Tag Archives: The Writer Magazine

A Baker’s Dozen of Links for Writers

It’s the season of sweets, gift giving, and toasting to a new year.

So, from me to you…

…A Baker’s Dozen of links to articles, interviews, and posts from this last year that have inspired me to write, reaffirmed my commitment to write, or changed my perspective when I write.

1-5. Stocking Stuffer posts by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (at The Bookshelf Muse) on:

Each post offers five simple tips that will help you tighten up your writing and/or strengthen your story.

6. Lynn Capehart’s article in The Writer on inclusionary writing. I won’t ever look at character descriptions the same again.

7. Lydia Sharp’s post on the Difference between inciting incident and catalyst. This post, along with a great first chapter critique I won over at Becky Levine’s blog, helped me reshape the first chapter of my novel and set my story on track again.

8-11. Author interviews I’ve had the honor to conduct, in which authors share the story behind the story, offer insights into the challenges of historical fiction and research, or talk about the passion behind their characters:

I’m looking forward to several more author interviews this year from Cathryn Grant (whose debut novel, The Demise of the Soccer Moms, will be published as an e-book in January), from Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a wonderful collection of short stories), and from Rebecca Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters, due to be released April 12, 2011).

12. Kristen Lamb’s post on the Writer Reality Check. “Takes guts to be a writer,” Kristen says, and she lists some realistic expectations for those of us who want to make writing more than just a fun little hobby.

13. A call to action from Writer Unboxed for all Writers to Pay It Forward. “Paying it forward is something we can all do because no matter where we are in our writing careers, there’s always someone just one step behind, hungry to learn.” Much of the time, I’m the one a few steps behind. I could not grow without the encouragement, support, and wisdom from writers who are further along than me, and I can’t fully embrace those lessons until I pass them on to someone else.

There you are! Happy New Year, my friends!

May your days be full of writing and your muse be close at hand.

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Reflecting Life in Our Writing

I am never disappointed in The Writer magazine. True to form, when I paged through my December issue this month, I read another article that struck a chord at exactly the right moment.

I am finally – and seriously – back to work on my novel in progress, so much so that I named this draft “Signs of Life, for real this time.” It’s a story about a young woman named Gale, who’s mother is killed, and in losing family, Gale finds family – and forgiveness. I want to write this story with enough emotion but not too much, which has been one reason for procrastination: I’m afraid the story will read too dark and too heavy. I was relieved, then, to come upon David Harris Ebenbach’s essay in The Writer, “Writing Toward the Light.”

In his essay, Ebenbach focuses only on the short story, but many of his points can be applied to memoirs and novels as well. Ebenbach addresses his long-standing belief that, to be called “great,” a story must focus on “struggle and conflict” and pain. But, as he questions his own ideas and discovers several well-written and well-received stories that highlight a character’s “opportunities” instead of “struggles,” Ebenbach realizes that all writing must embody balance. He says:

“…[T]here’s nothing wrong, of course, with writing about darkness…darkness is a significant part of life. [But], light, of course, is also part of life, and as writers that ought to mean something to us.”

While definitions of literary fiction (like the one on Writer’s Relief, Inc.) say that “[l]iterary fiction tackles ‘big’ issues that are…controversial, difficult, and complex,” I need to remember Ebenbach’s point, that “difficult” in fiction (or memoir, for that matter) doesn’t have to mean all dark, all the time.

As Ebenbach says, “[readers] want to see the real world – in all its richness and complexity – reflected in literature.” And, isn’t that the way life rolls: the serious and the silly taking our focus in turns?

I know about death, about losing a mother, about the heaviness that settles and then hovers for months after. But, I also know about moments that surface during those dark times, moments that propel a person into a fit of laughter when laughter doesn’t seem possible.

Like when an overweight and messy driver ushers a grieving family into the back of a limo and then cruises down the road, from the funeral home to the church, at a high rate of speed. It’s only when he slams on the brakes and tosses the family around like rag dolls that the tension breaks and laughter erupts.

Those kind of moments in life give us a breather from a harsh reality long enough to gather strength; they are the moments that have us rolling on the couch the next day when we’re hung over on emotion.

And, those kinds of moments can turn up for the characters in our stories, as they face struggles, as well.

