Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Online Creative Writing Class, Right Here!

Agent Rachelle Gardner is well-known for her amazing blog -- her content is always informative, interesting, witty, and most of all, spot on.

As I was reading two of her entries yesterday, I found myself nodding along with every single point. Essentially, in these two posts, she's teaching nearly everything I teach in my Creative Writing class during our fiction unit.

IMMENSELY helpful information, right here. It's like taking a class for free, just reading and digesting these two posts, alone. Enjoy!

What Fiction Editors Look for:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Writer-Speak: Gibberish??

A friend just showed me this hilarious video (here's the link) of toddler twins "talking." Sure, it's absolute gibberish to the viewer -- but I could swear, watching their faces, their body language, their hand motions (and hearing their voice inflections!), that they understand EXACTLY what the other is saying.

And it got me thinking -- is that the way the world sees us writers? Would they watch two writers talking animatedly about things like character development, query-writing, brainstorming, or dialogue -- and think it was all just a bunch of gibberish? Probably. But the cool thing is, the two writers themselves understand every word of "gibberish" going on between them.

Writers are unique creatures, I think. We're observant, creative, sensitive -- and we're also easily excited by things that other people yawn or roll their eyes at (Am I the only one that LOVES the look and feel of a brand-new book in my hands? Am I the only one who opens it up to a middle page and breathes in that heady, new-book smell and smiles with glee? Heh. Didn't think so).

So today, I celebrate the creative gibberish that goes on between writers - on messageboards, by email, at conferences, and in classrooms. It's a language we all understand very well, one that most of the world just doesn't "get." And I'm okay with that.

Adsj fwaer'a irgt gdjfga'faek adsifojasdofj. (<--am I right, or am I right?) ;-)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Proof! Rejection Hurts!

I came across this interesting study/article today, that reveals how romantic rejections can actually "hurt" the brain (in much the same way a burn can hurt the skin).

Of course, we writers have known for a long time that rejection (of our work) hurts. It can make us question our writing, our talents, even ourselves.

Playing devil's advocate for a second -- rejections can be extremely worthwhile, possibly telling us something that might be wrong with our novel. That there should be a change made, perhaps several, before sending the work out again. Rejections can tell us that our work just isn't ready.

But, okay, sure. Sometimes, rejections are simply a matter of opinion. One agent's/editor's subjective decision not to pursue our work. Sometimes, it's just a matter of the right one coming along at the right time (yes, I know exactly how cliched that sounds) while waiting through the rejections.

Ultimately, I think it's how we handle the rejections that matters most. Do we let 'em cripple us for more than a few minutes? Do we let 'em stop us from trying again? Do we decide that "x" number of rejections means we'll never, ever, in a million, zillion years be published?? If the answer is "yes," then I think they win. The rejections. I think if they make us give up on our dreams so easily, then they win. I can picture them laughing, pointing at us, mocking us - for giving up so quickly.

It's up to the writer, to decide how to handle the pain of rejection. And, yes. It's going to sting. Sometimes badly. But it can also make you try harder. It can make you dig in, get stubborn, decide to defy the odds. To be the underdog who never, ever gave up.

Where's that Rocky theme song when I need it? it is!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Good News, Bad News

At the beginning of my Creative Writing classes, I tell my students the good news: they're allowed to relax their grammar in this class! They can bend and twist and distort grammar rules to varying degrees. And -- my grading relaxes. As opposed to my 1301 classes, in Creative Writing, I don't have to be as stringent, marking every fragment, run-on, comma, etc.

But, I also tell students the bad news: basic grammar rules don't fly completely out the window in Creative Writing. Students must still attend to correct spelling and modifiers. They must use consistent verb tense (see post below). They must use correct punctuation around their dialogue.

