Where To Find The World’s Greatest Writing Teachers

…but for the average working/studying/parenting/pulled-in-fifteen-directions aspiring writer, who will inspire us? Who will teach us our trade? Who will be our mentors?

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If you were a Renaissance artist your mentor would be your master. He would teach you your craft and employ you until you, too, were a master.

If you were Stephen Sondheim you would have Oscar Hammerstein for a neighbor and he’d take an interest in you, and you’d have your mentor.

If you were in an MFA program, you’d be paying handsomely for access to a working writer who would mentor you.

 

But the average working/studying/parenting/pulled-in-fifteen-directions aspiring writer, doesn’t have time to talk to her best friend never mind find and domesticate a wild working writer.

 

So who will inspire us? Who will teach us our trade? Who will be our mentors?

The only possible answer is to look to a book.

It’s all there. Every writer you’ve ever admired has shown you what they do, in every work they write.

“When a writer writes anything about anything at all, he gives himself away and what he has to say comes out.” – Oscar Hammerstein II

 

Gather up their stories. Read them. Re-read them. Blog about why you loved them (or why you didn’t). Write down story sparks inspired by their works (what if you had a heroine like that? Would she have chosen him? What if you set a story in a record shop? What if your idea of a happy ending involves the bad guy getting away with it?).

The Good, The Bad And The “I Could SO Do That”

Read stories by writers you worship. Read stories by writers you think are pretty good. Read stories by writers you know you could do better than.

Make a list and think of these writers as your own, personal mentors. On a day when you’re struggling to put pen to paper, read one of those bottom-tier authors and fire yourself up with rage that they are producing more work than you! Or look to the top tier to remind you of what excites you, as a reader.

 Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It

In this last few weeks before StoryADay May begins, read. Read! READ!

 Further Reading

If you’re not already read short stories try these as a few places to start:

Nanoism.net (for Twitter-length stories)

Fifty Great Short Stories – stories from the first half of the 20th Century

Great English Short Stories – more early 20th Century short fiction

Project Gutenberg’s Short Story Shelf – public domain stories

Ploughshares Literary Magazine – literary fiction

Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine – science fiction

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine – crime/mystery fiction

Storyville – an iPhone app that sends you stories every week

OneStory – One short story emailed (or sent to your gadget of choice) every three weeks

 

Writing Flash Fiction Gems – Small, Precious, and Slower Than You’d Think

 

What Is Flash Fiction?

There are, of course, as many definitions of Flash Fiction as there are writers.

Flash Fiction image

Length: The closest point of consensus I could find is that Flash Fiction ought to be not more than 1000 words.

(One journal points out that, in China, this fiction is described as a story you can read in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Since there’s no smoking in public places where I live, we’ll have to come up with an alternate definition. A story you can read while waiting for the barista to finish making your non-fat, no-foam, chai vanilla iced latte? Tea-break tales? Soda stories?)

Content: Flash fiction must contain a complete story — a beginning, a middle and an end. It can be in any genre. It may — or may not — have a twist in the end.

What Flash Fiction Is Not

Flash Fiction, though short, is not:

  • Simplistic – Getting a whole short story into so few words requires all the tricks up a writer’s sleeve. After writing a few of these, you’ll start to look fondly at that half-finished novel you just archived.
  • A Fragment – a description of a scene or a character is not a Flash Fiction story. It’s a fragment.
  • Easy – A Flash Fiction story requires just as much thought and planning as a longer story (perhaps more).
  • Quick – Spare, pointed writing often takes much longer to create than longer works. The good news is that much of the ‘writing’ can be done in your head before you even sit down to type.

How To Write Flash Fiction

Good Subjects for Flash Fiction

“Look for the smaller ideas in larger ones. To discuss the complex interrelationship of parents and children you’d need a novel. Go for a smaller piece of that complex issue. How kids feel when they aren’t included in a conversation. What kids do when they are bored in the car.”

G. W. Thomas, writing in Fiction Factor

This is excellent advice. It’s easy to let a story run away with you, but the beauty of short stories is exactly this ability to focus on the moments that shape the big ideas.

Another way to find subjects for flash fiction is to take advantage of what the reader already knows: base a story on familiar tales (fairy tales, urban myths, traditional myths). These provide many short cuts for the writer: if you talk about a fairy godmother, we know what we should expect (and you’re free to quickly subvert that!). If you write about someone waking up in a bath full of ice, the reader immediately thinks they know something. Run with it (or away from it!).

And don’t forget about mystery and humor. What is a good joke, after all, but a tiny mystery tied up with a punchline?

Techniques

In the same article, G. W. Thomas advises focusing on one powerful image. E. B. White uses this technique in his short story The Door, where the single image of the lab rat’s trigger (a circle) runs throughout the story, tying it all together. It’s a very efficient and effective technique.

Short-short stories often feature a mystery or a twist in the tale, subverted expectations. you only have so many words, and this is a great way to pack a punch. Be careful, though, not to make your ending feel too much like a traditional punchline, or risk alienating your reader.

Some writers advocate writing long stories and then paring them to the bone. Me? I’m lazy and that seems like a lot of extra work. I’m working on focusing on the essentials as I write (but that comes with the risk of inviting in the dreaded Inner Editor, so beware).

Writing spare, low-word-count fiction doesn’t mean you have to state the bald facts and lose all your style. You get to choose every word: leave out dialogue attributions and lush descriptions if your style tends towards satirical commentary and unexpected metaphors. Or cut the metaphors and go dialogue-heavy. There is plenty of room for style in a Flash Fiction story as long as you focus on one central idea, and pare away everything that isn’t ‘you’.