Ebenbach’s stress on balance in our writing gives me a broader perspective as I tackle more of this new draft, as I rearrange scenes in the novel, add new details, and weave the dark and light of emotion throughout the pages. I can’t throw in a humorous scene for the sake of “a breather” — every scene must still drive the plot forward. Yet, I shouldn’t be afraid to see the lighter side of a character’s life, even a character in pain.

*****

Ebenbach, David Harris. “Writing Toward the Light.” The Writer. December 2010: 15-16. Print.

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You Mean, You Have to Practice?

“A thousand books on tennis won’t improve your serve, but a thousand serves will.”
~ Rick DeMarinis, from an excerpt of his article printed in The Writer, November 1985, and reprinted in the November 2010 issue.

~

As I sat in a hallway at work the other day, I overheard someone practicing the tuba. The music climbed the scale with perfect tone but then squealed and tumbled into low vibrations, like the sounds of a diesel truck unwilling to start. I flashed back to a recent conversation with my son.

“Mommy,” he said, “I want to play the trumpet.”

“That’s excellent!” I cheered. Then, I rattled off stipulations and requirements that he ignored until he heard the word “lessons.”

“No, mom. I don’t want to take lessons. I just want to play the trumpet.”

Oh.

Right.

My son and I are not so different in that way.

“I just want to write a novel.” How many times have I said that before?

In the beginning, I didn’t have time for books about the craft or a writing class or advice about failed first novels.

“I just want to write,” I repeated.

But, writing – like tennis or trumpet playing or…anything, really – is rarely done well the first time or the first hundred times. To hone my writing skills, I needed diligence, a willingness to learn, and a daily commitment.

And, I needed to practice.

I understand that now, so I practice my writing in several ways.

1. Morning pages. Every day I write one to three pages — of rants, self-doubts, or goals for the day. Often, I start off by reminding myself what day of the week it is, a challenge in itself sometimes. Occasionally, I record a milestone, like a draft complete or a short story’s Honorable Mention.

2. Letters to my best friend. Inspired by Lynn at The Letter Jar, who is on a mission to compose 365 letters in 365 days, I began writing letters to a dear friend with two small children. Phone calls are near to impossible when you have small kids at home. Besides, a hand-written letter is a treasure after a long day of laundry, meals, and redirection. While it’s a different kind of writing, it draws out my creative side just the same and often leads to story-telling. Plus, I reconnect with my dear friend in an old, and more intimate, way.

3. Writing exercises. Every other Wednesday, I face a strict deadline to post a story, by midnight, based on a word prompt. While the deadline is self-imposed, I have good reasons why I don’t blow it off: 1) I am motivated to write something new, 2) I stretch my writer’s mind by forcing myself to write outside of the box (a psychopomp might stand at your death bed wearing a hooded cloak or he might just show up in a Mets cap), and 3) each attempt at the exercise reinforces my commitment to writing.

4. Submitting. I’m not talking about submitting to my inner editor or the lackadaisical attitude of my muse some days. I mean, that whenever and wherever I can, I submit a completed story. I’m a firm believer that there’s much to be gained in the practice of writing cover letters, following submission guidelines, and crafting the ever-painful three sentence bio.

5. Reading. Nowadays, on top of novels and short story collections, I do read books and magazines on and about writing. Then, I translate my experience as a reader into my perspective as a writer, by writing a post about an inspiring article or interviewing a guest author.

6. Writing workshops and Author Readings. Workshops help me grow as a writer in the areas of craft and in giving and receiving feedback (which complements all lessons learned about writing). Also, when I attend an Author Reading, I learn the art of not sweating buckets or passing out while standing at a podium, in front of a roomful of peers, reading your story.

(Lordy.)

What kinds of exercises help you practice your writing?

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First Lines Propel the Story AND the Writer

“A good first line doesn’t invite the reader to read; it invites the writer to write.” — Antonya Nelson.

Antonya Nelson

In the September 2010 issue of The Writer magazine, Sarah Anne Johnson interviews Antonya Nelson about the art of writing fiction–short stories as well as novels. I love the interview with the insights offered by Nelson and the honesty in her answers. “I am plot-impaired…” she says when discussing her preference of short stories over novel writing. A response like that from a great author helps me accept my own flaws as a writer without giving up on the craft.

