Are you thinking about writing a memoir?
Please welcome guest author Alana Saltz with a heartwarming article on writing memoirs.
As a genre, memoir has been growing exponentially each and every year. More and more people are finding the strength, courage, and determination to write about their experiences in a compelling and literary way. The success of memoirs like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors, which were both adapted as feature films and released in theaters worldwide, help demonstrate that the world is slowly beginning to embrace the genre.
I’ve been a fan and advocate of memoir ever since I first learned what a memoir was. At only twelve years old, I already had an interest in someday sharing stories from my life with the world. I felt like I had something to say, and as much as I enjoyed making up stories either from scratch or based on things I’d been through, having the ability to tell my own story was very appealing to me.
As an adolescent, I struggled with severe anxiety disorder and depression. Knowing that I could write about the difficult, frightening, and remarkable events that occurred helped me get through some very tough times. I was comforted by the thought that eventually, I would make what happened to me and what I went through matter. I could help other people suffering from mental illness by sharing my story, the way I found comfort in reading the stories of others. I’ve carried that hope and goal with me for many years, finally leading me to pursue an MFA in writing to help me write about my life in the most powerful and readable way possible.
That urge and desire to write about my life has been part of me for a long time. It feels natural and right. But many people have been swayed away from the idea of writing a memoir for a number of reasons, many of which are inaccurate or unfair.
First, people might not think they’ve been through anything meaningful or important enough to write about. I’m of the belief that any story can be meaningful and important if it’s told in an engaging and relatable way. What really matters is the heart of who you are as a person and what universal themes and messages you can extract from what you’ve experienced. Memoirs aren’t just personal stories – they’re personal stories that illuminate larger issues that many face and experience.
Others might worry that memoir writing is an act of narcissism or navel gazing. On the contrary, I think memoir is a natural, authentic, and altruistic form of writing. To openly and honestly share your experiences, stories, and vulnerabilities with the world in the hopes of reaching and connecting with others is one of the least narcissistic endeavors I can imagine. It’s something to be admired, not condemned.
Finally, I know a lot of folks who are concerned with the personal ramifications of writing a memoir. My own family and friends have asked me why I couldn’t just write my story as fiction or use a pseudonym. I tried to explain to them that I wanted to stand by my story and what I went through. I wanted to put my name on it. To me, it was worth any potential issues to be able to say that what happened was true, to connect on a genuine and real level with my readers.
I did worry about what a certain family member, my father, would think when he saw what I had written about him. I tried my best to be fair in my portrayal of our relationship and allowed him to see the manuscript when it was finished to correct any misrepresentations I might have made. To my surprise, his response was positive. Despite writing critically about what happened between us, he wasn’t angry with me. In fact, my memoir actually opened the door to an important conversation that I’d needed to begin with him for a long time.
I have nothing against the desire to write fiction based on life experiences. I love fiction and write fiction too. Novels can capture the realities of life, the world, and humanity in very authentic and moving ways. However, there is a special power and awareness that comes when one reads a work of memoir. The knowledge that the story you’re reading is a recreation of actual events that someone has gone through connects and resonates in a different way.
So, if you’ve got a story to tell, consider writing it as a memoir. There are certainly pros and cons, but if you think your experiences might be enhanced or deepened by presenting them as fact, not fiction, it’s certainly worth considering. It will take a lot of strength, courage, and determination to write about your own life in a way that will resonate with others, but in the end, it really is worth it.
About the Author: Alana Saltz is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been published in Role Reboot, The Urban Dater, HelloGiggles, and more. She has an MFA in writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and recently completed a memoir about her struggle to overcome anxiety disorder and depression. You can visit her website at alanasaltz.com or follow her on Twitter @alanasaltz.
Are you ready to improve your writing?
It’s not possible to improve your writing overnight, unless you hire an expert to do it for you.
People study the craft for years, decades even, and still they strive to make each piece of writing better than the last.
Sure, there might be some quick tricks and shortcuts you can pick up and apply immediately, but these only improve your writing in small increments.
If you want to become a good writer (let alone a great writer), be prepared to make a long-term commitment to the craft.
Improve Your Writing
It might take time and energy to improve your writing, but it’s actually not that hard, especially if you love what you do. Here are some good writing practices you can adopt to ensure that your writing is constantly improving.
- Be professional. If you want to be a professional writer, then act like one. Whether you’re sending a submission to an editor or leaving a comment on a blog, always check your work.
- Practice makes perfect. It goes without saying that if you don’t ever bother writing, your writing will never get any better. Set aside fifteen to twenty minutes a day and make writing part of your daily routine.
- Use literary devices. Nuances differentiate good writing from great writing. When you understand literary devices and how they strengthen a piece of writing, you can use them to strengthen your writing.
- Read. I feel like a broken record every time I explain that to write well, one must read. However, it’s a simple truth that bears repeating. There are no exceptions to this one. A writer does two things above all else: reads and writes.
- Invest in your writing. Buy some books on style and grammar. Get a special notebook or a fancy pen. Pick up some writing software (I recommend Scrivener). Start building a library. Spring for a writing class or a professional editor.
- Participate in your industry. True professionals know their industries. As a writer, you should understand the difference between legacy publishing and self-publishing, know what role an agent plays, and what publishing houses do (and don’t do) for their authors.
- Get your tools and resources in order. How would a carpenter build without a hammer? Writers don’t need a lot of tools, but they definitely need something to write with, whether it’s a fancy computer or a cheap pad of paper and a disposable pen. Make sure you have any necessary resources on hand too, like style guides, dictionaries, thesauri, and encyclopedia (most of these resources are available for free online).
