They were just an abandoned pair of Crocs that blended in with the landscape such that I nearly didn’t see them.
Immediately, I started to tell myself the story of the person who used to wear those shoes, how they got there, why there was a ponytail holder just next to them. The brownness of the scene struck me as sad and serene. And when the picture (that I took with my phone) came out so well, I wanted to share it with you, and to offer you this prompt:
In 500 words or fewer, tell me the story of those shoes. Do it in the comments. I’ll repost the really good ones on my blog next week with credit to you, and a link to your blog/social media/whatever; and if you share your email address, I’ll send you a free critique.
An Exciting New Thing
I want to invite you to Writer’s Boot Camp.
It’ll be a mind-bending day of all different sorts of writing activities. You’ll push your comfort zones, engage in all manner of writing activities and exercises like Weight Training, Gimmie Twenty Words, Gimmie Twenty Sentences, Cross Country Writing, and of course there’ll be a groovy, mind-massaging lunch break. Show up at 10, leave at 4 with a refreshed or revolutionized sense of yourself as a writer, of writing as a creative act, and some new ideas for getting motivated beyond Boot Camp.
You need a clip board, a few pens or pencils, a notebook or paper (at least 20 sheets), and a brown bag lunch or $5 to chip in on pizza.
The cost is low, $55, and you can pay the day of or via paypal, you’ll get instructions by email when you register.
The spot is Gallery #13 at The Pajama Factory, 1307 Park Ave. Williamsport. I’m teaming up with Susquehanna Life Magazine on this effort.
I told a friend the other day that I honestly can’t remember the pain of child birth. I can’t describe it specifically, the way I can describe the sting and itch of mosquito bite ages after it’s dried out and my flesh is white and smooth again. My friend will soon become a mom, and she is worried and scared and she wants to avoid the pain. I understand that.
There is no benefit to the pain. Other than knowing that your mind can swallow anything it doesn’t want you to recall.
I think she asked me about it because she expected me to tell the truth. She has read some of my blog. I am a writer. What are writers, after all, other than people who use lies, language, and literary devices to tell the truth?
What I did tell her was that whenever I try to write about it–in prose or poetry or essay–all I get is that the pain was like I imagine it must feel to have a cinder block slowly rotated inside your vagina: scraping and sharp and bloody.
I think she is both right and wrong. Doing it in a formula can be as helpful as it is unhelpful. Every writer must find her own way.
But In reading Writing Down the Bones, which is one of the assigned readings for the residency, I found this chapter that really resonated with me, and that speaks to this very thing.
And I am even more convinced now that any writer at any stage of the game should own a copy of this book. It is always relevant and inspiring and full of ideas. But it is not prescriptive. It does not say, “This is the way.” It says, “There are many ways, here’s mine. Let me help you look for yours.”
That’s the title of the chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s book that really speaks to me on this reading.
Here’s my favorite passage:
This is where the depth of the relationship with yourself is so important. You should listen to what people say. Take in what they say. (Don’t build a steel box around yourself.) Then make your own decision. It’s your poem and your voice. There are no clear-cut rules; it is a relationship with yourself. What is it you wanted to say? What do you want to expose about yourself? Being naked in a piece is a loss of control. This is good. We’re not in control anyway. People see you as you are. Sometimes we expose ourselves before we understand what we have done. That’s hard, but even more painful is to freeze up and expose nothing. Plus freezing up makes for terrible writing.
And that’s what, I think, Smoky was saying when she said that Writer’s Digest will train the writer out of a person and make her into a factory fictioneer. Following a formula that somebody else taught you means that you can stop trusting yourself. “If I do it like this, then it will be right.”
That is wrong. Right is, “If I do it like me, then it will be right.”
I and Smoky and Natalie Goldberg want you to trust your own sense of truth when you’re writing. We don’t want you to ask Writer’s Digest how to make a story, or Donald Maass, or J.A. Konrath, or Mike Hyatt.
There are no new stories. One of the oldest texts with popular readership is the Bible, and even in there it says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
What it unique is you. There’s no other writer in the whole wide world who has exactly the same life, experiences, expectations, ideas, values, thoughts, education as you. So even if you’re telling a story that’s been told a zillion times before, it’s new because you are telling it.
