Saturday, May 4, 2019

Keep That Day Job and Keep Writing, Too

Many writers, aspiring and established, believe the ideal job is to write—all day, every day. But there are advantages to not having writing as a day job.

It sounds counterintuitive, but having a job as a writer isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Hemingway said journalism was a great way to learn the craft of writing, long as you got out in time. What did he mean? If you work as a writer, especially in a demanding career like reporting, you could burn out sooner than later.

Having a job other than writing also lets you use a different mental skill set, meet new people, get a change of scenery and pace, and receive an income. And having the stability that comes from a regular paycheck and benefits can give you a sense of a security that helps make writing less stressful.

Another positive is that your work may enable you to develop a specialty that even if it doesn’t relate directly to your writing now could do so later, in surprising ways. Acclaimed poet-author Cortney Davis was a nurse before becoming a poet, and her work in healthcare not only informed her poetry but gave her a unique perspective and topic to write about.

Whether or not your work includes writing or leads to it, you’re gaining transferable soft skills, for example, sticking to a project from start to finish or tackling thankless and challenging tasks. You might also learn to solve problems by creating outside-the-box solutions that stimulate your creativity. Then there’s the skill of showing up, which isn’t glamorous but is far more valuable than people realize.

But what do you do if you work at a dead-end job that doesn’t offer many advantages? Or what if you have a job that has advantages but does little to inspire you? In cases like these, a little initiative goes a long way.

First, make time — to read, write and collaborate. One way to read well and widely is to join a book club, online or in-person. Also, stay in touch with those who enjoy reading and writing. And do write. You might start by journaling about your day and jotting down story ideas. Keep a running list, and set aside time to develop your ideas. And look for ways to collaborate with other writers. You might meet at a local café, bookstore or library for dedicated writing time. You might also join—or start—a writing group, in person or online.

Regardless of your day or night, with a bit of effort you can stay inspired. Even if your job doesn’t relate to writing now and won’t ever, having work that keeps you from flexing your writing muscles or expressing your ideas can stimulate your longing to write.

The very absence of writing opportunities can draw your heart in that direction.

To help you on your journey, these websites offer free databases of writing opportunities: Association of Writers & Writing Programs, NewPages, Poets & Writers, The Writer, The Writer’s Chronicle and Writer’s Digest. You might even try a writer’s residency by researching ResArtis.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Making the Most of a Writing Event

Attending a writers’ conference requires time and energy. These tips for before, during and after attending a conference or other writing-related event, especially those that include workshops, can help you make the most of the time and create a foundation for what comes after.

Before the conference:
  • Faculty: Research your faculty workshop leaders, and prepare a list of questions about your work and the craft of writing in advance. Also research other faculty, in case you want to talk with them.
  • Panels and keynote: Research the panelists and keynote speaker, and bring your questions to the Q&A sessions. If time runs out, you may be able ask questions afterward.
  • Website: Study the conference website, especially the resources sections, for helpful information. Keep checking the site for updates.
  • Workshops: Carefully review all the information from your workshop leader, to learn as much as possible about the art and craft of your chosen genre.
  • Registration: Arrive early to get a feel for the event and to meet your fellow writers, the faculty and the coordinators. Also carefully review the information in your registration packet.

During the conference:
  • Networking: Get to know your fellow writers, the workshop faculty and conference coordinators. Exchange business cards, promotional materials and contact information with others so that you can keep in touch. Compare notes with other writers about what you’re learning.
  • Book and resource tables: Visit the faculty and other book tables for examples of work by the experienced writers at the event. Also visit the resource table to collect as much information as you can.
  • Readings: Attend the readings of other writers. You'll be surprised at what you learn. And if the conference offers an applicant open-mic session, consider signing up to read your work. This will give you practice reading before what is, hopefully, a mostly friendly audience.
  • Panels and keynote: Meet the panelists and keynote speaker, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Workshops: Keep any reading lists your workshop leader provides. Read and retain all the workshop handouts. Where you need clarity about feedback or other workshop information, be sure to ask questions. Before you leave the conference, aim to have some idea of the next steps to take in your writing life.

After the conference:
  • Collaboration: Consider collaborating with a trusted fellow writer. Also consider working with a faculty workshop leader (yours or someone else) after the conference.
  • Networking: Keep in touch with your fellow writers and others you meet during the conference.
  • Feedback: Give the workshop feedback you receive from your faculty leader and fellow writers time to gel. Your workshop leader provides a worthwhile overview and details on how to improve your work, as do your compatriots, especially if a particular critique arises more than once. You fellow writers also bring another key perspective to the table — that of your prospective audience.
  • Next steps: Consider making a list of next steps for after the conference, and ask your faculty workshop leader for guidance on this. Ask the conference coordinators about the best resources to meet your writing needs. Considering creating your own writing community, and seek opportunities to stay involved and active in your writing life. Check the conference website for final information.