Where To Read Good Flash Fiction

There really is no excuse for not reading flash fiction: it doesn’t take long! You can study the form a lot more quickly than if your preference were the Russian masters.

Finding Flash Fiction is not hard to do. The Internet is the perfect vehicle, especially now that we’re all walking around peering at our mobile devices.

Flash Fiction Online – a paying market, so you know it is curated and someone has decided it’s worth a look.

The Raleigh Review – has a page of sample Flash Fiction.

Every Day Fiction – long-running site that sends a new story to your inbox every day.

Daily Science Fiction – a short science fiction emailed to you every day!

Romance Flash – no, the sci-fi fans don’t get to have all the fun 😉

The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts – This is for all you literary types.

10Flash Quarterly – self-described fans of “science fiction, fantasy, horror, suspense, crime capers and slipstream”.

Vestal Review – describes itself as ‘the longest-running flash fiction magazine in the world”.

Microcosms – Twitter-length fiction with a speculative tinge.

Nanoism – Another long-running Twitter fiction site.

FlashFiction Chronicles – which is part of Every Day Fiction. It has a fabulous resource page that led me to many of the sites listed here. It also has an annual Flash Fiction contest with a cash prize. Check them out.

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[Tuesday Reading Room] The Door by E. B. White

E. B. White's image

After reading the first few lines of “The Door” by E. B. White 1 my immediate feeling was one of outrage: here I am reading a story by the author of a book that has generations of writers in terror of writing something the ‘wrong’ way (The Elements of Style by Strunk & White), and it’s all over the place! White is breaking his own rules with flagrant , jaw-dropping abandon!

Everything (he kept saying) is something it isn’t. And everybody is somewhere else. Maybe it was the city, being in the city, that made him feel how queer everything was and that it was something else. Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the names of things. The names were tex and frequently koid. Or they were flex and oid, or they were duroid (sani) or flexan (duro), but everything was glass (but not quite glass) and the thing that you touched (the surface, washable, crease-resistant) was rubber, only it wasn’t quite rubber and you didn’t quite touch it but almost.

OK, so there aren’t actually many disregarded rules there, apart from possibly some missing quotation marks – but still! What an odd and unbalancing opening that is.

And I loved it. Because the words are doing exactly what the writer intends to convey: they are confusing and disjointed and all out of kilter. They are slightly beyond comprehension. Just likethat we are in the same emotional space as the main character.

You couldn’t do this without a good command of the norms of writing, so perhaps E. B. White is exactly the right person to be writing this story!

Why The Story Works

This was a trying story on a first reading. I was never really sure what was going on, although I have my own ideas. It was like reading a stream-of-consciousness Beat poem.

But it hung together. It worked even though little in the story is explicit.

Some reasons it worked:

  • It was visceral. The writer takes us right inside the head of someone who is disorientated and out of step with the world. He keeps us off-kilter with his language. We are never explicitly told what is up with the main character (they way we may not know what’s up with ourselves when we are ‘out of sorts’). We do, however, feel what the character is feeling, through this helter-skelter narrative.
  • We are inside his head, though it is not all first-person. The story switches point of view without fanfare, so sometimes we are in first person and sometimes not (“Maybe (he kept thinking) it was the name of things”).
  • The author sets up a metaphor at the beginning, that of rats in a scientific experiment, “…trained to jump at a square card with the circle in the middle of it…”. It is a clear and coherent part of the story. He then takes this metaphor and alludes to it throughout the story, using the phrase ‘the one with the circle on it’ in various places to let us know he’s talking about frustrated expectations or unexpected changes — about life changing the rules, just when we’ve got the hang of them — whether or not we know what’s going on in the particular moment (and on a second reading, these moments become more clear).
  • The story (and the protagonist) travel somewhere. At the end, I’m still not exactly sure what is going on, but I know more than I did at the beginning. The protagonist is moving on.
  • The ending has a finality to it, a sense of actually being an ending. The author ties everything up in a bow by bringing back some metaphors from earlier in the story, the way a modern stand up comics will bring us back around to a joke from the start of their routine, before taking their bow.

This was an oddly satisfying story.

I think it is made more difficult by reading it at a time (and as part of a culture) very different from the the one in which it was written. Life was changing for the protagonist in ways that reflected the times. Now, 70+ years later, it’s hard to catch all the cultural allusions (without studying more deeply).

The style feels very modern (or possibly “Modern”) in its form and ambition. In fact, I was stunned to find it was originally published in 1939. I think it would still prove a bit too avant garde for many readers.

But it was anything but boring.

 

Writer’s Tips

If you are uninspired by a story that you are writing, maybe it’s because you are sticking too closely to the rules, to a formula.

Try taking a leaf out of E. B. White’s book and mess with your readers a bit.

  • Try a different style.
  • Say less — or more.
  • Drop the dialogue attributions.
  • Throw out the quotation marks.
  • Write run-on sentences — or write in fragments.
  • Tell the story out of order.
  • Try to make your language sound less like you and more like the inside of your character’s head. Let the words race, if your character is running; or make them lugubrious if she is weary.
  • Allow yourself to take some chances.

After all, words are just squiggles on a page, and even the most experimental squiggles can be erased and re-written.

Take some chances in your writing today.

Read it online here


Did you try any new techniques after reading this? Leave a comment (and a link, if you’re daring) and let us know what worked – or didn’t.

  1. found in Fifty Great Short Stories, Milton Crane (Ed.)
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Tuesday Reading Room – Live From The Continuing Explosion by Simon Kewin

This week’s story is “Live From The Continuing Explosion”, taken from Perfect Circles, a collection of previously-published short stories by Simon Kewin. (Full disclosure, Simon is a former StoryADay participant and co-founder of  Write1Sub1, a year long writing and publishing challenge that I highly recommend you check out. The new collection is available on Kindle and, at the time of publication, is priced $0.00!)

