Month: May 2015

5 Creative Nonfiction Writing Tips

We here at The Poetics Project regularly partake in the Creative Nonfiction genre with our monthly Story Shots posts. I have a lot of fun with the genre, but I know that many people struggle with creative nonfiction.

Specifically, how much is creative and how much is nonfiction? Where does the line blur and creativity starts taking a nonfiction piece into the realm of fiction?

There are no solid boundaries nor are there any set percentages, e.g. 25% of your story must be “creative” while the other 75% must be nonfiction to obtain the label creative nonfiction. Essentially, the creative part of creative nonfiction refers to how the story is told and the nonfiction part of the creative nonfiction refers to the subject matter of the piece.

Can you make up dialog? No, but if you don’t remember the exact words spoken but can approximate them, that’s fine (in my book – others may disagree). Can you change names, dates, and locations of a creative nonfiction piece to distance the people involved from the story? I think you can, as long as everything else in your story is true.

In other words, use your best judgement when it comes to how much “creative” and how much “nonfiction” goes into your creative nonfiction. If you started out writing a creative nonfiction story about an experience you had in high school and it suddenly becomes an epic fantasy-romance, it’s probably no longer creative nonfiction. Lots of fiction is based on true and real events, but once enough of that story is manipulated, it’s no longer nonfiction and crosses into the realm of fiction.

But you don’t need to add a ton of fiction into your creative nonfiction to make it interesting. There are some very basic tricks you can use in creative nonfiction, as well as in other literary forms, to make your story creative without sacrificing the nonfiction part of your story. Here’s a quick list of 5 tips to help make your creative nonfiction really pop.

Politics and Poetry: Early Modern English Poetry

I like to write poetry. I can’t say I’m the best at it, but I’ve been published a few times and I continue to study rhetoric and poetic form as well as continue to try to write and publish the work that I do. I’m also a passionate person when it comes to politics and social justice. My major in college was English, but my minor was political science.

So often when I write, I write politically-themed poetry. This struck one of my friends as odd. When I got to thinking about the link between politics and poetry, though, I have to say it’s really not all that odd for politics and poetry to be combined.

Politics and poetry have always been aligned. Poetry has always been a place for marginalized people to make their voices heard or to covertly challenge those in power. Today poetry continues to be an arena for social commentary and pushes for social change, and, above all else, a way for people to make their voices and opinions heard.

Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes.

Early Modern English Poets

Also known as the English Renaissance, this period lasted from the late 15th century into the cusp of the 18th century and was filled with political turmoil. Protestant and catholic monarchs kept being crowned which meant every time the power passed between faiths, the people of this time period were expected to convert. The idea behind a monarchy is that the political leader, the king or queen, is ordained by the Christian God to be in power. So when a protestant was in power, everyone from the nobles to the peasants were expected to convert and to believe, in their heart of hearts, that this new religion was the one true religion. Then when a Catholic took the throne, the people would again have to convert and know that in their heart of hearts, that this new religion was the one true religion. Some monarchs, like Elizabeth I, said, you know what? This isn’t fair. As long as you practice the faith you believe in, I don’t care if your religion matches mine. That worked for about five minutes, until Pope Regnans in Excelsis said that, because she was a protestant, she was not the legitimate Queen of England and anyone who assassinated her was doing God a service and would be forgiven. Now Elizabeth had to be wary of all Catholics, which did little to ease political tensions in the time period. Add in some international conflicts, like wars between England and Spain, and mix in a Virgin Queen and the fear of no apparent heir causing another War of the Roses (for you Game of Throne fans, the War of the Roses is the political conflict that inspired the fantasy series) and you get a lot of turmoil and a lot to criticize.

During this time of constant conversion, poets like John Donne issued a challenge through his poem Satire III to the logic behind forced conversion with such lines as:

Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.

Donne states that God has not given Kings the right to force conversion, nor execute the populous for their religious beliefs. In England during the Early Modern Period, religion and politics were intertwined so criticizing the way the crown handled religion was a political issue and one, as Donne alludes to in this poem, that can lead to execution.

Literary Paraphernalia: 10 DIY Projects for Book Lovers

I’m a poor college student. Actually, all of the writers of this blog are college students and fairly broke. While we write these posts about literary paraphernalia and how much we’d love to own some of these great book-related items, we really can’t afford to.

It makes me sad.

That’s why I decided to hijack this column for the week and do a list of DIY projects that range from easy to difficult and aren’t terribly expensive.

We’ll start with the easy DIY projects first. These will require little to no extra crafting gear outside of say, glue, a pen, and maybe some scissors.

DIY Paint Chip Bookmarks

(Credit: BellaCarta.Typepad.Com)

This bookmark is simple, cheap, and versatile. While doodling flowers is one method of decorating this bookmark, another (which I would probably do) would be to write your favorite book quote on draw various literary characters into the different colored boxes.

 

DIY Mini Notebooks

(Image Source: KaleyAnn.Com)
(Credit: KaleyAnn.Com)

These cute little notebooks are a snap to make and great for writers to use! You can also grab some Sharpies and decorate the covers. These would also make cute gifts.

AWP 2014: Writing Unsympathetic Characters

Last week, I attended AWP in Seattle with other students in my program and fellow contributor, Tiffany Shelton. For those of you who haven’t heard of AWP, it’s a conference and bookfair held in a different city each year and hosted by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Both AWP and Write to Publish took place in February, and both conferences have set me on a roll. Recently, I’ve been writing anywhere from five hundred to a thousand words or more a night—and because I just told you, reader, I feel a certain obligation to keep up this stamina.

Because I’ve already written about how inspiring writing conferences can be, I won’t linger on the subject too long. Just go to one, if you can. They’re terrifying and uplifting; you leave feeling you have the permission to write, to struggle, and to succeed. And they make you realize that “success” doesn’t look the same for every writer—and that’s okay.

At AWP, I went to several panels, but this post will focus on a panel titled “I’m Just Not That Into You: Unsympathetic Characters in Fiction.” Author Irinia Reyn moderated the panel, which consisted of authors Hannah Tinti, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Maud Newton, and agent Ryan Harbage.

I attended this panel, because as both a reader and writer I have come to the realization that I am drawn to characters who others may deem unsympathetic. Irinia began by asking the panelists what they mean when they say a character is unsympathetic. Responses varied from “They appeal to our dark side” to “They are the characters I want to read about.” One panelist—and this stuck with me—said that sometimes unsympathetic characters are just people “put in a difficult situation who have to make a controversial choice.” Are unsympathetic characters the same as unlikeable characters? No. That was the response from the majority of the panelists. There’s no writer’s handbook that says your readers must like character a, b, and c. As one panelist said, “It’s good when someone has a reaction.”

Self-Publishing: No Degree Necessary

Self-publishing has taken off, that’s no secret. Bestsellers, from Fifty Shades of Grey to Wool, began as self-published books. Recently, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in the UK, even began its own masters program in self-publishing. A full-time student can complete the program in one year; when he or she graduates, they will have all the skills needed to edit, design, publish, and market their own book. At least, that’s the idea.

I’ll admit, I’ve read very few self-published books. So few, that as I write this, I can’t recall their titles. But by no means do I “hate on” self-published books. Sure, I have, on occasion, expressed the belief that self-published titles are generally lacking in editing, design, and marketing—all those aspects of publishing that UCLan hopes to teach—but that isn’t always the case. If I’m being honest, those nameless self-published titles were bad apples that spoiled the rest.

What do I mean by spoiled? The great thing about self-published titles are that you can often get them for cheap (sometimes even free if they’re e-books). Low prices are great; that means more books for me. Yet, in my experience, this leads to reading a lot of bad writing, and in the end, I’d rather pay more for the good stuff.

(Credit: IndieBound)

For a long time, most readers have felt this way. Publishers may be the “gate keepers,” but, as a reader, I appreciate knowing that I can trust a book stamped with HarperCollins’ or Penguins’ logo will be a good read. However, I think it’s important to remember the exceptions, because, surely, not every reader will love every book published by the “Big Five.” So why shouldn’t that same logic apply to self-publishing?

Self-publishing has many positives. None too small to overlook. Wool, as I mentioned earlier, was a great success story. Hugh Howey originally self-published the book as a stand-alone, short story on Amazon. When it began to develop a following, he continued the plot with additional stories, all of which he eventually sold to Simon & Schuster for six figures.

The Tumblr Post that Started a Debate on Race and Writing

Normally, I’m not one to start an online debate with another blog, but while scrolling through Tumblr a few days ago, I came across this post.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

I immediately shared the post with the other contributors here at the blog, and we, along with many other Tumblr users, had a wide range of thoughts regarding this piece of advice.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

Before I begin, I think it’s only fair to say that there were also many Tumblr users who shared their support of The Writers Helpers, the Tumblr blog which handed out this advice. According to these users, the account admins were not being racist, but simply honest.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

In case you were wondering, I fundamentally disagree with the original advice offered by The Writers Helpers. Do I think that the admins of this blog (or “S,” the specific admin who responded to the question) are racist? No. I do not. However, the statement—the advice itself—advises writers to treat their own characters’ races as unequal.

Women are People: Who Knew?

Two-dimensional characters aren’t merely results of poor writing; although, they can be. You can spot them right away. There’s the femme fatale, the bad boy, the cat lady, the everyman, the damsel in distress, the jock, the farmer’s daughter, or the sidekick. Shall I go on?

While they can be predictable, two-dimensional characters often serve to drive the plot along. The women are given to drawing the men into situations that make for entertaining spectacles. The hero saves the damsel from a burning building, or the farmer, waving a shotgun, chases the young man caught climbing out his daughter’s window off the property.

Yet, good writers are the ones who are able to surprise their readers. Mad Men‘s Don Draper, for instance, is a womanizer. When I first started watching the show, I wanted to hate him. He appears to have no shame or morals, constantly sleeping with women who aren’t his wife. But really, he’s so much more than just a womanizer. His story is complicated (I won’t give away any spoilers), and his unpredictability makes him that much more intriguing.

The problem is that female characters in the media aren’t generally as complex. In part, this may be due to the small amount of women in these industries that are actually in a position to influence character development. According to the Women’s Media Center 2013 report on the status of women in the media, women made up only 9 percent of the directors for the top grossing films. From 2011-2012, women made up only 26 percent of the behind-the-scenes jobs in television. And in 2011, women made up less than 50 percent of submissions to literary magazines. At the New York Review of Books in particular, women made up only 19 percent of submissions.

My Brain got Stuck in a Rhyming Loop

When it comes to creative projects at school, my go-to is poetry. I had a big creative project due in one of my classes this past week, and I decided, since it was for Arthurian Romance, to imitate the Medieval French style of poetry. For a week solid, I was spending my nights creating plot and writing in rhyming couplets.

Let me tell you about rhyming couplets.

Door-hinge? I guess that rhymes with orange. Try working that into a poem organically.
Door-hinge? I guess that rhymes with orange. Try working that into a poem organically.

At first, it really isn’t that easy to do. I tend to use a rhyming dictionary when I start out, because my brain isn’t in rhyming mode yet. For the first few days working on an epic, 15 page poem written in eight syllable rhyming couplets, the rhyming dictionary is a godsend. I also use an on-line thesaurus to find words of varying syllables so I can force my thoughts into the eight syllable mold. A thesaurus is also useful in finding words that have the right concept behind them and easy rhymes – for example, the word orange is a jerk when it comes to rhyming, but using a thesaurus gives me all kinds of other options to that dreaded word – warm, flame, gold, etc., which are all much easier to rhyme with.

As time passes, however, these tools fade as the brain starts thinking in rhyme. I’m not kidding – on the third day of working with my project until the day it was due, my brain was rhyming. And so the downside of rhyming started to kick in.

Avoiding Technilogical Errors

I’m not talking grammar, here. I’m flat out talking about crashed computers, power outages, Word having an unexpected error, and the dreaded blue screen of death (for PC users).

I, like other writers, have fallen victim to one of the above and have lost pages and pages of well thought-out work. Generally, I hit control+S like a fiend, but once I encountered the blue screen of death on my old laptop, even saving my work didn’t preserve it.

I had to do a whole system recovery to even get my computer working again, which meant a months worth of work was gone and there was no way I could recover it. I suppose I could have done system backups regularly – like after every writing session, but who has time to do that?

System backups take a ton of time and it’s not a very practical way of always making sure your work is backed up because, and here’s the thing, I was lucky that I was even able to recover my computer to an earlier date and get it to work again. Many people who encounter the blue screen of death aren’t able to recover to an earlier backup date.

Fear not! I come offering some easy solutions to always having the latest, greatest version of your work saved and available.

I know some people out there will say “Don’t use PC’s! Use MACS!” but, hey, MACS are expensive. If you can afford one, or an iPad, good for you and enjoy that expensive piece of machinery. I need a simple word processor and for that purpose, PC’s work just fine.

Alan Rickman Reads

When I read, I don’t hear my own voice in my head. Generally, I’ll hear someone with a British accent. Why? Because I like the way it sounds.

And, after watching some of my favorite movies like Sense and Sensibility or, you know, any Harry Potter film, I get Alan Rickman’s voice stuck in my head. For about a week on out, his voice echoes in my head as the voice of every play, poem, and novel I read.

And now I’m going to get Alan Rickman’s voice stuck in your head too. Youtube – beautiful, wonderful Youtube, has entire playlists of Alan Rickman just reading stuff, like poems and excerpts from novels and plays. My favorite reading, because the only thing I love more than Alan Rickman’s voice is Shakespeare’s works, is Alan Rickman’s reading of Sonnet 130.