A new feature of our site
While we work on novels, submit work to magazines, and create stories for independent collections, our new way of staying in touch with our readers will be writing posts here about our progress and explorations in writing.
Thanks for checking in with us!
Writing A Query Letter
by Sandy Shaller
A good friend recently contacted me to let me know that there was a literary agent actively inviting submissions from new writers of KidLit. My KidLit novel was a middle grade fantasy, so I went to the agent’s website to read about her and what to do to send her my book.
Honesty requires that I tell you that I had been dreading the moment of actually submitting my “baby.” Somewhere in my head was the specter of the 700 rejections Jack London received before publishing. However, since my friend would be sure to ask me if I had “done the deed,” I forged ahead.
Dutifully, I read everything I could about the agent to make sure that my book fell into the category of material she was looking for. Then I checked to see how much of the book she wanted. All of that felt like the work of a moment. The part that felt a little more daunting was the task of actually writing the query letter.
I have written query letters before, and they are always nerve-wracking. Most agents want roughly the same information:
– A very brief, 1-sentence, summary of the book and your purpose in writing it.
– A somewhat longer, 1-2 paragraph, introduction to the book. (Not a full-scale plot summary, that’s for the synopsis).
– A brief self-introduction.
One source, of which I think a great deal, also threw in:
– Make sure that your letter is error free. (Shiver!)
– Try to inject a little humor. Agents get bored reading these things.
– Be formal, but manage to give the agent a sense of your creative voice.
The last two bullet points were perhaps the most intimidating. I was determined that the humor flow naturally within the context of the letter and that my creative voice not sound like the age 10- to 12-year-old voice of my intended audience. I also didn’t want to sound like any of my idolized favorite writers.
Finally, I threw caution to the winds and wrote the letter the way I try to write the first draft of my stories. I just wrote. Surprisingly, there was some humor in that first draft, and it actually sounded like me. Then I tinkered the mechanics to insure that there were no technical errors, attached part of my story, and sent it.
I have heard back from the agent…but that’s another story.
What We’re Reading
When we’re not writing, that is. These are books we talked about at a recent guild meeting, and they are all recommended if you’re looking for something new to add to your reading list. Title links take you to reviews or sites dedicated to the book. Author links are to their sites or pages dedicated to them.
Stay safe and keep writing,
Black Brother, Black Brother
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The Speculative Fiction
of N. K. Jemisen
The guild is excited to announce the publication of a great book written by one of our members. Car Thieves & Creek Beds is a lot of fun to read and the perfect antidote for our currently long days of sheltering in place.
Stay safe and healthy, and enjoy this good read!
Making Time To Write
by Vesta Clare
The guild has now held two one-day writing retreats and plans to hold another this October. After the most recent one, we talked about ideas for future retreats and I discovered how varied our requirements for a writing environment are.
A few members find that two hours is the optimal length for a writing session. At that point they need to get up, get out, and get moving. After doing something else, they can go back to writing.
Some have to be near a reliable source of caffeine (that’s me raising my hand on this one), sandwiches and pastries, or a place to walk. Most of us like quiet. A few prefer the ambient sounds of a coffeehouse. I think one person said they need to be in a place without WiFi to avoid the distraction options provided by the Internet.
Internet distraction can be a big issue for a lot of us. The appeal of spelunking online rabbit holes gets pretty intense when you’ve hit a rough patch in your writing. I’ve disabled the WiFi on my writing computer, a notebook, so it can only go online when I’m at home with cabled access. When I’m out specifically for a day or afternoon of writing, I can’t distract myself by pretending it’s time to do some research (that trick works every time).
If you aren’t part of a group that plans writing retreats you can put your own together, solo or with friends. Some libraries and schools have rooms you can reserve. Anything from a hotel room to a campsite can be used for a writing retreat.
There are also organizations that supply space and time for writers to get their work done. Some charge fees and some don’t. Some have an application process, particularly if the time and space they offer is very low or no cost. Here are two good sources of information on writing retreats:
Poets & Writers conferences & residencies database. And please subscribe to P&W if you can, it’s a great resource!
If you like to hike and live in or plan to travel to the U.S., there are a few Federal forest cabins available, depending on the time of year. The U.S. states of California and Idaho also have cabins on state-owned land you can rent, and the time of year is a factor here as well. Other U.S. states and other countries may have similar options.
Whatever kind of environment works best for you, give yourself the gift of dedicated writing time!
by Megan David
Writing is like any other skill, the more you practice it the better you get at it. In Angela Duckworth’s Grit, she explains that talent on its own isn’t what gets books written, musical instruments mastered, or Olympic medals won, but that effort plays a bigger role in achieving these goals.
