My number 1 favorite thing about residency is that I get to spend a week not explaining myself or enduring weird faces from people because all the other humans there are precisely my sort of weird/neurotic/thinky.
A close second, however, is that a lot of people there call me April Line.
I have a really cool name for a writer. Perfect, even. It’s as if my parents knew. Hell, maybe they did.
And then there’s the pursuant wordplay: April Line, you so fine; April Line, where’s my wine? Of course, I am in a tribe of people who, like me, enjoy the sounds words make when they scrape across tongues. We enjoy rhyme for its own sake. We slide words together in lines because they are fun, because of the sounds, because because words. The words do not have to be true. I am not fine in an objective sense nor do I make a habit of fetching wine.
My favorite thing since I got home? The thing that gives me more joy even than particularly delicious beer, running, or good food?
My Writing Workshop, the first of which happened last night. I met a new student. I had an hour of that lovely thing where I can talk about being a writer like it’s normal. I can explain to people who get it about the weird writer brain thing. I can help them cultivate their own, give them guidance for how to overcome their inner critic, I can talk about all the articles I read about writing and writers to people who are interested.
I am knowledgeable and there’s huge power in knowledge. It’s energizing. I got home feeling excited and light and right.
It is micro-residency. It is how I’m sure I want to be a writing teacher forever. Because to teach writing is to always have a way into that world, the world where I’m not just a loon who has a big vocabulary.
Come join the tribe. The workshops are fun and affordable.
I moved twice, took care of my dying friend, had more freelance clients than ever, lost myself, found myself, wrote a book, experienced real grief, improved my love relationship, repainted and decorated a room in our house (w/ my partner) got a restaurant job after a long non-restaurant work spell, explained the concept of “biological father” to my child, told her there wasn’t a real Santa, had the furnace replaced in our old drafty house, went to a writers’ conference, made new friends, lost track of old ones, and reconnected with people from childhood.
It has been intense and difficult and magical.
At the end of all of it, I got a Master’s degree. That photo up there is my me and my mentor, Nancy McKinley after our moment during fake graduation the last night of residency. She’s a fiction and essay writer, and a feminist, and among my favorite people on Earth.
The Wilkes University Low-Residency MA/MFA program is the one I’m working through now (I write my MFA critical paper this semester), and It’s amazing. If you’re not in the know, low-residency means that you go to campus for a small amount of time each semester and do the rest of your coursework online or by correspondence.
One of the recent graduates from the program, Lori A. May, actually wrote the book on the best low-residency MFA programs. So if you’re interested, that’s a great place to start, and it’s no accident that she’s there, at Wilkes, out of any of the other many low-res programs available.
I think New Year’s Resolutions are disingenuous at best. Every year I, instead of making a list of things to accomplish, try to adopt a general posture of self-improvement.
This year, my blogging slump will straighten, I will focus my excess energy on writing and teaching. I will say no to things that don’t help further my goals.
Why are you telling me this?
I must seem like one of those attention-seeking internet lame-os. I am. But if you’re reading this, you had, at least once, a passing fancy for my blog, and I need to confess these things to help keep me accountable. It’s a lot easier to break a promise to myself than it is one I make to internet strangers.
So, dear Internet Stranger (Internet Friend, Real-Life Acquaintance, or Real-Life Friend), thanks for being here.
And know that I will post on Wednesdays for the rest of the year.
Once a week, about 500 words (probably sometimes way more).
For me, for you, for art.
And if you’re in North Central PA, go click Workshop Registration and join me for a study of blogging or of memoir. Next week? I’ll list five of my favorite memoirs.
* Lyric from a poignant song from Love is Dead by Mr. T Experience.
As I develop my ideas about this blog and my ideas about what I should write about in it, I find that I’m spending too much time re-reading the posts and making tiny grammar/style tweaks throughout the day. If I can give myself a little more time between writing and posting, I’ll spend significantly less time doing this.
Check out some of the older posts over to the right. The most recent 10 are archived there, or you can use the search bar, or if you’re worried you’ll forget to come back Monday, you should subscribe via email or via RSS.
If you can’t bear the thought of life without me for a whole week, follow me on Twitter, or check me out on Facebook. Most of what I post there is public. Or if you’re only after the posts, but you don’t want to subscribe or tweet, my Facebook Fan page is available for liking to your right.
A beta reader, as far as I can glean from the world wide web is a term that originated among fan fiction writers, on forums.
