This month’s theme, here at StoryADay is “Accountability”.
(If you haven’t yet declared your goals for the month, leave a comment in this month’s SWAGr post and tell us what you’re going to do with your writing for the rest of this month)
Today’s writing prompt includes a built-in accountability trigger.
Contact a friend, right now, and tell them that you’re going to write a short story in the next 24 hours. Tell them you’ll send it to them, or at least check in when you’re finished. Then, write 500-750 words about a character you think that friend will love (or love to hate)
Keeping the story super-short gives you a better chance of finishing it
Focusing on your friend (someone you know well) helps you winnow the choices. What will THEY enjoy? (Too much choice is paralyzing. Eliminate every possible character or situation that wouldn’t interest this particular friend. Then start writing)
Remember that a short story revolves around a single moment in which something changes for your character.
The moment can have happened just before the story starts (in which case you’re dealing with the aftermath and the character’s choices about how to deal with it)
The moment can happen at the end, when we know enough about your character to be able to predict how they’ll react (or at least enjoy wondering)
The moment can happen in the middle, in which case you get a chance to show us the before and the after.
With such a short story you don’t have much room for backstory. Write it as bare as you can. You can punch it up with details and dual meanings, as you re-read and re-write it.
I talk a lot about writing prompts and Story Sparks around here. They are your secret weapons for getting through a month of extreme short story writing!
What is a Story Spark?
It’s a term I coined for something that is less than a story idea and certainly not an outline, but something that you notice while walking the world: things that make you go ‘hmmm’, if you will.
Story sparks are details about the world that you can use either to spark or add richness to a story. They can be:
Fragments of conversation: become a dedicated eavesdropper, if you aren’t all ready.
Details from the world around you: the exact color and shape of a dogwood flower in April; a snippet of conversation overhead, out of context; the rhythm of a 14 year old girl’s speech,
Big Ideas that occur to you randomly: the ‘where are all these people going?’ that pops into your head while you’re sitting in traffic; what if my baby had been born with wings? why do so many of us believe in a deity?.
Memories: spend some time going through old memories and pulling out interesting characters, conflicts, fears, hopes, joys. Gather some of them as Story Sparks.
Some of these, with a little interrogation and development could be come a story or a series of stories, but for now they are simply ideas that flit across your brain.You needn’t have any clue what kind of story they’ll fit into or how you might use them.
Save them for later.
How To Harness The Power Of Story Sparks
To feel the power of Story Sparks you must gather them continuously.
Set yourself a goal of gathering three story sparks every day and you will find yourself seeing the world in a different way (a writer’s way).Aim to have 15 at the end of each week, but don’t collect them all on one day.
By getting into the habit of observing the world around you and capturing story sparks daily, you are training your brain to see the world through an artist’s filter. This will help immeasurably when you sit down to write.
Writing Prompts Are Not Story Sparks
(At least not the way I do them here at StoryADay)
I provide an optional writing prompt for every day in May (If you want to support the challenge and give me a pat on the back, you can grab a copy of last year’s prompts here or stay tuned for the release of this year’s prompt ebook)
My writing prompts are intentionally vague.
I don’t know if you prefer comedy or tragedy, sci fi or contemporary romance. I don’t know if you’re a woman or a man or a child or a nonogenarian. So I keep the prompts vague. Here’s an example:
I’m not giving you a topic or a character or telling you where to set your story. I”m giving you a way into a story.
This is the perfect time to start digging around in your Story Sparks notebook/file and see what might fit with this prompt. Choose a Spark that leaps out at you today, in today’s mood, with today’s time restrictions and today’s challenges.
I also give you tips everyday. They are intended to help you drill down further into the prompt, and figure out how you can make it work for you.
Here’s another example:
Notice, I don’t tell you what kind of character to choose or where to place him/her. That’s up to you. Dig into your Story Sparks and see if you can find inspiration for a character who might have these qualities.
Here are the tips I provided for this prompt:
Again, you’ll need to bring your own ideas to this exercise. It’s not a scenario that dictates any details about the story, but rather a prompt; a way into finding a character and a story that matter to you.
And that is the only way to write a story that matters to readers.
So go now and start collecting Story Sparks: 3 a day. You’ll thank me, around May 14, when the creative well is not only dry but cracking and threatening to implode.
The Writing Prompt eBook – Details!
On Monday, April 20, 2015Updated: Saturday, April 23, 2016 I’ll be releasing the A Month of Writing Prompts 20152016 as an ebook through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Program. Its list price will eventually be $6.99, but you’ll be able to get it for $2.99 before May begins (and yes, I’ll send you an email to remind you, if you’re on the list).
The ebook will contain all of the writing prompts I’ve written for this year’s challenge. As with last year we’ll have some guest prompts and those will be exclusively at the website.
I started creating ebooks of the prompts because so many of you told me you wanted to be write to the prompts, but you like to be able to plan ahead. It was super successful last year and I hope you enjoy this year’s edition as much, if not more.
Behind The Curtain
Why Make It Available Exclusively Through Amazon?
A few reasons: One is that it keeps things simple for me. There’s a lot going on around here in April/May and setting up an ebook with three or four different vendors is a LOT of work. I like Amazon. You can get it for Kindle or use their browser-based Kindle app at no charge.
