Recycled: Books

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)

Last spring I attended a vintage craft fair and my take-away was unexpected. The fair was a delightful mix of antiques and art but with a twist—the old and the new were fused together in a recycling theme. Familiar objects got a second life as they were transformed into something new with added parts and new purpose like the birdhouses made from broken crockery and ancient-looking license plates. Painted signs from bygone days were transformed into coffee tables. Purses and tote bags were created from recycled juice boxes, candy wrappers, and burlap sacks straight from somebody’s barn. I felt a resurgence of my own creativity happening with every step, every glance, and every touch. Some of the crafts I wanted to try out like the folk art ocean buoys and the wind chimes made from fishing wire, spoons, and glass doorknobs. Both would look pretty nifty in my front garden I thought.

I walked around for about an hour when I spied the book tent. I was almost giddy and I could hardly wait to see what treasures awaited inside. I paused a moment for a crowd of young families to exit and stepped into the small space immediately surprised at what I didn’t see—where were all the books? I expected a table of stacked books sorted by author or genre: contemporary fiction novels piled high–crime, mystery, horror, historical, romance–and another section of non fiction–biography, poetry, memoir, coffee table books on various subjects, crates of old trade journals and magazines. But there were no tables. No crates. No vintage journals.  Not even an old Playboy magazine. When the last of the crowd headed toward the door flap I saw bookcases lining the perimeter—books at last!

Photo credit: Pimthida/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Background Image: Pimthida/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I made my way over to a case that displayed classics. They were shelved with their covers facing out. There weren’t very many but I did spy some familiar old friends:  Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Dracula, Huckleberry Finn, Scrooge, and The Great Gatsby himself. They were hard cover editions and I reached for Mary Shelley’s book. It had a black leather cover with faded, etched details. I held it in my hand a moment and when I was sure no one was watching I lifted it up to my face and inhaled deeply. It smelled old and oily and reminded me of saddle leather. It was a beautiful book and would be “a first” in my collection of classic novels. I brushed its cover with the palm of my hand… so soft and worn like it belonged to Frankenstein himself. I turned the cover over to see what was on the back and that was when I noticed the spine. Someone had carefully taken it apart and added thin leather strapping like shoelaces that held its two covers in place. (The spine flipped open and shut thus hiding the strapping.) I opened the copy and found its pages had been replaced with blank ones–it was a literal absolute blank. I fanned through it and felt a little pinch in my heart. All that was left of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece was its leather façade. I replaced it and reached for Huckleberry Finn and felt another pinch.

On another shelf I spied Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and some kid’s books from the golden age of children’s literature—a Dick and Jane story from the 1950s, and other books that I didn’t recognize. They were all the same inside. They were all just the covers devoid of their printed pages, reduced to notebooks or journals. I picked over a few more when I caught the eye of the proprietor. She smiled and was about to say something when two women came in and distracted her. They went straight for the rose-colored copy of Vanity Fair, marveling at the ingenuity of the “artist” who created such a thoughtful and “useful” article.

Meanwhile, I stood there in horrified fascination watching them pull the journals from the shelves as I had done just moments before. It was like witnessing something terrible and not being able to look away. In those moments, I thought about the authors—how they would feel to see their life’s work capitalized upon in such a grotesque manner. My spell broke when one of the women asked me if I was going to buy the remains of the Jane Austin book that I was clutching to my chest. I shook my head and gave her the copy before leaving.

I thought about this encounter all the way home. I felt repulsed. Had the covers of the journals been replicated, made to “look” like the books themselves, then I would be okay with it. Some of the most revered classics and artwork have had their cover images borrowed and placed on tote bags and mugs. I own a graphic T-shirt with the imprint of a famous Japanese woodcut painting that I wear guilt-free. But the books on display at the vintage craft fair were in fact the real covers of real books, the skeletal remains of what I considered to be icons of our literary culture. I felt a small fissure forming in one my ventricles. Was I over-reacting?

I thought some more.

I thought about the physical life cycle of a book. A book is created inside a publishing house and is born in the bookstores and in the big warehouses waiting for its first owner. After purchase it may linger on a shelf for weeks or months or even years before being read and then perhaps given away or re-sold. The lucky ones might make their way to a secondhand book shop or onto Craigslist or tragically and most likely end up in the carton at the end of someone’s driveway after a yard sale, homeless and at the mercy of the elements.

The story is not over. Perhaps a book dealer comes along and pulls the weathered volume out of the box and recognizes that it is a first edition collector’s item. It is sold at auction. That is a fortunate book, indeed, and it will spend its days in a glass library to be revered, but sadly again, never read. Better still, maybe the yard-salers will donate their unwanted collection to local charities that will distribute them to public institutions or maybe send them abroad as ambassador books to those who have a dire need for books. Books that don’t make the cut I presume would be put in the recycled paper bin or worse burned as kindling. My heart feels heavy from this thought. So what do we do with books that have outlived our need for them? Books that are beyond repair?

In my ideal world, we would send them to my figurative friend, Mortimer “Mo” Folchart, a character‬ from Cornelia Funke’s YA novel, Inkheart. Mo is a craftsman who makes his living repairing books and has the added talent of breathing life into characters that he reads aloud. A true book doctor he is. But there are no more Mos in the real world. At least none that I can think of outside of museums and monasteries…

Still, some people might argue that that we should be saving trees and reading books and other print on electronic devices. In fact, many readers I know are moving away from hard copies and are doing just that. When they are finished they have the option to save their book electronically, or click the delete button and be done with it. Nothing wasted or left behind. Yet, what of the rest of us whose books inhabit a shelf or more?  Should we have a funeral for them and bury them in the backyard? Rip out their pages and make paper wallets and cute origami animals?

In late November I returned to the fairgrounds, this time to visit the vintage holiday bazaar, some of whose artists and crafters I had seen earlier. Many of their wares were recreated art on a holiday theme. Not surprising, I also found more recycled books. This time carved into the shapes of pine trees and candy canes and letters that made words like: JOY and CHEER and MERRY. I admit that I wasn’t feeling very joyful or cheerful or merry as I picked through them. I found their pages intact but impossible to read due to their re-shaping and re-sizing. Once again, people found them to be clever and charming and bought them for $10 a piece. I suppose that the world won’t miss a 1972 copy of Reader’s Digest or an Encyclopedia Britannica that predates the Internet.

s-book

In fact, I received a monogram book as a gift. Ironic it is and even more so now that it is displayed in a place of honor facing out on the shelf alongside some of my favorite volumes. The book is in the shape of my first initial letter and was given to me by a very-special-somebody who recognizes me truly as a lover of books, a purveyor of novels and stories, a life-long reader. The recycled book may have indeed reached its final use and in its last life, it shall remain on my shelf indefinitely despite its appearance because it still resonates meaning.

How to Write a Book Review (and How to Request One)

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)

Mindset:

I think one of the important components in writing a book review is mindset. One needs to be open minded to reading books that they may not typically read. Professional editors and writers may have the option of choosing the books they review with the added perk of a salary. At Toasted Cheese and many other literary journals the editors and writers review books for the joy of it and to support fellow writers. It is a labor of love.

Revving Up before Reading:

Another practice I follow is to learn about the author before reading his/her book. I visit blogs, social media, and websites. Knowing something about the author makes the reading a more personal experience and may help later when it is time to write the review and the short biography that follows. I also look in the Toasted Cheese archives to see if there are submissions and links to other writing. It is like taking a test drive before driving cross-country.

Mindfulness:

The task also requires mindfulness. Before I open a book that is slotted for review, I always ask: What makes this a good book? This is a great question particularly if one is reviewing a book that is outside of their writing or reading genre(s). Giving myself an assigned question truly helps to focus on the task. Within the context of the question there are three sub-parts that I consider: What is this book about? This relates to genre, character and plot, the general information that most reviews contain. What do I notice within the text? This refers to style, language, theme, vocabulary, etc. a.k.a. the writer’s toolbox. Lastly, what do I notice beyond the story? Does it relate to the real world in any way? Are there comparisons or contrasts that can be drawn?

Another name for this practice is active reading. Meanwhile, I’m annotating the copy—I’m circling, underlining, highlighting, and writing notes in the margins. I also attach sticky notes on the pages that answer my question(s). By the time I finish reading, there are usually a dozen or more colored notes sticking out of the copy.

I take my time with every book and collection of poetry and stories and when I’ve finished reading and annotating, I let the words simmer in my mind for days before my fingers touch the keyboard. This is how I begin.