If making the most of a writers’ conference sounds like it involves more than just inspiration, it does. But consider this: “Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn’t work.” Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One

Happy writing!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Reveal Your Characters Through Their Dilemmas

A great way to capture reader interest is to give the main characters of your short story or novel a dilemma that forces them to discover who they really are.

To make the most of this technique, consider these key elements:
  • Creating effective scenes
  • Depicting characters who are unaware of something critical 
  • Developing a character who has died
It has been said that first we make our choices then our choices make us. This is no less true of fictional characters. There’s nothing like being faced with a problem with far-reaching consequences to find out what you’re made of. When you give the people in your stories a life-altering problem to solve, you give them an opportunity to explore and discover who they are, warts and all.

To do this effectively, consider which major problem your main character must solve. Which problem will best drive plot, affect the other characters and serve the story?

To make this technique effective, each scene in your story must reveal more about the characters and advance the plot. In short, what do readers know after having read a scene that they didn’t know before? If the scene doesn’t build on the one before, to expand the reader’s knowledge, then it isn’t a real scene but needless repetition.

Another consideration is the paradox of depicting a character who's unaware of something crucial, for example, a wife and mother who’s always on the road for work and is unaware that her marriage and family are in shambles. The paradox for the writer is that although the character is unaware, the writer must be intimately familiar with these realities and depict them in a way that deepens the characters and propels the story with each new portrayal. In short, the character can be clueless in certain situations but she’s clueless for a reason, and it’s the writer’s job to artfully show why that is.

One major problem a character may face is one we face, too. What happens when someone important to us dies? One way to depict a key character who has died is through self-expression, for example, though letters or journals the person has left behind. In the tech age, cellphones can act as sound and/or video recording devices. However, in each of these techniques, the character is doing the telling or showing. And they may or may not be a reliable source.

A more powerful method is the recollections of others who knew the person. How do they remember her? What do they think of her now that she’s gone? What kind of legacy has she left behind? What were her secrets? Why did she keep them? What feelings does her memory evoke in others? To learn a masterful treatment of these questions, read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, either again or for the first time, to study how the author used other people’s memories, which varied from lionization to loathing, to reveal who Rebecca was.

Like a series of witnesses called to testify to the person’s true character and motives, this treatment allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Of course, the selective memories of others and their responses to those say as much or more about them as about the character, but that’s the point. The testimony of others is an effective way to depict a character who has left this mortal coil, with the added benefit that the portrayal is even stronger because the character is a haunting presence perpetually waiting in the wings.

Whether you’re writing flash or family saga, your characters aren’t who they are based solely how they grew up or where they live. They’re also who they are based on their choices, and that’s usually how they’ll be remembered.

For questions on depicting characters and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Rearview: How and When to Use Backstory Effectively

Ah, backstory, that bane and blessing of the writer's existence. The questions writers in all genres often ask are what details about the past to include, how much to include and where to include them.

One definition of backstory is events that aren’t happening now but had a part in creating them. According to award-winning author Peter Selgin, “Whatever beginning we choose, there’s always another behind it, and another behind that.”

To use the backstory craft element effectively, writers of fiction and nonfiction can consider these three guidelines: Avoid putting it at the beginning of a piece. Use the right medium for the message. Aim for balance.

Backstory doesn't usually work at the start of a story because it slows the reader. Imagine a rail station master who announces a schedule delay then delivers detailed reasons why. While the information may explain long service will be out, especially in an emergency, what's usually first in importance is when you'll reach your destination.

Another consideration in effective use of backstory is the right medium for the message. Common fiction options include flashbacks, current scenes and dialogue. In nonfiction, you can include paragraphs explaining the history that led to a current event, for example, memories from an interviewee. But how can you tell which option is best for your project?

The answer depends on how much information you need to convey and how important it is. It’s generally best to convey only what's relevant to the piece and to present the information succinctly. This way you won’t slow the momentum of the work or bog readers down in a sudden influx of past events.

To decide which medium is best, consider where you are in the overall narrative. Do you need to slow the pace? Consider a flashback or informative paragraph. Do you want to build suspense? A smattering of dialogue or mini scene could be effective. As an analogy, take the ellipsis, which conveys words said but not recorded. In using backstory, pare down what you put into your medium to the essentials.

Another guideline is not revealing too much too soon. Instead, sprinkle bits and pieces of prior events throughout the narrative, to advance the story and reveal more about the people in it. And keep in mind that backstory can include elements as subtle as a scar on a woman's hand to a scene between a dying father and his daughter.

So, what's the perspective on backstory in a nutshell? Put it in the right place at the right time using the right amount of detail. Select the container as you'd select a gift box; pick the one that best fits what you're giving. Use only the information you need most at that point in your piece.

For questions on backstory and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.