Another is that Amazon is a big kahuna. If lots of people buy the ebook from Amazon (especially if you all buy it on opening day) the ebook shoots up the charts and gets more exposure, and more people hear about StoryADay, which makes the community more buzzy and you more likely to find a writing friend you lurve. (See? It’s all about you).
Thirdly (and this one is less about you), Amazon pays well. If I use their Kindle Direct Publishing and make the book exclusive to them, I get 70% of the list price in royalties in every international market they cover. This money all goes into the running of StoryADay (so actually, it is about you!).
Speaking of money: I intend to keep the StoryADay May challenge free forever. But running it is not. In addition to the hundreds of hours I spend working on this every year, I have hosting and domain-registration costs, support for the times when the web coding gets too much for me, the Mailchimp email list hosting (we’re such a big tribe now that we’ve outgrown Mailchimp’s free service); hosting fees for the service I use to sell workshops and ebooks, and on and on the costs go. I’m fairly frugal but the costs run over $1000 a year.
If everyone on the mailing list bought a copy of the ebook on release day I would cover my costs and have a bit left over to make the site prettier and more functional next year.
So there’s my Amanda-Palmer-inspired begging bowl. Want to support StoryADay? Buy an ebook, course or workshop. Or, if money is tight, spread the word to your writer friends. Get them involved in StoryADay. That’s as valuable to me as a monetary contribution! And more fun.
OK, this was a long post today. Sorry about that, and thanks to anyone who’s still here at the end of it!
Now that you’re all keyed up to write, we turn to the tricky question of how to take all your good ideas and turn them into story drafts.
From Idea To Story
Ideas are great.
Story Sparks are great.
Writing prompts can be great.
But anyone can have an idea.
It takes a writer to develop and idea and turn it into a story. Yeah, uh, how do we do that, then?
The Right Way To Write A Short Story
There is no one right way to write a short story.
That’s the beauty of the short story. It can be anything from a classic three-act narrative to a loosely connected collection of nouns verbs and prepositions.
There are as many ways to write a short story as there are writers. The only right way to write a story is to tell it the way you want to tell it.
Writing a short story that readers want to read, however, is a little more limiting.
1. Play With Structure
Short stories don’t have to follow a particular structure. With a short story you can forget about plot diagrams and character arcs and still end up with a satisfying story.
Why? Because short stories exist to immerse a reader in a moment in a character’s life. Or to make them question an assumption by illustrating its absurdity in miniature.
A list can be a short story. A diary entry can be a short story. A tweet can be a short story. But none of them work without the active participation of the reader.
Think about it: in writing short stories, you have to leave a lot out. You can’t spend a lot of time describing the six layers of undergarments worn by ladies of the court, the way you can in a novel. You can’t give much (any) backstory. You can imply, hint and leave spaces.
It’s up to the reader to slow down, pay attention and supply those details. In that way, the short story is a lot like poetry.Even as you play with the structure you must write for the reader.
2. Write For Readers
I don’t mean ‘write for acquisition editors and publishers’. I mean write for your ideal reader.
Readers expect certain things in a story. They expect setting and character and something to happen. Depending on your reader’s preference and tolerance level, they may expect suspense (or not), character development (or not), and a resolution of sorts (or not).
Literary fiction can get away with more of those ‘or not’s than genre and mainstream fiction. Mainstream readers tend to be looking for a less intense escape from reality than literary readers who are willing to study every line as if there’ll be a test on Friday (which they intend to ace.)
But it’s OK for even mainstream or genres readers to expect their readers to participate in the story.
What Do You Mean, Readers Have To Participate?
Read this oft-cited example of the shortest-short story:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
So what? On one hand, it’s just a classified ad. But if you, the reader really start to think about it, you start filling in the details: why the shoes were never worn; who might have placed the ad; and inevitably, how they must have felt, doing so.
You, the reader, are telling the story in cooperation with the author.
This is a pretty extreme version, of course. But you should be aiming for the same effect in every story you write, no matter its shape or length.
I’ve been hosting StoryADay since 2010 and I’ve read a lot of stories in that time. The stories that immerse me in a character or a world or a moment are the ones that stay with me. The stories that ask a question and make me care about the answer (whether or not they supply it) are the ones I seek out and re-read.
So how do you take an idea (either from your own head or from a writing prompt, or from some combination of the two) and make readers keep wondering about it long after they’ve stopped reading the words on the screen?
3. Ask Questions
If you start with in idea about a particular character or setting, next ask yourself “who cares?”. Who will be interested about a story about that character or setting?
Then ask “why”? What makes this situation different? What makes this person interesting?
For example, The Care And Feeding of Plants by Art Taylor, opens with two people who are having an affair, one is married, the other is not. Ho-hum, right? Except that “During one of their trysts…Robert told Felicia to bring her husband over for a Friday night cook-out.” Wait, what? DURING? What kind of people are these? I don’t know about you but I had to keep reading!
Next take your idea and ask yourself “if…then” questions.
In the example above the author might have asked himself: if the husband does come over, what could happen? If the wife refuses to invite him, then what happens? If the lover changes his mind, then what? Follow this line of reasoning down its most interesting, tangled alleys and see what you can come up with. (If you’re like me you’ll need to start writing round about now, because you’ll be too excited not to!)
