Category: On reading


Ask the Editor: Writing for publication

By Midge Raymond,

Q: Is it better to write something, then seek out appropriate publications, or seek out publications and then try to write what they’re looking for?  Or both? — Sean P. Farley, Escondido, California

A: When it comes to poetry, essays, stories, and any sort of creative writing, I always say: Write what you want to write, first and foremost. (If you’re a freelancer and looking to write for hire, of course, you don’t always get to choose.) But when it comes to creative writing, you must tell the stories you want to tell. For one, being passionate about what you write is the only thing that’s going to interest you enough to 1) stick with it and 2) make it great. And even if you target a specific publication or publisher, unless you get a contract first, there’s no guarantee they’ll publish you anyway — and then you’ve written something that you may not care about as much or that you may not be able to publish elsewhere. So write what you want, always, and then start the publication search.

That said, it’s always good to get an idea of the publications and options that are out there, and this is where the “both” comes in. If you’re planning to submit a novel to an agent or press, do as much research as you can to make sure you’re a good fit. If you’re planning to submit to literary magazines, read and study them; learn what type of work they publish, and this will tell you whether your submission will be competitive. As this LA Times blog post reveals, the big secret to getting published in literary magazines is quite simply to read the magazines.

 

I wouldn’t recommend tailoring what you write toward any one publication — unless it’s something you’d write anyway — but if you read a lot and are always doing a little industry research, you’ll be in a great position to get your work published. An example: Years ago, I was working on a short story that just wasn’t going anywhere … I had this idea that I really liked but just couldn’t get it done (and believe me, I tried). So finally I set the story aside to give it some breathing room. Then one day, I was reading Poets & Writers and noticed a call for submissions for a short-short contest run by the literary magazine Witness. All of a sudden it hit me: That stubborn story of mine was meant to be a short-short. So I sat down, rewrote it, sent it off, and won the contest. This is not the sort of thing that happens every day (not even every year or two, actually) — but it’s the sort of thing that can happen if you write what you want to write and, at the same time, keep an eye on the opportunities out there.

 

Good luck & happy writing!

 

Ask the editor: How to create authentic characters

By Midge Raymond,

Q: How do you write a first-person character whose voice doesn’t sound like the writer’s own? At some point does the character just take on his/her own life and you, the author, disappear? — J.W., Seattle

A: Many writers choose to write in a first-person POV because this voice comes naturally — it’s similar to writing in a journal or writing a blog entry. But, as J.W.’s question points out, when it comes to fiction writing, an author needs to make the sure the character can live and breathe on his or her own.

First of all, it’s not the end of the world if your character sounds a lot like you — as long as this character is real, engaging, and true to life. An author may want to avoid characters that resemble themselves for a couple reasons — for example, if you plan to write more than one book or story, you’ll want to diversify; also, you may want to distance yourself and your own life from your characters (a brief note to fiction writers: everyone will think it’s you, anyway, so don’t worry about this too much).

Here are a few exercises to help you bring your characters to life…

  • Take one scene and write it from several different POVs: first person (the “I” voice), second person (the “you”) voice, and third person (the “he/she” voice). This helps you get out of your own head and more fully into your character’s. You might also find that you prefer one of these POVs even more than the one you began with.
  • Consider some of your character’s opinions, and note where they’re similar to your own — is this necessary, or just convenient? That is, if you and your main character are both married, if you both hate beets, and if you both have German shepherds, perhaps you need to think outside the box a little. Every characteristic of your fictional characters should exist for a reason related to the story, not because it’s simple or easy to assign certain traits.
  • Finally, fill in the blanks below — and because this isn’t by any means a comprehensive list, add a few more categories of your own (favorite band, favorite ice cream, shoe size, etc.). This exercise will help you get to know your character as someone separate from yourself.
  • Name:
  • Nickname:
  • Age:
  • Gender:
  • Education:
  • Occupation:
  • Passion, if not same:
  • Finances:
  • Sexual orientation/status:
  • Sexual history:
  • Friends & enemies:
  • Family:
  • Hobbies:
  • Possessions:
  • Politics & religion:
  • Books & music:
  • Food:
  • Flaws:
  • Most noticeable feature / idiosyncrasy:

And I’d love to hear from you with some of the ways that you develop living, breathing characters — let me know! Happy writing.

 

Ask the Editor: Voice and character

By Midge Raymond,

Welcome to the Ashland Creek Press blog’s Ask the Editor series! Having received quite a few questions about writing, editing, and publishing, we’ve decided to answer a few of them here, for the benefit of all. If you have a question for us, please submit it here — and we’ll post it soon afterward, along with a helpful and insightful answer (we hope!).

Q: How does a writer make the narrator sound like a juvenile without making the writing sound juvenile? — J.G., San Diego

A: Voice is one of the biggest challenges for writers, especially when tackling a voice that’s very different from one’s own. And it’s especially important to make sure the writing itself is separate from the character, i.e., that the character can sound like a child without the writing sounding childish.

First, I suggest getting to know the character well, as sometimes this is the problem. If you’re writing from the POV of a juvenile, for example, make sure you’re seeing the world from this character’s eyes; try living in this character’s head as much as you can while you’re writing, as if you’re an actor playing a role. Our sense of a character’s age comes from the way he/she sees the world: a teenager will look at something very differently from the way a six-year-old would, or a thirty-year-old, or an eighty-year-old — so think about how your character (from the POV of age as well as his/her unique history) sees what happens around him/her, and describe it in detail. Everything that your reader perceives will come through the details.

Second, choose a POV that fits well what you’re trying to get across in the story — i.e., do you want an intimate, first-person POV (think Catcher in the Rye), or a more distant voice (if the kid is much younger, for example, you may find it easier to use third person to get across things that a child may sense but not be able to articulate in his/her own voice)?

Third, think of your audience — it’s often challenging to create a young voice that appeals to adult audiences, and this appeal (or lack thereof) will depend not only on the voice but on the story itself. There are always exceptions, clearly (not only Catcher in the Rye but books such as The Lovely Bones and the entire Harry Potter series). So try taking an objective look at your story; you may find that if your writing doesn’t sound adult, perhaps your story’s audience isn’t meant to be adult. And if it is, we’re back to POV: third person might be best, as you don’t need to limit your vocabulary as much as in the first person voice.

Also, read as much as you can in the POV you’re going for — this will help you get a feel for what works well. As you read, consider the ways in which these writers succeed in making their characters vivid while at the same time giving them authentic voices.

And finally, make use of a writing partner or writing group to help you judge how well you’ve succeeded. Ask, for example, how old your group thinks your character is, and see how this feedback helps you find that perfect pitch.

Happy writing!

 

Every meal makes a difference

By Midge Raymond,

Here at Ashland Creek Press, we’re delighted to participate in today’s virtual Meatout event, along with so many others who are passionate about their health, the environment, and the well-being of animals. For those unfamiliar with Meatout: It has become the world’s largest annual grassroots diet education campaign, encouraging people to explore a wholesome, nonviolent diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It’s a fantastic campaign — for so many reasons — and it’s wonderful to see such a great list of participating bloggers offering news, recipes, and inspiration about compassionate choices.

Diet is such a personal choice, and John and I get a lot of questions — some curious, some polite, some defensive — about the way we choose to eat and live. But what’s been especially interesting for us, as writers and editors, is to see the reactions to John’s novel, The Tourist Trail. As soon as it was published, it was clear that the book was having a strong emotional effect on readers — which, of course, is the whole idea of publishing a novel.

We heard from people in the animal-rights community who were glad to have a book that reflected vegans and activists as regular people (rather than hippies or terrorists, which is so often the case).  We also heard from readers who said the book has opened their eyes to the plights of the world’s oceans and its creatures, that it put into human terms a problem that before had been purely theoretical to them — and this was hugely inspiring, to know that the book taught as well as entertained.

Yet still other readers had a different response: They were bothered by the truths that the book revealed: the fact that our oceans are in peril, that innocent animals are being illegally hunted and slaughtered, that our governments still have a long way to go when it comes to animal protection. And this was tough for both of us to hear — and especially to know that people would prefer not to finish the book than to face up to the very real challenges that are facing our planet.

And at the same time, it’s understandable — life can be overwhelming enough without having to worry about the future of the planet — and this is one reason we love Meatout. By simply rethinking one’s diet, a person can have an enormous positive impact on the natural world. For example, every person who gives up meat saves the lives of more than 100 animals a year. And even the little changes count: If every American were to replace just one chicken meal each week with a vegetarian or vegan meal, this would be  the equivalent of taking 500,000 cars off the road.

So we say, give it a try. A few smart and compassionate people you know agree: Albert Einstein once said, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” And Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Check out Meatout Monday for a great way to start.

 

Great resources for writers

By Midge Raymond,

One of the most important components in a great story is great dialogue — yet sometimes a writer can only travel so far to do his or her research. Fortunately, the Library of Congress has made available a series of American English Dialect Recordings — and it’s well worth checking out. Funded by the Center for Applied Linguistics and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the recordings feature 118 hours of speech samples, linguistic interviews, oral histories, conversations, and excerpts from public speeches, drawn from archives and private collections.

For a reader/listener, it’s an amazing glimpse into U.S. social and linguistic history — and for a writer, it’s an invaluable way to tune your ear to the nuances of America’s myriad dialects. As the web site states, the project “reveals distinctions in speech related to gender, race, social class, education, age, literacy, ethnic background, and occupational group (including the specialized jargon or vocabulary of various occupations). The oral history interviews are a rich resource on many topics, such as storytelling and family histories; descriptions of holiday celebrations, traditional farming, schools, education, health care, and the uses of traditional medicines; and discussions of race relations, politics, and natural disasters such as floods.” The recordings were made from 1941 to 1984 and include forty-three states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and parts of Canada.

If you’re a writer who has trouble focusing, you should check out WriteRoom software, which promises “distraction free writing.” It aims to eliminate all the extras that come along with Word (such as margins) and provide a space for nothing but letters on a page. (The one distraction, though, is that it seems to encourage you to spend all sorts of time choosing colors and fonts for your “distraction-free” page.) I prefer Omm Writer (the original version) for my own distraction-free writing time. The image below is what my screen looks like:

Online dictionaries and thesauruses are wonderful resources — and if you ever need to go a step beyond the dictionary, visit Wordnik, which provides not only a definition of any word you type in but examples as well, including real-time examples from Twitter. It’s really cool — but be warned that it could be another major time drain as well.

Wishing you happy, distraction-free writing.