Live from the Continuing Explosion is a Big Ideas story.

Perfect Circles (eBook) by Simon Kewin

When I was writing about Dorothy Parker’s “The Standard of Living“, I spent some time talking about how short stories are fabulous for taking a tiny moment and using it to create characters and events that stay with the reader, regardless of scale.

This week’s story, Simon Kewin’s “Live From The Continuing Explosion” is, by contrast, a Big Ideas story. Yes, it starts with – and stays with – a moment in time, but the moment contains a huge, earth-shattering event that shapes not just the lives of the participants but grips the whole world in its fall-out.

I’m reluctant to say too much because this story unfolds gradually, but at its heart is a terrorist event and its effects on one person and on the world.

Kewin manages to share his big ideas while creating characters that grow more and more real throughout the story. He uses the event to talk about ideas as personal as the relationship between twins and as vast as philosophy, global politics and the nature of mankind.

The Dangerous World Of The Big Idea

This story, if categorized at all, would fall into the ‘sci-fi’ bracket. One of the attractions of sci-fi is its ability to deal with big ideas, even more than the appeal of technology, spaceships or characters in tight-fitting jumpsuits (only one of those three sci-fi staples appears in this story, and it’s not the jumpsuits!).

The danger of the big idea, however, is that it can hijack the story – that the author’s voice leans over your shoulder and lectures like a pompous professor. It’s hard to insert thoughts about gods and politics into a story without jumping up on a soapbox.

One of the ways “Live From The Continuing Explosion” deals with this danger is by giving various characters a virtual soapbox as part of the story. Right at the end, for example, one character makes a speech about “what has been learned”. It doesn’t jar, however, because it is an actual speech, in front of a crowd. As reader,  you’ve come along on the journey with that character as she moves from by-stander to reluctant figure-head, and you have a lot of sympathy for her. A lot of the action before the end is sketched out, implied, and I was happy to have the character tie everything together at the conclusion. Plus, that’s not the end of the story…

Beyond The Big Idea

If this story dodges the danger of using big ideas it is because the author spends time building up the characters, even the minor ones. He concentrates at times on descriptive writing so that the reader can *see* the set-pieces and isn’t just being lectured to. He does that with vivid descriptions – not of the height and weight of his characters, by how they move, what they look at.

 The two children run, screaming with delight. Around the legs of the adults in the crowd, legs like planted trees. They run in easy harmony as they veer left or right, speeding up or slowing down together without needing to watch each other. They laugh so much they can barely breathe. They hold hands, letting go only at the last moment as they split off to go around someone before reuniting.

A dog, watching them, barks excitedly, wanting to join in.

They run as if they have practised the whole set of manoeuvres beforehand. They run almost as one, a single being with two halves.

It’s a lovely, vivid moment and — given what follows — a really great opening to the story.

Staring Down A Cliche

It’s hard to describe the world in terms readers understand without stumbling into cliches. Of course it is. Cliches become cliches because they are good desciptions that we identify with.

Kewin deals with one of these in a way I really liked: he jumps on the cliche and expands it until it is no longer a cliche but an image that is all his own. He uses words that work exquisitely well to do this. When talking about an explosion Kewin takes the cliche “the blossom” of an explosion and expands it:

… vast, obscene flower billowing forth at demonic speed, black stigma deep inside red and yellow petals.

(By the way, use of ‘stigma’? In this context? Love it!)

He also takes the the idea of someone being inside a bubble and ‘owns’ it: making it the universal name for a phenomenon, not just a literary device. People all over the world begin calling the phenomenon ‘The Bubble’, as naturally as if someone had officially named it.

Short Story or Novel?

The other danger of the big idea is that you must devote so much space in your story to the ideas that the action and character development happen too quickly and the reader is left wishing the story had been a novel instead.

I think this story suffered a touch from this — which is not the worst thing anyone could say about a story 😉


Writer’s Lessons

  • If you can’t see a way around using a familiar image, try using one of Kewin’s techniques: expand the cliche with a clever twist, or weave it through the story so that it becomes natural.
  • If you ever feel that you have no ideas that are big enough to merit writing down, remember this. For the short story, tiny truths are even often just as valid, if not more,  than big ideas.

Have you written stories with Big Ideas behind them? Are they easier/harder to write? Do you feel they worked as well as stories based on smaller moments?

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Writing With Confidence – Imagine The Perfect Reader

When you write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free, free and not anxious.
-Brenda Ueland “If You Want To Write”

friends

Some of my best writing, before I started to concentrate on my fiction again, was done in hand-written letters to my childhood friend, Linda.

She is witty and clever and very different from me in many ways, but we share a long history, and she understands all my references. She is unfailingly supportive, except when I’m being an idiot and need a kick up the rear, which she will happily – and gently – administer.

Writing letters to my friend is effortless because I want to entertain her, I know her, and I know she will be a generous reader.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could be sure that all your stories were met with such an audience?

Well, of course, you can’t. But the best way to assure a good response to your writing is to write your very best stuff. And the only way to write your very best stuff, is to come at it with confidence, as if it were going to be read by your ideal reader.

Do you know who your ideal reader is? (Hint: it might be you).

Sketch out a few characteristics of you Ideal Reader now.

  • Do you actually know someone who would be your ideal reader?
  • What authors does she like?
  • How does he like his characters to act?

Now, keep this image of your ideal reader in mind next time you sit down to write a story.


If this technique helps you, leave a comment and the description of your ideal reader, below. I’d love to see what you came up with.