4. Leave Gaps
Not literally (though maybe, depending on your story). But leave gaps, as in the six word short story above, and readers will start to ask the questions you leave lying around for them to find.
It might not be necessary to tell readers in the first sentence why your character is standing on a bridge, wind whipping her hair around her tear-stained face, one hand on the thin guide rail behind her. Just put her there and then make us care. You can supply the reasons (or not) later.
You might not need to walk through your character’s entire day to make poignant the moment when they walk through the front door of their home, mussed-up and frazzled.
Think about the minimum amount of information you can give the reader in order to pull them in, and keep them interested, yet still give them room to search for clues in the context as to what’s really going on in the story.
In “Orange” by Neil Gaiman, the entire story is told as a set of responses to questions that the reader never hears. Bob Newhart did a series of comedy sketches based on a one-sided phone call (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnO1lnPH3BQ). He never tells us what happens at 1:41, but I’ll bet you, along with the laughing audience, can guess. You can replicate these ideas or you can use them to remind yourself to leave some things unsaid in your stories, to draw the reader in.
5. Try Something New
If you always write narrative stories with a character encountering an obstacle that clashes with their desires/needs, take a break. Try something different. Instead, write a story made up only of dialogue, or in the form of a memo to the staff, or a series of social-media posts or voicemails.
Challenge yourself to create complete characters or illustrate an absurdity, without talking directly to the reader.
As you write, keep asking ‘what if’ and ‘so what’ questions of your ideas.
6. Getting Unstuck
There’s a point, somewhere in the middle of every story, where it’s very easy to get stuck.
You’ve set up the characters and the situation, but now you’re starting to get tired and the thought of fighting your way to the end (with all the digressions that crop up as you think of objections and things you’ve left out, and things you want to explain) is just too much to bear. (A bit like that sentence.)
At this point, we go back to the questions.
If you don’t know what should happen next, ask yourself: what does your character want? What is standing in her way? How can you make it worse? What is she not prepared to do? Can you force her to do it? How can you resolve the reader’s question of “does she get what she wants” as quickly as possible?
If you’re really stuck, simply finish your sentence then write the words “But then” Finish that sentence and write: “And so” Finish that sentence. Repeat as necessary. You can edit out these phrases and clean up the prose in the rewrite (what else do you have to do in June?), but sometimes a crude, structural approach forms the foundation of a what turns out to be a strong story.
7. Keep Writing
If you are really stuck, the only thing to do is to write. Not brainstorm. Not diagram. Not sketch ideas. And certainly not turn to the next, bright shiny idea.
Write your way out of the problem and get to the end of the story.
It’s a short story. What do you have to lose? No one dies if you get it wrong. No one even needs to see it. But by finishing it, you will have learned so much more than if you give up.
I promise you, from bitter, joyful, exhausted experience, this is the truth.
Use the tactics in this article to blast past your fear, push through the mushy middle, and get to the end of today’s story. It might be a mess. It might be the foundation of something great. It might be a complete mistake.
But the biggest mistake of all is to stop writing.
Fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living.
-Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide To Getting Lost
Tomorrow we talk about how the heck you keep doing this over and over again for 31 days in a row. With tips from past “winners” (Plus: how to be a winner even if you don’t write 31 stories)
[South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone] revealed that although they brainstorm and develop individual funny scenes, the key to turning those scenes into an actual story is in making sure that each scene causes the next scene to occur.
…[they] developed a very simple litmus test for determining whether they had achieved the desired causation between scenes, by seeing whether one of two words could be inserted between each scene:
This seems like a wonderful lesson for short story writers.
We don’t tend to think in scenes (especially in a first draft), but applying this test to your story revisions, will make the difference between it being ‘a bunch of stuff that happens’ and ‘an actual story that pulls readers from the first word to the last and leaves them daydreaming about your characters later’.
Key point: as you revise (or draft) your short story, think about everything that happens and whether each is linked by a ‘therefore’ or a ‘but’.
Read the source article for four more lessons on storytelling from South Park.
I find it useful to read case studies from people who have actually WRITTEN books (and possibly had them published and worked on a sequel). Theory is all very well, but hearing from someone who has actually done it? Much more inspiring. They also tend to be more passionate, less forgiving and much, much more practical.
Here are a bunch of articles from working writers who answer the second-most-asked question they hear. [1. The first, of course, being “where do you get your ideas?”]
There are lots of things I think I’d like to do, and yet if I don’t actually make the time and effort to do them, they don’t get done. This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them. So I guess in really fundamental way I don’t want them, otherwise I’d make the time. C’est la vie.
Screenwriter John August shares his work-a-day experience of becoming a professional writer. It’s not sexy, but it worked.
Chip Scanlan talks about writing in small chunks, lowering your standards, rejecting the Soup Nazi.
And to finish things off for today:
Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn (@creativepenn on Twitter) shares this personal story, which debunks the ‘if I only had time’ myth a bit:
I once decided that I needed time to write my book. I had some money from the sale of my house, took 3 months off and tried to write every day. It didn’t work. I didn’t have anything to show for it, and went back to work disheartened at my inability to write. It was 4 years until I actually decided to try again.
One of my main aims with StoryADay.org was to get you (and me) writing again. It’s about productivity, creativity and becoming the person you were meant to be: a writer.
