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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Let's Get this Party Started!

Can you believe it's been a month already?  I can hardly believe it myself!

But, fear not, DIY MFA will continue on past September, albeit in a modified and less intense format, so there is much iggi-licious goodness still to come!

In the meantime, however, I think a good bit of celebration is in order.  After all, we've worked hard this month, thinking about our writing, putting together reading lists and learning how to get the most out of our critiques.  Now it's time to have some fun.  For this reason, instead of the usual Working the Workshop post today, I wanted to give you all an update on some of the iggi-tastic things we've got in store.

iggi Graphics
I've moved things around a little bit and now have a tab dedicated to all the iggi and iggiU-related graphics.  Feel free to grab a badge for your blog or a sticker, and I'll keep you posted as I add more pics.  I have some iggi-U Commencement ideas up my sleeve.  :)

Which brings me to the next topic...

Commencement Week 
Starting Saturday, October 2, we'll have a week-long post-series to celebrate all the hard work you did this past month and I have a bunch of super-fun things in store.   We have two guest-bloggers: Shannon Whitney Messenger (of the WriteOnCon team) and Benjamin Andrew Moore (non-fiction and comics editor of Verbal Pyrotechnics) who will be our keynote speakers for Monday and Tuesday.

Then on Wednesday, October 6, we'll have our "student speaker" post by Sheri.  For those who joined us part-way through DIY MFA, here's the deal with student speaker.  In the first week I asked for a volunteer from the registered DIY MFAers to be student speaker and do a guest post.  I got so many volunteers that I had to choose by lottery but I didn't want to limit the student speech to just one voice so I've decided to make it into a blogfest!

That's right, EVERYONE can be part of the student speech, just go to the blogfest tab and join in the fun.  You might have noticed the blogfest tab in the menu above.  Just click and join.

Also, while you don't have to be registered for DIY MFA to be part of the blogfest and to be part of the celebration, you DO need to register to be included in the DIY MFA contest.  Contest closes Friday October 1 at 11:59 PM EST so if you haven't registered and want to, run run run!  To register enter the contest, all you have to do is fill out the form on this post.  I will announce the contest winner during Commencement Week.

Finally, Starting Friday October 8, we'll be having a weekend-long blog party, which will be a chance for everyone to promote their own blogs and find new blogs to follow.  I'll share more details about it in a few days.

We've worked hard this month setting up our DIY MFA programs.  Now it's time to celebrate!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guest Post: "For All the Haters" by Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz

 Today we have a guest post by the lovely Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz.  Elizabeth was a classmate of mine during the MFA and writes beautiful poetry as well as heartbreaking teen literature.  She is also poetry editor of Verbal Pyrotechnics, a literary magazine dedicated exclusively to teen literature.  So if you have poetry that appeals to a teen audience, feel free to check out the submissions page and send it her way.  For more about Elizabeth, visit her blog at: A Lil' Sumpin' Sumpin'.  And now here's Elizabeth's take on why people hate on poetry.

Some people are scared of sharks, others of heights, an intruder in the night. Sure, a fearfulness of all of these things make sense; each could kill you after all. But why, then, are so many writers of fiction afraid of poetry? What has a poem ever done to you? Huh?

Okay, maybe it’s bored you, confused you, made you feel something you weren’t prepared to feel, but it certainly has not killed you! In fact, I’d argue that some poems are more scared of you than you are of them. Like this one, called “Poem that Begs for Reassurance”, by Peter Davis*:

My experience with the world around me is that I either feel it's awful, or I feel that it is great. Right now I feel like this poem is awful. I feel like I am awful. I feel like an outcast in the literary world. Nobody reviews my work. As far as I can tell, nobody really talks about me. They do, but it's never enough. I'm not besieged with e-mails soliciting my poetry. I keep waiting for something to happen. I mean, this is a good poem. Other people seem to have so much going on. I read their bio notes and think, "Well, jeez, how do they all do it?" I say to my wife, "Honey, I always feel a few steps behind. How can I do all of that in this poem?" Some of them maintain blogs with numerous links and a lot of daily hits. Others don't even have blogs! All around me poets are winning prizes and being included in anthologies like The Best American Poetry. Some at very young ages. Some of these people, if they don't already have tenure-line teaching positions, are very strong candidates for tenure-line teaching positions.

    Now, before that familiar fear bubbles to the surface, turns itself into rage and makes you shout What? That’s not even a poem! Stop, and breathe. And try and keep in mind that a poem is simply compressed language used to express emotion or ideas.

Perhaps in high school some archaic, convoluted, and important poem was paraded in front of you so that you--in a role of simple spectator--could analyze it, elucidate its virtues and confirm its place in the canon. The teacher didn’t ask you to get in there and walk around with the poem, hold its hand, listen to its secrets and share yours in return. No, you were just supposed to coolly observe it, as if it were the other, then write a five paragraph essay, sans  the word “I”.  Maybe it was then that you decided that poetry, like AP Calculus or showering in the locker room, was just not for you.

Billy Collins, America’s Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, created Poetry 180, a collection of poems to be read aloud, one a day for all 180 days of the school year, in an attempt to demystify, de-stress-ify, de-analyze-ify poetry and help us all simply experience and, perhaps even, appreciate poems. The first poem in this series is his, and, fittingly, it is called “Introduction to Poetry” and I think it is awesome.  He writes:

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

We have been conditioned to think there is a right and a wrong response to a poem, that it can only mean one thing, when in fact that is not true at all.  When the pressure of analysis is removed, I think many of us who claim to dislike Poetry-with-a-capital-P are actually surprised to find that many poems are you know, quite likeable. 

I find that reading a few poems in a variety of styles before I sit down to write can help me generate ideas and approach my language differently. Poetry compresses ideas, emotions, and images into very few words and this is a skill that all writers can benefit from.  Look at this poem by Jane Kenyon:

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.
In it she compresses a life into a few short images. The first introduces us to a character, a domestic setting, and, through the use of one key word, “strong”, indicates that she is grateful for her current health. Her use of repetition emphasizes the idea that we all make choices about how to live life. The slight modification to the repeated sentence powerfully implies that the speaker appreciates the choices she has made and the life that she leads as a result of those choices.

The content of this poem could have been the subject of a short story or novel, but Kenyon seems to want the reader to focus on the simple moments of a life and so she uses simple diction and sentence structure. The moments she describes, just like the poem itself, are quick and could be easily overlooked, but she is asking the reader to be attentive to the simple moments that make up a life. This poem illustrates that the structure is the message too.

As you approach your own work it is important to ask your self if your container is the right size for your content and if it’s not, adjust accordingly. You would never pack your son’s sandwich in a suitcase and send him off to school, now would you?

Another reason to read poetry is the playfulness with which many poets approach language.  Not to say that a poem is any less literary when it employs whimsy, simply that it is important to remember that language is not just about ideas, but is just as much about sound.  Take this line from Thomas Sayers Ellis’ “Presidential Blackness”, a serious poem about race and language, “…a new infinite alphabet pours from the pores of the poor…”. The cleverness of the wordplay is going to make this line jump out. It will stick with the reader because, well, it sounds good and it is fun to say. I encourage you to read your work aloud or ask a friend to read it aloud to you; consider revising anytime you need to take a breath or your friend stumbles. Listen for interesting juxtapositions and pay attention to your sentence structure. Just like my mother always said, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it, that matters.”

