[Writing Prompt] Tell A Friend

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.
Phone

 The Prompt

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)

Tips

  • 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.
  • OR write a longer piece, if that’s what works for you. Just be sure to GET TO THE END OF THE STORY. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be finished. (“You can fix just about any problem in revision, but you can’t revise a blank page.“)

 

Becoming A Better Writer: The eBook

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

The StoryADay Guide To Becoming A Better WriterEarlier 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.

It’s available now and, for this week only, it’s FREE.

 

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) .

Which reminds me, it’s only free until Friday, July 19th, so get your copy today.

Adjust Your Expectations

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.

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden of Success

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 ebook and help support StoryADay May:

 

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

Write More

The only way to learn how to write is to write.

Reams of paper

Write, finish, write some more.

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 ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

Learning From Your Writing Heroes

So you’ve decided you can be a better writer, you’ve listened to feedback and now you have resolved to act to strengthen your skills.

Now, how do you do that?

Seek Out Knowledge

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.

Read/Listen to interviews with writers and podcasts about writing. You can find some of my favorite podcasts for writers, here.

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.

Classes

If you like classroom learning there is no shortage of writing classes, workshops and ebooks to help guide your way.

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.

CopyCat Writing

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 more details about this, and examples to follow, consider signing up for the Warm Up Writing Class I run each April, or try the home study version, available year round.)

Keep Learning

Nowt hat you have some great sources for how to learn from the greats, there is one final thing to realize:

You are never going to be finished.

You will grow and change as a writer as long as you keep doing…and every stage is going to require more learning, more inspiration and new heroes.

Commit to learning about your craft for as long as you are doing it, and you’ll be firmly on the path taken by all your writing heroes.

This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

If you’ve enjoyed this series and want to read more, let me send more like this to your inbox:

How To Ask For — And Act Upon — Writing Feedback

Critiquing
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.

Rejecting Feedback

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 ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

If you want to read more like this, let me send future articles straight to your inbox:

One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer

national museum of american art and portrait gallery-51

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 ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

What To Do When Your Writing Just Isn’t Good Enough

rejected

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:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

If you want to read more like this, let me send future articles straight to your inbox:


Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee