Going Back to School: How Writers Benefit from Classes, Conferences, and Trainings

It’s that time of year again, when the cold crisp air settles around and the light grows softer. The mornings are get-ups and lunch packing and full backpacks. The wind rustles drying leaves and the echo of everything Pumpkin Spice descends. Fall. Probably my favorite season (minus the Pumpkin Spiced everything). Fall signals the slowing down of the bustling summer, a cooling off (we hope), and a getting ready for the winter ahead. It also reminds us of new opportunities to learn, to gain intellectual ground, and to prepare for the prime writing months coming up.

There are plenty of ways to keep your skills sharp as a writer. Last spring, I covered the conference season and this post will be similar in that I’m going to give you some online resources for improving your writing skill, developing a business or marketing plan, and helping to boost your creativity. Just like conferences, a writer can easily blow their budget by trying to train themselves into success. My goal is to offer you a spectrum of options with the caveat that classes can show you how to write better, give you pointers on the business side of things and offer marketing advice, inspire new ideas, and improve your editing. About the only thing they can’t do is write your book for you.

The Long Haul:

MFA/MA Programs: These programs (Master of Fine Arts and Master of Arts) are advanced, graduate degrees that can help to help your overall exposure to the big picture of writing (MA tends to focus more on Literature and less on writing, MFA can be broken down into Creative Writing, Journalism, Linguistics, etc). In these programs you will learn pretty much everything, from plot and structure, to dialogue and character development, to grammar and editing. It will take two years at least, and the cost averages out to about $38,000, not counting room and board. You’ll read an enormous amount of material. You’ll probably complete a novel or collection as part of your Thesis. Not a horrible way to go, but studies are showing that the cost of MFA programs are often not paid back in employment afterwards so–carefully think through that one.

Online Writing Courses:

A number of reputable online courses and classes are now offered through various writing groups, professional/successful authors, and university departments. The courses are less intensive than a MFA and can often be done at your convenience. They cost a lot less (some are even free) and you can often pick and chose the ones that will benefit you the most. Here’s a small list courtesy of softwaretestinghelp.com:

  1. Wesleyan University Creative Writing Specialization
  2. Gotham Writers Online Writing Classes
  3. Reedsy Learning Courses
  4. Udemy Creative Writing Courses
  5. edX Creative Writing Courses
  6. FutureLearn Creative Arts and Media Writing Courses
  7. OpenLearn Creative Writing
  8. SkillShare Online Creative Writing Classes
  9. Emory Continuing Education Creative Writing
  10. Universal Class
  11. Writers.com Online Writing Courses
  12. Masterclass Creative Writing Classes

Conferences, Seminars, Retreats

Feel free to refer back to my older post on conference (you can find it here: https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/2021/04/01/a-word-or-several-about-writing-conferences/)

For this area of your continuing education I’ll ask that you explore seminars (mini conferences, or a series of five or more classes on one topic, like Novel Writing) and retreats in your area. I’m sure there are beautiful, far-flung retreats in tropical islands that are also available, but with travel restrictions, lack of funds, and a busy life outside of writing, those may not always be attainable, so do a little research closer to home. Some of my favorite retreats and seminars have been offered through Northern Colorado Writers at a very fair cost and are conveniently located. It also helps my sense of altruism to know I’m funneling my money into a local organization that turns around and helps other writers in my area.

Retreats tend to fall into two categories, those with classes/seminars and free-write time, and those with simply free-writing time, punctuated with social hours. You may wonder how effective three or four days, stuck in a lodge, with nothing but time spent writing can be as beneficial as say, a whole weekend of conference classes. Well, young writer, let me elaborate.

Classes, conferences and seminars are excellent resources for enhancing your writing and helping you learn technique as well as opening up your mind to the business side of things–just like I mentioned above. And, just like I mentioned above, they can’t write a book for you. Only you and time can do that. As a mother of two busy kids, with a couple of side gigs, and a whole household to run–I don’t always have time to write. Somedays I’m lucky to get 20 minutes in. So to have four days, uninterrupted by children, husbands, dogs, laundry, volunteering, teaching, or grocery shopping, cleaning, and yard work, just focused on my writing is priceless. I’ve finished novels in that time. I’ve written four months of blog posts and edited entire series. I’ve barreled through plot holes that I thought I could never find solutions to.

The truth is, when there’s nothing else to pull your procrastination strings, you can get some shit done. PLUS, its immensely helpful to be surrounded by other writers while they’re “in the zone”. There is an inexplicable energy that catches you up when you’re surrounded by other souls and brains focused on their art and passion. Plus there’s usually some socializing/decompression hours at the end of the day to give yourself respite.

Okay–that seemed like a lot of info and I don’t want to bore you to tears. Check out some of the ideas above this week for taking yourself back to school. When we invest in our writing, it becomes less the pipe dream, and more of an attainable goal. Good luck out there, writers. Keep me posted on your progress or if you’ve found some great retreats, classes, and resources yourself!

Guest Blog: Nathaniel Luscombe

Good morning! Today’s post comes to us from one of our lovely neighbors to the North. Nathaniel Luscombe is an up and coming writer from Canada who holds a deep love for all sorts of written things. He’s been featured in three anthologies “There is Us”, “Faces to The Sun”, and the sci-fi fantasy collection “Among Other Worlds”. He’s currently working on the release of his first novella along with other writing projects.

In today’s blog he’s exploring the journey he’s taken so far in his love of writing. His insights into the process, the highs and the lows are something we can all relate to. Look forward to his brilliant poetry being featured in this fall’s “Wilderness of Soul” poetry anthology. Enjoy!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hello writers! I am so excited to be writing to everyone who reads this blog. My name is Nathaniel Luscombe, and I have, as of being let into this anthology, been accepted for publishing four times. Well technically three, but that’s something we’ll talk about a little later on.

My focus for this blog is on writing and the fear of not succeeding. I think anyone who writes has faced fear of not being enough. Writing is such a personal experience. We’re taking our own experiences, thoughts, and ideas out of our minds and putting them down on paper for anyone to read. 

