My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Novels or Short Stories (Mailbox)

Should I write write novels or stick with short stories?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I am not Jonah Jameson by a long shot.]  

Hamish asks:


I'm new to writing seriously, and at the moment I've only been writing short stories. Whether this will change as I get more experienced I'm not sure, but it's telling that some of my favourite authors  (Edgar Allen Poe being my absolute favourite, along with HP Lovecraft when he wasn't being uncomfortably racist) mainly worked in this form. 

My question is in two parts: 

A. Should I be looking to expand my horizons and focus on longer works, or is working primarily in short stories still something other writers do in this day and age? 

B. Are there any differences in the way I should be approaching "The Process" - not that I think any of the steps will change, more a question of scale. Should I be using the same number of rewrites, should I be taking long gaps between each draft, etc?

Thank you very much.

My reply:

But really, was there any time Lovecraft wasn't being uncomfortably racist?

So let's take the first question because there's something very important that I think you're getting at here and it matters, but it also maybe shouldn't. Or maybe it shouldn't until later, when it's good to know, but might help you but then you may have to......


You know what. Why don't I just actually answer it.

Let's start simple. The answer to "What should I write" is, for the most part, always the same: Life is short. Death is forever. It's later than you think. Write what your soul burns to write and fuck the haters. Take what you can; give nothing back!

No wait...that last part is the pirate code.

The chances of some commercial breakthrough in this industry are shockingly small, but the number of people who put some idea of commercial viability over their personal enjoyment and passions are phenomenal. I'm teaching a class of middle schoolers creative writing. MIDDLE. SCHOOLERS. The oldest of them are going into 9th grade next year. When I tell them to write whatever they want, they ask me what I think will sell. Settle down turbo, you've got at least ten years yet before you need to sell out and have hipsters who liked your old shit better.

If ever there were a cart placed inauspiciously in front of a horse (where said horse would find it maximally inconvenient to move) this would be such a situation.

If you're enjoying writing short stories, write short stories. If you enjoy writing novels, write novels. Also Hamish if you get to the point where you need to change up what you write to reach a wider audience, you're going to see that coming miles away and have years to adjust to it. All KINDS of people will send you hate mail about how you went corporate and became a slave of "The Man." It'll be great!

This advice is especially true if you're not publishing. Writers will write for years churning out work that has no destiny greater than their own memory box under the Star Wars birthday cards and smutty handwritten letters from their first love interest as well as being a small piece of the "years of practice" they needed to develop the skills they needed to go forth. So really there's absolutely no reason to be writing any goddamned thing that doesn't bring you bliss.

Now the caveats:

If your goal is to "make it" as a writer–as soon as you figure out what that even means to you–you may want to be aware of industry trends. First of all, as you are foraging your writing skill in the fires of Mt. Doom, you should know that it's really good to write in a form you don't like, especially if that form is shorter than you're used to. It's good for writers to try their hand at all KINDS of writing they don't normally like to do, but boy fuck do most writers need to learn how to keep it short. I don't mean just Robert Jordan either.

(Bro, your slow sections are longer than War and Peace. Not cool, bro.)

Cut that scene. Get rid of that paragraph. That sentence isn't NEARLY as clever as you think it is, and if it's not doing something for your story, it's just masterbatory. You don't need four chapters to do the same thing. Practicing writing with more brevity and precision is great for writers who typically write longer. So you're off to a great start.

[One of the best exercises I ever did was to have a teacher give us a 6,000 word story prompt, and then when we were all super happy with our revised and completed stories that barely fit in the 6,000 word prompt (of which every single word was super-duper important, of course, and could never be cut in a gagillion years), they told us to trim it to 5,000 words for our final. I learned more about what is vital and what isn't in two days than in years prior.]

Does it go the other way?  Sure it does!

Long term character arcs, lots of minor characters, subplots, complications, these things aren't in your typical short story because there just isn't time, so it can be practice to kind of learn to slow down and take your time with the craft. Obviously if you're wrapping up your plot lines and your protagonist is dead by the end of chapter one, something has gone very wrong. Plus if you want to take a crack at a novel just to see what it feels like to develop the long term project chops, and get up and hack away at something every day for months, that might be a real learning experience. Kind of like going and deciding to build a house on a lark when what you usually build are sheds.

A lot like that actually. I might have to steal that one. Hashtag shedtohouse. Someone call the patent office. I want a quarter every time someone uses this. *puffs cigar*

Secondly there's this really weird paradox in the industry. Novels sell. Novels make money. Publishers want novels. You can make some sideline cash selling short stories, but if you want the big advances and the royalty checks, you probably have to write novels. HOWEVER, you will almost never ever EVER see someone get a book deal without a portfolio of short stories first. That's how writers get their name out and generate the accolades for a cover letter that an agent won't ignore.