*I’d imagine that Peter Davis and this poem are presently feeling reassured, as he was just in town to launch the Best American Poetry 2010, in which he has four (wonderful) poems.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

DIY MFA Community

Hello everyone!

Today we'll be doing something a little bit different... Something interactive.  We've talked a bit in the past about creating a DIY MFA Online Community and there seemed to be a good bit of interest.  I started looking around online and checking out what options are available and started tinkering.

Originally I wanted to WOW you all by unveiling said community today but as with some projects, I sort of bit off more than I could chew and it was not to be.  Let's just say my computer did not cooperate.  There was hissing and spitting involved and it wasn't from me.

So instead of unveiling the community or posting about community, I'd like to open the floor to all of you.  Here are some things I'd like to know:

First:  Which type of DIY MFA community do you think would be best:
     a)  Yahoo Groups type of community?
     b)  A type of community
     c)  A discussion board
     d)  Another suggestion I might have missed?

Also, I need VOLUNTEERS!  Regardless of type of community, there's no way I can keep up with iggi U here, keep teaching, finish writing my book and admin a community all by myself.  Anyone interested in helping me run this thing (like as a moderator or somesuch)?  I'm thinking a team of 2 people plus me would be a good start and we can always add more mods later if this thing takes flight.

Please share your thoughts below.  I can't wait to hear what you all have to say and I can't wait to start this DIY MFA community!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Writing A "Big Paper"

Sooner or later you'll have read enough books in your area of expertise that you'll be able to write a "Big Paper."  In most MFA programs, your standard literature class will require a final paper (somewhere in the area of 20 pages).  Some MFA programs, like the one I attended, even require a literature thesis in addition to your creative thesis.  In any case, writing a "Big Paper" about multiple books is an important part of gaining a deeper understanding of the literature.

For the purposes of DIY MFA, I'm not advocating you all write 20+ page papers so go ahead, breath a sigh of relief.  :-)  Instead, think about what goes into a "Big Paper" and plan one out.  Eventually, you can make use of the material either as a series of posts for your blog or an analytical essay you could submit to a literary magazine.  You never know when that material could come in handy.  For example, the "Big Paper" I wrote as my literature thesis is in the process of becoming a writing class that I can pitch to various writing programs.

I'm sure you're wondering: what does "Big Paper" actually mean?  As I see it, there are two ways you can approach a body of literature: you can do it either thematically or based around one particular author's body of work.  In other words, you can do a thematic study of the literature or an author study.  In either case, however, the most important element of this paper is the argument, the thing you want to prove about the literature.

Rather than trying to describe how to write a "Big Paper" in one post, I'll be blogging weekly after Commencement with a step-by-step guide to planning and putting together a "Big Paper."  Whether you eventually write said paper is up to you (and as I said previously, it doesn't have to be in traditional paper form.)  But I think it's important in any sort of MFA program--even DIY MFA--for writers to think broadly about the literature so even if you just outline the paper, it can already give you a lot of insight into the literature and sharpen your analysis skills.

"Big Paper" Step One: Decide if you want to write a thematic study or an author study.  For a thematic study, you should choose a minimum of 3 books that share a common theme but are by different authors.  For an author study, you should choose a minimum of 3 books by the same author (not in the same series... so no, Harry Potter doesn't count).

For the thematic study: Choose your books and your topic.
For the author study: Choose your author and your books.

That is all.  Now go run, read, write, and be smart.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Writing Out

One of my favorite things to do is going on a writing date.  Sometimes I go alone, sometimes I'll meet up with a fellow writer and we'll sit and write side-by-side for a while.  Over the past few years that I've been doing this, I've learned that there's a certain code for writing out.  Here's what I've learned:

1)  If you're writing in a cafe or restaurant, try to avoid rush hours.   Chances are, the lunch rush at your favorite cafe will be busy and noisy and not conducive to writing.  If you go during an off-hour, like between meals, not only are you likely to get more writing done because it won't be as hectic, but you also won't tick off the staff by taking up a table just to sip coffee and write.

2)  If it's a cafe with table service, order food and leave a good tip.  This is especially important if you want to become a regular and come back again to write.  Once you've established that you're not just there to take up space and that you're a good tipper, the waitstaff is more likely to give you some perks, like a regular table or even the occasional freebie.

3)  Know when it's time to say goodbye to a writing spot.  If your favorite, best-kept-secret spot suddenly becomes THE place to be, then it's time to find a new writing locale.  There's this amazing little tea shop near me where I used to go to write and draw in my sketchbook.  It used to be so quiet that I could sit there for two hours and just order a pot of tea (and sometimes they'd even give me a scone on the house!)  Then this place got super-popular and now good luck getting a table for lunch or tea, much less a spot to sit and write.

At the risk of these places getting uber-popular and being overrun with writers, let me share some of my writing spots in NYC:

Shakespeare Garden in Central Park (that's where the photos come from - it's near the Great Lawn, toward the SW end, and near-ish the 81st West Side entrance to the park.)  This beautiful, quiet garden is great for writing or just sitting and contemplating life.
s'Nice on 8th Ave, just south of 14th St. or in Brooklyn (5th Ave btwn 2nd and 3rd St.) Yummy sandwiches and salads.  They're sort of sticklers about not using laptops on certain tables but if you sit at the communal table it's no problem.
The Atrium at Lincoln Center (Broadway between 62nd and 63rd St.)  Free wifi!  Also the space is completely free and open to the public.  And some Saturdays they even have free live classical music.
Le Pain Quotidien a Belgian bistro that has branches all over the city.  My favorite one is the Lincoln Center space on 65th between Broadway and CPW.  They get a bit mobbed with the lunch crowd but later in the afternoon it quiets down and is a great place to sit and work.

Do you have a favorite spot to "write out"?  What about the "writing out" code... do you have any additional tips to share?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Keeping a Journal

Before I started writing seriously, before I even started writing fiction at all, I kept a journal.  I have journals dating back to when I was nine years old and my biggest concerns were dealing with the school bully or trying to figure out if The Boy liked me.  Of course, some notebooks have gotten lost over the years, and there are definitely some dry spells in there when I didn't write at all, but between then and now I have a pretty good written record of what was pressing on my mind through the past twenty-or-so years.

OK, so I kept a journal.  So what?  I've learned several things from all this journal-writing and I've discovered that not only has it made me a better writer, it's also made me a better thinker.  If you don't keep a journal, I highly recommend you start, but before you do, read on to find out more about what you'll gain from it.

What does keeping a journal entail?

1)  A journal can be whatever you want it to be.  There's no law that says you have to keep a daily diary or that a journal must record your deepest, secretest thoughts.   The truth is, you can write whatever you want in your journal.  I write a lot of lists: to-do lists, lists of post topics for my blog, lists of character names or story ideas.  You name it... there's probably a list like that in one of my notebooks.  I take my notebook with me when I go to talks or conferences and jot down notes or interesting quotes from the speakers.  I often find that seeing my notes on paper helps me better understand the concepts at hand.

Tip:  Make journal-writing fun.  Draw cartoons or doodles--iggi started out as a random doodle in one of my journals.  Clip funny pictures and paste them in your notebook.  Oh, and don't forget... Stickers!