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Have Fun Storming The Castle – Writing Lessons From The Princess Bride

Writing and crafting a good story is hard work. But there is joy in it too. Otherwise what would be the point?

I was reminded of this when quoting one of my favourite lines from the movie, The Princess Bride.

The heroes are off to take on bad guys. The odds are against them and they have a hard, painful and probably futile fight ahead of them. Neverless Miracle Max and his wife Valerie wave them off cheerfully, crying,

“Bye, boys! Have fun storming the castle!”

Writing a story is a lot like storming a castle and there is a lot we writers could learn from Wesley, Inigo, Fezzik, Buttercup and yes, even Vizzini, as we storm the gates of our stories.

Have a good reason to storm the castle

Castles are strong. They were built specifically to withstand a good storming, employing all kinds of tricks to repel attackers. You had to have a damned good reason to want to storm a castle. As we know, Wesley had the most important reason to storm his castle (‘true love’). No lesser cause would have compelled him to overcome the difficulties of overpowering enemy manpower, a locked gate with only one key, and having been mostly dead all day.

You need a good reason to write. Even if you lose faith at times, at one point you believed enough in this story, this character or the lesson you felt you could share, to begin the audacious process of breaking through fear, apathy and laziness and begin writing this story. Hold fast to that reason. Your story is worth fighting for.

Formulate A Plan

It may not seem like the heroes have much going for them, but they take stock of their resources (“If only we had a wheelbarrow”), examine their strengths (“your brains, Fezzik’s strength, my steel”), and come up with a plan, long before they take their first step towards the castle gate.

Don’t assume that, just because you like to write, you can sit down and create a whole story without doing any planning. You don’t have to know what will happen at every step of your plan but you need something to build on. Every story needs a hero, a setting, and some movement (something must happen or change between the beginning and the end). Do you know what must change for your character? (even if you don’t know *how* it will change).

You don’t even have to form a plan before you begin writing (the heroes have left to storm the castle before Wesley even wakes up, never mind begins to form his plan), but perhaps, like Wesley and his friends, you should pause at the edge of the woods to take stock, and plan the next stage of  your battle every so often.

Be Flexible

WESLEY: Now, there may be problems once we’re inside.

INIGO: I’ll say. How do I find the Count? Once I do, how do I find you again? Once I find you again how do we escape?”

FEZZIK: Don’t pester him. He’s had a hard day.

Just because I’m saying you should plan a little, doesn’t mean you need to be rigid. Once you have stormed the gates of your story (the beginning), you still have to find your enemy, rescue the princess and find a way out. You do not need to know how all these things happen before you start to write. You may find that circumstances within your story take you in unexpected directions. You will need to be flexible. But bend too far and your story can break.

To avoid this that each of your characters, and you as the writer, stay true to your goals.

Stay True To Your Goal

When Count Rugen is at the point of Inigo’s sword, he offers Inigo money, power, all that he has and more, anything he asks for. It’s a pretty tempting offer for a drunk with no prospects (“there is not a lot of money in revenge”). Inigo, however, does not hesitate. He knows exactly what he wants, and that is: to avenge his father.

As you are writing, your story and your characters will offer you little side trips, new characters may pop up and tempt you with their fascinating foibles, new elements may demand to be included. Take some advice from Vizzini (“When a job goes wrong, you go back to the beginning”). Take a breath and ask yourself what was your goal for this story?

However much it loves being endlessly written, this story’s fate (like Count Rugen’s) is to be finished off. Stay focused on the main idea, the main theme, the main direction of the action, and ignore all its false promises of goodies if you just keep writing it, if you let it live, forever. You know, as well as Inigo, that the only way to satisfaction is to stick with your goal until the end.

Trust That An Ending Will Present Itself If You Keep Moving Towards It

At the climax of The Princess Bride, things are in a bit of a mess for our heroes. Sure, they have successfully stormed the castle and Inigo has his revenge, but it seems that Buttercup has married the evil prince after all, Fezzik has disappeared and Inigo can’t find Wesley. Buttercup is about to kill herself, Wesley cannot move and is at the point of Prince Humperdink’s sword in a tower room with no apparent exit.

Does Wesley give up? No, he does not. Instead, he vamps.

That’s right, he keeps talking, until something changes, until he finds the strength to take action. And when that moment comes, everything changes for the better: Humperdink surrenders, Inigo reappears and Fezzik turns up with the perfect means of escape.

The “all-is-lost” point is a classic narrative technique. Unfortunately it tends to hit us writers hard, too. The only piece of advice I have ever heard about how to get out of the pit of despair while writing a story, is to keep writing. It’s about as appetizing as that Miracle Pill cooked up by Miracle Max, and ultimately just as effective.

Even if you stumble, like Wesley, or end up editing out some of what you write, keep moving and a solution will spring from your characters, your situation or both.  Trust me on this. Just keep writing and an ending will appear. If you start to question this advice, remind yourself of what Buttercup says to Wesley when he first reappears in her life:

“I will never doubt again.”

StoryADay.org's Have Fun Storming The Castle


There are so many wonderful moments in this movie that I’m sure I could have kept writing on this theme all day.  What writing lessons would you draw from the characters and scenes in The Princess Bride? Please do share your Princess Bride writing tips in the comments :)

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Get your story publication-ready with the StoryADay Editing & Revision Seminar

TéléphoneI’m excited to announce our very first free, live teleseminar coming up this Friday.

StoryADay May is all about a creative splurge: massive amounts of writing, experimentation and fun. With any luck we all came out with a handful of stories that surprised us: they were really quite good and maybe there were some that we think we could share with readers. But maybe not quite yet.

Is Your Short Story Publication-Ready?

Editing your writing is hard, but it makes all the difference between a first draft and a publishable story.