You might also want to try a novella as a bridge between the two, but just know that those are an even harder sell in terms of industry demand. They're too long to fit in a periodical and too short to make money off of. Writers don't tend to make money with novellas until they are very well known.

So your proclivity for short stories is likely to not only be the bliss you should follow, but also to serve you well if you're trying to break into the publishing industry. Right up until you start to reach the point when someone's going to want to see a book from you. And believe me, Hamish, when that train pulls into the station, you will absolutely know it. It'll be subtle like a brick.

Here see if you can decode this subtext: "Hey, I'm an agent. When you're ready to start writing novels, give me a call. I'd love to represent you."  How was that? Did you catch that meaning beneath the layers of meaning?  Okay well then you'll know when it's time to shift to writing novels.

As far as scaling up for writing novels vs. writing short stories, it is a bit different. While a very well written novel will have loving time and meticulous attention given to its revision, it will probably not have the painstaking revision process of a short story. Short stories are dense and they are crafted with amazing precision. Some authors agonize over literally every single word choice. You can probably wait a little less time for that first short story revision than you would with a novel (a few days instead of a few weeks) but you might actually want to jack up the number of revisions.

Good luck Hamish!  Don't forget me when you're big-time. Especially if you use that shed thing.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Best YA for Young Women (Reminder to Vote)

What is the best book (or series) marketed to young women?  

Tomorrow I'm going to dig into this backlog of Mailbox questions and start rocking the kasbah, and last night I was up until 11:30 creating the post I'm going to be using for the next handful of Thursdays, so today I'm just going to remind everyone that there's only a little over a week left to vote for your favorite book or series marketed to young women. Come July, we will begin gathering nominations for a new poll and post results forthwith.

From your nominations and through quarter and semifinals, it all comes down to this last week.

Everyone has (3) votes, but remember that there is no ranking, so using as few votes as possible is better. 

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Future of Writing About Writing

Hi everyone. Today marks the first of six Thursdays where I'm going to try to do something a little like a pledge drive. (You know like those two weeks where NPR spends a few minutes between each show trying to convince you to donate? Like that....except six weeks.........and only on Thursdays.) Since I'm unable to maintain my current posting schedule because of teaching summer school, I thought that this would be a good time to do a sustained reminder that my ability to keep on writing (about writing) largely depends on all of you.

This is a screen shot from MY PATREON.  I'm currently 65% to my third goal, which will keep me from having to drive for Lyft or something once I run out of Kickstarter funds allotted for the novel and keep me writing instead.

So really the awesome part is we just started and we only have 35% to go.

If I can reach just that goal by the end of this six weeks, then I'll consider myself set up for what's coming. There are many more goals. Some because the funds allotted through Kickstarter are finite and will be used up. Some because part of my current income will eventually go away. (The kid I'm nannying needs less care each year.) Some to remove the need for jobs that take me away from writing, like teaching summer school. Some because my current living situation won't last forever. Some because I can only keep not contributing to some kind of retirement fund for so long before I have to do the responsible adult thing.

Since this blog's inception we have been able to quit teaching during the regular year, bring you more content, and up the number of high quality posts each week. (And not to put too fine a point on it, but we've been able to keep bringing you content through what would otherwise have been some completely devastating life transitions that would have put most bloggers on hiatus.) We've been able to go from five posts a week to six. And we've been able to take far fewer random days off. Here are some things I'd like to add if we continue to get more support.

  • Even more posts, and more high-quality posts (less jazz hands)
  • A seventh post each week
  • A greater number of carefully (perhaps even professionally) edited and revised posts
  • More fiction
  • Always free longer fiction (books)
  • An always, forever, ad free experience on Writing About Writing

If I can't reach this goal by the end of the six weeks, I may have to return to hosting ads on Writing About Writing and I may have to consider other ways to monetize my work. It's not something I want to do, and it will actually limit the rage of certain kinds of content I can post, but I'll need to shore up that gap somehow.

Remember just twelve dollars a year–just ONE DOLLAR a month–gets you in on backchannel conversations with other patrons, polls, and conversations about future projects including sometimes even me trying to get your input. But perhaps, most importantly, you'll be supporting an artist who to continue making art that will always be free for everyone to enjoy.

So if you like what I do and want to see me do more of it, not do less of it, and continue to do it without ads and for free, please consider a small pledge.

