Sunday, September 29, 2013

Writers Reading Writers

     In the wonderful book, Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose wrote, "What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire."

     Next Thursday evening, on October 3rd, at 6:00 pm, the Writers' Reading Group comes together again to begin a new season of reading and discussing short stories, fiction, and creative non-fiction from the point of view of the writer's craft. The books we love are our best and earliest teachers, and a close reading of these works can reveal much of the magic of these stories and the writer's art.

     Please join us this Thursday for a discussion of George Saunders' masterful short story, The Bohemians. (Paper copies are avaiable at the Thayer Memorial Library, and there is an on-line version here.) George Saunders is a best selling author of short stories, essays, novels, and children's books, and his writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New Yorker, Harpers, and McSweeney's.  He is a professor at Syracuse University, and has won a Pen/Hemingway award, and a MacArthur Fellowship, among other honors.

Grand Experiments

     “Hi, this is Chris from the CATS contest.  I’m calling to tell you that your piece, ‘The Grand Experiment’ has won first prize.”

     Affirmation for one’s writing may come from a variety of sources.  For some, their stories, poems, or articles are accepted and published in a magazine or as a book.  Others write their memoirs for their grandchildren who laugh in the right places and cry at the sad parts.  Many create their own writing blog and have “followers” who thank them for sharing their thoughts.
For myself, if I’m ever wondering whether my writing is actually any good, I enter a writing contest.  Raising three children who require most of my time and energy does not leave a lot of time for writing the great American novel.  Usually I’m content with the short stories and poems I produce for friends, family and the local groups for whom I volunteer.

Every once and a while, though, as a writer, I crave outside confirmation that says, “Yes, you are a writer, and you are a good one, too.”  When that happens, a writing contest is a wonderful place to receive such encouragement.  Not only do I receive calls like the one above which sets my heart tingling with excitement, but usually a monetary prize follows the phone call which sets my husband’s heart a’tinglin." And often, your piece will be published in a magazine, a writers’ newsletter, or online.

A writing contest enables you as a writer to do several things:  It helps you to hone your writing skills because you want your piece to stand out from the others.  It encourages you to write carefully,  since there are word count limits.  It provides an opportunity for learning how to write for a deadline.  It gives you a reason (“I could win money, honey!”) to do something you really want to do anyway which is to write.

Some points to keep in mind, though, if you want your foray into writing contests to be successful:

1.  Enter contests which fit your style of writing.  If you have never written nonfiction, you may not want to enter a nonfiction writing contest.  If the contest wants you to write about a theme you don’t like, don’t do it.
2.  Follow the contest rules exactly.  If the contest is asking for a short fiction piece, don’t write a memoir.  If they say 1,500 word maximum, they mean 1,500 maximum. If they want you to write about WWI, don’t write about WWII.
3.  Look up the previous year’s winning piece.  Reading it will give you a sense of what the judges might be looking for in a “winning” piece.  It may also spark some ideas of your own.
4.  Don’t enter a contest that asks you to pay an exorbitant amount of money.  Many contests are free, and just as many have processing fees between $5 and $35.  If they are asking for much more, it may not be legitimate.    
5.  Don’t take it personally if you don’t win.  It doesn’t mean you are not a good writer.  It simply means they received multiple submissions and had to choose one.

     For anyone who wants to try their hand at a writing contest soon, Writer’s Digest is holding their annual “Short Short Story” contest.  Information can be found at

Paula Castner

Saturday, September 21, 2013

No Excuses

Life has a way of intruding on anyone’s desire to write, whether one is a professional, a skilled beginner, or a newcomer. The babysitter cancels. “Real” work—the paycheck kind—commands time. There’s a trip, a rescue mission, or a carrot that needs slicing. The house is a mess. Your mother calls a lot.

They’re all part of the daily realities of the writing life. So what’s a well-intentioned author to do?

Schedule it. Stop grimacing. It’s an ugly word, but scheduling is the answer. Writing requires self-discipline. It also requires realizing that your contact with the creative world need not be connected to the perfect setting: soft music, a seashore full of mind-gentling waves, a cabin in the woods a la Thoreau, a library table or any other pensive site.

No, scheduling your time to include writing means choosing a regular schedule and sticking to it. Tell that gossipy neighbor you’re not available during those hours. Don’t answer the phone, answer the siren call of internet shopping and Facebook, or stop to clean the house (I mean, why would you? There is no better excuse for not cleaning!). Do the expected chores—man or woman—and then absent yourself.