2)  Verbal spillage is OK.  Sometimes you just need your journal to be a catch-all for the junk that's in your head.  Julia Cameron, of The Artist's Way, advocates writing 3 pages longhand every morning (she calls them Morning Pages) to get all those mundane ideas out of our heads and onto paper.  Then once we've cleared our brains of the clutter, we're ready to be creative.  I agree with her thinking, though I've loosened the requirements for myself.  I don't always write 3 pages and I rarely do it in the morning because I'm just not functional until I've had my coffee.  But I think it's a great idea to put your nagging thoughts and worries on paper to clear them from your mind.  Once I've written in my notebook, my thinking feels sharper, clearer, more focused.  I think that's why I write so many lists... to get all those pesky ideas out of my head so I can think straight.

Tip:  Try not to let your inner censor interfere with your journal writing.  Toss the words on the page, then shut the notebook and trap them in there so your inner censor can't judge.

3)  Longhand.  While some people might prefer keeping a journal on their computer or iPad or iPhone or what have you, I am a firm believer in writing longhand.  There are two reasons for this.  First, writing longhand allows your brain time to mull things over between when the thought leaves your mind and when it travels all the way down your arm to your pen.  Typing is more immediate and it's a lot easier to type without thinking.  If the purpose of keeping a journal is to improve one's thinking then it stands to reason that longhand would better serve the writer than typing would because longhand forces you to think things over.

Second, I find that handwriting is a great diagnostic tool.  My handwriting changes drastically depending on my mood and state of mind.  Even writers whose handwriting stays pretty stable will see subtle shifts in their print and script over time.  Looking through a notebook, I can quickly tell what mood I was in during a given time period based on how messy the writing is, how big the lettering is or how hard I pressed the pen.  These are all diagnostic clues that tell me what was going on between the lines when I was writing those words.

Tip:  If you use different colored pens, that's another great insight to what your mood was.  After all, you must've chosen that color pen for a reason.

4)  Write something every day.  One of the great things about Julia Cameron's Morning Pages concept is that by the time you're done, you've already written 3 whole pages and it's only the morning.  Granted, those pages may be nothing more than lists or gripes or worries but at least you've been writing.  I feel the same way about my notebook.  When I feel stressed out or intimidated by the computer, I pull out my notebook and start writing there.  I find it much easier to approach the computer if I already have something written.  If I'm just typing it up, it's a lot less scary than having to face that blank-screen-of-death.  Writing in a notebook where I can be messy and make mistakes makes writing "no big deal" and the less of a big deal I make my writing, the more of it actually gets done.

Tip:  I used to keep my notebook on the floor right next to my bed so that when I woke up, I would literally trip over it and remember to do some writing.

Today's Task:  If you don't keep a journal, go to a store and pick out a notebook that you love, one that will be inviting and fun to write in.  Make your journal writing festive so invest in a pretty-colored pen or some stickers.  If you have old magazines lying around, clip some pretty pictures and paste them on the cover or in your journal.

Tell me, do you keep a journal or notebook?  Have you found that it helps you think more clearly when you sort ideas out on paper?

Friday, September 24, 2010

DIY MFA: Week 3 In Review

Hello everyone!

Hope you all had a great week.  I started teaching this week and next week I'll take on an additional class, so things have been busy busy busy.  But that's the way I like things to be, so it's all good.  How about you?  How has your week been?

Before I get to the recap, I wanted to say a huge THANK YOU to our two guest-post authors this week.  Michelle and Merrilee both wrote wonderful posts and shared their insights on various aspects of the creative process.  You guys are great.  Thank you!

Recap of this Week in DIY MFA:

Saturday: Guest Post: Michelle Davidson Argyle Discusses Self-Publishing
Michelle shares her experiences in self-publishing CINDERS.

Also, the winner of the CINDERS giveaway is... *drum roll*...  J.C. Martin.  Thank you to everyone who participated by leaving comments, and congrats to our winner!  J.C. Martin please email me your mailing info so that I can send you your copy of CINDERS.

Sunday: Guest Post: Merrilee Faber Writes About Creative Revision
Merrilee gives some fabulous tips on how to make revision part of the creative process.

Monday: Writing About Individual Works
How to use our writing to expand our understanding of what we read.  In particular, ways to make the most of reviews and response essays.

Tuesday: Choosing the Right Conference
Choosing which conference to attend can be tricky, but if you know what you want to get out of the conference, it makes the choice much easier.

Wednesday: Technical Tips for Writing Dialogue
iggi and I provided a dialogue sample, then I ripped it apart pointing out all the mistakes.  What mistakes can you find?

Taking Critique
Some tips for helping to ease the sting of rough critiques.

Don't Forget:  There's still time to register for iggi U.  Check out the iggi U tab for more information or to catch up on previous posts.  If you register, you automatically get entered in the DIY MFA contest.

And one more thing...  As we make our way into our last week of this DIY MFA extrabloganza, I've already started mulling over where DIY MFA should go next.  I'd love to hear from all of you:
  • Which "classes" have been the most useful?
  • What would you like to see more of?
  • Any other ideas of things you'd like to see in DIY MFA after September?
Please tell me because I'm DYING to know: what ideas/thoughts/suggestions do you have of where DIY MFA should go?  

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Taking Critique

We've talked a lot about critique: forming a good group, giving critique, etc.  Now we come to the tricky subject.  What do you do when you find yourself on the receiving end of a critique?

Writers are a brave but fragile species.  After all, anyone who pours her soul out onto a piece of paper, no matter how thick-skinned she may want to be, has got to have some nerve endings somewhere.  As soon as we let our work out into the world we open ourselves to the possibility that someone might not like it and, let's face it, getting our work squashed is painful.  The only reason we allow this pain to happen is because we want our work to get better.  But how do we, as writers, reconcile our desire to improve our work with our desire not... to hurt?

Below are some lessons I have learned which have helped take the edge off critique.

1)  It's not personal.  This is probably the toughest piece of advice to swallow, but also the most important.  As writers we must remember that a critique of our work is not a commentary on us as people.  Instead, we must accept it for what it is: a critique of our work.

2)  Critique is like a bottle of wine, it needs time to breathe.  The temptation after a workshop session is to go home and read all the comments right away, but don't do it.  It's too close.  Too soon.  This is especially true if the critique fell on either the extreme positive or extreme negative end of the spectrum.  The more emotionally charged the critique session, the more time you need to gain objectivity.

3)  There's no such thing as a perfect critique.  Sometimes overly-positive critiques can be just as painful as the negative ones.  You're probably saying "What?!?"  After all, wouldn't any writer want to have someone else say their work is perfect?  I myself find positive critiques to be especially crippling because rather than telling me what needs fixing, a positive critique leaves me thinking: "Now what?"  We're writers, after all.  It's in our nature to be perfectionists and having someone tell us our work is perfect can sometimes do more harm than good.  So if you find yourself feeling disappointed after an overwhelmingly positive critique, remember this: anyone who tells you your work is perfect is either lying or insane.  In either case, do you really want to heed their opinion?  Which brings me to our next point.

4)  Critiques are not commandments handed down from on high.  They're just opinions, and sometimes opinions are wrong.  Self-serving writers who want nothing more out of a critique session than a glowing audience tend to latch on to this advice.  They chalk up all negative critiques as being someone's misguided opinion and fail to hear what their critique buddies are saying.  But writers who are really serious about their work often need this point hammered into their brains.  Critiques are just people's opinions and sometimes opinions might conflict or someone might misunderstand.  If you find yourself thinking "What the...?" about someone else's comments on your work, allow for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, they didn't get it.  Of course, if ten people all say the same thing...

