Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Hard Part

You have an idea for a novel or a short story. Good. That's a start.

But now comes the hard part: the writing. If you are someone who has been writing all of your life, yahoo!—the process won't be as intimidating. But if you're just starting out, well, "the jungle" out there is thick with pitfalls.

Here are a few tried-and-true basics to help you get started.

1. Be relevant—Write about subjects that affect people, and may pertain to their own lives. If a reader identifies with the place, time, people or circumstances of your writing, that reader is more likely to stick with it.

2. Make it real—If you are writing about insects, you'd best have some idea of their little, six-legged nature. Kafka couldn't have written "Metamorphosis," his famous story about Gregor Samsa, who awoke in a bug's body, if he had no way of studying bugs and human responses to them. He was able to vividly describe how that experience affected Gregor. If it's the West, you'd better have tumbleweed in your bones—you ought to at least have been there and learned something in the process. If it's parenting—same response. Know your diapers and tantrums; you have to know it to write about it.

3. Focus, don't wander—Stick with the basic idea of your story. You can quickly undercut your theme and confuse readers by introducing secondary characters with weak plot roles, or issues that don't really matter one whit to the story. Always, always ask yourself: Is this pertinent to my story? Does it advance the plot? If not, consider whacking it.

4. Find your own style—Your voice (as we call it) is the truest sense of who you are as a writer. It's the place where you write best, communicate most truthfully, laugh or cry with the most honesty. It can only be learned through trial and error, but it must be learned if you want to succeed. What are your strengths when you write? Dialogue? Descriptive background? Conflict? Are you a painter? A talker? A magician? A lover? Are you young? Old? Defeated? Trusting? Then talk like it. Figure yourself out by trying lots of voices in writers' groups. Others will react to the truest voices; you'll be able to tell.

5. Pace yourself—Journalists, constrained by time and space, learn this fast, and it translates well to other writing endeavors. Don't waste words, use them—at their best. Go back and look at what you've written; remove what's repetitive, weak, distracting or misleading. Keep the flow of the story crisp and moving by not wasting words. The reader who doesn't have to trip over boring or overpriced verbiage will stick with you longer. This relates to voice as well. Keep on truckin'.

6. Tone—You must be aware of where you are headed and what you are doing along the way. If it's light and funny you're aimed at, then be that way. Don't insert a seriously depressing episode in the middle, if it's not merited—and know when that is, or is not, the thing to do. This speaks to consistency, focus, knowledge of what you are doing.

7. Inspire—A reader should come away from your work with a sense of renewed energy, pure horror, excitement or motivation, happiness or sadness. Pick your emotion, then spread it out nicely. There should be a purpose and an integrity to what you write, whether it's a thriller in the vein of Stephen King or a romance, in the vein of Nora Roberts. The last thing you want, dear writer, is for a reader to slam your book down and say, "So done with that!"

Ann Frantz is a cofounder of Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative, a freelance writer/editor, and a retired journalist.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Join Us!

For our our upcoming,
Living The Writer's Life Workshop:

                              The Nuts and Bolts of Revising                          

                       Saturday, March 21, 10:30 am-12:30 pm
                                    Thayer Memorial Library
“Are we there, yet?”

 No, probably not. The car may have stopped, but that doesn’t mean we are where we want to be. Has the trip been as efficient, or entertaining as we hoped?  Is the vehicle in need of a mechanic?  Did we lose four GPS along the way? Did we leave our readers somewhere at the last pit stop?  Before we roll into the driveway and hop out of the car, we need to re-view and re-asses the trip.

This craft workshop will provide suggestions for editing and re-visioning your project—from helpful hints for mechanical fine-turning through suggestions for completely remapping your work.

Winona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative.  She has been a resident of Lancaster since 1992 and teaches writing, literature, and other humanities courses at Quinsigamond Community College. Wendth holds an MFA in literature and writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. You can read her work in a variety of literary and general interest publications.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Be Polite and Remind Her Who You Are

In a recent online article, writer Molly Fischer takes a passage from Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” to address writing about our favorite subject:  Ourselves.  Didion advises staying “on nodding terms with the people we used to be.”   