- Get inspired. Sometimes inspiration strikes when you least expect it. Other times, you’re begging for it but nothing happens. With practice, you can learn how to foster creativity and generate ideas that will keep you busy writing even when your muse is on vacation.
- Claim your space. Some writers swear by their writing spaces. You don’t need a cabin in the woods or even a whole room. A small desk tucked into a corner is enough space to get started.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’re always getting hung up on every little mistake and stopping your flow of ideas to repair typos and awkward sentences, you’ll wear yourself out (and lose a lot of great ideas in the process). Write now and edit to improve your writing later.
- But later, make sure you do edit. There’s no excuse for putting messy writing out there into the world. A rough draft is meant for your eyes only (and sometimes, a couple of select alpha readers). Polish your stuff before you show it around. Nothing will improve your writing more immediately than the simple act of polishing it.
- Pay attention to detail. You’ve heard the saying: it’s all in the details. Give your readers enough details that they can visualize what you’re communicating but not so many details that they’re bored with too much description.
- Look it up. Not sure which punctuation mark to use? Curious about whether your sentence is properly constructed? Instead of rewriting to escape the tedious task of researching the rule, take five minutes and look it up.
- Be consistent. If you use the serial comma, make sure you always use it (not just when you feel like it). Don’t switch from plural to singular in the middle of a paragraph. Don’t change tense in the middle of a story. Want help with consistency? Pick up a style guide.
- Be clear and concise. If your message or idea is getting lost in superfluous, fancy words and language, you won’t be able to communicate with people — at best, you’ll only be able to communicate with the elite few who are fluent in fancy talk. Clear, concise words beat big, fancy words every time.
- Check your facts. There’s plenty of room for creativity in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, but there are also times when you have to get your facts right or risk being laughed into the discount bin.
- Stay on topic. We’ve all read pieces of writing that strayed off on some tangent. The writer probably intended to connect that tangent to the main idea, but somehow the connection was never made. Cut that stuff out and the writing will improve drastically. Make sure your final draft sticks with the topic or the main plot.
- Take breaks. Whether you’re writing a 1000-word blog post or a 100,000-word novel, you have to take breaks sometimes. During a long writing session, take a break to stretch. During a long writing project, take breaks to clear your head, gain perspective, and get your bearings.
- Work with a mentor. At some point in your journey toward becoming a writer, you should make it a point to study under a mentor who is more knowledgeable than you. You’ll find mentors teaching classes and workshops. You can also join a writing group, find a writing partner, or hire a writing coach.
- Expand your vocabulary. We writers love to gush over notebooks and pens, but the real tools of our trade are words. Learn as many as you can. Use them wisely.
- Know yourself and be yourself. As you gain experience with writing, you’ll find some strategies that work for you and others that don’t. Find which writing process is best for you and then stick with it. And above all, write from your heart. Disinterest will show, so write what moves you, what feels honest and right.
Do you try to improve your writing on a regular basis? Got any tips to add to this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
Make good grammar part of your lifestyle.
I recently started relearning how to play the guitar after a rather long hiatus. It’s not like I ever learned how to play it properly in the first place — so I’m a true beginner. And at times, I find it frustrating. I just want to pick the thing up and rip out a song, but I’m constantly tripping over my own fingers, and let’s not even talk about the pain that comes from pressing your fingertips against thick metal strings, repeatedly and for extended periods of time.
Writing’s not so different from playing the guitar. Sometimes we get hung up on the technicalities of the language, and the creative flow is hindered. It’s not easy to rip out a short story when you’re worrying about whether you can end a sentence with a preposition or whether your terminal punctuation marks go inside or outside of the quotation marks. These kinds of setbacks can be painful.
Learning the rules is a drag when you want to fly, but to master any craft, it’s essential to build a solid foundation. Learn the basics; memorize and practice them until they become second nature, and then you can really take off.
Good Grammar and Writing
You don’t have to learn good grammar in order to write — just like you don’t have to learn how to read music to play the guitar — but it sure helps if you want to make music instead of a bunch of noise. Your poem might be captivating, your short story compelling, and your essay might be a veritable masterpiece…when read aloud. But if in writing, the grammar is shoddy, you’re going to have a hard time getting published or finding readers.
Even with years of practice and learning, questions about grammar continue to arise. I’ve seen college professors (who taught English) wonder about the rules of good grammar or turn to a handy reference book to look something up.
That’s why I believe that good grammar is a commitment, and for writers, it’s a lifelong commitment. It’s not what makes a writer, but lack of good grammar can definitely break a writer.
The Grammar Lifestyle
I’ve always been interested in grammar and being able to write well. But since I launched this blog back in 2007, I’ve become increasingly dedicated to understanding grammar. Oh, I break the rules from time to time, but I least I know which rules I’m breaking and why.
Today, I thought I’d share some tips for making good grammar part of your daily life. These tips are taken from my own experience, habits, and practices. All of them have helped me expand my grammar skills and become a better writer.
- Stop being lazy: When you’re not sure if the way you’ve written a sentence is correct, take a couple of minutes to look it up instead of rewriting it or hoping for the best.
- Invest in writing tools and resources: These include reference books that deal with grammar and style. My personal favorite is The Chicago Manual of Style.
- Make it a chore: Some chores you do every day, while others can be tackled weekly or monthly. Set a schedule for regular grammar lessons and stick to it. They don’t have to be long. You can learn something valuable in five short minutes!
