Sunday, January 31, 2010

January 29, 2010

Greetings Fellow Writers!

Here in Birdland it's been a busy week - I've just started Spring Semester, but the weather doesn't feel at all like spring.  At least not with several inches of snow falling on a Saturday.  So to overcome the cold, we have some exciting new articles to keep you writing:

In Poetry... Follow the adventures of Sam the Gerbil as he provides material for an Elegaic Narrative Poem: Starting the Narrative Poem and What Is a Narrative Poem?
These articles introduce a new section of the site, our Introduction to Fiction and Poetry Blog.  These posts are inspired by the undergraduate class I teach here at Hopkins, and they provide tips and literary terms drawn from works by well-known literary authors.

In Inspiration...
 Looking for a good read?  Tired of the bestseller rejects in the checkout aisle?  Then visit our Inspiration Page for links to good books worth reading.  This week, we feature some key recommendations in Nonfiction, along with an article on The Importance of Reading Nonfiction.

We'd Like to Know...
Do you have a favorite book from childhood?  Have you discovered a new author who really know how to write?  Tell me about it.  I'll post your recommendations for your fellow writers (with your name and website as well, if you like).  Just think of it as a book club without all the hassle of having a club.

Friday Freewriting Prompt:
Did you love all your classmates in grade school?  Do you look back on the days of wedgies and swirlies with a kind of hopeful longing?  No??

Well then, Let's Get READY to RUMBLE! with today's Friday Freewrite: Iguanas vs. My Little Pony.

New! in the Members Area
We've had a few of our members post some very good freewrites, and I'd like to invite everyone to do the same.  If you haven't joined our Member's Area yet, then sign up now to take advantage of our upcoming class survey.

Happy Writing!

Ryan Edel
1-2-Writing Site Administrator

If you've received our Newsletter in error, or would prefer not to receive e-mails from us in the future, please reply back with REMOVE in the subject line.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Iguanas vs. My Little Pony

Welcome!  Thank you for taking a look over today's freewriting prompt.  As always, my goal is that you'll have these few minutes to take a break and begin to feel some inspiration.  For today's prompt, we'll turn the clock back to meditate on childhood, those days when girls had cooties and boys were just gross...

To start, I'd like you to imagine your nemesis from grade school.  Yes, the one person in class you simply could not stand.  It might have been the class bully, it might have been that boy who smeared boogers under his desk, it could have even been the girl who was your best friend in the whole world until she stole all the lipstick from your mom's bathroom.  Or maybe it was your deepest crush, the one you wanted so badly to talk with, but the two of you had nothing in common.  Might not seem like much of a nemesis, but the two of you were never seen in the same room together.  (Little did you know that your crush's nickname was Dr. Horrible...)

Now, write down this person's name.  Think about this person.  Imagine the face, those hands, that hair. Decide this person's animal.  Is this person an iguana?  A penguin?  A rainbow-colored pony with a soft purple mane?  You decide.  This person's entire image is in your hands.  Be as simple or creative as you like.  Write down everything you can about this animal: the type, the size, the shape, whether it has freckles or whiskers or barnacles dripping off its endangered little chin.  And write these things before you read any further.

Were you cheating?  Have you described this animal?  You weren't trying to read farther on before preparing your notes, were you?  I didn't think so...

Because you discover that you've been locked in boxing ring with your nemesis.  And your nemesis is looking mean.  Terrifying, in fact.  And looking horribly, oh-so-horribly, human.

Then you look down at yourself and realize...I am the animal I was just writing about!

Now, write as fast as you can for ten minutes.

Happy Fighting!

Friday, January 22, 2010

January 22, 2010 - My Novel Just Ate My Cat

Greetings Fellow Writers!

Yes, we've just reached the Third Week of 2010 - I'm feeling worn out already.  How are you doing today?  Is your new year off to a good start?  Have you had a chance to do much writing?

If you haven't written much yet this year, I encourage you to take a look at today's freewriting prompt below - fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent of that desire to to clean the bathroom.  And if you're working on a novel or another long piece of fiction, we have two article links below you'll be very interested in - Curing the Urge to Write and Researching Your Material.

