Monday, January 27, 2014

Macaroni & Thieves

The other day my kid wanted me to make macaroni and cheese for lunch, and I thought he said "macaroni and thieves."  I teased him about it and said that sounded like a story title.

The next thing I knew, the two of them were tossing out all kinds of silly titles, including gems such as:

"Fork on the Floor"
"Love and Guns" (which I actually kinda like)
"Burnt Toast" (well, we were having lunch, and I think I burned the grilled cheese)
"Mean Mommy" (that might've been mine-I said no to the treats)

 It's easy to come up with a title.  I have two entire series of stories already titled and ready to go in my head, but they are as yet unwritten (the hard part).

I Googled "starting a story with the title" and nothing really came up except this title generator.  It also has character name generator and an image generator. I like generators but never think to use them.

I usually have a working title that I know isn't right, or I use "Untitled," but for me the title has always come at the end after the story is finished.

How much inspiration do you take from titles?  Has that ever been a starting point from which you developed a story, or do the titles creep into existence as the story takes shape?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Bog of Inspiration

Every day I'm bombarded by ideas for not only stories, but for paintings or drawings.  Most of these are fleeting, gone before the thought can solidify, evaporating into little more than a vague sense of something passing through.

Some ideas come at the right moment and their essence can be captured with a quick note or sketch, but far more slip away, and sometimes the sheer magnitude of those lost masterpieces can be overwhelming.

I occasionally mine my idea file for seeds, but so far only one has turned into a story.  It's a little depressing to have so many and know there is not enough time to explore them all.

This multitude of ideas -- true gems (of course) -- are at risk of being wasted, and it is tormenting to know I am not doing enough to reach my full potential and bring them to fruition.  There is always some beauty or insight I wish I had the ability to capture and share.

There is much more art to be created than can ever be hoped to be realized.  Perhaps that is the root of the stereotype of the tortured artist.

I hope my fleeting imaginings leave behind some vestige of themselves, a spark at the ready, to be seized upon when the time is right to create something worth sharing.

"Vestige" by Cindy James - encaustic wax on cradle board 7.5 x 7.5. 2013.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Glimmer of Hope

At the moment, I have two stories submitted to Glimmer Train: "The Shameful Question," a story of twin sisters and their lingering history with a Ouija board, and "Insidious," a story about a mother's overwhelming feelings of responsibility and the attendant fear that accompanies those feelings.  "Insidious" is also submitted in Boulevard's Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers.  And another story, "Good Guise," is submitted to the CBC Short Story Prize.

I will be happy with anything better than a form rejection.  Right now, I have no rejections, although it's only been a couple of months, and, well, some of these prize winners won't be announced until later this year.  So good news!  There is still hope.

I am new to the submissions scene, and at this point I only have two war wounds to speak of -- my 2012 NaNo novel sent to Avon Impulse for their NaNo novel submission call was summarily rejected (perhaps they wanted that polished), and my short story "Generation Gap" sent to Boulevard literary magazine did not fill their editorial needs at that moment ;)

When I started writing, it was all about the SASE and return postage, etc., and now, many years later when I am finally ready to submit, most of it is done online, and I can even track my submissions' status(es), which can get a bit obsessive, but, hey, ya never know.  Maybe I didn't get the email.

I decided to post my rejected story "Generation Gap" on my blog -- look for the top tab if the link doesn't work. It's very short.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Finding Your Voice

How do you find your writing voice?  What does it take to unleash the voice inside your head to spew its literary magic upon the world?

I read somewhere that we have three sets of vocabulary -- one for speaking, one for writing, and one for reading.  I can certainly agree with that, and it makes sense that the level of vocabulary we use for writing would undoubtedly affect voice.

I have a great vocabulary -- for reading, but if you were to sit down and talk to me, you would not likely be dazzled by my eloquence.  I'm plain-spoken, and I have a potty mouth, and in my head, I'm pretty sure my voice has a slight British accent.  Why?  I haven't a clue.  I live in Canada.

When I write, there is a disconnect between what is going on in my head and what is going down on paper, and to bridge the gap I use the thesaurus.  A lot.  I know, I know, writers are not supposed to do this, as it supposedly makes the writing forced or there is danger of using a word incorrectly, but I don't search for new and unique words so much as the right word that I cannot seem to find when I write.

