Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Development of a Writer

Writers are made, not born,
Photo modified from Petr Kratchvil
The idea of a "born writer" has spread as a meme. Take, for example this pin on Pinterest. But the whole concept of being born a writer is flawed. Writing develops over time. These skills don’t grow in a vacuum void of human contact. We start out with a certain amount of potential, but we need other people’s help to get there. Early environment, engaged reading, and writing practice all shape how writers develop.

Early Environment

Learning to write starts with learning a language, and the environment in which people are raised influences development. People are not born with any communication skills beyond crying. They can't even write "WAAAH!" Babies learn to talk in their home and daycare environments by listening to parents and caregivers. At an early age, humans have a capacity to learn language that is lost as we grow (which is why my toddler already knows more Spanish than I do). As Ayn Rand writes in her book The Art of Fiction, "Language is a tool which you had to learn; you did not know it at birth. When you first learned that a certain object was a table, the word table did not come to mind automatically; you repeated it many times to get used to it."

Research shows that children in poverty are exposed to fewer words than their peers in high-income households and have significantly lower vocabularies. By the time they reach school, these children have catching up to do. It’s not fair to classify people from privileged homes as “born writers.” Being exposed to a wide range of words from a young age does shape vocabulary, and might produce better writers, but they are no more born to write than people who grew up in poverty.

Engaged Reading

Photo Harald Groven
Just as children aren’t born writers, they aren’t born readers, either. Children need to be read to, they need to be surrounded by books, they need to be engaged with text in their environment—all before the age of three. Without a proper, stimulating environment, potential can be waisted.

I hope that anyone who considers herself a writer reads widely and varied. Authors don't have to have an MFA in creative writing; although, it doesn't hurt. We learn how to write—how stories are told, how dialogue works, etc.—by reading what others have written. As author John Green put it: "I really think that reading is just as important as writing when you’re trying to be a writer because it’s the only apprenticeship we have. It’s the only way of learning how to write a story." Avid readers make better writers, and those writers are influenced by everyone they have ever read.

Writing Practice

To call someone a “born writer” is a disservice to his grade-school writing teacher. She had to read his fledgling attempts and find ways of improving them. All authors went though a period of substandard writing when they were learning. The idea of being born a writer deflates the aspirations of a young people because they aren't good at it, yet. I don't want today's students thinking they'll never be a writer. Author Maureen Johnson has something to say about that:

The more people write, the better they become. This is why there are creative writing classes, MFA programs, and sections of the bookstore dedicated to writing prompts and exercises. Neither J. D. Salinger nor J.K Rowling came out of the womb knowing how to write. It took practice and mistakes and writing and rewriting to refine the craft.

People are born with the potential to achieve greatness. And some people are born with a higher potential than others, but calling them “born writers” discredits everyone who helped them along the way. Writers are made, not born.

J.K. Rowling Albus Dumbledore Quote from Harry Potter

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How to Do a Writing Workshop

10 easy steps to a writers workshop
Photo Modified from Greg Turner, Flickr
A few months ago, my writing buddies and I started the Berea Writers Circle. At our most recent meeting, we studied "The Art of Critiquing," focusing on peer-critiques. Some people call these "critique groups," others call them "writing workshops," I consider those terms interchangeable.

Many chapters and articles are written on the subject of how to do a writing workshop. For our Writers Circle, my husband John and I made this 10-point guide based on material from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft and Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit (along with other articles and our own experience).

Before the Workshop

  1. Submit a short section of writing a few days before the meeting so that everyone has adequate time to consider and comment. 
  2. When critiquing another’s work, read straight through before marking corrections. You may want to note first impressions. 
  3. Go back through the text. 
    • Mark spelling and grammar. 
    • Point out what doesn’t work—confusing language, misunderstandings.
    • Write down questions you have.  
    • Include praise for the good parts—saying what works can sometimes be more helpful than saying what doesn’t work. 

    During the Workshop

    1. Meet with the group and take turns sharing your impressions. Be mindful of the amount of time you spend talking. 
    2. Listen quietly to others’ critiques. 
    3. Be honest and respectful. Treat other's work as you would like your own treated. 
    4. Avoid comments such as “I love it,” or “I don’t like this,” without explaining why. Include a suggestion with every criticism. 
    5. Focus on major issues. (The writer can read your minor comments later.) 
    6. Keep the comments about the work, not about the writer nor what you would have written. 
    7. After a piece has been workshopped, the writer may briefly respond. 
    Members of critique groups should commit to a regular meeting time (be it monthly, weekly, etc.), and communicate with each other regarding absences. You can send your section of writing via email a few days before. Some people mark the document using their word processor's comments and track changes functions and send it back via email. Others like to print it out and bring handwritten comments to the workshop. Do whatever feels comfortable. 

      Tuesday, November 12, 2013

      5 Ways Reading a Book is Like Drinking Wine

      Photo via
      On a chilly autumn evening, I like to curl up next to my faux electric fire with a glass of Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon and read. I'll turn the pages of a well-loved book, or I'll download something new on my ereader. The wine and my book help me relax after a long day. And I think how much the two have in common. 