On Friday, Sept 9, 2011, at 1:30 PM (EST) come and learn about the different levels and stages of editing.

In this teleseminar you’ll learn about:

  • Understanding the different levels of editing and how to use this knowledge to keep from being discouraged,
  • How to figure out what you need right now,
  • Do It Yourself editing,
  • How to effectively get editing help from others.

You’ll also receive an exclusive money-saving offer on my upcoming series of writing seminars aimed specifically at short-story writers.

What It Is

A seminar that you can use your home phone (or cell phone or Skype) to call in to.

I’ll talk for about 20 minutes and take questions at the end. I’ll answer as many as I can. (I’ll mute your phones before I start, so don’t worry about barking dogs or crying babies in the background!)

If you can’t be on the call, live, send your questions to me by email before the call (julie@storyaday.org) and you can download the whole thing after the event (I’ll send out an email to this list with the details, on Friday afternoon).

What It Is Not

There is no fee for this teleseminar (although there may be telephone charges, depending on where you live and what kind of plan you have).

This is a look at how to approach editing and revising your stories. It is NOT a primer on grammar or spelling or where to put your apostrophes. For one thing, I’ve noticed that most of the writers at StoryADay seem to know how to do that stuff – although we all occasionally make slips that must be caught in editing. For another thing, there is a metric ton of information online about how to use grammar. (I suggest you start here.)

How To Join In

Sign up for the StoryADay Creativity Lab to receive all the details including a call-in number and conference code, and more information about that discount on upcoming seminars

If you’ve ever wondered how best to revise your work, join us this Friday, Sept 9 at 1:30 PM (EST) for the StoryADay Creativity Lab Editing & Revision Teleseminar

P.S. Don’t forget, at the end of the call you’ll receive a discount code for 25% off future seminars.

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Grammar Resources for Writers

Later this week I’m running a teleseminar on Editing and Revising for Short Story Writers

(You can find out more by signing up here)

This seminar won’t be a grammar lesson because I’ve noticed that most of the writers around here are, well, pretty good writers. But, in case you need a little help, or have that one rule that always trips you up, here are some great grammar and style resources for you:

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tricks

Mignon Fogarty is possibly the most famous grammarian around these days and this page is a great start for those little grammar niggles that plague you.

Grammar Grater

This is a fun grammar and words podcast from Minnesota Public Radio. It’s short (6-8 minutes) and entertaining. Just the thing for a quick drive or during your morning shower!

Grammar Bytes!

Straightforward, clear definitions plus a test-your-own grammar section. Oh, and a gorilla.

 

Chicago Manual of Style

If you write for magazines or newspapers in the US, this is the style guide they probably use. The site requires a subscription but it is exhaustive — and you can get a free trial.

Purdue Online Writing Lab

A great resource from Purdue University. Lots of good stuff in here.

 

But for all this, the absolute best thing you can do to improve your grammar is read lots and lots of really well-written books: immerse yourself in awesome grammar. (I recommend Dickens, P. G. Wodehouse, Norton Juster, John Steinbeck, Stephen King, A.S. Byatt, oh and many, many others).

You cannot immerse yourself in wonderful writing and come away worse off. You cannot read perfect grammar and not absorb it.

So, I repeat the best advice ever give to any writer: read, read, read!

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What Readers Say To Writers

I posted a casual question to my Twitter network about whether or not I should struggle on, reading a book I wasn’t enjoying.

The answers turned out to be a valuable lesson for anyone writing a book.

Reading[Day12]*

Reading between the lines, I saw that most people have a set of definite and personal rules about what it takes for them to keep reading — whether they realize it or not.

The responses seemed neatly divided between those who struggle on at all costs and those who gaily cast the book over their shoulder and waltz off with a new one, with nary a second glance.

1. Is The Writing Good?


As you’ve probably guessed, I considered myself firmly in the first camp for years and years (probably a product of a British upbringing, where it is understood that certain literary works are ‘worthy’ and ‘must’ be read, even if you hate them).

But now? With so many books and so little time? Why soldier on?

Well, if the writing is exquisite, if it moves something inside me, I’ll keep picking up the book even if I hate the characters or think the plot is dull. I might never make it to the end, but I’ll continue to feel like I ought to make the effort.

Books in this category for me include:
Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, which was worth sticking with and opened up a whole world of ‘magical realism’ books to me.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke . This took me well over a year to read because the language was so dense that I had to keep putting it down and coming up for air. But I kept going back to it and consider it totally worth the investment.

If the writing isn’t amazing, then reading this book isn’t even improving my own writing, so why am I reading it?

2. Are the characters compelling?

I read a terrible Harlequin romance recently. In fact, I say ‘terrible’, but it obviously wasn’t because I stayed up into the wee hours just to finish it. The plot was predictable, the language made me cringe — often — but the characters…something about the characters made me keep turning the pages just to find out how they ended up together. (Oh, and there were racy bits that were fun). The pacing was good and the writer part of me was fascinated by how this writer was keeping me hook even though I shouldn’t have been.

If I care about the characters and the language is at least readable, I’ll stick with pretty much any book.

I gave up on “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith because her characters, though finely drawn, had nothing for me. I’m struggling with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” because, even though I can see that it’s “important” I dislike every character – including the omniscient narrator. I’m giving up on a mystery novel because the characters all sound alike, except when the author is using them as a punchline.

3. Am I Learning Anything?

Even if I’m not loving the characters or the plot, I might keep reading if the setting is well realized. If the author has really done their research and is painting a gripping picture of life on a Martian colony or how to build a medieval cathedral (or an elevator to space), or what it would be like to grow up in Venice, I’ll probably keep reading.

