When The Student Is Ready…

2015 Battle of the Books @ Mt. Hebron HS

When I started StoryADay May back in 2010, some of 100 or so people who took part really stuck with me. One was Gabriela Pereira, who had just finished up an MFA and was transitioning from student to working writer. We shared an enthusiasm both for writing and for the hair-brained scheme.

Back then, I was a couple of years ahead of her in the online, community-building, content-marketing , writing-for-pay experience. Now she has soared into the writing world as a leader, a teacher, an inspirer and, in her own words, Chief Instigator at her project:  DIY MFA.

This afternoon I tuned in to her latest webinar, sort of as a favor. I’ve heard the talk before, live and in person, and was really just showing in case no one else did. Of course, there were tons of people on the call, loads of questions from attendees, and Gabriela fired people up and sent them away with tools and techniques to make their writing better, as always.

But — it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did — what I hadn’t expected to happen was that I had a breakthrough about my own novel-in-progress, while listening to Gabriela talk. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the turning point at the mid-point of my novel needed to be. More than knowing it, I could *picture* it.

I rushed off to my office and scrawled three pages of notes, opened up Scrivener and started adding scene cards to the second half of my novel’s file. I got super excited, and then realized how much writing I had to do…then chose to see that as exciting too!

Did I mention I’ve heard this talk at least twice before?

Lesson learned: when you find a teacher/mentor/friend whose words you really connect to, stick to them. Revisit their lessons. Re-read their books. Get on webinars and conference calls with them. Ask questions. Go over and over their lessons at different stages of your development and the development of each of your projects.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears, as my old mate the Buddha apparently never said.

If you want to get in on the remaining webinars in Gabriela’s current series, here’s some info:

Perfect Your Plot, Structure Your Story – December 14

Rock Your Revisions – December 21

 

(Some links on this page—the webinars and the one to Scrivener—are affiliate links, but I never recommend anything I don’t believe in 100%.)

[Writing Prompt] Write A Seasonal Story

Maypole

Today I’m encouraging you to write a seasonal story, just not one for this season.

Of course, you can write a Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/New Year/Festivus story if you want, but if you’re thinking about building your portofolio of stories that you might submit to a market soon, your best best is to write 3-6 months ahead. Publications have reading deadlines, lead times and design concerns to wrestle with, so yes, it is time to start thinking about your Mother’s Day stories now!

The Prompt

Write a seasonal story for a publication you enjoy, for a holiday/event six months from now.

Tips

  • Lots of editors tell me that they are always looking for timely stories for the lesser holidays, like Father’s Day (sorry, Dads) or about people dancing around a Maypole.
  • Pick a holiday or anniversary that hasn’t been done to death. Make sure it is 3-6 months away.
  • Leave more time if you like to submit your work to critique partners before you submit.
  • Go beyond the obvious ideas for a story about that holiday: look for the underlying themes, and write about that. For example, rather than telling a story about a father and son doing something on Father’s day, your story could address expectations, generational issues, frustration, disappointment, joy and other issues that come up on every Hallmark holiday.
  • By all means, write a ChristmaKwanzukkahNewyear story if you like to send it out directly to your readers, family and friends. (That’s probably what I’ll be doing today!)

Come back and leave a comment to tell me what you wrote about.

Go!

 

[Reading Room] The Provincials by Daniel Alarcón

This story comes from the 2017 collection of Daniel Alarcón’s stories The King Is Always Above The People.

I picked up the collection because I saw it on a ‘recommended reading’, highlighting non-white/non-mainstream voices.

Short story collections are a funny thing. Sometimes the whole collection hangs together and I can’t wait to read the next story. Sometimes I hate most of the stories but find a couple of gems.

This collection is like that. It’s not that any of the stories are badly-written– they’re not–I didn’t much enjoy them, on a first read-through.

Having said that, I was really impressed by the long, roughly 14,000-word story in the middle of this collection, The Provincials. 

I also found that the collection, as a whole stayed with me.

More on that later, but for now, let’s look at The Provincials.

The Opening Line

The first line of this story does a great job of setting up what is to come in the story,

“I’d been out of the conservatory for about a year when my great-uncle Raúl died.”

