Category Archives: life of a writer

Short Fiction: A Weekly Dedication – Week 2

I just finished reading my short story for the day – Flannery O’Conner’s, “A Good Man is Hard to Find“. I’m surprised I made it through 12 years of grade school, and a combined 8 years of college without ever having read it.  Perhaps if I had remained in a literature program, I would have, but I don’t think it would be completely off topic to have a story like this one examined in a psychology or sociology class so my confusion remains. Just like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, this one sets you up quietly to be dropped on your head with the ending.  That’s as much as I’ll give away for those of you who have not read it.  Those of you who have, I would think, know what I mean.

This week, I also read a fun little O. Henry story. His story was called, “Tobin’s Palm“.  The twist ending, in this case, turned out to be somewhat uplifting.  There are always those endings that are left open to interpretation, whether everything ends “happily ever after”, and when given the choice, I usually choose to believe in the “happily ever after”.  Especially since this week was rough for endings.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth was the Lovecraft this week. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is actually a novella, so it took a little longer than one sitting to finish.  This being one of his later stories, though, he had certainly honed his craft by the time of it’s writing.  The buildup was slow, but just added to the suspense and mystery surrounding the title town.  The narrator plays the cynic unbeliever, so the reader falls right in line with him believing none of this could be true.  It was hard to put this one down.

I was disappointed in Poe this week.  “Loss of Breath” left something to be desired, and required a great suspension of disbelief, so much so that I found it hard to get on board.  The title phenomenon is taken to the most absurd extreme, and it lost a lot in the telling.  The antiquated writing style indicative of the day is something I can usually ignore, or at least grow accustomed to, when reading a good story, but with this one I ended up focusing on it.  Somehow, the flowery language made the whole thing that much more absurd.

I think my favorite this week was Dorothy Parker’s, “Lady With a Lamp“.  At the beginning, we get the idea the two main characters sometimes go quite a while without seeing each other. This time one was shocked to discover the other was terribly ill. The POV was intriguing as this is one of Parker’s “monologue stories” (my own term, as far as I know).  Some of my favorite stories of hers have been told in first person as an extended monologue, usually in the form of thoughts that run through one’s mind in certain situations.  This time, the “monologue” was actually just one side of a conversation about why the speaker’s friend is ill.  And over the course of the conversation, we discover a lot.  Though the ailment is never directly mentioned, it doesn’t take long to figure out what has happened, and considering, I have to wonder if this story created a huge scandal when it was released in 1932.  Five stars.

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Everybody Has A Story

Recently, I’ve read several articles about personal essay writing.  They’ve ranged from writing tips to how to get your personal essay published.  Now I don’t know if any of my readers are this way, but when I repeatedly run into the same theme across several different mediums over at least a few days I will usually succumb to the inspiration.  In this case, I did, and I am inviting you to share in the inspiration with me.

My theory is that a personal essay is the best practice you can do as a writer.  While it is important to exercise your imagination by coming up with new stories, that creative measure can be distracting.  If your intent is to practice your wordsmithing, what better place to begin than in your memory.  We know our own stories, certainly better than someone else’s and even better than those we could make up since we haven’t actually made them up yet. It seems to me an ideal way to play with narrative – description, dialog, and character – since you know the whole story so intimately.

So, I challenge you to pick an event – big or small – from your life and write it.  The only recommendation I would put forth is to make sure the event you choose is one that was transforming in some way.  Like any good story, your main character should be dynamic, and, in this case, that main character is you.  Feel free to come back and share your experience in the comments.  Let us know if you seek publication!

Enjoy!

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Reading Helps Us Empathize

As writers, we must also be avid readers.  (What a shame, eh?) Yes, we use the excuse of improving our writing to explain the constant burying of our heads in books, but according to studies from 2012 and 2013 it seems reading improves us more than we may think.  It turns out that reading doesn’t just inform us on specific subjects or improve vocabulary and grammar.  It also makes us more emotionally intelligent; specifically empathetic.

