What Writers Have in Common with Mick Jagger

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No, it’s not the moves. It’s not the legions of screaming fans (well, unless maybe your name is JK or Suzanne or Stephen). It’s this: much like Mick, writers cain’t get no satisfaction. How do I know? ‘Cause I’ve tried…and I’ve triiiiied.

Many years ago, I saw my name in print on a by line for the first time. It was a regional magazine, and they paid me a whole $35.00 for an essay I wrote. I was thrilled. I even made a color copy of the check so I could keep it forever. It’s…somewhere.

After that, I started wondering if I could get a byline in a national magazine. Then I’ll really be a writer, I thought. So I did. And it was an awesome feeling. For a little while.

Then, I thought, if I could just get my own column…now that would be something. So I did, and I was beyond thrilled. But then I thought…if I could just publish a novel….

Then I thought, what if I could get a fiction series? And one day I asked myself, Woman, are you ever going to be satisfied?! And the answer was no.

I wondered if I just suffered from a personality problem. Maybe I was just a malcontent. So I asked other writers if they felt the same way. And guess what? They do. Here are the results of my informal poll…the thoughts of a highly eclectic group of successful writers I know chimed in on the subject: Continue reading ‘What Writers Have in Common with Mick Jagger’

Rejection Doesn’t Mean You Stink

imagesI’ve been writing for so long now that I really and truly don’t take rejections personally anymore. When I first started out, I thought the sting of having my work dismissed would stick with me for eternity, but now, I often can’t even remember what a particular editor liked or didn’t like about a novel my agent submitted or a magazine story I pitched.  (OK, I’m more likely to remember what they DID like–a girl’s gotta live on something!)  Point is, rejection is part of being a professional writer. If you can’t learn how to handle it, you’re in the wrong business. So buck up, Nancy! This is no time for a pity party! And to make you feel better, let me give you a few common reasons editors reject books…reasons that have nothing to do with your being a horrible, no-talent, wannabe writer: Continue reading ‘Rejection Doesn’t Mean You Stink’

Agents: The WD-40 of Publishing

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Don’t you just want to start a publishing biz so you can buy a book from her?

More and more people are self publishing these days, and the book printing available to them is so nice that most folks can’t tell a traditionally published book from a self-published one. Recently, a traditionally published author friend was telling me that she can’t wait for one of her titles to go out of print so she can turn around and self publish it. Much of the stigma of what was once known as the “vanity press” has vanished in this century. Because of this, some argue that today’s writer has no need of a literary agent because all they do is sell your book to a traditional publishing house; therefore, the literary agent is a dinosaur in this new day and age. Allow me to disagree. Agents do much more than sell books–they’re pretty much the publishing industry equivalent of WD-40. Continue reading ‘Agents: The WD-40 of Publishing’

The Age of Omniscience

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Not pictured: Don Knotts as Mr. Furley…while we’re on the subject of comedy geniuses.

What do all those wonderful comedies of Shakespeare have in common with late 70s/early 80s TV sitcom Three’s Company?  I mean, besides the fact that they’re both awesome?  (Don’t get me started on what a comedy genius John Ritter was.)

Both thrived on confusion.

And I make this point because for writers in this present age, it’s almost impossible to build a story around confusion.  At least, that’s been my experience.

Confusion can make for great fun.  Like when you don’t know that the dude you just met in the woods is actually your girlfriend in disguise.  Or when you overhear Chrissy and Jack in the kitchen and assume that Chrissy is talking to Jack when she says, “I want to kiss every inch of you,” only to burst in and find that she’s cooing these words to a little puppy.

It used to be that writers could rely on a character’s being in the dark about something in order to move the plot forward.  Nowadays, not so much.  Where is So-n-So?  Why didn’t he show up?  Let’s text him and find out.  Who is this stranger I met at the cafe?  IDK; let’s do a Google search or stalk him on Facebook until we know everything about him.  My mom is going to kill me for blowing curfew, but I can’t get to a phone to tell her the car broke down.  Oh, wait, we all have cells in our pockets.  (Thank goodness there are dead zones when a writer needs them.)

It’s hard to convince readers that characters in this present age don’t immediately know everything because we have the means to immediately know almost everything.  We have zero patience for not knowing every bit of minutiae the second we want to know it.  Find yourself having a sudden flashback to a 1970s Saturday morning PSA cautioning children about the excessive use of condiments?  No worries…you can locate it on YouTube in a matter of seconds.

In a sense, this is the age of omniscience.  We know everything.  Most of it isn’t worth knowing, but we can still know it in an instant.  Certainly this doesn’t make us wise (Whew! We can still fall back on our characters making bad decisions!), but it makes us know-it-alls.  And so it can be challenging as a writer to get your characters into interesting predicaments.

We have to search for new ways to create dramatic situations in spite of this.  It requires some ingenuity.  Case in point, Lindsey Leavitt‘s Going Vintage, in which she uses modern technology to create the story problem and then removes it from the equation to see what happens. What a fun premise!  Shakespeare and John Ritter would both, I’m sure, approve.

