Friday, March 22, 2013

Writing Exercise

Here's a short writing exercise for those of you who need a kick start.

If you are used to writing in a specific place everyday, grab a notebook, go somewhere else. It doesn't have to be far, just step outside or sit in your bathtub. Find something about this new space that intrigues you and write about it. Don't let your pen stop moving for ten minutes.


Pen Your Brain

Share Your Writing

For many, one of the most frightening steps to take as a writer is to share your work. However, (and I mean this in the kindest way possible) it is imperative to share your work if you are going to take yourself seriously as a writer. The truth is, there are a lot more writers out there than you may know of and they are considered writers in the writing community because they stuck a foot in the door at the risk of getting it smashed and shoved their work in someone else's face. It may sound rough, but it is rough to send your babies out there to people you don't know and have them, your pride and joy, cast out like Quasimodo. But don't distress. It's not as scary as I'm making it sound.

A good first step to getting your work out there and one step closer to publishing is to join a writing group. If you are going to join a writing group, it is a good idea to join a group of writers who have the same aesthetic as you, otherwise you might be writing genre sci-fi while someone who prefers literary essays is telling you how you might improve your work. This is not to say that all facets of writing can't contribute to your style, but writing is difficult and lonely, so it's good to talk about your work with people who understand and get along with you.

The same goes for publishers, in a manner of speaking. As a former assistant editor for a small publishing company, I've seen the same mistakes from writers in the submission process over and over again. Here are some simple, MUST-DO steps to help you get your work from point A to point B.

1. Make sure your work is as polished as you can possibly get it. Editors are busy people and face reading hundreds of submissions per week (and that's on a small scale). A polished submission is a fair sight.

2. Read what comes out of the publisher you are submitting to. If you like what they publish, they are more likely to like what you write.

3. Read the submissions guidelines! I cannot stress this enough. There is nothing more off-putting for an editor than to see a submission in the submissions box outside of the reading period.

4. Find the Editor's name and address your cover letter to the Editor. This shows you have done your research.

5. Be succinct. Don't go on and on about your childhood and how you've wanted to be a writer forever. It is enough to put in you cover letter what you've published or your experience in writing (whether it be through school, a writing group, a blog, what have you), the title and length of the piece, your contact information, and a thank you.

6. Finally, don't beat yourself up. If a publisher doesn't accept your piece, it does not necessarily mean it's bad, it just means it is not a good fit for them. Keep working. Keep submitting. If you get personal feedback  in a rejection letter give yourself a pat on the back and send that publisher something else. Editors only give personal feedback if they are struck by the writing in some way (like I said, busy people).

So, that's the spiel for the day. It's pretty preachy, I guess, but it's all information that I found incredibly useful and surprisingly inaccessible unless you are fairly deeply involved in a writing community. Knowing these things also helped me find the courage to submit. So, take heart and throw yourself out there. 

Until next time,

Pen Your Brain

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Writing Exercise

Today's writing exercise comes from Judy Reeves' book A Writer's Book of Days. If you don't have this book and you are trying to commit yourself to writing everyday, I highly recommend investing in it since it has a writing exercise for every day of the year and it has all kinds of little tips and tidbits for writers. It's a little overwhelming, in fact, but you will never have an excuse to not pick up a pen. She usually only offers a phrase, a quote, or even just a few words, but it has always been enough to get me going when I need a head start.The idea is to freewrite as soon as you see the next three words so get ready. Set.

A single bed.

10 minutes later...I hope you have something cool to start with. If not, at least your mind is on the write track (oh puns we love you). I'm leaving you with a youtube clip because this song has been stuck in my head all week and it's a great song. If you don't like The Beatles or any adaptation of The Beatles, I completely understand.

Until later,

Pen Your Brain

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What do you do when you're not writing?

If you have a tendency to go on writing binges, maybe you've also experienced the dead mind that follows, the mind of someone who has been absorbed in something for so long that possibilities of what else exists outside of the world you are creating do not occur. You're main character is being tortured by the enemy, the world is in danger of exploding into a million pieces, and you have to...take a break? 

Believe me. I sympathize. Today I had the day off and wrote for six straight hours. While most writers would call this admirable, I call this insane only because I suffer a depression of sorts when I am forced to draw myself away. My main character has just discovered she is not human. Her boyfriend, who has exposed her to said inhumanity, is being beat up by his twin brother who is angry at him for telling her their inhuman secrets. She is about to discover something about herself that will change her life forever and I cannot—literally CANNOT—write any more.

So, all whining aside, what do we do when we are not writing? The key is to get your mind off of the intellectual, manic slide its been on and settle it in a nice cozy chair for a while.