Think about everything we know, from that first line:

  • This is a story featuring a young adult protagonist.
  • They have graduated from a ‘conservatory’, not a technical college, not a university. This is an artistic person.
  • This is probably a middle or upper-class person (who else can go to a conservatory?).
  • They graduated a year ago, but still define themselves by the conservatory. This is not a person who has gone on to a great and immediately successful career in their art.
  • The relative who has died is a great-uncle, not a close relative, so this is not likely to be a story about grief, or about the great-uncle.  Instead, it indicates the story is going to involve family and perhaps tenuous connections to one’s roots. Maybe it’s going to be about obligation, or the ties that bind.
  • The great-uncle is called Raúl, so this story is not going to be set in WASP-y America.

That’s a fair amount that we can dig out of 16 words, only one of which is more than five letters long.

The Story

This story is about a father and his younger, adult son, Nelson, taking a trip back to the small south-American (?) town where the father grew up, to settle the estate of a distant relative. The father left the town as young man, and moved North, to the city. His elder son has since left the country, for San Francisco, and the younger son, the novel’s protagonist, is expected to join him some day. There are hints, relatively early on that this younger son will not make the big move that his father and brother did,

“Even then I had my doubts, but I would keep believing this for another year or so.”)

They travel south through the country, stopping once in a town that is not his father’s hometown but seems to offer some tastes of what small town life is like in this unnamed country: passion, connection, resentments, grief, love…

When they reach his father’s hometown, the slight awkwardness and disappointed expectations we felt between the young man and his father on their drive is amplified in the awkwardness and resentments between the father and the people of his hometown, and by extension between the son and the people of the town. As readers, we wonder if the father and son will bond, or stay distant and miscommunicative, desperate to escape from each other as well as the town, when their errand is finished.

The story becomes a fascinating reflection on what it means to be part of the more migratory generations, and what it means to stay behind.

At one point, Nelson is sharing information from his older brother’s letters from the USA, and he reflects,

“That statement was contained within one of Francisco’s early dispatches from Oakland, when he was still eagerly trying to understand the place for himself, and not quite able to process many things he saw.”

This was a great reminder to me, as a writer who lives in a place I did not grow up in, that it’s not always a bad thing to have the outsider’s view. That searching for meaning, for understanding, can be a great source of energy in a story.

This Is A Looooong Story. Does It Work?

I love the punchiness of short stories, the way they draw characters in deft sketches. I often get impatient with long short stories, but in this case, it is where this author’s best work is done (at least in this collection).

In this, the longest short story in the collection, we are given a chance to get to know the men in the story (we also get hints of his girlfriend’s personality. There had been few women in the preceding stories and none really qualified as a character. The protagonists had been young, inexperienced, or callous towards women).

In the shorter stories I found myself impatient with, and mostly disliking the protagonists. In The Provincials, I didn’t like start out liking Nelson or his father any more than I liked any of the other protagonists, but at least I got to know them better, which made me more sympathetic towards them.

Alcarón’s writing style  benefitted from the roominess of the larger word count. It allowed him to do things like pause in that first village, which provided a satisfying structure to the story when they pause there again, on the way home. It allows him to paint the scenery through the eyes of an outsider—but not an awed tourist. It even allows him to tell part of the story in the form of a mini-play—which makes sense, as the first-person narrator is an aspiring actor.

This story has a strong sense of place (unnamed though it is) that feeds into the character development. At the start of the story, as they leave the city, the narrator observes,

“A few hours south of the capital, the painted slums thinned, and our conversation did too, and we took in the desolate landscape with appreciative silence. Everything was dry: the silt-covered road, the dirty white sand dunes, somehow even the ocean. Every few kilometers, there rose out of this moonscape a billboard for soda or beer or suntan lotion, its colors faded since the previous summer, its edges unglued and flapping in the wind.”

This sets up a lot of the tension between old and new, country and city, the past and the present, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.

The Structure

The story starts and ends outside the capital city, which is nevertheless the focus of a lot of the protagonist’s energy. They travel through a village on the way to the father’s home town and, after their visit. The structure of the story echoes the themes of migration and dislocation, and the ‘nesting’ of locales (everything that happens in one direction, is closed out in the other direction on the way home) feels very neat and satisfying, even as the plot leaves questions open.

