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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Writing Through the Senses: Sight

 Welcome back everyone!  I hope you enjoyed last week's exercises.  Today we'll be talking about sight and how colors, shapes and everyday objects help spark a story.  Let's dive in, shall we?

Faces Exercise:   Below you'll see four objects that look like faces.  Choose one of the faces and create a human character that fits the personality of the picture.  Answer the following questions about your character.  (Remember, your character isn't the inanimate object in the picture; your character is a human who's personality is inspired by the image you selected below.)

Let's start with the basics...
  • Is your character male or female?
  • How old is your character?
  • Where does your character live?
  • What is your character's occupation?
  • Who's in your character's family?
  • Does your character have a pet?
  • What's your character's favorite color?
 Next let's dig a little deeper...
  • What's your character's greatest fear?
  • Does your character have a secret?
  • Who is your character's nemesis?
  • What does your character want most in the world?  Why?
Finally, give your character a name.

    Now that we have a character, let's put him/her in a situation.  Pick a number between 1 and 5.  Don't click on the number just yet.

    The situation is as follows: your character is stuck in a place.  He/she isn't helplessly stuck (i.e. the character can leave if he/she so chooses) but something is keeping the character there.  What that something might be is completely up to you.

    Remember that number you selected?  Click it now.  This is your place.


    Write the scene that unfolds.  Use cues and details in the picture to bring the situation to life.  And don't forget to have fun!

    Monday, June 28, 2010

    Verse Novel #1: Love That Dog

    This week, I read Love That Dog by Sharon Creech as the first of the verse novels for the Verse Novel Challenge.

    In this story, the protagonist Jack resists his teacher's assignment to write poems in a weekly journal.  As he responds to his teachers comments and the poems he reads in class, we learn more about Jack, his dog Sky and his story.  What I especially liked about this book was how we only hear Jack's voice and his side of the dialogue with his teacher, but from his responses, we can infer what the teacher is saying.  In taking this approach (rather than giving us also the teacher's voice) Creech puts the reader in Jack's shoes and allows us to become fully absorbed in the story.

    I'm not usually one to gush, but this book was so good I read it in one sitting.  OK, I'll admit, it's also a really short book, so it's not as though "one sitting" was really a stretch.  (It was more like the dead time between two meetings.)  Still, even if I had had some appointment to run off to, it would have been hard to tear myself away.

    I wish I had read this book sooner and included it in my literature thesis because it's a perfect example of the form of a book following function.  In particular, the experience of reading the book makes us feel as though we are Jack, reading the poems in class (which Creech wisely includes in the back of the book for the reader's reference) and talking to the teacher through poems.

    And you can't beat that first poem:

    September 13
    I don't want to
    because boys
    don't write poetry.

    Girls do.

    Thursday, June 24, 2010

    VP Submissions Open Next Week

    For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Verbal Pyrotechnics is a literary magazine edited by yours truly and three of my fabulous writer/editor colleagues.  VP is dedicated to publishing teen literature of the short form (stories, poetry, essays, etc.). There aren't many short form outlets for writers who focus on teen literature and we've decided to fix that.  Now we need your help because we need to spread the word.

    Verbal Pyrotechnics will be accepting submissions starting next week (July 1)!  Check out our submissions page for more information.  And don't forget to tell other writers about it and get ready to submit.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010

    Writing Through the Senses: Sound

    Hello all and welcome to Writing Through the Senses!

    We'll be talking about sound today and how it can inspire a story.  Let's start off with a short listening exercise. 

    Listening Exercise:   Below you'll find a series of links to music.  Listen to the first 1-2 minutes of each piece (but don't watch the accompanying videos; let the music speak for itself.)  While you listen to each piece, note the imagery that comes to mind.  What mood does the music establish?  Which specific sounds inspire each given image?  If you like, post your thoughts in the comments (but don't read other people's posts until you've had a chance to listen to the music for yourself).

    Saint-Saens 1
    Saint-Saens 2
    Holst 1

    Writing Exercise:  Now that we've warmed up our ears, choose one of the three pieces below and listen to it all the way through (approx. 8-10 min)  As you listen, make notes again about the mood of the piece and think about what sort of story might go with this music.  If this music were a soundtrack to a story, what would the story be?

    Once you've listened all the way through, take 10-15minutes and write a scene or story inspired by the music.  If you need to listen to the piece again, feel free to do so but don't feel like you have to parallel the music exactly.  The music is only here to inspire the story and give you a starting point.