      1. Attack, Middle, and Finish
      Each sip of wine tells a story. There is the attack, the beginning of the sip, that introduces the characteristics of the wine to my pallet. Next there is the middle that contains the real body of the wine. Finally the finish resolves in my mouth, ending the tale. The attack, middle and finish parallel the beginning middle and end of a story arc. And, like a good wine, a good story lingers with me after it's gone.  

      2. Better with Age
      On our honeymoon, my husband and I indulged in a bottle Château Gruaud-Larose. It was so good that we bought another bottle to take home and let age. We couldn't do that with a lower quality wine. At least, it wouldn't turn out very well. Quality books are like vintage wine: they withstand time to be read again in the future. We call them classics.

      3. The Cheap Stuff
      Drink too much Three-Buck Chuck, and my taste buds lower their standards. "This stuffs excellent," I think. When I get around to drinking something decent, I realize I'd forgotten what good wine tastes like. When I finally open that Château Gruaud-Larose my pallet will revel in what it's been missing. Similarly, after reading a slue of airport novels, my brain adjusts to that style. It can even start to affect my writing. Thus it is important to read (and drink) widely and varied.

      4. The Book Hangover
      Sometimes I read late into the night, binging on the urgency of character-driven plots. "Just one more chapter," I tell myself. "Then I'll go to bed." After a night like that, I wake in the morning groggy and cotton-mouthed. I force myself to leave the covers. Un-showered, I trudge in late to work and vow to never do that again. The same goes with too much cheap wine. This is why I try not to drink (or binge read) on a school night.  

      5. You Can't Judge a Wine by it's Label
      The title and cover of a book can't guarantee what sort of story lies inside. While the cover gives some inkling of the genre and the title tells me something about the story, I can't really know if I like it with out reading. Likewise, a wine label might tell what grapes were used or the region where they grew, but I don't know if I like the wine before I take that first sip. I can't be sure about the book before I read the first chapter.

      Saturday, October 12, 2013

      Video: Ideas and Inspiration in Creative Writing

      A few months ago, I wrote about where my inspiration comes from. Then recently, I came across this video on the topic of ideas and inspiration for creative writers. Scottish writer Keith Gray talks about how he first started writing and about the books and movies that inform his writing. A key idea from this video is to read, and don’t be afraid to get ideas from other books and movies. Also good advice: keep a notebook. I’ve recently started keeping a notebook of my daily life and I have found that has helped me focus.

      When I comes to “stealing” idea from other books, I agree with Mr. Gray. A good writer can twist a classic plot and come up with new ideas. There really are a limited number of plots in the world, and chances are, they have already been written. 

      After watching this video, I am reflecting on my own beginnings into writing. I have a "book" of poetry from my elementary school years. I designed the lay out with clip art and printed it out on our color printer and stapled it together. I also have a handwritten partial story in a notebook from my middle school years that worked its way into my current novel. 

      Saturday, September 21, 2013

      Writing in the Present Tense

      Are we moving beyond the past-tense in modern literature?  Novels are no longer summaries of events and dialogue like in Jane Austen's time. Novels of the movie age show rather than tell. I often hear authors say to write cinematically--to put the reader in the action. Though films have occasional flashbacks, in general they show the events as they unfold. Even directions in scripts are written in the present

      Traditionally, most novels are written in the past tense. This is what people expect. However, we are experiencing a trend (especially in young adult dystopian novels) to use the present. Books like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Legend give the reader a first-person, present-tense experience.

      When I first read The Hunger Games, I had trouble getting into the present-tense writing style. I am accustomed to stories told in the past. To me, it makes sense for a narrator to tell events that have already happened. It took a few pages for my mind to switch from the familiar past tense. After the first chapter, I became so engrossed in the novel that tense was no longer a barrier. Similarly in my own writing, I find it hard to switch. I am working on an experimental piece in first-person present tense. This is a change from my usual third-person, past, and it takes me a few paragraphs to adjust my style.

      I have found that writing "in the now" gives quick-paced action and smooth transitions to flashbacks. It's easier for the reader to believe the point of view character is in life-threating peril. For a book written in past tense, there is always an inkling in the readers mind that this has already happened. The protagonist is telling it, so she can't have died during the climax. Present tense doesn't give this same certainty to the reader, which is probably why it's used often in modern dystopian literature.

      Even so, writing in the present tense is nothing new. Shakespeare wrote plays before novels even existed and used present tense for stage directions. They fight...Paris falls. Novels such as Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Updike's Rabbit, Run also employ the present. However, books like these are the exceptions in classic literature. For the most part, stories are told using the past tense. The storyteller is relaying events that have already happened.

      Recently, I asked on twitter for people's opinion about tense and person. Those who responded prefer the past tense. Keep in mind, many of my followers are of my generation. We grew up reading Goosebumps and Ramona Quimby--narratives told in the past tense.