I Googled today on how to find your voice and discovered this helpful blog post by Jeff Goins.

If nothing else, I promised myself to dig deep and be honest in my writing, and I continue to try to do that.  I hope that will be the key to finding my voice. It's probably all just practice :)
 I would be interested in your insights.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Not the Education I Expected

Finally! I thought as I enrolled in the creative writing course I'd had my eye on for months.  I'd passed the prerequisites, I'd been writing for seven or eight years, and I was ready for feedback on my writing from an academic standpoint.  I figured I'd been around long enough that I wasn't going to learn anything earth-shattering.

I was wrong.

My eyes were opened to writing in a way that I had not been writing before.  I had metaphors emerge in my short stories.  I developed characters to another level.  I wrote with more purpose.  I received feedback bordering on profound.

Maybe it was just me and the point I was at in my writing "career" that this course held so much meaning for me.  Maybe I tried a little harder because I was receiving a grade.  Maybe it really was that good of a course lol.

Having all the information I needed in an organized way and being required to use the information to produce something specific was enlightening and incredibly instructive compared to my usual fumbling about.  I do so much reading on how to write, it becomes overwhelming to try to keep track of what I've learned.  There's plenty of great advice out there, and I still scour the internet for information I can apply to my writing, but this course was everything I needed all in one place.  And I have the notes all in one place.

You really never know what might inspire you, and I was definitely inspired.  To the point where I would love to enroll full time and complete an honours degree in creative writing.

Good luck with that!  I need to work.  Full time.

It is possible, but it sure wouldn't be easy.  But the hardest things are the best, right?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Done! Not Yet...

On the drive home from my critique group meeting, I was considering my blog post for today, and I kept thinking about a comment from one of our members:

"I thought I was done with this story."

To me, that is one of the worst feelings, when you think you have finished something, send it for critique, and even though you expect some changes, you get slammed with comments and are left wondering if you can even salvage the piece.

Most of my submissions have been chapters, so I have always undertaken the rewrite, and the few times I've been through this, it has turned out much for the better.

Tonight it was a short story from our member.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) he had been the only person to submit something for review, so we had all evening to discuss his story and its meaning and the motivation of the characters, et cetera.  And we had a lot to say. 

I hope he does the rewrite, because I really enjoyed the story.  My main concern with the piece was that it contained a lot of exposition and narration.  I threw out the old "telling v. showing" comment.

I personally hate it when I hear that "advice," and for a long time I really struggled with what that comment meant.  Every time I thought I had it figured out, it would pop up in the margin, red or blue ink, glaring at me:  "This is telling."  Or:  "Show me!"

Arghhh!  How????  I am showing you what the person is thinking, or what the person is doing.  What else is there?

Thank God this conundrum became much clearer for me through my creative writing course.  I have sticky notes to remind me when I need it.

Jack Hodgins in A Passion for Narrative says that:

      "To 'show' is to make the reader see, hear, smell, feel, and even taste the story.
       To 'tell,' on the other hand, is to ask the reader to trust your conclusions without
       giving the evidence, and to hope that a secondhand version of events, dealing in
       abstractions and generalizations, will do."  (54).

(I do have other notes, but I can't at this moment find the reference in the book where I got them from, so I will have to save those for another day.)

Basically, "Shawna screamed in Brian's ear and scared him," is telling.

"Shawna crept across the carpet until she was right behind Brian, took a deep breath, and screamed, right in his left ear, 'Gotcha!'" would be showing.  We can figure out from what happened that Brian was scared.

Pretty basic examples here, and it can get muddy, for sure.  I mean, you have to do some telling some of the time.  Usually.

Anyways, I would love your comments on what you know about "showing v. telling."  I'm still learning.  I'm pretty sure I will always be learning ;)

Works Cited

Hodgins, Jack, A Passion for Narrative.  McClelland & Stewart Ltd.  Toronto.  1993.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Art of Critiquing

A solid, constructive critique can really turn the lights on.

The first ever critique I received on a short story made me realize that the reader is not going to let me get away with anything.

Over the last seven years or so, I've been involved with critiquing on a near weekly and then monthly basis with some long-term groups, and I've picked out a few things that helps keep these relationships working.