Fan fiction writers are people who write in the style of an author they admire, or continue story lines where the author left gaping chasms, or had the nerve to die. These are typically fans of classics in a particular style (the victorians, for instance: George Eliot, The Brontës, et al) or contemporary commercial fiction (J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, so on).
My friend Robin Kaye, who is now a romance novelist (and not a shabby one, either), started out writing Jane Austen fan fiction. Fan fiction writers are definitely a subculture, and one of which I am generally ignorant, so apologies in advance if I make any misrepresentations here.
My sense of things is that a beta reader is a developmental editor who works for free. Another term for roughly the same thing: critique partner.
Think of it this way: Getting the truth about your fiction (or any writing) from someone who loves you, or even strongly likes you, is as likely as an honest answer to, “Does this make me look fat?”
Where would I get a beta reader?
If you’re already a part of a writing forum online, that’d be a great place to look. Or a club or social organization that focuses on writing (like a poetry society or writers’ guild, these often exist by region or state), or a professional organization (like AWP or National Writers Union), or your Facebook page.
I will suggest Craigslist, but advise you to proceed with caution, and probably only if you live in a very large urban area. Craigslist is mostly useless if you live in a small town unless you’re giving something away (like baby clothes or appliances).
On LinkedIn there are discussion forums for writers and editors.
The thing that has always bugged me about online forums is that the core group of people on a forum is often lonely and mean-spirited, and using the forum as a way to take out hatefulness on other people who they’ll probably never have to face.
OR, there’s such a long and massive history of in jokes and forum jargon and stories that it’s almost impossible to feel welcome. These lodge a stone of discomfort tight in my belly. I have never found the forum model to be elevating. But it works for some people. And it’s out there. So go do it. Tell them I said hello.
Please, please don’t be a dip and send these people email asking for a list of writers. Go on their websites and look for opportunities to network with other writers, like taking a workshop or doing a residency.
There is a different way.
You could start a writers’ group.
Writers’ groups are awesome. Not least because you can actually go to a coffee shop and look writerly with other people instead of by yourself (which is idiotic and pretentious).
You actually get to look at other people. Watch other writers interact socially. It can be revealing. Writers are a cagey bunch. We’re all full of self-deprecating jokes or wry comments. And when we’re engaging on the topic of our work, unless we have piles and piles of practice at a workshop poker face, we’re defensive and possibly prickly.
It’s a give-and-take relationship. It’s not some stranger giving you hours upon hours of their time for absolutely nothing. You are as obliged as the other members of your group to provide thoughtful feedback.
And let’s be honest: it’s more likely that you’ll get quality critique if you’re working with a group of people who are serious enough about writing to be in a group. On purpose, with meeting times and all the accompanying social anxieties.
A random beta reader that you scared up online is as likely to be a fan fiction troll as a person with something valuable to say about anything, least of all your pride, joy, and toil: your draft.
All you need is one other writer to begin, and as you meet and work together, you’ll accomplish some of the following: you’ll increase your network, you’ll open a gateway of potential for partnerships, you’ll get accountability, you’ll learn stuff about yourself and your writing, your writing and critique abilities will increase, your outlook will improve, you’ll have camaraderie, an outlet for writerly venting, or you’ll eat less cake.
Cake is like band-aids for boo-boos of the soul.
I am of two minds on the value of beta readers and critique partners and writers’ groups. My stronger mind on the topic feels like the value of the writers’ group–the social critique–far outweigh the potential downsides in terms of community building and potential growth. But my devil’s advocate mind would like to make the following points:
It’s still better to pay a professional when it comes time to prepare the manuscript for submission to agents and publishers. Professionals have a vested interest in your work, not in your friendship.
As with every social endeavor, on and off line, writing groups can turn ugly and cost you potentially copacetic relationships.
Groups require time and organization, and unless you’re lucky enough to know a bunch of obsessed, competent, organized humans, the brunt of the organization will fall on one person, every group needs that person, and she can be hard to find.
There’s always the possibility that the group will fizz out, after–of course–you’ve devoted considerable time and energy to getting started and offering critique.
The critique partner/writing group relationship is difficult to get right. So resist the urge to become BFFs. It will be strong, since when you show somebody the unedited draft, you’re inviting at least some bad news, and that is hard on the ego–and much easier to take from somebody you’d have a beer or a movie with.