- Talk about it: Turn your grammar questions into conversations. Ask others how they use language. Oddly, I find that even non-writers are interested in basic grammar questions. And if you can’t find anyone who wants to discuss good grammar, take your conversation online. Remember you should always use a credible resource, but discussing grammar-related issues is an ideal way to learn the nuances, intricacies, and to gain broader understanding.
- Put it to practice: Every time you learn something new, incorporate it into your writing until it becomes second nature.
Good Grammar for Writers
Writing isn’t really about grammar; it’s about communication. A writer’s job is to share ideas, inform, and entertain. Yet grammar is essential to clear writing. If you write without understanding grammar, it’s like playing a game without learning the rules. You’ll be all over the place, your performance will be a big mess, and you won’t have a very good shot at winning.
So, make good grammar part of your daily life. Get it into your routine, and embrace it as part of the work you have to do in order to write well.
Try these flash fiction writing exercises.
These fiction writing exercises are designed to help fiction writers shave away the fluff and reveal the bare bones of a piece of fiction.
We’ll start with one exercise that will help you assess the core structure of a story and then explore a few bonus flash fiction writing exercises that are good for developing concise writing.
What is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is a short story that is extremely brief. There is no official word limit, but generally, stories of fewer than 1000-2000 words would fall under the flash category.
Fiction Writing Exercises and Flash Fiction
Many writers have a habit of using gratuitous words and phrases in order to meet a word count, make a piece sound more rhythmic, or enhance descriptive passages. Often, such words hinder a story because they leave less to the reader’s imagination. Other times, there is so much description that the plot and characters get lost in the fray.
Fiction writing exercises like the one below will help you pinpoint areas where excessive wording is creating a problem. In addition, it will peel away the layers of your story, revealing its core. Plus, it’s a very simple exercise and can be completed rather quickly.
Flash Your Fiction
Select a short story you’ve written that is either completed or near completion. Try to choose one that is about ten pages long. You can do this exercise with an entire manuscript, or with a story that is just a couple of pages long, but ten pages is ideal.
First, save the file with a new name so you don’t lose your original work.
Then go through the piece and remove every single adjective and adverb.
Next, remove words, phrases, and sentences that do not move the action of the story forward, especially if they are solely there for description.
Finally, go through the story one last time removing as much as you can without making the piece unintelligible. A traditional example is: Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back.
Of course, this is an oversimplified example, but it gives you an idea of just how much a story can be stripped to reveal its core movements.
More Flash Fiction Writing Exercises
If you don’t have any pieces that you feel are appropriate for this exercise, if you want to try something a little different, or if you want to do more flash fiction writing exercises, here are a few projects you can tackle:
- Write a piece of flash fiction from scratch and try to keep it under 1000 words. If you really want to push yourself, aim for fewer than 500 words. Remember, the story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it has to have a central conflict. It’s harder than it sounds!
- Instead of rewriting an entire piece, turn a scene or a chapter into a flash fiction story.
- Turn movies, novels, and other story sources into flash fiction writing exercises. Take the plot from a favorite book or movie and write it as a piece of flash fiction.
This exercise can be a lot of fun, and it’s extremely eye-opening when you realize just how many unnecessary words we pack into our writing. It’s also interesting to see the skeleton of a story after stripping away its excess.
Are You Up For It?
Have you ever written flash fiction? Do you aim for concise writing? Got any fiction writing exercises of your own to share? Leave a comment, and keep writing.
Write what you want!
Please welcome guest author Tamara Girardi with a post that challenges the old adage, “write what you know.”
In mid-October, I attended a literary evening with Jodi Picoult as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series.
My immediate impression of Picoult: she was incredibly gracious and pleasant. At a reception prior to the event, she worked the room with a genuine smile, taking pictures and shaking hands. During one conversation, she laughed so loud with an attendee the room took notice. In other words, she was lovely.
So was her talk.
She focused on her extensive research, which has contributed to her brand as a writer. Anyone who has read one of Picoult’s novels expects a blend of literary and commercial qualities with significant research that provides the reader an opportunity to learn something new. Picoult shared stories about her time ghost-hunting to write Second Chance and interviewing Holocaust survivors for The Storyteller. The stories she told about researching for her books were just as compelling as the novels themselves.
However, a piece of advice Picoult received as an undergraduate studying creative writing at Princeton could have prevented the creation and success of her twenty-three novels, nine of which debuted at number one on the New York Times Bestsellers List.
The advice was “write what you know,” and it’s not uncommon. Jokingly, Picoult told the crowd she quickly learned she knew nothing and thought it might be best to revise the adage to “write what you’re willing to learn.” In her biography for the event, Picoult wrote that writing what she wants to learn ensures she’s “energized about what [she’s] doing when [she sits] down to do it.”
Not only can writing what you want to learn be energizing, it can also broaden your potential topics and intensify the uniqueness of your story and characters. Picoult’s latest novel Leaving Time features an elephant researcher. She has written about cloning and gene replacement therapy and dynamics of wolf packs, to name only a few of her unique topics. The winning combination is a story world that fascinates you and your readers.
During a writing workshop several years ago, writing teacher James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel, encouraged attendees to write protagonists who were on the edge of the bell curve, not characters who were like every other character in the middle of the curve. Because of her efforts to write what she wants to learn and not what she knows, Picoult’s characters and stories hover on the edge Frey mentioned.
But how do writers write about what they want to learn and ideas on the edge of the bell curve? Here are five tips to get you started:
1. Look for ideas everywhere:
Picoult got the idea for Second Chance when she was walking through her kitchen and noticed a headline from the newspaper sitting on the table. The article detailed a complaint from the Abenaki Native American Tribe that a new development would be built on a burial ground. An entire novel grew from that one headline.