If your e-mail is plaintext, or if you have trouble with any of the links below, please visit our Newsletter online at

My Novel Just Ate My Cat
Do you feel lonely?  Unappreciated?  Financially Unstable?  As if your life is no more than a slow death by papercut?  Then you might be a writer.  Visit Ryan's Blog for for information regarding the treatment of Deteriorative Autoimmune Writing Disease of the Liver.

New! at 1-2-Writing
Research.  It conjures up notions of boredom and term papers.  But it doesn't have to.  In fact, it's one of the best ways to bolster the realism in your fiction.  Find out more about How to Thoroughly Research Your Material.  (Or just use Wikipedia - it's quicker...and free...)

Friday Freewriting Prompt
Are you ready for 15 minutes away from the humdrum of modern life?  Then take this quick meditation in memoir, Opening the Door.

New! in the Members Area
As always, you can post your freewriting exercises, poems, and stories in our Members Area for feedback and discussion.  Not a member yet?  Then Click Here to Join - membership these days is Completely Free!  (As an Added Bonus, you'll get More Than You Pay For!)

Happy Writing!

Ryan Edel
1-2-Writing Site Administrator

If you've received our Newsletter in error, or would prefer not to receive e-mails from us in the future, please reply back with REMOVE in the subject line.

My Novel Just Ate My Cat

Novel Writing: A Disorder of the Liver
It's a tragic fact: novel writing has been proven to be the root cause of sixty-three percent of divorces, eighteen percent of unplanned pregnancies, and a whopping ninety-eight-point-six percent of all feline suicides.

If you suffer from the symptoms of "I'm Writing a Novel That I Have to Finish This Year," know that you're not alone.  Dozens of celebrity personalities such as Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Brittany Spears have also suffered from this condition.  Some have overcome their disability and gone on to lead perfectly normal lives as dysfunctional pop stars.  Others, though, are forced to live with their addiction by writing bestselling novels on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, doctors have been unable to isolate the gene responsible for Degenerative Autoimmune Writing Disease of the Liver (DAWDL).  But there is hope.  Please read on for what you can do if you or a loved one suffers from DAWDL:

Understand that frequent references to "Plot" do not indicate a paranoid disorder
Many individuals who suffer from DAWDL continually refer to this idea of "plot."  This does not, however, indicate any belief in plots to overthrow the government, plots to devour grandma's cheesecake from the refrigerator, or other plots to rule the world through the use of remote-controlled house cats.  Doctors believe that they have isolated the cause for this fixation on the word "plot."  It is somehow related to an insatiable urge to assign pattern and correlative coherency to a fictional life.  Common treatments for this symptom include green tea served in Japanese porcelain, frequent trips to Starbucks, and regular concussive lobotomy inflicted via frying pan by female spouses.

Stiffening of the wrists and fingers ARE symptoms of carpal tunnel disease
There is an extremely high correlation between DAWDL and carpal tunnel.  Doctors have been unable to determine the reason.  The predominant theory is that sufferers of DAWDL, due to their inability to sleep normally, often suffer from somnambulation.  It is believed that, while sleepwalking, these novel writers work for long hours at a GM automotive plant.  This would explain the repetitive stress injuries and the chronic lack of financial stability.  The only known treatment involves a soft mattress and duct tape.

Excessive Optimism coupled with Chronic Depression DOES NOT indicate the need for season tickets to see the Cubs
Psychologists studying the common "Those Cubs Are Gonna Win the Series Next Year" disorder (see also "Chicago, et. al.") have found distinct similarities with DAWDL.  Both groups suffer alcohol-induced cirrhosis, moments of excessive euphoria at the first signs of regular-season success, acute anger and depression at the first signs of a new year unaccompanied by a book contract/post-season playoff slot, and eventual resignation exacerbated by increased alcohol consumption.  Current research focuses on the use of Las Vegas slot machines and Wii as potential distractions from the more serious effects of this illness.