    Holst 2

    Take-Home Message:  While some writers find it challenging to write and listen to music at the same time, music can be a great writing tool.

    Suggestions for Future Listening:  These pieces of music all tell a story or convey a specific mood.  If you don't have them in your listening library, I highly recommend.
    • Beethoven - 6th (pastoral) Symphony
    • Saint-Saens - Carnival of the Animals
    • Holst - The Planets
    • Vivaldi - 4 Seasons

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    Advice About Teaching...

    ...that also applies to the writing life.

    Not too long ago, I took a class called "Teaching of Writing" as part of my MFA.  What with graduation and looking for teaching gigs, I promptly put away my notes from that class and forgot all about them.  This weekend, while glancing through my notebook, I came across notes from the final "Teaching of Writing" class and I realized that a lot of the advice the professor gave us applies not only to teaching, but also to building a fulfilling writing life.

    Here are some lessons I learned in that class that can also apply to writing.

    1.  Say "yes" to every opportunity.  Just as freelance teachers need to be open to opportunities, so should a writer.  Sometimes an opportunity may not seem like what you're looking for, but it can lead to something.  And that something might lead to something else and somewhere down the line, you might wind up finding exactly the type of writing what you wanted to do.   

    2.  Teach any subject (at least once). Similarly, as a writer it's important to be open to writing any type of piece, at least once.  Who knows, maybe you'll find that you love writing a how-to piece just as much as that paranormal romance novel.  The only caveat with this point is the "at least once" part.  If you find after you've tried something that it's really not your thing, look for something else that's more your style.  It's easy to get sucked into a niche and once you're there, it can be very difficult to break out. 

    3.  Build a CV. This one's a no-brainer.  As with any field, you need to show credentials, but in writing this can be tricky, what with submissions being so competitive.  I've found the only solution to this problem is: submit, submit, submit.  And when you're done submitting, submit some more. 

    4.  Do it for free (at first). There are lots of volunteer opportunities out there.  For starters, a lot of literary magazines (especially small ones) don't pay for publications and writers submit simply for the joy of having their name out there in the world.  Blogging, being a guest blogger on someone's site, all these things are ways to get your writing "out there" even if you're just doing it out of a love of literature and words. 

    5.  Be versatile.  In teaching, this means looking for scenarios where you might be able to teach writing in unconventional venues.  This same type of creative problem-solving can be helpful in expanding your publishing prospects.  Try to think of places outside the norm where your writing might fit.  Maybe your short story about a grandmother teaching a child to knit could be perfect for a knitting magazine. 

    6.  Understand the way they run things...  and prepare yourself accordingly.  This is especially true when submitting your work to literary magazines or agents.  Each place has its own way of doing things and you need to play by the rules.  After all, the last thing you want is for some intern or first reader to toss your work in the reject pile just because your formatting is weird or you didn't include an SASE. 

    7.  Make your 100% better than 100% so you're allowed to have a bad day.  This is especially true for writers who have blogs.  It's important to keep the content consistent and strong, to give yourself the flexibility to have a "bad posting day" or skip a day when you need to do so.
      Any other teachers out there?  If so, do you have advice to someone who's teaching her first live Writing Through the Senses class today?  How about teaching advice that also translates to writing?

      Wish me luck!  And don't forget to check in tomorrow for our first online WTTS class.

      Monday, June 21, 2010

      Computer Deprivation

      This weekend, I took an overnight trip to Nashville, TN for a friend's wedding and *gasp* I did not bring my laptop.  It made sense, after all.  I was going to be gone for less than 36 hours and while being away from my computer should be no big deal, I must admit I had some trepidation.

      First, this was going to be a whole day and a half with no email.  What if something happened and everybody else knew about it, except me?  Also, no web browser to ask for directions when I took a wrong turn in a Nashville suburb while looking for said wedding.  (Three times this happened--we made it to the wedding 30 seconds before the procession started.)  And of course, no FaceBook where I would stealthily be able to look up people I saw at the wedding if I couldn't, for the life of me, remember their names.

      But the biggest problem had nothing to do with lack of internet.  Alas, it was lack of word processor that had me freaking out.  And yet, though I am loathe to admit it, this has been one of the most productive weekends--both in terms of writing and generating ideas--that I've had in a long time.