First a quick note: I’m going to relegate fiction sharing to every-other Friday, possibly every third. Partially because of Stanford’s advice at Pushing Social, and also partially because I’ve got a ton of helpful blog posts brewing, that are of use to you, and sharing Fiction every Friday feels narcissistic to me. Onward.
What is Influence?
One of the things I find to be most infuriating about artistic hacks is their insistence that they “shouldn’t” or “can’t” be influenced.
First of all, the assertion that real artists are above influence is both naive and arrogant.
Invariably, the person who makes this claim believes herself to be an artist, and regardless of her ability, believes that she is doing something original. To make sure you’re with me: The claim is arrogant, and it highlights the speaker’s ignorance.
If an artist is actively avoiding influence, it gives her an excuse not to absorb other artists’ work. Which is wrong and lazy. Artists of all sorts need to know, understand, and appreciate the artists that came before them. I think classical musicians understand this best, because music must be a discipline before it can be an art.
So too with writing–though it seems that the notion that writing is a discipline before it can be an art has been largely lost to the masses, both educated and not.
So we’ll stick with the musicians for a moment: In order to play as well as Beethoven, one must play Beethoven’s complete work at least a thousand times, then interpret it with one’s own musical personality.
You still with me?
Fact is, folks, to quote my favorite dubious authority: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
Despite all the other absurdity that gets justified on the basis of that body of religious fiction, the notion of a collective unconscious is nothing new.
My point: nobody is doing something original. What we can and should strive for is authenticity, and a unique–or at least lesser-considered–way of filtering things.
And in order to do that, we must know what has come before, we can’t escape influence–nay, we must invite influence–and we must study our craft.
What is Craft in Writing?
My friend Jamie’s blog today talks about slang and some popular slang terms she’s personally tired to death of. That’s what got me thinking about craft, and what it is, and why so much commercial fiction is so poorly crafted.
*Haters, remember the rules about trolls. No personal insults just because you disagree. I welcome your cogent, considered disagreement. Comment away!
A lot of people who read genre fiction would agree, without really knowing what they’re agreeing about. For example, I spoke to a woman the other evening who, after sheepishly admitting that she reads romance novels, said, “But I do it to escape.”
Awesome! I want you to read to escape. I’m a writer, after all!
Romance Novels and other Commercial Fiction are the literary equivalent of your favorite, mindless TV show.
But reading is healthier than watching TV, and being escape for the reader is no excuse to ignore craft, and intentionally not learn things that will make you a better writer!
Now here are some things that genre writers do super-duper well: plot, chase scenes, flashbacks, internal dialogue, tropes.
Here are some things they like to make excuses about not doing well: grammar, character depth; using sentence fragments, italics, em dashes, ellipses, and semicolons judiciously; spelling, tense, varied language, point of view.
I spent five of my best years sitting in workshops and loving the hell out of getting critiqued, a process that I have internalized to such an extent that I am incapable of evaluating my own work because regardless of its quality, I am keenly aware of what makes writing good, and what is missing from mine.
Craft is a writer’s tool belt. It is the larger concerns of story telling like narrative arcs and characters and settings, but it is also spelling and grammar and understanding how to use point of view and tense.
I am trained in the whole enchilada.
And knowing the difference between the following tenses: present, past, past perfect, present subjunctive, and past subjunctive does not “influence” or “interfere with” your art, it makes it better!
Just like quality paints are easier to use and yield truer hues than their budget bin counterparts, quality writing–even when it is genre writing–is worth more to more people, and will be more clearly understood.
Novelist Wannabes? If you are in a different career now, but “have always dreamed of being a writer,” great. But take some classes first. I offer them. And private lessons. But if you don’t live near me, there are probably courses that you could take at the nearest college or university.
Watch for my “Quick Guide to Tense: Reference Pages” sometime next month.
Being acquainted with the workshop environment will make you happier to take editorial advice when you get to publish your first book, and it will also make you a better writer and reader yourself.
Last Minute registration for the Workshops beginning THIS WEDNESDAY!
Here’s the Flyer:
It’s a great time to hang out with some writing. And since there’s been some confusion: the workshop is $150 for six weeks. If you’d rather, you can pay by week at the less economical rate of $30 per meeting.
This is a SCANDALOUS deal for parents of teens preparing for college. Good writing and deep thinking are essential to become a competitive student. This workshop offers opportunities to develop both!