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan/Flickr (CC-by)

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Tips for Writing a Review for Toasted Cheese:

  • Keep in mind Candle-Ends is our way of connecting the TC community with the literary journal. We’re looking for positive/neutral reviews that support the writers in our community.
  • We’re ok with fluffy, but not with false praise. Be honest, but kind.
  • We know one of the reasons writers hesitate to write reviews is they’re unsure how to handle reviewing a book they didn’t love unequivocally. Here are some suggestions:
    • Describe the book. For a novel, tell readers about the key characters, the gist of the plot, the setting. For short stories or poetry, give readers an overview of the types of stories or poems they can anticipate. Write about the overall theme of the book. Describe the writer’s style.
    • Let the book speak for itself. Include representative quotes in your review so readers can see what to expect and judge for themselves.
    • Highlight the the book’s strengths.
    • Sandwich criticism between praise. If there is a weakness you think is important to mention, put it in the middle. Start with a positive and end with a positive.
  • A brief mention of why you personally related to the book is fine, but don’t digress too much. Keep the focus on the content of the book.
  • Provide a brief biography of the author as well as links to their website and/or social media accounts.
  • Please mention if you have a personal connection to the author.

Tips for Requesting a Review from Toasted Cheese:

  • Requests for reviews should be sent to our reviews editor at reviews@toasted-cheese.com
  • Be sure to mention the author’s connection to Toasted Cheese (please note: we only review books by writers with a pre-existing connection to TC).
  • Author or publisher must be able to provide a digital and/or print copy of the book to the reviewer.
  • Indicate your willingness to write a review. Not only is it good karma to reciprocate, but requesting authors who write a review will be moved to the front of the queue.

Toasted Cheese Writer Survey

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Thank you to everyone who took the time to answer our survey. Our goal was to get to know our readers better and we were very pleased with the number and range of responses.

DEMOGRAPHICS

How old are you?
30-49 (31)
18-29 (18)
50-69 (14)
13-17 (8)
70+ (1)

Where do you live?
North America (63)
Europe (7)
Asia (2)

Is English your first language?
Yes (68)
No (4)

It wasn’t surprising that the majority of our respondents were English-speakers from North America, but it was good to see some of our international readers represented as well. We have had submissions from most continents (not Antarctica, though that would be very cool—any research scientists at the South Pole reading this?) so we know we have a wide reach even if the majority of our readers are “local.”

It was interesting to see that all the age categories were represented. This is something we weren’t sure about but will definitely take into account when planning future articles. We should note we didn’t include the 12-and-under age category on the survey because of COPPA but we do know we have readers in that group as well (see next section).

Background Image: Farrukh/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background Image: Farrukh/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

TEACHERS AND STUDENTS

If you are a teacher who uses TC in your classes, what level do you teach?
College / University (2)
High School (1)
Adult Education (1)
“My teacher used it. Does that count?”

If you are a teacher, what subject(s) do you teach?
English (4)
Creative Writing (3)
Literature (1)

If you are a teacher, what section/part of TC do you use the most?
“Hard to say; pretty much the whole site.”
“Just refer students here in a general way.”

We’re not going to lie, we’d hoped more teachers would respond to the survey. From our site stats, specifically the number of incoming links from schools and teacher pages, we know that a lot of teachers use TC as a resource and refer students—including preteens who weren’t an age group we originally anticipated using the site—here, and we would love to know more about why you like TC and if there’s anything we could do that would improve the user experience for you. We’ll keep trying to connect.

WRITER TYPE

Which of the following apply to you?
I have a job that’s not writing-related. (29)
I’m a student. (19)
I have a writing-related job. (15)
I’m a stay-at-home parent. (7)
I’m retired. (6)
Other answers: I am self employed. | Teacher/author/reviewer | I write | Former college professor | I write short fiction | My job is writing-intensive, but not writing-related. | Recent college grad, living with parents. | Unemployed.

How much time do you spend writing weekly?
0-10 hours. (31)
10-20 hours. (23)
Less than 40 hours but more than 20. (11)
It’s my full-time job. (5)
Other answers: More than 40 but I write a lot for work. It’s skill practice, but not quite the same as creative fiction. | Binge poetry fiction/creative non.

What genres do you write?
General Fiction (literary, mainstream, etc.) (56)
Supernatural Fiction (scifi, fantasy, horror, etc.) (36)
Flash (31)
Poetry (29)
Creative Nonfiction (20)
Other Nonfiction (essays, articles, etc.) (17)
Mystery (16)
Fan Fiction (9)
Other answers: Historical fiction | Romantic Comedy | Speculative / Borderline | small one or two line pieces to go with a photo series. | Anything TC contests require.

We see that TC has a broad audience, that no single category dominates. We have those who write on their own time to those who write for a living, those who write a little to those who write a lot, and all genres well-represented. On the one hand, that’s really cool; on the other, that doesn’t really help us to narrow down what type of content to focus on! We suppose it’s a sign we should continue what we’re doing, but perhaps add some more niche articles that would appeal to different groups.

SUBMITTING AND PUBLISHING

Do you write with the intent of publishing your work?
Sometimes (43)
Always (26)
Never (3)

Have you submitted for publication?
Yes, in the last month. (20)
Yes, but not recently. (19)
Yes, in the last year. (15)
No, not yet (but I plan to). (13)
No, I write for myself only. (3)
No, I prefer to self-publish. (2)

How many times do you edit a piece before submitting?
More than 3 but less than 10. (37)
2-3 times. (24)
10+ times. (9)
Once. (2)

Have you had work published?
Yes, a few times. (29)
Not yet. (27)
Yes, many times. (9)
I have self-published. (4)
Other answers: First one in November | Once, but not paid | Poetry Anthologies | I submitted my work to a TC contest. Does that count?

What do you do with your rejection letters?
Keep / save / file / archive them. (29)

“…for motivation to try harder”

“…for reference”

“…to learn from them”

“…as motivation to continue trying”

“…to review them occasionally”

“…in hopes of laughing at them someday!”

“I make notes on things to change, then put them somewhere I cannot find them.”

Throw them away / delete them / ignore them / nothing. (20)

“I make note of reflections in a log, then delete/toss them.”

I have not received any yet. (14)

Depends on contents. (5)

“I collate both good and bad criticisms if written down. If it’s an automatic rejection, I simply delete it from my inbox.”

“I ignore them unless the editor offers constructive comments.”

“It would depend on the contents: save-trash”

“I’ve been ridiculously lucky and haven’t gotten any yet. When I do, I’ll keep them in a file to refer to a) when I’m looking for ways to improve my writing and b) to remind myself that I’m actively trying, putting stuff out there.”

“Read and recycle unless they are particularly encouraging. Then I save them.”

Use as motivation. (4)

“Turn them into motivational posters.”

“Post them on my board next to the positives.”

“Frame them. If I get a personal note.”

“When I receive one, I’ll be happy to frame it.”

 

We’re thrilled to see how many of our readers are submitting their work and having success at publishing, but don’t worry, we’ll never forget those of you who are just starting out. It also warms our cold editor hearts to see the number of times most of you revise your work before submitting.

It looks like rejection letters could be the subject of its own article—kudos to those of you who find creative ways to turn rejection into motivation. Group hug!

BUSINESS

Do you have an email address just for writing-related business?
No, I use my primary email. (51)
Yes. (19)
Other answers: I use my University email. | No.

We’re disappointed no one admitted to using someone else’s email and/or an email with a random name on it, because this happens on a regular basis and we’re so curious as to why! Get your own email people who do this. Everyone else, carry on.

Do you have an online portfolio or writing-related website?
No. (35)
Yes, I have a writing-focused blog. (21)
Yes, I promote my work via social media. (18)
Yes, I have my own website. (13)
Other answers: I also referred people to my publisher to read blurbs on my books | Online writing websites | Kind of. I write on it, about books. | Under construction.

This question had a definite divide. We found it somewhat surprising that nearly half our respondents had no online space for their writing at all, while the other half in most cases had more than one space to share their writing. This could potentially be the subject of a future article.

How do you research markets?
(for submissions) I do my own research by reading a variety of publications. (47)
I use a website (like WritersMarket.com). (25)
I use a resource book (like Writer’s Market). (21)
(for queries) I do my own research by visiting agent and publisher websites. (20)
I’ll worry about that later. “First I must learn to write!” (10)
Word of mouth (5)

“ask friends and colleagues”

“I know several authors and editors well enough to ask them for advice.”