If you’re reading a book, scrolling the Internet, watching a television program, or talking to a family member and a small nugget of information fascinates you, it might do the same for your readers. Make note of it.
The literary agent and author of How to Write a Breakout Novel advocates for creating a twist on an old idea. To achieve this, writers must be aware of old ideas, so they can make them new. To place the protagonist of my unpublished young adult novel Broken on the bell curve, I decided she should be a competitive crossbow shooter. The idea came from a newspaper article I wrote about a fourteen-year-old girl who had won several sharpshooter competitions. I chose to model the shooter but change the weapon. Besides, shooting a crossbow was wicked fun. Then Katniss Everdeen happened, and a teenage girl with a bow is not quite on the edge of the curve anymore. In other words, the curve can shift based on literary trends. Keep that in mind, and when you find a great idea, be sure there’s a twist to make it even more unique.
After noting a fascinating nugget of information, explore the topic more. Of course, great places to start are local libraries and the Internet, but don’t be afraid to contact people in your community who are knowledgeable about what you’re researching. Interview them. Visit them. Befriend them. In my experience, people are often eager to share their insight, especially if they know they’re talking to a writer doing research.
As I mentioned above, I adored my experience of shooting a crossbow. I never would have imagined the arrow would project that quickly. It was amazing! To make my character realistic, shooting with the bow was absolutely necessary. If at all possible, immerse yourself in the experience you’re writing about. Picoult knew that to write a ghost hunter, she had to go ghost hunting. So she did. Observation is a powerful tool for writers. Take any opportunity to get as close as possible to the people and the culture you’re fictionalizing. Honor them with as much authenticity as you can.
In academic research, there’s a process called “member checking” that requires researchers to share their interview findings with participants for feedback. Similarly, fiction writers tend to share passages of their work with experts to double-check the authenticity. I have several mystery author friends who share their work with lawyers and police officers, especially if they’re writing police procedurals. In Broken, the young adult novel I mentioned above, grief is a major theme in the book, so a psychologist friend of mine reviewed excerpts and offered enlightening feedback. Who knows? The process of double-checking could yield more ideas from your experts, and those ideas could send you even further toward the edge of that bell curve. I hope to see you there.
About the Author: An English Instructor for Harrisburg Area Community College’s Virtual Learning program, Tamara Girardi holds a PhD in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of St. Andrews. Her YA fantasy Dreamseer won the 2013 PennWriters Novel Beginnings Contest and is on submission with agents. Tamara is a member of Backspace, Sisters in Crime, and PennWriters. Follow her on Twitter @TamaraGirardi.
Tips for providing helpful critiques to other writers.
As a writer, it helps to be thick-skinned.
Professional writing is a highly competitive and saturated field where criticism is omnipresent for two important reasons:
1) It’s the most efficient way for writers to increase their skills, and
2) Written work is often positioned to receive much criticism upon publication.
And guess what? Everyone’s a critic — because everyone has an opinion. Anyone can read a piece of writing and opine that it is good or bad, weak or strong, or that it succeeded or failed.
There’s a definite art to providing well constructed and thoughtful criticism, which is designed to help a writer improve and that recognizes the fine line between personal preference and quality of the work.
The process of critiquing other writers’ work thoughtfully and intelligently will help you strengthen your own writing. The tips below explain how to provide critiques that are helpful and respectful. If you can apply these tips to the critiques you give, then you’ll better position yourself to receive helpful and respectful critiques in return.
Don’t Crash the Party
Generally, it’s bad form to sound off on a writer’s work unless you are invited to do so. There are a few writers who can’t handle feedback, and often these are the ones who won’t ask for it. Chances are, they’re just going to defend their work to the bitter end, so your feedback will be little more than a waste of time. Other writers will openly declare that feedback is always welcome. It is here that you should focus your efforts, assuming your goal as a critic is to help people, and not make them feel inferior or feeble. However, your best bet is to simply limit your critiques to those writers who personally ask you for feedback. This will usually be a trade, in which you swap critiques, an arrangement that should be mutually beneficial.
R.S.V.P. with Care
Some writers ask for feedback, but what they really want to hear is how great they are. These are the narcissistic types who write more for their own egos than for the sake of the craft itself. It takes a little intuition to figure out which writers really want you to weed out all the flaws in their work and which are just looking for praise. If your critique partner asks specific questions, you should answer, but try to avoid back-and-forth arguments and getting into a position where you are defending your critique or where the writer is defending his or her work. Exchanges like these are a sign that this is not a beneficial or positive critique relationship.
Bring Something to the Party
If you’re giving a critique, whether in a writer’s group, a workshop, online, or with a friend, you should take the time to really read a piece before you construct your feedback. Read every line carefully and make notes, mark it up as you go, and then jot down your thoughts when you’ve finished reading. If time and the length of the piece allow, give it a second reading, because that’s often where things really click or stick out. There’s nothing worse than receiving half-baked feedback. It’s blatantly obvious when someone hasn’t put sincere effort into a critique, and it renders the critique useless.
Devour the Food, Not the Hostess
Whatever you do or say during your critique, your feedback should be directed at the writing, not the writer. Don’t start your comments with the word “you” — ever. Always refer to the piece, the sentence, the paragraph, the prose, or the narrative. You are judging the work, not the individual who produced it, and though compliments aimed at the writer might be well received, there’s a subtle but significant difference between pointing out flaws in the piece versus the person who created it.
Let the Good Times Roll
When you are giving a critique, always start by emphasizing the good. This is the cardinal rule of effective critiquing, and I cannot emphasize this enough: always start by telling the writer what works and where the strengths lie. By doing this, you’re kicking things off on a positive note. Also, it’s much easier for a writer to hear where they have failed after they hear where they’ve succeeded.