Again here is that link:  https://www.patreon.com/chrisbrecheen

And of course if committing to a monthly amount isn't feasible, you can always make a one-time donation through my Paypal (at the top left of the screen).

[Note: I'll add to the bells and the whistles and the jazz hands to this appeal post each week as this six weeks of summer school goes on.]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Feeling Stuck? Join the Club, and Try These Tips to Get Writing Again (R.S. Williams)

Feeling Stuck? Join the Club, and Try These Tips to Get Writing Again
R.S. Williams

For almost 20 years, I taught college writing. These days, I work as a freelance writer. Even though I’m no longer teaching, people still confide in me about their writing woes. They ask a lot of worried questions, the very same questions that my college students used to ask. One of the most frequent worries writers of all backgrounds have is what to do when they feel stuck.

And wow, do ever I know that awful, sinking “stuck” feeling. It’s horrible. It also happens to me regularly—several times a week, on average. Really bleak periods have found me stuck for months on end, making zero progress on my novel. It can be extremely disheartening, and even deeply depressing.

But a while back, I realized that I’d managed to survive all those psyche-wrenching times where I just couldn’t get the ideas to come to me. I’d shared pieces of this advice with my former students. Why not share my advice with a lot of people, in one long post? Even though I’ve reassured literally thousands of worried writers with this same advice, I don’t mind doing so over and over. People will meet the right solution when they’re ready, and when the time is finally right. As Ernest J. Gaines once wrote, “Everything’s been said, but it needs saying again.”

All that said: Take what you need from this list. I hope you’ll find something in here that helps you free yourself from feeling as if you’ll never write again.

1) Remember: You are NOT alone! Feeling stuck is common, and even normal. As Catch-22 author Joseph Heller once noted, “Every writer I know has trouble writing.” Many writers will tell you that when the material flows easily from the start, it winds up being crap. So if you’re having trouble writing and getting into your “flow” space, know that you’re in good company. 

2) Try not to beat yourself up. You’ll get past this stuck feeling. Really, you will. The fact that you’re reading this means that you’ve managed to keep writing through and around all your other “stuck” points over the previous weeks and months and years. (If you hadn’t, you’d be off doing something else instead of reading this post.)

The blocked feeling may seem extra-strong right now. (To me, it nearly always feels that way.)  Just keep being kind to yourself. Keep taking your writing in small steps. You’ll eventually move past the stopping place you feel right now. It may not be instant, but it’ll happen.

3) Let yourself write utter crap. Even the most experienced writers sometimes fall into the old lie of feeling like the words have to come out perfectly on the first try. This is what stops so many people from ever setting a single word on the page. 

I saw this all the time with my college writing students. Many of them were in a perpetual perfectionism deep-freeze. To get around this, I gave them a low-stakes (small grade) assignment with a challenge: “I want you to complete this assignment as badly as you can. Follow the instructions, but make it your goal to write badly. Write garbage. Don’t focus on making it perfect. On Monday, I want to see who’s written the worst draft possible.” 

When we returned to class the next week, my students were in much better moods. They were even ragging one another as to who had the worst paper. Sure enough, as I walked around the classroom checking assignments, I saw some atrocious grammar and spelling (which students could always fix later). What struck me most was the amount of strong thinking on those sloppy, “badly written” pages. I saw a lot of 12-point Times New Roman griping turn into thoughtful insights. Once they felt free of that it’s gotta be perfect the first time I type it feeling—once they knew I’d given them permission to “write poorly”—the ideas came more easily.

Let yourself write badly, for as many pages as you need. Chances are that the good stuff will come along once you feel free to write a bad draft.

4) Write in small, short bursts. For me, this removes some of the pressure of sitting at the keyboard for long periods. Try keeping a few sheets of paper and a pen (or a cheap memo pad) in the places you spend the most time: by the sofa, in your car’s glovebox, by the toilet, and so on. Keep the paper inexpensive; you don’t want to have such a pretty notepad that you’re afraid to use it. When a tiny idea fragment comes to you, write it down. If there’s more coming behind it, write that down, too. Otherwise, stop and come back to it later—when your next piece of an idea comes along. Before you know it, you’ll have committed to paper a bunch of small snippets that can help break up that block. 

5) Try writing longhand. (Note: If you have dysgraphia, you can skip to the next item.) 
This advice came to me from Natalie Goldberg’s classic “self-help for writers” book Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg suggests writing by hand, in a notebook with pen or pencil, as a direct way to access one’s creativity and memory. That’s how she writes every day, and how she’s drafted all of her books. It’s also how Alice Walker composes her drafts—and if writing by hand is good enough for both Goldberg and Walker, then by God it’s good enough for me. 

