As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.
On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.
And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.
Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.
After I graduated from Michigan State University and began my teaching career in 2006, I could not imagine a single circumstance that would induce me to go back to school, especially while working full-time, but in 2009, I found myself itching to be a student again. I had noticed that since entering “the real world,” I was significantly less prolific in terms of the writing I was churning out, which had dwindled to the occasional diary entry. Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again. So I did what any rational person would: Put together a comprehensive writing portfolio and apply for admission to a master’s program for creative writing. I knew that with my demanding schedule, just wanting to write more would not result in actually writing more. But if I were part of a master’s program, and my grade depended on my carving out time for writing, and my reimbursement (a perk at work) for the costly classes depended on my grade, I would write. No matter how little time I had, I would write.
Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again.
My participation in a master’s degree program did indeed increase my writing motivation, inspiration, and productivity. It also benefited me in many other ways. If you are considering earning your MFA (Master of Fine Arts) or MALS (Master of Liberal Studies) in creative writing, I highly recommend it for the reasons that follow.
1. Exposure to Literature
Through the assigned readings in various graduate classes, you will be exposed to writers and literature you might not be inclined to pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from exposure to and study of every single one of them. I was enthralled with and enlightened by Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, for example, and to this day would likely not have read a single page of it had it not been for the capstone project I completed in my degree program, which centered on the emotional truth as evidenced by both O’Brien’s and Ernest Hemingway’s works. I can guarantee I would not have read nearly as much flash fiction or prose poetry, and I certainly wouldn’t have attempted to write any. I owe those experiences and more to my graduate degree program.
Assigned readings in various graduate classes will expose you to writers and literature you might not pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from this exposure.
2. Exploration of Craft
During my time in my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried. A graduate degree in creative writing will require you to write in various genres; utilize a myriad of techniques employed by some of the greats; apply literary devices you might not have thought to use; and study devices, writers, and perspectives. For example, you might have a tendency, however unconscious, to write predominantly in first-person. An assignment in a class might require you to explore writing in second- or third-person. Similarly, you might write mainly personal
narrative essays, but your degree program is inevitably going to expand your grasp of the craft as it demands you experiment with fictional short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, etc. Working towards a master’s degree in creative writing will open you up to types of writing you may not have even considered before–or been aware of.
During my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried.
3. Community Building
One of the most beneficial aspects of a degree program in writing is the supportive network the experience can help create. I began my program in 2009 and completed it in 2013, and now, as many as seven years later, I still communicate with several of my former classmates, even having recently embarked upon the creation of a blogging network with one of them.
4. Teaching Opportunities
Most community colleges, colleges, and universities require their instructors to hold at least a master’s degree. In the world of writing instruction, a master’s degree and published works can sometimes be enough to at least get you noticed.
5. Increased Pay
If you don’t desire to teach at the college level, but do want to teach secondary school, for example, a master’s degree in a field related to your subject area equals a pay raise at most public schools. As an English teacher, I was granted a partial pay increase after I had completed a certain number of credits in my program, and was given the remainder of the increase after I earned the degree, which also qualified me to teach a college level dual enrollment composition class consisting of motivated and intelligent college-bound high school students.
I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”
6. Resume Building
Although no agent or publishing house is going to require you to hold a master’s degree before they will consider working with you or reading your work, it does lend you credibility on your resume and in your query letter. One element of a query letter is accolades–published works, involvement in writing organizations, writing awards and recognition, etc. A master’s degree in writing is something else that bodes well for you here. It shows you take your craft seriously, are dedicated to your writing, and have a solid background in the field.
7. Craft Improvement
This one is probably a bit obvious: The more you write, the better you write. For this reason, enrolling in a master’s program in creative writing will no doubt help you improve your craft. You will have the benefit of feedback from published authors, fellow students, seasoned writing instructors, etc. Not only will you be writing on a regular basis, but you will be revising and polishing your writing on a regular basis, becoming more self-aware as a writer and as a reader.
The more you write, the better you write–and a master’s program that requires you to write can’t hurt your cause.