But after you’ve been writing for a while a new worry creep in. You’re no longer worried about making time to write, or whether you’ll be able to finish stories. You’ve proved that you can do that. You’ve probably found that you’re much happier when you’re writing than when you’re not.
Then comes that next niggling worry.
(And yes, it hit me too, after I’d first used StoryADay to jumpstart my own short story writing).
And what is that worry? All together now:
“What if my writing isn’t good enough?”
Facing Reality/Changing Reality
If you’ve been writing for a while now, you’ve probably sent a story or two away to a publication, a contest, a friend. Maybe you had some luck and got a good response. Chance are though, you to a ‘sorry but’, or an empty inbox.
It’s hard to know why. Maybe it wasn’t what that person was looking for. Or maybe it really wasn’t good enough. So now what?
As I see it, you have three choices:
1. Give up (but that’s not a real choice because you already know you want to be writing. So let’s forget I ever mentioned it.)
2. Never show your work to anyone again (but this isn’t realistic either. We write to connect. You WANT to find an audience for your work.)
3. Become a better writer.
Let’s Do It
Every writer has to face this reality, when the first euphoria wears off: we’re not as good as we want to be. Everyone. From Stephen King to Junot Diaz (who got a McArthur “Genius” grant this year. Think that’s going to make feel like he knows what he’s doing? Nope!)
It’s all just part of the process of becoming a writer.
So it’s noses to the grindstone again: write, read, revise, learn, do it all again. The only way forward is, well, forward.
A Free eBook For You
Earlier this year I posted a long series of articles on the subject of Becoming A Better Writer. They were so popular that I decided to expand them, compile them, and release them as an ebook: the second in the StoryADay.org Guides series.
This guide to becoming a better writer is packed with tips, techniques and exercises you can use to improve your writing– even when you’re away from your desk. With StoryADay’s trademark brand of inspiration, practical help, and humor, this is your go-to guide for whenever your writing life needs a boost.
What’s The Catch?
Well, none really. You need to have a Kindle or download the free Kindle software from Amazon, and I’d love it if you’d leave a review so that more people can find the book next week when the price goes back up to $2.99 (Any kind of review helps. I think it potential readers like to see a balanced set of opinions up there) .
I’m all for big dreams and Big Hairy Audacious Goals [1. A term coined by Jim Collins in “Built To Last”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Hairy_Audacious_Goal] (after all, I’m the one who set herself the goal of completing a short story every day in May!) but not all goals are appropriate at every stage in our development.
What Is Success?
Maybe you will get published in Granta or Ellery Queen or McSweeneys one day. But if you’re still grappling with so-so feedback from your writers’ group perhaps today is not that day. That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot for a closer target. Perhaps you can submit to a smaller-circulation market, a newer publication that hasn’t attracted as much attention yet, a regional contest or anthology.
Or maybe you don’t need to ‘be published’ at all right now.
Reasons Not To Publish
Perhaps your version of success is ‘good feedback from my friends’. Perhaps you want to put together a collection of your stories and have it bound by a print on-demand publishing service to leave to your heirs.
Perhaps you can dedicate the next year to writing and revising rather than submitting stories, freeing yourself from the pressure of thinking about ‘success’ in terms of ‘acceptances’. File your stories chronologically and, at the end of the year, look back and see how far they have come. Then—and this is crucial—review your progress and decide what your next set of goals should be. Base your decision on where-my-writing-is-now rather than where-I-wish-it-was.
Reaching and Stretching
Whatever you decide to focus on, try to set your expectations at a level just a little beyond your current abilities. Give yourself something to strive for, but don’t set yourself you up for failure.
Having Said All That…
– Don’t let your inner critic obscure all that is good about your writing.
– Don’t let fear hold you back from finding out if your writing really IS ready for the big leagues.
– Don’t be timid in the face of challenge.
– Do set yourself ‘stretch’ goals that push you to improve.
– Do allow yourself to dream about your perfect reader, curled up in a comfy chair somewhere, transfixed by your stories, feeling the same joy you feel when you read a really great story.
– Do work hard towards your goal of being the best writer you can be.
– Do keep writing.
This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebookand help support StoryADay May:
After that you can start worrying about critiques and editors and agents and publishing and publicity.
But all of that is secondary to the writing. To become better at writing you must sit down and spin tales, craft stories, put words on the page.
The world is awash in articles, books and courses on how to manage the business of a writer’s life. You can find all the advice you will ever need and more on how to make time to write, how to write when you don’t have time, how to write better, and on how to find critique partners, find agents, find your audience.
The more important question is: Can you find the will to sit down and put words on the page day after day after day?
This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebookand help support StoryADay May:
If you’re a self-starter, consider the feedback you’ve had and plug those terms (“realistic dialogue”, “character deveopment”) into a search engine. Seek out insightful blogs and articles to help you improve those areas in which you are weak.
Read blogs by successful writers who are further along the path to you. Many published writers are extremely generous (if sporadic) in their blog posts. Check out the blogs (and their archives) by Neil Gaiman, Jane Espensen, and more.
Commit to reading about writing over the long term, and dismiss the urge it raises in you to whine “I’ll never be able to…” or “I’ll never be as good as…”. If you do keep reading and listening for months and years, you’ll find that you’ll learn more and despair less.