5)  Learn to identify critique buddies who are there to help you and those who are there to help themselves.  Then ditch the latter.  A good critique session should include feedback that feeds the writer and leaves the writer wanting to hurry home and keep writing.  A critique session that tears a writer down so other people can feel "smart" or leaves the writer feeling empty and directionless do not serve the writer being critiqued.

Curious as to how good you are at taking critique?  Take this quiz.

So, what do I do when I get that stack of papers and have to make sense of critiques?  Here's a quick look into my process:
  1. First I let the pile of papers sit for at least a week.  Maybe longer.
  2. Next, I go through and read all the end comments and overall notes.
  3. After that, I go through the margin notes, copying important ones down on a clean copy so that I can see all the comments next to each other (that way if two people have differing opinions on a particular point, I can see that contrast).
  4. Later, I'll let the comments sit again and mull them over.
  5. Finally, I take my one copy with everyone's notes and my stack of end comments and start implementing the changes, usually starting with the easy ones first and working my way up to the tougher edits.
What about you?  What's your critique process and what do you do to ease the sting of negative comments?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Technical Tips for Writing Dialogue

Hi everyone, today we're going interactive again.  Below is a piece of dialogue between iggi and me and your job is to find all the things that are wrong with the dialogue and make it NOT work.  When you think you have your answer, scroll down and read about some technical tips on how to make dialogue soar.

Here's the dialogue sample.

"iggi, I've been meaning to talk to you." Gabi said.
"What is it, Gabi?" iggi replied questioningly.
"Well, iggi, you know I've been working on this DIY MFA thing for some time, and I thought we should do a post about dialogue." Gabi explained patiently.
"Gee, Gabi, that's a great idea!!!!" iggi exclaimed eloquenty.
"So, what sorts of things do you think we should include in our post?"
"Hmmm..." iggi pondered.  "Maybe we could do an example of what NOT to do in dialogue, and let our readers try to guess."
"Hey, that's good!  I like it!" Gabi cried out.
"Let's start writing, right away!"
And iggi and Gabi ran off to the computer to write the post.

All right everybody, now it's your turn.  There are at least 7 different major types of dialogue problems in the above passage, though each problem may occur several times.  Once you think you've guessed all seven, scroll down to read the explanations.

1)  Name-calling:  Very rarely do people call each other by name when they're speaking, but you'll see it happen in written dialogue, especially if written by beginning writers.  The reason of course, is that using names in dialogue makes it very easy for the reader to figure out who's saying what, especially if you're writing a scene with more than two people speaking.  But this is not realistic, nor does it make for good dialogue, so cut out the name-calling.

2)  Exposition:  We've all seen those movies where the good guy faces off with the villain and the villain starts to monologue, explaining all the ins and outs of his diabolical plan.  That kind of exposition in dialogue rarely works because, again, people don't talk that way.  If the information has to go in the scene so the reader can follow what's going on, take the exposition out of the dialogue and just give it to the reader as straight exposition.  Here's a hint: if a character says "as you know..." or "remember how..." or something to that effect, that's a good tip that exposition is coming and you need to rework it.

3)  Fussy Tags:  Sometimes writers start getting all fancy with their dialogue tags, using words like "muttered" "cajoled" or "jeered" but these verbs do nothing more than call attention to themselves.  Sure, in general, writing thrives on strong verbs, but when writing dialogue tags, these fussy verbs just distract from what's actually being said.  I prefer to keep my dialogue as mostly he said/she said with "asked" and "replied" tucked in there now and again.

4)  Ugh, Those Adverbs:  Seriously, writers need to stop adding adverbs to their dialogue tags.  Period.  Adverbs are bad enough in exposition, where they're camouflaged by imagery and metaphor, but when they're used in dialogue tags to express the speaker's emotion, they stick out.  Granted, the adverbs in the above passage are a bit excessive even for an example of what not to do, but I made them especially bad to drive the point home of how awful these adverbs sound in dialogue tags.

5)  Dialogue Zits:  Words like "well" "so" "gee"  "ugh" and the like are what I call dialogue zits.  The description is exactly as it sounds.  These words blemish the complexion that is your dialogue and should be eradicated.  The only situation I think where these dialogue zits might suit a purpose is if they help establish a character's verbal quirks in some way.  If your character really does use "like" every other word, then sprinkle it in now and again.  Remember: a little zit goes a long way.

6)  Talking Head Syndrome:  Some writers can get away with writing all dialogue, with no tags or stage directions.  These writers are the greats and they get away with it because they slip stage directions in with such subtlety that you barely realize they're there.  The rest of us, must use stage directions in order to avoid having our characters come across as talking heads.  Stage directions are your friends.  If a character says "don't worry about me, I'm fine" and then throws the remote control at the TV, we know right away that something is going on.  Use stage directions to create subtext and give your dialogue a context.

7)  Punk.  Choo.  Ay.  Shun.  Here it is for the record: how to punctuate standard dialogue.  Learn it, love it, live it.

"My name is Gabi," she said.

When using a dialogue tag, a comma goes after "Gabi" but before the closed quote.  "She said" is not capitalized.  Period at the end of the tag.

"What's your name?" she asked.

The same rule holds true when the piece of dialogue ends with a question mark.

"My name is Gabi."  She ran her hand through her hair.

When including only a stage direction without a tag, put a period after "Gabi" and "She" is capitalized because it is the beginning of a new sentence.

For more information: visit Nathan Bransford's recent post about writing dialogue.  I focused more on technical stuff here, but he gives some great insight into the big picture stuff, so go check it out.

Today's Task:  Found any other problems with the above dialogue?  Seriously, there's got to be more than just seven... Please share with everyone in the comments.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Choosing the Right Conference

'Tis the season for conferences and other writerly events but sometimes choosing the right event can leave us flapping our feathers.

Of course, we can always take the easy route and follow the flock, but what good does that do us as writers?

In the end, we must choose the right kind of conference to suit our needs, so that we can commune with other birds of a feather.

And that brings me to the core of this post.  Just as there are many species of geese, there are many different types of conferences, but in my experience--having attended several--there are three basic types: Wild Goose Chase, Good for the Gander, and Mother Goose.

The Wild Goose Chase (AKA the Publishing Conference) is all about getting published.  Speakers are mostly industry professionals--agents and editors--who share insights on how to write a pitch, what should/shouldn't go in your query and the overall publishing process.  These publishing-focused conferences are very useful for writers who know little about the actual publishing process, but it can become repetitive over time.  After all, you can only hear the "how to get published" talk so many times before you just have to go out and write the darn book.  Also, I find that going to this type of conference too early on in the writing process can discourage some writers.  Instead, I would recommend holding off on a publishing conference until you're feeling pretty good about your draft or are ready to start the query process.  At that point, then, the more information you get about the business, the better.

The Good for the Gander (AKA Craft-focused Retreats) is great fun and is especially useful if your writing is in need of some serious shaking up.  These conferences usually include a mix of publishing talks from industry professionals and inspirational talks by published authors but the core focus is on the craft itself.  Often these types of conferences involve reading writing samples from fellow writers and discussing them in a workshop setting.

The Mother Goose (AKA Inspirational Conferences) is all about inspiring the writer within.  Sure, there will be some opportunity to hear industry leaders talk about the biz but the main focus is often on inspiring writers to keep... writing (duh).  These are the warm 'n fuzzy conferences where you leave inspired to run home, boot up the computer and start the fingers flying across the keys.