8. Mandatory Writing Time
I mentioned above that my initial motivation for applying for admission to a master’s program in creative writing was to make sure I would build time into my schedule to write. It worked. During my four years studying creative writing, I was prolific. How could I not be, with writing assignments due seemingly constantly and reading assignments inspiring me with each page? But the process wasn’t arduous. No, quite the opposite. I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”
If you don’t have the desire to enroll in a degree program, but still need help finding time to write, check this out.
Though Jill Breugem works full-time as a Learning Specialist, finding training solutions for internal business partners and facilitating and designing training, and is the mother of two children, she somehow manages to find time to write books on the side. Her debut novel, Read Between the Lines, launches on January 24, followed by a February 11 launch party at Blue Heron Books. What follows is my interview with this delightful debut indie novelist.
Jill Breugem: I always wanted to write a book and the inspiration came while having a chat with a friend. He talked about making sure that beyond our families, careers, and regular day to day, we find time every day to do something that we really love. If we are lucky, that is also our career. I do love my career; I also love writing. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.
The idea for my first novel literally woke me up in the middle of the night. I got out of bed, walked across the room and wrote some notes down.
I squeeze writing in when I can. Sometimes with everyone running around the house around me, sometimes in the late hours of the day when everyone was in bed and other times very early on the weekend before anyone got up. My favorite time is at 6am on a Sunday when everyone is fast asleep, the house is dark, and I have a hot cup of tea beside me.
MTD: How long did it take you to write it? What was your process like?
JB: It took me 15 months to write the book and an additional four months to complete edits, book cover, etc.
There were times I went weeks and didn’t touch it–I wanted to; I wanted to write so badly, but I just couldn’t. There were times I would write several chapters in only a couple hours and then other times that I would stare at the same sentence for hours, only to delete it. I created an outline of the story and mapped out the chapters. I set up goals in the program Nozbe to stay on track and organized.
MTD: What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to going the traditional route?
JB: Once I set out to write the book, it became a goal of mine to finish it. Many times I had started to write something and would stop. So, just the fact I finished the book was a major accomplishment for me. I always thought I would self-publish and admired a couple authors who self-published and were very successful. Bella Andre and Marie Force are two that quickly come to mind. They have been extremely successful with self-publishing ebooks in the last five years. Marie Force’s first novel, Maid for Love, was originally turned down by ALL publishers. She went on to sell 2.5 million books of her Gansett Island Series.
Getting published the traditional way was something that if it happened and the timing was right, the royalties reasonable, then that would be a cherry on top.
JB: I squeeze it in when I can. I work full-time and am a busy mom of two kids, a dog, a husband… Sometimes I write with everyone running around the house around me, sometimes in the late hours of the day when everyone was in bed and other times very early on the weekend before anyone got up. My favorite time is at 6am on a Sunday when everyone is fast asleep, the house is dark, and I have a hot cup of tea beside me.
Write because you want to, because you need to, because you have to – – for you, and for you alone.
MTD: What do you wish I would have asked you that I haven’t asked you yet?
I have a soft spot for romance. I love the anticipation and the happy ending. Like books, my movie choice is always a romantic comedy, too.
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
JB: Go for it! Write because you want to, because you need to, because you have to – – for you, and for you alone. Think positive and whatever happens from there…happens.
Social media is very important. Most authors will tell you that connecting with fans and other writers on social media has been key to their success.
Surround yourself with like-minded people. Follow (through social media!) authors that inspire you, authors you aspire to be, and people you can connect with.
Inventory is key. You need to have the next book ready for the readers. Once you have several published, offer the first for free or major discount through something like Book Bub. This will build up your fan base and hopefully inspire fans to buy your other books.
MTD: Have you already begun your second book, The Distance Between Us?
JB: YES! So excited! It is coming together so nicely. It is about two characters that you meet in the first book, Read Between the Lines. These will turn into a series. I have the next four books planned.
JB: My daughter designed my covers – I absolutely love them. You will see branding of the stripes on the next four books, as well–in different colors.
MTD: You mention that a portion of the profits from Read Between the Lines will benefit families touched by Autism. Tell me a little more about that.
JB: My amazing eight-year-old son lives with Autism. He has developmental delays and is non-verbal. Therapy, although VERY expensive, has been VERY important to his progress and growth. His learning center has been very good to us, and I want to make sure that I pay it forward and help other children like my son get the therapy they need.
