Every day, observe something carefully, and then express your thoughts about it in different mediums--a personal essay, a poem, a story. Try different tones and styles, and take note of what sounds most natural for you. Eventually, you will be able to winnow out those that sound false. At the same time, you also can analyze your best writing, and ask yourself, What is working well in this piece?
--Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World (Riverhead Books, 2006)
Despite my presence here, I admit to being a bit of a luddite. I like books with pages, people who are actually sitting in front of me, and--perhaps most scandalous of all--I still edit on paper. I even have a preferred pencil (do not get me started on the glories of the Graphgear 500). But I know I'm a dying breed and that this new fangled technology has much to offer, so I dabble. I have developed feelings for my iPhone and MacBook Pro that could be deemed inappropriate. I even started tweeting recently--an experience I oddly like when I can get over my nagging sense that no one really cares "What's happening" in my day.
I know you all are better at this sort of thing than I am. You've long since figured out there are amazing resources for writers, and great writing out there on the internet. But maybe you're a little like me, and you'd like some help wading through this morass...
...so here's a quick list of helpful online tools for writers:
Arts and Letters Daily is not full of helpful writing information, but it will make your brain bigger, which will make you a better writer. It's like a cultural cheat sheet--they sort through everything worth reading and give you a little nibble of it. You can, of course, be a good lad and follow their link to the full article.
NewPages is a great resource for writers. It's essentially a guide to everything creative writers should know: MFA programs, submissions, independent and university presses, journals...
Poets & Writers : NewPage's more serious and mature big brother. P&W is "the nation's largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers."
....and here's some fun stuff:
Moby Lives! A blog that begat a publisher. They are irreverant, pertinent, and pretty much my favorite tweeters.
Bookslut Bitchy, smart, and amazingly well read. Get over the name and dive in.
The Rumpus is an online (mostly) literary magazine. Also irreverent and very cheeky (I'm just noticing a trend...)
I'll keep you posted on my discoveries over the coming months. We'll also link to these sites and others we become besotted with on our facebook page. If you find something amazing out there, tell us about it!
The American Library Association released its annual report this week, which includes a list of the year's most banned books. The top ten list of frequently challenged books is never a proud moment (The Dirty Cowboy, really?), and the continual battle against censorship the report chronicles is frankly depressing. In America. In 2013.
But I try to be a glass is half full kind of gal, and I did find one little kernal of goodness in the report: Amanda Wong. Miss Wong is a high-school student who successfully fought her California school's efforts to ban Stephen King's novella "Different Seasons." After a school committee decided to ban the work, Amanda convinced the school superintendent tto reverse the committee's decision because it “opens a door to censoring other materials.” The school returned the book to the library shelves...where I'm betting it became the most frequently checked out book.
This week's writing prompt is a language seeking exercise. While this won't launch you into drafting a great chapter or story, it just may help make that story about a large rabbit, for example, a bit better.
We all fall victim to the cliché, especially when stuck. For a way clear of this sinking ship I offer Roy Peter Clark's sage advice to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather than fleeing like rats from a sinking ship, he tells us "don't be afraid to a take a cliché and tweak it. A bit of improvisation can take a stale phrase and bring it back refreshed."
Go back through whatever you're working on and seek out the clichés lurking in there. Write each cliché "on a piece of paper and list words or phrases that come close to the same meaning." Many of the options you craft will work while others will absolutely not. "No matter. You will need examples that do not work in order to find one that illuminates your meaning in an original way."
--Roy Peter Clark, Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces (Little, Brown, and Co, 2011)
I have a friend who loathes adverbs. She denies them admittance into her prose. And here's the rub, for you fellow adverb lovers, she's a damn fine writer. Ursula Le Guin explains the wisdom of my friend's adverb aversion beautifully:
"I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it's going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat."
With that in mind, we offer a writing exercise from Ms. Le Guin's Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew:
Write a paragraph to a page (200-350 words) of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue. The point is to give a vivid description of a scene or an action, using only verbs, nouns, pronouns, and articles. Adverbs of time (then, next, later, etc.) may be necessary, but be sparing. Be chaste....The first time you do the exercise, write something new. After that you might want to try "chastening" a passage you've already written. It can be interesting.
I am a total dork for books about books and writing about writing. I never fail to find something that I want to share with our writers or that informs my editing work. It's why we have included such a big resources section on our website, and based on the number of hits that page receives, you too are dorks for writing about writing.
Writing is such a personal experience that these books should really be of no use. But when someone pulls back their own curtains and reveals a bit of their madness (or shows that it's really just work, not madness), there's usually something to be gained. If you're feeling stuck, sometimes seeing that glimpse of process unsticks like no writing prompt, workshop, or nagging editor can.
Just to prove its usefulness, my addiction to this strange genre has saved the NY Times Book Review for me. Each week, I dutifully read (cough..skim..cough) the Book Review. It's a moral obligation. It allows me to lament the dearth of printed book reviews in the country, the shuttering of culture sections in prominent newspapers, and to find hope in online publications....But despite the many fine writers who contribute to it, reading the Review brings me little pleasure. Often, the same books are reviewed in Vogue--and this is no slight against Vogue, another of my many guilty pleasures. But it suggests less risk is being taken at the Review. Little is being discovered that hasn't already swept through other literary outlets or been hailed by Oprah. But since the addition of By the Book, I find myself looking forward to opening the NYTBR again. I can even forgive them for including Arnold Schwarzenegger. But just barely.
If you too share my addiction, but especially if you haven't had the pleasure yet, here are a few gateways:
We are finally back from holiday chaos and vacations, which means it's time to dust off our pencils and start writing again. Since we're all grudgingly returning to the grindstone, I thought something completely ridiculous was in order for this week's writing prompt:
Write a scene in which a very large rabbit is a primary character.
It doesn't get much more ridiculous than that, but maybe this would be more interesting if it was not ridiculous...if the rabbit was just a character. Happy writing.
Today we offer a re-writing prompt for writers of all genres:
Take one of the minor characters in whatever you’re working on--novel, memoir, dissertation---and pluck them from obscurity. Give them their own scene, breathe a little more life into them. They’ll be much better behaved when you put them back in their small part.
In a recent NYTimes book review, the great YA author Holly Black wrote, “Is there anything better than a smart retelling of a fairy tale--more rewarding than the way the familiar is juxtaposed with the unexpected, only adding to the story’s power? A fairy tale retold well is always good for that joyful shiver of transgression.” I couldn’t agree more. From Grimm to Jeanette Winterson, great writing has come from reworking these iconic stories.
Today, rewrite your favorite fairy tale, or rework your least favorite....
Today we're kicking off a new series for writers, The Writer's World. Through it, we will bring you news, information, and resources to help expand your writing community. We'll highlight organizations, web sites, blogs, prizes, and basically anything we love that we think will help writers. And how could we start with anything other than AWP?
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) is a great organization for writers of all stripes. Their mission is to "foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing." To that end, their website has great resources and information for writers, they host a the largest literary conference in North America each spring, and sponsor a variety of annual contests and awards.
Submissions for AWP's largest prizes, their annual Award Series, start next month. The awards are granted to one work of creative nonfiction, one novel, one poetry collection, and one work of short fiction each year. Each winner receives a cash prize and publication a selected press. Get your submissions ready--they will only be accepted from January 1 to February 28: https://www.awpwriter.org/contests/awp_award_series_overview
They also offer scholarships to their annual conference. Submissions are accepted through March 30.
If you've never been, it's a must (or at least worth the time it takes to apply for a scholarship). Thousands of writers, publishers, teachers, and book geeks attend hundreds of readings, lectures, panels, book signings, and general literary festivities over four days. According to AWP, "more than 10,000 writers and readers attended our 2012 conference, and 600 exhibitors were represented at our bookfair."
Exhibitors range from the big five publishing houses, to tattooed hipsters giving out whiskey shots while they sell their handmade poetry journal. The conference fills up fast--at last check the main hotel was already booked for this year's confernece in Boston. So meet Randolph Lundine at this year's meeting and see how many clever stickers, buttons, and tote bags you can bring home: https://www.awpwriter.org/contests/wcc_scholarships_overview
Rather than a prompt urging you to write something new, this week's writing exercise returns you to something you've already written. I like that this makes you examine your work when it gets stuck, which is likely to tell you much more about your writing than examining the sections that flow with grace and ease. I also find advice that impels you to let go a bit as you write extremely helpful. Too often, we get mired in the crafting of small things (words, sentences) and we end up making tortured and stilted big things (paragraphs, chapters, books). Go on, get unstuck:
Find a section of your writing that has no energy to it and rewrite it as one long sentence. Be sure that the sentence keeps expanding outward, don't worry about it being a run-on, and just let it flow--642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers' Grotto (Chronicle).
Today's writing exercise is more of a personalized idea generator than a prompt. It comes from Natalie Goldberg's classic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambala):
Make a list of your obsessions. Although we may like to think otherwise, these are what we write about. As Goldberg tells us, "your main obsessions have power; they are what you will come back to in your writing over and over again....They probably take over your life whether you want them to or not, so you ought to get them to work for you." My favorite things about this exercise are that it's a sneaky way to tell yourself what to write about (which is always more meaningful than a prompt), and that it's a renewable resource, as your obsessions morph over time. Happy digging.
If you’re like me, the Sunday paper is still laying half-read and rumpled somewhere in your house (or tidily in your recycling bin, if you’re far more organized and efficient than I). There’s a writing prompt for everyone in there, and it’s probably not on the front page. Pick one article, one person, one event, whatever stuck in your mind for its sorrow, humanity, or ridiculousness. That’s worthy of a tale.
It’s become something of a cliche, as far as writing advice goes. If you want to write, you have to do just that, write. Everyday. Rain or shine, happy or sad, and most important of all, inspired or uninspired. It’s a compulsion that you mold into a habit through regular practice.
In a perfect world, the words would just flow and you'd never need anything as prosaic as a writing prompt. You would stay at your desk crafting perfect sentences instead of getting up for another cup of coffee and then deciding to bake oatmeal raisin cookies while you're in the kitchen (hypothetically, and definitely not a real example from last week). So just in case you too are a compulsive baker, or for those days when you can’t face the stalled manuscript, the blank page, or the new project, we offer you a little something to jumpstart your habit--a writing kick in the ass, if you will. And is there a day when you need a kick in the ass more than a Monday?
We didn’t think so either, so every Monday you’ll find something here to help you keep your practice going, even when it’s the last thing you want to do. The exercises, prompts, and ideas will come from friends, favorite books, and silly things we’ve found that work. And we’ll take your ideas too. Email us your favorite writing prompt or idea and you might just see it here with. Without further ado...
Just write (1):
Write about a simple board game that turns its players into pie-eyed cutthroats.
(From: Monica Wood, The Pocket Muse: Ideas and Inspirations for Writing, Writers Digest Books, 2002)