When I read Bones a couple years ago, I was desperate. I’d been stuck in one place with my novel, and hadn’t written anything new in months. Sitting in front of my computer keyboard got me nowhere. So I figured, why not try it? I bought a cheap spiral-bound notebook, grabbed a fresh pen, and began writing whatever junk came to mind, by and. Before I really knew what was happening, I had 20 handwritten pages of quality material. Since then, I’ve used longhand about half the time, when I’m getting new material onto the page. It helps a lot when I’m trying to write emotional scenes or deal with painful memories. 

6) Change the font color. That’s right—change your font color to white, so you can’t see what you’re putting onto the page. Then start typing. When you’re done, press CTRL + A (highlight All), or COMMAND + A on a Mac, and then change the font back to your usual color. I’m not sure why this works, but it does seem to free me up from looking at and worrying about what’s going on the page. If I can’t see it, I can’t do my usual perfectionist overcorrection thing. Ha!

7) Change your physical location. Maybe you’re stuck because you’ve been sitting in one place, and in one position, for far too long. Try moving your writing spot somewhere else: to another chair, another table, looking in a different direction, looking out the window. Move to another room, if you can.   

Or get out of the house altogether, and write for a while at the public library, a coffee shop, or a diner. (Note: You’ll want to buy a little something and tip your servers, if you go to a retail establishment.) Writing outdoors, while I sit on the front steps of my house, or on a large rock on a local hiking trail, also helps jolt my mind into action. Even half an hour in a new location can dissolve a writing block.

8) Read through old literature textbooks. Maybe it’s all the years I spent teaching from them, but reading back through old “Intro to Lit” anthologies often helps me work around feeling stuck. Most old lit anthologies are available at used bookstores, and don’t cost anywhere near as much as their latest-edition counterparts. (I’ve found some great ones, such as the early-2000s editions of the Norton Intro to Lit and the Bedford Intro to Lit, for $5 to $10.) These textbooks also often include discussion questions. I like trying to answer those questions once I’ve read a selection; often, I’ll just open the book to a random page, and go from there, whether it’s poetry, drama, or short fiction. The ideas often come flowing back to me after an hour or two of this.

9) Read your favorite authors’ work—out loud. Reading aloud forces us to read and then hear exactly what’s on the page. (If you can’t read aloud, try listening to an audiobook.) Hearing the words we’ve grown to love can help dissolve a writing block. 

10) Work on another writing project. Often, I forget that my mind needs a break from these same words. That’s when I know it’s time to look over my friend’s screenplay draft, or look at the poem I wanted to revise for another journal. This way, I’m still writing, but I’m also letting this particular creative story rest a while. Even if I don’t have a “Eureka” moment while adding a little more to that album review due next week, I’m still getting some distance on this piece before I look at it again. 

11) Set up a “work day” with a friend. Knowing that I’m meeting my friend on a specific day to sit down and work together often helps. Having another person holding me accountable for showing up, just being present, and working quietly does wonders when I’m feeling stuck. 

12) Do something that doesn’t involve writing. It doesn’t have to be fancy or exciting—just make sure it’s not writing. Cleaning is my go-to solution. Ancient Buddhist monks were on to something when they came up with the phrase “Chop wood, carry water.” It’s in the humdrum everyday activities that our lives happen one small task at a time.

So when I’m feeling extra-stuck, I know it’s time to clean out that dirty litter box, scrub those greasy roasting pans, or mop the kitchen floor. I also have some great ideas while I’m in the shower, washing my hair. No, I don’t know how this works. Somehow, though, it does. 

13) Play an instrument. You don’t have to be “good” at it—the secret is to do it. I’m barely a beginner at guitar, but playing for even half an hour uses the non-writing creative areas of my brain. It lets my “serious writer” side relax and wander off, only to return later feeling better and having a couple new ideas.

14) Listen to music. If I’m having difficulty with a scene, or if I feel as if my words have all abandoned me, listening to music often jolts me into a new frame of mind. This works for many people I know, and not just for writing problems. When I finally feel the need to turn down the volume, or turn off the music altogether, I know I’m making progress past my mental block.   

15) Draw (or paint/make other art). As with #13, you don’t have to be “good” at it. Suspend all self-judgment, and then draw (by hand or electronically). Don’t worry about what you’re drawing; reassure yourself that you’re the only person who’s going to see it. Use the non-writing parts of your brain for a while. You may notice that, before long, ideas begin sneaking back into your imagination.