This is a great lesson in how you can avoid tying all the character questions up in a too-neat bow, but instead use the structure of the story to create a sense that the story is complete.

Also, I think this story has a last line that works spectacularly well. Read it and see what you think!

 

Do We Need Diverse Books?

I didn’t like the young men who populated this collection. I didn’t enjoy many of their stories, well-written as they were.

But I don’t think that’s always the most important factor in choosing what I read.

People in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement often talk about the importance of readers being able to find characters like themselves in fiction. I absolutely agree and applaud that. But it’s also important for people like me, secure in the white, Euro-centric tradition, to read outside our own experience.

These characters come from a world that is utterly foreign to me. Their experiences, their lives, their values are different from mine. It wasn’t a laugh-riot, to read about their lives, even though there was humor in these stories.

What is important, however, is that the voices in this collection had something in common with each other. And by visiting their world, over and over, though the various  stories, I became aware of life beyond my own experience. I might not like the characters, or their lives, or some of their choices, but I understand them a little, now.

And if I were to meet a guy like this, out in the real world, I might recognize him, just a bit. I would certainly see him as more than whatever he projected on the surface.

And I can’t think of a better reason for people like me to read and promote  literature from voices that are different from our own.

Read the story here

Do you read diverse books? Do you read books that you don’t necessarily enjoy? Is it worth your time? Leave a comment:

[Writing Prompt] Don’t Fight With Strangers On Social Media

Fighting creativityA few days ago, I commented on a Twitter post about a hot-button issue. I don’t normally do that, but I thought I was making a neutral, expanding-the-argument kind of comment.

You can tell where this is going can’t you?

Yeah.

Someone read my comment and assumed I was saying something I wasn’t; pigeon-holed me as someone from the completely different end of the ideological spectrum; and proceeded to make snarky, personal comments every time I tried to defuse the situation.

I had that hot-and-sweaty, blood-pounding-in-my-face, pit-in-my-stomach sensation we all remember so well from the injustices of being a misunderstood 12-year-old.  I wasted hours constructing careful answers and psyching myself up to open up my Twitter feed, wondering if I would find an olive branch or a minefield.

It wasn’t fun.

It sucked all the creativity out of my day.

It was such a waste of time.

And the irony of it was, I had, that very morning, reposted Austin Kleon’s advice not to pick fights with strangers on social media!

The Prompt

Find an issue that you COULD have a fight with someone about on social media and instead, write a story.

Tips

  • Make it something you really, really care about.
  • Have a protagonist and an antagonist who feel strongly about either side of the argument.
  • Give the antagonist a legitimate reason to feel that way — don’t make them a cardboard cut-out/cartoon villain.  (This might be hard, but will result in a better story, and a better you!)
  • You don’t have to be sympathetic to the opposing point of view, but you do have to grant some humanity to the person who holds that view. Grace them with some nuance. It’ll make for a better story, and it’ll intrigue the reader.
  • It will make your story and its outcome surprising and  memorable.
  • Consider leaving the story slightly unresolved. Life usually is. Maybe there is a moment when one (or both) characters have a glimmer of understanding (or of seeing the other person as a real human), or maybe they miss that moment entirely.
  • When working with two sides of an issue, you can show how the ‘good’ character could easily become the ‘bad’ character if only they…{insert the line your character will not cross here] and vice versa.
  • Because this is a short story, focus on one angle of an issue, one comment, one moment in the character’s lives.
  • Maybe let the exchange play out on a simulated social media exchange.
  • Maybe have the characters in another time and place, debating face to face, or through some completely different medium.

 

I promise you that, if you write a story instead of picking a fight with a stranger on social media, you’ll have a better day than I did last week 😉

 

[Write On Wednesday] Four-Part Story

I’m currently fascinated by a short story experiment being run by Penguin Random House.

They’re running a series called “The Season of Stories“. You subscribe, and they send you a story every week.

But that’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that they serialize the story.

Every day, Monday-Thursday, you receive part of a story.

It’s how short stories were read in publications back at the start of the golden age of short story writing, and it’s something we’ve moved away from. Instead of making them bite-sized treats, we sell short stories by weight, packaged into collections. Then we try to sell them to readers who have been trained on novels.

