Feel like? What are your characters experiencing? And equally important, what are they not experiencing? Tread carefully here, as it’s easy to go overboard with sensory detail. Go ahead and write as much as you want… just be prepared to come back with the scalpel and carve it down to the best, most necessary words if the story gets away from you.
  • Research. Does the story feel weak because a character or situation is unconvincing? Immerse yourself in the circumstances through research (library, internet, interviews or best, all three). This is another rabbit hole so dig enough that you feel inspired and confident, but not so deep that your fictional story turns into a dissertation. Unless you decide you’d like to write that dissertation. Or that your story need be structured like a fictional dissertation…

If all else fails…

Extraction. Take those bits you loved and copied out (a setting, a character, a line) and use them to start a new story. Make that sentence you love your first line. Keep the setting and change the circumstances. Visit your favorite character ten years later.

 

Next up… Rebooting your Writing Part 2: By Example
a post in which I put some of my own advice into practice and show you what I’m rebooting

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Labor of love

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

I may or may not have already mentioned that my book-related job is kind of a dream job (second only, of course, to writing-books-for-a-living, designing/editing cookbooks, or being a tour guide for French tourists if I was actually fluent in French – hey, it could happen). I plan author events for an independent bookstore. This means that I get to meet lots of cool authors, work in a shared office that is filled floor to ceiling with galleys, and get a generous employee discount on all store merchandise. This includes books. And knee socks. With robots or unicorns or sock monkeys on them. It also means that sometimes publicists send me cool books for free, like The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick or Dragons Love Tacos or stacks and duplicates of weird paranormal books because somehow, somewhen, I got on someone’s “paranormal fiction” list and now I can’t get off it. What? That has “new publicity assistant” written all over it.

One thing I’ve noticed at the various events I’ve worked is that people tend to ask authors the same questions: Where do you get your ideas? How long did it take you to write your novel? Did you get to choose your illustrator/book cover/book title? How many books have you written? When did you start writing? Essentially what many of these questions boil down to is this: How do I become you? (more…)

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Writing Exercises

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Did anyone else have the drawing software program/game KidPix growing up? You know the interactive, kids version of Paint? I remember having this awesome edition of it where the different brushes and stamps made noises when you used them; the Tree brush to grow your own tree that made musical chime sounds as the branches divided and multiplied or the Ink brush made blooping sounds as it “dripped” color across the page.

One of the fun things about that program was it had this feature where it could give you an artistic prompt, that it would read to you in funny voices: “Draw a purple… alien… who lives in an… ice cream truck… and likes to… eat bananas.” I’m sure I have some amazing alien portraits from that time and there was something so freeing and exciting about seeing the blank space below the prompt and thinking “this is something I can make.”

Writing exercises held that same potential… it was like permission to write, to be creative, to step in and make something once the difficult work of starting the piece was already done for you. It also meant usually, in grade school, that we were getting to do some kind of creative writing project, which didn’t happen very often. Writing a short story was vastly more interesting to me than keeping caterpillars alive or successfully completing math worksheets.

I feel like writing prompts sometimes get a bad rap… like they’re part plagiarism or copying or a cheat. I’ll admit even I feel that way sometimes. But I think they can spur creativity… and that once you really take a prompt and run with it, the result is something you own. For a while in high school, my friend B and I would exchange some of those “orphaned” story starts I’ve talked about. Sometimes it’s so much easier to look at someone else’s first paragraph or sentence and see where you would go next.

One of the authors we brought to the store this past fall said that all stories are basically “What if’s”. What if… you found a secret world through your wardrobe? Again, maybe it’s just me, but something the potential of a question (and having the answer!) can be really exciting. I don’t think they have to be this amazing, life-altering questions, just ones that start our engines.
My thesis advisor used to force us to ask this hard question about our own stories (and each others): what do you think this story is really about? Prompts are a good way to begin, but you have to end the tale yourself. Sometimes the story you start isn’t the same as the story you finish.

So lets share some writing exercises! Leave any ideas you have, first sentences, orphaned story starts, questions, in the comments. Here’s a few from me, some old ones I’ve wrestled with and some new ones:

  • “Ellis Parker came forward when he was thirteen, although he wasn’t Ellis Parker back then.”
  • “There were five of us that went in and only four came back out. I’m the one who stayed behind.”
  • A man and a woman wake up in bed together and neither can remember how they got there.
  • A girl finds a strange plant growing in her grandmother’s garden that seems to have magical properties.
  • What if… a single man finds an abandoned engagement ring on the sidewalk?
  • What if… there was a purple alien that lived in an ice cream truck and liked to eat bananas? (ok, he doesn’t have to actually LIVE in the ice cream truck… maybe he’s the ice cream man and he’s secretly an alien? And bananas have a special enzyme that allow him to maintain his human disguise?)

 

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