“people’s bios”

“Talk to readers about what they are reading, what they like and don’t like etc.”

“Twitter”

If you use a book or website to research markets, which one?
Writer’s Market (19)
Duotrope (7)
Poets and Writers (3)
WritersMarket.com (3)
Poet’s Market (2)
Newpages.com (2)
Other books/sites: Novel and Short Story’s Writer’s Market, Cozy-Mystery.com, The Submission Grinder, freelancewriting.com, Mslexia, querytracker.net, The Writer magazine, thereviewreview.net, Writer’s Chronicle, Writer’s Digest, Ralan, Dark Markets, www.writing.ie

Google / the internet generally (7)

“I just surf the net for contemporary poets and check out where they’ve already published.”

“I mostly use writer blogs and websites”

Many / Various (6)

“Multiple genre-related sites”

“Depends on the piece”

“Not a specific one…”

None / “What is a market?” (18)

There were so many different responses to these questions. We liked the word-of-mouth responses—we neglected to include that in our options, and obviously connections are an important resource. As well, some of the market resources you use were new to us. We had a couple respondents ask “what is a market?” so it looks likely that markets/market resources will be the subject of a future article.

Props to those of you who are taking the time to focus on developing your writing craft before worrying about submitting.That phase of the writing life is too often undervalued.

WRITING CHALLENGES

Do you participate in writing challenges?
No, challenges aren’t for me. (32)
Yes, NaNoWriMo. (18)
Yes, other writing challenges. (22)

If you answered “other writing challenges” in the question above, which one(s)?
TC contests / Mini-Nano (7)
Other contests/competitions (not specified) (8)
Other: Liberty Hall, On the Premises, StoryADay, WriteChain Challenge, monthly poetry challenges available on Facebook, mostly blogging challenges, school writing challenge, weekly prompt challenges, writers group.

Other responses:

“goals I set for myself”

“I don’t do challenges other than ones I set for myself”

“I don’t understand the question. writing is a challenge.”

“I have done NaNo and some other challenges, which is how I learned they aren’t for me.”

We weren’t surprised to see a divide on the responses to these questions. About half the respondents aren’t interested in writing challenges, while others had many/varied responses. This mirrors the divide we’ve always observed between contest entries and regular submissions, i.e. there is next to no overlap between these two groups of writers. We think it would be fascinating to interview writers on both sides and dig deeper into the differences.

TC CONTENT

What types of writing articles do you like to read?
Elements of fiction (character, plot, setting, etc.) (53)
Inspiration / Creativity (50)
Business of writing (submitting, querying, etc.) (41)
Author interviews (41)
Anything really / Everything (2)
Other answers: Articles about writer’s spaces and time management. | book reviews | grammar/weak words/transition words and phrases | how to make 3D characters | I don’t.

Apparently you like a bit of everything (except for the person who doesn’t like reading articles about writing at all, lol). Which we guess tells us to continue what we’re doing. And for the person who mentioned book reviews, that article is coming very soon!

Any comments or questions?

How does your payment system work regarding the authors’ work you accept for publication? Is there revenue sharing? Is your magazine distributed in the form of hard copy, digital, or through online publication? —um.

I love the monthly writing prompts and playing with the contest themes. Also, I enjoy messing around in the forums when I have the time and inclination even though I have yet to coax myself into posting something myself. All-in-all, I love your site!! —thank you!

I rarely do surveys, but this was fun! Served to also make me think about where I am writing-wise and what I’m looking for out of writing resources and support materials. Many thanks! —thank you!

I really really appreciate your Twitter presence. Your writing prompts are pretty sweet! —thank you!

I’m at a point where I’m focusing on learning what I think are intermediate skills: how do I approach revising large works (novella, novel), what are the steps to querying agents, when do I get an editor involved, what is the editorial relationship like, and how can I maximize my learning throughout this process? Things like that. I like TC’s writing prompts and fiction contests, and find these useful for practicing the craft. —thank you, and thanks for the suggestions!

Love your site —thank you!

More power to Toasted Cheese this 2015! 🙂 —thank you!

No questions. I just love your site. You guys do great work, and you do it consistently. —thank you!

No success locating an agent. —so… an article on finding an agent perhaps?

Spork. —scuppernong.

This is an unusual quiz, don’t forget about the new authors. —ok!

What the heck is a market? Also, when will you be revealing the DoW 2014 winners? —article on markets, gotcha. Dead of Winter winners are announced January 31; this is in the contest guidelines, ffr.

Thanks again for participating and be sure to check out the A Pen In Each Hand exercise.

Excerpts From My Commonplace Book: On Not Writing

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is “Keeping a Commonplace Book” (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!). As I mentioned in that article, for several years now, I’ve been collecting quotes on my blog and many of those quotes are writing-related. So when casting about for a topic for this month’s article, it occurred to me that the same people who are interested in the how-tos of commonplacing might also be interested in some of the content I put in mine.

I decided to take a ‘quotes on a theme’ approach and pull quotes that relate to a specific topic. It turns out I’ve collected a lot of writing quotes, so there will likely be future articles on other themes, but for this month’s article, I chose the theme of “not writing”—a subject that seems to be of universal concern to writers. If you wrote fewer words in 2014 than you intended to—this one’s for you. Take heart. Not-writing is as much a part of the writing process as placing words on the page. If you’re in writing drought right now, remember the writing life is a cycle. One day the words will begin to flow again. Trust.

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it’s not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing. During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. … I woke one night in the midst of a minor panic attack. It wasn’t unusual for me wake in the night, anxious and scared—and I always knew the source of the panic right away. But it was rare for my heavy-sleeping husband to wake at the same time. And instead of reassuring him and letting him get back to sleep, I told him the naked, humbling truth. I told him that if I didn’t finish my novel, I thought my future happiness might be at risk. He wiped his eyes and yawned and said, “OK. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” It didn’t happen overnight, but the tide of my life shifted. —Susanna Daniel {+}

Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort. It works something like this: When our brains are presented with a problem—any problem—we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution! But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside—delaying that endorphin high—while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option—and run with it—consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.Molly Idle {+}

Not writing is important: it’s restorative. Taking a break from the work is also a part the work. Nobody really talks about that part of being a writer, and I know why they don’t. It’s scary. When I’m writing, I feel plugged in and energized and in sync. But when I’m not writing, I feel out of it. I have the very real fear that I’ll never be able to write anything ever again. When you look at the stiff, dark branches of trees in the winter, isn’t it hard to imagine those same trees all lush and full of leaves? But winter happens. Then spring comes. —Sarah Selecky {+}

Postal submissions taught writers that this vocation is not a sprint. Writing is a series of marathons separated by long respites, where we regain breath and build strength. It is time for writers to slow down again, so that our performance in the next race can be better, more meaningful, and if we are lucky, closer to the eternal, mysterious rewards of art. —Nick Ripatrazone {+}

Many of the successful published writers I hear talk on panels at conferences make it sound as if they are writing machines, as if they haven’t taken a day off from writing in years. Part of my success as a writer was not writing. If I hadn’t spent all those years teaching and reading and editing the work of other writers, I am certain I wouldn’t be the writer, and person, I am today. There are infinite ways to be a writer with a capital W, just as there are infinite ways to tell a story. —Julia Fierro {+}

There are a number of mysteries in [Penelope Fitzgerald’s] life, areas of silence and obscurity. One of these has to do with “lateness”. How much of a late starter, really, was she? She always said in interviews that she started writing her first novel (The Golden Child) to entertain her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, when he was ill. But, like many of the things she told interviewers, there is something a little too simple about this. … There is a poignant note inside the back cover of her teaching notebook for 1969, a long time before she started to publish: “I’ve come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret I haven’t spent my life on it.” Yet the conversations she was having with writers in her teaching books show that she was always thinking about art and writing: they show how the deep river was running on powerfully, preparing itself to burst out.Hermione Lee {+}

I think that there is a case for saying that you have a bit more to say as you go through life. I mean, obviously there are people who write wonderful books in their early 20s. … But I think those people are the exception. Most of the time, I think one should just let these things mature. It’s no bad thing to start a writing career after you’ve experienced a bit of life.Alexander McCall Smith {+}

I have a blog, but I don’t do it properly. Months go by, years even, without me writing. Then suddenly I write a lot. Other people … other people blog properly. … The reason I don’t blog every day is because I am slow. … [U]ntil I’ve figured things out, I’m lost. Life for me is leaves blowing backwards. If I try to blog about it, I’m just snatching from the air. I have to wait until I’m clear of the leaves. Then I can look back and see what pattern they’ve been making, and their colours, and the fineness of their outlines. Other people are not lost at all. The precision of people who can blog all the time. It startles me, that clarity of leaves. —Jaclyn Moriarty {+}