Your truth is original because it’s yours.
So tell it. And don’t be afraid. And don’t limit yourself with too much thinking about structure or plot or tricks. Just read and write and everything will come out okay.
After you do that, get an editor. Or a book doctor. Or beta readers. Or all three. A post on book doctors is coming next week.
Flashback scenes are tempting. They can solve a ton of problems. You’re writing along and you find you’ve written yourself into a corner, and your character has no reason to feel the way she does about the way her boyfriend/boss/sister is confronting her. So instead of slowing down and reacquainting with the character, a writer will decide that this would be a terrific opportunity for a flashback.
The flashback will inevitably be something high drama like being in the back of a car with a drunk college boy and getting raped or watching a mother get run over by a car something. There, thinks the writer, brushing her hands together, I’ve done it. I’ve explained everything.
This speaks to a thing I notice in a lot of the writing I read for money, and a thing that really has no place in published fiction: writers think their readers are stupid.
It’s best to think of your reader as the smartest, sneakiest fox there is: Someone who will get it no matter what you’re doing; the jerk who always knows what’s going to happen in the first scene of the movie.
It also means that there’s a lot of other stuff to consider in terms of your self-promotion gene, your chutzpah, and your commitment to all the stuff that comes along with the writing life, both before and after you have a draft. (Comments here are as helpful as the post).
I find flashbacks to be particularly vexing when the author has carefully peppered the exposition and rising action with all the pertinent details that they then proceed to bludgeon me with in the flashback.
Okay, but what if a flashback is the only way?
I doubt that is the case, but if it is, there are some tips at the end of this post.
Here are some things to do if you find yourself in a situation where you want to flash back.
1. Do a free write with the character in whose point of view the flashback would occur. Write in first person, and answer the question that spurs the flashback in your prose. If you are stuck and can’t figure out why, start answering the mundane questions like what your character does for work, how she feels about her parents, whether she’s ever had an eating disorder. Flash back with your character, outside of the context of the story. Your character may show you the way, if you let her.
2. Really look at your plot. Plots generally have an arc structure: roughly rising action, climax, then denoument. Maybe you’ve got a dip in the rising action and you need to up the ante. Maybe what you thought was the climax is really the inciting incident. You have to open your mind about your story. You have to be ready to let your characters foil your plans, however well-laid they are. You have to be ready for your characters to do something you find to be deplorable or abhorrent, and still love them.
3. Talk it out. Call your favorite writing buddy or critique partner, and give them a synopsis. They probably will not need to say anything. Hearing yourself tell it out loud will likely do the trick. If not, maybe your buddy can help by asking you pointed questions about what else you need to show your reader to earn the thing that makes you think you need a flash back.
4. Do the flashback. Let it in the draft, then keep writing. When you’re revising, figure out how to chunk that flashback up and give whispers of it throughout the exposition and rising action, letting out one crucial detail at a time. Giving it all up too early will be like feeding your reader sleeping pills. You have to give your characters dimension along the way.
How to Tell if You Can Keep Your Flashback
1. Your flashback gives information (i.e. specific details about an event in a character’s past) that is crucial to the story, and that it’s nor appropriate to give in any other way (when you character was a child they had a particular experience that they’ve repressed or something).
2. Your flashback propels the plot.
3. The flashback gives a bit of the story that isn’t or can’t be mentioned in any other context of the story.
4. The flashback contains its own narrative arc (exposition, rising action, inciting incident, climax, denoument) that is 100% necessary to the rest of the story.
For each of these, I would caution that you or people who love you or are related to you should probably not try to make the assessment. Ask for help from an editor or professor or casual, writing acquaintence. Get yourself some beta readers (they are generally inexpensive, can provide stunning insight, and are typically pleased with an extremely small stipend or a copy of the book once it’s published, if it is).
Have any great stories about overcoming the urge to flash back, or can you remember reading a story that made you feel like the reader thought you were stupid by telling you what she already showed you by throwing it all into a flashback, too? Or in some other way?
If you wanna hang out and talk more about this kind of stuff, and do some writing, too, you should look into my workshops.
I’ve been giving writing workshops as much as possible lately because I love them. If you’re in Williamsport and you want to take an incredibly inexpensive workshop with me at Pennsylvania College of Technology, click here. I’m offering three that begin in about two weeks.
