Category Archives: Writing

At Midwest Writers Workshop – #mww13

The Midwest Writers Workshop is a national writer’s conference that happens annually in Muncie, IN. It may be a surprising location, but this year’s conference sold out. In other words, we midwestern writers do exist. MWW offers various writing sessions with published authors and professionals, agent pitches, etc. For more detailed information about the conference visit their website here.

My role at the conference is small. It’s of little importance in the larger scheme of things, but it is of great importance to me and I would assume to my fellow interns.
The story:

Cathy Day, author, Ball State Professor, and MWW committee member acquired a grant that allowed 11 Ball State students to work as either Agent Assistants, or Social Media Tutors. I’m a tutor; my job is to meet with workshop attendees who want to learn to use social media, wordpress, facebook, twitter, pinterest, instagram, google +, etc., and build websites to promote their work. As part of our internship, which is a paid one, we  get to attend two sessions of our choosing.

(Yesterday, I attended sessions with Hank Nuwer and Matthew Clemens. While sitting in these “classes,” I realized that somehow, this is what I want to do with my life, or at least it’s very close.)

Working with the attendees was a great learning experience. In teaching them, we interns gained confidence in our own abilities and learned to better use the same formats for ourselves. But that wasn’t the best part. As a Midwesterner, it is rare to find local folks who are into the same things as I am, but here, I found a couple hundred! The sense of community at this conference is incredible. I believe I can speak for all the interns when I say that we seemed to grow closer as a group, or at least more comfortable around each other, and we all walked away with new connections. If nothing else, that was worth attending the workshop.

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UPDATE:
I left the conference completely exhausted, but also completely satisfied. Having only just graduated from Ball State’s writing program, I was already missing the community of writers and like-minded people. Being at the conference showed me that the community I left still existed in the world and it showed me how to find it. I left MWW with a few new friends who still communicate with me via twitter and a strong desire to go back next year.  Looking back on the days leading up to MWW, I can see that I was underestimating what ended up being an invaluable experience.

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Making Time to “Work”

These days, I’ve got two problems. I think you’ll relate.

  1. People who say, “That’s [writing] not a job,” or “You don’t know what work is.”
    Well guess what, it is work. Even when you love your job, some days, it’s still work. (Ask a rock star.) I’ve been working in some way or another since I was twelve; I’m familiar with so called “real work,” which around here seems to refer to physical labor. I’m here to tell you that I’d much rather be physically exhausted than mentally exhausted. (One of my fellow Ball State Cardinals wrote a great blog on the subject of writing being work . Check it out here.)

    I think it’s common for people to have this view of writing, perhaps more so here in the midwest, but it still gets to me. (What do you say to these people? Anything?)

  2. Finding the time to work.
    Summer daySee this? It’s gorgeous outside. It’s summer, it’s hot, and for every moment that I’m not with grandpa, I’ve got this sparkling pool at my disposal with a begging nephew calling my name. When I finally get a moment to myself, all I want to do is skip and somersault out of this house screaming FREEDOM! Forcing myself to stay in or go to the library and get some work done is near mental anguish.

    I was warned. “When school is over, there’s no one forcing you to get it done. You’re on your own and you have to find a schedule that works for you and stick to it.” I’m paraphrasing here, but this is just about what every writing professor I’ve ever had has preached at the end of each semester. I wasn’t dumb enough to ignore the warning, but it was easier to say I can do it when I was sitting there in the comfort of their classroom. I thought about it, I even planned for it, but here I am, smack dab in the middle of real life, literally staring at the schedule on the wall that doesn’t seem to be the one that works for me, and I’m looking for anything to make me stick to it.

    My situation with grandpa isn’t a special circumstance. Every writer I know has a day job, something that makes them want to come home and relax or hang out with their families rather than bang out 2K words, or whatever their daily goal may be. What I want to know is what they, or you, do or say to yourself to get up and write. I’ve got so many thoughts and words swirling around in my head; I need the inspiration to put them down on paper.