MTD: What can attendees at your book launch party on February 11 at Blue Heron Books expect?
JB: My book launches on January 24th, but the launch party is on Feb 11th at Blue Heron Books. The party is for friends, family, and readers/potential fans to come and celebrate the launch of the book with me! I will sign books and there will be cake!
MTD: How did you go about setting up your book launch?
JB: I approached the bookstore and told them all about my book and asked if I could have the party there. They were happy to! It’s a quaint bookstore that draws you in; it’s an older building, with beautiful wood floors and shelves. It is a bookstore that just makes you want to stay…
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and following close on its heels is Black Friday. If we haven’t already done so, it’s time to start thinking about the thoughtful, meaningful gifts we can give to our loved ones–or perhaps the thoughtful, meaningful gifts we hope to get from them. Whether you’re focused on finding the perfect gift for someone else, or on crafting your own wish list, here are some ideas.
The first literary magazine I ever read was the result of a gift subscription from my aunt and uncle, who signed me up for Cicada Magazine, a young adult literary magazine put out by Cricket Media. Subscription costs range from $4.95-$59.95, depending on the duration of the subscription. This gift was of paramount importance in my writing life. Not only did it introduce me to the concept of what a literary magazine was, but it also led me to begin submitting my writing for publication. Cicada was the first non-school-related publication to which I ever sent work, and it was the first not only to publish several of my poems over the course of a few years, but also to pay me for them. I doubt when my aunt and uncle subscribed to this magazine for me, they could have imagined what an important role it would end up playing in my passion. The vindication I felt upon receiving my first acceptance letter and contract from Cicada was lasting and immense. Gifting a reader/writer with this magazine may open the door not only to memorable and fascinating works of literature, but also to her own opportunity for publication.
Gifting a loved one with this magazine may open the door not only to memorable and fascinating works of literature, but also to her own opportunity for publication.
My father, a fellow English teacher, was the person who first introduced me to OneStory, an aptly named and phenomenal little literary magazine. Each issue features only–you guessed it–one story. I love this magazine, because I am an exceptionally busy person whose time is always at a premium. I rarely have time to finish a novel during the course of the school year (though I devour them in the summer months). I do, however, have time for one story now and again. OneStory arrives once a month, so I know I always have about four weeks to finish the story, which can usually be read in one sitting (the challenge becomes finding time for the sitting!). A one-year subscription costs $21.
The best thing about OneStory is that even someone as busy as I am can usually find time to read just one story a month.
If your loved one likes a little board game fun, I highly recommend you consider one of these family-friendly, literary, board-based competitions as a gift.
For Writers, in General
When I was about half-way through the first draft of my novel (I am now working on the seventh draft of my novel), my sister and brother-in-law gifted me with an engraved pen and pen case from Things Remembered. Not only is it elegant, beautiful, and practical, but it was also one of the most meaningful and thoughtful gifts I have ever received; it showed me that they believed in me and in my dream, and that vote of confidence in the form of this pen still motivates me today. Every time I see the case and open it to retrieve the pen, my faith in my dream is renewed, and my motivation to write is revived. I am reminded that someone thinks I can do it. The pen is a manifestation of their faith.
The engraved pen and case showed me that they believed in me and in my dream, and that vote of confidence in the form of this pen still motivates me today. Every time I see the case and open it to retrieve the pen, my faith in my dream is renewed, and my motivation to write is revived. I am reminded that someone thinks I can do it. The pen is a manifestation of their faith.
Engraved pens and cases run between $5 and $300 at Things Remembered. I recently spent just shy of $50 on a pen with both the pen and its case engraved, and the recipient, an aspiring children’s book author, loved it.
Membership to a Local Writing Organization
Joining James River Writers was one of the best moves I ever made regarding my writing. In fact, it’s safe to say my novel would never have been finished had I not joined this group and begun participating in their many Writing Shows, events, and conferences. Membership to a local writing group yields many benefits, including reduced fees for workshops, events, and conferences; networking; exposure to agents and other literary professionals; motivation; regular newsletters; education–just to name a few. Paying for a loved one’s membership would no doubt be a welcomed gift.