And here's why: anything that distracts the readers, that leads them away from a plot or characters, isn't good. As writers, we should remove as many roadblocks as possible between the reader and the plot/characters. And poor basic grammar can be an enormous roadblock (especially to agents and editors!!). If the reader can sense that the writer does not have a solid grasp of the basics of grammar, the reader will stop trusting the writer. And that's a scary prospect. Because we writers need to gain the trust of the readers, so we can take them on whatever journey our imaginations have created.

I always tell my students that even if they have the most original plot in the world, the strongest characters in the universe -- poor grammar can destroy the effect. Confusing pronouns, misplaced modifiers, poor punctuation, incorrect spelling, shifting verb tenses -- these can be so distracting that the reader can't get past them to SEE that wonderful plot or those amazing characters.

Knowing how to use good grammar -- well, that's a vital tool of a writer's trade. It's the chisel and hammer to our sculpture (our writing), so we need to know how to use it well.

T.S. Eliot said it best, I think:

It's not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them. (source)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

And the Number One Error IS......

I was thinking yesterday about how, after six years of teaching Creative Writing, I've probably graded somewhere in the neighborhood of six hundred short stories and first chapters (<--another assignment I give). And every single time I grade a batch of those, one grammar error pops up over and over again. It's, bar none, the most frequent error I see in Creative Writing papers. And the winner is:

...........*drum roll*..............

Verb tense shifts

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? In a nutshell, it means that a story starting out in present tense suddenly, and for no reason, shifts into past tense (or, vice versa). Here's an example (not an actual student example, just a quick, made-up one):

Melanie walked to the counter and examined the envelope again. She notices something this time--the initials "PK," smudged in pencil at the corner. Pushing down the anxiety, she reached for the knife and slices open the envelope.

Look at all those verbs - past tense, then present, then past tense again, and so forth...

Because that very first verb ("walked") is in past tense, the rest of the entire story should be written in past tense. (And - if a story begins in present tense, the only excuse for shifting to past tense is a flashback).

My students always tell me, "I guess I do that (verb tense errors) because it's the way I talk." A very good point! I think that's exactly why these verb errors are so frequent. We're all guilty of shifting in and out of past/present when we speak, not even giving it a second thought.

But in a piece of writing, that sort of shifting is distracting for the reader. And, more importantly, it's a grammar error that should always be avoided.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

RIP, Bookstores?

With news this week that Borders is closing dozens of stores, I've been thinking lately about the fate of all bookstores. Is it extreme to think that in, say, 10 years, only a handful will be left? If any? Is it possible that my four-year-old niece will reach her adulthood and not remember what it's like to browse bookstore aisles? Instead, will she browse books solely from her i-Pad (or whatever new-fangled gadget is available to her then)?

Growing up in a small town, I didn't have access to the big Barnes & Noble or Borders chains. We had a tiny bookstore sandwiched in our tiny mall, between a pet store and an Eckerd's (<--remember those?). So, anytime my family traveled to the "big city," a massive-sized chain bookstore was one of the first places we visited. And later, in my twenties, I was in awe when I discovered a Barnes & Noble that was -- TWO-STORIES HIGH! Really? Enormous, wall-to-wall books, wherever I looked, wherever I turned. I was in Book Heaven. It felt like such a treat, shopping there. Remembering that store even now, I love that being in the presence of that many books could make me so happy.

The ironic thing is, I'm a hypocrite. Looking back on the past five years, I can't even recall the last time I stepped into a bookstore. I buy all my books online now. It's convenient, quick, and I can always find precisely what I need (and, the recommendations of other "similar" books that lead me to discover new authors take the place of physical browsing). So, in a sense, I'm part of the reason these bookstores are closing.

I suppose I'm mourning the idea of a bookstore. Of just knowing they're there. That if I do feel the desire to browse actual book shelves, to smell coffee brewing, to hear piped-in classical music and sit in a big cushy chair -- that it's still available to me.

It makes me sad, knowing bookstores (and now, libraries!) are in mortal danger. It's not that books themselves are disappearing, thankfully. But the sadness comes from knowing that a world I was so familiar with is about to become so obsolete.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Debunking Myths

Just passing along a great new post from agent Rachelle Gardner, about debunking agent/publisher myths. I love these kinds of lists - so informative! Enjoy!