 

What I’m Now Calling Twit-Lit

That’s right, Twit-Lit. What is it you ask? It’s literature found via Twitter and it happens to be blowing my mind. I’m new to the world of indie lit and I often have trouble finding it, which seems to be a part of the “indie thing.” Fortunately, I’ve found my solution through my social media addiction.

(Pause for confession time…)
I’m a complete Twitter junkie. I first made my account back when Ellen DeGeneres asked everyone to follow her. I thought it was stupid and stayed away for over a year before being caught-hook, line, and sinker. I’ve since wasted many precious hours reading the ramblings of strangers and celebrities who I don’t even care for.

follow me bird

ANYWAY, I’ve recently decided to put my social media browsing to better use. Rather than scrolling through my personal feed of, well basically junk, I’ve been scrolling through my #Literary list. (Thanks, Tweetdeck!)

I’ve been following writers, agents, editors, literary bloggers, avid readers, etc. Most of these fine folks are constantly linking material and now there’s no shortage of things to read. Come to think of it, I’m probably missing a lot of lit when I’m off reading a link rather than reading my twitter feed. This is a problem for later.

My latest find? Jackson Paul Baer. (Click his name to go to his website or click here to follow him on twitter.) Baer’s first novel is soon to be released, but in the mean time, you can head over to his blog and read one of his short stories called “My Best Friend is Fidel Castro.” While you’re there, check out some of his other posts that include tips for writers and various author interviews.

Know any good literary citizens I should be following on twitter? Comment below and let me know!

(PS: If you tweet, but don’t use Tweetdeck, I recommend creating an account asap! Don’t worry about being confused. Head over to YouTube, search “tweetdeck tutorials,” and voila.)

Putting the Truth in Fiction

Can you put too much of your personal life in a work of fiction?

This is the question that is currently hanging over my head. It comes with three problems.

  1. Does the familiar, realistic element of the character/story have a negative impact on the writing?
  2. What happens if someone recognizes him or herself in your work?
  3. Are you giving away too much of your personal life?

 

Aside from journaling, I write fiction. Telling the truth can open the door to a world of problems in your personal life. Personally, that’s not something I want to think about when I’m writing. (Kudos to those of you that do it.) Still, to say that we fiction writers don’t pull from our lives to write our stories would be a lie. The novel I’ve been working on for the last two years developed because of one of my obsessions. From there, it took on many new forms and went in several directions due to different things that were going on in my life.

I’ve blogged about the situation I am in with my grandfather, so there’s no need to describe it here, but because I’m a caregiver for him, it was suggested to me that my protagonist work as a caregiver for a dementia patient as well. I’m not sure if that will make the final cut, but at the moment, it’s something I’m toying with. The issue I face in writing these portions is knowing how much of my story is too much. I’m finding that it’s harder for me to write about something so familiar to me from the perspective of someone else. My protagonist is most certainly not meant to be me, but as I read what I’ve written, I see my situation in it, even where I never intended for it to be.

Do I leave it alone? Or is it there for some cosmic reason? (There’s the romantic writer in me.)

I wonder sometimes if “writing what you know” is always the best idea. Is it possible that writers sometimes hinder their work by being too close to a topic, or does that closeness propel it forward? I’m sure that the answer to this question isn’t always the same, but I’m wondering if there’s a way we can tell when we’re in the midst of the writing process.

As fiction writers, do you worry about someone you know being offended by something in your fiction, or even recognizing something?

I’m curious to know how other writers address this dilemma. I’ve read that many authors see themselves in their work long after it’s finished, without having realized it before. If you realize it from the start, is that a good or a bad thing? Can it confuse you when writing a character?

Share your thoughts! Comment below.

The Literary Calling – Why Do You Want to be a Writer?

“Why do you want to be a writer?” I have been asked this question more times than I can recall, but I’ve always had to answer quickly. I’m so thankful to have escape these situations unscathed that I forget them and move on. I never stop and think about it, and I mean really think. That may sound strange coming from a creative writing major, but how much did you know about your future at eighteen? (If your plan worked out, kudos to you! Honestly, kudos!)

With that said, I wanted to take a time out and ponder the question. Why do I want to be a writer? ….

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I was born to be a writer,” “I eat, sleep, and breathe writing,” or, “I’d die if I couldn’t write.” Well, not me. In fact, I say that’s crap. You eat food and breath oxygen, not writing; you wouldn’t die without it, and you were born, but probably not to be a writer. (Career destiny? I doubt it.)

I don’t mean to offend anyone or belittle their aspirations. I want to be a writer. I have no second thoughts about that, but realistically, if I never publish anything my life will go on, and because the world will keep turning, so will yours. Make no mistake, I will be incredibly disappointed, but I’ll make my peace with it and write for myself.

But like I said, I want to be a writer so Why? Where did it come from?

The first thing I ever wanted to be was a country music singer; basically, I wanted to be Reba McEntire. I wanted to sing songs that made people think and feel, but more importantly, I wanted to write those songs myself. I spent a long time trying to write one good song, sometimes I still try, but I’m terrible at it. When I gave up that dream, I thought I would be a musician, a guitarist. If I couldn’t write the songs, I could rip a solo on them and make people feel through the music, and maybe, just maybe I could help co-write songs with my future bandmates. As it turns out, I’m also a terrible musician. (I still try, but I’m a realist and it’s just not happening.)

So what happened next? How did the pattern continue?
Southside High School

High school. Junior English with Mrs. Parkison. That’s what happened. To be honest, I don’t remember the assignment topic, but I remember having to write some type of personal essay and while my classmates were whining about the page length, I was already working away, happy as a clam. The specifics of that essay have been lost over the last seven years. I know it was honest and discussed my relationship with my dad, but beyond that, I’ve forgotten. I have not forgotten, however, what happened the day the assignment was returned to me.

Mrs. Parkison kept me after class, a class that I had chatted my way through. Oh God! What did she hear me say?
But I wasn’t in trouble, I was being rewarded.
What the hell is happening right now?
She pulled my essay out of her desk drawer and handed it to me, an essay that wasn’t due back to us for another two days. I looked at the front page. There was no grade, no red marks, not even green.

“I have to redo it?”

“No, if anything, you should expand it, but you don’t have to for class. I just wanted to tell you that for a student who hates English, you’ve got a real knack for words. This is very good. You should be proud.”

I was dumbfounded. I didn’t really know what to say. I had fought through boredom and struggled my way through every English class I’d ever had. My favorite subject, besides music, was Math. I liked the concreteness of math. (2+2 = 4, not, “Well, if you count the points on the 2s, the numbers could really be saying six, we’ll never really know.”) I liked completing an equation and getting it right; I liked just knowing there was a right and a wrong answer. Math was methodical, structured. I needed it. I understood it. I thought English was guess work. Students were pulling things out of thin air and if the teacher thought they were clever, they got an A, at least that’s what I thought. I was 17, almost 18, and to just then be told that I had a “knack for words” was both exciting and annoying. I liked doing well in school and having the respect of my teachers, so it was nice to be complimented, but I preferred going unnoticed in English. The annoyed part of me came from thinking I was going to have to compete with that essay for the rest of the semester if I wanted to keep my 3.8 GPA (*cough* gym. *cough*)

For a while, I was mad at myself for not just writing something sufficient, but in the back of my mind, I lingered on the one note that she’d written on my essay. Walking out of her classroom, I flipped to the last page looking for notes or a grade, expecting a B+ this time.

A plus“A+ I cried while reading this.”

My words made her cry? They made her cry. That was it, I did it. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t write songs, I couldn’t play guitar, but I could write. That was my outlet. I don’t know why I didn’t figure it out before then; I’d been writing short stories since I learned to squiggle on the page. I guess I was blinded by music. (Who doesn’t want to be a rockstar?)

So, why do I want to be a writer?

Because at a time when I felt completely misunderstood, when I was working and worried about money, when I couldn’t relate to anyone my age and was in desperate need of an outlet, writing fell into my lap. No, writing slapped me in the face and yelled WAKE UP! I was always different. From the time I developed a personality until this very day, I have been a bit of an outcast. I can blend in well enough in most social situations, I don’t “stick out like a sore thumb,” but inside, I feel different, out of place. When I write something and someone gets it, I feel like they get me. I feel understood and I feel like maybe someone like me might find something I’ve written and feel understood, too. That is why I want to be a writer.

Publishing 101: A beginner’s first look

Last week, I shared with you 10 things I learned about being a writer; this week, I bring to you another list. (Drum roll, please)

5 Things I Learned About Publishing!

Book-Printing

(Ok, so this is a printer, but would you rather have a picture of a desk?)

Alright, publishing… *shivers* (That word scares me, sometimes.)

  1. The difference between small press, independent press, and micro press…
    To be honest, it was not until recently that I had any clue about these differences. The sad part about this is that it has probably been mentioned to me ten different times, but this week it was different. This week, I had to read the difference for myself rather than having it handed to me. Perhaps that’s not fair. It was in essence handed to me. I was given a Wikipedia link by a professor. (That’s right, a professor used Wikipedia! But hey, sometimes it’s got its act together.) So what did I find? In the past I have wondered what would be right for me because realistically, I know if I publish, it will probably NOT be with one of the “big dogs.” I thought there were three other options, small presses, independent presses, and micro presses. Well, apparently that’s two options.(?) Small & independent presses are terms often used interchangeably and micro presses are publishers that produce chapbooks or other small books on a very small scale. (Small as in maybe 50 copies of one book in a year.) Well thank you, Wikipedia. Apparently I’m looking for small/independent presses. Click here if you want to check it out for yourself. 
  2. What do editors want?
    I’ll let you in on a little secret; they don’t know. Stop trying to write that book that you think they want, that book you think will make money, that book that fits all their patterns. Write the book you want to write because not only do you not know what they really want, they don’t even know. Trends change and the work that speak to an editor will change, too. No one stays the same forever, right?
    And while we are talking about editors… Let me tell you what dawned on me for the first time. If you’re thinking about becoming an editor, be prepared for a thankless job. Perhaps the author of the book you spin into gold will be appreciative, but to paraphrase Betsy Lerner, no reader finishes a book and says, “My God, the editor did a fantastic job with that one!” No one asks the editor to sign their book either. Have you? Seems a little odd since so many of us writers are desperate for that big deal that comes with an editor.
  3. It’s a lengthy process.
    And here I was thinking it was writing the book that took forever! Having read up on the sometimes horrifying topic that is publishing, and attending a first-time published author panel–first book that is, I’m realizing that the publishing side can take just as long, if not longer–depending on how you write. From the moment your book gets selected to the moment it’s printed, bound, and in your hand, you could be looking at years. Yes, that is plural.
  4. Platform!
    Even with the rise of e-readers, I’ve always had a romanticized view of “literature” and all that it entails, including the authors. I used to think the publishing world would always be a business of the dark age, but as usual, what do I know? I’ve learned in my Literary Citizenship class this semester that authors need a platform and an online presence. This week I learned that not only do I need a platform, I sort of already have one and if you find yourself reading this blog, chances are you have one, too. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google +, Tumblr, Instagram, Goodreads, GetGlue, WordPress. These are just the forms of social media that I have on my phone! Everything I post on each of them shapes my platform. How much have I posted before I realized that? How many things should I have put more thought into beforehand? How many message boards have I posted on that can link back to me? This is something all new writers should really be thinking about.
  5. How many times must we see/hear of a book before we pick it up?
    I recently read a story published in Ninth Letter by my professor Cathy Day called “YOUR BOOK: A Novel in Stories.” The story comes from her “Theory of 5 Pops,” which I’d heard her mention in a past class. The theory is that a book will “pop” onto your radar at least five times before you actually buy it. This could be anything from seeing the cover in a store or while someone else was reading it, or reading a review of it. So while I had heard this before, I feel like I learned it this week because the story made it sink in. As I was finishing her story, I started thinking about my past purchases? The following was my thought process–

    Do I do that? How many times did I hear about my favorite book before I actually bought a copy?  Wow, I do that! How many times have I rented a book at the library with a $20 in my pocket instead of buying it? How many of those were books that are still in circulation? How many current books have I bought used copies of?

    All of this lead me to wonder if as a “5 pop” cosumer, am I killing authors’ careers? What if that fifth “pop” takes so long to make it to my radar that buying the book then won’t really help the author’s career?

Side note: I encourage you to think about that fifth point. How responsible are we for the fall of the publishing industry? (For this reason and so many others.)

Being a Writer: 10 Things I Learned This Week

If you’re studying writing and you don’t learn something everyday, you’re probably doing it wrong. I could name ten things I learned today, but let’s just go with 10 things from this week.

  1. Make your literary life less lonely. Build a network in undergrad/graduate school. Try to find online groups if you can and keep this network going outside of school! You’ll need it.
  2. Experiment. Exercise your brain. Dabble in other formats in both writing and reading.
    “The more things you can try, the better off you’ll be.” – Marcus Wicker.
  3. Make time to write! … Okay, so I knew this already, but after hearing different writers talk about their very different processes, from writing during summer vacation to writing once a week to writing everyday, it feels less daunting. So how about, Make a writing schedule works for you.”
  4. Write the book you want to read! Then ask yourself, why would anyone want to read this? 
  5. ‘“Writer” is not a distinction that is conferred upon us by a degree.”  We tend to feel more like writers when we’re in school. When we’re there, we’re writing and people are reading it and giving us feedback, so we go to grad school to hold onto that, but that isn’t what makes us writers. If you have to be in school to write, then it’s not for you. – Cathy Day.
  6. Graduate school: It’s not a requirement, but it gives you a boost. You get time to write and you find people to work with.
    *Take time off before you go. Get out in the world and have some experiences, something to write about. Get a job that makes you want to quit to go back to school and write; you don’t have to go right after graduation.
    *If and when you do go, USE THE TIME TO WRITE! Your goal should be to leave with something polished.
    *You do NOT have to pay for grad school. Try to find a program that has funding for you.
  7. Be prepared for rejections. You’re going to get them. Remember that you aren’t doing it for the money, you’re doing it for you. It helps to have mentors who remind you that they had just as many rejections at one point in time.
  8. How do I find places to submit? READ A LOT! If you’re starting out and like me, you keep wondering how to go about finding the right places to submit your work when it’s ready, first, read a lot and while you’re reading, pay attention to the publisher. Are they publishing work similar to yours? Those are the places you need to be submitting to. Read journals! There are so many, there’s bound to be one that interests you and that’s probably a good place for you to submit.
    *Before you submit, put your work aside for a little while, a month, maybe longer, and then go back to it. Do you still like it? Do you still believe in it? Send it.
  9. I have my MFA. What do I do with it? Teach writing. Go into editing or publishing. Nothing? Even if your job doesn’t require your degree, you will gain invaluable skills in pursuit of it that will help you in all sorts of areas and if nothing else, it’s going to help your writing. That’s the point, isn’t it?
  10. Be a Literary Citizen! Support the world you want to be a part of. Buy new books. Let authors know you appreciate their work. Suggest things to others. Talk up your favorites.
    Participate in the literary community where you live. If you think there isn’t one, you probably just haven’t found it yet. If there really isn’t one, make one! Start a book club. Host a reading. Neither are as hard to do as you might think. There are local writers everywhere and they want to get their work out there so they’ll be willing to read and venues want the business so they’ll host. If not, do it in your house. Why not?

Keeping with the Literary Citizenship idea, I think this is worth mentioning….