One of the newest digital magazines for writers, writeHackr Magagzine, features author interviews and information on writing, craft, branding, ideas, the writing industry, the publishing industry, etc. To get a feel for the magazine, check out their blog. You can also find them on Instagram. I subscribe myself, and have even written a few pieces for the publication. I highly recommend it for all writers!
Membership to a Poetry Society or Organization
If you are local, buying a beloved poet membership to the Poetry Society of Virginia would be a practical, thoughtful, and meaningful gift. Benefits include a regular newsletter; reduced rates for attendance at the annual festival and other events; and participation in workshops, readings, and open mic events–to name just three. Other outcomes are motivation, inspiration, networking, and support.
I recently heard an interview with the famed memoirist Mary Karr on NPR. In 2015, she came out with a new book called The Art of Memoir, on which the interview focused. Listening to the interview, I wanted not only to read the book (I myself have listed it on my own Christmas Wish List), but also to be her friend. She was so genuine, honest, and raw–things I am often afraid to be when writing nonfiction. I feel I could really learn something from her–and her book. She was painfully honest in the interview, as I expect most memoirists must learn to be, at some point or another–particularly about herself. She did not shy away from saying about people things that might upset them. She was unabashed. To listen to the captivating interview, click here.
For Writers Aspiring to be Published
Subscription to Writer’s Digest
Writer’s Digest purports to be the #1 magazine for writers, and features publishing tips, craft tips, information on techniques, etc. There are three subscription options: A one-year digital subscription costs $9.96; a one-year print subscription costs $19.96; both digital and print combined cost $21.96 for one year.
The 2017 Writer’s Market
There are lots of options concerning The Writer’s Market books, so you can really tailor your purchase to the writer you’re buying for. Options include, but are not limited to: Novels and Short Stories Writer’s Market, Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition, Writer’s Market 2017: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published, and Guide to Literary Agents. On Amazon, they range in price from $9.90 to a digital edition of Writer’s Market 2017: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published, to $34.79 for the print version of Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition. Writer’s Market books also exist for poets and children’s books authors and illustrators.
For Dog Lovers
Richmond Animal League 2017 Calendar
What animal lover wouldn’t like to greet each new month with the photograph of an adorable rescue dog or cat–and the knowledge that the purchase of that calendar helped to find forever homes for even more loving animals? Each year, Richmond Animal League (RAL), a no-kill shelter in Virginia, hosts a calendar contest as a fundraiser. Contestants compete to see who can raise the most money for the shelter. The top twelve fundraisers’ pets are then featured within the calendar’s pages. To raise even more money in support of homeless animals, RAL then sells the calendars for about $15 each. They make a great gift!
Richmond Animal League Luminary
To honor the memory of a pet, or to celebrate the life of one still with you, as well as to help raise money for homeless pets, you can purchase in your loved one’s name (and/or their pet’s name) a luminary for the Richmond Animal League Operation Silent Night event. Luminaries start at only $20 and can be purchased here. Gifting an animal lover with a luminary not only honors him or her, as well as his or her beloved animals, but also helps provide hope for a homeless pet.
I have made some very meaningful memories and spent some high-quality bonding time with my dogs through training classes. My sweet beagle who, it turns out, hates “doggy school,” has still completed a basic training class, and my whippet-jack russell mix, who is quite the little scholar, has completed basic training and earned his Canine Good Citizen certificate at our local Petco. He and I have also participated in agility classes at levels A, B, and B/C at the Richmond SPCA. These classes not only enrich a dog’s life, but also strengthen and enhance the human-dog bond. When you gift someone with a training class, you are improving communication and understanding between the person and his dog; enriching the overall relationship; providing stimulation and, in some cases, as with agility, physical fitness for both dog and human, among other positive outcomes.
Doggy Swimming Lessons
One wish-list item that appears on my personal Christmas list this year is swimming
lessons with my whippet-jack russell, who, over the summer, discovered an absolute passion for swimming. He swam in the bay. He swam in the creek. He swam in the river. He swam in the sound. But it’s too cold to swim in the winter. Unless, that is, you enroll in lessons at Alpha Dog Club, or a similar organization near you, that has an indoor swimming facility for dogs. Swim sessions at Alpha Dog Club range from $25-$60 after a mandatory $60 introduction/evaluation session.