If you're looking into a conference, how do you know which species it is?  Look at the schedule of events.  Who are the speakers?  Is it mostly authors with a publishing panel or two thrown in for good measure?  Then it's probably a Mother Goose.  Or are the majority of the talks all about publishing?  If yes, then you're heading for a Wild Goose Chase.  And is there a workshop component?  If so, you're most likely going to a conference that's Good for the Gander.

Ultimately, there's no one type of conference that's better than another, but when you invest the time, money and effort to attend a conference, you'll be best served if you go to a conference that suits your needs.  If you are at the point where you need to start informing yourself about publishing, a publishing-focused conference is for you.  If instead, you want to connect with other writers and rekindle that love of writing, an inspirational conference is probably more your vibe.  And finally, if you want to get new perspectives on your work, a workshop-retreat is your best bet. 

What type of conference do you think would suit you best at this point in your writing?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Writing About Individual Works

Up until now we've been talking about what and how one should read for DIY MFA.  These next two weeks we'll be talking about responding to the literature, in particular responding on both the micro and the macro level.  This week, we'll be discussing how to approach individual pieces of literature and ways you can respond to them in your writing.  Next week, we'll talk about creating a meta-analysis of the literature in your field, why that's important and what you gain by doing it.

This week, I chose an image that is the National Poetry Month poster from 2009.  I selected it because of the quote, which most of you will probably recognize from the T. S. Eliot poem, but which lovers of YA literature will also remember from Robert Cormier's novel The Chocolate War.  This was also the title and topic of one of the earliest response papers I wrote for my Teen Lit class, my first year at The New School.  It was in this class and my subsequent literature courses that I really learned to appreciate the task of responding to literature in my writing.

In my mind, there are three main ways you can respond to individual pieces of literature: Reviews, Response Essays and Technical Experiments.

This is the most basic way you can respond to the literature in your writing.  What did you think of a book?  Why did you like it or dislike it?  Many of you may already write reviews on your blogs, so if you're ready to raise the stakes a little.  One way to do this is to do a more in-depth analysis of the work.  Focus not so much on what the author is doing, but why and what these choices accomplish.

Response Essays
These essays are not straight reviews of a book, in fact, they might not a book at all.  Instead, what you do for a response essay is take a theme from a work of literature and run with it.  There are two loose categories for response essays: analysis and personal essay.  Some ideas for each category might include (but are not limited to):

  • Choose a page of the work and do an in-depth, sentence-level analysis (this works best for works that have very rich language and imagery)
  • Choose a secondary character and do an analysis of the role he/she plays.
  • Take a main theme of the work and then choose one scene and discuss how it furthers that theme.
Personal Essay:
  • Take a quote from the work that represents a strong theme and apply it to your own life in some way.
  • Choose a theme from the work and tell a story of that theme at work in your own life.
Technical Experiments
This is perhaps the most challenging approach to writing about literature.  In this case, you take a technique that the author uses in a particular work and try to apply it to your own writing.  In this type of writing, you don't focus on the actual work itself, but simply try to figure out how the author did what he did, and how you can apply it to your own work.

OK, so I've written something.  Now what?
I can guess what you're thinking: what's the point in writing these papers if you're not actually handing them in for school.  Not to worry, your efforts will not be for nothing.  Reviews can easily be posted on a blog and personal essays can be polished and submitted to appropriate markets.  Finally, technical experiments only serve to strengthen your W.I.P. so they are worthwhile in and of themselves.

So go ahead, disturb the literary universe a little and write a response paper.  I won't tell.  In fact, I think I'll do it too.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Guest Post: Merrilee Faber Writes About Creative Revision

Today's guest post is by Merrilee Faber who recently hosted a Creativity Workshop on her blog Not Enough Words.  In this post, she approaches the revision process from a creative standpoint.  Thank you, Merrilee!

But first, a short bio.  Merrilee Faber lives in the sand and fly infested west of Australia, where she battles giant spiders and venomous snakes every day in a desperate attempt to survive.  When not defending her family from Australia's deadly denizens, she tries to earn a crust by telling people what to do, with moderate success.  She is a consummate liar, but gets away with it by calling it "fiction".  You can get to grips with Merrilee at her blog Not Enough Words (

Revision would have to be the least popular part of the writing process.  You've slaved for weeks, months (even years!) to produce this manuscript; through the good days and the bad days and the why-didn't-I-take-up-cat-herding-it-would-be-easier days. 

Now here you are, exhausted, drained, a rumpled, coffee-stained manuscript in your hands, facing the realization that you are not finished yet.  That there is so much more work to do.

Is it any wonder our tired muse rebels?  So we rush through revision, changing a word here, a scene there, cutting great chunks out of the story because we have to.
After all this time we want nothing more than to be complete.  So we tuck the muse away and approach revision like a dirty job that has to be done.

But revision can be, should be, as creative a process as writing the first draft.  The revision stage is an opportunity to turn your story up a notch.  And this is something you cannot do without engaging your creative side.

So how do you go about creative revision?

Let the landscape of your story become unknown.  If you are too familiar with the story, it is more difficult to write fresh.  I recommend at least a month, and that month spent thinking and writing other stories.

We tend to fall in love with prose, and don't want to change what sounds good.  But you must be prepared to scrap everything, even those sentences you love, to improve your story.  And you can only do this as a dispassionate observer.

Question every decision
Fiddling with word choice and rearranging scenes and phrases is just cosmetic.  While it's nice to tidy, you need to go deeper.  Get your hands dirty. 

Look at every choice you made while writing.  Was it the right choice?  What can you change to make this moment/character/scene stronger, tighter, have more impact?  Dig beneath the surface and find more meaning, more impact from the events in your story.  Keep that inspiration coming, because more often than not, the second idea is better than the first.

 Build depth and complexity
Revision is the time when you should be adding metaphor.  Placing foreshadowing for critical events.  Developing and strengthening your theme.  Retooling your characters to add subtle layers to their psychology.  Don't be content with what you already have.  Add layer upon layer to your narrative.  Add touches of colour and voice.  Build a web of character and event and place so tight that no-one can escape the clutches of your story.

Make every word pull its weight
You are wordy.  Don't deny it.  Embrace the fact, and then get out the hacksaw.  90% of your adjectives can go, and 99% of your adverbs.  There will be repetition everywhere.  Say it once, say it right.  Bin the rest.

This may not sound creative, but this is where you use your creativity as a fine-pointed tool.  Slice delicately.  Excise, tune, think about every phrase, every word choice you have made.  Does this word or phrase convey the tension, the impact of the moment?  How can I say it stronger?

And of course, now is the time to get rid of all the clichés.  It’s fine to use them in the first draft – they’re fast and simple and you don’t need to think about them.  But leaving clichéd phrases and ideas in the final manuscript is a crime against literature, and even worse, it’s boring.  Don’t be a bore.

Revising creatively leads to a stronger manuscript.  If you approach this important stage without your creativity engaged, you are short-changing your story. 

So next time you are facing a first draft that needs review, let go of that feeling of dread.  Approach the revision stage with joy, knowing that you are still creating.  That your inspiration is just as important now as it was when you started to write.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Guest Post: Michelle Davidson Argyle Discusses Self-Publishing

Today I have the pleasure to introduce a guest post by Michelle Davidson Argyle.  Michelle is the author of the novella CINDERS and she'll be sharing her insights about the self-publishing process.