The whole interview offers much for me, a writer on the rise. But, Nelson’s answer, as quoted above, to a question about good openings in fiction impressed me the most. Often we hear that the first chapter, first paragraph, or first line of a story must capture the reader right away and drive the reader to turn the page. Nelson puts the focus of the first line back onto the writer when she suggests that a great opening gets the writer moving.

Many times when I sit down to write, a whole story unfolds based on one line that repeats itself in my mind until I concede to write it down. In one of my Wednesday’s Word flash pieces, Camaraderie, Whether You Want It or Not, it wasn’t the word of the day that sparked the story; it was the opening passage: I had only been gone for three weeks.

As Margaret Atwood said, “A word after a word after a word is power.” A great first line can inspire a second line and then a whole story.

When I took a class with Ariel Gore, one of the exercises she gave us, as a warm up to a weekly writing assignment, was to pull out our favorite book, choose a chapter, and use the first line from that chapter as the beginning of our quick write. My response to the exercise was based on the first line from a chapter in Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone:

In the wake of my self-disclosure about Ma and Jack — during the year or so that followed my discovery — Dr. Shaw and I turned over and studied who my mother really had been: a fragile woman, a victim in many ways — of her mother, her husband.

From that first line, I wrote my opening:

Dr. Shaw invited me to take a look at my mother, if only to take the heat off of me for a while.

The short piece that followed was later published in the anthology of quick writes that culminated from that class, On the Fly: Stories in Eight Minutes or Less.

The same experience happened in writing the first draft of my novel. The opening line came to me, and it was all I needed for the story to unfold.

What are some first lines that propelled you into a new story?

*****

Johnson, Sarah Anne. “A Gift for the Short Form” The Writer. September 2010: 17-20. Print.



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Three Ways to Make a Story Your Own

“Ideas are a dime a dozen.”

Even the source of the quote itself is difficult to pinpoint. Mary Kay Ash said it once. So did Douglas Horton. And, countless other writers and authors have incorporated the phrase into their own works.

How, then, do writers distinguish themselves? How do we mold common themes or similar plot lines into individual novels or essays that rise to the top of the slush pile or stick in a reader’s mind?

I think of this question each time I sit down to write, or rewrite I should say. When I punch out a first draft of fiction or of an essay, I don’t linger on one sentence or paragraph. It’s in re-reading the draft, when I check to see that the facts or main ideas are there, where I tell myself, “Okay, now make it mine.”

Adding my voice is a critical piece in rewriting, but there are other ways to make a story or an essay unique.

1. Think about the predictability of a story, and then avoid it.
Jody Hedlund wrote on this topic in a guest post on Merrilee Faber’s blog, Not Enough Words.  Hedlund discusses how slowing down our process and refusing to be lazy writers helps descriptions, characters, and even plots move beyond cliché into “greater depths of creativity.”

On Wednesday’s, I use “Today’s word” at Wordsmith.org as a writing prompt. The word of the day is typically anything but common in every day conversation. Still, the stories that unfold in my mind can easily end in exactly the way a reader might predict. And, predictability won’t earn me a second read.

2. Know what details to include and which ones to leave out.
Stephen King wrote an article on imagery (recently reprinted in the Aug 2010 issue of The Writer) in which he suggests a writer be choosy when filling in descriptions:

Imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the reader’s mind. To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.

King’s article highlights the importance of the reader-writer relationship. Like any relationship, I can’t be 100% responsible for making it work. As a writer, I do my part and provide just enough information to spark an image. Then, as King says, the reader experiences the joy of reading, “the joy of seeing in the mind, feeling the fantasy flower in the way that is unique to each individual reader.”

To use a simple example from my own writing, this sentence:

My bedroom wasn’t finished yet, the fancy wallpaper still had to be hung.

doesn’t spark an image as much as this one:

My bedroom sat empty at one end of the hallway, the walls chalky and unfinished. The floor bare of any furniture. It smelled of new construction, but it was uninhabitable.

3. Give an old idea a modern twist.
A while back, I bought the Best American Short Stories 2009 anthology (edited by Alice Sebold). One particular story stands out in my mind as an example of giving an old idea new life. The story, called “Saggitarius” by Greg Hrbek, is about a couple who’s baby is born half human and half horse.