(No wonder short story collections don’t sell well!)

With a novel, you, the reader, carve out some time to plunge yourself into a story world, allow yourself to be pulled along by cliffhangers, spend time getting to know the characters.

Short stories aren’t like that.

Readers, in general, don’t know what to do with a short story collection, but anyone can open their email and read a quarter of a story. Especially one that has been well-crafted.

Today I want you to practice crafting a story that will keep bringing a reader back for more.

Stories naturally break into four parts: inciting incident, rising action, midpoint shift, then climax/conclusion/resolution.  Each part must end with a kicker that leaves the reader wanting more (yes, even the end).

The Prompt

Write a story that can be read in four parts. Focus on creating mini-cliffhangers at each quarter point.

Tips

  • The Seasons of Stories shorts have ranged from 600-1900 words per installment. You can choose a length that works for you.
  • This is a great way to promote your other writing. PRH’s emails come with a ‘if you enjoyed this, read more in this book’ ad at the end. But it never feels ‘salesy’ because they’ve given me a free sample and are simply letting me know where I can find more, if I liked it. Sometimes this link is to a novel by the same author. Sometimes it is to a collection of short stories containing stories by the author. (Now that they’ve trained me to read shorts, they can sell me their collection!)
  • Don’t forget to raise a big story question at the start (remember: you can do this in revisions), that won’t be addressed until the climax/end. Do this in addition to the mini-cliffhangers at the end of each section.
  • If you need some examples, check out The Season of Stories. It’s free.
  • I heard about this from Daniel Pink’s newsletter. If you like this, consider subscribing to that. It’s a short read and he shares interesting stuff like this, every other week.

Now, go and write your story.

Come back and tell me how it went!

 

Five Last Prompts for StoryADay September 2017 – Week 4

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Past Episodes
Use these prompts any way you wish. Change genders, change tenses, quote them, or not. Or, ignore them altogether and use your own story sparks.

The Prompts

Continue reading “Five Last Prompts for StoryADay September 2017 – Week 4”

[Reading Room] Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays by Windy Lynn Harris

Normally my Tuesday Reading Room posts review a short story I’ve read, but I’m breaking with tradition this week to tell you about a fabulous — and much needed — new book, Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays, by Windy Lynn Harris, a writer and the founder of Marketing Coach for Creative Writers.

A Handbook For Today’s Writer

Windy Lynn Harris knows the industry and she knows the craft of short fiction and essay-writing. She breaks it all down for you, and this book gives you confidence to enter today’s writing market. Continue reading “[Reading Room] Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays by Windy Lynn Harris”

[Reading Room] Golf Etiquette by Jim Davis

image: woman golfing

I’m thinking a lot about mysteries these days. I love them, so I’m trying my hand at writing them.

There is no better way I know to get myself writing, than to sit down and read, preferably in the genre I’m tackling.

This week I read Golf Etiquette by Jim Davis, found in the Feb 2011 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Though I had some quibbles with the style until I managed to turn off my inner critique-group-reader, I couldn’t argue with the power of the first line: Continue reading “[Reading Room] Golf Etiquette by Jim Davis”

Five Prompts For StADaSep17 – Week 1

Use these prompts any way you want. You don’t have to quote them verbatim. They don’t have to end up in the finished story. Or you could decide to start/end your story with these quotes exactly as they are. Continue reading “Five Prompts For StADaSep17 – Week 1”

[Write On Wednesday] The One Thing They’d Notice

Today’s prompt was inspired by an exercise in Donald Maass’s latest book The Emotional Craft of Fiction. You can find the whole exercise on p.22 of that book.

The Prompt

Write a story featuring two characters in the same location. Pick a detail that only your protagonist would notice and weave it into the story. 

Tips

Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday] The One Thing They’d Notice”

Write on Wednesday – Quick Story Formula

This is an awesome way to quickly launch (and finish) a new story, any time you have time to write but are short on inspiration. Try it!

green chalkboard with mathematical formulae

Use this story formula to to create an interesting character, give them a desire, kick off some intriguing action and plan the kind of resolution you want.

Once you have that skeleton, you can start filling in colorful details…and soon your creative brain will be demanding you start to write!