Michelle is a contributor over at The Literary Lab, which is where I was first introduced to her writing and we bonded over a mutual love of poetry.  When CINDERS was published, I jumped at the opportunity to read and review it and fell in love with Michelle's lyrical writing style.  But before I gush any more, I'll let Michelle share her self-publishing experiences.

Read on to hear about Michelle's self-publishing insights and advice and also for info on her blog tour this week and an awesome giveaway!

First of all, thanks to Gabi for having me over here! Gabi was interested in knowing about the self-publishing process and how it relates to creativity.

When I first decided to publish CINDERS, I knew I'd have to have a marketing plan in place and create an awesome cover and figure out how to not only get the word out about the book, but get them to want to buy the book. This is trickiness on all sorts of slippery levels. There is no sure-fire way to sell a book, and every book is different. I'll admit I had to get really creative to figure out what would work best for CINDERS.

With a traditional publisher, you've got press releases and marketing strategies already in place. They take a book because it fits a certain strategy that is most likely tested and true. For me, this being my first self-published work, I had to figure it all out from scratch, and I'm still figuring it out.

(1) Pick a genre - I decided to market CINDERS as seemingly Young Adult, although it's much more adult than YA. I did this because I knew the older YA readers would pick up on it and spread it around. The YA market is filled with eager, actively engaged and loyal readers. This looked like a good start, and my cover has a very YA feel, as well. That, and the novella truly does have a wide age appeal, both male and female.'re saying...but it's not YA...Yes, true, on a certain level. That may be a matter of perspective. Walk into the bookstore and see what books are on the shelves that could be shelved in 5 other spots than where they're placed. Marketing. It's slippery.

(2) Because I self-published CINDERS - and wrote it to self-publish it, I knew I could go anywhere with it and do anything I wanted as long as it came out a professional, well-written story. Knowing this opened creative doors I never even knew were there. I wrote the book faster and with more excitement than I have ever written any long work. I did few revisions and let few people read it before its release. Keep in mind I'd written 3 novels before this and had been writing for 16 years.

(3) I've had to be open-minded about creativity during every step of this publication - since I've had to wear many, many hats: writer, editor (with help), designer, artist, photographer, marketer, secretary, mailman, website designer...and on and on.

Why would I want to do all this?

I like to learn. I like to take risks. I like forging my own path. And I knew I was ready...

That's probably the trickiest thing of all.

In the end, CINDERS has done well according to my standards. It's out there and available and selling. I'm getting it into bookstores. People I've never met before are reading it - one of my ultimate rewards for creativity!

The Blog Tour!  Michelle will be giving a blog tour this coming week (starting tomorrow!)  She's hosting a FANTASTIC contest related to the blog tour, so check out the link and visit the stops on her tour for a chance to win.

The Giveaway!  Here at iggi&gabi we're hosting our own CINDERS giveaway.  Leave a comment below and you'll be automatically entered and one lucky reader will get a signed copy of CINDERS.  So leave your comments between now and Thursday (Sept 23, 11:59 EST) and I'll pick the lucky winner by lottery and announce it in Friday's Week-in-Review.

Friday, September 17, 2010

DIY MFA: Week 2 In Review

I cannot believe we're already halfway through DIY MFA!  I hope you guys are enjoying it as much as I am because I'm having a blast.  Before I go into the weekly recap, I just wanted to give a huge shout out to my followers.  Yes, all you adorable faces in the sidebar, I'm talking about you.  Every time I log in, I see new smiling faces and you all make me giggle inside.  You rock!  Have a sticker.

Recap of this Week in DIY MFA:

Saturday: Morphological Forced Connections
This writing trick uses a matrix to help you come up with writing prompts or other writing ideas.  Earlier this week my writing group used this technique to come up with ideas for one writer's title.   You can used MFC for just about any type of brainstorming.

Sunday: Mind Mapping
Use mind map diagrams to brainstorm or outline your story.  This is great for visual thinkers or writers who don't like traditional outlines.

Monday: Learning from the Masters
Use your reading time to learn to write.  Includes a list of suggested resources.

Tuesday: Author Readings and Literary Events
One great way to connect with other writers is through readings and literary events.  Check out a reading series at a local university or author readings at your local bookstore.

Wednesday: Moving Right Along: Ins and Outs of Plot
Studying plot archetypes can help figure out your story structure.  Figure out what your character wants and what's standing in his/her way and Voila! You've got conflict.

Giving Useful Critiques
Tips for giving strong critiques and a sample passage critiqued by several writers. 

Don't Forget:  There's still time to register for iggi U.  Check out the iggi U tab for more information or to catch up on previous posts.  If you register, you automatically get entered in the DIY MFA contest (Prize = 25-page critique!)

Now, please tell me because I NEED to know: how did this week go for you?  Any suggestions or ideas you'd like to share?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Giving Useful Critiques

Last week we talked about what goes into putting together a strong critique group.  This week and next we'll be discussing the actual critique process, both the give and the take.

Giving critique is as much an art form as writing the work itself.  A strong critique can mean the difference between a piece being mediocre and it being great.  But to get this good result, you need both a reader who gives critique well and a writer who knows what to do with the critique.

What makes a strong critique?

 1) Positive first.  No point in tearing down the writer from the beginning of the critique session.  I've found that writers are more likely to listen to my critique points if I start off the critique with one or two positives, then offer suggestions for change.

 2) Keep it specific.  Often readers will give vague critiques like "the dialogue is stilted" or "I didn't like the character" but amorphous comments like these are just cop-outs.  Remember the adage Show, Don't Tell?  It works for critiques too.  Don't just tell the writer what isn't working, show them a specific example in their own piece.

3) Don't just say what you like/dislike, say why.  Similar to the previous point, saying "I don't like this part" doesn't help the writer fix the problem.  Instead, if you explain why it isn't working for you, then the writer has a better idea of what needs to be done in revision.  Notice that this point applies both to positive comments and critique points.  There's no point in knowing that something is good if you don't know why it worked so you can repeat it in the future.

4) Try to offer suggestions for change.  This point is always controversial with some writers because they firmly believe that writers shouldn't tell other writers how to write their books.  I'm not advocating that those giving critique rewrite the work for the writer, I'm simply saying that they should offer suggestions, not just criticism.  Whether or not the writer takes the suggestions is up to him or her, but at the very least, they will have some idea of how to rework what isn't working.

5) Write legibly or type.  This one seems silly, but you wouldn't believe how many times I've gotten critiques back and the handwriting is so bad I have no idea what that reader was saying.  If you're going to take the time to read and comment on a piece, make sure your investment is worthwhile by making sure the writer can actually read what you wrote.

Sample Critique

 Now we're going to play a bit of a game.  I'm going to post a paragraph written by an "anonymous" author (AKA iggi) and you'll all get a chance to try out some of the above techniques.  I've also gotten some writer friends to read this paragraph so I'll include some of their comments below as well.