Oops - that was just part one. And here's today's, Part II!

And here's Part III. (the most depressing of them all, lol)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Three "P's"

For me, this is one of those "someday" posts.

Here's a wonderful blog entry by Chuck Sambuchino, that details his experience with the publishing, promoting, and publicity of his recent book. Excellent, invaluable information in that post (and, in his entire blog - link located to the right).

I'm saving his post in my "someday" file, in hopes that when (<--ha!) I get my book published, I'll already be well-informed about the process.

Just like I did before I got an agent (studying the process beforehand, reading up on blogs and articles about how to get an agent), I'm now moving on to the publication process, saturating myself with information -- what to expect and what not to expect.

I'm so grateful to those authors who share their publication experiences online. I really love the writing community that's so generous with their information. Maybe one day, too, I can become a part of that community and share my experiences, as well! (Here's hoping!)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Carpe Diem

Last night, I was riveted to my TV set, watching the horrible aftermath of the 8.9 earthquake that hit Japan. The most incredible footage was of the tsunami that hit immediately afterward. Cars, houses, lives, all swept away before anyone realized what was happening. One minute, someone was traveling to work, oblivious. The next minute, an earthquake hit, a life was over. No warning, no time to prepare.

One of the first thoughts that came to my mind was, "Wow. It can all be taken away in the blink of an eye." For any of us. A tornado, a house fire, a car accident, a fast-progressing disease.

I don't mean to get all morbid with this post, but the Japan situation is on the world's mind right now, and it's on mine. How does this apply to writing? you might ask. Well, I don't ever wish to elevate the importance of writing to a human tragedy, or to imply that writing is nearly as important as people's lives.

But -- when I do shift my focus to writing, with the Japanese tragedy still looming in my thoughts, it does make me think, "Seize the day." With everything. With jobs, with relationships, and yes, with writing. We never know when our time will come, how much time we have left in front of us. How many years of writing we'll have.

So, we should seize today. We should start that novel now instead of months or years from now. We should ramp up the query letters to agents or revise a book that needs revising.

Today is not too late. But tomorrow might be....

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tip of the Iceberg

There's a quote from Hemingway I love: I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows. (source)

When reading a book, the reader only "sees" one-eighth of the iceberg of a character. But there's a whole iceberg looming underneath the surface - activities, conversations, moments that aren't seen on the page.

Today, I came across another great quote, from an unlikely source. I love the FX t.v. show, "Justified." Not for the faint of heart (due to violence), it's sort of a modern-day western with characters based on an Elmore Leonard short story (in fact, he's the exec. producer of the series).

Well, one of the actors is quoted as saying this, about characters he develops on screen: The life of a character doesn't just exist between action and cut.

I think that goes along perfectly with the Hemingway quote. The life of a character doesn't only exist with the dialogue or action that we write on the page. It's much more than that. The reader must believe that these characters eat, breathe, sleep, cry, laugh - outside those pages. And that what the reader sees on the page is only the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, in order for this to happen, in order for a reader to believe there is life outside those pages for the character, the writer must know that character well. Inside and out. We must know the character better than anyone. And once we have a grasp on that character, we'll be able to inject the tip of the iceberg with subtle hints -- hints that there's much more lurking underneath.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tell It Like It Is

I found a wonderful blog entry (Kristen Lamb's "Product Trumps Promotion") that addresses some hard truths about writers and writing. She uses Gordon Ramsey as a good example to emphasize the importance of PRODUCT -- that, no matter how we dress up a book, or try to sell or promote it, in the end, it's the WRITING that counts. Which is why we should constantly work on ourselves as writers. To be the best writers we can be.

She also discusses the pitfalls of blogging (that it can be used to procrastinate our writing, etc).

I like it when people tell it like it is -- sometimes, a wake-up call is just what we need, to remind us of priorities.