Don’t be afraid to specialize. Don’t take a generalized ‘short story writing’ class if you’ve come to realize that what you need help with is dialogue.
Likewise don’t be afraid to reach outside your specialty. If you see an interesting drama workshop or screenwriting class about “action and suspense”, give it a second look. If you are interested, you’ll get much more out of the class than if you are taking it because you just feel you ought to.
If you like the classroom feel, but can’t get to an online or real-world class, look out for ‘home-study’ workbooks and e-books that are structured on a class format, with weekly (or daily) assignments and lessons. Set yourself a deadline and, better yet, see if you can get a writing friend to go through the course with you, to simulate that in-class experience.
This is one of the most popular segments of the Warm Up Writing Course that I run each year before StoryADay May.
During the Renaissance — the great flowering of European art and culture during the 16th and 17th centuries — great artists and artisans enrolled apprentices to train with them. The apprentices learned the principles of their craft not by creating their own unique works but by painstakingly copying the works and style of their masters.
We can do this in writing too (just as long as we don’t attempt to get any of our trainee copycat work published. That’s a plagiarism scandal just waiting to erupt!).
Take a story by a writer you really, really admire — preferably a short short story that won’t take for ever to reproduce. Analyze it in minute detail: from word choice to sentence length. Now, choose a different setting and different characters with different dreams from that of the originals, and write a copycat story, following the exact structure and tone of the original.
If you want your writing to improve, it’s always a good idea to set a piece aside for a while and come back to it later.
But sometime, not even a month’s Time Out in the dusty recesses of your hard-drive is enough to separate your story from your hopes for it, and the only way to get some perspective is to show it to someone else.
The real benefit is not just in plucking up the courage to show your writing to another soul (though that’s powerful). It’s in knowing how to listen to and act upon their feedback.
How Not To Take Feedback
Recently, at my Real-World Writers’ Group’s critique session, I listened as a high-energy, opinionated novelist read out a sample of her novel, which was similarly high-energy and opinionated. It was also funny and well-crafted and she was clearly at the stage where she needed feedback only on errors, omissions and clarity. So we waded in: “You said she was standing on the other side of the minivan so how did he see her?”, “Oh, I do that hobby and there’s a detail you missed.”
It was good stuff and just what she needed. But every time someone offered a critique or asked a question, the writer cut them off with a defense of why she had written it that way and prefaced most of her comebacks with, “Well, what you don’t understand is…”.
I started to wonder a, why she had come to the group, and b, how she ever hoped to get this promising manuscript published if she was unwilling to take feedback. (I had a sudden vision of her trying to follow all her readers home from the bookstore, calling out “Now, don’t forget, when I say that Marianne is biting her lip, that means she’s happy, not that she’s nervous. And the dog is symbolic. Symbolic!!”)
If It’s Not On The Page, It’s Not In The Story
If readers ask you for clarity about a story detail, a character or an event, it means something is missing. Listen to them, make notes and then go away and figure out a way to include more information or clues right there on the page.
If your story has too little (or just as likely: too much) of something, remember that this is not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you stink as a writer. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be any good. It just means you have some more (re)writing to do. And that now you know what you have to do.
Just as important as listening to and acting on feedback, is the ability to decide you’re not going to act on it.
I like to write stories with twists at the end. I like science fiction. I like humor. So I took along a funny (I hoped), twisty, vaguely-sci-fi story to my writers’ group’s critique night recently. I was pleased to get a few laughs and some smiles, but I also noticed that one of the women in the group was smiling extremely politely and blinking a lot. I gave her an encouraging look and took a deep breath. When she prefaced her remarks with,
“I’ve never read any science fiction and I really prefer slice-of-life stories…” I knew what was coming next. She didn’t get it and had no clue what had happened at the end of my story.
Of course I was disappointed. And of course I wondered if I should make the twist in the tail more obvious. But I also happened to have another person in the group who knew exactly the kind of story this was supposed to be and who enjoyed those kinds of stories. That feedback was, naturally, very different.
I was interested in the feedback of the more ‘general fiction’ reader, but I gave more weight to the critique of the group’s lone sci-fi fan with the great sense of humor who thinks the ending was skating on just the right side of ‘predictable’.
Listen. Take notes. Consider the source. Go with your gut.
How To Find Critique Partners
If you’ve read this far and are thinking “well, that’s all very well, but how do I find these thoughtful, insightful critique partners?” here are a few idea.
Connect With Other Writers
Readers are wonderful people (I’m one of them), but if you pass a story to the most avid reader who doesn’t write, you’ll likely end up with a fairly unhelpful critique: I liked it/Hmm, it didn’t really work for me.
Avid readers know when something works, but they don’t tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the technique behind good writing: character arcs, if/then cycles, opposing characteristics. And why should they?
Finding Writers To Connect With
Writer Unboxed – This blog has spawned a friendly and passionate writers’ group at their Facebook site. Most of the writers are novelists but many write short stories too. Join the conversation, make some writer friends and see where it takes you.
Meetup.com – I found a fabulous writers’ group in my area through Meetup. Check the listings and see what other people say about the group. In my experience a great facilitator makes all the difference, so see if you can send a private message to some members to see what they think of the group’s leadership and make-up. Also, try to find a group where at least some writers are fans of the genres you write in.