I would say for myself that I put off writing for years, even though I had a strong desire to write, because I believed that I didn’t have much talent for it. I often thought about writing, but then I’d read Steinbeck and give up without trying because I thought I’d never measure up. Then, on a whim, I enrolled in a creative writing course. On the first day the instructor emphatically told us, “Never compare yourself to anyone living or dead.” Her words entered my heart like a laser of truth and from that day forward I began to write.
Now I practice writing by keeping a journal, similar I suppose to an artist keeping a sketch book. Journaling gives me permission to ramble and explore ideas, observations, and experiences without attempting to control them. It keeps me grounded and happy. Writing short stories takes more effort and discipline and, ultimately, leads to a meaningful and fulfilling creation that can be shared.
photo credit: Hannah Olinger, unsplash.com
WRITING BEYOND DOUBT
by Sandy Shaller
Let’s face it; writing is as chancy an undertaking as acting, making art or getting involved in politics. What makes an actor successful? Or a dancer? Or a painter?
Obviously, they have to acquire the skills that are part of the fundamentals of their craft, skills that will give them the most facility and flexibility in demonstrating their talent. But, ultimately, their success will depend on an almost intangible and indescribable quality: the power of the individual expressive voice.
Here’s the good news and the bad news. Your voice is your voice and you’ve got to go beyond doubt to use it. Along with building up your technique, here is what you can do to enhance your voice and add to its power. LIVE. Go out of your comfort zone and visit places you’ve never been to, observe people, listen to them, and strike up conversations wherever you go. Do research on topics that interest you or that you find provocative. Don’t deny your cultural roots, spiritual convictions, political ideology, racial identity and point of view on (as Douglas Adams would say): life, the universe and everything. Read good books and pay attention to what really works in the books, and most importantly, trust that you are unique and that your voice, used naturally and honestly, will be unique too.
One of the most unique voices in literature belonged to Ray Bradbury. Although he is often labeled as a writer of science fiction, Bradbury’s writing covered every genre: fantasy, autobiography, non-fiction, young adult, mystery, children’s books, and science fiction. Bradbury also wrote some of the most meaningful words about the art of writing and writing with originality. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the author of Fahrenheit 451; Dandelion Wine; Green Shadows, White Whale; The Halloween Tree, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Death is a Lonely Business, and The Martian Chronicles.
“You must write every single day of your life… you must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
“Write. Don’t think. Relax.”
“And finally, have you trained well enough so you can say what you want to say without getting hamstrung? Have you written enough so that you are relaxed and can allow the truth to get out without being ruined by self-conscious posturings or changed by a desire to become rich?”
BRINGING OBSERVATIONS INTO FOCUS
by Rhoda Olkin
As a psychologist and a fiction writer, I’m often asked if my background in psychology helps me with my writing. In fact, it’s the other way around – writing fiction informs me as a therapist. One aspect of writing is to have clearly delineated characters. We do this by showing how they look, talk, dress, eat, move, what they think about, their anxieties and preoccupations. Without character there is no story. The way this applies to clinical work is that each client must become a unique character. It is so easy as a psychologist to reduce people to categories (another depressed young female undergraduate) or a diagnosis (a depressive). If we do this, we become less compassionate clinicians.
Although there are standardized treatments for depression, individualization is necessary to know how to talk to the client, the pace of treatment, the metaphors one uses, what to say when the client is late or angry or demoralized, how hard to push or how gently to scaffold. To do this, we have to derive a case formulation that covers why this client has this problem and is seeking treatment at this time. These are the same questions we ask ourselves as writers – who is this character? Why does the character behave this way? What is driving that behavior, and what is at stake? The more I do this as a writer, the better I am at telling the ‘stories’ of real clients.
photo credit: unsplash.com
WE’RE HOLDING OUR FIRST ROUND TABLE
Following the example of the famed Algonquin Hotel lunches, the Walnut Creek Writers Guild will hold its first Round Table discussion on Saturday, January 12 from 1 to 2 p.m. Writers who would like to join us are welcome to contact Sandy Shaller on Twitter, @WalnutCreekWG, or Facebook.
See you there!
BOOKS FOR 2019
For holiday gift-giving, we gathered both fiction and nonfiction titles we’d given as gifts ourselves, or wanted to read as soon as some post-holiday calm returned. Now that the calm is approaching, we’re keeping our list posted so you can explore books for the new year. We wish you many good reads in 2019.