Here are two examples to illustrate this point:
1. The language is effective, with strong, colorful images. I can really see this in my mind quite vividly. However, some of the wording sounds cliché, so one way to make this even stronger would be to come up with alternatives to the more commonly used phrases, like…
2. Well, there are a lot of clichés. You should have tried to use more original word choices. But your imagery is good; I can visualize what the piece is communicating.
The first example is an appropriate critique whereas the second is both unprofessional and inconsiderate. It’s much easier to let a little air out of an inflated balloon than to blow up a deflated one. It’s especially easier on the person who is on the receiving end of your feedback.
Try to Have Fun Even if it’s Not Your Scene
Some people hate stories written in first person, but that doesn’t make a piece written in first person bad; it just makes it less appealing to the person who is turned off by it. Know the difference between your own personal preferences in terms of writing styles and try to separate these from your critiques. You can also issue a disclaimer letting the writer know that some of the elements in his or her work are not to your personal taste. If the entire style or genre is outside of your taste, then you may be doing the writer a favor by declining to critique or by recommending someone who would be a better match.
Help Clean up the Mess
Eventually, you’ll have to tell the writer where the piece falls short. Do this with grace. Avoid using strong negative language. Don’t repeatedly say things like “this is weak,” “you’re using the wrong words,” or “it’s boring.” Instead, use positive language and phrase your comments as suggestions for improvement:
- This word is vague. A stronger word would be…
- A better word choice would be…
- This could be more compelling or exciting if…
Remember, you’re there to help, not to hurt. If someone appreciates your opinion enough to ask for it, then provide it in a manner that is conductive to learning and supportive of the writer’s efforts to grow. Whenever possible, offer concrete suggestions. If you spot a weak word, try to offer a stronger replacement word.
Nurse the Hangover
There’s a good chance that no matter how gentle you are, your writer friend will feel a bit downtrodden after hearing that their piece still needs a lot of work. Many writers are tempted at this point to give up on a piece, while very few will be motivated and inspired by the feedback.
After you’ve given a critique, check back with the writer and ask how the piece is coming along. Inquire as to whether your comments were helpful, and offer to read the piece again after it’s revised.
Learning How to Critique
Constructive criticism involves a little compassion. If someone cares enough about their work to show it around and invite feedback, then it’s probably something in which they are emotionally invested. If you are the person they feel is qualified to provide that feedback, then embrace the invitation as an honor and approach it with respect.
It can be awkward at first — after all, who wants to be the bearer of bad news (and almost every critique contains at least a little bad news)? After you do a few critiques, you’ll get the hang of it and it will become natural and easy. Just keep these basic tips on how to critique in mind:
- Don’t provide a critique unless you’ve been invited to do so.
- Don’t waste time on writers who are looking for praise. Seek out writers who want feedback that will genuinely help them improve their work.
- Take time and make an effort so you can offer a critique that is thoughtful and helpful; otherwise, just politely decline.
- Critique the writing, not the writer.
- Always start with the strengths, then address the weaknesses and problem areas using positive language.
- Be objective, especially if the piece you’re critiquing is not in a style or genre that you prefer.
- Make solid suggestions for improvement. Don’t be vague.
- Follow up with the writer to offer support and encouragement.
- Be patient with yourself as you learn how to critique effectively.
Do you have any tips to add? Have you ever struggled with providing critiques to other writers? Has the critique process helped you improve your own writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.
Don’t let rejection letters get to you!
Please welcome Natasa Lekic from NY Book Editors with a post that will help you handle rejection letters. Read well, because this post is packed with excellent advice.
Rejection letters are a cruel, inevitable part of every writer’s life. However, they shouldn’t derail your writing habits, which is why it’s critical to get over rejection notes as quickly as possible. To do this, you need to understand their actual value and how it compares to the act of writing.
The advice below will help you cultivate habits and a state of mind that will make rejections feel like a passing annoyance.
- Recall the rejections of writers you admire. Most writers, throughout history, have known the bitter taste of rejection. To read their stories or listen to their interviews is a way of reminding yourself that you’re not alone. They didn’t let rejection stop them from writing – and neither should you. Take rejection as an event in your life that you share with the likes of Joseph Heller, Stephen King, and JK Rowling, among countless luminaries.
- Reconsider your expectations. Your reaction to the rejection is directly correlated with your expectations. When you emailed the submission or query letter, did you fully expect to see your story in the literary magazine or did you envision meeting your new agent in New York? Consider the volume of submissions and queries that get sent to your recipient(s). Once you realize how challenging it is to get noticed, rejections won’t feel as painful.
- Play the numbers game. Submit, submit, submit. One rejection doesn’t seem like a big deal when you have many possibilities available to you. Never put all your eggs in one basket. Opinions about writing are subjective. You need to reach out to a lot of people in order to find someone who supports your work.
- Tell your negative thoughts to shut up. Negative energy leads to self-doubt and is more likely to cause negative outcomes. Athletes know this and train themselves to focus away from negativity. You should do the same. When you manage to remain optimistic, you’re more likely to stick to your writing schedule, write well, and think of new, interesting ideas.
- Fail wisely. When you receive a rejection that contains a personal response, appreciate the fact that the recipient thought highly enough of your work to take the time to respond. Approach the criticism with an open mind. Consider the fact that they might be right, and try to learn from it. What can you do differently next time?