The Prompt

A _______ (adjective) ________(noun), who _________(verb) ___________(subject), then _________(related verb) __________(resolution)

TIPS

  • Using these kinds of limits short-circuits your inner editor and makes ‘writing a story’ seem much more manageable. Just take it step by step.
  • Make sure you give your character an adjective that implies some desire (e.g. ‘ambitious’ not ‘young’; or ‘contented’ – which implies that their desire is for the status quo to remain unchanged)
  • Use the middle set of blanks to kick off the action (use a verb that implies change: “discovers”, “uncovers”, “decides”, “is forced to”, “commits to”, “resists”, “invents”, “journeys”)
  • Use the final set of blanks to define what kind of ending you want. Will it be a happy ending? Will it be bittersweet? Will your character achieve their desire or lose it? Will they learn something or not?
  • Paint the big picture first (e.g. A “dissatisfied woman”, who “uncovers something about a rival”, then “uses that knowledge to get what she wants”, or “discovers she has everything she needs, all ready”)
  • Now add some details and desires. Think about what would be fun/exciting/engaging for you to write about (e.g. “An ambitious mommy-blogger”, who “finds out her biggest rival has been lying on her blog”, then “uses that knowledge to ruin her rival and make her own blog successful”, or “realizes how shallow her ambitions had been and decides to refocus”)
  • Next, add even more detail, with desires, needs, colorful details. You don’t have to fill in any details of *how* the resolution comes about, just the overall thrust of it.
  • Don’t worry that your story will be formulaic. The originality comes in the details you choose, the characters you create and the situations you dream up for them. You and I could both use my mommy-blogger idea and I guarantee you our stories would be wildly different.
  • Try writing different options for each of the sets of blanks. If you don’t love your first ending option, try something different. If your character’s adjective makes her unappealing to you, try a different one.
  • Going through this exercise helps keep your story on track. If you know, at the start, how you want the story to end (even if you don’t know the details of how you’ll make that happen), it limits your choices, and lets you choose between three or four sets of action for your character. Knowing whether you want it to be a happy ending or a bitter one, makes it much easier to decide on the types of choices you make (N. B. Neither is inherently better. It all depends on what you enjoy reading/writing and what kind of audience you want to attract).
  • Don’t be afraid of this, if you’re a ‘pantser’. This is not a restrictive outline that will constrain your creativity. Rather, it is a set of guideposts that will get you where you want to be (i.e. at the end of a satisfying story).

If you’re intrigued by this, sign up to find out when I release a new mini-course that will take you through this exact process — with examples and resources to help. (Get the StoryADay Creativity Bundle for free, as soon as you sign up.)

 

Write On Wednesday – After The Happily Ever After

How many times have you made a change in your life, only to backslide? Do you ever wonder will happen to a story’s character after the credits have rolled?
Happily Ever After show at Magic Kingdom

The story is over when the character has mastered the challenge. But the story, for your character, is not really over. They live their life, in the shadow of everything that came before.

The Prompt

Write the story of a character’s NEXT struggle, after the ‘happily ever after’

Tips

  • You could take a character from someone else’s stories, or from a folk tale (write a sequel to Cinderella or Gone Girl)
  • You could write the sequel to a story you’ve written in the past
  • Questions to ask yourself: what did the character have to overcome to succeed in the original story? What did they desire? How did they suddenly become sure they could win? What has changed, since then? Are they struggling with the same thing, in a new setting? Are they struggling with new issues, as a results of the original win?
  • For example: Cinderella was struggling against her step-family, who wanted her to fail. What will life be like for her in the castle? Her new husband presumably wants her to succeed at being Queen. Does she have what it takes? Does everyone in the castle want her to succeed? Is there a big event coming up that she must host? What lessons can she take from her first challenge into this new one? Is she battling feelings of insecurity as well as outside forces?
  • In my story The Girl Who Circumnavigated The Globe In An Act Of Her Own Making, my main character’s desire is to communicate; to present herself to the world on her own terms. Within the scope of that one story, she does it. She feels good at the end of the story. She has a plan. But what about when she next goes back to Earth? Will she see her ‘victory’ as something fanciful and worthless? How will she deal with the frustration of being prejudged by everyone all the time, again? I could write that story today.

Go!