That is quite a startling reality.

It’s also an exciting process.  

This is my third poetry anthology. I consider myself to be a science fiction and fantasy writer, but somehow poetry always calls my name at some point. My first anthology was There is Us, run by the phenomenal poet SJ Blasko. My second one was Faces to the Sun, also run by her. The thing that drew me into these anthologies was the topics. There is Us was all about COVID-19 and our experiences during those first few months. Faces to the Sun covers topics of mental health. Both of them are, in my opinion, incredibly important anthologies. One of them documents one of the biggest events in recent history, while the other tackles stigma and opens up a conversation. 

In March of this year, I was able to publish the anthology that I ran. It was quite the experience, and sometimes I look back with bits of regret and disappointment at how it turned out, but it was an important first step for me. That anthology is Among Other Worlds, and it was split into science fiction and fantasy. It was terrifying to run my own project, but I was able to work with amazing authors. While I made mistakes, it’s still a tangible first step. 

Now with all this behind me, and so much hopefully ahead of me, I have to think about what some of my next steps are going to be. 

See… being published three times does not mean anything. I am still so full of doubt and fear. Every time someone mentions that they read one of my works, I want to hide under a pillow for fear of them not enjoying it. Writing is the process of baring one’s soul, and there would be nothing worse than rejection from the people around me. That’s why this anthology came in at a perfect time. 

 Wilderness of Soul is all about vulnerability, raw feelings, and openness. I think that is such an exciting and important theme for a poetry anthology. My prose is always quite light-hearted, following escapades through space or people using their magic to better their world. Poetry is my escape. It’s the darker side of me, where I pour out my feelings and emotions without letting anything hold me back. I truly believe that poetry is the most vulnerable form of writing. It is a window to the soul, a path to the wilderness of soul (heh, see what I did there?)

 So in some ways, publishing poetry is a lot more daunting than publishing a story. It’s not as filtered, and it connects directly to who I am. So now we have established the fear portion of writing. It’s a fear that everyone shares, but everyone wants to get over it. 

 So let’s work on that together. I want to talk about some things that I have come to terms with in my own journey of conquering the fear of sharing my writing. 

 First, people will enjoy your writing. When I read through my previous anthologies, there are obviously things I enjoy more than others… but I can appreciate and enjoy each piece as its own creation. Each author took a step into the unknown, not knowing whether they would be rejected or not, and it’s up to me as a reader to see what their vision was. So know that you have an audience. You have supporters. You have talent. 

 Second, let’s look at the logistics of it all. There is so much focus on writing something that will ‘make or break’ you. I disagree with this notion so strongly. The idea that my ‘debut’ is what represents me for the rest of my life is garbage. I am going to continue changing and growing as a person. My talent with writing will grow, my style will change, my ideas will blossom… and my debut will be a beginning, not an ending. You have more than one chance to make your mark. I am only eighteen. I used to pressure myself to become the best writer, thinking I had to be a published writer by the age of 20. I wanted to hit NYT Bestseller lists, go to writing conventions, have a crowd of adoring fans… I know what you’re thinking, “Umm, Nathaniel, that’s a bit unrealistic.” Yeah, it is. It’s unrealistic, but it’s something I felt pushed onto me because of the pressure to become ME by the time I was an adult and remain that person until I died. Obviously, with writing being such a big part of who I am, I thought that I had to have my writing fully developed by that time as well. Take your time, have some fun, and don’t turn your writing into a chore. Get rid of the fear that you only have one shot. I am on my fourth shot. These are not shots, these are opportunities. I am not here to make it big. I’m here to offer my voice for a project I believe in.

 My third and final point is watching the advice that you take. I have spent so much of my life taking advice from people I hold no respect for or who know nothing about what I’m doing. Advice is never a bad thing, but how seriously you take it should depend on the person it is coming from. How does this connect to fear? Well the fear of becoming a failure is rooted in people that give you a lot of self-doubt. There is a barrier between healthy confidence and being straight up cocky. I do not think the publishing world is going to bow at me and give me every opportunity I want. I also don’t think my journey is going to be rejectless. I expect a long, rough road… but I am excited and ready to get into it. For a while, I thought that I had no chances because I was listening to people that didn’t have my best interests and weren’t in a position in my life that should’ve allowed them to get to me. You need to realize that everyone has a chance at this. You might end up as a writer, you might not end up as a writer. Either way, at least you tried. 

 Writing this all out has been so freeing. Call it closure, call it the need to figure out my issues, but this is the most intimate piece of writing I have put out for a while. It’s not as detailed as it could be, but some things are better left inside. I just want to be the one to give you a boost of confidence. Let me encourage you as a writer, because I bet you have an amazing story to tell.

A Word (or Several) About Writing Conferences

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
I’m not going to lie, I’m a lazy bastard some days. And I’ve got plenty on my plate to make me feel justified when I rehash an old blog, especially if it still fits with what I’d like to talk about.

This, being April and the start of the Writing Conference Season (I’m not sure if that should be a capitalized title, but it seems like an event so…I’m going with it) I thought it would useful to budding writers out there to go over some conference basics as well as some advice that has really helped me get the most out of them. This also being a totally new era, I’ve added some modifications to reflect our new Zoom/Teams lifestyles (not NEARLY as cool as a Rock n’ Roll lifestyle).

So, let’s get into the meaty goodness of writer’s conferences and why you should strive to attend at least one a year.


How do you choose which one to attend? 
 
•	Firstly, most conferences, at least since last year, have had to switch to some type of online format or perhaps online-in person hybrid to make accommodations for safety during the pandemic. So, the good news is, you may not have to shell out so much for travel expenses as they can be taken from the comfort of your home. Bad news is that you’ll still be at home and all the challenges that can go along with it. I’ll touch more on that later on. 

•	If you are anything like me, you’re wealthy in creativity but strapped for cash. One of the biggest deciding factors, for me, is the cost of the conference, along with which classes, speakers, and agents will be there. Getting to pitch to an agent, or multiple agents for publishers specific to your genre is a boon. Classes that are not just interesting but will help expand your craft are also good factors to consider.
 