That mystery novel I just shelved? It’s supposed to be set in England but the author writes like an Anglophile who has learned about Britain from Agatha Christie novels (Tips for Anglophiles: no-one has stopped for afternoon tea since the 1930s, though they might stop for a tea break consisting of a cuppa and a nice choccie biccie. No English policeman would make an internal comment about being ‘blue collar’, but he’d probably be proud of his working class roots. People in Britain don’t talk about their car’s speed in kph, even if we are supposed to be metric.)

A good setting can be spellbinding. A poorly researched or written one will get you shelved.

4. Am I pressed for time?


There are a lot of books out there and, in the midst of every day life, I’m going to get resentful pretty quickly if I think the author’s wasting my time.

If, however, I’m on holiday in a cabin in the woods with no-one asking me for anything, I’ll be much more forgiving. I’ll wait for the author to get to the point. I’ll struggle on to find out what happens, even if the author doesn’t seem in a hurry to get to the climax.

On the average day, though? Many people subscribe to this philosophy.

As a writer who wants to be read, you need to revise and revise until your language is the best it can be, your characters utterly compelling and your setting is spellbinding.


EDITING AND REVISION SEMINAR

Editing your writing is hard, but it’s one of the things that makes the difference between a first draft and a published draft.

On Sept 9, come and learn about the different levels and stages of editing with StoryADay.org’s own Julie Duffy.

In this teleseminar you’ll learn about:

  • Understanding the different levels of editing and how to use this knowledge to keep from being discouraged,
  • How to figure out what you need right now,
  • DIY editing,
  • How to effectively get editing help from others.

You’ll also receive an exclusive money-saving offer on my upcoming series of writing seminars aimed specifically at short-story writers.

Sign up for the Creativity Lab to hear more about the free editing seminar.
(The Creativity Lab is different from the StoryADay Advance List, which is only about the challenge. The Creativity Lab is an infrequent newsletter, chock-full of tools and information to help you in your writing life).

Thanks!

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An Accountability Buddy: The Productive Writer’s Secret Weapon

Today’s guest post from Melissa Dinwiddie is a wonderful primer on how to use the StoryADay community to help you become more productive than you ever dreamed. Thanks, Melissa!

Farewell to Polina!

Do you know one of the most effective things you can do to get your writing done?

Make yourself accountable.

I don’t know the statistics, but it’s a well known fact that if you want to reach a goal, speaking your commitment — including your deadline — to someone you know will hold you to it makes you dramatically more likely to actually do it.

Accountability is a powerful tool, and there are a number of ways you can integrate it into your writing practice. One of my own secret weapons is an accountability buddy.

Here’s what I’ve learned about maintaining an effective accountability partnership.

At the start of the year I was in a mastermind group (another great accountability tool), assembled with the express purpose of helping each other accomplish one specific goal in the month of January. When that group dissolved, a couple of us decided to keep checking in with each other.

At first our monthly calls started to get a little chatty — understandable enough, since we liked each other and had come to think of each other as friends.

This is an inherent danger in any accountability relationship. The problem, of course, is that chatting does not make for finished projects and completed goals.

Accountability partners have to be vigilant, and must keep coming back to the purpose for their partnership. If you want to chat, set up another date specifically for that. During your accountability check-ins, stick with the agenda: keeping each other on track.

This is exactly what I did at the end of a particularly chatty call. “Before we hang up,” I asked, “what’s your next step?”

My buddy confessed that she had a novel that had been sitting in a drawer for way too long, and what she really wanted was to get it edited and up for sale as a download on her site.

“Aha,” I responded, kicking into coaching mode, “so what’s stopping you?”

I asked her realistically how long she thought the editing would take, and when she said “about four hours,” I suggested (okay, I practically insisted) that she do it this week. In other words, I held out an expectation that I thought was achievable.

With my kick in the butt, she was ready to take on this project that she’d been putting off, so the next step was to set up a check-in schedule that worked for her. She committed to emailing me a progress report every night before going to bed, and set a goal of a 2-3 chapters per day.

Although it turned out four hours was an underestimation, I’m pleased to report that in less than two weeks my buddy had finished editing her entire manuscript and was ready to tackle the production side of getting her novel made into a downloadable ebook format. She swears she never would have gotten there without my help.

Do you think this kind of partnership might work for you? Give it a try! To keep you on track, I recommend sticking with the same structure every time you meet. The following questions are a good jumping off place:

  • What did you achieve since we last checked in? Did you accomplish your goal?
  • What didn’t work? What are you going to do differently next time?
  • What goal do you commit to between now and the next check-in?
  • What can you use help with?

Remember to reserve your chatting for another time, and let me know how it goes!

Artist, Writer and Inspirationalist Melissa Dinwiddie helps creatives (and “wannabe” creatives) to get unstuck, get unpoor, and just plain play bigger. Find her at her blogs, Living A Creative Life and 365 Days of Genius.



Win! Win! Win!

Leave a comment with your best tips for boosting productivity and/or working with other people and win a copy of Rory’s Story Cubes, a wonderful dice game that doubles as a story-telling tool. Roll the dice and make a story from the extremely cute images on the dice.

 

Today’s winner will be a random draw, so you get extra entries if you post about StoryADay on your blog, Twitter, Facebook or anywhere else (yes, I’ll give credit for blog posts from yesterday). Just leave me a comment saying where you posted.

Special thanks to Rory O’Connor and the lovely folks at Gamewright Games for donating this prize.

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The Sloth’s Secret to Writing Success

Sloth

Recently, naturalists announced that the sloth — the animal whose name has become a synonym for laziness — is actually a lot more active than previously thought. It turns out that when we cage them and observe them, we don’t see what’s really going on in the sloth’s world.

