It all started on a walk with my dogs. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, as every day starts with a walk with my dogs. We eat breakfast, leash up, and head out. Every day begins with a dog walk–and so do many of my essays, poems, blog posts, and book chapters. One of my essays, about to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (in bookstores April 9), was not only inspired while I was walking my dogs, but is also about walking my dogs. It tells the short tale of how letting Jack take the reins (or should I say, “leash?”) and determine our walking route one morning led me to a beautiful view–and taught me a valuable lesson: I don’t always have to be in charge.
The essay had humble beginnings. It started as a January 2015 diary entry, penned after returning home from our walk, and eventually morphed into a blog post on my now debunked, little-read personal blog, where it sat for several years, largely unnoticed. In 2018, while scrolling through a Freedom with Writing e-mail (if you’re a writer and you don’t subscribe already, you should), I learned that Chicken Soup for the Soul was accepting submissions for several upcoming books, one being Life Lessons from the Dogs.
I remembered my diary-entry-turned-blog-post, and, after a few revisions, submitted it. Almost a year later, I received one of the most exciting e-mails of my life to date. The essay I wrote, at the time called “Northern Neck Dog Walk,” had been shortlisted in the selection process for the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog.
Trying in vain not to get too excited, I started a group text including my parents, three siblings, in-laws, and half a dozen friends, and texted out my happy news, complete with far too many exclamation points and smiley face emojis. I e-mailed all of them, too–to make sure they got the message. Though it was difficult, I did manage to resist the urge to post my good news to social media, in the event that, in the end, nothing came of it.
Then, I waited–telling myself it was a big success to have made it even this far.
A few weeks later, I received official word that my essay had made the cut, and would be featured in the book, a fact I quickly plastered all over my Facebook and Instagram accounts.
My complimentary copies of the books arrived last week, and I have been busy setting up fundraisers for Richmond Animal League, where my dogs inspired me to volunteer in their honor for roughly five years, and the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed (and LOVED) several agility classes.
When I was working on my capstone project for my graduate degree back in 2013, my husband came home from work one day to find me surrounded by books, index cards, highlighters, and notebook paper. I was scribbling away–in pencil–in one of the books. My potty-mouthed, inked-up, motorcycle-riding husband was horrified.
“Are you writing in that book?”
I looked up from my pile of research materials. “Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly.
“You can’t write in books!”
At that point in his life, my husband had yet to read a single book all the way through, so I struggled to imagine the reason behind his disgust. That he, of all people, should care whether or not I wrote in my books was a bit perplexing. I shrugged. “I mean, I’ll erase it later–since they’re library books.”
“They’re library books?! You can’t write in library books!”
I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text.
But I can, and I do–all the time. I write in almost every book I read. You’ll never find me reading a book without a pen in my hand.
All of my books look like they’ve been through the wars. Their pages are dog-eared (I use bookmarks to mark my spot, but I dog-ear pages to mark spots I want to revisit). Their margins are full of scribbled questions, ideas, inspirations, criticisms, and exclamations. Words are underlined. Typos are corrected in blue or black pen. If they’re paperbacks, their spines are cracked and broken. They are well-loved, if not ratty.
I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath.
For years, I figured everyone read like this–pen in hand. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone resist scratching down an idea inspired by a passage, or underlining a particularly delicious turn of phrase? How could anyone not circle an unfamiliar word for later exploration? How could anyone read actively, critically, or analytically without writing in her books? Impossible.
It was only recently I found out I was wrong–and that a group of readers very unlike me exists. My fellow blogger, Charlene Jimenez, of Write. Revise. Repeat., is one of them. These readers refer to readers like me as “monsters.” Readers like me destroy our books as we devour them. We can’t help it; it’s how we read.
In addition, I actually enjoy reading books fellow monster-readers have written in. I like reading their notes almost as much as the book they pertain to. I feel like I am having a conversation not only with the author, narrator, and characters–but also a like-minded friend, one who writes in her books–just like I do. Sometimes I agree with the previous reader’s assessment; sometimes, I don’t. Oftentimes, I feel like I get a sense of who the person behind the notes is–her outlook on life, her general mood, her beliefs and questions and insecurities. I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath. While I agreed with very few of the marginal notes that graced the pages in a fading, gray pencil scrawl, I found them amusing–and they told me a lot about the previous reader.
Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. Not out of obstinacy or spite–but out of necessity. I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.
Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.
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!
Recently I’ve realized that I would get more sleep if I had less ambition and, ironically enough, fewer dreams–at least of the variety that I want to turn into reality. In an attempt to maintain my motivation, and remind myself why I keep trading sleep for writing, here are my writing dreams, no holds barred!
After a long morning walk with my dogs followed by a three-ish mile jog and a hot shower, I settle in under a plush blanket with some loose leaf hot tea. My beagle is snuggled into her lush dog bed on the floor. My whippet’s warm little body leans into my thigh. My laptop whirs quietly on my lap. I open it and log onto my blog, where I spend thirty minutes to an hour responding to the dozens (maybe hundreds!) of comments a handful of my several thousand followers have left on my last few posts. My tea cooling and my legs growing stiff, I ask my dogs if they “wanna go for a walk.” Tails wagging, they are all too eager. We take a brisk stroll through the neighborhood, and return to the couch, where I read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs before checking my social media for a few minutes. Before I have time to see how much revenue my blog has generated this month, my cell phone rings. It’s my agent.