•	Some conferences are genre specific and if you are a comfort-hugging archetype who doesn’t flirt around outside your style and subject matter, then definitely consider something specifically geared to your genre. The Romance Writers of America used to host in fun and far-off lands like…San Diego and…New York City…*le sigh* remember travel? Now things have changed. I was lucky enough to attend last year’s Wordsmith Institute’s Romance Writing Conference online and it was simply amazing. (they are offering the conference again this year and here is the linkhttps://www.wordsmith.institute/writing-events—totally worthwhile. In the fall they host a Sci-Fi conference that is equally engaging and informative). Genre specific conferences are awesome if you’re looking to polish skills or start out in a new genre that you don’t normally write in. Don’t be afraid to flirt a bit (outside of your genre, that is *wink)
 
•	If you’re stuck deciding between two, look at the courses offered, the speakers presenting, and if they are offering pitch sessions, especially agents suited to your work. Pick the one that gives you the most opportunity for growth and stretches your creative and ambitious goals.
 
How do I get the most out of my conference?
 
•	Here’s what I’ve learned. Plan ahead but be flexible. Conferences don’t just start the minute you pin that snazzy name badge on your seldom-used dress clothes (or, via online conferences, log in with only dress clothes on your upper half). They start the year before, during writing when you self-reflect on the issues you have with your WIP, your style, your grammar, or even the steps you want to take next. If you have trouble with dialogue but are a whiz at plotting out the perfect story arc, then use your conference to build up your weak points. Even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone. Which leads me to my next point:
 
•	Sit it on at least one session that is outside of your genre, comfort zone, or even interest. Look, conferences can be amazing experiences but if you’ve been through sixteen hours of various takes on the query letter or trying to perfect your memoir pitches, you’re not growing as much as you could be. Why do athletes cross train? Why does an engineering major still have to take social science classes? Because learning about the realm outside yourself will make you better in all aspects of your work. Try a sci-fi world-building class or screenwriting. I guarantee, you will get something new out of it that will help your project and your craft.
 
•	Push your limits. Talk to people you wouldn’t normally, share your story, your success, and your pitfalls. This is an awesome opportunity (I’m talking to you little introvert) to commiserate, vent, and rejoice in the craft you love so much. Pitch your novel, article, or story. Talk to the larger-than-life keynote speaker (here’s a hint: every single one of them I’ve had the pleasure to meet has been the kindest, most down-to-Earth and supportive writer). Come away feeling like the weekend/day was an experience that has changed you in some fundamental way.
 
How do I not get overwhelmed?
 
•	For goddess’ sake, take a break in the midst of it all. I’m the worst at this. I’m a classic victim of; “I paid the money and I’m going to hit every single class. I will volunteer, pitch, hit up the speakers at the dinner table, and stuff every bit of information into my head until explodes!” Then by day two, nothing makes sense in my mind, words are blurry, I’m not sure what my name is, and I’m crying into a self-made mashed-potato tower, while wearing Underoos on my head that clearly are not my own. 

Take the breaks between sessions or even forgo a session and find a quiet corner or go for a walk outside. You need it to recharge, allow time to absorb the information and be refreshed for the next round. This is especially true for online conferences! Take the computer to different rooms (if they’re still quiet) or outside if available, take walks in between sessions, take eye and body breaks (look far off for a spell, or ‘rest’ your eyes away from the screen, get up and stretch as often as available). Its’ almost like interval training—the space between, the recovery is what sets you up for the next round, so take it.
 

 
•	If you are pitching to an agent or editor, polish the shit out of that thing beforehand. Take your pitch to your critique group, your friends, random people on the street before the conference and learn how to deliver it with confidence and clarity. Know your story, your characters, and your plot, inside and out. That first page should sing the sweetest siren’s song anyone has ever heart and lure the tepid agent from the afternoon lunch lull into something exciting they want to read more of. The more you practice your pitch, the more it will feel like a conversation with a good friend instead of an interview.
 
•	If you are pitching, don’t be intimidated by the agent or editor. Remember they are people. They are there, specifically, to talk to you. To hear your story. To find the next big thing. Most of them are also just like you…they may even be wearing Underoos and like mashed potatoes. The point is, it’s okay to be nervous, but don’t go in assuming they relish the idea of shooting you down. Be polite and always thank them for their time and any advice they have to give.
 
•	Sleep before. Sleep after. Eat nutritious food, take walks outside whenever you can, and watch the caffeine and the booze. Free coffee stations are like crack for me (or conversely at home for online conferences—having my own espresso machine) and cash bars are a tempting mistress at the end of a long, people-filled day. But you’ll have things to do the next day and Underoos will stay safely tucked in if you can avoid that third cocktail. 
To conclude, I’d like to share one of the best lessons I’ve learned from conferences.

For every conference I attend, I add a layer to the writer in me. That is to say, through the people I meet, the classes I take, and the lectures I attend, I learn more about the craft. How, and when, and why, and what and all the technical attributes that come along with the delicate balance of creativity and grammatical science. But more than just the sum of these limitless parts, I learn a greater whole.

The whole that is me as a writer. 

And in doing so, I’ve learned how to enjoy myself more at these kinds of functions by listening to my body, my brain, and my growing years of experience. 

Back in the day, I would be hand-cramping from the steady stream of notes at each session. I would be tumbling from one to the next, chugging down coffee between in hopes to keep my energy up so I wouldn’t miss a thing. I would strategically place myself at the agent’s table who I wanted to garner the literary affections of. I would, in essence, be the adult version of my grade-school brown-nosing self. 

Something happened one year, while at the meet and greet “networking” event. I found myself long past my emotional and mental boundary and crossing all lines of my introvert nature, to garner the attention of at least a few more experts in the field. I was mentally exhausted, untethered and I felt like I was on emotionally shaky ground. I realized after a long day of learning and being ‘on’ that I didn’t want to be there. 

