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


I Don’t Feel Like Writing – Part II

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Last week we talked about the importance of writing even when you don’t feel like it. Well, enough theory. This week I bring you seven practical strategies for making it happen.

Goals, rewards and accountability buddies form part of the big picture in this scheme. They are sensible parts of your writing’s career plan. But as for the actual “starting writing” part? That’s when you need to be a bit more tricksy.

Try some of these tricks to shake loose the “sensible”, lose the “logical” and get your brain into that devil-may-care creative zone you need for writing.

1. Give Yourself Enough Time

I’ve always loved a deadline — as long as it came with a sleepless night between the two of us. But sit down to write knowing I have to have something completed in an hour?! That’s enough to induce a mammoth case of writer’s block (aka panic). Comedian John Cleese talks about this in this fabulous video on creativity (it’s long, but worth watching). He recommends no less than 90 minutes as a window for creative work, asserting that your brain will try to sabotage you for at least the first half hour…It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it does point out the necessity of allowing more time than you might otherwise plan, for creative ventures.

2. Letter To a Friend

If you’re really having trouble knowing how to get into your story, put all thoughts of readers, editors and publishing out of your head. Instead start writing a letter to your best friend, explaining what this story is going to be about. Write it as if you were describing something that had really happened. You don’t need to finish the letter (or mail it) because the act of writing it out will help you find a way into the actual story, and start writing.

3. Switch Up Your Writing Method

If you usually write on a computer, try turning on the microphone and dictating your story instead (you can transcribe it later). If you usually dictate stories, grab a good pen and some nice paper and write a few paragraphs. If you habitually write on paper, pull up a keyboard. Just the act of writing in a different physical way forces your brain to fire in different ways. You may find yourself “writing” in a different style than usual, or you may simply jump start your writing day. (This will feel awkward. That’s kind of the point. Try it.)

4. Stand Up

Sitting down is not a natural attitude, in evolutionary terms. Humans are made to be upright, to be walking around. So stand up for a while. Pace the floor, muttering like a mad person about the plot point that has you foxed. If you can swing it, put a plank across the arms of a treadmill and balance your laptop on it (I recommend walking very, very slowly until you get the hang of this). Either way, regular movement-breaks help you write by getting your blood pumping and letting your mind wander. Creativity requires thinking-time as well as working-time.

5. Write Nonsense

Some days getting started feels like torture. It feels like a physical impossibility. Put your pen on the paper, put your fingers on the keyboard and just talk. Talk about anything. How hard this is, how much you hate it, what sounds you are hearing outside your window, the feeling of your hair sticking to your neck in the summer heat, anything. Eventually you will relax (and get sick of the navel-gazing, self-absorbed, pity-kitty you have become and start writing the damned story).

6. Outline one scene

Every story has scenes. The bit where we walk in to the characters’ lives. The bit where they are forced to make a decision. The bit when they have a big fight. Take one scene and outline it. Promise yourself that you’ll write this one scene today even if you don’t manage anything else. Figure out who is in the scene, where it takes place, what the characters want, why they can’t have it (yet) and what function the scene plays in the overall scheme of the story (is it a set-up scene? Does it contain the inciting incident? Is it the climax?). Don’t worry about how you’ll write the rest of the story. Outline this one scene. Then write it.

7. Visualize Success

This is the most hippy, nebulous piece of advice I will give and its a bit more ’big picture’ than the other techniques here, but used in conjunction with them it can be extremely powerful. We are a product of our beliefs about ourselves, so let’s make sure we spend some time on the positive ones. Yes, writing is hard. No, we’re not big successes yet. So why do we do this to ourselves? What do we want? Answer this question then spend some time imagining how it will feel when you get there. Use those anticipated good feelings to propel you towards your goal.

Your goal might be as grand as seeing yourself doing book signings and readers to adoring fans. Or it might be as simple as remembering the thrill you always feel when you finish a piece.

And remember, you’re a writer. It is your job to imagine things all the time. If MBA candidates and captains of industry can use this technique, how much more successful will you, a writer, be?

What techniques do you use to jump start your work on a day when you don’t feel like writing?