Backspace – A serious writing organization for serious writers. There’s a subscription fee to join the group, which tends to weed out the dilettantes. I’m not a member but several people I respect have raved to me about the forums.
StoryADay.org — leave a comment here on this article saying what you write and that you’d like to form a critique group. If there’s enough interest I’ll set something up in our very own forums and get things rolling.
This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebookand help support StoryADay May:
Supreme Court Justice and life-long overachiever, Sonia Sotomayor was a C-student until she decided she wanted to do better. Disregarding questions of talent and opportunity and what was expected of her, she simply went to the top kid in her fifth grade class how she got all those gold stars. And then Sotomayor listened as the girl taught her how she took notes, studied and used tricks to trigger her memory. From then on, Sotomayor was a straight-A student.
Until she reached Princeton and a professor gave her a C.
Once again, she asked for help, listened to the answer and then (and this is crucial) took action to correct her defects. She spent her summer at a bookstore, teaching herself remedial grammar. Each year she faced a different challenge and worked with her professors to overcome them[1. This story comes from a couple of interview with Justice Sotomayor by NPR’s Nina Totenburg. You can find them here and here].
And now she’s a justice in the highest court in the US, where telling a compelling story and choosing the right words are perhaps more important than in any other job but that of a writer.
Believe That You Can Improve
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking writing can’t be taught. Of course it can.
Every time you read a great book you’re learning how to write. Every time some great author talks about writing, you pick up a thing or two.
True, Sonia Sotomayor was not striving to write great literature, but she was willing to learn from people who knew more than she did. We must be willing to do the same.
Examining Your Writing Will Not Scare Away Your Muse
We’ve all experienced that magical moment when everything is flowing and it seems like the words are coming to us from some mystical well. We can start to believe that if we look too closely at what’s going on we’ll blow the whole thing.
But if you’re to make any progress, you must discover and internalize a simple truth that makes all the difference between the ‘wannabe’ writer and the seriously satisfied writer:
You must be willing to believe that writing can be taught.
And when I say ‘taught’ I simply mean that more experienced writers than yourself can share tips and techniques that help you find the fastest path from ‘beginner’ to ‘accomplished’.
Even more importantly, you must believe that you can absorb these lessons and put them into practice.
Sonia Sotomayor (no matter what you think of her judicial views on any subject) demonstrated an attitude and a pattern of behavior we should be racing to copy. If you’re not writing brilliantly now, figure out what you’re doing wrong and what you need to do to change it. Then work on making those changes.
This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebookand help support StoryADay May:
Every writer with any measure of skill will, at some point, worry that their writing isn’t good enough
Happily, you can find any number of articles and books telling us why you shouldn’t worry about it, how to break through the blocks it causes, how to ignore other people’s subjective opinions, and how to deal with rejection.
But what if your writing really isn’t good enough?
What if your stories are always being rejected?
What if your critique partners always have tons of notes for you, or worse, nothing but a blank stare?
It may mean your writing really isn’t good enough and you need to do two things:
– Work on your skills and become a better writer
– Adjust your expectations[1. You’ll notice I don’t offer ‘give up’ as a choice. You can’t. You’re a writer. You might as well accept that and drop the fantasy that you can quit whenever you want to. You can’t, so instead, work at it and set your expectations appropriately]
Stay tuned for the next few days for a StoryADay.org series on What To Do If Your Writing Just Isn’t Good Enough. In this series I’ll show you how to harness the same tools that took a poor girl from Brooklyn to the highest court in the US, how to learn like a Renaissance master, and how to feel great about your writing again.
This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here:
Last week we talked about the importance of writing even when you don’t feel like it. Well, enough theory. This week I bring you seven practical strategies for making it happen.
Goals, rewards and accountability buddies form part of the big picture in this scheme. They are sensible parts of your writing’s career plan. But as for the actual “starting writing” part? That’s when you need to be a bit more tricksy.
Try some of these tricks to shake loose the “sensible”, lose the “logical” and get your brain into that devil-may-care creative zone you need for writing.
1. Give Yourself Enough Time
I’ve always loved a deadline — as long as it came with a sleepless night between the two of us. But sit down to write knowing I have to have something completed in an hour?! That’s enough to induce a mammoth case of writer’s block (aka panic). Comedian John Cleese talks about this in this fabulous video on creativity (it’s long, but worth watching). He recommends no less than 90 minutes as a window for creative work, asserting that your brain will try to sabotage you for at least the first half hour…It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it does point out the necessity of allowing more time than you might otherwise plan, for creative ventures.
2. Letter To a Friend
If you’re really having trouble knowing how to get into your story, put all thoughts of readers, editors and publishing out of your head. Instead start writing a letter to your best friend, explaining what this story is going to be about. Write it as if you were describing something that had really happened. You don’t need to finish the letter (or mail it) because the act of writing it out will help you find a way into the actual story, and start writing.
3. Switch Up Your Writing Method
If you usually write on a computer, try turning on the microphone and dictating your story instead (you can transcribe it later). If you usually dictate stories, grab a good pen and some nice paper and write a few paragraphs. If you habitually write on paper, pull up a keyboard. Just the act of writing in a different physical way forces your brain to fire in different ways. You may find yourself “writing” in a different style than usual, or you may simply jump start your writing day. (This will feel awkward. That’s kind of the point. Try it.)