How well does a myth work as a modern short story, you ask? You’ll have to read the story yourself, but here’s an excerpt:

While they were arguing (again) about the surgery, the baby vaulted over the rail of the playpen, as if it were a hurdle to be cleared. They heard his hooves scrabbling on the rubber mat, but were too late to see him jump…When they reached the sunroom, they saw him bounding out the door. Upper half, human half, twisted in their direction; a look of joy and terror in the infant’s eyes. But the equine part would not stop….”

And, one more:

The diagnosis changes every week. Spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy as the cause of the musculoskeletal deformity; the body hair most likely the result of a condition called congenital hypertrichosis….”

Hrbek plays out an old idea within a modern setting with no fear and without looking back. And, he does it so successfully that, by the end of his story you, the reader, believe somewhere in the woods stands a father holding his Sagittarius son and loving him completely for the first time.

How do you distinguish yourself as a writer?

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Guest Author, Linda Lappin

Please welcome Linda Lappin today, as she writes about finding the soul of place.

YOUR SECRET MAP

Linda Lappin, courtesy of pokkoli

I want to thank Christi for inviting me to contribute a guest post to her writing blog.  I am a writer living in Italy – a place which has provided endless inspiration for my work. These long years I have had time to research and absorb the local spirits of place and to investigate the ways in which certain places and atmospheres feed my imagination. I have been working this material into fiction, memoir, and poetry, and have recently completed a book of writing exercises called The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place, a section of which was published in The Writer magazine in November, and was mentioned here in Christi’s blog.

Christi has invited me to share a couple of exercises with you and ask for your feedback. If you feel so inspired, try the exercise and post your comments or questions here. Feel free to pass this material on to friends in your writing groups – but please cite where you got it from.

The topic I’d like to suggest for  reflection is maps.

Maps, like novels or poems, are replicas of the physical world, models of the human mind, and in some traditions — diagrams of the soul.  For me they have always been a source of inspiration:  one of the earliest toys I remember is a jigsaw puzzle map of Europe:  my favorite piece was the yellow boot of Italy –  prophetic perhaps, since  that country was to become my  home.

Maps to buried treasure, star charts, city plans, architectural blue prints  are forms familiar enough to us. But maps may appear in other guises: in the Buddhist tradition, mandalas are maps of states of consciousness; in Persia the patterns of carpet designs sometimes charted the unfolding of the cosmos or the pathways of paradisiacal gardens.  Maps  need not take a visual form and may consist of words or music. In Australia, the songlines of the aboriginal tradition investigated by Bruce Chatwin are actually  word maps of territory, transmitting both topographical  knowledge necessary for human survival:  the whereabouts of springs, trees, vital resources, and  sacred knowledge concerning the mythic origins of human beings and the cosmos. Maps may also be imprinted in the circuits of our neurons. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has noted that we carry the map of  our first environment within us as a bundle of buried reflexes developed through our earliest movements within our first home.

Some of the 20th century’s greatest novels are actually structured on maps. Critics claim that to get the  full enjoyment out of Joyce’s Ulysses, one should read the book with a map of Dublin and a clock in hand. Similarly, Virginia Woolf’s  Mrs Dalloway is, in a way, a map of London,  while Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye of New York City. In more recent times, Thomas E Kennedy’s masterpiece The Copenhagen Quartet, incorporates a map of and even a guidebook to that magnificent European capital. In my own novels, maps have played a significant part —  I  included a sketch of one in The Etruscan — the map followed by Harriet, the protagonist of the novel, on her photographic explorations of Etruscan country. (That map is viewable at www.theetruscan.com)

Mary Butts, who has been hailed as the “last great undiscovered novelist of the twentieth century,”  had this to say about maps in her celebrated short story “From Altar to Chimney Piece.”

“As happens to people who become imaginatively conscious of a great city, he came to have a private map of it in his head. A map in which streets and groups of buildings and even the houses of friends were not finally relevant, or only for pointers towards another thing, the atmosphere or quality of certain spots…  These maps are individual to each lover of a city, charts of his translation of its final significance, of the secret working of men’s spirits which through the centuries have saturated certain quarters, giving them not only character and physical exterior, but quality, like a thing breathed. Paris is propitious for the making of such magic maps.”