 

Need more help jump-starting your writing day? Check out the ebook: The StoryADay.org Guide To Breaking Writers’ Block

Climbing Mount Revision One Step At A Time

As we sit here, there are only seven days left in May. Seven more stories and then you’re free to take a break, keep writing, set your stories on fire or, preferably revise them into works of genius. To help you out with that latter option I’ve recruited Gabriela Pereira from DIYMFA.com to give you some tips on revision.

OK, I’ll admit it. When I was in high school (and college and art school and grad school) I was definitely guilty of turning in work before revising it. Sure, I would do a quick spell-check and maybe give it a once-over for grammar, but rarely did I ever roll up my sleeves and do serious revision. And I totally know why I was so resistant to revision for so long: revision is flippin’ scary. The goal for this post is to make revision a little less scary. Let’s get started!

 

Principles of Revision
Before we dive into the how-to part of this post, here are a few things to keep in mind as you revise your work.

1) Let your writing cool down before you revise. Revision allows you to add rational choices and strategy to the frantic bursts of creativity that came out in the first draft. Take at least two weeks (maybe longer) after writing your draft to let it cool down before you revise. Step away and work on something else, then come back to it when you’re able to look at it with an objective eye. The beauty of StoryADay is that by the time you get to Day 31 of the challenge, the story you wrote on Day 1 is probably cooled off enough that you can go back and revise.

2) You need to finish first. Nothing you write is etched in stone… you can always come back and make it better later on. You can do fix just about any problem in revision, but you can’t revise a blank page. Finish first. This is why StoryADay is such an awesome challenge: it forces you to finish. Once you’re done with the challenge, you’ll have 31 finished pieces that you can pick and choose from when you start to revise.

3) Do a first read-through. Try to create a relaxing reading experience, similar to how you would read for pleasure. Make sure you’re not focused on the fact that you’re reading your own work. Make minimal notes. Your goal is to absorb the story as a whole, not nitpick over minor details. Tip: I put my drafts into Kindle format and read it on the kindle. This makes it feel like I’m reading a “real book” and not just a printed out draft. With the Kindle, I use the footnote function to make my notes, and since I’m lazy about typing notes with my thumbs, this forces me to keep the notes short.

4) Extract an outline. Write an outline of what you’ve got as a way of getting a handle on what you have written. Then adjust the outline according to the notes you made in your read-through and implement those changes in the draft.

 

Revise in Layers
I like to think of revision as climbing up a mountain. As you go up the mountain, you focus on the challenges and struggles of that one section. You don’t think about climbing the whole mountain at once (or else you’ll psych yourself out) but instead, only worry about that one small slice of the mountain. Revision is the same way. You start at the base of the mountain, revising the most basic elements of your story, then work your way up until you’re focusing on the nitty-gritty details like word choice and grammar. In my mind, revision looks a little bit like this:

Mount Revision graphic

The advantage of approaching the revision process in layers is twofold. First, you avoid overwhelming yourself because you’re only focusing on one layer at a time. Second, if you’re working with a deadline and you don’t have time to address each layer, this method can be especially valuable. If you start at the bottom and work your way up, at the very least you’ll have covered the most important elements of the story whereas if you focus on line edits first, you won’t have time to work out those bigger problems. Here’s a quick summary of each section of the revision mountain and how to address it.

Narration: This is where you consider how you’re telling the story. Is the point of view (POV) right for your story? Should it be in past tense rather than present? Is the voice of the narrator working? The best way to figure that out is to take the first page of your story and rewrite it according to the different options you’re considering, then decide which you like best.

Character Development: Don’t try to juggle all your characters at once. Start with the protagonist and figure out his/her arc, then look at key members of the supporting cast (like the villain or other important supporting characters). Work on each character separately to keep things manageable.

Plot: Here’s where extracting an outline can be extremely useful. If the typical list-format doesn’t work for you, there are many other outline options out there so you’re bound to find something that works for you.

World Building, Dialogue Description and Theme: Focus on these elements one at a time. Is the setting for your story clear? Does it feel real to the reader? How about dialogue and description? Do they flow and ring true? Finally, what’s your theme and does your story convey it?

Take-Home Message

Ultimately, revision is where you add the strategic elements to your story. Now that you know who the characters are and what’s going to happen, you can plant foreshadowing moments and hint at themes that will be important later on. You can’t do all this in your first draft because during that stage of the process you don’t know your characters or the story completely. It’s only once you know the ending and who your characters are at their core that you can manipulate the story in a strategic way.