You can’t go wrong with light-up, reflective, or glow-in-dark doggy gear for safety. Many companies make collars, leashes, harnesses, vests, and collar charms that emit or reflect light so your canine companion is visible on those night-time or early morning jaunts.
Someone with a particularly energetic and agile dog, as well as a large enough yard, might find agility equipment, such as tunnels, ramps, teeters, and jumps, an excellent gift. Training on the equipment together is not only stimulating for the dog, but also good exercise for humans and dogs alike, and a great way for humans and dogs to bond.
Canine Life Vest
For those dog lovers and dogs who love to boat, fish, or swim, a doggy life jacket could be just the thing. It makes a dog’s aquatic adventures that much safer, and also assists him when he swims. You might also check out Ruff Wear‘s waterproof and wear-and-tear proof products. Click on the photographs below to enlarge them and read the captions.
Sadie’s swim is made easier with a canine flotation device.
Jack stands proudly on the bow of the speed boat, sporting his neon green life vest.
Safe in his canine life vest, Beans plays fetch in the waves.
Beans is king of the canoe in his canine life vest.
Donation in a Loved One’s Name
If you have a loved one who has no need of or want for anything, and whose pet is also already aptly provisioned, you might consider making a donation to an animal rescue organization in his or her name. Last year for Christmas, I donated to a bird rescue foundation as a gift for my dear friend who has always loved and kept birds. I was able to give him an information card on the bird species his gift was helping to support, as well as a few other mementoes to commemorate his gift.
Canine First Aid Certification Course
Just as with donating to an animal rescue organization, paying for a loved one’s enrollment in a Canine First Aid and CPR course could be a useful, practical, and life-saving gift. The hands-on, three- to four-hour course offered at Alpha Dog Club in Richmond, Virginia costs $75, a fee which then helps fund scholarships for shelter dogs who could benefit from the aquatic services offered at the facility. The certification lasts for the participant’s lifetime, and participants receive a canine first aid book to keep on-hand, as well as a few first aid supplies.
If any of these ideas helped you, please help me by sharing this post on Pinterest, or to your own social media accounts! In this season of thanksgiving and always, I will be very grateful. 😉 Happy Thanksgiving and gift-giving!
I would not say I am facing writer’s block. No, not exactly. I am still writing: blog posts, diary entries, college reference letters, the occasional short personal narrative.
But I cannot seem to type the first word of a novel for NaNoWriMo. I have several loose, underdeveloped ideas, not one of which has coalesced into anything remotely resembling a plot. In the face of this complete (but hopefully temporary) dearth of cohesive ideas for another novel, I had begun to feel tempted to wonder if maybe I’m not, after all, a creative person. The identity crisis this admission would lead to would be nothing short of catastrophic, though, so rather than give in to the temptation to see myself as, well, not myself, I decided to take inventory of my creativity. Essentially, I had to remind myself that while my primary means of creative expression is indeed the written word, I am creative in many other ways, as well: photography, painting, lesson planning, and re-purposing–as well as writing. The resulting morale booster is below. Maybe now that I have reaffirmed my creative ability, I can conjure up an idea for NaNoWriMo…
Novel ideas in any context fall under the umbrella of creativeness.
I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about the mechanical technicalities of photography–I cannot, for example, work a real camera, nor can I develop film, nor am I exactly proficient at photography programs like Photoshop. I do, however, know a bit about the art of actually composing a quality photograph. I am no stranger to concepts like perspective, the leading line, framing, or the rule of thirds, for example–and naturally used many of these techniques before ever learning they were “actually things.”
Though I haven’t taken an art class since middle school, I have always enjoyed art. I rarely get to paint, but when I do, I find the act cathartic and liberating. It is one of the most relaxing, freeing, and expressive activities I have experienced.
When we think of creativity, we tend automatically to think of the act of creating something from scratch, and by default jump to activities like painting, sculpting, writing, singing, jewelry-making. But novel ideas in any context fall under the umbrella of creativeness.Finding a new use for an old item is its own form of creativeness. Both my husband and I excel in this area–perhaps he more than I, as he is actually capable of making new things out of old things, whereas I am only capable of envisioning what new things the old things could become. Our home is full of many of his creations, usually lamps, made of old gears, driftwood, piping, tripods, factory equipment, antique toys, old instruments, etc.