Now, if there is anyone reading this wondering how reading can improve the sense of empathy, consider some of you favorite novels.  When I reflect on mine, I realize that The Little Prince has caused me to be more attune to taking notice of the smallest pleasures – a child’s laugh, the breeze brushing through my hair, that first sip of clean cool water when you feel a deep thirst.  I think of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – how easily I recognized the story as an allusion to substance abuse and addiction and felt the chronic strain on both the addict and his loved ones.  I think of how easy it was for me to relate to Steve Martin’s Shopgirl but just as easy to see the perspective of her companion.

One of the studies conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Costano explored further finding evidence distinguishing the “empathetic benefits” of literary fiction vs. “pop” fiction.  Due to the “complexity in stories and their characters”, literary fiction appears to be the clear winner here.  When I reflect on my reading of The Life of Pi, I can most certainly agree.  Not only the beautiful story of the loss at sea, which makes up the bulk of the story, but the final explanation of “what really happened” gave me such a rush of emotion and understanding of what the mind can do to compensate a horrible trauma.
But how does this inform our own writing.  Well, just as our personal experience of places and events serve to help us better describe a variety of settings and experiences, empathizing with well-written characters can only serve as a means of experience.  Perhaps there are many events, tragedies, and celebrations we will never experience, but when we read to exercise our empathetic muscles, we become better able to imagine ourselves in the minds and skins of our characters as we put them in these circumstances.

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A Writer’s Journey: Freelancing – How To Get Started?

I got it into my head quite a while ago that I might like to try freelancing, but figuring out how to get started has been a challenge.  Of course, there is the usual advice, “If you want to be a writer, write”, but just sitting and writing hasn’t been very financially lucrative.  Apparently, having a client to pay you is important to creating an income.  That’s where I struggled; figuring out a way to build a portfolio that was professional, accessible, and substantial.

Then, I got the idea to begin volunteering.  Granted, the motivation for this was altruistic and career-oriented, but most organizations will allow volunteers to dictate (to some extent) their roles based on their interests.  Let’s face it, they know you’re there for free and they want you to enjoy it, so why not have you doing something you enjoy.

Once I told the volunteer coordinator about my interest in writing and proofreading, I started getting more projects based on that interest.  I’m still volunteering, but in the process I’m building a body of work to reference to potential clients, and building relationships with professionals who can refer me to others.

Volunteering is a great way to improve skills, learn new skills, explore career paths, and of course give back to the community.  So volunteer with an organization you believe in.  You never know where an opportunity can lead.

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Practice, Practice, Practice

“Write Write more. Write even more than that. Write when you don’t want to. Write when you do. Write when you have something to say. Write when you don’t. Write every day. Keep writing.” -Brian Clark, playwright

In the case of any activity – be it playing an instrument to performing surgery – practice makes perfect. We, as writers, know that writing is no different. Many of you may have a schedule or goal – a number of words per day, pages per week, or simply sitting down to write every day for a certain amount of time. You may choose to spend that time working on your novel, your dissertation, or journaling, but once you’ve finished one project, and you’re searching for your next one, it can be easy to let the daily habit slide. But why do you have to have a specific project? There are so many reasons to write and so many different types of writing, it should be easy to find a good practice format that can also be productive for building your skills.

Description – write an email or letter to a friend or relative describing in detail an interesting event that happened recently. Focus on using imagery to create a clear picture for someone who has never been in that setting or seen the people involved. Help your reader experience the event as you did.

Research – Write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or magazine. Reading is another important part of being a good writer, and reading about the news of the day helps inform you as a good citizen. So why not take citizenship and writing to their next step. Say something about an article you read. Whether you find a mistake or want to expand, or point out another way of looking at the issue being discussed, newspapers are more likely to publish well researched letters to the editor as opposed to purely opinion pieces with no evidence to back claims.

Persuasion – How do you feel about the abortion debate? healthcare? defense spending? campaign finance? or any number of other hot button political issues? What do you know about your local and federal representatives? If you’d like to see changes in local, state, or federal government you have to let the policymakers know it. Letters to your representatives are a great way to tell them what you think. Your position is to convince them that you have a stake in the issue, know something of what you say, and would like to see the vote or policy development that you are arguing or proposing.

There are any number of other ways to practice writing in various styles and formats.  How do you step outside your usual writing box?