And if your schedule only allows one hour three times a week, then stick to it religiously. Don’t fritter it away.

Decide, also, what time of day works best for you. As many writers choose the early day as late evenings—this depends on the demands on your life as well as your best time for clarity and focus. If you are lucky enough to be at home, there is more choice—though you may have to get up earlier than usual to carve out that writing time. Children complicate the writing process, but writers have been having them for as long as history relates. Utilize naptime and go ahead, cave in to the television set for an hour, if that will hold them. Or do a kids exchange with a friend to give yourself (and her) time.

In other words: no excuses.

Believe me, you will come up with them in abundance, but you’ll need to learn to respect yourself, and your goals, enough to put them higher on the daily list. Respect: little word with big meaning. Don’t tell yourself that writing is for free time, or for those without pressing commitments. It is for you as well. Time is precious. Give the process as much of it as you can afford, and stick to the goal like juice on a kitchen floor. Let your own creative juices flow!
The only other thing that has to stick is your seat. Keep it in the chair, in front of whatever implements you use for writing, and away from all those other tasks. Even an hour a day adds up over the course of a week, a month, a year.

Tell yourself you can do this, because you can. You just have to want it.

So remember: scheduling, self-discipline and respect.

And no excuses!

Ann Connery Frantz

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Stuff of Persuasiveness

Practice what we preach! Come join us tomorrow, Saturday the 21st, from 10:30 - 12:30  for a two hour workshop, where we will look at the role of the senses in engaging the reader.

As readers, we participate first with our senses. We believe in what we can see, feel, hear, taste, and smell.  In writing, as in life, sensory perception guides our reason and intuition. It evokes our emotions. It is through our senses we become aware. 

In this two-hour workshop, we will explore the ways sensory detail, what Jane Burroway calls, the stuff of persuasiveness, creates compelling narrative by evoking emotion and understanding in the reader. Time will be given to practice what we have learned and for discussion and questions. 

Facilitator: Paula Castner
Beginning and Advanced Writers Welcome

Friday, September 13, 2013

Precision Instruments

            “O.K, now . . . You’re going to feel a little pinch.”  Anyone who has visited the dentist has heard this  “A pinch.”  The dentist lifts a stainless steel syringe, leans toward your mouth, and reaches for your gums. You know what comes next:  not a pinch but a sting. A piercing.
             “Why do dentists use that word?” I said, drooling in the dentist’s chair last week.
            “What word?”
            “‘Pinch.’  When a needle punctures my gums, I don’t feel a pinch—do you?”
            I’ve been pinched a number of times over the years: fingers (in hinges), toes (remember the 60s?); my rear end (I grew up among Europeans).  And what goes on in my mouth feels nothing like that.
            “Wait,” I said, “Why do you say ‘pinch’?”
            “I don’t know.  That’s what we’re told. I never thought about it.  What would you say, then?”
            He stopped, syringe in hand, and seemed to think.  No answer.  So I answered for him.
            ”It’s a prick, a stab, a bite, a sting.  The injection you’re going to give me is like a venomous sting, like a snake’s bite—a temporarily painful but prolonged venomous sting followed by a deep ache and a kind of numbness.  Were I spending more time reading National Geographic and less time in places like this, I would fear paralysis and death.”
The dentist looked alarmed.
“Why don’t you just tell the truth—at least get closer to it?”
            I waited for “You can’t handle the truth.”  But he didn’t quite say that.  He did intimate that patients would be frightened.  That they wouldn’t cooperate.  That vigorous adults are allowed to gloss the truth for children and the elderly. 
            Dentists are like us: none of us wants trouble. We probe around until we find a word that works for they way we think the world could be, not a word that describes the world as it is.
            Beginning writers do this all the time: We use words that sound good, words that make us feel good, words that glaze the truth, words that we hope others will like us for using, words we’ve read or heard before or whose meanings and history are lost to us, along with our original experiences.  Words that are so vague or trite that they carry sensibility but little meaning.  Words that won’t offend.  Words that are often not honest.
            Precision is a necessary instrument for a writer. A precise word is a service to both our readers and to us.  When we are precise in our language and honest with our audience, we are more likely to be honest with ourselves—another necessity for good writing.
            The next time I visited my dentist, he agreed to prepare me for a venomous sting and told me to open wide and tilt my head toward the light while he found the precise place for the needle.  His precision almost compensated for the pain.

Winona Wendth