Today I have a great guest post for you from Susan Daffron, a writer and publishing consultant. She shows us how, as writers, the times when our minds are  most fertile and active, might — to an observer — look like the times when we are being, well, slothful. She shows us that productivity for writers makes its own demands, and how to succeed by embracing that.

(You can read more about Susan’s upcoming publishing conference at the end of the article).

Then, leave your comments about how you will jump-start your creativity at the end of the article and you’ll be entered to win a copy of Rory’s Story Cubes – a great creativity booster in a box!


 

 

As a writer, I’ve gone through periods of extreme productivity and extreme sloth. Although I have written 12 books, last year in 2010, I released exactly zero.

For a variety of personal and business-related reasons, I went through a creative burnout like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Writing, which had always been fairly easy for me in the past, was suddenly extremely difficult.

Climbing Out Of A Slump

I also discovered that the less I wrote, the less I wanted to write. Talk about a lack of productivity!

I spent some time looking back at what happened during my creative slump. I realized my lack of writing productivity stemmed from three issues:

1. Lack of ideas. The stressful events I experienced caused my creativity to simply shut down. To jumpstart my mind, I surfed to online writing sites (like StoryaDay.org!),  used random-word and writing-prompt generators, and started talking to my husband about my various writing thoughts for outside feedback and support.

2. Lack of motivation. As noted, a bunch of things that happened last year brought me down. Creativity does not flow when you’re depressed. I decided to make a commitment to exercising and started reading more inspirational materials on creativity, writing, and life balance. (The library is full of wonderful FREE books just waiting to be read!)

3. Lack of time. You’ve read it before, but I’ll say it again: you have time to write if you make time to write. During my slump, I wasn’t working smart. Part of me already knew it, but I had to forcibly reacquaint myself with the methods I’d used in the past to carve out real productive writing time. I opted to make a commitment to write every morning and also started thinking up ideas for articles and posts the night before. “Sleeping on” a writing idea really works!

And The Winner Is…

I’m happy to report that the old adage “writers write” is true. Since I got my writing mojo back again, I have been writing regularly. I have my next book completely outlined and 19 case studies/interviews input so far. I’ll be speaking at a conference this summer and plan to release the book in time for it. (Deadlines help motivation too!)

If you’re a writer who wants to publish, you can get inspiration and learn more about the book publishing process at the Self-Publishers Online Conference. The third annual event is May 10-12, 2011 (http://www.SelfPublishersOnlineConference.com) Use the code SusanSentMe and get 10% off your registration!


Susan Daffron, aka The Book Consultant (http://www.TheBookConsultant.com) owns a book and software publishing company. She spends most of her time writing, laying out books in InDesign, or taking her five dogs out for romps in the forest. She also teaches people how to write and publish profitable client-attracting books and puts on the Self-Publishers Online conference (http://www.SelfPublishersOnlineConference.com) every May.


Win! Win! Win!

Leave a comment with your best tips for jump-starting creativity and win a copy of Rory’s Story Cubes, a wonderful dice game that doubles as a story-telling tool. Roll the dice and make a story from the extremely cute images on the dice. Brilliant for days when you’re stalled and need to regain your mojo.

Special thanks to Rory O’Connor and the lovely folks at Gamewright Games for donating this prize.

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Write Something Terrible Today

What are the consequences of trying to write a perfect story?
That you might get stuck. That you might not progress. That you might quit. Don’t quit. Write a crappy First

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Very few writers really know what they’ve done until they’ve done it…the only way I can get anything done at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts

Anne Lamott, “Bird By Bird”

sandcastles
Photo by David Templeman

Make Lots of Mistakes Quickly =
Learn Quickly How To Avoid Those Mistakes In Future

What are the consequences of writing a bad story? That you might get discouraged?

That’s not something we embrace readily, but it’s not fatal.

Now, what are the consequences of trying to write a perfect story?

That you might get stuck.

That you might not progress.

That you might quit.

Embrace the cause of the crappy first draft, and save your writing life!

How To Create Your First Draft

1: Work Fast

This is what keeps the Inner Editor from getting his claws into you.

Write like the wind. Keep running and leave the Inner Editor behind.

Write fast, get to the point where you get stuck, and keep writing anyway.

2: Don’t Look Back

Literally, don’t look back at your draft as you’re writing.  Even if you have forgotten what you named a secondary character or a town, just put in a placeholder and keep writing.

If you look back you’ll be tempted to judge, to edit, and you’ll slow down and then you’ll lose momentum, and then it’s so much harder to get going again.

3: Have Fun in the First Draft Sandbox

The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work.

-Richard Bach

Treat your first draft as your sandbox: get your fingers dirty, build ugly models, knock them down later.

Don’t Quit. Fight The Fear. Write A Crappy First Draft Today.

How To Fail At Story-Telling

“What if my stories are no good? What if I fail?”

This is possibly the most powerful thing holding us back.

FAIL stamp

We can find or make time if we really want to. Even if the power lines went down and the world ran out of paper, we could tell our stories out loud, around campfires as of old.

The most insightful of us understand that success brings its own stresses and that worries us.(Imagine if your first novel was a best-seller. Where would you go from there?!)

But the thing that really stops us?

Fear of failure.

Good News! Failure is Good For You!