Once you’ve revised your story, you’re ready to think about submitting it. For details on the submission process, you can look at this handy guide on How to Submit to Literary Magazines over at the DIY MFA website. And don’t forget to join in on the Sub2Pub challenge! Write on!

 

Gabriela Pereira is the Founder and Instigator at DIY MFA: the Do-It-Yourself Program in Creative Writing. DIY MFA is dedicated to helping writers improve their technique and build the benefits of a traditional MFA into their everyday writing lives.

Gabriela has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School with a concentration in Writing for Children. She works as a freelance writing teacher and has taught workshops throughout New York City. Her fiction has appeared in various literary magazines and one of her lesson plans was included in the anthology DON’T FORGET TO WRITE, published by 826 National. She writes regular columns on writing for the STORIES FOR CHILDREN newsletter and CURIOSITY QUILLS PRESS.

Visit DIYMFA.com for more information or connect with Gabriela on twitter (@DIYMFA), Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest. For weekly writing boosts, signup for the newsletter WRITER FUEL and stay in the loop with all the latest at DIY MFA.

You Can’t Write Well Without Writing A Lot

“If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story.”
– Ann Patchett “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life (Kindle Single)

 

I had barely started reading Ann Patchett’s short treatise on writing, when I wanted to adopt her.

We, as writers, can spend all day reading about writing (or just reading, for that matter), but there is nothing like the act of writing to teach us how to do the job.

 WRITE A LOT

And not just writing, but writing a lot.  My new buddy Ann puts it perfectly:

“Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stores, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath.”

 

What?! There’s no reason to apologize or feel bad about all the trite, self-indulgent stories that bubble up to the surface? There is no reason to expect that any of what we write will be good, especially if it has been a while since we did any serious writing-in-quantity? We can write without being perfect? What a concept!

 TEN THOUSAND HOURS

And it’s not just m’buddy Ann.

Malcolm Gladwell points out, in his fascinating book Outliers: The Story of Success, that experts become experts not by being talented or smart, but by loving what they do and putting in lots and lots of practice. He refers to a study into musical talent and preparation by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson:

“Ericsson and his colleagues then compared amateur pianists with professional pianists…The amateurs never practiced more than three hours a week over the course of their childhood, and by the age of twenty they had totaled two thousand hours of practice. The professionals, on the other hand, steadily increased their practice time every year, until by the age of twenty they, like the violinists, had reached ten thousand hours. The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any ‘natural’, musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.”

 

(And you thought a story a day sounded like a big commitment!)

Gladwell applies this theory to all kinds of experts and ‘geniuses’ including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and The Beatles.

“And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyeone else. They work much, much harder.”

THE JOY OF WORK

But don’t let that word “work” scare you. After all, you are a writer. You love to write (or at the very least, you love having written!).

The reason the Bills, Steves, John-Paul-George-and-Ringoes and Yo-Yo Mas of the world “work” so hard to become world-class at what they do, is precisely because they don’t see it as “work”. They love what they do.

 

Not every second, I would imagine — any more than you love those moments when you want to bang your head off the desk then throw your computer out of the window. But we love what we do, in the sense that we will do it forever, for the joy of it, whether or not anyone ever pays us for it.

 LEARNING TO DO IT WELL

So we might as well do it well.

The consensus seems to be that to do something well, you have to do lots of it. You have to practice. And you have to learn to love the practice, not just the promise of future rewards. Steve Jobs famously celebrated his meandering approach to education, saying that if he had never stumbled into a typography class (and loved it), the Mac would never have become what it did – and nor would Apple, and nor would Steve Jobs.

StoryADay is here to help you get back into the habit of practicing your writing. It’s not here to promise you publication, or fame or riches. It’s not here to promise you’ll write anything throughout the whole month that will be worthy of publishing. But StoryADay May is coming to help you push yourself to practice. Think of StADa as the parent who made you play scales between piano lessons; the coach who inspired you throw endless pitches at the side of your house in the evenings; the teacher who made you do fractions over and over and over again until it finally clicked and you started to see the music between the numbers.

Use StoryADay in place of the teacher Ann Patchett still celebrates for teaching her,

“..how to love the practice and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages.”

 

Are you ready to start stacking up the pages?

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?

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

 

[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. found in Fifty Great Short Stories, Milton Crane (Ed.)] 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.

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?