All the Women in My Family Sing , edited by Deborah Santana “…a rich melange of [women] writers…who go deep on a range of issues that will meet you where your heart beats…” from a review by Marrissa Dubecky
This is My Best Contemporary authors select their best writing, which editors Retha Powers and Kathy Kiernan have compiled into a volume of inspiring reading.
Wool, by Hugh Howey, the Omnibus Edition collects the five Wool books into a single volume.“The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.”
The Songs of Trees, by David G. Haskell “Haskell visits a dozen gloriously different trees from around the world…a view of beauty not as an individual property but as a relational feature of the web of life…” from an article by Maria Popova
The Writer’s Map, an Atlas of Imaginary Lands “…gathers intelligently charming meditations from writers and festoons them with map after map after map after map of imaginary, and sometimes non-imaginary, lands.” From a review by Alan Jacobs in the Weekly Standard.
Anatomy of Story, by John Truby, recommended by an editor to one of our writers.
NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman “…upends conventional thinking about autism and suggests a broader model for acceptance, understanding, and full participation in society for people who think differently.” from the New York Times review
Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge “No summary can do justice to the depth and conviction of Vinge’s ideas. The overall concept astonishes; the aliens are developed with memorable skill and insight; the plot twists and turns with unputdownable tension. A masterpiece of universe-building.” from the Kirkus review.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple is an epistolary novel. “The free-range hilarity of Where’d You Go, Bernadette begins with Bee Branch’s report card from Galer Street School in Seattle…” from a review by Janet Maslan
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon “Reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is like watching a gifted athlete invent a sport using elements of every other sport there is… The pure reach and music and weight of Chabon’s imagination are extraordinary…” from a review by Elizabeth McCracken
Federalist Papers “Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the essays originally appeared anonymously in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788 under the pen name “Publius.” The Federalist Papers are considered one of the most important sources for interpreting and understanding the original intent of the Constitution.” From the Library of Congress description.
CHARACTERS, PLOT AND MAPS
by Sandy Stuart Shaller
If you’re a writer, or hoping to become one, you’ll probably have spent some time thinking about picayune things like characters, plot and theme. I don’t know how it is for you, but I never know what’s going to come first, an idea for a story or characters demanding to be put down on paper.
I recently finished a children’s book that was only going to be a short fantasy story that I promised to write for three young cousins in New Jersey. But, the little devils were so wonderfully lively on paper that a short story couldn’t contain them. This was problematic, because I then had to stop the writing I had done so far and start imagining a novel-length plot that my characters could carry and that would be worth the writing.
When I finished that book, which is currently being edited, I wasn’t done with my characters. I wanted to write a sequel, but I also felt a real need to have my three white characters interact with a more diverse group of children. As I started to work on models for the new characters, I simultaneously started puzzling out a plot that would legitimatize the use of diversity. This turned out to be much harder than anything I had done before and eventually lead me down the path of research. Happily, I enjoy doing research, as it almost invariably winds up feeding both my energy and my imagination. Meantime, my cast of characters needed fleshing out, and here’s where we get to the subject of maps.
My writing group once spent a little time talking about our different writing methodologies. It seems that we broke down into two camps; those that get a creative urge and start to write, allowing the story to develop as they go, and those that need to map out where they are going before starting to write. I fall into the latter category…with a passion!
Before retiring from education and dedicating myself to writing, I was head of the elementary division of a private school in New York. My division was on a campus by itself. That meant that I wasn’t only responsible for the welfare of students and children and curriculum, but also for everything regarding plant, maintenance, housekeeping, food service and transportation. I quickly learned that only carefully organizing every aspect of my job would enable me to survive. This meant keeping meticulous files, binders and daily lists of “Things to Do.”
Since teaching was my first passion, I continued teaching English to our fourth graders with a strong focus on writing. One day our school’s tech department suggested that I explore a graphic organizer called Inspiration (for adults) and Kidspiration (for young writers) that might be a good tool to help my young writers organize their thoughts. These applications enable you to create visual maps. For me, and the majority of my students, this tool proved very helpful.
I use Inspiration maps to make a sketchy outline of my full plot, breaking it down by the parts of story structure that I learned from the English teacher that had tremendous influence on both my reading and writing, and my desire to teach, Ms. Sandra Kyman.
Later, my story structure map will be fleshed out in a detailed outline. This same process will be followed for each and every chapter in my book.
Similarly, my characters first land on paper in the bubbles of a character map. The components of a character map look something like this:
In order for me to keep all of these characters maps, plot maps, outlines and research notes organized, I create a binder which I egotistically design a cover for and then divide into sections:
• Plot maps
• Character maps
• Story Structure Summaries
• Plot elements
I read that Stephen King uses ten computers to facilitate his writing. The majority of the computers are used to keep track of plot elements and the various drafts of the book he is currently working on, another couple have the growing developments of future books he plans to write. That’s Stephen King!
In an article for the Paris Review of 1956, Faulkner wrote: “There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that no one is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer. He wants to beat him.”
– William Faulkner, an interview of The Paris Review, in 1956.
Whatever method you develop through trial and error, we all have one thing in common and that is the need to edit and revise. But that may be the subject for another article. Until then, happy experimenting, happy error making, and happy writing.
Our First Writing Retreat
About two weeks ago, the guild held it’s first ever retreat, which was a one-day dive into nothing but writing. Two members located a perfect spot. It was quiet and had comfortable chairs as well as tables with chairs.We all pitched in on food, coffee (essential writing supply) and extension cords. It went so well, we’re already planning another retreat for the spring.
Here is one member’s takeaway from the day:
Write . . . you can always rewrite later.
If you’re stuck, skip ahead to something that’s vital and inspires good writing—no need to be linear.
It’s OK to critique as you go, but don’t let that stop the writing.
I find it’s good to have an outline or list next to me. Think in terms of segments you can link later, like actualities (sound bites from sources you plan to air in an audio piece that your narrative will bridge together).
Don’t give in to the first temptation to walk away/distract/give up: force yourself to stick with it for an allotted time—even if you toss it later, you’re training yourself to write when you want, not just when you’re inspired.
Work where you can see something pretty (nature).
Think of writing as doing musical scales: it can feel like drudgery, but it’s a foundation that builds dexterity and fluency.
When writing flows, throw everything else aside and write until you’re dry.
Write with other writers, it helps somehow, and demystifies the craft.
— Michele Magar
A Fiction Writer Studies Screenplay Structure
A gifted writer I know once told me the best way to master plot and story structure is to study screenwriting. They’re action and dialogue segmented into the building blocks of scenes, and each scene is there for a reason. Studying them had forced him to look at, and cut out, the slack and excess in his fiction.
This past summer I followed his advice. I’ve only written short stories, until one of them morphed into something with novel-length possibilities. Realizing that felt like standing by a very wide river looking at the other side. I could see it—sort of—but wasn’t sure how to get there. So I created my own screenwriting study plan focused on plot and structure.
The first step was reading beat sheets (film) and plot worksheets (fiction). Beat sheet templates feel queasily like a paint-by-numbers approach to story telling (on page 10 do this, on page 28 do that). On the other hand, reading one for a film you’re familiar with reveals the steps in that story’s propulsion. Also, the templates provide a sense of scaffolding for creating your own plot. 29 beat sheets & worksheet links (bottom of page) Plot worksheet links
What drove it all home was creating my own beat sheet for a film. I watched Michael Clayton with a blank template and a copy of the film script open on my computer (lots of hitting ‘pause’ involved here), and wrote the beats out in the template. It was like seeing a 3D X-ray of the film’s architecture. It was also a learning experience that really sank in and left me with a sense of how to structure a layered story with complex characters.
Finally, a way to build a canoe and get across that imposing river!
Next I researched books on screenwriting that fiction writers considered useful. This left out all the paint-by-number equivalents. The two I’ve found most useful are:
Dan O’Bannon’s Guide To Screenplay Structure . O’Bannon addresses the logic and rhythm of story structure in a way that translates smoothly to writing fiction. He also examines theories of storytelling and structure from Aristotle’s Poetics through Robert McKee. That section alone saves you reading about six other books, which is no small gift. There are exercise sheets to prompt your own scrutiny of films (that could also be used for fiction) and a 6-8 page analysis for each of 12 films that includes an exercise at the end. You can create a blank template based on his analyses and use that to study other films or fiction. Highly recommended!
The second book is by Karl Iglesias and is made up primarily of verbatim advice, broken down by topic, from about 20 career screenwriters. Its focus is firmly on writing and story structure. A little time is given to dealing with studios and the film business. The advice is realistic and helpful, including references to books and teachers that had most inspired the screenwriters who were interviewed. The book’s title, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters is catchy but doesn’t really signal how thorough the contents are.
Most helpful plot tip: decide on the theme and make sure every scene is related to it.
My takeaway here is that, at the heart of the story you want to write and the spark that ignited it, there is an essential point you want to make or explore. That’s your theme. Don’t include an event or character that doesn’t relate, reveal, or lead to this core concept.
And that brings us back to the taut economy of screenplays, which is a good reason to study them!
photo credit: Jakob Owens, unsplash.com
You can also read excerpts by clicking on the story titles below.
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