I always do group writing prompts in workshops. In fact, the Know Thy Characters workshop was more prompt than presentation. In my workshops at Penn College, we’ll do one prompt at every meeting. The first ten minutes of class. It gets us in the zone.
So I’m not here to tell you that you ALWAYS should write in a group. No no no.
I will tell you that it’s probably almost always better to write alone.
But here’s what happens for me whenever I write in a group, or even with one other person, or even spend a few hours (not writing) surrounded by other creative people:
1. The gates between my inner and outer life are opened for a bit.
It’s really easy to get too lost in my own head, to forget that there’s a rest of the world, and to remember that my ideas are generally best when I let them out of my mental vacuum.
2. The energy of other creative people comes in through the gates.
I never get more breakthroughs in my thinking about my writing writing than when I’m writing in a group. This is almost never a breakthrough in terms of phrase or diction, it’s an idea breakthrough. For example, I’d been having trouble with a character in my book, Delta. At Comic Con, when I was surrounded by creative people and taking part in this amazing buzz of enthusiasm and energy, Delta got an identity, or at least a skeleton of an identity.
3. I surprise myself.
This is going to sound egomaniacal, but I surprise myself a lot in general. I think that’s in large part because whenever I am alone, I am convinced that I’m an uncreative loser with nothing to contribute. So whenever I have a great blog day or a big idea, I am surprised. The ways in which I surprise myself whenever I write in a group are different. I get these brilliant phrases and I think, “I don’t write that well.” It’s attributable to the open gates thing, and to the fact that whenever I write in workshops, I do it with a pen on paper and not–where I do most of my writing–at the keyboard.
And Here’s What I’ve Noticed for my Students:
1. They surprise themselves!
I’m using the Comic Con Workshop as an example because it’s the most recent, but this kind of stuff has always happened. The writers who came to my workshop were all over the place in terms of their ages and writing achievements and ambitions. I had very young students all the way up to adult students who were teachers themselves. One guy found out that his villain wasn’t really a villain. Another was surprised that her hero was more like a villain.
2. They get more out of the workshop.
People are accustomed to getting droned at. Sometimes, you can watch their brains shut off in their faces as they walk into a classroom. Writing prompts, engaging in a creative process with other people, opens them up again. Even if you only follow the prompt with one question, and that question is as lame as, “What did you think of that prompt?”, the students are re-engage and contribute more. This engagement and contribution increases as the workshop proceeds.
3. They get inspired.
The day I gave my workshop at WCC was my best weekend blog day to date. Where I normally have 20 or fewer views on a weekend day I don’t post, Saturday of WCC I had almost 100. People were looking for my workshop. So that’s one action, but another–and one that I’m sure happened, and may still be happening–is that the folks had big ideas that have helped to propel their stories. Some of them even told me that they never thought about loving their characters before, especially their villains, and they seemed jubilant about it.
So do you want to get inspired? Come to my workshop. The ones at Penn College will be a ton more involved than the one provided here, and I won’t be using Powerpoint (at least not all the time).
It’s true of blogging, too. I decided about 2 months back that it was time to try to take this blog to the next level.
As I began to read about others’ ideas about blogging, things have more-or-less fallen into place.
Here are a few highlights of the things that have set the ball in motion for this blog, and for my future as a person who makes a living doing social media:
1. I finally focused. Not hyperfocus or microfocus, but I figured out what I write about most often, watched my hits by varying post types, and paid attention to tweets & retweets & comments.
2. I’ve got a schedule–sort of. A loose one anyhow. I (almost) always write for my blog first thing in the morning, and I post at least 5 days a week. I don’t find this to be terribly difficult, but some folks would and do. You do what works for you, okay?
3. I am a read like a crazy person–at least one blog post or resource a day. It’s paying off.
1. Reorganize and purge my categories and labels.
2. Get some material in he hopper for weeks I have big projects.
3. Post two reports for sale (hopefully by end of April): one on How to Start a writers’ group (post on the topic on Friday), and one on verb tenses. Both inexpensive and well worth it.
