Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Painting Exercise

No, I don’t expect you to paint rather than write (although it’s a good way to relax in between stories).

This week, I would like you to choose a painting. Spend a few minutes every day truly looking at it. Look at it closely (even under a magnifying glass). Look at it from far away. Look at it upside down (yes, if it’s hanging on the wall, you’ll have to be the one who’s upside down).

And write a story about it, in it, inspired by the painting.

I had a difficult time deciding between a half a dozen paintings (Edward Hopper’s work I find particularly inspiring, and also Giorgio de Chirico’s).

The painting I decided to use for this week’s exercise, however, is “Le Chateau Noir” by Paul Cézanne.

Looking back at last week’s object exercise, how was it?

When I began the piece, I expected it would be a mystery; however, it turned out to be something else entirely. The tentative title is “As the Sky Lightens”. It’s a flash fiction (at least in its first draft) of about 500 words, more comic than mysterious, with an unusual (for me) protagonist.

Will I be able to sell it? Who knows? But it’s true to itself, and that’s what’s important. I’ll be revising it over the coming weeks to see where I think I can place it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Object Exercise

Here’s another exercise for you. I’m going to give you the names of five objects. You work them into a story. I suggest keeping the story 5000 words or less (probably 1500-2500 will work best).

The objects:

A coral-colored lipstick

One blue satin sandal

One pair of monogrammed cufflinks

A cigarette lighter

A gold-capped fountain pen

You can choose which items feature prominently, if any, and which are mentioned in passing. Just because there’s a list of five objects does not mean each one merits equal weight in your story.

Now then . . .go for it!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Diaries and Journals

How many of you keep diaries and journals? Not blogs, but diaries and journals? Handwritten or computerized, a safe space where you can talk to yourself about anything? I use “diary” and “journal” interchangeably.

I find it helps my writing enormously.

Ink in My Coffee is where I get to brainstorm and exchange ideas with other writers. It’s personal and public simultaneously. But one of my policies in it is to rarely, if ever, disparage another writer, especially by name. It’s hard enough to make a living in this business – there’s no need for us to attack our own. There’s a difference between healthy disagreement and opposing viewpoints and attacking another writer. But intentional cruelty, in my opinion, is unacceptable. It’s one reason I’ve moved away from writing book reviews in the past few years. I don’t want to always write happy, fluffy bunny reviews – genuine criticism is important and necessary in literature. However, too many reviews are either book reports worthy of no more than third grade English class, or vicious attacks by someone who can only smirk and snipe, but not craft anything else.

But, of course, there are some who get on my last darn nerve, or who really set me off. My journal is a safe place to let loose without inflicting harm.

My journal is also the place to explore personal things I don’t want to/don’t yet feel I can discuss with others. It’s a place to figure myself out. I make sense of the world by writing about it – I have to apply the same standard to myself. Because there are plenty of times when I just don’t make sense.

For writing, the diary is invaluable. I write about writing on Ink. I even write about planning my writing. But there are some projects that, in the early stages, are too delicate to discuss publicly. I don’t want to be one of those writers who talks herself out and doesn’t get it down on the page. The page is what matters.

So, I explore it in the diary.

When I travel, I rarely take a computer or have computer access. One of the joys of travel is to be removed from daily life. But I take my diary, and it’s much more detailed on trips than in daily life. I’ll even go so far as to write the time of the entry. I write pages and pages and pages of description and the emotions they evoke so that when (and it’s always when) I want to set a story somewhere, it’s all there.

Although I hate to fracture myself with too many diaries (after all, the point is to work towards whole-ness), I have my regular diary (the current volume is too large to carry around, but important for my emotional expansion right now) and I’ve started a small, aqua journal that goes in my purse that I call “Miniature Moments”. “Miniature Moments” can be pulled out anywhere, with jottings that flit through the brain that I don’t wish to lose. If I put it in the “fragments” book or in the reporter’s notebook, it gets lost in the practicalities. These are emotional realities, possibilities that I’m exploring. If and when they become a prose piece, I’ll fill in the reality. It’s the prose snapshot of the moment.

In Elizabeth George’s book, Write Away, she opens each chapter with an excerpt from her “Journal of a Novel”. She keeps a journal for each novel she writes, and she refers back to previous entries when she hits a rough patch. The entries are fascinating, and I hope that, someday, she will feel she can publish the journals of her novels, although she may not wish to reveal so much of the intimacy of the moment.

In writing classes, teachers emphasize how important the “secret” is for each character, the desire that motivates the character and causes a reason for the story in the first place. Perhaps, for writers, our journals are our motivating secrets.

Favorite books about journal/diary writing:

A Book of One’s Own -- Thomas Mallon. In my opinion, THE best book on diaries and diary writing. Constantly inspirational.

The Hidden Writer – Alexandra Johnson

Leaving a Trace – Alexandra Johnson

The New Diary -- Tristine Rainer.

One to One: Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing – Christina Baldwin

Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest – Christina Baldwin

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Waiting Game

By now, you’ve faithfully performed the exercises. You either have five stand-alone short stories, most of a novella, or a good chunk of a novel.

As you revised, you created market lists. You’ve crafted a solid cover letter that entices a potential editor to ask for your story. And, importantly, the letter is written in your own cadence, not in that of a formal stranger.

Yes, it is possible to follow all the protocols of a professional and exciting cover letter and still sound like yourself.

You’ve printed everything out and checked for typos and grammatical errors. You had someone else proof it, too. Very often, your eye and brain will adjust a typo-ed word to read as you wish it to, rather than as it actually appears on the page. You know what it’s supposed to say, but the page still has the error. It’s important to send as clean a copy as you can out. A letter with typos and mis-spellings and grammatical errors does not make a good first impression. Even if the editor does not want this story, you want to start a relationship so you can continue to send material you think the editor might like in the future.

You’ve done all that. You’ve sent all the stories out.

Now what?

Remember, editors receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of submissions every week. The ones that are unprofessional hit the bin quickly. But, there are many savvy writers competing for a few available story slots. All of the submissions that aren’t instantly dismissed must be read, usually double read, and discussed. The best of those then compete for the few slots available.

It takes time. Even at the highest-paying magazines, there’s not much time in a day to actually read. Editors and readers read as they commute, or late at night, or first thing in the morning. Or they take stacks with them to the park at lunch. They read whenever and wherever they can. They want to find the perfect fit for their slots.

But it takes time.

During that time, you’re sitting there in a frenzy of despair, wondering why you haven’t heard. Resist the impulse to pester. On your submission log, mark how long the guidelines state it will take to receive a response. If two weeks pass beyond that time, then send a friendly note or email, asking for an update. Call only as a last resort.

In the meantime, work on your next piece. Go through the entire process, from idea to writing to revision, and send it out.

A friend of mine does something she calls “13 in Play”. She always has 13 submissions out. That’s what I aspire to do – although I usually have only about six or seven.

By preparing your market list ahead of time, in the event that something does return, you read the comments (if any), check to make sure it’s a clean copy (and run a fresh one if it’s gotten damaged), make appropriate changes in the letter to the next market on the list, address the envelope, put in the contents, log it, mail it, and the piece is out again. It helps you not to fall into a rejection funk.

Persistence is just as important as talent. It may even be more important. You can be the most talented writer in the world. But the writer who works harder and is more persistent is the one who will have the career.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The July issue of The Scruffy Dog Review is now online!