Here are some things I like to do:
  • Go out with a friend
  • Go on a walk or a run
  • Watch TV (heaven forbid)
  • Make jewelry or paint (some kind of hobby)
  • Have a drink...or two
  • Mess around in Photoshop
If you have things you like to do in your spare time while your not writing feel free to post them in the comments here. But remember, the real world exists and we all need to nourish the other parts of our mind and our bodies that are there to allow us to be creative. When you end up taking a break, enjoy it and consider it as that time that is necessary to regenerate. (I'm posting a picture of a bracelet I made just to illustrate what the other parts of your brain are capable of, and because it reminds me of elves).

Until next time,

Pen your Brain

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Starting a Poem

So poetry is not my forté, but one can only improve with practice and lately I've been practicing a lot. One thing I've noticed about my progression from rhyming poems that sound like'TwasThe Night Before Christmas to writing complicated form poems like the villanelle is that the only way to start a poem, for me, is to just do it. Too often, I get an idea for a poem that I am immediately attached to. Deviation from the concept is not an option. But this desire to control the poem limits the open-mindedness that I believe is required for summoning surprising metaphors and creative language.

My former teacher, Suzanne Roberts, who is a celebrated poet and a national book award winner, once told me that the first draft of the poem serves to show the writer what the poem is about. For instance, I wrote a draft of a poem about the various personalities of boyfriends throughout my life (believe me you can write a decent poem about this). The final draft of the poem turned out to be divided into stanzas labelled by my age in each, and while the appearance of the men in each stanza followed some of the original theme, the poem ended up actually being about disappointment in past experiences with men (boyfriends, friends, family members) and hope for a better outcome in the future. I would share the poem drafts here but I have submitted the final for publication and many publishers don't like to take previously published work. Blogs are sometimes considered "previously published" but that's a different topic I will touch on later.The point is, start with a concept, but don't get too attached to it. The essence of the poem will reveal itself to you in later drafts and the poem will be all the better for it.Here is an easy exercise for starting a poem to help you loosen your control:

1) Write a poem based on a nonsensical dream you've had.

2) At the end of writing this first draft, try to make some sense of it. Look for a place where a specific meaning occurs to you, whether it is a rational link between meaning and dream or not.

3) Write a new draft about this meaning that has nothing to do with your dream.

Monday, March 11, 2013

AWP 2013

The Bell in Hand Tavern, est. 1795,
 is America's Oldest Tavern
This year was my first year attending AWP, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' annual conference. Basically, thousands of writers and publishers from all over the US and the world converge into one large conference hall in some unfortunate city to talk and learn about writing and publishing. This year's AWP was in Boston, MA. Among the historical landmarks, Fenway Park, little Italy, Paul Revere's house, the oldest bar in the US, and Faneuil Hall, I had endured such an onslaught of information on writing that it was nearly impossible for me to tear my attention away from my book and inner imaginings to appreciate the beauty of the historical city.

This state of mind is difficult to achieve sometimes when one is not among writers and poets who talk about nothing but writing when they are together, so here are some tips that I learned from some pros for when you are stuck.

1: Setting and character are intertwined. If your settings or characters are lacking in depth, remember that the setting shapes the character, especially by having the setting be described through the character's eyes.

2: If you are going to write a sex scene, make sure its necessary. A good sex scene helps shape the characters in the eyes of the reader, helps them grow (no pun intended). The motions and moods should reflect the character's personality.

3: If you are in the middle of a story and you are stuck, you don't necessarily need to step away. A good idea would be to write the character in a different situation or from a different POV as an exercise. If your character is from the eighteenth century and you write him/herself in the middle of the twentieth, how would s/he react? This will help you get a rock solid sense of who your character is.

In the mean time that's all I have, but I'm sure to be back with more tips. In the meantime, Pen Your Brain.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Here's one of the first things everyone should know about writing. Writing leads to editing, and for many editing is much harder. I don't just mean fixing all the spelling errors and getting rid of comma splices. What I mean by editing is that once that seven-hundred page novel is complete, one usually has to go back, re-read, and will eventually delete all the useless crap in there, turning the seven-hundred pages into five-hundred pages (if you're good enough to get that much useful writing down on your first draft).

However many pages you end up with, there is always editing involved and many, many drafts. One way I like to face the truly exhausting challenge of ripping my work to shreds is to leave it be for a couple of weeks. Getting your mind out of the story really helps you be less attached to those sentences that you dearly want to keep even though they do not help the story along. When I do sit down to edit a couple weeks later, I'll usually grab a glass a wine and get down to simply reading. After a couple of weeks, it's easier to see where the dialogue feels unnatural, where certain words don't fit in, and it's easier to "kill your babies" (you know, like those hobbit references that have no business in your mystery novel).