In his essay “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk,” John Steinbeck surmises that one reason a soldier can return to battle despite the traumas of war, and a woman can bear more than one child despite the ravages of labor and delivery, is simply because neither can
remember what the experience was like, rendering both incapable of experiencing the fear that might prevent them from entering into a similar experience again. “Perhaps,” he writes, “all experience which is beyond bearing is that way–the system provides the shield and removes the memory.” I think there is some validity to Steinbeck’s hypothesis. I see it evidenced in my own life, in at least two areas. The first is my husband’s willingness–eagerness, even–to engage in DIY home projects over and over again, despite the stress and anxiety they inevitably cause him. Not long after completing one painful project, he starts to get antsy for another–to the extent that we just purchased a second home, in part to help satisfy his craving for projects (and he is now completely embroiled in the pangs of a plethora of home projects). The second is my own experience with writing conferences, my favorite and the most accessible one to me being the James River WritersAnnual Conference. I look forward to this three-day event with an enthusiasm approaching that of a young child’s at Christmas. But some years, I leave feeling defeated and discouraged: There are so many writers out there with so many stellar ideas, and we are all in competition for an agent, a publisher, a paycheck. I look around at the sheer number of writers in attendance at the conference and think: How can I possibly stand a chance against so many competitors? Frankly, it’s deflating.
We come together as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community.
But at Friday’s pre-conference Master Class, “How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages,” literary agent Michael Carr said something that helped me realize at least one reason (there are many) I look forward to the conference every year: “It’s important to get motivation from events like this.” He went on to explain that so much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together. We are among people who take us seriously as writers. We convene as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community. And it is in that spirit of the writer’s community that I share with you just a handful of highlights and takeaways from this weekend’s James River Writers Annual Conference.
For reference and in an effort to give credit where credit is due, here is a list of the sessions I attended:
Be sure to vary your sentence structure. Reusing the same sentence structure can pull the reader out of your narrative, or, as Michael Carr explains it, can “wake him up from the fictive dream.” Two structures that Carr says are frequently overused, particularly by amateur writers are: 1) “Doing this, she did this” or 2) its inverse: “She did this, doing this.”
So much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together.
Each scene of a novel needs tension to hold a reader’s interest. Some ways to introduce tension can include giving the character a goal–and creating a character who actively engages in reaching this goal, as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen to him. Secondly, there must be some opposition regarding the goal. Something must impede the character’s achieving the goal he has set. Another tool in the writer’s belt is dramatic irony. The reader’s experience of knowing more than the characters about which she is reading is a powerful means of creating tension. Finally, be sure to ask yourself if there is enough at stake. What will the consequences be if the character achieves his goal versus if he does not achieve his goal?
The Opening Lines
At least three different experts at the conference exaggerated the importance of starting in the right place, which could be as simple as deleting the first line or first paragraph, or as complicated as rearranging the order in which your chapters appear–as was the case with my novel. Initially, Goodbye For Now opened with Marissa Donnoway working at The Beanery, serving a difficult customer. Several people mentioned that the book started a bit too slowly. In response, I wrote a new scene, one in which two brothers are looking out over Lake Huron. Still too slow. I deleted that scene, and opened the book with the emergency room scene. That didn’t work logistically, and the book currently begins with Scott Wilder’s suicide.
If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another.
Keep in mind that when beta readers, critique partners, critique groups, or other readers offer feedback, you are not obligated to take it–but deciding when and if you should follow someone’s advice can be tricky, and sometimes, so can not getting our feelings hurt. I thought Michael Carr’s comments regarding this issue were an insightful reframing of how to look at criticism. He essentially suggested that when someone responds critically to your work, it simply means he woke up from the fictive dream and didn’t “believe you.” It is not personal. It means you might want to revisit that part of your piece and consider how you can strengthen it. Sometimes, a reader might suggest a specific change to improve a piece–a change you disagree with. It’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to act on specific advice, but you would likely be wise to address the issue in some way, even if it is not the way your critic suggested. Carr also advised, “If the feedback resonates with you, address it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” Specific feedback itself might not be worth following, but reexamining each part about which a reader makes suggestions is worthwhile. In my case, the people who told me my book started too slowly only confirmed what I had suspected all along–so I addressed that issue (many times…).