“I’ve got the best news for you since finding a publisher for Goodbye ForNow last year.”
Sitting up a little straighter, I anxiously scratch behind my whippet’s ear. That was pretty good news, and I am not really sure she can top it.
“I’m listening,” I tell her.
“It’s gonna be a movie!” She is practically screaming. I can almost see her now, both hands flailing, smile broad and toothy, eyes squeezed shut, muscles tense with excitement–and I wonder where she is, who can actually see her, and how, with all the hand flailing, she has managed not to drop her cell phone yet.
“What? What is?” Surely she isn’t telling me my debut novel, Goodbye For Now, published roughly one year ago, is going to appear on the big screen.
But she is. That is exactly what she’s telling me.
“And there’s more,” she breathes.
What could be more? My blog has gone viral. My recreational writing classes are always well-attended. My novel is published. My novel is going to become a movie. And there’s more?
It takes an inhuman effort for me to control myself, and I can’t wait to get off the phone so I can stop trying, and start dancing around the family room and kitchen, both dogs hovering around my feet, the sound of their little talons on the hardwood and tile floors musical and festive.
(Note: I have no idea how long making a movie actually takes…)
Yesterday was my 36th birthday. Today, I will walk down the red carpet, my husband and dogs (I insisted they be allowed to come–family, after all) by my side, to see the movie premier of the book I wrote. I don’t know how to confirm this is my reality–this is my life. For so long it was a sometimes elusive-seeming dream. But it was a dream I never stopped believing in, never stopped working for, never stopped loving to dream. And maybe all that is what has made today–has made this life of mine–possible.
And the best part? It’s not over. I have a new novel in the works; an anthology of poetry due out in the spring, when I will spend several weeks in Florida with my sister’s family; a collection of personal narratives about to come out; a few articles set to run in The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with some other, smaller publications; and book signings, writing conferences, and lectures at schools and libraries pepper my calendar. And of course there will be those quiet days of peaceful writing, the dogs cuddling beside me, the candles burning, and maybe, on a really special day, a few flakes of snow drifting down in a sort of choreographed chaos outside my window.
Come summer, I will take a break from formal appearances and teaching classes I designed to take my writing on the road, spending a few weeks writing on the shores of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, taking sunrise and sunset strolls on the breakwater with my dogs. Then, we’ll head to the sound side of the Outer Banks, where I will read and write from the screened porch overlooking the sound, the sun dipping into its waters just before disappearing, the frogs and bugs ushering in the moonlight. And of course I will spend countless days indulging my literary habits on my back deck at home in the sunshine, and in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia, home to farmers and fishermen alike.
My niece sits on a train somewhere in Europe, a few weeks into her study abroad adventure. Across the train car from her, a woman is reading a novel, Auf Wiedersehen fuer jetzt. My niece smiles, the homesickness she had been feeling just a few minutes before assuaged, at least for now. The woman glances up and their eyes meet. My niece smiles warmly, and the woman smiles back, over the top of her book.
“My aunt wrote that book,” my niece tells her over the clamor of the train, the landscape outside the window behind the woman a blur of green fields and gray skies, just brush strokes of color speeding by.
The woman sets the book down on her lap, keeping her place with a finger.
“Wirklich? Deine Tante?” Her eyes glimmer with star-struck disbelief.
“Ja. Meine Tante.” My niece nods, the warmth of pride and a sense of never being alone swelling up in her chest.
A great grandnephew I have never met browses a used bookstore in downtown Richmond. He and his girlfriend pull books off the shelf, smelling the pages and flipping curiously through them. His girlfriend pulls a book off the shelf, its pages yellowed, its cover well worn. She flips the pages with her thumb, holds the book in front of her face, and takes a deep breath. The cover catches my great grandnephew’s eyes.
“Hey,” he says, gently taking the book from her hands. He turns the front cover towards her. “Look at this.” He points to the name of the author at the bottom.
“Amanda Sue Creasey,” his girlfriend slowly reads. “Creasey like you. Do you know her?”
“No. She died right before I was born, but she’s my great aunt.”
“Wow…” His girlfriend takes the book back. “That’s really cool.”
“It was made into a movie and everything.”
“Really? We need to buy this book–and we should watch that movie tonight.”
My great grandnephew smiles.
“Okay,” he says.
As they wait in the checkout line, the book held tightly against my great grandnephew’s chest, his girlfriend turns to him.
There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.
2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg
I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.
3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.
4. 642 Things to Write About
As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.
5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick
This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.
6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)
This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter. The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:
Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject
The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.
7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer
This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.
8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman
This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.
9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway
This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.
Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.
My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.
They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.
They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.
And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.
It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.
A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.
At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.
But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.
An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.
As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.
I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.
The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.
Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.
While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:
Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.
Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.
Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.
Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:
Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.
Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.
Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.
Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.
Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.
Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.
Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.
I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:
have/has and other “to-be” verbs
The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.
First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.
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If you know of any aspiring authors, please share this information with them by sharing this post on your social media sites, or otherwise sending them to my blog!