      Which got me thinking about this idea of computer deprivation.  Sometimes all the technology in our lives stifles our ability to think creatively.  This isn't because computers are evil and all technology is sending our culture straight to the underworld.  Rather, computers and other electronic devices simply train our minds to think in only one direction: forward.  When we're browsing through the internet or looking for files in a computer, one click leads to another, which leads to another, and another.  Even if the cognitive path squiggles around or comes full circle, the direction of motion is always the same.  Computers train us to look for the next step in the path, but sometimes the path can be limiting.

      But what if instead of following the path, we step on the grass and cut across the lawn?  What if instead of thinking only forward, we think sideways, or backwards, or up and down?  Someday, perhaps there will be computers that allow us to think this way and that mimic the beautiful, disorganized thing that is the human mind, but for now the best solution may be simply to turn the computer off.

      My challenge to you is this: give yourself the gift of one computer-free day (or if you're really brave, a computer-free week) and see what crazy connections and wild ideas come up when your mind isn't always moving in that same forward direction.

      As for me?  Who knows.  Maybe I'll do this every weekend.

      Friday, June 18, 2010

      Sneak Preview

      It occurred to me that perhaps some readers out there may be wondering what this Writing Through the Senses thing is all about.  In light of this, I decided to give you all a taste of what this course will be like.
      Over the next five weeks, we'll be talking about the five senses and using them as a jumping off point to spark creativity and kick-start some writing projects.  Each week will focus on one of the five senses, using it to enrich our writing and deepen our understanding of craft.

      Week 1: Sound--Achieving a Sense of Focus
      We start the series of classes using music to set the mood for story-telling.  We will discuss the musicality of language and how it can affect tone.  We will experiment with sound-based language tools to achieve a desired effect in our writing.

      Week 2: Sight--Gaining a Sense of Curiosity

      This week will be all about imagery.  By using colors and visual images to inspire our writing, we will develop a better understanding of metaphor.  We will also study how key details can both further the story and build character.

      Week 3: Touch--Developing a Sense of Intuition

      This week will focus on how we can make the ordinary become extraordinary through writing.  Touch--perhaps the most immediate of the senses--is all about intuition and the focus will be on artfully channeling that instinct.

      Week 4: Taste--Creating a Sense of Playfulness

      Food is fun; it has a sense of humor.  This week is all about "finding the funny" in our writing.  We'll examine the mechanics of parody and discuss literature that is just plain silly.  The point of this week is to make writing fun.

      Week 5: Smell--Reclaiming a Sense of Nostalgia

      Ah, smell... the most elusive of the senses.  And yet, of all the senses it is the one most closely tied to memory.  That is what this week will be all about: getting to the core of our memories and capturing them on the page.

      Intrigued?  Want to be part of the challenge?  Just go to Writing Through the Senses and follow the instructions in that post to join.

      Wednesday, June 16, 2010

      Writing Through the Senses

      As promised, here is the third project.  I mentioned in a previous post that I was teaching a creative writing class in NYC, starting next Tuesday.  Then I thought, why limit the class only to people in NYC or people whose schedules fit class time?  That's when I came up with this plan. 


      Welcome to Writing Through the Senses Wednesdays!

      Starting next week and going for five weeks, I'll be posting a condensed/modified version of my class on this blog.  We'll have all sorts of goodies like links to readings and fun exercises to get the creative juices flowing.  I'm also hoping to get some discussion going on the weekly topics, which is where you come in.

      If want to qualify for the Writing Through the Senses Challenge, just follow these simple steps:
      1. Post a comment below so I know you're participating in the challenge.
      2. Post a link on your blog, if you have one (optional, but you'll get an extra contest entry)
      3. Read the Writing Through the Senses posts (5 Wednesdays, starting next week) and post an on-topic comment.
      That's it!  Easy, right?

      Prize:  One bright, shiny and new Moleskine notebook and a few surprise goodies.

      One week after the challenge is over, I'll announce a winner (most likely selected by using the ultra-scientific method of picking a name from a hat).

      Think this sounds like fun?  Then join the challenge.

      Tuesday, June 15, 2010

      Paying it Forward

      I am frequently amazed at the generosity of writers and how many of them do things that go above and beyond in order to help or encourage other writers.  Yesterday, I was particularly inspired by a few fellow bloggers (Elana Johnson, Casey McCormick, and Co.) who have organized WriteOnCon, a virtual writing conference that will take place in August.  Unfortunately I will be out of the country at the time and most likely will be sans email.  I'm sad to miss it because I know this conference will be wonderful.  And what a great idea to do it on the web so that anyone can participate.  Kudos!