         It was sunny the day I died, and a light breeze tickled my skin.  Birds chirped.  Lavender scent floated from the bushes like an invisible cloud.  Of course, at the time I did not realize I was dead; that was to come later.  I lay on the ground, frozen like a statue, my hands and feet locked still as though they had been nailed to the pavement.  I wonder if that’s where the saying came from: dead as a doornail.  But I am getting away from myself.  A crowd gathered around me.  The first to stop was a woman with a Botox face and plastic boobs.  She wore a pink velour jogging ensemble but did not look sweaty so I figured she wasn’t wearing it for the jogging.  Next came a man, dripping and breathing heavily.  His limbs were long and stringy, like pulled meat.  His running shorts were too short.  There came others.  A pair of police officers.  A team of paramedics.  A dog-walker with a pack of thirteen dogs.  I remember counting them and thinking “that must be my lucky number.”  And then he came.  The man in the black suit.  He looked like a bodyguard.
 "Although the protagonist's name is not given, we are shown through details that they have a strong use of the five senses: touch (a light breeze tickled my skin), sound (birds chirped), smell (lavender scent floated from the bushes...), sight (woman with a Botox face…)."     ~CB

"What does it say about a character that speaks in cliches? Very intriguing."     ~CB

"I love the opening line!  It grabbed me immediately and made me want to read further."     ~DR

"I liked the lines about the lavender scent from the bushes and the woman in the jogging suit. The line about the man who’s limbs were like pulled meat is excellent. Solid imagery."     ~DS

"You mentioned a crowd gathering. What were they saying? How does the protagonist's five senses come into play more during those details?"     ~CB

"I'm wondering if you could come up with something other than 'frozen like a statue' as it's such a common cliche.  The same goes for dead as a doornail although that could almost work since you refer to it as a saying."     ~DR

"I'm also not sure about how I feel about the man who was dripping and breathing heavily.  He needs more of an explanation as to why he was dripping and breathing heavily.  At the end of the sentence we can deduce that he's been running because of his shorts, but I'd rather see that in the beginning of the sentence."      ~DR

"I wasn’t sure if the internal monologue about “getting ahead of myself” worked for me.  I lost focus there a bit."     ~DS

"Also, did the police officers and paramedics do anything? I’d like to get a sense of what they were saying or if this character could even hear them. Were they describing the scene as it looked to them? Did anyone have a look on their face that indicated that the main character was dead?"     ~DS

Today's Task:  Read the sample paragraph above and if you like, share your critique below.  Don't worry, iggi's used to having his work pulled to shreds so go wild!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Moving Right Along: The Ins and Outs of Plot

John Gardner once said that there are two types of stories in literature:

(1) Man goes on a journey.
(2) Stranger comes to town.

While it might seem simplistic to think that all stories in literature boil down to these two categories, but let's look a little closer, shall we?

  • Odyssey (Homer) - clearly (1), as the story revolves around Odysseus' journey but also (2) when you consider all that happens when he shows up back in Ithaca.
  • Feed (M.T. Anderson)- definitely fits category (2), but we can also view the book as a journey into understanding the feed (1).
  • The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) - again, it appears on the surface to be about a journey (1) but if we look more closely, we realize that it also fits category (2), in that Dorothy is the stranger that comes to the "town" of Oz and shakes things up.
So if we have all these examples where books fit both of Gardner's categories, how can we define plot?  Are all stories about both going on journeys and strangers coming to town?

The thing is, stories aren't just about people going out into the world or facing a hostile environment.  Stories are about people facing other people and that is where a lot of the conflict arises that drives the story.  And the minute we start talking about conflict, the issue of power comes up.

The way I see it, narratives break down into three categories of conflict:
   (A) Protagonist must confront an entity with more power.
   (B) Protagonist must confront an entity with equal power.
   (C) Protagonist must confront herself.

Notice how there is no category for the protagonist to confront an entity of lesser power.  This is because if the protagonist faces off with someone or something that is easily overcome, there is no conflict.  Remember: conflict drives the story.

Let's take a look at some plot archetypes that fall into these categories.

(A) is the classic Underdog Story.  Some archetypes in this category are:
  • Fish Out of Water - The protagonist is confronted with a foreign environment where he/she feels like an outsider.  Note that the protagonist can already be in this environment to begin with and events transpire that make the environment hostile.  In this case, the environment is the entity with power.
  • Cinderella Narrative - In a "Rags-to-Riches" story, a character of lower status (Cinderella) must convince a character of higher status (Prince) to recognize qualities of value in her.  Notice also that this story fits the "Fish Out of Water" scenario where Cinderella must pretend to be someone she is not in order to be accepted by the prince.
  • David & Goliath - The underdog (David) is faced with a character much more powerful than he, but because of his innate qualities, he manages to vanquish his powerful opponent.  This is the ultimate underdog story.
  • Come-Back Story - The protagonist used to have power but now has none and must turn his fate around to resume his position of power.  Revenge stories fall under this category because in this case the character resumes power by exacting revenge.
  • Pygmalion - A powerful character "creates" a less powerful one, intending to use him, but the "creation" develops enough power to take on a life of its own and causes trouble. (Ex: Frankenstein)
  • Secrets - The protagonist discovers a secret that threatens a powerful person or institution.  The central conflict then is whether the protagonist will be able to unlock the full secret while the entity in power tries to stop him.  (Ex: Da Vinci Code.)
  • Knight (or Hobbit) in Shining Armor - There is an antagonist--a great force or opponent--and the protagonist is the only one who can stop it.  In many cases, this protagonist is not a powerful knight, but a humble character who gets pulled into the adventure.  (Ex: Fellowship of the Ring)
(B) is a Narrative of Connections story.  Some archetypes here are:
  • Submission to Love - Love blinds the protagonists causing them to do things that lead them into more and more trouble.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers - A couple wants to be together but they are being kept apart by some outside force.  This is a subset of the Submission to Love story.
  • Lost Twin - Two characters (often enemies) are thrown together and discover a kinship or likeness between them.  (Ex: the movie The Parent Trap is a literal example)
Note: This analysis of story structure and some of these examples have been adapted  from a lecture given by Perry Brass in April 2007.

(C) Finally we have an Introspective Narrative in which the protagonist confronts herself.  Here, the protagonist has some great inner conflict that must be resolved.  This type of narrative rarely occurs on its own; after all, 300 pages of introspective monologue would be seriously boring.  Usually (C) occurs as a parallel thread to a story structure that falls under one of the above categories.

Notice that in all of these plot archetypes we have a character who wants something (to fit in, to get revenge, to find love) but that want is thwarted by some entity of either equal or greater power.  The power struggle is part of what creates the conflict and conflict is what plot is all about.

Today's Task: Examine the power in your story by answering the following questions.
1. What does your character want?
2. What's standing in his/her way?
3. What specific obstacles prevent him/her from obtaining this goal?
4. Outcome: does the character obtain the goal? What are the implications of this outcome?

Additional Resources
  • The Plot Whisperer (Martha Alderson) has put together a series of podcasts that talk about plotting a story.  She also has a blog that discusses all things plot-related.
  • Antonette Hornsby (AKA Ant) recently write a post about the LOCK method in developing a plot.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Calling all NYC Writers

News Update:

I'm teaching at 10-week fiction workshop on the Upper East Side in NYC.  Classes will be on Mondays from 6:30-9pm and begin next Monday (Sept. 20).

There are still some spots open so if you're interested and you live in NYC, check it out.  If you know other writers in New York who might be interested, feel free to pass on the link.

For more information please visit Upper East Side Writing and to register for the class just fill out the online form.

Author Readings and Literary Events

One great way to connect with the literary community is through author readings and other literary events.

If you live in a big city or a college town, finding author readings and literary events is not difficult.  Any school with a creative writing program or English department will most likely host at least a few literary events every semester.  For instance, The New School in NYC, where I recently received my MFA, has a great reading series and I am sure most schools with MFA programs have similar opportunities.  These days there are colleges with MFA programs spread across the world (and if you factor in regular English departments, that's an even greater number of options).  So check out your local college or university for more info.  Local libraries and independent bookstores are also a great resource for finding readings or author talks.

I can't speak much about literary events outside of NYC since this is the area I know best, but for those New Yorkers out there, let me share a few events/resources that I have found to be useful.
  • One best-kept-secret that I'll share with fellow New York writers are the Gotham Writers' Workshop free workshops in NYC.  You can find a listing of these free events here.  These aren't exactly "readings" but more like 1hr lessons on craft, but they're fun and they're free!
  •  For those who love YA literature, check out the Teen Author Readings and the Teen Author Festival.  It features great writers of teen literature and is also fun and free!
  • Every fall, the Brooklyn Book Festival includes tons of great author readings.
  • Another great resource are literary magazines.  *Warning, shameless plug here*  Some of you have heard me mention Verbal Pyrotechnics in the past (BTW, we're open for submissions).  This is a literary e-zine I'm involved with that is dedicated to teen literature, and it hosts readings in NYC.  If there's a literary magazine based near you, check and see if they host readings as well.  This could be a great way to connect with local authors. 
But what if you don't have a university or college nearby?  Where do you go to hear writers speak and read their work?
  • One resource that I really love is where you can find poems and bios of several poets as well as some audio recordings of the poets reading their work.
  • Podcasts and webinars are other ways that you can hear writer's speak (like the SheWrites radio link I shared yesterday).
  • And let's not forget This American Life, which isn't exactly an author reading, but often features authors and columnists and always tells great stories.
Now you might be wondering how often one "should" go to readings.  At the MFA program I attended, we were required to go to a minimum of 8 readings per semester.  For DIY MFA, it all depends on how much time you have and how much time you can dedicate to the community aspect of the program.  One reading per month would be ideal, but if you can't swing that, do what you can.  The important thing is that you're reaching out and meeting authors and literary folk face-to-face.  Listening to authors speak and read their work can be inspiring and motivating.

Today's Task: Let your fingers do the walking and look up a reading or literary event you would like to attend.  Mark it in your calendar and plan to go.  Now tell me, because I'm dying to know, what event did you choose and why?

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    Announcement: "Commencement" Week!

    Crazy to think that September is almost halfway over.  I'm already cooking up what we're going to do to celebrate the end (or actually the beginning) of DIY MFA and I wanted to share a few details with you.

    We'll be having a big week-long celebration that will include keynote guest posts by some really great writers/bloggers.

    We'll also be having a student speaker blogfest.  Our student speaker, Sheri from Writers' Ally, will share her thoughts on the DIY MFA experience.  We're doing the "student speech" as a blogfest so everyone can get involved and share their experiences on their own blogs and be linked through iggi U.

    On Thursday, Oct. 7, we'll have the last Commencement Week post, where I'll announce the winner of our DIY MFA contest and then...

    ...a weekend-long Blog Party!

    Learning from the Masters

    Perhaps one of the best ways to learn to write is by reading.  Thing is, to really get the most out of your reading, you have to be strategic about it.  Sure you can read for fun, but to learn the most from your reading you need to approach it thinking "how did the author do that?"

    For this reason, if you want to learn from the masters, I suggest the short form: short stories, essays and poems.  Unlike novels or other long works, the short form allows you to read and take in the entire piece in one sitting, which in turn lets you analyze how the piece is working both on the macro and micro levels.  When we read longer works, it's hard step back and see how the work functions as a whole.  With short stories, essays and poems, we can zoom in and out, inspecting the piece at hand both in its entirety and at the paragraph or sentence level.

    In order to read with purpose, we first have to re-teach ourselves to read.  We cannot be lazy.  We must read as writers.  In this regard, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is a valuable addition to any writer's library.  To read a excerpt, click here.  This book guides us and teaches us to read literature with an eye toward understanding how the writing really works.  It would be impossible for me to recap here everything that Prose talks about in that book and do it justice.  Instead, I thought I'd let you hear it from Francine Prose herself.  (An interview with Francine Prose is the second listing on the widget below.)

    Listen to internet radio with She Writes on Blog Talk Radio

    It might also be worthwhile to invest in a small collection of short form works in your genre.  Below I list a few resources and books that I have found useful.  I have researched many anthologies (especially for short stories) and have yet to find the perfect one.  The resources listed below aren't perfect, but they're solid and a good place to start.

    • Poetry 180
    • Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor
      (This lovely collection covers a broad spectrum of poems and styles.)
    • The Art of the Short Story, edited by Gioia & Gwynn
      (The best short story anthology I have found to date.  It contains most of the greats and is the textbook I'll be using in the class I'm teaching this fall.)
    • Best American Short Stories, edited by various authors
      (An annual anthology of the best new short stories published that year.)
    • Project Gutenberg
      (An online database of free books!  You can even put them on your kindle or e-reader.  You won't find contemporary stuff here, but you will find the classics.)

    • The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
      (A solid anthology of personal essays, from the forerunners to the twentieth century.)
    • The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
      (Great compilation of American narrative non-fiction.)
    • The Best American Essays, edited by various authors
      (This yearly publication is a great sampling of the best new essays of each year.)
    Today's Task: Choose one short story or poem and read it closely, like a writer.  Focus on what the author is doing in the story and how the author manages to pull it off.  Then, if you like, share your experience in the comments.

      Sunday, September 12, 2010

      Mind Mapping

      This is a technique I learned when I was taking a creativity seminar in grad school.  Mind mapping is great for visual thinkers who need to "see" the big picture of a project.  It's also really good to use in a brainstorming session because it forces you to look at your idea from different angles, literally.  Not sure what I mean, just try making a mind map.  You'll turn the page around so many times, it's almost impossible not to look at the idea from different perspectives.

      There are as many different ways of making a mind map as there are creative people in the world, but the basics are the same.  Write the main idea in the center of the page and circle it.  Now make branches from the circle and write one topic on each of those lines.  Continue breaking off subtopics from each of those branches, creating what looks like a web across the page.  Like this:

      For example, say you wanted to use a mind map to brainstorm the world of your story, you might start with the name of your story as the center. Then your branches might be: Technology, Food, Geography, Clothing, etc.  For each of those branches then you would break down the subtopics into more detail.  This example revolved around world building but you can use mind mapping to brainstorm just about any aspect of your story.

      Some tips for making an effective mind map:
      • Use markers or colored pens to color-code.
      • Try not to judge your ideas as you draw the map.
      • Don't be afraid to make it messy.
      • Turn the page around and look at the idea from different angles.
      • If possible, use unlined paper, to allow your ideas to flow in all directions.
      I'll close this with a personal tidbit.  When I was in grad school for psychology, I used to take all my notes this way.  Of course, it made things difficult when a fellow student asked to borrow my notes.  They'd take one look and hand my notebook right back.  Eventually I've found a balance between taking notes in mind maps and using a more standard format but I still think mind maps are more fun!

      Today's Task:  Mind map something.  Doesn't matter what it is.  It can be your grocery list, if that's what's on your mind right this minute.

      In terms of discussion, I'd love to know: did the mind map help you gain insights on your topic that you might not have gained with a traditional outline?  Did it help you see your topic from a new perspective?

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