4. Stand Up
Sitting down is not a natural attitude, in evolutionary terms. Humans are made to be upright, to be walking around. So stand up for a while. Pace the floor, muttering like a mad person about the plot point that has you foxed. If you can swing it, put a plank across the arms of a treadmill and balance your laptop on it (I recommend walking very, very slowly until you get the hang of this). Either way, regular movement-breaks help you write by getting your blood pumping and letting your mind wander. Creativity requires thinking-time as well as working-time.
5. Write Nonsense
Some days getting started feels like torture. It feels like a physical impossibility. Put your pen on the paper, put your fingers on the keyboard and just talk. Talk about anything. How hard this is, how much you hate it, what sounds you are hearing outside your window, the feeling of your hair sticking to your neck in the summer heat, anything. Eventually you will relax (and get sick of the navel-gazing, self-absorbed, pity-kitty you have become and start writing the damned story).
6. Outline one scene
Every story has scenes. The bit where we walk in to the characters’ lives. The bit where they are forced to make a decision. The bit when they have a big fight. Take one scene and outline it. Promise yourself that you’ll write this one scene today even if you don’t manage anything else. Figure out who is in the scene, where it takes place, what the characters want, why they can’t have it (yet) and what function the scene plays in the overall scheme of the story (is it a set-up scene? Does it contain the inciting incident? Is it the climax?). Don’t worry about how you’ll write the rest of the story. Outline this one scene. Then write it.
7. Visualize Success
This is the most hippy, nebulous piece of advice I will give and its a bit more ’big picture’ than the other techniques here, but used in conjunction with them it can be extremely powerful. We are a product of our beliefs about ourselves, so let’s make sure we spend some time on the positive ones. Yes, writing is hard. No, we’re not big successes yet. So why do we do this to ourselves? What do we want? Answer this question then spend some time imagining how it will feel when you get there. Use those anticipated good feelings to propel you towards your goal.
Your goal might be as grand as seeing yourself doing book signings and readers to adoring fans. Or it might be as simple as remembering the thrill you always feel when you finish a piece.
And remember, you’re a writer. It is your job to imagine things all the time. If MBA candidates and captains of industry can use this technique, how much more successful will you, a writer, be?
What techniques do you use to jump start your work on a day when you don’t feel like writing?
As we sit here, there are only seven days left in May. Seven more stories and then you’re free to take a break, keep writing, set your stories on fire or, preferably revise them into works of genius. To help you out with that latter option I’ve recruited Gabriela Pereira from DIYMFA.com to give you some tips on revision.
OK, I’ll admit it. When I was in high school (and college and art school and grad school) I was definitely guilty of turning in work before revising it. Sure, I would do a quick spell-check and maybe give it a once-over for grammar, but rarely did I ever roll up my sleeves and do serious revision. And I totally know why I was so resistant to revision for so long: revision is flippin’ scary. The goal for this post is to make revision a little less scary. Let’s get started!
Principles of Revision Before we dive into the how-to part of this post, here are a few things to keep in mind as you revise your work.
1) Let your writing cool down before you revise. Revision allows you to add rational choices and strategy to the frantic bursts of creativity that came out in the first draft. Take at least two weeks (maybe longer) after writing your draft to let it cool down before you revise. Step away and work on something else, then come back to it when you’re able to look at it with an objective eye. The beauty of StoryADay is that by the time you get to Day 31 of the challenge, the story you wrote on Day 1 is probably cooled off enough that you can go back and revise.
2) You need to finish first. Nothing you write is etched in stone… you can always come back and make it better later on. You can do fix just about any problem in revision, but you can’t revise a blank page. Finish first. This is why StoryADay is such an awesome challenge: it forces you to finish. Once you’re done with the challenge, you’ll have 31 finished pieces that you can pick and choose from when you start to revise.
3) Do a first read-through. Try to create a relaxing reading experience, similar to how you would read for pleasure. Make sure you’re not focused on the fact that you’re reading your own work. Make minimal notes. Your goal is to absorb the story as a whole, not nitpick over minor details. Tip: I put my drafts into Kindle format and read it on the kindle. This makes it feel like I’m reading a “real book” and not just a printed out draft. With the Kindle, I use the footnote function to make my notes, and since I’m lazy about typing notes with my thumbs, this forces me to keep the notes short.
4) Extract an outline. Write an outline of what you’ve got as a way of getting a handle on what you have written. Then adjust the outline according to the notes you made in your read-through and implement those changes in the draft.
Revise in Layers I like to think of revision as climbing up a mountain. As you go up the mountain, you focus on the challenges and struggles of that one section. You don’t think about climbing the whole mountain at once (or else you’ll psych yourself out) but instead, only worry about that one small slice of the mountain. Revision is the same way. You start at the base of the mountain, revising the most basic elements of your story, then work your way up until you’re focusing on the nitty-gritty details like word choice and grammar. In my mind, revision looks a little bit like this:
The advantage of approaching the revision process in layers is twofold. First, you avoid overwhelming yourself because you’re only focusing on one layer at a time. Second, if you’re working with a deadline and you don’t have time to address each layer, this method can be especially valuable. If you start at the bottom and work your way up, at the very least you’ll have covered the most important elements of the story whereas if you focus on line edits first, you won’t have time to work out those bigger problems. Here’s a quick summary of each section of the revision mountain and how to address it.
