Category: The writing life


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.

 

On Google, writing time, and short stories

By Midge Raymond,

This post on Alan Rinzler’s blog is a great reminder that even if you haven’t started shopping your book around, you may already be giving publishers good reasons to take a chance on you as a writer — or not. He offers a cautionary anecdote along with a few tips for writers (among them: be accurate about sales numbers and reviews), the most important of which is to realize that you will probably be Googled, and to make sure what’s out there portrays you in a good light. In other words, be honest and try to be good. (And if you’re not, you can always hire someone to delete your web indiscretions; see these articles from Wired and the NY Times.)

As an editor at Ashland Creek Press, I have to say that Rinzler’s right; we do want to know what our prospective authors are up to — but if you’re thinking about submitting, don’t worry; we’re not looking to find dirt on writers. Instead, we’re curious as to how you might help us market your book — we’re hoping, for example, that you write a blog and that you have a good social media presence.

Now, getting back to writing … All writing projects seem to take longer than we think they will — and this piece in Slate covers “the quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing.” It’s partly depressing, but also a great reminder that great writing takes great amounts of time — as just one example, Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took more than ten years to write.

If you’re a writer who’s been working for many years on a seemingly endless project, you may wonder, Why do I write, anyway? Check out this NPR story featuring writers talking about why they write.

And for all of you short fiction fans out there, there’s a great way to promote short stories in general as well as your favorites specifically: Post a link on Twitter every Sunday to someone else’s story you’ve enjoyed over the week. Then search for #StorySunday to read stories other readers have linked to. Check out The Short Review for its usual fantastic short story reviews, interviews, and news, as well as its handy widget to see Sunday Story picks at a glance.

 

Write (beyond) what you know

By Midge Raymond,

Many writers firmly believe in what they’ve been hearing for years: Write what you know. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I find that students who are just starting to write often find it difficult to branch out, to assert their authority as writers beyond their own experiences. At this point I’ll usually point to Melanie Rae Thon’s brilliant story “Little White Sister,” which not only an amazing read but an important lesson to writers: Write beyond what you know.

In this interview with BOMB Magazine, Thon talks about her decision to write from the perspective of a black male in first person:

“Those voices of censorship become ridiculous. The extrapolation of that kind of thinking is that you can’t write as a child, you can’t write as an old person, you can’t write as somebody of the opposite sex. I move into my material intuitively and if I’m paying attention to that, if the things that I’m writing are things I feel I must understand, then I have a right to explore them. I have a need to explore them and ultimately a duty to do so.”

In the same way reading opens up our understanding of the world around us, writing from perspectives beyond our own (and in the process, understanding them) not only makes us better writers but better human beings. We all need to get outside our own lives once in a while.

A great opinion on this topic is this post on Erika Dreifus’s awesome blog, Practicing Writing, in which she discusses writing from the POV of a mother even though she’s not a mother. After being critiqued in workshops  — not for her writing but for her non-motherhood — she makes the very good point that good writing has nothing to do with the writer’s personal life but with the authenticity of what’s on the page. She writes: “… my fellow writers failed to appreciate elements that go into fiction writing that transcend one’s own lived experience.”

Unless you’re writing memoir, try to write beyond what you know. You’ll probably find that you know far more than you think — and you’ll probably also have to do a lot of research (which always enlightening anyway). The more you challenge yourself, the more you’ll challenge your readers — in the best possible way.

 

Finding quality writing time

By Midge Raymond,

“I’ll never have it as good as prison again,” said author Dewitt Gilmore once told New York Times. “For writing, anyway.”

This New York Times article, “Street Lit With Publishing Cred: From Prison to a Four-Book Deal,” seems to be  proof that writers do need rooms of their own: Gilmore (whose pen name is Relentless Aaron) began writing his street-lit novels in 1996 during a stint in a federal prison in New Jersey; eventually, he got a six-figure book deal with St. Martin’s Press. He’s written thirty manuscripts, has printed ten of them himself, and will publish his next four with St. Martin’s.

As Gilmore told the Times, referring to the time he spent in the solitary confinment of an eight-by-four cell, “Nothing could match solitary for writing.”

I couldn’t agree more. What I recommend, however, is not a trip to prison. Instead, I’ll suggest a few ways to create your own “solitary confinement” — especially for writers who need to fit their work in among day jobs, families, and other things that might otherwise make writing time a challenge.

Think of yourself as a writer. If you don’t see yourself as a writer, how will you allow yourself the time to write? First, tell yourself that your work is important. Remind yourself that you have things to say. Be adamant about setting aside time to say them.

Remind your friends and family that you are a writer. When you create time in your schedule to write — especially when it takes time away from them — make it known that you are working. Because you are working — no matter what pleasure writing brings you, it’s also hard work.

Create your own writing space. Even if it’s just a tiny desk in the smallest corner of your home, make it your own. Get rid of anything that might distract you, and keep near you the things that inspire you: books, candles, artwork.

– Schedule your writing time. My friend Stacey is a life coach who offers this amazing advice: Take your writing time as seriously as any job. If you work at Starbucks, she points out, you’d have to clock in, right? And so it should be with your writing time: Get it on the calendar, show up, and complete your shift.

– Find a writing buddy. Having a good support system is essential for all of us, and especially for writers. Join a writing group that forces you to show up with written pages on deadline, for example — or find a writing buddy to meet at a cafe for an hour of freewriting. The nice thing about a writing buddy or group is that you’re accountable: you have to show up (or you have to have a good excuse for why you didn’t).

Happy writing.

 

On cover art, translation, literary drunks, and more

By Midge Raymond,

While most writers know that book titles can’t be copyrighted, we have yet to see another Moby-Dick or Gone with the Wind. What’s far more common, as this site shows, is using same cover art for many different books.

Doesn’t every writer love a good malapropism? This NY Times article reminded me of my days living in Taipei, when I’d encounter various bizarre English translations. Visitors to Shanghai won’t be able to enjoy similar mistakes much longer, thanks to the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use, which is fixing everything from menus to street signs. So long to menus listing “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and restroom signs reading “urine district.” Check out the Times slide show for a few hilarious examples, including the one below.

Speaking of being lost in translation: From Jhumpa Lahiri to Chuck Palahniuk to Donald Barthelme, authors’ names are often mispronounced with such authority that soon even the correct pronunciation sounds wrong. Click here for a guide.

I rather enjoyed this Life magazine slide show entitled “Famous Literary Drunks & Addicts.” If nothing else, it made me feel pretty healthy by comparison.

Having trouble jump-starting your latest story? The American Book Review lists the best 100 first lines from novels here … it’s inspiring, if a little intimidating.

And finally — and definitely inspiring — is this blog from Alan Rinzler on finding courage as a writer, with such advice as not being afraid to talk to yourself, to let things simmer, and to start over.

Enjoy.