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A Writer’s Journey: Submissions – Part 3

A lack of work, and the daunting task of forcing yourself to write new pieces, or to edit old pieces, for submission can be a terrible deterrent to even trying.  In truth, it has been the main thing that has stopped me from trying to submit over the past couple of years, and even the last few months.  But there are several ways to combat this.

1. Write everyday!  No matter what you’re writing, even if it’s just complaining about not having anything to say, spend three pages (or 750 words or so) bitching about it.  Whatever is going on in your head, your life, at work, around the country, around the world; spend a few minutes putting it down on paper.  If you make this effort everyday, you will be shocked what can eventually come out.  Whether it’s a humorous memory of something that happened in your childhood, or a poignant observation relating to your industry or current events, something is bound to pop out.  Perhaps you will notice a trend in what you’re writing and realize you have a series of little essays that could turn into something.  That’s how I got started with this blog.  So make the effort to sit, and let it all out – dump the contents of your brain for 20 to 30 minutes, and see what happens.

2. Go back to old work with fresh eyes, no matter how old it is!  That poem you wrote in college for the creative writing class you took as a fun but throw-away elective might turn out to have some weight to it, especially after so many years.  Now you are older, wiser, more experienced, improved as a writer, and distanced from the critical young adult that wrote that piece.  You don’t have to worry about how bad the kid that wrote it thought it was.  You, as his/her adult counterpart, may see something that s/he didn’t know was there.  A few small changes, and that poem could turn into something worthy of publication, if it isn’t already.

3. Look for prompts, and read, read, read!  Read the newspaper, visit the library, pick up trade magazines that are meaningful to you, go to book clubs, book fairs, author events, movies, concerts, anything!  There are so many topics out there to write about, and so many publications and websites devoted to each one. We tend not to think of our everyday experiences as something that warrants documentation, but you never know what might come of arguing with the campaign ad for your district’s incumbent representative, or experimenting with a new recipe or workout.  Writing prompts are everywhere. They can be found at your child’s PTA meeting, the jazz club you were dragged to on Friday night, or the display of NY Times best sellers at your local bookstore.  If something riles you, write it down.  Don’t ignore it!

 

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On Research: Google Alerts

I don’t think I’ve said it enough. Research is intimidating. Unless you have a day job that allows you to (a) research your subject matter as a part of your daily responsibilities, or (b) makes you an expert in that particular area or subject matter, undertaking the kind of research to write an accurate novel which story has even one element of something you have no experience with, or to write an accurate nonfiction piece at all really is a lot of work. It can be time consuming and frustrating. You may have difficulty even knowing where to begin.

For me, one of the best tools I have found that has been very helpful to me recently is Google Alerts. Yes, of course it comes from Google. Since the company’s primary purpose started out as a search engine, it may come as no surprise that Google Alerts is essentially just another type of “search engine”. You set up an alert based on a keyword term or phrase, and Google will email you links to news articles, blogs, or other online resources that match your search. It is a quick and easy way to start your research as you look for other sources to rely on.

A few pointers from my experience:

1) Be specific – This is a search, plain and simple, and if you are too vague your search is going to turn up a lot. Make sure you know exactly what it is you want to learn about. Try to direct your search term or phrase as narrowly as you possibly can so that your alerts will be applicable to you. Of course, even if you narrow it down well, there are still going to be links that don’t quite hit the nail. For this, Google gives you an option to give feedback in every alert email, allowing you to flag an article as “irrelevant”. That can also help you narrow your criteria.

2) The more recent, the better – What Google Alerts is designed to do is find articles that provide the most recent new information on a subject. Unfortunately for those looking to write historical fiction, this resource is not likely to do you a whole lot of good. Sure, once in a while you may hit on some new diaries of someone or other that have just been discovered or released by the family estate, but for the most part Google Alerts is going to help those of us looking for new information on things that are happening now, or have happened in the very recent past. (Sorry historical fiction writer. I’m still looking for research tips for you guys.)

3) Don’t be afraid to discard – Some of the information you get through these alerts is not going to be useful. That’s just how it goes. Don’t be afraid to toss aside an article or post that isn’t relevant to you. Let’s face it, another intimidating thing about research is that there is so much information out there that we have trouble weeding through it. That’s what Google Alerts is designed to do – help you weed through the masses. Check out the headline, skim through the article, but if it’s not something you can really use, get rid of it.

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