We might substitute the term “soul of place” for “quality,” as Butts is using it here. Since time immemorial all over our planet, people have believed that the accumulation of human presence in a given spot together with the influences emanating from the  land itself  saturate that place and influence human activity there.

We all have our private maps of the neighborhoods, houses, rooms and other places where we have lived. Butts suggests that in the creating of those “mental maps”  the physical features of the place are less important than the atmosphere, which is created partly by the secret workings of the spirit – that is of imagination and creative processes.  Such maps are uniquely individual to each lover of a place.  No two will be alike. Our private maps attempt to localize and identify the “quality” or  spirit of place as it has interacted with us on an individual basis and influenced our lives.

EXERCISE.  YOUR SECRET MAP

Choose an environment  OR a time space continuum  – It may a city,  town, neighborhood, landscape, house   or a period of consecutive  time, such as : “The winter  I lived in Florence” — or cyclic  “the many summers I spent at my grandmother’s house on the lake when I was a child.” Quickly write down a list of  five to ten significant spaces/places in the continuum. Interpret “space” freely – it can be as small as the space in a box or as large as the Grand Canyon.  You may also list dates if you wish for each space.

Next, circle  three to  five “spaces” from your list and for each one make a “sub” list  using the ideas below.   Your list may be as long or as short (even a single item) as you wish, and may include:

  • Objects  or people  related to the spaces ( landscape features, furnishings, food, clothing, etc,)
  • Sensations connected with specific places and objects
  • Feelings and emotions connected to specific places and objects
  • Events that happened there  to you
  • Seasonal indications if applicable

Now draw the map as detailed or sketchily as you wish.

  • Give each place a personalized name
  • Connect the places with lines, showing some progression as you experienced it. Interpret this freely, it need not be a chronological or logical.
  • For each line,  make a notation which includes a verb.

This is your secret map – now use this to structure a narrative or lyric prose piece of memoir or fiction.

I welcome questions, comments, and feedback.

© Copyright Linda Lappin.

Linda Lappin is an American writer living in Italy, author of four novels: The Etruscan (Wynkin deWorde, 2004), Katherine’s Wish (about the life of Katherine Mansfield, Wordcraft of Oregon, 2008), Prisoner of Palmary, and Signatures in Stone and a writing book The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place (all forthcoming).

She teaches American language and culture at the University of Rome and divides her time between Rome and a medieval Italian village where she organizes writing workshops dedicated to spirit of place:  Her websites are: www.lindalappin.net and www.theetruscan.com For information about workshops see www.pokkoli.org.

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In Anticipation of Wednesday

Wednesday, as you know, is my designated “Face off with Wordsmith.org” writing challenge day. While I love, love, love the word of the day challenge (really, I do), I’m taking a break this week.

The purpose of Wednesday’s Word of the Day challenge is more about a commitment to write – without a plan, on the spot, even when I don’t feel like writing – than on being a die-hard fan of Wordsmith.org. Though Mr. Garg’s theme this week – words on food and drink – will be tough to ignore, another exercise awaits me (and you) on Wednesday. And, the hope is that you will be inspired to participate as well.

Linda Lappin, courtesy of pokkoli

Back in October, I wrote a post wondering how other writers develop a sense of place in their stories. Do they simply visualize the place or actually draw it out? In that post, I referred to an article in The Writer, by Linda Lappin, called “See with Fresh Eyes.” Linda wrote that creating a “deep map” of the setting not only draws more material for the story, but also gives the story a deeper level of meaning.

I am honored to host Linda here tomorrow, at Writing Under Pressure.

Linda will explain how creating a map of a place can help the writer discover the spirit of that place. She will also share a writing exercise from her new book, The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place.

For someone like myself, who’s in the middle of a novel rewrite, Linda’s visit comes at a perfect time. While writing this introduction, I thought back on a post by Mary Campbell about treating setting as another character, about how a well-developed setting is critical to the success of a story.

Tomorrow, Linda shows us how to bring setting to life.

Come back, read her guest post, try her writing exercise, and add another dimension to your story.

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