Vertical writing … values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. … vertical writing seeks to dig into the page, to value the building of character and authenticity over the telegraphing of plot. … Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.Nick Ripatrazone {+}

By and large really great writing from all wars comes a good time afterwards, when a person has had the time to let material develop and form itself, so that it’s not rhetorical. So that it’s not so heavily autobiographical. … It’s a bit like writing about cancer; there needs to be time. You need to find a way to transcend the tendency to put in every little detail. Just because it felt so important, it may not be important to the reader. And time is needed for imagination to come into play and to work with the material, to shape a story that may not be wholly in the real world, but only partly. —Tim O’Brien {+}

Nancy Slonim Aronie writes “great work comes after good work which comes after lousy work which comes after no work. remember that order.” please do. —Irene Nam {+}

What I forget, though, and what I am trying here to remember, is that the work does get done. Not every day, like the writing teachers recommend. Not even every week. But invariably, wherever I go, I write, just as inevitably I forget about having written, and subsequently worry. —Alex Gallo-Brown {+}

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle, is the most important time for a writer. Escaping from the typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give a subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level. —Ray Bradbury {+}

Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime–waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower. (Writers are particularly clean.) Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. Try it. —William Zinsser {+}

I used to think that I needed wide open days and uncluttered hours to get important creative work done. Sometimes that’s true. But I’ve also learned that perhaps more important than what happens when I’m staring at the page is what happens when I’m not. How I chew on the idea in my downtime. My subconscious must know about the deadline—needs it, even—and works feverishly to pull it all together. Perhaps it’s even a pipe dream to imagine having something done early enough to bask in its finished glory with a glass of wine. And maybe that’s not even the point—writing is work and the furious finish is part of the process. —S. Hope Mills {+}

What We Were Reading in 2014: Recommended by the Editors

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The real writer is one who really writes (thanks Marge Piercy), but writers need to read, too. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” But with so much to choose from sometimes it’s hard to decide what to read next. So we asked the editors what they read this year and what they’d recommend to TC readers and here is what they had to say.

What We Were Reading In 2014

Background Image: Paul Bence/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Baker recommends:

Carsick by John Waters. Equal parts fiction and memoir, even more fun with the author-read audio book. Not to everyone’s taste but if it’s to your taste, we should get together for lunch.

Captain Marvel (ongoing series). Sometimes the “as you know Bob” element of comics deters me from reading but I am absolutely captured by the new Captain Marvel. The visuals are lush; the story and dialogue are well ahead of standard comics. Captain Marvel will be looked back on as a turning point in what comics can be.

Closing Time by Joe Queenan. While reading on my Kindle, I wanted to reach through the screen. Sometimes to comfort Queenan and sometimes to fingerpoke him in the shoulder. Long in my “to read” pile, I finally got around to it and hated putting it down, even when Queenan frustrated me with his word choice or double standards.

Tina DuPuy (blog, columns, articles, Twitter). DuPuy’s voice is clear and unapologetic, with humor and more than an occasional dose of snark. She writes from a progressive viewpoint on topics that are always ahead of the mainstream. Reading her prepares me to talk about the next big thing when it turns up on everyone’s lips.

The Shame of Poor Teeth in a Rich World” by Sarah Smarsh (Aeon Magazine). I think that Americans don’t talk often enough or realistically enough about poverty and its effect on generation after generation, not just in big ways but in small. John Cheese has written on the topic for Cracked (+ and +), combining truth and dark humor. Smarsh’s piece came to my attention through social media. I shared it liberally but it didn’t catch on the way I think it should have. I can only imagine that it’s because of its specificity and that specificity is why this simple 3,500 word essay still crosses my mind often nearly a month after I read it. My husband and I discussed our personal experiences relevant to the article over dinner and in the car and while brushing our teeth before bed. Even if you don’t share the experience, Smarsh’s writing draws in the reader and paints an unpretty picture I think more Americans should see.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:

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Billiard recommends:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples. Saga is an ongoing comic series, but it’s one that I read when the collected volumes are published. It’s fantasy/SF, and the plot is…difficult to explain. It’s about war, and love, and literature, and it is one of the most compelling things I’ve read in quite some time. Volume 3 was published in March of this year, but you’ll probably want to start with Volume 1.

Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Weibe. Like Saga, Rat Queens is an ongoing comic series. Volume 1 was published in April. This book has a female-led cast, and is a tremendous amount of fun. It’s also difficult to explain, so allow me to borrow from Amazon’s description: “…a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!” Reading Rat Queens is some of the most fun I’ve had this year.

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire. This is the eighth volume in Seanan’s October Daye series. Upon completing The Winter Long, I went back to the beginning and re-read the entire series. I never do this.

Seanan also has a blog, and while she mostly posts work and travel updates these days, sometimes she posts things like this. (Be aware that the linked post deals with depression and suicide.) Earlier this year, she published a collection of blog posts/essays called Letters to the Pumpkin King. Seanan’s nonfiction writing is witty, insightful, often hilarious, and occasionally heartbreaking. I love it; I hope you do, too.

I first encountered Lindy West last year on an episode of (the sadly canceled) Totally Biased where she appeared opposite comedian Jim Norton to discuss rape jokes. I found her to be funny and eloquent and started following her immediately. She writes about pop culture and feminism and body acceptance, formerly for Jezebel, but she’s very recently moved to GQ. Here’s a post from this year about liking Chris Pratt before it was cool.

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Broker recommends:

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking. What it says on the box.

Anne Lamott, who has a wonderful blog and is just out with a new book, Small Victories. She has a way of shucking right down to the cob, saying simple-sounding things that are also very profound.

What-If by Randall Munroe. His comic is always worth reading, and he has a weekly answering the mail questions thing that’s gathered in the book. The rollover text on the comics is part of the fun.

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the end of the Lane is seriously wonderful: magical realism and childhood nightmare all in one.

To round things out, this article from The Atlantic (not for the squeamish; it features parasites): How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” by Kathleen McAuliffe on work by Jaroslav Flegr.

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Harpspeed recommends:

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. This mystery novel from an Icelandic writer is also part ghost story—Sigurdardóttir creates a fabulously atmospheric setting that make the word “creepy” obsolete.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I liked the juxtaposition of the two historical characters, deeply dimensional and rich.

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Pachett. I am curiously drawn to writers’ personal stories and liked reading Pachett’s memoir because she also fills her pages with good advice for writers.

The Last Walk: Reflections on our Pets at the End of Their Lives by Jessica Pierce. This story is part biography, memoir, ethical philosophy, and science journal in its examination of the author’s beloved dog’s descent into old age and the author, herself, who explores the many facets of the human-animal bond.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury by Amy Newmark and Carolyn Roy Bornstein. Disclosure: My friend, Carolyn, is one of the editors of this collection and recently gave me a signed copy knowing how interested I am in her work on the subject of writing and TBI, and that I enjoy reading personal essays; this collection is a great introduction to the power of the personal essay and the growing concern that is currently trending across America’s landscape.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:

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Beaver recommends:

Proof of Loss” by Emily Rapp (The Rumpus). Emily Rapp writes unsentimentally about continuing to live after the inevitable death of her son Ronan from Tay-Sachs disease: “In those final days of my son’s life, I thought I would die, but knew I would not, which made me want to die even more ardently. Still, I lived. How? Perhaps I didn’t live at all but existed, half-alive, half-dead, in some liminal space.”

Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women” by Rose Lichter-Marck (The New Yorker). I am fascinated by this story about creating and not-sharing and unasked-for posthumous fame. If you have a hard drive full of unpublished stories, you might be, too.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. An Untamed State grew out of a short story called “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” The novel starts where happily ever after leaves off, playing off both the sunny Disney versions of fairy tales we’re all familiar with and the dark, twisted original stories that didn’t hesitate to make readers uncomfortable.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. You should read it because it’s on every* best nonfiction book list of 2014. You should also follow Roxane on Twitter because she’s smart and hilarious and gives a lesson on how to deal with haters on a daily basis. (*possibly a slight exaggeration but not much)

One Long Country Song: What Friday Night Lights Taught Me About Storytelling”  by Hannah Gerson (The Millions). Hannah Gerson, on writing about that small town background she’d been avoiding and how watching TV “to relax” got her there. (Writers are always writing. Even when they’re not.)