4. Figure out some kind of email subscription service (a la feedburner) and do a newsletter.
5. Post a survey. That’s next. If you read here regularly, or if you’re in new blog love, please take eight seconds to click your answer or write one. I don’t feel like I have to ask people to vote if they hate it, because haters like to hate.
279 Days to Overnight Success is an amazing resource. And it’s free. Read it. That’s all. Any type of blogger with any goals would benefit from the 12,000 words (which is not a huge time committment, either).
Stanford at Pushing Social writes a lot about how to use blogging to build your own business or brand. I find some of his tips to be too sales-y for me, but he is not over-the-top.
Penelope’s advice about blogging which was the first place I went. That was not–though I do love Penelope–100% all the best advice for me. You really have to find what works for you, what’ll make you feel like doing your blog. Now, I’d say about in the middle of my journey, I’m reaching a spot where I synthesize the voices I hear. Pluck some advice from one, and other advice from another.
My Name Is Not Bob is Robert Lee Brewer’s blog. RLB is an editor at Writer’s Digest which is a terrific publication. He writes about other stuff, too, but his thoughts about social media for writers tend to be more about sharing than about bossing you around. I dig that.
Copyblogger is more about the business of copywriting and web marketing. But they’ve got loads of free info on SEO and Keyword stuff that I’ve been meaning to get back to.
Brian A Klems is one of the bloggers and editors for Writer’s Digest. Most of the time I dislike his posts, but this one is truly excellent, and a pretty solid distillation of all the best blogging advice.
Resources for Writers, Novelists, Self-published, and Wannabes
A note here: You can tell when these various folks have done their due diligence about blogging and are doing it well. Reading at these sites–though they are not as universally well-blogged or well-designed as above, sometimes they didn’t have to because their readers came before their blogs–can be educational on the point of what looks most professional or badass.
Justine Musk writes about creativity and authorship and being a badass. I really dig her.
My friend Jamie writes about being an editor. She gives great tips about excellent stuff to read, writing pitfalls and grammar issues to avoid, and has a generally enjoyable voice & aesthetic.
Julianna Baggott’s blog is probably weighted heavily toward being more entertainment than advice, but she does have an advice to writers section that she updates whenever she posts on the topic. Always, the posts are beautifully written.
The Rumpus is great. I haven’t spent enough time there, but there’s a lot of entertaining, smart writing. Entertaining, smart writing is good stuff to know about if you wanna be a writer.
Kristen Lamb’s blog is all about writing and authorship. Her voice is also spunky and fun. My favorite thing she’s doing right now is her series of posts called “Don’t Eat the Butt!” It’s about bad–but prevalent–advice to writers and how to avoid being bogged down.
Tomorrow is the Weeks to Geek post. It’s going to be a little bit headier than you’re used to, but the whole component of the event that’s for librarians has gone–so far–unmentioned in the press & on this blog. And well, I’ve always been a softy for the underdog.
Last night was the first meeting of my first workshop. It went beautifully well and I am excited beyond excitement for future workshops.
The next series of Workshops will begin on October 19th and 20th respectively.
The workshop that begins the 19th is for High School writers, and will be propelled by thinking about Personal Narrative with a view to producing a beautiful College Application Essay. We will read creative nonfiction, a bit of memoir and essay. We will read successful College Application Essays. We will do exercises aimed at going deep, at getting to emotional truths, and then we will pile all that viscera up into a serving of impressive pretty. Of course, students who are not working on the College Application Essay are welcome to join us. Students who wish to write fiction and poetry are also welcome. Thinking and writing about the blurred line between fiction and nonfiction in the craft is helpful for writers of all stripes.
The workshop that begins the 20th is another adult workshop. Adult writers, ages 18 and up will read and write. We’ll read fiction, poetry, and essay. We’ll do writing exercises, prompts, and talk a ton about each other’s writing. We’ll talk about strategies for getting to new depths and heights with our writing, and for overcoming block.
New dates are posted under Register, which is now located under the Workshop menu heading. Register early since space is limited to 15 students per workshop.
Don’t forget. Writing Workshop starts tonight at 6:00 p.m. at the Pajama Factory in Williamsport, PA. The cost is low and the learning will be marvelous. On tap for tonight: Poems by Billy Collins, meeting other writers, and the sage words of Natalie Goldberg.