Narration: This is where you consider how you’re telling the story. Is the point of view (POV) right for your story? Should it be in past tense rather than present? Is the voice of the narrator working? The best way to figure that out is to take the first page of your story and rewrite it according to the different options you’re considering, then decide which you like best.
Character Development: Don’t try to juggle all your characters at once. Start with the protagonist and figure out his/her arc, then look at key members of the supporting cast (like the villain or other important supporting characters). Work on each character separately to keep things manageable.
Plot: Here’s where extracting an outline can be extremely useful. If the typical list-format doesn’t work for you, there are many other outline options out there so you’re bound to find something that works for you.
World Building, Dialogue Description and Theme: Focus on these elements one at a time. Is the setting for your story clear? Does it feel real to the reader? How about dialogue and description? Do they flow and ring true? Finally, what’s your theme and does your story convey it?
Ultimately, revision is where you add the strategic elements to your story. Now that you know who the characters are and what’s going to happen, you can plant foreshadowing moments and hint at themes that will be important later on. You can’t do all this in your first draft because during that stage of the process you don’t know your characters or the story completely. It’s only once you know the ending and who your characters are at their core that you can manipulate the story in a strategic way.
Once you’ve revised your story, you’re ready to think about submitting it. For details on the submission process, you can look at this handy guide on How to Submit to Literary Magazines over at the DIY MFA website. And don’t forget to join in on the Sub2Pub challenge! Write on!
Gabriela Pereira is the Founder and Instigator at DIY MFA: the Do-It-Yourself Program in Creative Writing. DIY MFA is dedicated to helping writers improve their technique and build the benefits of a traditional MFA into their everyday writing lives.
Gabriela has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School with a concentration in Writing for Children. She works as a freelance writing teacher and has taught workshops throughout New York City. Her fiction has appeared in various literary magazines and one of her lesson plans was included in the anthology DON’T FORGET TO WRITE, published by 826 National. She writes regular columns on writing for the STORIES FOR CHILDREN newsletter and CURIOSITY QUILLS PRESS.
“If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story.” – Ann Patchett “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life (Kindle Single)“
I had barely started reading Ann Patchett’s short treatise on writing, when I wanted to adopt her.
We, as writers, can spend all day reading about writing (or just reading, for that matter), but there is nothing like the act of writing to teach us how to do the job.
WRITE A LOT
And not just writing, but writing a lot. My new buddy Ann puts it perfectly:
“Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stores, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath.”
What?! There’s no reason to apologize or feel bad about all the trite, self-indulgent stories that bubble up to the surface? There is no reason to expect that any of what we write will be good, especially if it has been a while since we did any serious writing-in-quantity? We can write without being perfect? What a concept!
TEN THOUSAND HOURS
And it’s not just m’buddy Ann.
Malcolm Gladwell points out, in his fascinating book Outliers: The Story of Success, that experts become experts not by being talented or smart, but by loving what they do and putting in lots and lots of practice. He refers to a study into musical talent and preparation by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson:
“Ericsson and his colleagues then compared amateur pianists with professional pianists…The amateurs never practiced more than three hours a week over the course of their childhood, and by the age of twenty they had totaled two thousand hours of practice. The professionals, on the other hand, steadily increased their practice time every year, until by the age of twenty they, like the violinists, had reached ten thousand hours. The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any ‘natural’, musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.”
(And you thought a story a day sounded like a big commitment!)
Gladwell applies this theory to all kinds of experts and ‘geniuses’ including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and The Beatles.
“And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyeone else. They work much, much harder.”
THE JOY OF WORK
But don’t let that word “work” scare you. After all, you are a writer. You love to write (or at the very least, you love having written!).
The reason the Bills, Steves, John-Paul-George-and-Ringoes and Yo-Yo Mas of the world “work” so hard to become world-class at what they do, is precisely because they don’t see it as “work”. They love what they do.
Not every second, I would imagine — any more than you love those moments when you want to bang your head off the desk then throw your computer out of the window. But we love what we do, in the sense that we will do it forever, for the joy of it, whether or not anyone ever pays us for it.
LEARNING TO DO IT WELL
So we might as well do it well.
The consensus seems to be that to do something well, you have to do lots of it. You have to practice. And you have to learn to love the practice, not just the promise of future rewards. Steve Jobs famously celebrated his meandering approach to education, saying that if he had never stumbled into a typography class (and loved it), the Mac would never have become what it did – and nor would Apple, and nor would Steve Jobs.
StoryADay is here to help you get back into the habit of practicing your writing. It’s not here to promise you publication, or fame or riches. It’s not here to promise you’ll write anything throughout the whole month that will be worthy of publishing. But StoryADay May is coming to help you push yourself to practice. Think of StADa as the parent who made you play scales between piano lessons; the coach who inspired you throw endless pitches at the side of your house in the evenings; the teacher who made you do fractions over and over and over again until it finally clicked and you started to see the music between the numbers.
Use StoryADay in place of the teacher Ann Patchett still celebrates for teaching her,
“..how to love the practice and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages.”