This is one of the greatest challenges we face when we are trying to recreate our past—that is, trying to write a memoir and being “on nodding terms” with the people we used to be.  Dig up your old diary; find your old school notebooks; look at the way you decorated your room; dig through a box of stuff you saved a long while back, and you’ll discover a person more than a little different from who you are today.  If you are writing a memoir or memoiristic essay, remember that that person you politely nod to is you.  But not you: He or she is a character in your story. Write about that person the way you would any other one in fiction.  And even though many of us believe we have the advantage of a ready-made backstory, you have to do that work for yourself, as well—your story may not have happened the way you remember its happening.   Aunt Rosalind may have been taller, or shorter (where are those photographs?), or not really have had red hair (why did she change it?); your grandparents may have seemed archaically out of touch, but what were they thinking when you died your own hair red when you were in seventh grade?  Most central, you must figure out—“fact check”—why you did color your hair, to begin with.  Aunt Rosalind?  “Everyone is doing it, Mom?” A dare from your sister, the resentment of whom you have been repressing for thirty years?  Rita Hayworth?  Why Hayworth and not Lucille Ball?

Look at yourself as a character.  You didn’t pop out of the womb, fully character-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, ready to foster heroes.  Your love of artichokes, fear of rabbits, and interests in railroads or Henry VIII came from somewhere.  Do your research, discover what was culturally common where and when you were growing up, not just in your school or neighborhood, but everywhere?  What was the political environment?  Know your parents—they are secondary characters in your story—and dis-cover as many of their secrets as you can, knowing that your family’s testimonies should probably go under the same scrutiny.   Are you buying whole a story your great-aunt used to tell about you?  To whose benefit was that story?  You-as character needs as much of a researched history as any character does.  That complex backstory might not show up in the words on the page, but you must know it or your reader will not find you believable and will not engage. With carefully chosen details, you can locate yourself in time, place, class, culture, and character—we are all “types” of one sort or another.  But we are also unique—and that uniqueness is at the crux of our stories, then and now. 

So, a memoir writer must be a bit schizophrenic.  We need to be ourselves, but we need to be someone else, as well: the person we are trying to investigate, and the investigator.   In other words, we are not that child or pubescent or euphoric or miserable spouse from years ago—we are more self-reflective, realistic, seasoned. But we still must recognize that other person as we do a familiar acquaintance we bump into at the famers’ market whom we haven’t seen for a while.  Nod, show respect, but always remember: that’s not you now. That’s good material.

Winona Winkler Wendth freelance writer, editor, and writing mentor and teaches various courses in writing and the humanities at Quinsigamond Community College.  She is a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. Contact her at wwwendth@mac.com.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Do Your Homework

“Do your homework,” replied Sarah Bauhan, of Bauhan Publishing, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, when asked about the first step in finding a publisher. “You’d be surprised how many fiction submissions we get.” Since Bauhan’s small, independent press publishes only nonfiction, the audience attending the February, Seven Bridge writers’ workshop understood the implications immediately.

Writers are not unfamiliar with homework. Many devote hours to researching a particular setting, or topic, or to interviewing people for a magazine article. When it comes to finding a publisher, however, sometimes that same devotion is missing, and the consequences can mean frustration for all concerned. Time is wasted, for both the writer and the publisher, when submissions don’t fit the publisher’s list. Money is squandered mailing unwanted submissions. And egos founder as rejections come in. All due to a lack of preparation.

So, what does doing one’s homework look like? The first step is to research publishing companies. Go to the bookstore and browse. Know your genres and see who is publishing what. How many manuscripts a year they publish? Do they accept unsolicited submissions or require an agent? Do they prefer a query letter, the first chapter and an outline, or a completed manuscript? Do they require snail mail submissions or email?  Books such as the Writer’s Market or Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market or Christian Writer’s Market Guide or Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Market will provide guidelines, but be sure to research the most recent editions because editors and process change over time.

Publishers’ websites also provide information about their submission requirements. Nothing ruins a writer’s chance more than sending in a manuscript that is not to specification.  Does the publisher require double-spaced, 12 inch font, and one inch margins which is standard, or something entirely different?  Is your name and title of the manuscript supposed to be on every page or just a cover page?  Do they require page numbering, and if so, in the top right corner or centered at the bottom? 

Though these details sometimes can seem superfluous, publishers receive so many submissions, that an inattention to detail becomes an easy way to weed out manuscripts. Doing your homework ensures that you and your work receive the consideration worthy of all your efforts.

Paula Castner is a mother of three and a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer, writing and baking workshop facilitator, and drama director. She receives emails at pajamalivingwriting@gmail.com.