 

 

And Absolutely No Pictures Were Taken

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Last week, I was invited to speak to Dr. Beenken’s creative writing class at Mountain Brook Junior High. As with most school visits, it was fun and the time went by quickly. So quickly, in fact, that when I left, I thought, “Oh, I forgot to take any pictures!”

I do that a lot. And I think it’s because, deep down, I sort of hate taking pictures or videos. Maybe it’s because I don’t like photographs of myself. Whenever I get one of those “So-n-So tagged you in a photo” messages from Facebook, I feel a little sick inside. Whenever anyone pulls out a camera, I instantly feel awkward and uncomfortable, and it shows in the picture. (People make fun of models sometimes, but I’m telling you, these people have a real skill–I’ve seen them in photo shoots and it’s amazing how they can strike tremendously awkward poses without feeling the least bit self-conscious.) And it’s not just pictures: you should hear how ridiculous I sound whenever I have to leave a voicemail message; I pretty much ramble on until the beep and then groan, wondering what drivel just came out of my mouth.

I don’t know. I guess something about preserving moments through technology just inevitably alters those moments. Continue reading ‘And Absolutely No Pictures Were Taken’

To Tell the Truth, Part Two

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Recently, I blogged about the importance of telling the truth in fiction. But what about nonfiction? If you’re telling a true story–unless you’re purposely fabricating something or trying to distort the facts–the truth takes care of itself, right?

Not necessarily. Continue reading ‘To Tell the Truth, Part Two’

Those Easy Creative Writing Courses

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In college, I minored in creative writing.

Most of the people in my poetry writing courses loved words and wanted to learn a few things about poetry, even if they didn’t aspire to be poets.

Inevitably, though, there was always at least one of those “the cat sat on the mat” guys–people who thought a class on poetry writing was a big joke and an easy A. Continue reading ‘Those Easy Creative Writing Courses’

To Tell The Truth

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Lying: It’s a great way to ruin your life. It’s also a pretty good way to ruin your writing.

Sounds a bit hypocritical for a fiction writer to caution against lying, doesn’t it?  After all, we make things up for a living. We create people in our heads, name them, imagine what they look like and what they eat for breakfast, what their worst fears and deepest desires are, and then we try to convince readers that they’re real. And yet, in the midst of all this make believe, our job is to get at the truth. Continue reading ‘To Tell The Truth’

Should You Be Friends with a Writer?

With writer friends Lindsey Leavitt and Crystal Perkins. Sure, we LOOK harmless enough...

With writer friends Lindsey Leavitt and Crystal Perkins. Sure, we LOOK harmless enough…

Writers are interesting human beings. Most of them are creative, and some of them can tell hilarious stories at parties. Many have an innate understanding of what makes people tick. And if you want someone to deconstruct every minute detail of what your crush’s text really means, we’re usually SO up for that. Overanalyzing language and reading between the lines? Yes, please!

On the other hand, being friends with a writer has its downsides. Continue reading ‘Should You Be Friends with a Writer?’

Writing Instruction: Tone and Mood

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When I was a teacher, it was difficult to get students to understand the difference between tone and mood. It’s understandable: tone and diction are what create mood, so without tone, mood doesn’t even exist. Diction, of course, is the writer’s word choice, while tone is defined by most dictionaries as “the manner in which a writer approaches the subject at hand.” Mood, then, is the feeling evoked in the reader based on the author’s choice of words and his/her tone. It’s a cause and effect relationship. Still, though, these definitions in and of themselves fall short of having any real meaning to students, which is why, when a splendid example of tone and mood comes along, it’s a great opportunity to show instead of tell.

The other day, syndicated columnist Jae-Ha Kim produced a most instructive piece of writing for illuminating tone and mood. If you want a wonderful lesson for your writing class, have them read Jae’s blog post called, “JiSun: Do You Remember My Sister?”  While most textbook examples of tone are merely “sad” or “happy,” Jae’s tone here could best be defined as confrontational or angry–probably a lot more interesting to study. Ask your students how she accomplishes that tone. Have them notice how beginning the piece with a direct address immediately points a finger in the offender’s face. Ask them how that beginning serves the piece differently than if she’d begun, “Once there was a girl who was mean to my sister.” Have them notice the series of one-sentence paragraphs with parallel construction, each beginning with the same word, “maybe.” Ask them to sum up the message to JiSun in one or two sentences. (My take? “My sister’s over it, but my mom and I aren’t. Watch your back.”) What you’re teaching them, then, isn’t just a fuzzy definition of tone, but rather how tone is constructed by the choices the writer makes.

Ask them how they feel after reading the piece. My guess is that they will feel unsettled. And why? Because the writer’s control of tone CAUSED that reaction. Tone CAUSES mood.

Finally, for a fun and educational writing exercise, ask students to write a reply from JiSun’s point of view. After all these years, is she defiant or remorseful? Their use of tone will make it clear who JiSun grew up to be.