I also appreciated what Natasha Sass of Busstop Press said about feedback: If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another. More on this, in the context of tropes, below.
On Writing to Market and Finding Your Audience
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but until attending Friday’s Master Class,
“Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!”, I was unfamiliar with the term “trope.” Now I know a trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre. The tricky part is that tropes change over time, so reading within your genre and subgenre can be an important way to keep up with what tropes are currently desirable in your area.
What does your audience want? What do they expect?
A trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre.
Two important notions occurred to me as I sat in a session today, the final day of this year’s Annual Conference. The first was that this year was quite possibly my favorite Annual Conference thus far (though they have all been wonderful). The second was that I would likely have never finished my novel, Goodbye For Now, had it not been for the 2014 James River Writers Annual Conference. The idea for my novel was born in 2006, when I was studying abroad in Germany–an ocean away from my then-fiance (now, husband). I began actually writing the novel in 2010 (I think) in a black-and-white Composition book. After a few weeks, I got busy and just stopped writing. I even lost the Composition book. Four years later, at a Master Class that was part of the 2014 Annual Conference, I read aloud the synopsis I composed in the workshop that day. The response I got from the instructor and my fellow attendees was so supportive, I came home and dug through my attic space until I found the Composition book. My desire to write the novel was reinvigorated, but it would likely have remained dormant, safely stored away in my mental attic, had I never attended the conference. Now, two years later, the sixth draft of my novel is complete, and I feel equally excited, motivated, inspired, and encouraged. And I already can’t wait until next year’s conference.
Among the quotes displayed on posters on my classroom walls, one of the most relevant to my students, particularly when they begin (or try to begin) writing their research papers or college essays is this:
“Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. Begin anywhere.”
It sounds so simple. Sit down. Pick up a pen or set your fingers to the keyboard, and go. Begin. Let the words flow. And truly, it can be that simple–but we writers all know the feeling of sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper or a glowing, white computer screen, the urge to write almost unbearable, only to fall victim to this sort of constipation of our creativity. No matter how hard we try, the right words–or any words at all–simply will. Not. Come. We are paralyzed in the face of our immense ideas, or by the sense that despite our need to write, we have no ideas.
Below are five writing prompts to help alleviate the uncomfortable sensation of writer’s block.
1. Unlived Lives
Throughout our lives, we are presented with choices, from the seemingly mundane, such as what to eat for breakfast or what to wear on a given day, to the more obviously life-altering, such as what college to attend or whom to marry. For this prompt, imagine your life had you made “the other” decision. What might have happened if you had taken that months-long road trip with your best friend instead of attending your first semester of college–what would your life be like now? Imagine the life you would be living had you married the first boy you ever loved (never mind that he never asked, like you thought he would). Imagine the life you would be living if you had not aborted the child who would’ve been your first born. What other lives, good or bad, have you had–but forgone in favor of another–the chance to live?
2. Dear Future Self
For this prompt, write a letter to your future self, as far or as near in the future as you like. What kinds of things will you hope for your future self? What kinds of questions will you ask? What will you hope you remember? What will you hope to have forgiven, accomplished, forgotten, experienced?
3. To-Do List
Take an objective look at your to-do list today. Write about what someone would think of you based solely upon that list. If all someone had to imagine the kind of person you are was today’s to-do list, what would he think? Consider the hobbies, obligations, jobs, activities, interests he might imagine you have or are involved with.
4. Another’s View of You
Imagine yourself from the perspective of someone else. Perhaps take on the view of the checkout girl who rang you up at the local grocery store, the man in the car beside you at the traffic light, the neighbor who passes you on his bike as you walk your dog. What do these people notice about you, think about you, infer about you, wonder about you? Take on the perspective of someone else, and write about yourself in third-person from this new perspective.
Start the prompt with “My name should have been…” and let your ideas flow. What should your name have been? Why?
The next time you experience the painful paralysis of writer’s block, I invite you to employ one (or all!) of these prompts. If you’re feeling really inspired, I invite you to post your written response to one (or more!) of these prompts in a comment on this post.