- Turn submissions/queries into a routine. The way to be successful in the long term is to turn your submission efforts into a routine. Submitting your work or querying agents should be a tick on your weekly, monthly, or bi-monthly to-do list. It’s nothing more or less. The important work is the time you spend writing. Submissions and queries are a necessary administrative task, like doing your taxes. Turn it into a habit so you know you’re checking those boxes, and carry on with your real work.
- Reward Yourself. You deserve recognition for the work you’ve done, whatever the outcome. You did your part by completing the story or the manuscript and sending it out into the world, which was no small feat. Remember to reward yourself for the work you do once in a while, whether it’s with a glass of good red wine or an afternoon’s walk in the park. Your commitment to the craft of writing should be appreciated.
If you follow most of this advice, the negative mental effect of rejection letters will recognizably diminish. You’ll be able to maintain a state of mind that allows you to get back to the desk and continue writing.
Elizabeth Gilbert says she’ll “always be safe from the random hurricanes of outcome” as long as she never forgets to continue writing. The same goes for you. If you can keep going, you’ll be OK.
About the Author: Natasa Lekic is the founder of NY Book Editors, an affiliation of editors with extensive publishing industry experience who provide freelance editing services to authors.
Is creative writing a lifestyle?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines lifestyle as “a particular way of living: the way a person lives or a group of people live.”
Dictionary.com defines it as “the habits, attitudes, tastes, moral standards, economic level, etc., that together constitute the mode of living of an individual or group.”
A lifestyle is something you build for yourself from all the elements that make up your daily life: your thoughts, dreams, actions, routine, work, family, friends, food, hobbies, habits, and interests.
So is creative writing a lifestyle?
Examining the Writer’s Life
The writer’s life is unique. We spend a lot of time alone, with only our words and ideas to keep us company. We are immersed in word counts and submissions, manuscripts and notebooks. We work under tight deadlines and live in fear of typos. When other people are enjoying their favorite television shows or a day at the beach, we’re busy at our keyboards, doing our writerly work.
We are idea seekers — always looking for the next topic, poem, or plot. Every moment is an experience that could lead to a masterpiece, so every moment is a masterpiece. We live as observers, taking in the world around us so we can share the best parts of it with our readers.
We are communicators, using words to forge connections. It’s not enough to tell a story. We want to show readers what it was like to be there, to live it, even if it never really happened.
And the most ambitious writers, those who are driven to make creative writing not just a way of life but a career, must also look at themselves in a way few other people do. We must see ourselves as authors and learn how to brand and market ourselves. We have to be self-promoters, and we have to be brave enough to put our work, which can be highly personal, out there for all the world to see.
The Creative Writing Life
The writing community is a tight one. Outside of literary circles, when two bookworms or writers bump into each other, they’re sure to forge an instant bond because such a person is a rare treasure. There may be some competition among writers, but most of what I’ve seen is goodwill and support.
We find ourselves outside of social norms. Our day jobs are simply a means to pay our bills. The real work happens early in the morning, late at night, and on weekends, when the rest of the world is playing. But our work is play. We writers breathe language. We engage in make-believe. We search for stories that beg to be told. We are concerned with words and images, grammar and structure, the historical and the fantastical, fact and fiction (and the difference between the two). And while we may be concerned with ordinary living, we ourselves experience a rather extraordinary life.
We get excited over things that put regular people to sleep — a passionate voice, a riveting scene, a complex character. We delight in office supplies, stationery, and writing instruments, tools that other people see as mere necessities.
All these things make up the life of a writer, a writer’s lifestyle.
How Do You Live?
Creative writing is an adventure, and it’s an adventure that is threaded throughout every minute of a writer’s day. That’s my experience, anyway. How does being a writer shape your daily life? Do you consider it a lifestyle? A hobby? A habit?
Let’s look at four types of writing.
Please welcome guest author Bryan Collins with a post exploring four types of writing.
This craft of ours is hard. You’ve got an idea, you’ve finished your research, and you know you’ve got something important to write about. There’s just one problem. When you try to write, the words feel slow, awkward, and off target.
Do you want to know a secret?
Good writing does at least one of four things: it educates, informs, entertains or inspires.
- A tutorial shows a reader how they can accomplish a task.
- A news story tells your reader something important about a current event.
- A short story gives your reader a place to escape to.
- A self-help book inspires your reader to make a change in their life.
Great writing does all of these things. You don’t have to do all four, but before you start to write, ask yourself, what am I trying to do for my reader?
Here are the only four answers that count.
I Want to Inform
Take lesson from journalism. The job of a journalist is to tell readers of a newspaper, magazine, or website exactly what’s happening. Facts are the currency of a journalist. They write the most important point first, the second most important thing second, and so on.
Even if you’re not writing journalism, this type of structured writing will help you inform readers.
Your headline, first sentence, and first paragraph should answer the following questions in increasing levels of detail:
- What happened?
- To whom did it happen?
- Where did it happen?
- Why did it happen?
- How did it happen?
- When did it happen?
This approach will help you inform readers about a topic you’re passionate about.
I Want to Educate
Educating your reader means you must approach every topic with a beginner’s mind.
When you become practiced at a task or skill, your writing voice dulls itself on a groove of repetition. Your arguments establish themselves and your opinions solidify. You turn to the same haggard metaphors and imagery long after their prime.
This isn’t fun to write, and it’s not exciting to read.
Consider starting a new job: For the first few weeks or months, you are an outsider who sees the workplace differently and wonders why things are done a certain way. Sometimes, forward-thinking managers will capitalize on your outsider’s insight to make informed changes.
For those first few weeks, you are a unique commodity.
Writing like a beginner means bringing a renewed sense of passion and curiosity to the page. It means seeing things like an outsider or beginner who is learning something for the first time.