Continue reading “How To Fail At Story-Telling”

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6 Reasons You Will Never Be A Writer

Wondering when you’ll reap the fame and fortune that come with your dream of being a writer? Well, probably never. If you’re making any of these six classic mistakes…

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Wondering when you’ll reap the fame and fortune that come with your dream of being a writer? Well, probably never. If:

1. You don’t read

The Writers' Museum
The Writer's Museum, Edinburgh by Peter Nijenhuis

At least, not the right things. You read all the books on writing and polishing and publishing, and all the books that literary critics are praising, but nothing of any real value. You don’t read books that light a fire under you, you don’t read in your genre, you don’t read non-fiction for fun and inspiration.  You don’t have an Audible membership or a library card and you couldn’t name a book that has meant anything to you since you turned 20.

If you were learning to be an accountant you’d study accounting law. If you were studying to be a doctor you would read medical books. Stephen King, in On Writing calls it the Great Commandment: Reada lot, write a lot.

“Read, read, read, Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.”

-William Faulkner.

2. You’re too busy to write

You’re not independently wealthy: you’ve got a job, a family, commitments, a social life, a pressing engagement with the cast of Glee! You can’t possibly squeeze any time out of your day to write.

Jon Scalzi, current president of the Science Fiction Writers of America puts it bluntly and truthfully:

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

You can make time to write, but something else is probably going to have to give. It might be sleep, it might be ‘watching Ellen in the afternoon’, it might be having lunch with the same people every day in the dreary work cafeteria. It might be ‘feeling bad about yourself because you’re not getting any writing done and eating ice cream instead’.

But, chances are, you can make time to write.

3. You have no original ideas

Every time you sit down to write you are paralyzed by the overwhelming feeling that everything has been said before. Well, you know what? You’re right. But it hasn’t been said by you, in this time and place, at your age, and in your circumstances. Agent Donald Maas talks a lot in The Breakout Novelist about the difference between ‘original’ and ‘unique’. You don’t have to be original, but you do have to be ‘unique’.

I once interviewed Daniel Pinkwater and he said the same thing: only you can speak in your voice, and if you write for a while you’ll discover what that voice is.

I love that what my readers need, they can only get from me. It’s riskier, but much more ego-gratifying
-Daniel Pinkwater, 2003 interview

He also said,

Ideas are everywhere. I have 60 ideas a day. So do you. So does everybody.
-Daniel Pinkwater, 2003 interview

The trick is paying attention, taking those ideas and developing them into the story only you can tell.

4. You have no qualifications for this. You don’t know what you’re doing

No writer does. Every artist is engaged in creating something unique and new. Experienced writers say this all the time: I don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve done it. Here’s a little evidence:

The only way to write is to write… Stupid b*****d job.
-Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale

Very few writers know what they are doing until they have done it.
-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

You can’t completely understand what good writers do until you try it yourself…Write from the very beginning, then, and keep on writing…The next story will be better, and the next one after that still better, and eventually—
-Isaac Asimov, Gold

5. Your Writing Sucks

When you do make the time to write, it’s hard. The words do not come dripping off your pen easily; all the elements in your story don’t come out in the right order; your characters are flat and uninteresting and they speak in cliches; you want to give up.

And that is what Anne Lammot calls your ‘shitty first draft’. It has to be got through in order to get to the second draft, the third, and the polished end result. If you are too scared to suck, too scared to fail then you will never be a writer, because all writing involves putting some truly terrible prose on the page — and excising it later or, like William Faulkner, throw it out entirely and start again,

Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
-William Faulkner

Sure, it’s scary but even the great and prolific Isaac Asimov says, of the writer’s daily task:

We sit there alone, pounding out words, with out hearts pounding in time. Each sentence brings with it the sickening sensation of not being right.
-Isaac Asimov, Gold

Can you allow your first drafts to be less than perfect?

6. You’re Too Nice

In real life it’s nice to be nice: people like you, you offend nobody and your mother is proud of you.

In literature, being nice doesn’t pay. It’s boring if nothing happens, if no-one gets upset, if no-one is threatened, insulted, shamed, murdered, even. Your writing can be your playground. Be nice in real life if you must but, in your writing,

Embrace your inner sadist.
-Donald Maass, The Breakout Novelist


I’d love to hear which of these touched a nerve with you. Let me know in the comments which part of your writing life you’re struggling with the most at the moment? Has it changed over time?

If you’re feeling inspired to write now, why not check out some of the StoryADay Writing Prompts? You might want to start with some Flash Fiction, to warm up.


One Simple Rule For Writing Success

Photo on 2011-01-11 at 10.36

Ever have one of those lessons that you know, but you need life to kick you in the face with again and again, because you can’t make yourself learn it otherwise?

I’m currently letting life kick me in the face with this one:

Write First. Then Let Life Happen.

It’s hard to make time for writing. It’s harder when you’re worrying about all the other things you have to do as well.

  • Do you peek at your email before you sit down to work on your current writing project?
  • Do you do a survey of all the projects you want to work on?
  • Do you check Twitter, because, c’mon each tweet is only 140 characters long?

And do you end up finding it harder and harder to start work on your actual writing?

Join me in my new pledge: Write First.

As much as I possibly can, I pledge to Write First.

The rest of life will catch up with me as soon as it possibly can, whether or not I invite it in. So when I sit down to write, I will write first, email later.

To help me with this pledge, here are some things I’m going to do

  • Plan what I’m going to work on before my next writing session begins – I don’t want to sit down and think ‘hmm, what will I work on today?’. I want to sit down, knowing that I’m working on that scene where my main character is doing this thing. Or that I’m going to take this story idea and turn it into a first draft. If I have to plan this the night before, fine. If I have to plan it while I’m driving home from a day of Real Life, that’s OK too. But I need to be ready to go as soon as I sit down.
  • I will not have any social media windows open until after I have reached my goal for the day.
  • I will not give up until I have reached my word count or project goal for the day. Even if I’m feeling stabby.

How about you? Will you join me? What will your ‘rules’ be?

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