      WriteOnCon got me thinking about this idea of giving back to the writing community, especially now that I have graduated from my MFA.  This idea inspired me to post about a few writing projects and events I'm helping put together.

      Verbal Pyrotechnics This literary magazine will launch at the end of 2010 but this summer we officially open for submissions.  We're looking for emerging and established authors with a unique voice who write for the teen audience.  Visit the Verbal Pyrotechnics blog for more details and submission guidelines.

      Get Your Read On:  This reading series is sponsored by Verbal Pyrotechnics, and will resume this summer.  More information coming soon.

      There's a third project too, but that's the subject of another post.  So check back tomorrow to learn more!

      Monday, June 14, 2010


      At BEA I got my hands on an advance copy of Girl Parts by John M. Cusick which I finished reading this weekend.

      The premise is interesting: two boys who are on opposite ends of the popularity spectrum end up having their lives intersect because of a robotic companion named Rose.  David is popular and wealthy while Charlie's family is "off the grid" both literally and not.  Although Rose starts out as David's companion (prescribed by the school psychologist as a cure for "dissociative disorder") an unexpected discovery forces her to turn to Charlie for friendship.

      The basic idea of the story is fun (it reminded me a little of the movie Weird Science), but this isn't just a story about a robotic sex doll come to life.  Cusick turns that idea on its head with Rose giving David an electric shock every time his behavior does not comply with her Intimacy Clock.

      My Take:
      The book is very funny and entertaining, though the execution feels a little bit disjointed.  While the first half focuses primarily on David, Charlie essentially dominates the second half.  I expected, however, that a story about two such opposites would somehow show them interacting a bit more.  While their lives do intersect throughout the story, it tends to be in rather peripheral ways.  This means that the thread that holds the story together is the robotic companion, Rose.

      In particular, I feel David's character is a bit more flat and static than Charlie's, which means that the first part of the book is not nearly as engrossing as the second.  While David's character changes little, if at all, throughout the novel, Charlie does change.  For this reason, once the story shifts to Charlie, however, the plot picks up dramatically.  In addition, because Rose's character becomes less robotic and more human as the book progresses, the relationship between Rose and Charlie is far more complex and interesting than her relationship with David.  By the time she meets Charlie, Rose's character has also started to grow and change.

      That said, one of the early chapters where Charlie goes on a first-date-from-hell is laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Also, I encourage readers to stick through the David chapters because the pay-off once Rose meets Charlie is worth the wait.

      A Note on Craft:
      In addition to the Charlie chapters being very satisfying to read, this book is an excellent example in terms of craft, in particluar Point of View.  These days it's rare to find a contemporary teen book written in omniscient POV, as this one is.  You can find it in middle grade novels, like DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux or the Lemony Snicket books, though these examples differ from Girl Parts in that they have a strong narratorial presence.  Cusick's choice of POV, on the other hand, is more akin to Eva Ibbotson's style where the narrator is virtually invisible and slips in and out of each character's viewpoint so seamlessly, you hardly notice it.  Overall, both because of the Charlie chapters and the POV aspect of craft, this book is definitely worth the read.

      Saturday, June 12, 2010


      This weekend, the Story A Day community is celebrating StoryFest.  Come check out some of the stories written during the Story A Day challenge.

      I'd also like to extend major kudos to all the writers who completed a story a day.  Write on!

      Thursday, June 10, 2010

      Fit for Summer

      I recently learned about a Fit 'N' Healthy Challenge taking place this month and I've decided to join.  Now that my MFA program is behind me, I have no more opportunity for excuses not to get some exercise.

      Sports have not been particularly kind to me these last few months.  Between a sprained ankle last fall and a nasty case of golfer's elbow this spring (and I don't even golf!) , it seemed almost like every time I started getting excited about exercise I'd get hit with an injury.  Now at last I feel like I'm back to normal and can get involved in some fun sporty stuff.

      This challenge to get in shape and eat better isn't just about being healthy, it's about writing too.  As my friend, Missy, wisely said to me: "gabi, if you feel better, you'll write better too."  And I think there's something to that.

      Saturday, June 5, 2010

      To Infinity! And Beyond!

      A couple of weeks ago Ghenet at All About Them Words wrote a post called "I have an MFA!  Now What?"  Good question, Ghenet.  I've been wondering that very same thing.  Inspired by that post I decided to take stock in what lies ahead for iggi and me.  As it turns out, life as a MFA-graduate is busier than I expected, but fun nonetheless.  Here are a few of the exciting writing-related things that are in store:

      Teaching a 5-week creative writing class.  Starting June 22nd, I'll be teaching a 5-week class in NYC called "Writing Sense."  This class uses the five senses to engage students' creativity and jump-start creative projects.  As for teaching long-term, I already have one freelance gig set up for fall and am working out the logistics of a couple more.