Recommendations from TC’s archives:


Everyone Else Is Doing It (So Why Aren’t You?)

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

NaNoWriMo is the pumpkin spice of the writing world. Come September, it starts seeping into everything a writer touches. By October, it’s ubiquitous. So when November rolls around, it’s inescapable. NaNo is a great excuse to hang up the “do not disturb” sign for the month of November, whether you’re doing it or not. If you’re not NaNo-ing, how else can you use those 30 days to become a better writer?

Set Goals

National Novel Writing Month isn’t so much about writing a novel in a month as it is about discipline, goals, and practice. If NaNo isn’t your thing, set your own goals for the month (or the season). These might include “write for two hours five days a week” or “outline a story in early November, write in November and early December, then edit and submit it before the New Year.”

If you’re already a writer who’s disciplined and working as much as you can, look at your comfort zone and where you might be able to break through it. Are you writing a little every day that never goes anywhere? Use November to pore over abandoned pieces and maybe link them or finish them. Polish them and submit at least one before November 30 and you could have a fresh publication credit by the end of the year.

Background Image: Toban B./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background Image: Toban B./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Write poetry, CNF, or memoir

NaNo is made for fiction writers but not all writers create fiction. Many of us are poets or memoirists (or would like to be). The nonconformists among us looking to co-opt NaNo might want to use November to create our own November challenges.

Write a poem a week; use Mondays and Tuesdays to explore ideas, write on Wednesday, revise Thursday, rewrite on Friday, and ask for feedback over the weekend.

Use your favorite writing prompts as the impetus for memoir instead of fiction. Write a memoir every day in November, even if it’s only a sentence or two. At the end of November, reread and look for a uniting theme among the 30 pieces you’ve created. Flesh out those stories and gather them together. Do you have a collection or at least a good beginning?

Write Short Stories

Lots of my NaNo friends are short story writers. Most of them use NaNo as an excuse to stretch themselves by working on novel-length fiction. Some like to use NaNo simply to create longer short stories. Usually they write five 10,000-word stories, which they plan in October. Those stories tend to have a connecting thread, like a character who appears in each story or a theme that carries through every story.

The NaNo police are not going to show up at your door and tell you your work for November doesn’t “count” because you didn’t write 1667 words per day on a single piece. You win NaNo by having 50,000 words of original fiction written in November. You don’t edit yourself as you go. You don’t delete paragraphs that aren’t working. So who cares if you realize on November 10 that this piece is complete? End it and begin something new. If you’d like to connect them later, you can, if it makes you feel better about the way in which you participated in NaNo.

NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers program allows the setting of a word count of your choice as a goal. NaNo Rebels maintains a discussion board at the official site (search it; if you read this after 2014, this link to the welcome thread may no longer be valid).

Write Character Sketches/Bios

Okay, you’re a fiction writer. You want to write a novel (or another novel). You’re down for NaNo… but uninspired. Still, you want to go to the coffee shop and answer “I’m doing NaNoWriMo” when the person beside you asks what you’re doing. Do you have a character in mind? It doesn’t have to be a main character. Write that character’s background story. You can fill out a Character Development Worksheet. You can write diary- or blog-like paragraphs from any time in the character’s past. Take an online quiz, giving the answers a character would give. Try a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test for the character you have in mind to learn more about him.

Everything you write about the character is fiction. You can count it toward your total word count of fiction on your NaNo project. You might be able to get a novel off the ground by the end of November but you might not. You can create your own NaNo project by creating 10 original characters (one every three days) and writing 5000 words about them, from their names to the story of their first heartbreaks. You might put them all into a single project or you might hang on to them until you find their stories.

Explore New Genres

NaNo has no restriction on genre. How many genres are your NaNo friends working on? NaNo is a great excuse to write in a new genre. Start something fresh or take a false start and continue it. If you feel your fiction pulling you toward horror or sci-fi, follow it.

If it doesn’t work, go back to where you consciously began the new genre (maybe a little further back than that), and try a different path. If you were writing a romance novel that turned into erotica and fell flat, think about why it wasn’t working. Character motivation? A setting that didn’t add to the plot? A word that you were uncomfortable putting into your narrator’s vocabulary? Change it up and give it another shot. None of your writing will be wasted.

Practice With Prompts

If you’re not into creating a single 50,000 word project for November but you’ve set the goal of daily writing or reaching 1667 words of fresh fiction per day, practice with prompts. You can find writing prompts right here at TC, at Twitter, at Pinterest, and all over the web.

Again, you can connect your daily pieces later if you want a more coherent feel to the work you’ve done in November but there’s no rule saying you must reach someone else’s goal. If you use NaNo to get into daily writing practice, you “win” when you have 30 prompts that worked for you, even if it was a few sentences jotted down in a Moleskine book before bed.

Enter a Contest

Lots of journals and publishers have contests going on in November (TC included) and with so many writers focusing on NaNo, you have a better chance of making the cut. That’s not to say that you can slack; you never want anything less than your best out there. But you can spend November writing a single short story that gets published rather than a 50,000 word novel that will never see the light of day.

Research (and query) agents or markets

When prospective NaNo-ers are writing outlines, you can research markets, publishers, and agents. October and November are opportune times to send your polished query to an agent. When the agent requests more from you, you’re ready to go. If an agent or editor responds to your piece asking for a few edits, you’re not caught up in NaNoWriMo madness. You’re ready to fulfill those requests.

As always, you’ll be writing to keep from watching your inbox, but you won’t feel the pressure that NaNo writers are feeling. Your November harvest could be a publication credit, a signed book contract, or the payment for a short story.

Keep your goal specific, like “research and query one agent per week” or “research markets every MWF and submit on the weekends.” Specific goals are harder to slack on.

Submit or Workshop

Even if you’re eschewing NaNo to the point of taking the month off of writing, send something out. TC’s inbox is most swelled in January when the New Year’s resolution to submit inspires writers. Beat the rush. Submit something in November for publication. Send a piece a week to the journals you’ve researched. Find the best possible fits, follow the submission guidelines, and send it in.

There’s more going on in your local real world of writers than NaNo. In addition to write-ins, there are workshops at bookstores, libraries, and cafes. Everyone will be talking about their NaNo frustrations while you show up with a story (with a beginning, middle, and end) ready for feedback. It’ll be a welcome distraction for the NaNo-ers and you’ll come out with some fresh opinions.

What Now?

Implement one of our A Pen In Each Hand accompanying exercises (culled from the above), get yourself a lovely seasonal beverage, and enjoy the month of November. Pumpkin spice: optional.


Tales From the Inbox: Baker & Beaver Discuss First Reading

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Theryn: Let me start with this. It annoys me when people fail to put “submission” in their subject line and/or submit to the wrong address because these subs end up in my main inbox with all my other mail, rather than being filtered into my submissions folder. Sometimes I wonder if people do that intentionally (especially with the wrong email address) thinking they’ll somehow jump the queue, but really it just increases the chances of the submission being missed or mistaken for spam. So, follow the guidelines, please. (Oh, haha, literally as I’m writing this, a “submission”-less sub showed up in my inbox!).

Stephanie: I just got that one too. I use a flagging system (and have for years) so when something has “submission” in the title, it gets the big, bold “TC SUB” tag and gets my attention. I also have a filter so that anything with “submission” in the title never goes to spam. So all it really does when a writer doesn’t follow that guideline is increase the chance I won’t see it. It will either be deleted with the flotsam and jetsam or it’ll languish in the spam folder for a month and then die alone and unread.

T: Ditto. When you bypass the guidelines, you bypass my “never send to spam” rules.

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

T: Oh, yes. Part two to this. Sometimes when people re-submit / submit again they just hit reply on the response I sent them. Which sends their new sub to me only, and leaves my lovely colleague Stephanie out of the loop. If I don’t notice you sent it just to me, and she doesn’t see it, your chances of making it past the first round just went down (oops!). Also, not as important, but still annoying, with threaded conversations, the new sub gets tied to the previous sub and that gets kind of messy. Again, I’m not sure if this is a jumping the queue thing or if people just aren’t thinking, but it would behoove you to submit to the correct address.

S: I am lovely. Since I’m on there as “managing editor,” I also get subs sent directly to me. I have no problem—nor does anyone else, to my knowledge—with a cover letter that mentions me in its salutation. The problem is when it comes to my email address. I usually don’t notice until my ravishing colleague Theryn says, “What is this submission you want in?” Then it goes from shortlist to DQ.

T: Ravishing? lol, ok.

S: I have a thesaurus and I’m only slightly afraid to use it.

T: Your lack of fear makes me afraid 😉

T: I also shake my head when I glance at my submissions folder and see a bunch of attachment symbols. What about “NO ATTACHMENTS” is hard to understand? Ok, maybe people don’t get why attachments are problematic. The main thing for me is they really slow down the reading process. All the opening and closing is annoying, when you could just be moving smoothly from one sub to the next. I often read/shortlist subs on my phone where attachments are a pain. I just want to read your sub and move onto the next without impediments. So just paste it into your email, ok?

S: Sometimes I give people the benefit of the doubt that they may have an email program that sticks some kind of an attachment onto everything. Sometimes it’s a signature that’s technically an attachment. But it is a huge red flag. I read those submissions right away and usually the attachment is the submission. So it actually saves me time in that I can say, “Oh a sub with an attachment? Can I get this out of my inbox? Why yes I can.” Click.

T: Oh, for sure. Same.

T: What do these things have in common? Oh, yes. WASTING MY TIME.

S: NEXT!

T: So it makes me sad when I head into the subs folder to shortlist and I glance down the names and notice that 75% or more of the subs are from men. What’s up with this, seriously? I brought it up in the class I’m teaching because it’s just so striking to me. I mean, we’re a publication that was founded by women and has had a majority female staff since the beginning, and this info is not a secret! Also, if you look at our archives, we have a good balance of m/f writers. What I’m saying is it’s kind of obvious that we’re a female-friendly publication and yet, women still seem hesitant to submit to us. (And if they’re that hesitant to submit to us, how hesitant are they to submit to a publication with an all-male staff / that publishes mostly men?)

S: Are men more confident about submitting? That’s the only thing I can think of. I don’t think there are more male writers. I don’t think it’s fear of rejection.

T: These are the key differences I note between men/women writers (generalizing, of course). Men a) seem to be more willing to submit early drafts of pieces and b) almost always submit again after a rejection. Women a) seem to polish/edit work more before submitting and b) almost never submit again after a rejection. My guess as to why? Men are taught to take risks (submit anything! why not? what’s the worst that could happen?) and to pick themselves up and try again if they fail (rejection = challenge). Women are taught to be cautious, to not expose themselves unnecessarily (therefore: “I should work on this a bit more; it’s not ready yet; I don’t want to look stupid”) and that if they fail once, well, they’re really not good at that thing and maybe they should try something else, something “easier” (rejection = you suck at writing, maybe you should take up knitting, not that there’s anything wrong with that).

S: Sadly, this could be the case. I don’t think it’s a confidence problem. I think it’s more “Well I’ll just go elsewhere then.” We’re not rejecting the author. We’re rejecting this piece. It’s like holding out a bag of Hershey Miniatures and telling me I can only have a Mr. Goodbar. Maybe I want a Special Dark. But you don’t offer the bag again so I’ll just have this fun-sized Crunch from over here.

T: lol now I want Halloween candy.

S: Hey, I don’t pull my metaphors out of nowhere. I have a bag of Kit Kats here.

T: So I really do think women writers do need more encouragement to get their work out there than men do. With that in mind we have been putting out occasional calls for more submissions specifically from women writers.

S: We put out a call for minority voices and I think we’re enjoying a really great response. Hopefully asking for work from female writers will have the same result.

T: I’m not sure what else would be helpful. Women writers: you tell us, what would encourage you to submit more?

S: That’s the best way to figure it out: ask.

T: Ok, going to do some reading. Starting with the flash. I liked the first one I read; voice and setting were interesting/unusual. Putting on consider list. Next!

S: I usually start with the flash, then poetry, then CNF, then fiction. Not just because it’s longer but because I have a more black-and-white reaction to the other submissions. Fiction sometimes needs to sit with me for a while before I label it “no” or “consider.” I have rescued submissions from the “no” pile after I’ll be baking cupcakes or something and a character or setting I read creeps in there while I’m leveling flour or something.

T: I love subs that stick with you. And ones that grow on you the more times you read them.

S: So what do you think of the flash submissions, in general?

T: Hmm. A lot of the time, I think the flash is well-written, but insubstantial. Like, more of a beginning or an anecdote or a sketch. I think, so what? When I read flash I need to be able to picture the whole story even though there are only a few words. It’s the Hemingway/iceberg thing. What’s on the page is the one-eighth of the iceberg that’s above the water, but from that, as a reader I need to be able to extrapolate what’s underwater. If the piece doesn’t imply anything beyond what’s explicitly laid out then it’s a no for me.

S: I think there’s some weird idea that flash is about word count and nothing else. Recently—maybe this reading period?—we had a flash submission that was too long for our parameters and wasn’t flash anyway, which was doubly frustrating. Then we had a fiction submission that fell under the flash word count limit but was rightly submitted as fiction because it wasn’t flash. I wanted to kiss that writer.

T: I also think humor is really hard to pull off, and that’s something a lot of people try in flash pieces. I’m not saying don’t try it, just that it’s a lot harder to do well than being serious. I think it’s because humor is such a personal thing—what one person loves another will hate. Example: I hate punchline endings. If you want to write jokes, do stand-up. But at the same time I’m sure other editors love them.

S: I don’t like anything that sets up to a punchline. I’m in the Monty Python Club. We used to get more humor pieces and I think it’s because we have some levity on the site and we have a fun title. But we’re not a humor magazine. Maybe people are reading us and discovering we don’t have a satire section.

T: I love writers who read through the archives before they submit. Three cheers for you!

T: Then there are the (long) stories masquerading as flash. You know, a story that clearly needs to be longer, but the writer has tried to cram it into 500 words. Reminds me of when I was a kid and all my stories “had” to end when I reached the bottom of the page. This type of story is recognizable by an abundance of detail (e.g. all the characters are introduced by their full names) that’s unnecessary unless it’s actually meant to be a longer story.

S: As a sidenote, if I see a full name in line 1, the story is on notice. I’m looking for reason #2 to slush it by that point.

T: Oh, me too! I’m not saying characters shouldn’t have full names, but a line 1 mention is definitely a red flag for me.

T: I am never enthused by work submitted by a third party (i.e. someone a writer has hired to submit for them). Just saying.

S: I don’t get that. Half the rush is clicking “send” and then sitting there waiting for a response, having your nerves tingle every time you open your inbox. I only get it if it’s a case of “I think this is brilliant and he never submits his work so I’m trying to prove a point.”

T: *ponders stealing Steph’s novels and subbing them for her*

S: *leaves them to be stolen*

T: Let’s look at some poetry. A common reason for saying no is poems that are strings of pretty words with no substance behind them (why are you telling me this? what’s the point? where’s the meaning?). A poem is more than than just description. Also a poem is not just a chunk of prose chopped up with (random) line breaks. Speaking of line breaks, sometimes I really like the content of a poem but the line breaks baffle me. If you’re not sure where to end a line, the best advice I’ve heard is to end on a strong word (not “of” or some other meaningless word).

S: Yes: end on a strong word. That’s one of the criteria I use on first read. Line breaks that end with “of” or “the” don’t say much to me. Rhyming poetry turns me off too. Sometimes a rhyme will slip by if it’s well done but usually the lines are forced to fit a rhyme and/or meter. That said, when we get a great poetry submission, it’s usually my favorite submission. Of all the things we’ve published, the poetry is what stays with me over years.

T: Like humor, I think rhyming poems are a genre that’s really hard to do well. More often they end up being cheesy.

S: Or sentimental to the point of saccharine.

T: The number one piece of writing advice I give students (with respect to essays) is to start by writing about concrete things not abstractions. Anchor your ideas to an object and your writing will immediately be better than if your ideas are just floating around unattached to anything. I feel like the same advice could be applied to many poems. Writing is interesting in its specificity. A poem that consists entirely of vagueness isn’t.

S: Specificity is the key across the board. A moment. An object. A character. Most of the submissions I put through to second read have elements of softness or vulnerability but they all have a hard edge.

T: Oh, crap. I just read a story I really liked and then noticed it’s a simsub. Blargh.

S: You had to go and like it, didn’t you?

T: 😛

T: Too much telling.

S: That’s still a huge problem in the writing world. I see it a lot in stories published elsewhere and I wonder if those editors aren’t getting good submissions or what’s going on that that’s what they choose to publish. Maybe I’m old school.

T: And then… there are the stories that almost have me until they abruptly careen into the ridiculous. I think this is a variation on “I’ve reached the end of the page; must end this story.” It’s like the writer gets scared of where the story could go, so they back off and go for melodrama instead. Disappointing.

S: I have a specific groan for when I read a story that falls apart at the end.

T: It’s the worst. Seriously, I hate it when that happens.

T: Some things are just not a good fit.

S: That’s especially frustrating. I want to include a note that says, “This is good. I can’t wait to see it published elsewhere.”

T: All dialogue. This is almost always going to be a no. A story is not a script.

S: I admit, not only have I done an all-dialogue stories but many moons ago, I submitted one. I was the “wtf?” of that month’s slush pile, I’m sure. But it wasn’t doing me any good sitting in my “finished” folder.

T: Ahhh, it’s a dead person story. At least he seems to know he’s dead (twist!). I hate stories with dead protagonists, to be honest. We get so many of these, so it’s a cliche, and it’s just not an interesting premise to me in the first place.

S: I had to specifically put it into Dead of Winter’s rules. We still get them. And The Sixth Sense is, what, 15 years old now?

T: I know, right?

S: Tell me/us something that will get a story marked “consider” on first read.

T: I like stories where I can’t immediately tell where they’re going.

S: I have a specific gasp for stories that surprise me in a good way.

T: The best.

T: So, I’ve reached the end of this month’s subs, and I literally have more subs in my DQ folder (mostly for attachments) than I do on my consider list. Just saying.

S: And the frustrating thing, if I may presume to speak for both of us and probably most lit journal editors out there, we want a huge consider list. We don’t like DQs and we don’t like to say “no” on first read. Very often, I start to say to myself, “Self, let’s reconsider this submission” and then a new submission comes in that’s exactly what I wanted and it reminds me not to change where I’ve set the bar.

T: Ideal number of DQs: 0. I mean, I’d much rather spend our time arguing about how to cut down a long shortlist than grumbling about people not following the guidelines. Ya know?

S: Too much of a good thing would be wonderful.


What Sets You Apart: On Valuing Your Own Experience

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When you can’t find someone to follow,
you have to find a way to lead by example.

—Roxane Gay

A few years ago, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TEDtalk called The Danger of a Single Story. In it, she recounts how all the books she read as a child growing up in Nigeria were either British or American. Because of this, when she started writing, she imitated the stories in those books—her characters were white, blue-eyed, played in the snow, ate apples, talked about the weather, and drank a lot of ginger beer—rather than writing stories that reflected her own experience. Her perception of who and what books could be about only changed when she discovered African writers and realized books could be about people who looked like her and shared her experiences.

The danger of a single story is it distorts your perception of what stories can or should be about. If your experiences don’t match up to the narratives you see around you, you may question their validity or even fail to recognize their value at all.

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

When you spend your days online, it’s easy to get the impression that you’re perpetually lagging several steps behind everyone else. Something happens and hours later think-pieces on the subject flood your social media timelines as writers rush to get their two cents in before the news cycle moves on to something else.

“How much thinking could anyone have done in the past hour?” you grumble, as you simultaneously try to process whatever grim news has taken center stage that day and attempt to keep focused on whatever it is you’re really supposed to be doing (cough work cough). You wonder how people manage to churn out coherent words in minutes on events you haven’t even begun to comprehend. (Obviously, they are better at this writing thing than you are. I mean, clearly, that’s the only explanation. –xo, your insomniac brain.) Perhaps a week, a month, a year or longer passes with the topic rolling around in the back of your mind before something clicks and you know what you want to write about it. You open a new document—and then you second-guess yourself.

Hasn’t too much time passed?

What if everything has already been said?

What authority do I have to speak on this subject anyway?

Who’s going to want to read what I have to say?

Why bother?

We’re all familiar with the saying “there are two sides to every story” but two is not even scratching the surface. In reality, there are infinite versions. The versions of the people actually involved in the event. The versions of those who witnessed or observed it. The countless versions of those who heard about it later, passed along via the grapevine or filtered through the media. And layered over those are the versions that percolate over time and are refined through experience. The story you tell in the moment, stuffed with details, is not the same one you tell twenty years later when you can see the big picture.

So you’re a few steps behind the few hundred (or thousand) people you follow on social media. So what? These are the early adopters, the overachievers, the workaholics, the people who only need four hours sleep a night. I mean, that’s why you’re following them, right? Because they’re in some way exceptional. But there are approximately seven billion other people in the world who you aren’t following and who aren’t dashing off essays in the time it takes you to reply to a few emails. Social media gives you a skewed perspective. You start to feel like those few people you follow are “everyone” when they’re really not. They’re not even representative of everyone.

When you actually pause and pay attention to what’s being said, you realize how much of it is a variation on the same theme—a single story told multiple times. This isn’t surprising. We’re often drawn to follow groups of interconnected people. As a writer, for example, you probably follow writers, editors, and other bookish types, many of whom come from similar backgrounds and have had similar experiences. The result is that you end up in a kind of bubble where people are saying the same kinds of things, reinforcing and validating each other, consciously or unconsciously. If your perspective is different, your first instinct might be to hide or downplay that difference to fit in. Don’t. That difference is your strength; it’s what makes your story worth telling.

Why bother writing about something when myriad words have already been written? Because your story has not yet been told.

It’s never too late. Everything has not been said. You may write about anything that matters to you. You just have to find a way in. The key? To figure out what sets your story apart from the ones already out there, and to focus on those points of difference. Even the most clichéd of stories can be given new life when told from a point of view that subverts stereotypes.

Recently I read an essay about the lack of female road narratives in literature. The premise was that the road trip is essentially a quest narrative, and men have an abundance of these to choose from. (True.) Women, on the other hand, have The One Where You End Up Murdered by a Serial Killer. This narrative is so pervasive in our culture that it functions as a single story, drowning out the few exceptions. I’m well aware of that particular single story, being something of a police procedural / crime drama / mystery / thriller junkie, but I hadn’t made an explicit connection between that narrative and my own experience until I started reading this essay.

Years ago, I went on a cross-continent road trip by myself and lived to tell about it. In fact, the trip was completely uneventful. I filled a notebook that summer, one I can honestly say I haven’t looked at since. Since nothing (dramatic) happened, I never saw the value in writing about the experience. I also didn’t give the trip a whole lot of forethought and I didn’t see what I’d done as anything special. I’d gone on plenty of road trips with other people; going by myself wasn’t a big stretch.

But, as I read about how rare alternatives to the prevailing narrative are, I realized maybe it’s precisely because nothing traumatic happened that my experience is worth writing about. Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to hear that story.

Click.

I made a couple obvious mistakes in devaluing my own experience.

I assumed because it hadn’t seemed like a big deal to me at the time, it wasn’t a big deal in general. Wrong. Your life is only ordinary to you. To someone else, it may be extraordinary. We live in a society obsessed with safety and increasingly-ridiculous fears. To step outside a comfort zone is to do something out of the ordinary.

I assumed because nothing negative happened, my story wasn’t significant. Also wrong. Sure, tragedy is a shortcut to drama, but that doesn’t mean every story has to have a sensational event to propel it forward. A “nothing happens” story is more of a challenge to write than one with a built-in plot, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling. And for this particular narrative, “nothing happened” is actually a powerful message.

Because of those assumptions, I never took the time to think about why my perspective was different from the norm—or even to notice that it was. Why did I not hesitate to go on this trip when every cultural message says no, don’t do it, you’ll die? Why wasn’t I afraid? Why didn’t I succumb to the single story despite being a fan of ripped-from-the-headlines crime dramas? These are the types of questions I should have been asking but wasn’t because I viewed my story as unimportant.

Some differences are visible or immediately apparent. Others are buried more deeply within us and take longer to recognize. But regardless, it’s the stories that start from a different perspective than we’re used to that we need more of. These stories can be challenging to write because there is no defined path to follow, but that’s precisely why they are necessary. When you write your own story, you’re giving someone else a map.


The Summer Writing Bucket List

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Summer is my favorite time of year. For many of us it is a change-up in the daily patterns of our lives. Because there are fewer vehicles on the roads due to school breaks and vacation rotations in the office, the commute to work isn’t as long, so many of us can sleep in a little longer and arrive home a little sooner. Home life changes, too. The sandals and flip-flops come out of the closet. Summer food is back. It’s a time to BBQ and to enjoy an icy cold one while dinner cooks on the grill or at your favorite restaurant now that the patio and umbrellas are open for dining al fresco. Don’t forget to stop at the ice cream stand on the way home.

The Summer Writing Bucket List

Indeed, the day-to-day demands don’t seem so demanding when the sun is still shining at eight o’clock, leaving plenty of time in the day to squeeze in those extra activities that were not possible during the long winter months. It is so easy to drop off the radar and slip away because no one is looking. And there is no requirement or a sunny sign-up sheet in order to take part in the summer change-up. It’s a given. A gift.

I personally get very excited beginning in June when I see my favorite indie bookstores and my local library have their summer reading lists posted on their doors and display boards. How many new novels can I squeeze in before September? Yet reading is not the only change-up in my summer lifestyle—my writing changes too. It seems to be a natural occurrence as it happens like clockwork every year. Maybe it’s the boost in serotonin levels in my brain from all the added sunshine or maybe it is an evocative reaction to the sights, the sounds, the summery smells resonating deep in my writer-being that I credit from spending extravagant amounts of time outside as opposed to the ocean of time spent inside last winter. Perhaps it is all of the above.

Whichever the reason, along with it comes one extra perk and that is a sense of freedom that can be exhilarating. During July and August I give myself express permission to break away from any existing writing projects. I tuck them in on my hard drive and I step away to try something new. Something that perhaps I’ve always wanted to try but haven’t had the chance. I break out my summer writing bucket list. bucket1My bucket is blue with a picture of SpongeBob SquarePants on its side. If ideas were stones, my bucket would nearly topple over from the weight of all the ideas it holds. I reach inside and pick…

Last summer, I was possessed with writing personal essays. I made a list and managed to get three nearly finished before September first. The summer before that I spent some time playing with narrative points of view. This summer, I’ve decided to change up my writing bucket list. The last three bucket numbers are now re-ordered to Numbers 1, 2, and 3. My plans are to spend some time writing blog posts on a particular non-fiction subject, writing an old story in a different point of view, and perhaps writing one or two fresh pieces of flash fiction. Yes. I’m ambitious.

And even though I may abandon my laptop to literally go fly a kite on the beach or go see a ball game, and may not return to my writing until the next day or the day after that, it is perfectly A-okay to do so. It is okay because if indeed the summer months take over my writing schedule, I know that anything I don’t finish will become fodder for the winter months—my winter writing bucket list.

So writers, while the sun is shining consider a change-up in your writing. Write a list for your summer writing bucket and make it happen.

And tell us about it, too. Share your thoughts and experiences with the TC editors in a comment or a tweet or drop by TC’s weekly writing thread in the Chasms and Crags forum hosted by TC editor, Beaver. Tell ’em Harpspeed invited you. 😉


Variations on a Theme

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

What Is Theme?

There are about as many ways to describe what a theme is as there are themes. The moral of the story. The premise the story is trying to prove. The one sentence snapshot of the story. The greater truth that the author is trying to convey through the story. Most of these descriptions boil down to “What is the story really about?” Plot is what happens in the story. Theme is what the reader takes away from the story.

Generally a theme is presented as a statement. Take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, the classic story of those two star-crossed lovers that ends in tragedy because their families cannot stop feuding. While there are probably as many different descriptions of the theme as there are English teachers, the theme is generally presented as a sentence. Some commonly presented themes for Romeo and Juliet are:

  • “Hate destroys love.”
  • “A great love defies even death.”
  • “Love conquers hatred.”
Background Photo: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Background Photo: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Views on Themes

When it comes to the theme of a story, writers tend to fall into two camps.

There is the “my theme will naturally happen without my needing to worry about it while I am writing” camp.

I tend not to know what the plot is or the story is or even the theme. Those things come later, for me.

—Michael Ondaatje

Ultimately, your theme will find you. You don’t have to go looking for it.

—Richard Russo

A novel’s whole pattern is rarely apparent at the outset of writing, or even at the end; that is when the writer finds out what a novel is about, and the job becomes one of understanding and deepening or sharpening what is already written. That is finding the theme.

—Diane Johnson

And then there is the “without a clear theme at the start, the story will be aimless” camp.

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

—Herman Melville

You can’t tell any kind of a story without having some kind of a theme, something to say between the lines.

—Robert Wise

So, the very first thing you must have is a premise. And it must be a premise worded so that anyone can understand it as the author intended it to be understood. An unclear premise is as bad as no premise at all.

The author using a badly worded, false, or badly constructed premise finds himself filling space and time with pointless dialog—even action—and not getting anywhere near the proof of his premise. Why? Because he has no direction.

—Lajos Egri

Which camp do you fall into? Do you think about the theme of your stories at all? Do you start with a theme, or discover it when you are finished?

But… but… The THEME!

Many writers worry that if they have a clear theme, their story will feel artificially moralistic. We’ve all read those stories where the theme batters us over the head until we put down the book, saying “Enough already!” and we don’t want to be those writers.

If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.

—Elizabeth Bowen

So are the choices here between wandering aimlessly through a forest hoping we make a clear path, or clear-cutting a path so wide that destroys the forest?

That’s a very simplistic view, the either/or view. The fun and interesting stuff comes about when you look at all the grey areas in between two simplistic views. Theme actually has another component to it—the reader has a say in what the story is about.

I get thousands of letters, and they give me a feeling of how each book is perceived. Often I think I have written about a certain theme, but by reading the letters or reviews, I realise that everybody sees the book differently.

—Isabel Allende

If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.

—Pablo Picasso

Look at the variations on the theme of Romeo and Juliet. Most people agree love has a lot to do with the story. But what love accomplishes (or doesn’t accomplish) can depend very much on the reader. A young teenager can read it and think that the theme is “Love is worth sacrificing everything.” A jaded adult can read it and think “The impetuousness of young love leads to destruction.” A pacifist can read it and think “Hatred destroys everything, including love.” A fatalist can read it and think “Love cannot overcome fate.”

What’s It All About, When You Get Right Down To It?*

We’re currently in a messy spot with themes. Should you have a theme before you write, or not? Can you have a strong theme that isn’t an “in your face” thing? Does your theme even matter if the reader is going to find their own theme anyway?

The answer to those questions is… ask another question.

Earlier, I said that most themes are written as statements. They are presented as “the moral of the story.” I’d like to twist the idea of theme and pose it as a question.

Let’s start with one of the themes we presented for Romeo and Juliet. “Great love defies even death.” How can we make that theme into a question? Well, there is the obvious one: “Can a great love defy even death?”

I contend, however, that “Can a great love defy even death?” is not that interesting a question. Because there are only two answers to it: Yes, or No. If you are trying to have a meaningful conversation, you generally don’t get a lot of response from a yes or no question. “Did you have a good time at the party?” “Yes.” “Did you like school?” “No.” If you want dialog, you need to ask open-ended questions. “What was the party like?” “What did you do in school today?”

What happens to the idea of theme if we phrase it as an open-ended question? What if, instead of our original question, we ask, “How far would lovers go to be with each other?”

If we think of Romeo and Juliet as an exploration into the answer to this question, the story becomes a lot more interesting. What is Romeo willing to do to be with Juliet? What is Juliet willing to do to be with Romeo? Both are ready to defy their families. So let’s escalate that. Are they ready to defy the feud between their families? Defy the law? And defy even death to be together? Those two characters are willing to go all the way. If they were not, it would be a different story. Same question, but a different answer.

Asking an open-ended question about your story is a good way to circumvent all the theme angst, but still give yourself that theme dimension that makes a good story a great one. By asking an open-ended question, your writing becomes an exploration. You don’t need to know the answer ahead of time—you can find out the answer for your particular set of characters in their particular circumstances as you go along. But your story has the theme built into it. And with a good open-ended question, it can still have Melville’s mighty theme.

The question exploration approach to theme also allows your readers the room to draw their own conclusions. You don’t end up accidentally trying to prove your point with a sledgehammer when your goal is not to prove a point, but to push the boundaries of a messy question to its limits and see where it takes your characters.

So start your story by asking yourself a messy question.

  • How far would someone go for revenge?
  • What price would someone pay for their heart’s desire?
  • How much would someone endure for their faith?

Then push your characters as far down their paths as they can go in your pursuit of an answer.

When you have your answer, you have your theme.

 

*”One minute I’m just another rabbit and happy about it, next minute whazaam, I’m thinking. That’s a major drawback if you’re looking for happiness as a rabbit, let me tell you. You want grass and sex, not thoughts like ‘What’s it all about, when you get right down to it?'” —Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures


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