I didn’t understand my limits or that honoring them was at the core to being successful at a conference (and let’s face it, in life)

I thought I could talk it all day, learn it all day, do it all day. Nerding on a pro-level is a quintessential part of who I am. I loved hearing about other projects much more than I like talking about my own and reveled in the creativity and ingenuity of my fellow conference goers.

But…the more stories I heard, the more classes I took, the more advice I tried to apply—the less sure I became of my ability. The more tired I got, the more flustered I became, the wearier my mind, the less information I could process.

Until everything was just noise and words.


Then I learned a secret. 

You don’t have to throw yourself under a bus to catch it. 

Knowing your limits is not just useful in this particular scene. Knowing your limits is useful for all humans. And it comes with age and the ability to let go of unrealistic expectations.

During a few of my sessions, even as I listened to the speaker, I listened to myself. If I was inspired to write; I let myself write.

If \the iron was hot, I struck while in the moment, abandoning the mad scribble of notes.

Did I miss a little of the presentations? Sure, but in the midst of other brilliant minds and the energy they impart, in the middle of shutting out the rest of the world, the heart and brain start to do this funny little dance and learn to play again.
 
Inspiration doesn’t always happen at the opportune times. You have to write when the words are ready and when the heart is open. Conferences have given my heart a doorway, an acceptance into writing what often builds up behind all my carefully constructed walls. 

In years past, I’ve forced myself to jump the hurdles of social interaction and witty conversation until late hours, when all I really wanted was to wander off to a quiet room and take a nap.

I had to make it OK for myself to listen to that want, in order to get the most out of my time at conferences. These events open pathways, but only when we’re not too busy to see them. If we are embroiled in getting the most out of every single planned moment of the time, then we may miss the real lesson. 

Creativity is like a river and if you fully submerged you’ll easily drown. You’ll miss the beauty of the ride, the view, and the sounds. 

So, know yourself, Writer. Do the things that you know work for you. Let the river of creativity, carry you, but always leave yourself plenty of breathing room to be inspired. 


2021: The Master Plan (Also Known As: “Isn’t she cute when she gets all ambitious?”)

First and foremost, I’m rarely, if never, cute.

Secondly, I’m often falsely and overwhelmingly ambitious. Like my brain fails to conceptualize how much time 24 hours actually is, or that I’m a fallible human, or that I don’t live in a vacuum where I can do everything I only want to do every day. Still, consider this my “feeling cute, started as ambitious, I’ll probably delete it later” selfie.

(Thirdly: I hate selfies and actually, most pictures of myself. They’re too–static and flat–I prefer the reality of curves).

So, without further mumbling on my part, here’s the *tentative* plan for The Beautiful Stuff this year.

  • I will be opening up calls for submissions at the end of this month (January 21st to be exact) for the next Poetry Anthology, tentatively titled “Wilderness of The Soul”. Last time it was pretty much all willy-nilly and I broke book up by ‘like’ poems. This year, I picked a theme–well, because I’m all grown up and shit.
  • This year’s Anthology theme focuses on the aspects of Nature, Self-Discovery, Internal Conversations, Growth, Change, and Resilience through Hardship. I’ll be offering the exact details (length, format, bio information and all the fun legal small print) later this month so stay tuned for that.
  • Also beginning this year (also on the 21st–Jesus did I not realize there were twenty nine other days in this month?) I’ll be running a fun little slice of a novella I’ve written on every third Thursday, sort of like the serial stories one would follow in the ancient days of magazine subscriptions. I labeled it Dime Store Novel because the features are campy, light, fun and adventurous. If you are interested in contributing to this experiment, reach out and lets taco about it. Yep. I meant taco.
  • I am entertaining the idea of having guests bloggers (I have a limited number of posts available for those interested and with something Beautiful-Stuff-esq to contribute). More on that to come in February.
  • Lastly, I will be running a poem or two every month and I encourage your feedback, sharing, and comments on those. Other than that, I’m still reserving one slot a week for a writer-writing-about-writing essay to offer advice, tips, and tricks that have helped me.

And that’s my Blog Plan–I won’t bore you with the other list plastered to my wall at my desk about finishing three novels, earning my 2nd degree black belt, continuing to learn two languages, revisiting piano, and 6 to 8 14ers I’d like to climb. Like I said, ambitious to a goddamn fault.

Take care out there kiddies, start dusting off some of your poetry so we can get it published.

Comment, email questions, or contact me anytime through this site. I look forward to a not-too-cute-but-hella-ambitious-year ahead.

Happy Writing.

The Moment of Pay Off

Every year I learn something new from participating in National Novel Writing Month. This year was no different. This year, I learned that sometimes, the project you think is a total loss, is reborn into something amazing with a little time and added experience.

The story idea that I began the month with was an old short story I wrote before my children were born. That’s probably 14 years ago people. Nearly a generation. I don’t know what drove me to pick it up again. I actually don’t know what drove me to keep it. But there it was on my computer—converted from an older version of Word, ratty and thin, barely holding ink on a page.

I’d seen the file, hanging on the end of my groupings of files like an unwanted 41st wheel, always in my peripheral. There’s that really odd one. Yeah, the one I wrote when I was in massage school? All about the herbalist turned witch. The one where I was still clinging to my Anthropology degree and geeking out over the prehistory of Scotland and Norse invasions? The one with the Mary Sue characters that fell flat on the page and fit too perfectly into every stereotype a 20-something inexperienced writer would believe?

Some of you may be asking why I didn’t just start a new project. Some of you are probably wishing I’d just get to the point, since you’re reading this out of a strange sense of obligation.

Well, when I went into a blank document for this year’s challenge, with 2020 hanging like a wet and heavy blanket over my body, squelching (yeah, I used the word squelching—don’t judge me—that’s the kind of word that needs to be brought back into the vernacular) any creative fire that might ignite, I just didn’t feel like I could accomplish the goal. I needed a buffer. A little boost. Something I wasn’t tired of working on, something not always shouting in my face to finish it…

Something in my peripheral.

And there it was—over there in that file innocuously labeled “Scot1”.