My neck twists just thinking about the few occasions where I've seen people use their critique as a stage to demonstrate their sarcasm or wit.  It is extremely painful to watch, let alone be on the receiving end of this sort of criticism.  It may be tempting, but it sure ain't going to earn you brownie points with anyone, and more than likely, you can probably expect the recipient's next critique of your material to be similar in tone to what you dished out.  If you are fair to the writer and keep your witticisms to yourself, there is less chance of delivering a hurtful critique.

Marking every single punctuation or spelling error is also not necessary.  I usually pick these out the first and maybe the second time, and if it is a problem that is repeated throughout, I would make a note to search for more of the same.  Don't get me wrong...if it's a typo that I think would be hard to pick out or not caught by a spell check, I point it out so it doesn't get missed later.  But covering a manuscript in highlights or red ink is going to piss someone off and detract from the constructive comments.

In this same vein, if I am critiquing a manuscript that is clearly an early draft, I will focus more on the story, characters, and plot instead of ripping it apart. My thinking is that if I want to help this other writer grow, it makes more sense to focus on a few areas at a time rather than slamming them with everything that I think needs change.  Baby steps, right?

I am a firm believer in not arguing with the person delivering my critique.  Most of my critiques have been face to face, with some online, but I just don't see any point in getting into a debate over what is essentially someone's opinion.  This is not a pretty scenario when it happens.  Ultimately, I found it is best to hear them out, and if you can keep your mouth shut, it will more than likely be over quicker than if you get into a row, and everyone can move on.  Besides, if you give it a few days, you may find you actually agree with some or all of the comments and won't have to eat crow.

If I do disagree, often I will reply by telling the critiquer what I was trying to achieve, and this has many times led to a more constructive discussion (in my opinion anyway).  Many people feel they have to defend their work, and I suppose you can if you really want to.  I have always chosen not to, since I usually want to consider the comments later in private before I discount them.

A great critique partner is a precious thing, but there is a fine line between being helpful and hurtful.  I don't want my critiques sugar-coated, but I also don't want to be the butt of someone's jokes either.  Just give me something that I can use without making me feel stupid, and I'm good.

I've been very fortunate to have worked with great people who have helped me grow substantially as a writer, and to them I say, Thank you!

I would love to hear about your critiquing successes.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Baking the Story

When I first started writing, I came across advice encouraging writers to let their completed manuscripts languish out of sight for at least a month.  At the time I thought, "Never!"

Last year while working through my creative writing course, I rushed through one of my short story drafts, and because of time or circumstance, I happened to let it sit.  There it was, printed, next to my spot at the kitchen table, never out of sight.

Over the course of a month or so, I often thought about my story.  It wasn't done.  I knew I wanted more from it, but I didn't quite know what to do with it.

I talked about the story with my husband, who had some ideas, and at some point I had the "aha!" I had been waiting for.  I edited the story again, and it was much better, more what I wanted to achieve.

The next story I wrote, once again, I let it sit, and when my husband asked if I was finished the story, I told him it was baking.  That's how I've come to think of this resting time; it's cooking.  No point in taking it out before it's done.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A is for Apocalypse

My friend Rhonda Parrish is editing an anthology titled A is for Apocalypse and was kind enough to invite me to submit a short story.

I focus on writing short contemporary romance, so the theme of this anthology is likely going to stretch my brain. But I have wondered if romance is the genre in which I should focus my attention.

I am a what-iffer, which is no doubt a handy character trait for a writer, but my best what-iffing is always done when I think about something terrifying.  I what-if away in my romance story, of course, but what really gets my heart pounding hard is when I imagine our car sliding off an icy mountain road into a freezing lake, or what I would do if someone broke into the house and threatened my children, or if a tornado blasted through our community at night. 

I suffer from mild anxiety, and when I go down this path, I can get pretty worked up, laying in bed playing through these life-and-death scenarios, so this anthology is a good excuse for me to exorcize some of my dark thoughts.

I decided to write romance because I truly thought I could write better than some of the romances I was reading.  Seven years ago.

I learned a lot in seven years, and I'm proud of my writing now.  I recently finished a university creative writing course and received an A+, so I know I have some ability to write a short story, at least.  Of course much depends on the reader, but I will take the confidence that comes with the A+ and use it to fuel my writing.

Each writer for A is for Apocalypse has a letter.  Mine is P.   I knew right away what the story would be about, and I can't wait to pull up some of the terror and fear I carry around with me and use it to plant tension into my submission. 

I'll keep you posted :)