      Kids today still read those books, but they also read stories told as they happen, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses. Today's generation is reading and writing as life unfolds, pushing storytelling into the present tense. It's unclear how the social-network medium of storytelling will impact literature of the future. Modern readers want books that are cinematic. In the future, will they expect books to be concurrent?

      Sunday, August 25, 2013

      Writing Contests for Unpublished Manuscripts

      The Dante Rossetti Awards – Young Adult Novels Writing Contest 2013 
      Description: Published (Legacy, Indie, Self-Pub, Small Press, E-pub) and unpublished manuscripts
      Host: Chanticleer Book Reviews and Media
      Deadline: August 31, 2013
      Fee: $40
      Prize: $1000, Promotion and reviews by Chanticleer Book Reviews and Media

      Women’s Novel Competition 
      Description: Novels written for adults (and young adults) in any genre by previously unpublished women novelists. Submit first 5,000 words. 
      Host: Mslexia
      Deadline: September 23, 2013
      Fee: £25
      Prize: £5,000, professional feedback

      Looking for Love 
      Description: Novel length (50,000 +) manuscripts featuring fresh, fun, unconventional love stories.
      Host: Quirk Books
      Deadline: October 1, 2013
      Fee: $0
      Prize: $10,000 and publication by Quirk Books

      William Faulkner - William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition 
      Description: Annual competitions for previously unpublished works (multiple categories, including novel, and books-in-progress)
      Host: Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society
      Deadline: May 1, 2014
      Fee: $10 - $40
      Prize: $750 - $7,500

      Page to Fame 
      Description: On going competition with three rounds: first page, first 5 pages, first 50 pages. Rated by users of WeBook’s site. 
      Deadline: On going
      Fee: $0
      Prize: Winners manuscript viewed by literary agents. 

      Wednesday, July 31, 2013

      4 Types of Literature

      Literature, by it's own right, is a troublesome thing to define. The word itself comes from the latin literatura witch originally meant "writing formed with letters." Well, you can't get much more vague than that! Today, people try to define a more narrow box for literature. Rather than the wide as scope of everything ever written, the word literature has come to mean a certain class of writing with shared characteristics. However, people disagree on which works fit in the box of literature. You don't find many people who argue that the works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen aren't literature. But what about Stephanie Meyer or John Green? 

      In The Study of English Literature, Samuel Cowardin Jr. and Paul More summarize literature as "such writings as have the power to stimulate thought about life, the power to stir the emotions, the power to kindle the imagination, and, to some extent at least, the power to survive." There are multitudes of books that fit that definition. Still, the box of literature can be divided into smaller compartments. Cowardin and More identify four distinct types of literature: romanticism, idealism, realism, and naturalism. 

      1. Romanticism
      The term romanticism comes from the stories written in romance languages (like french and latin). Prevalent themes in these early works were love, heroism, and adventure. Sometimes, the word is used to talk about a specific movement in English literature from the 18th century. However, if you take a closer look at writings from a broad scope of time, you'll find these romantic themes in many different eras. For example, stories like the Odyssey and Treasure Island are works that exemplifies the romantic spirit. This sort of universal romanticism, found across the ages, is filled with strangeness and wonder. Romanticism prefers the fantastical and contains themes of love and adventure.(Cowardin and More, 1939 p. 121)

      2. Idealism
      This comes from the latin word idealis, meaning "existing in ideas." These are things that exist in our minds. The ideal is something better than real life, something a little closer to perfect. Idealism within literature "designates a tendency to depict things in an imaginary way--not as they actually are, but as they are not"(Cowardin and More, 1939). Examples of this type of literature are Plato's Republic and Sir Thomas Moore's Utopia. Rather than describing near perfect places, some books utilized idealism in their heroes and heroines. They create protagonist so noble and good that even the best person in the would couldn't live up to the standard.

      3. Realism
      Realism acts as a counter point to idealism. This genre shows life as it is, not as it should be. These are the "slice of life" books which give us ordinary events and people. Realism isn't interested in dramatic moments or people who stand out. Jane Austen is an excellent example of true realism with her particular gift of making everyday life seem interesting. Some authors use realism to delve into the lowest depth of society depicting the ugliness and filth found there. 

      4. Naturalism
      Naturalism comes in opposition to romanticism.  It takes the idea of showing the underbelly of life to the extreme. "Literary naturalism tends to paint the bestial, the repulsive, and even the obscene in such a way as to give them undue prominence in the board picture of life" (Cowardin and More, 1939). In a way, it is a sort of exaggerated realism. Naturalism often deals with warring emotions such as lust, greed, and the desire for power. Emile Zola is a classic example of a naturalist writer. Examples of other naturalist authors are Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. 

      Question: What type of literature do you prefer to read or write? Are there other types of literature that Cowardin and More could have added? 
      Leave your answer in the comments.

      Cowardin, S., and More, P. (1939). The study of English literature. (2nd ed.). New York: Henry Holt and Company.