On to my point—

Knowing it was a shitty short story didn’t dissuade me. Because, somewhere in my brain, I knew there was potential. And the only reason I knew that, was because (and here’s the point) in 14 years of writing I’ve learned stuff.

Ah, here reposes the introverted house slave–bereft of even her rodent companions.

Since I wrote the story, I’ve taken numerous classes, conferences, and workshops, on everything from plotting and character development, to crossing genres and writing fight scenes. I’ve taken classes on editing and how not to write. I’ve written some novels. I’ve done a lot of hard cutting. I’ve explored different genres and played around with suspense techniques and “aha” moments. So when I saw this shabby little house-maid in the cinders of the proverbial fireplace, I looked past the soot and rags and saw the potential beneath, not because I’m all-knowing about what would work, but because I had learned, through investing in my craft, what didn’t work about it.

And maybe more importantly, that it could be changed.

So, what was lesson number one? Trust in the process of investing in yourself as a writer. Admit you don’t know it all, and that others have good advice to give. Soak all the information in, approaching each class or workshop as a beginner, no matter how many years you’ve been writing.

With knowledge, even the worst story can be made better. Knowledge also loosens the hold of fear that sometimes keeps us from progressing. Knowing how to cut and change becomes less heart-wrenching with the perspective of a better finished product. Knowing what makes a more interesting character, learning to take some of the polish off the Mary Sue, and turn her into more of a Jess Jones.

You can take a Snidely Whiplash and turn him more into…well…

When you give yourself the gift of knowledge, the list of what you can do breaks the boundaries of what you can’t.

Sometimes…you may even discover doorways that will bring over characters from other beloved series you’ve written…

Ladies and Gents–have a little Faith.

So there you go—look forward to a future magical realism/Norse mythology mix up with a delicious little love triangle, and the potential for a new generation of crooked smiles and bouncy red curls.

NANOWRIMO Week Three: The Midlife Crisis

Hey there writer.

I know I don’t have to thank you for being here with me because if you are akin to me, you’re looking for any excuse to change up the monotony of this novel-writing month and escape that mad-dash. Perhaps you’re feeling like this story you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into for what seems like years is starting to stale. Things are getting drab. The plot line is petering out. The characters have run out of things to say.

This is the dreaded, dead-ended doldrum (say that one a few times over fast) of week 3. And it can often feel like middle age in its sunken sails, stagnant air, and the questioning of the choices that brought you here.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

With only days left in this crazy adventure, you may feel like you just don’t want to go on. That perhaps it would be easier to abandon your project all together and take a hot little novella out for a spin. Maybe start seeing some poetry on the side. Perhaps dabble in a little erotica?

While I encourage some dabbling (especially in erotica) I would argue that all of those exploratory practices can be done right in your own work in progress. So you’re bored, so you don’t know what the characters will say to one another…I urge you to start a new chapter, in the same document, where your characters take a jump off of the tracks and do something completely unexpected. Put them in a different time, put them in a different dynamic…hell, switch their genders and see what happens. Write a poem that serves as a synopsis to the story, first from one character’s perspective, and then from another’s. All of this play might help unlock the paths your novel needs to get going again. Think of it as putting some wind in those sails. A little spice in between the pages.

And all of those words you put down, even if they may be edited out later, still count as words towards your 50,000. Let’s be honest, at this point in the process, any word count is better than none.

It’s normal to feel a bit discouraged and bogged down in week 3, but what you’re building is worth hanging on to. It’s worth the investment of time and thought in this, the darkest, dreaded, dead-ended doldrums.

Hang in there kid. Go get freaky with your WIP and spice things up to see you through to the end.

Next week, look for the final, and highly inspirational installment of my NANOWRIMO survival guide.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #8–Talk To Me Goose…or Dialogue

All right, listen. Top Gun did not have the best dialogue. At all. Like…not even remotely. BUT… I liked the headline so deal with it.

Today in the blog we’re talking about…well, your characters talk. Affectionally known as Dialogue. Writing dialogue like any aspect of your novel is an art, and one that will allow you to not only reveal character traits and all of those ‘shown’ details, it will also drive your plot. If you’re good at it, it will help your reader to know your character better and *gasp* if you have a flair for it, will provide extra entertainment. I’m a HUGE fan of witty banter when it’s appropriate. I’m a HUGE fan of letting dialogue tell the reader how two characters feel about each other.

Take this little gem from “Finding Destiny”: Hank and Daniel are two of my favorite characters to create a scene with. They’re brothers and love each other deeply. But they’re brothers, so that love is shown in obnoxious teasing. Take a gander–

“Everything OK?” Hank asked after an uncomfortable amount of silence.

“Yeah, I just… I just have this gala thing to go to for the university in a couple of days and, I… I’m supposed to bring someone.” Daniel paused and looked at Hank.

Hank took a moment to swallow. Then he batted his eyelashes and waved his hand in front of his face.

“Oh! I’m just so thrilled you’d ask!” he shrieked in a falsetto voice. “Oh! You’re so dreamy!”

Daniel threw a piece of bacon at him and laughed. “Not you, jackass.”

“What about Maggie?”

Daniel shook his head.  “Maggie and I don’t really—”

“Do anything that requires clothes and public places?” Hank raised his eyebrow.

“We sort of haven’t seen each other since the once…” Daniel’s voice trailed off. He still didn’t feel exactly right about what had happened between him and Maggie, or how Destiny had witnessed the start of their one-night stand.

“No wonder she’s been shooting nasty glances at me the last few weeks,” Hank chuckled into his coffee.

Daniel sighed in exasperation. “I was going to ask you…if you’d mind…if I took Destiny.”

Hank inhaled his biscuit and started coughing. His face turned red and his eyes welled up. He looked sideways at his brother as he pounded his chest with his fist.

“Destiny?” Hank wheezed.

“Yeah.”

“Destiny Harrison?”

“Yes,” Daniel said, annoyed.

“Red hair, tall, drawly, hates-your-guts Destiny Harrison?” Hank took a drink of coffee to clear his throat.

“Yes, Henry! That Destiny.”

Hank held up his hand.

“First of all, there’s no need to call me Henry. Second, I thought you hated her, too. But mostly, why in the hell do you think I’d mind? She and I aren’t…like that.”

“Well, I didn’t know! You spend a lot of time with her. And I don’t exactly hate her. I just—” Daniel sat forward in his frustration and loss for words and looked out the window.

“Well, we only spend so much time together because neither one of us has a life outside of the shop.” Hank stopped with his coffee halfway to his mouth. “How embarrassing is it that I just admitted that?”

“It was pretty pathetic.”

“Yeah.”

“So?  Do you think she’ll go with me?”

Hank shook his head in bewilderment. “I don’t know, Danny. What about that ‘hating you’ part?”

Daniel remained silent and watched out the window. What about that?  He thought of her warm body pressed to his in the fervent moment of thanks. He thought of her shapely breasts beneath the nightgown, and the smell of her. The shyness of her kiss. The way she had gotten snippy when Maggie had stayed over. Hank paused at the unusual look of self-doubt on his big brother’s face.

“I think if you could get her in a dress, she’d do all right. Assuming she did say yes,” Hank said.

“Yeah,” Daniel said, displaced.

“Maybe if you ask her nicely…you know, not like you?” Hank said.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Well, you know…come down off of your high horse. Just a bit. And stop being such a surly son-of-a-bitch!”

“You sound like her now.”

“I’m just saying that a little honest humility and admiration goes a long way.”

Daniel stayed quiet. Humility wasn’t really his thing. He wasn’t very good at admiration, either.

Hank continued. “And if she says no, I can rock a strapless like you would not believe, girlfriend.” Hank snapped in the air and winked.

Daniel threw his biscuit at his brother with a laugh. “Shut up.”

So, we get to see some deeper dimension here, with Daniel’s secret insecurities, his blossoming interest in Destiny as well as Hank’s affection for them both. We set up for a minor climax (asking Destiny on the date) as well as establish the risk involved. All while doing it with a sense of humor.

The import aspects to remember in writing dialogue are below (been a while since I bullet listed for you)

  1. Dialogue needs to be real. By that I mean if it is forced (for the purpose of info-dumping), contrived (how convenient to drop that info into conversation even though they had no other reason to talk…), or sounds like an outside narrator suddenly taking over your character’s body (Hey! Where did their drawl and/or British accent go?) your reader is gonna know. So make it a conversation.
  2. As mentioned above, keep your character’s in their character. If they don’t normally say much, save the monologuing for others or some big reveal moment. Many a time I’ve had to edit a dialogue because I saw too much of me in there. Tricky me, trying to steal the conversation. This comes with knowing your character and what they would or would not say.
  3. If the dialogue doesn’t do any of the magical things listed, (furthering plot, character development, information snacks etc) and its just in there to fill space or act as a buffer don’t be afraid to cut it.
  4. Read your dialogues out loud! It’s the only way you’ll know for sure that they sound real and authentic to your characters and to the story. This is also a great way to catch mistakes and to ensure dialect and vernaculars are in place.
  5. Don’t be afraid to use abbreviations and slang if it’s true to how your character talks. Destiny Harrison said “ain’t” a lot. Spell check hates “ain’t”. Doesn’t matter what the spell checker wanted, she ain’t changing for it.
  6. I could give you a spiel here about dialogue tags (ie ‘he said’, ‘she yelled’) after your character’s speak. I’ve heard both sides. In my kids’ writing classes they are encouraged to use something other than ‘said’ to liven the action, express the tone, etc. In my adult-y writing classes, I’ve been told to cut the flowery bullshit and stick with ‘said’. The idea being that if your writing is good enough, the tone and character already established, the reader will read the dialogue in the feeling intended. My advice? I don’t like either of these approaches. Sometimes a simple ‘he said’ works, sometimes, I get bored as shit with that and when my characters talk in my head, they rarely just ‘say’ stuff. I may err more on the side of the flowery therefore, but I don’t do it so much that very ‘please pass the butter’ moment is fraught with tension.

Okay. That’s it for dialogue today.

I think…(she said with a gasp), that might even be the end of our writing series on the Novel! (she yelled?) I’ll check in on that and get back to you next week. Until then, go over your dialogues, check their authenticity and tone. How can you make them better? More real human-like? Read them aloud, don’t ALWAYS listen to your spell checker. Write. Write Write. Good luck out there. See you soon.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop Novelty #6: “The Kid’s Got Style”

Good evening, my little writing gnomes. This evening I’m writing from the NCW’s writing fall writing retreat in Estes Park, Colorado. Firstly, if you’ve never taken a weekend, or a few days, to do nothing but devote time to your craft, I highly recommend you give it a try. When you aren’t weighed down by laundry, school emails, or cat’s randomly vomiting out food that they didn’t apparently feel like chewing, you can actually get a lot of things done.

We’ll talk more about that in a later blog. Today…it’s all about STYLE.

Style isn’t regaled to only novel writing. Every author has a voice. This is not the Point of View, as we discussed last week. A voice is an author’s particular way of writing. If you want to look at the extremes, you could compare the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald to those of Ernest Hemingway. Contemporaries and acquaintances (it’s argued if they were actually friends) they shared a propensity for two things, drinking and good writing. Beyond that, they had incredibly different voices. Hemingway was a man’s man, bull-fighting, womanizer. Fitzgerald was more introspective, a romantic, one might say. And their voices showed it and affected readers differently.

This quote hangs above my desk:

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”

― Francis Scott Fitzgerald

Before you move on…read that again. Can’t you feel him speaking to you? Can’t you feel a hand on your shoulder or even a hand on your back (as one of my favorite inspirational women says: https://www.christinedercole.com/s/) encouraging you to take action, to not be dissuaded?

In contrast:

“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.”

― Ernest Hemingway

First–did anyone else notice what POV he just used? Come on…it was only a week ago. The dreaded 2nd and he, as always, did an amazing job. Listen, in my humble opinion, Hemingway was kind of a giant misogynistic ass, but he could write a fine damn sentence, and his work cut through your skin like wind on a cold February day. But notice the colder, darker tone. The harshness.

The difference between those two is not in their brilliance. It’s in the feeling they evoke, and to me, that’s what your voice is. A writer cannot help but leave a trace of themself on the page. It’s probably why my heroines curse, or why setting to me feels like it always needs a bit of poetry–utilizing the senses to accentuate.

I’m a bit more Fitzgerald than I am Hemingway…But I’m all Sarah. And you are all you.

STYLE is what makes your story, even if it fits a trope or a formula, unique. Because no one is you. No one has your experiences, your vernacular (why you might say wa-r-sh instead of wash, or creek instead of cr-ic-k), your vocabulary, your turn of phrase, your tone.

I’ve tried to read ‘popular’ authors that I just couldn’t stand because they made a point to turn every sentence into a dictionary-induced game of look-up-the-word or strayed too far from the point. I’ve read simple shorts that didn’t use a word over 15 letters long that left me with chills and turning the page hungrily.

It’s not in the size, its in your style (remember I said that fellas).

So… I don’t have much to elaborate on here. I can’t train you to write in your own voice. You just have to write and see what comes of it. Are you poetic? Are you straightforward? Are you humorous? Do you tend to sink into the gray dark, or do you lift up towards the light? When you write are you telling the story to an audience, or to a friend? Every day may be different for each of us, but in total, your ‘voice’, your STYLE, is the way you tell a story.

So, look over your work in progress, short stories or poems you’ve written, and try to feel out what your voice sounds like. It’s hard to do this, so feel free to enlist the help of outsiders (friends, family, book groups, critique groups).

You will know your voice when you hear it.

Stay true to it, because if you ever try to write in someone else’s, your story–your work, will suffer.

We can’t all be Hemingway. Please, God…don’t let us all be Hemingway. We need Plaths and Fitzgeralds. We need Rowlings and Brookses. We need it all. The whole spectrum of style.

So get out there and write true to yours.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #5: Point of View

Thank you to the beautiful people at Grammarly for this awesome little image of Point of View.

Whilst (I love using that word) typing up the title today I realized, that all of these blogs on novel writing can also be used in other aspects of your writing. Short stories, flash fiction, non fiction, and even poetry all contain aspects of plot, character, and point of view. In a novel, however, consistency of your point of view is crucial for keeping your reader snuggly in your world. Shifts in POV can cause confusion or jar them out of the story.

So today, we’re going to briefly discuss the typical types of POV as well as which ones are most effective to use.

For the budding writer, I’ll lay down some foundation.

Point of View is basically who is telling the story.

In First-Person POV, then the action is happening to the person telling the story (the narrator is the main character). Here, a writer uses “I/We” mostly while only using “he/she/they” as outward observations. They can tell you what they see, feel, hear, know, etc, but they can’t tell you what anyone else sees, feels, hears, or knows. The best way to show those things are through action and dialogue AND by having faith in the reader to understand by your clues the general idea.

Second-Person is the red-headed step child of writing POV. I’m sorry. I said it. Second person uses “you” and “your” and they narrator speaks directly to the reader. “You were amazed. You’d never seen a chicken with five legs.” They make you part of the story. I suppose some of my blogs have been in 2nd person, non-fiction informative may utilize this POV. I’ve never used this in a short story or my fiction but occasionally it creeps into my poetry. In fiction, it’s very difficult to do well. (“Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerey, “The Sweetheart” by Angelina Mirabella, “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern)

Third-person is an outside narrator telling the story from a distance (she/he/they). When it gets closer in (think into the characters’ heads) it’s called third-person omniscient. Third-person is popular with light fiction, serial romance, cozies, beach reads, sci-fi, fantasy etc. The tricky part of this POV is being able to stay focused on one character at a time. If the story dictates it (two or three main characters) I will switch POV in Third by chapter, possibly by section, but never by paragraph or within the same scene.

We discussed each typical type, but how do you know which one is best for you? Well, part of this comes down to your writing style. When you write, are you the character? Are you in their mind, in the arena, in the pilot’s seat? Or are you observing them, building the world around them and telling them what you see from above? Are you walking them through the story, a sort-of inward conscience to their journey? Which genre is your story? What’s the purpose of the story?

All of these factors can make writing in the right POV harrier than my old math teacher at the swimming pool (Hey! Take the sweater off before you get in–oh…wait…sorry!) Some genres are more lenient as to how much you can change or shift the point of view. Some genres really do best when one specific POV is used.

Take memoir for example. This type of storytelling should be first person, past-tense. Period. That’s your story, it happened to you. You are telling it.

Now, romance novels can dance on the edge of third-person, third-person omniscient, or first-person.

Most contemporary fiction these days is first-person (think Hunger Games) or if you’re feeling fancy, 2-person, first-person (look at Gone Girl–a book told in first by two different main characters–very clever)

I am wont to say that sci-fi and fantasy tend to be third person, due to the world building that has to occur. But it can be done marvelously in first as well (check out “The Martian” which tickles both first and third).

The important part about POV (especially when working with third) is that you stick to a strong, non-passive-voiced point of view that stays in its lane.

Check this out:

“You’re such a selfish prick!” Jill yelled and slammed her fist into the table upsetting the spoons. She’d had enough of his late nights at the track and the dwindling bank account.

Bob jumped back at the sound. His heart fell to his gut and he felt like crying. He couldn’t believe he’d lost their honeymoon money. He was only trying to double up on the winnings so they could have a bigger trip.

Jill paced the room in a fury. How could he? After she had been saving for months and months so they could go away…

Yowza. For one–this is a lot of information dumping out on your reader. You can’t describe your main character’s (Jill) thoughts and feelings about Bob and then in the next paragraph have Bob spring into an inner dialogue on his thoughts and feelings about her. It’s called head hopping and it confuses the readers. Only a few really talented authors can make this happen and not lose the reader (I’m looking at you Nora Roberts).

Don’t cause a ruckus. If the character you are writing for (be it third or first) isn’t a goddamn mind reader then don’t describe things they wouldn’t know.

If you want the reader to have the information, you show through body language and dialogue.

“You’re such a selfish prick!” Jill yelled. “I can’t believe you blew our savings at the tables!” She slammed her fist into the table and knocked over the cup of spoons.

Bob hung his head and swallowed. His voice trembled. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? Sorry doesn’t even begin–“
“I was only trying to–” Bob started.

“It doesn’t matter!” she yelled. “You don’t get another chance to make this better!”

Here, the reader has enough information to gather how Bob feels without dropping us into his head.

Ok. Whew! Speaking of info dumps, huh? Take a minute to absorb all of that. Think about your story, what you’re trying to do, who you’re trying to follow, and how you want to bring the reader along. If you’re writing short stories, experiment with all the types of POV. I’ve only written a few things in first and its very powerful, but for some reason, it’s very hard for me. My comfort is in Third-Omniscient, but as in all things in life, we have to push our comfort zones to be better. So…push your zones, get uncomfortable.

Pick a POV per project and stick with it.

Until next week. Happy writing!

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #29: The Short Story

Hello! Welcome back to The Beautiful Stuff and todays’ introduction to the well-known and prolific format we all suffered through in high school English.

Ladies and Gents: The Short Story

Don’t get me wrong, I say ‘suffered’ now because everything when you’re a teenager that entails any sort of responsibility not of your choosing is, to some degree, “suffering”. I mean, I could write for hours, holed up in my room, gladly passing the day. But ask me to read a short tome by O. Henry and I’d give you an eye roll and heavy sigh that would have rivaled the most put-upon martyr. Looking back, I actually really liked those stories. I remember dissecting them, studying the elements, and learning what made them so powerful.

Thank you, Joyce for “The Most Dangerous Game” and mining deep into the dark hearts of men. Hats off to the master of short story, E.A. Poe and his “Tell-Tale Heart” among at least a dozen others that gave me a healthy love of the spine-shiver. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was my first taste of apocalyptic fiction. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences and I urge you to go back over those old favorites and see what you notice at a different age/stage of life.

The Short Story is actually lumped in with Flash Fiction and Micro fiction and is defined by a word count of 5,000 to 10,000. Some even dip down to the 1,000 range, occasionally they’ll touch 15,000. But in general, anything above that (30,000-60,000) is considered a novella. I’m giving it its own blog because the short story is a beautiful place to start if you are just beginning your path in writing. It’s not overwhelming but it will allow you to practice a lot of the bigger elements of story-telling. It requires a certain amount of frugality with words and demands a tight story arc which are good practices to hone before embarking on a novel-length piece.

What’s the difference from flash fiction? Well, in flash fiction you are looking at a snap shot of a moment; a defining moment, a quirky flash in the pan. In a short story you have more wiggle room for character development and the ability to tell a complete story.

Why’s that important you ask? Wow, you always come up with so many good questions!

Character development is important in short stories, because often it is the character that drives these stories. That doesn’t mean you get to expunge for 3,000 words on the finer details of Joe Doe’s eleventh grade algebra class. It means you have the opportunity to create a connection to the reader by showing who Joe is using his reactions to the situations presented.

How do you do this most effectively?

Photo by moein moradi on Pexels.com

Well, as in novels, you have to know your character. I once wrote a short story about a woman who’s husband left her on her 50th birthday for a younger woman. I got to know Jane Pearce so well, that I often think there’s a little bit of herself still residing in me. The part that snaps out of her doting-housewife haze and burns the mother-fu$^ing house to the ground, collects the insurance money, and retires to Italy under a new name. The point is, if you don’t know what drives your character then you risk wasting time and words on a vignette that should be tight.

What else do we need to know?

Death follows a Terrier on a Mission.
Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

Well, you need an extraordinary event. A divorce out of the blue. A airship landing in the parking lot of the 7-11. A dog running down the street with a human leg in its mouth. A car crash, a panic attack, an island event where humans are hunted, a lottery to see who’ll be stoned to death. A body buried beneath the floorboards…something. Something that forces our beloved (or be-hated? is that a word? why isn’t it?) character into some tough decisions that make them CHANGE AND GROW. Yes. This can be done in the short span of 7,000 words.

You may, if you’re so plottingly inclined (in my head that sounded very judgmental, I apologize to all of my plotters out there), outline your short story to arrange it with the proper story beats, valleys and arcs necessary. Or, if you’re a slob like me, you can just start with the event and your character and see what madness ensues. Just be conscious this is a finite clip, not the 6-hour extended director’s cut.

I could, literally, go on for thousands of more words about the art of the short story, but I know you have some kitten videos to watch and probably a pants-less Zoom call to get on, so… I’m going to end this first blog (there will be others) with a good starting point for my beautiful writers out there.

The hardest part of the short story, for myself and other writer’s I’ve talked to, is finding a smashing good idea to write about. For this week, I’d like you to try one or both of these exercises and come up with, at minimum, 10 potential short story ideas. If you have the time, pick one or two and try your hand at a short story.

For the first exercise, I would like you to pick up a copy of your local newspaper (or scroll through it online) and seek out interesting or strange headlines that deserve a bigger story. The body pulled out of the river with no fingers. The discovery of pesticide residue in kindergarten playgrounds. Whatever catches your eye. Find a notebook, write down one or two lines on each and keep going. Don’t stop to write the story just yet. Let your beautiful brain simmer.

Secondly, I would like you to take a prolific historical/fictional or not character and ask “what if”. What if Henry Melville had been a modern day fisherman. What if Lizzy Borden had been a nursing home attendant? What if Buddy Holly had survived the plane crash? What if Donald Trump was really an alien? (ok, that one’s not so far of a reach)

Get freaky with it, twist history a little and see what interesting plot ensues. Thanks for playing today. Share your results and ideas, if you like and we’ll be back next week with more on the Short Story!

Happy Writing.