Yesterday I went to a reading at Ball State University’s In Print: Festival of First Books. (All of the visiting writers have recently published their first book. Title-tada.) At the end of it, I was standing in the back of the room by the book table, checking to see if there was anything I didn’t have–there wasn’t. As I was looking, I realized one of the authors was standing next to me, buying both of the books by the other visiting writers.
I made a little memo-to-self to share this. It probably shouldn’t have been so noticeable. I should’ve been thinking of course he would do that, but I was really thinking Wow, that’s really nice of him, as if this was surprising, and then, that’s a good definition of literary citizenship. Now I’m wondering if the other authors have done or will do the same…?

It should be understood with all of this talk about networking and workshopping, but I’ll put it plainly one more time. You can’t expect people to be interested in what you’re doing if you’re not supporting what others are doing. (Pay attention to #10.)

Multiple Character Arcs, are you frustrated?

Got a lot of characters? Need to weave them? Having trouble? I’ve struggled with this since, uhm, forever…

Do we write short stories for each character? Divide perspectives by chapters? Sections? Write only in third person??? I’ve been giving my fingers a workout trying to find some good blogs/chapters/articles on strategies for weaving multiple character arcs and I’m not coming up with much.

The only thing I can think to do is study the work of the authors who are already doing it so well, and they are out there.

Circus in Winter, Pure, The Sweethereafter

  1. Cathy Day’s Circus in Winter. This book is a “novel in stories.” It’s a format I was unfamiliar with before reading this book, but after a couple of stories, I started grasping what was happening structurally, and each story hooked me. In the end, the reader has enough information to build this world chronologically and connect the puzzle, if you want to. (Great read) 
  2. Julianna Baggott’s Pure. This is a young adult fiction novel that blends literary and commercial work. In it, each chapter is labeled with the perspective of the character it’s written from and they go back and forth. It really helps the reader see all sides of the coin. In terms of format, think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Also a great read.)
  3. Russell BanksThe Sweet Hereafter. This format is similar to Pure, in the way that each story is from a different character’s POV, but it focuses around one event. If you’re writing something more singular and trying to include so many thoughts, this could be a handy study guide.

Of course there are more, these are just a few more recent reads I wanted to mention. But lets say you’re in a hurry for some reason and you just don’t have time to sit down and not only read a bunch of character-rich books, but truly study their craftsmanship.

Alternative route? TV. Lots of shows get you invested in multiple characters. It’s become incredibly popular in recent years to have large ensemble casts and it’s a trend starting to show up in film more and more as well. (See Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve for example. –Not movies I recommend on merit, however.)

Which television shows are good for this?

Number 1, without a doubt, is Friday Night Lights.

Friday Night Lights cast

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, you should check it out. (All 5 seasons are on Netflix.) There is a never ending supply of simultaneous storylines in that show. Lets see how many major characters I can think of off the top of my head…

       Coach, Mrs. Taylor, Julie, Saracen, Riggins, Lila, Street, Tyra, Landry, Buddy, Billy, Mindy, “Grandma,” Smash, Vince, Jess, Luke, Becky, JD. (19!)

Alright, I’m just going to stop, but I could keep going.

It sounds hectic, but honestly, the writing and production are so good that you can follow it all and you can’t help but to be invested.

Other such shows are Nashville, Chicago Fire, Grey’s Anatomy (the early seasons), and Prison Break.

Nashville, Chicago Fire, Grey's Anatomy, Prison Break

With that in mind, I am not saying avoid the reading and watch TV. In fact, I’m not saying that at all, nor would I ever! Why should someone read your work someday if you’re not reading anyone’s? But if you find yourself needing to give your brain a bit of a rest or are unable to sit down with a book for a moment, I’d recommend a little not-so-mindless TV, but mostly Friday Night Lights. It’s a forever-favorite!

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UPDATE:

As it turns out, author Cathy Day has a blog post about this very issue. It offers strategy and other book recommendations. Click here to check it out!