If you have PTSD, like I do, this technique may help when your symptoms seem to have put your words into a deep freeze. Sometimes, when I’m having a particularly bad day, I’ll draw what a crucial scene, or the end of a story, feels like for the main character. Or I’ll draw what finishing my book would feel like. This helps me for reasons I don’t yet fully understand—but, hey, I’ll take whatever I can get.  

16) Play like a little kid. I have a box of Legos that I keep around for times like this. All the pieces are mismatched, and they’re at least 30 years old. When I start snapping Legos together, I remember the great ongoing stories that my sister and I used to tell when we were kids. Being a writer is a lot like telling those little-kid stories for a living! Before I know it, I’ve come up with a new paragraph or two in the back of my mind. Playing by myself, with a few old kids’ toys, is often fun and refreshing.

17) Get ideas and wild prompts from unexpected places. You may have one of those old Magnetic Poetry sets floating around somewhere. Maybe you know someone who’ll let you use theirs (or sell you theirs for cheap). I like shaking the plastic box and then seeing what kinds of weird prose poems I can make with the handful of words I pull out. 

Pinterest and Tumblr also have great boards and accounts to follow. Just search “writing prompts” and see what turns up. If you’re on Twitter, try following some popular storytelling bots. Here are a few of my favorites:
@MagicRealismBot (“generate[s] a magical story every 2 hours”) 
@horse_bluegrass (random, bittersweet, and sometimes inadvertently risqué snippets of old bluegrass and country song standards)
@rewrittenbible (if you’re in the market for Biblical hilarity and heresy)
@poem_exe (random yet beautiful and occasionally funny short poems)
@str_voyage (“a bot forever voyaging [...] endless nautical story generator”)
@fairytaletext (mashups of lines from classic fairy tales)

Prompts from these accounts have led me in surprising new directions. A few have turned into stories of their own. Some have been flat-out corny. No matter the weird, random prompt, this little exercise often gets me putting words on the page again.

18) If none of the tips above work, it may be wise to leave your project alone for a while. Sometimes, the story just isn’t ready. We feel stuck because we’re trying to force ideas before they’ve percolated long enough in our subconscious. Return to the story in a couple weeks, or a month. Let it simmer on your creative mind’s back burner. 

Note that not all of these tips will work for everyone. Feel free to combine two or three. Experiment with them as you see fit. The most important thing is that you’re trying something new. The fact you’re reading this—that you’re making an effort to move past your writing difficulties—means there’s hope.

R.S. Williams taught college writing for 19 years before starting a new career as a freelance writer-artist-editor. She lives in LaGrange, Georgia, where she’s completing her debut novel, Songs My Father Barely Knew. Find more of her work at http://rswilliamswrite.com/ 

If you would like to guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Once More Unto The Breach Dear Friends, Once More (Personal Update)

The countdown begins now.

Six weeks.

Six weeks, three days a week, five hours a day (including commute).

The wibbly wobbly updaty watey ball of schedule weirdosity kicks off now. And having worked last night and today (and tomorrow through Thursday if you're keeping score) we're already in weird mode. Plus for at least the first three of the six weeks, I'm going to be writing lesson plans and plotting out curriculum every night. I'll do my best.

Just a reminder:
  • There's going to be some major jazz hands
  • I might miss a post and they're certainly likely to go up late
  • Look toward the weekend for what would usually have gone up on Fridays and Mondays ("meaty posts")
  • Thursdays for the duration will involve an appeal
  • Yes, I'm making money writing, but this is a $37/hr gig that will float me into October, so there's just no way I'm giving it up right now. My many supporters are just going to have to accept there is a small, six-week lull in what I can do each year.
Also, I could use some more guest blogs and/or guest bloggers (the hopper's getting kind of low), but I will be extra persnickety about accepting submissions. Why? Because when I have time to email 100+ people back who didn't read all the directions, it (only) takes me longer per guest blog than just writing the damn things myself.  (Only repeat bloggers make putting out a call like this "worth it" over time.)  But given what I'm going through in my real life, I really won't be able to put up with that this time around. Either read all the directions (in the above link) very, very carefully, or wait until I can hold your hand a little more. Trust me; I'll be able to tell.

Remember submitting to an actual gatekeeper/publisher type is going to involve even more little rules including bullshit like hard copies and self addressed stamped envelopes, and they will just trash your submission and never tell you if you decide you don't need to pay attention, so consider it practice if you need to get over the feeling that I'm being a megalomaniac.