      Starting a literary magazine.  As July fast approaches, we are nearing the kick-off for Verbal Pyrotechnics, the first literary magazine dedicated exclusively to teen literature.  For more information and submissions guidelines, visit our blog.  We open for submissions in July.

      Finishing my novel.  I've been stalling and floundering around on this one for a few weeks.  Now, though, I have a goal and an incentive to get my act together and finish.  The first draft has to be complete by fall.

      Summer reading.  At BEA I got my hands on a ton of galleys and now the summer reading frenzy begins.  Here's a sampling of the books on my list:

      Looks like it's going to be a good summer!

      Wednesday, June 2, 2010

      ...And We're Back! (Sort of)

      For the month of May, I replaced the writing challenge with Story-A-Day.  Now May is behind us and the writing challenge resumes.  Sort of.

      I've come to realize that if I want to finish my novel between now and August 1, then I need to write three pages or 750 words every day.  This sounds like no big deal--I mean, it's just three pages--but I'm terrified.  The very thought of writing a certain number of pages every day fills my head with a million "what ifs."  What if I can't do it?  What if I have a bad writing day and I can't finish my three pages?  What if I hit the wall?

      It sounds like I'm hyperventilating over nothing, but the truth is, I'm playing with the big kids now and it's sort of freaking me out.  See, while I've been able to fudge my way around most of my previous self-imposed deadline, this one is more serious.  No, the world won't end if I can't finish by August 1st, but there's more at stake now than there has been with previous projects.  I've finished school; now I have to produce something.

      So in light of this new goal: my new writing challenge will be 3 pages or 750 words per day.

      What's that saying again?  You know, the one about paving roads with good intentions...  Well the intentions are here, now I just hope I get where I want to go.

      Tuesday, June 1, 2010

      Revision Pyramid

      Last week Lady Glamis at The Literary Lab raised an interesting question about critique and how many times we writers are conditioned to look only for the negative.

      In response to this thread, I started pondering how we critique not just other writers' work but our own.  Just as I am a believer in focusing first on big picture issues when I read pieces from other writers, I find that approach also works best when revising my own work.

      As a former student of psychology, I'm reminded of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, where humans will fill their most basic needs first (food, water, shelter) before trying to fill needs that fall higher in the pyramid (love, companionship, success).  My own revision system falls into a similar pyramid shape:

      Character: Whose story is it?  This is the most basic part of the book.  If you don't have a compelling character, then the rest of the pyramid will fall apart.  (Notice I say "compelling" character and not "sympathetic" or "likable," but that is a topic for another post.)

      Plot/Story: What story are you going to tell?  Now that you have a character in place, the character needs to want something and that want will drive the story.  Things need to happen to get in the way of that want.  There needs to be conflict.

      Structure, POV and Voice: How are you going to tell this story?  These are the main choices you make when you decide how to tell the story.  The voice of the narrator ties in directly with point of view and the structure you choose for the story.

      Description and Dialogue: Decisions made at this level are less about "big picture" and are smaller in scale.  At the same time, though, they are not as nitty-gritty as the revisions at the top of the pyramid.  Description and dialogue also tie in closely with character development and elements of story so this is why they are in the middle of the pyramid, serving as a bridge between the macro decisions at the bottom and micro decisions at the top.  Description and dialogue also clue in the reader to Where and When the story is taking place.

      Theme: This is all about the Why.  Why are you telling this story?  Why do we want to read it?  Usually these answers only come together once you've written a draft, maybe two, which is why theme falls at the top of the pyramid.  Very rarely do stories start with a theme and grow from there.

      Language:  At the very top we have the micro decisions.  Word choice.  Grammar.  Spelling.  Small stuff.  Just because the writing might not be super-smooth on the language level doesn't mean it can't shine at the character or plot levels.  What I try to stress to writers is that the bottom of the pyramid is the hard part.  If you nail that, you'll have done the hard work.  Language is just a matter of using spell check and keeping a copy of Strunk & White's Elements of Style on your desk.  And getting a trusted friend to proofread when you're through.

      Basically, revision all comes down to this:
      Don't sweat the small stuff until you've dealt with the big stuff.

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