I Want to Inspire
The author Christy Brown was born with cerebral palsy in 1932 into a large working class family in Dublin.
Although he didn’t receive schooling for much his life, Brown still learned to read and write with the support of his mother. As an adult, he wrote several critically acclaimed books and collections of poetry using his left foot.
In his autobiography, My Left Foot, Christy described what it was like to grow up with a disability and how others regarded him. He had no qualms about revealing intimate personal details, such as his loneliness and sexual desires.
Brown inspired many people because he pursued a passion in spite of personal adversity. Through this pursuit, he revealed an essential truth about living with a disability in Dublin during the mid part of the twentieth century. In 1989, the director Jim Sheridan even turned the story of Brown’s life into an Oscar-winning film.
Brown’s story is an extreme example, but you can still inspire your readers to take action by writing honestly about adversity and how you regard the world you live in.
I Want to Entertain
If you want to entertain your reader, tell a story.
This creative skill is difficult to master until you turn to the Hero’s Journey.
This is the basic framework behind many narratives and popular stories told around the world throughout history. Essentially, a hero leaves the world they are living in to go on an adventure. After overcoming a challenge, he or she returns home a changed person.
The scholar Joseph Campbell best explains this framework in The Hero With a Thousand Faces:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his people.
You can find this framework in films like The Matrix and Star Wars. In the latter example, Luke leaves his home planet to go on an adventure and save Princess Leia. What happens next changes him, and he becomes a Jedi.
When you write to entertain, tell a story about a journey and how the hero overcame a big challenge.
Ready to Write? Wait!
Before writing this article, I set out to give you an overview the four most common types of writing.
If you don’t know what type of writing you’re producing, you’ll find this craft harder and slower than it needs to be.
Please don’t be that kind of writer.
Before you start writing, establish what you want to give your readers. This will give you confines within which to write, you will find it easier to put the right words down, and you will have a goal to write toward.
Your readers will thank you for it.
What tips do you have for teaching, informing, inspiring or entertaining? Please let me know.
About the Author: Bryan Collins is on a mission to teach people how to become writers and finish what they started with A Handbook for the Productive Writer. Get your exclusive free samples and start your journey on Become A Writer Today.
Creative writing prompts for crafting stunning imagery.
Today, I’d like to share a collection of prompts from 1200 Creative Writing Prompts, which contains a variety of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction writing prompts.
Some of the prompts in the book are story starters. Some are word lists. The prompts I’m sharing today are simple but provocative images that are designed to spark a writing session.
In writing, imagery is the key that can unlock a reader’s imagination. When an image is rendered with the right combination of words, it magically appears in the reader’s mind like a photograph or film clip.
Here’s an example:
A woman wearing a black dress is lying on the floor in a disheveled room.
Now look at the image above. Note the details that are missing from the sentence above: the tilting couch and mirror, the shiny hardwood floor, and the brightly colored plastic flower in the foreground. These details were left out of the example sentence to create a white space, which the readers can fill in for themselves.
One reader might imagine clothing scattered across a carpet, a broken lamp, and a woman who has been injured lying on the floor, waiting for help. Another reader might picture the aftermath of a party: dirty dishes, empty bottles, and a woman passed out from drinking too much wine. One reader will imagine a wild and beautiful young woman, another will picture an older, more refined woman.
The perfect balance of description and white space provides just enough detail to make the image manifest, but not so much that the reader’s own imagination fails to be engaged. As a writer, it’s your job to know how much detail you need to include in your writing in order to bring out the most important elements of any image.
Creative Writing Prompts
Today’s creative writing prompts deal with creating imagery in writing. Each prompt consists of an item, which functions as the inspiration for a larger image. You’ll need to paint in the final strokes so the image and its emotional implications become clear.
As you work through these creative writing prompts, try asking questions about the prompt you’ve chosen from the list and the image it evokes. Where is it? Who put it there? Why? Ask questions until the image comes into focus. Then all you have to do is use your words to paint the picture you have developed in your mind.
You can use these writing prompts to create an essay, short story, or a quick freewrite. You can write a few paragraphs or a few pages. Let the prompt provide the image, and then let a story about that image unfold. Use your words to follow wherever the image takes you. Does it evolve into a scene from a film? A poem? Ride it to its conclusion.
- A pair of baby shoes
- A torn photograph
- A broken bottle and a guitar pick
- A “no smoking” sign and a pair of fishnet stockings
- An oxygen tank
- A partially deflated basketball
- A fishing rod
Once you’re done, come back and tell us how these creative writing prompts worked for you. And keep writing.
Are you wired for storytelling?
Are you a storyteller? Do you want to be? Then I suggest you pick up a copy of Wired for Story, ASAP.
This is easily the best book on writing fiction that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. The book takes a fresh approach and tackles fiction writing from a scientific perspective. Thus the subtitle: “The writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.”
Before all you left-brained creatives bristle at the word science, know this: the book is completely accessible. It doesn’t confuse you with complex scientific jargon. Instead, it uses simple examples (mostly told as stories) to demonstrate the science behind story.
What keeps the reader’s brain engaged? What causes the reader’s brain to wander off in search of something more compelling? How do you hook readers in the first place? If you want to know the answers to these questions, you need to read this book.
Not only does Wired for Story answer these questions, it explains what are the most critical elements that your story needs in order to resonate with readers. And as an avid reader, I found myself nodding along with every piece of insight and advice this book offers.
We’re All Wired for Story
“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution.”
– Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
In the past year, I’ve read several books on the craft of fiction writing. I don’t think I finished half of them. Some were unrelatable (like the one that used a bunch of novels I’ve never read or heard of as examples). Others were written in a tone that I found dull (and in one case, offensive).
So when Wired for Story arrived in my mailbox, I was a bit hesitant. But once I got started, the book was hard to put down. Not only did it address issues that most other books on the craft of storytelling miss or gloss over (even though they are of critical importance), I found it fun and entertaining, too.
I found concepts in this book that I could immediately put into practice. I experienced several aha! moments where I thought that’s exactly what my manuscript needs!
“Storytelling trumps beautiful writing every time.”
– Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
My favorite chapters dealt with characters (and more specifically, the protagonist), explaining the importance of creating characters who inspire emotion from the reader, characters who want something (one thing internally and something else externally), and characters who possess the all-important inner issue. I immediately recognized the validity of these concepts and because they were explained so smoothly, I could even see where my own characters were missing the mark.
Perhaps most importantly, Wired for Story will get you out of your own head and force you to think not like a writer, but like a reader. You want people to buy your book, read it, and give it positive reviews. So, you better be cognizant of what their expectations are and what they will experience when they read your story. Why should they care about the protagonist? How will they relate to her goals, struggles, and inner issues? Or will they?
Best of all, I found Wired for Story to be highly motivational. I couldn’t wait to finish each chapter so I could work on my own story and apply the concepts I’d picked up.
Whether you’re thinking about writing a novel, in the middle of drafting a story, or working on revisions for a screenplay, this book will keep your head in the game, because it’s a constant reminder that writing is a delight. It cuts through the fluff and gets to the heart of what makes a story work.
Get Wired for Story
“Writers are, and always have been, among the most powerful
people in the world.” – Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
We’re all wired for story, but are you wired for storytelling? Find out what really hooks readers and keeps them glued the page, and learn how to write a story that people will read and love. What are you waiting for?
Get Wired for Story right now.
A few insights to help you write better fiction.
You know that feeling you get when you read a novel and become completely lost in it? You can’t put it down, so you lose track of time. When you finally finish, you wish it would just keep going.
Isn’t that the kind of novel you want to write?
Over the past year, I’ve read only a few books that I couldn’t put down. Unfortunately, several of the books I started to read didn’t keep my interest past the first few chapters. There was a time when I forced myself to finish every book I started, no matter how boring it was. But I don’t have time for that anymore. My book pile is big and my reading list is long, so if I’m not compelled by the time the second act gets underway, I move on and find something more intriguing.
The Best Fiction Sticks
I’ve been thinking about what makes some books so easy to put down and what makes some stories impossible to let go of. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, for example, I had the strangest feeling that Holden Caulfield was a real person. I expected him to come walking around some corner and start mumbling about the lousy week he was having. This sensation lingered for a few days, both times I read the book.
But let’s go back further. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was about six years old. Then I read it again. And again, and again. I watched the animated movie over and over. No matter how many times I read the book or watched the film, I always cried at the end. To this day, quotes from the book and scenes from the movie get me choked up. It’s a story that sticks.
The most recent book I couldn’t put down was a trilogy: The Hunger Games. I’m a science fiction fan, so the dystopian world intrigued me, but what really kept me glued to the page was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She wasn’t fearless but she was brave, strong, and honorable. It’s rare to find female characters of this caliber in fiction, and it’s not every day that a novel with such positive messages becomes a worldwide sensation.
Writing Better Fiction
If we want to write better fiction, we have to read the best fiction, and figure out what makes it so excellent. When I’m absorbed in a book, I always try to keep one corner of my find focused on what the writer is doing so brilliantly to keep my full attention on the story. Some things are obvious: believable characters, an interesting plot, realistic dialogue. Other elements of the best fiction are a bit more elusive. Here are some observations I’ve made about how to write better-than-average fiction:
Give Them a Reason to Read
If I get to the third chapter of a book and still don’t care about it, I’ll probably put it in the donation pile and pity whoever ends up with it. The characters have to want something badly enough to go out there and try to get it. The must have purpose, an objective if you will.
Don’t Bore Your Readers
Pages of description, minute details that are neither interesting nor relevant to the plot, and dull scenes that have little purpose will bore readers to death. Keep the conflict coming and the action moving and your readers will stay up to read your book rather than reading it to help them fall asleep.
It’s the Little Things
Too much detail and description gets boring, but the right details can make an otherwise average scene extraordinary. One liners that make readers laugh, subtle (or overt) pop culture references, and symbols that have deeper meaning keep readers stimulated.
Stimulate Imagination, Provoke Thought, and Pull Heartstrings
Speaking of stimulation, it’s one of the main reasons people enjoy reading so much. Sure, lots of readers are just looking for escape and entertainment, but plenty of us want to engage our imaginations and have our intellects challenged. Get readers emotionally involved, and not only will they enjoy your book; they’ll also become loyal fans of your work.
Do Something Different
Forget about trying to be completely original. I doubt that’s possible anymore. Every story is the result of stories that have come before. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your unique stamp on your story.
Write Smooth Sentences That Make Sense
This one is last on the list for a reason. One of the best novels I read recently did not have the best sentence structures. In fact, some paragraphs were fragmented and disjointed–not so much that I couldn’t understand what was going on, but it was a bit jarring at times. The story was strong enough that I didn’t care all that much, but this type of oversight can mean the difference between a four-star and a five-star review.
How Do You Write Better Fiction?
When you’re reading and writing fiction, do you think about the little things that make the difference between a mediocre story and a mesmerizing story? What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down? What was it about that book that made it so potent? How do you apply what you’ve learned as a reader to your own fiction? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing!