I participate in several online writing groups as part of my desire to develop myself as both a writer and editor. The other day, a writer in one group said her editor told her it was okay not to start a new paragraph when introducing a new speaker. This was after she posted an excerpt of her writing and several …
One of the problems beginning writers have is everything about creative writing seems so mysterious. There’s a blank page. You’re expected to put words on it so that your would-be reader has something to look at. That much is clear. That much we understand. A beginner may have a great premise—a scene they play on repeat in their head, an entire world they are filling with characters and adventures. Maybe they’ve even written it down.
But at some point, there seems to come the big question: what next?
How do you go from premise to story? How do you make a character relatable? How do you make sure that anyone will care? More to the point, how do you make sure that once the muse has arrived, she actually wants to stick around? How do you not start but finish a story?
Writing is hard. There are so many intricacies. Description. Dialogue. Narration. One scene alone does not make a story, and even the best premises can fall short when fleshed out.
Stephen King’s On Writing is one of those creative writing guides that tops nearly every reading list, but I only recently read the book. If you’re looking for a kick in the ass—someone who can pull back the curtain and reveal that it’s only old man Oz pulling the levers—then I recommend you stop putting King’s book off for another day. Crack open that spine and get ready for the world of creative writing to get a little less mysterious (but no less magical).
Here are just a few things the book has taught me.
Most of the writers I know have a bit of a journal obsession. Like our love of books, our desire to bring a new one home with us doesn’t actually mean we don’t have a stack of journals waiting for us already, their pages blank and ready to be filled. It doesn’t always make any logical sense. In fact, all those blank pages taunt us. They serve as a reminder of all the words we’ve yet to write, and we may not even be able to imagine how we’ll fill them.
Certainly, the possibilities are endless, but below you’ll find a list of just a few ways to use your writing journals.
A “writer’s notebook” may sound a bit generic, but I couldn’t decide what else to call this. This notebook contains a little bit of everything: story ideas, brainstorming, free writing, outlines. To organize all of that, I suggest employing some sort of color coding/tab system or purchasing a notebook with dividers. Once you decide to run with a story, you can start a project-specific notebook where you write down all of your research, background information, character notes, and more for that particular project.
This is a smaller version of a writer’s notebook. The point of a pocket notebook is that it be carried with you at all times, somewhere easily accessible. As you go about your day, you’ll likely hear conversations and witness human interactions. You’ll be in the grocery store or at an intersection and, suddenly, inspiration will strike—a scene, a premise, a passage of dialogue, a few lines of poetry.
You’ll tell yourself, “don’t be that pretentious fuck who pulls out their moleskin in the middle of the frozen food aisle to write a poem.” You’ll tell yourself, “I’ll remember it this time.” But you won’t. You never do. That’s not how this whole creativity thing works. So forget about what everyone else thinks or whether it’s any good or whether it will amount to anything in the end and write it all down.
You’re not writing, but you know you should be. And the guilt is starting to eat at you. How do you overcome writer’s block? Here are a few tips.
1. Listen to music.
The general consensus is listening to music without lyrics is best, though something soft and poetic—The Shins, Iron & Wine, Regina Spektor—works for me too. When I’m in the right mood. Or maybe just a mood.
2. Talk to yourself out loud.
Or a friend (even an imaginary one) if it makes you feel less crazy. Turn on your voice recorder, let your mind wander. Later, listen to the recording. Follow the thread of your thoughts, and see if any of it inspires a piece.
3. Wash the dishes.
It’s the sort of mindless task that allows your mind to shut off, drifting into a meditation-like state. Keep a notebook nearby to jot down story ideas.
4. Pick a character and find out what they want.
Any character. From a story you’ve already written or one that’s yet to be realized. Now decide what their goals are—what their motivation is. Write it all down. Bullet points. Sentences. Nonsense. It doesn’t matter. You’re writing! Look at you.
5. Turn off your inner editor.
Seriously (we’ll probably add this to the list a few more times, slightly reworded, for good measure). Writing isn’t the time for perfectionism. Words. On the page. Remember: they don’t have to be good, they just have to be there.
Read, watch documentaries, and take notes. When one discovery carries you away, let it. But don’t forget to write it all down. Consider using a literary swipe file to organize your research.
To your idea. To yourself. Is it any good? It doesn’t matter! Write a shitty first draft. With placeholders and cliches and characters who are empty shells and settings that are bland and lifeless. Let your plot meander. Create the bones of your story. Then go back and give it meat and skin and bite. Refine it and add layers. Take your time. Take years if you need to. There is no deadline, no ticking clock. There’s you and your story. You’re the only one who can tell it.
Savvy copywriters use swipe files to build collections of tried-and-true marketing materials to reference when they feel stuck. But whether you’re a writer, artist, or designer, we can all use a little inspiration every now and then. Building your own swipe file could be the very way you find some.
A Collection of Examples
So in the literal sense, what exactly is a swipe file and where is it stored? It is, simply, a collection of words and images that serve to aid your creative endeavors.
Everyone knows artists steal from each other. Okay, not actual theft, and do not plagirize. Instead, let’s call it inspiration. When you place something in your swipe file, your goal is to analyze the text. Why does it work so well? Study and improve your writing skills.
Where To Start
For one, there’s no point in a swipe file that doesn’t get used. The goal isn’t to be a hoarder of images and words and ideas that, once squirreled away, are quickly forgotten. Make sure to create a system that works for you (more on that later).
You can create different swipe files for different purposes. If you work by day in marketing while pursuing your own creative projects at night, create a separate file for each of those pursuits.
What To Put In A Swipe File
Take pictures or screenshots of passages that made you pause, laugh, or cry. The ones that connected with you. Save links to articles with topics that interest you or headlines that grab you. If you’re having trouble locking down the mechanics of your story, you might find what you’re searching for when you pinpoint what about other people’s writing drew you in.
I’ve started to make a note of first sentences. How do authors begin their stories? What about that string of words made me want to keep reading?
As someone interested in digital marketing, I also have a swipe file for advertisements and copy.
So you want to be an author. You’ve graduated, survived a few writing workshops, and produced pieces you’re proud of. But you still need to learn a few things. You need to find your voice. You think, if I could find the time or had people to read my work, I could do this. Your mind drifts toward thoughts of MFA programs and wine-fueled discussions of literature. Of the day you’ll move to New York City and walk the same streets so many of the greats have.
You’ve even had your doubts—is being a writer something you are serious about? Could you be happy doing something else? Because if you can, then you should do it. Being a writer isn’t for the weak of heart. But you’ve pushed past those doubts, sort of (we all have those days), and came through better for it.
You may very well be the voice of your generation, but there’s more than one way to go from writer to published author. So before you enroll, take a step back and consider your options.
According to CostHelper, the average cost of an MFA program at a public university is $30,000. But if you’re attending an out-of-state university, you’re looking at closer to $50,000 or $60,000. In fact, one term alone at a private university can be roughly $18,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s May 2016 report, writers and authors earn a median annual wage of $61,240. But this number is flawed for several reasons. Certain authors, like James Patterson for instance, earn millions, while less-established writers’ income varies drastically. The lowest ten percent earned less than $29,380. Some have compared the cost of an MFA program in relation to what graduates can expect to earn to highway robbery.
Writers may not be cooks, knives at the ready, but we certainly need our own set of tools to get the job done. The problem is what works for one writer may not (and usually doesn’t) work for every writer. There are no set rules: don’t use a bread knife to carve a chicken, for instance. If the bread knife leads to a finished novel, then fuck rules, right? Instead, focus on which tools work best for you, which brings me to writing applications.
To be clear, I will be focusing on internet-based, no downloading necessary writing applications in this post (the majority of which are free). In the course of my research, I was a bit stunned by how many options are available to today’s writers. Below I’ve included some of my favorites. Take a look, and see how incorporating the writing apps below into your creative process could help you be a more productive writer.
I’ve been using 750 Words for less than a week, but so far it’s keeping me on task. That is, I’m accomplishing the goal of writing 750 words, at least, daily. For thirty days, the website is free to use. After that, the creators ask that you become a member to continue using the service. The fee is $5/month. It offers a distraction-free writing environment, foregoing bells and whistles. The goal-based, minimalist environment encourages you to produce something (anything) every day, a habit many find necessary to being a writer at all.
When I sit down and log into my account, I don’t necessarily have a plan. I free write. I resist the urge to edit, to self-critique. Whether you continue to use the service or not after the end of your thirty-day trial, you’ll still have access to your writing and stats—another great feature. And honestly, at the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee, if it keeps you trudging onwards, do it.
Summer officially arrives on June 20th, but I like to plan ahead. With college now two years behind me (yikes!), I’ve finally remembered what it feels like to read for pleasure. Not because my professor said so, or, you know, because the book has their name on it. The act of it feels like being reunited with an old friend—we’ve picked up right where we left off. I have a lot of reading to catch up on, and there’s no better time to do so than summer. Here are the books on my summer 2017 reading list.
Author: Shanthi Sekaran
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: January 10, 2017
Solimar (Soli) Castro Valdez is eighteen when she leaves Oaxaca, crossing the US/Mexican border and landing on her cousin’s doorstep in Berkeley, California. Silvia, her cousin, is a housekeeper for the well-to-do Cassidy family. By the time Soli arrives, she’s also pregnant. While motherhood wasn’t the plan, her baby boy, nicknamed “Nacho,” keeps Soli grounded in this foreign world. When she is arrested and detained, Nacho falls into the custody of the foster system and, inevitably, under the care of Kavya Reddy and her husband, Rishi.
Kavya is a chef at a UC Berkeley sorority house. In her mid-thirties, she’s unexpectedly beginning to feel the pull of motherhood. When fulfilling this desire proves to be more challenging than she expected,
it takes a strain on her marriage. With Nacho suddenly thrust into Kavya’s life, she attempts to become the mother she always dreamed of being, even if that identity is wrapped up together with someone else’s child.
An emotional journey, there are no villains in this story, and there are no heroes. Sekaran gives a human face to the timely topic of illegal immigration.
Author: Samanta Schweblin
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Release Date: January 10, 2017
Schweblin’s novel is difficult to describe. Translated from Spanish into English by Megan McDowell, Fever Dream is a story of a young mother, Amanda, dying in a rural hospital, and the young boy, David, sitting by her side. Together, they attempt to weave together the events that led to Amanda’s illness, and the result is a haunting, dream-like narrative “where souls shift from sick bodies to healthy hosts and poisonous toxins seep under the skin upon contact with the grass.” And while David is not Amanda’s son, the two have met before.
At their vacation home, Amanda and her daughter, Nina, encountered David’s mother, Carla, spinning tales of her son on more than one occasion. Their eventual, frightening introduction causes Amanda to throw Carla and David out of her home. Not too long after, the three women meet again. In her hospital bed, Amanda tries to put the fragments of her memories back together, how that reunion led her down this path. Readers will begin to question how reliable a narrator Amanda actually is.
Summer may not officially kick off until June 20th, but here in California, the weather is already providing an excuse to throw on a swimsuit and head down to the water. It’s also giving me an excuse to search for bookish beach towels to bring along with me, like the one above (cats are jerks, so it only makes sense that they’re secretly plotting world domination).
Below you can find some more of my favorites.
It’s story time in this dark forest, where a friendly monster and cute bunny find a quiet spot to read. I love the soft, muted colors and imagery in this print.
Anyone who knows me can tell you my favorite movie is Jurassic Park (the book, though quite different, is great too), and as such, I’ve always been fascinated with dinosaurs. On this beach towel, the artist has combined dinosaurs and books. I love the fact that the dinosaurs aren’t only reading them, they’re made of them—their bony armor replaced with colorful books.
Myths, legends, fairy tales—we know them well, the stories we pass down from generation to generation. Add in folktales and fables, and you have yourself a plethora of names for the sort of stories people often lump under the same category.
Yet each of these represents a story with its own distinct characteristics. The terms are not interchangeable.
Editors and readers have certain expectations associated with different genres, and you’ll want to play into those.
Myths explain the reasons why things have come to be—why our world looks and feels and works the way it does. Think creation myths. These provide a worldview, telling the reader how it is that a certain practice, belief, or natural event came about. How the world itself came about.
Gods and goddesses, in all their various shapes and traditions and cultures, fall under this category. We are living in the mud on Big Turtle’s back. The Fates are spinning their thread, doling out misery and suffering. He said “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Myths are old, ancient things, generally speaking.
They inspire legends.