Support Groups only seem to encourage deterioration
Psychological support groups for individuals suffering DAWDL have found that these novel writers tend to encourage one another to express increased symptoms of the disorder.  Isolation from other suffers of DAWDL leads to limited improvement.  However, exposure to nature trails, empty rooms without windows, and large black birds of excessive size seems to cause symptoms of a similar disorder, Poetic Libation of EAting and SErial SHunning of Unknown TUPperware disease (PLEASE SHUT UP).

If you or a loved one suffer from this disorder, please ignore the links below.  They have been shown to encourage deterioration and the misplaced hope that the Chicago Cubs will win "next year."  Instead, please go to the nearest search engine to type in "Brittany Spears," "Martha Stewart," or "Censorship" for additional resources.

January 12, 2010

1-2-Writing Newsletter - January 12, 2010

Greetings Fellow Writers!

After a long period of reduced activity, the "New and Revised" 1-2-Writing returns to provide workshops and inspiration for 2010.  For links to all of our new features, please visit our homepage at  And please pardon our dust as you stop by - a great deal of the revised site is still under construction, but we'll have more up and running soon.

New! 1-2-Writing Members Area
For those who have taken our Summer Freewriting courses, we've decided to expand this program into our Members Area on the website.  Through the Members Area, you'll receive weekly freewriting prompts as well as access to our Creative Writers Support Forum.  In addition, throughout the year we'll be offering additional workshops free of charge to our members (and we all know how cool free stuff can be).  To sign up, just fill in the form from our homepage or reply back to this e-mail.

Upcoming Classes
For January, we're bringing back the weekly freewriting prompt starting this Friday.  Every Friday, all our members will receive a prompt to inspire some fun writing over the weekend, and then you can post your work for comments in the forums.

Starting next Monday the 18th (Martin Luther King Day), we'll have a one-week "intensive" freewriting course.  We'll have three freewriting assignments (10 min each plus some additional "prep" to get everyone ready to write) for the 18th, 20th, and 22nd.  Space is limited - the course fee will be $20.  Visit our Registration Page to sign up.

New! at 1-2-Writing
Starting a Novel?  Visit the creative writing blog too read tips on Starting Your Novel.
Do you write Poetry?  Learn tips here about Writing in Meter.
Considering a Master of Fine Arts?  Then you'll want to visit our MFA Resource Page.

As always, please let me know if you have any questions or if you'd like to see something new posted on the site.

Happy Writing!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

January 22, 2010: The Door

Freewriting and Memoir

Today, we turn to memoir for our inspiration.  As a freewriting tool, memoir is one of the best ways to reach deep into the subconscious mind in the search for inspiration...

However, it can sometimes be difficult to face past memories, let alone share them with the world.  This is why we never require anyone to share every story for a freewriting workshop - your writing is yours, to keep or to share as you wish.  And I urge you to remember this always - write whatever comes to mind, regardless of what others might think.  You have my permission to tear up any story you don't like.

So, first, please set your timers for 10 minutes (you may take 15 minutes, if you prefer), but don't start the clock just yet .  Once you're ready, please read on.

Now then, for today's prompt:
This prompt is one I personally enjoy.  It's a very simple prompt, and this is why it works so well.  Yet before coming to it, we're going to use a few minutes to center ourselves.  Often, writing feels challenging because it's hard to let go of the stresses of the rest of the day.  But for right now, we're going to do just that.  First, I'd like you to go ahead and take in a deep breath - a deep, soothing breath.  You may hold it a moment, and then let it out.  As you read, know that the shape of these words has been fitted to your next deep breath, and you're already taking in that deep breath.  You're letting it fill your body because today, now, this moment, you have only words and this breath.  And you let it out as a feeling of peace descends.  Breathing, now, is soft.  It is deep.  It is regular and comfortable.  You are enjoying this moment because today, as you read, you imagine a staircase.  It is a tall staircase, lit only enough to guide your way up to the landing.  And you are glad to be on this staircase.  This staircase, it leads to a door, one which you have never opened.  But there is something you want to write about, and it lives behind this door.  You have always wanted to write about it, and you are glad that today has come.  Because today, at this moment, you are at peace with your words.  Today, we relax as we take one step up, and then another.  For this subject - this very important subject you have always wanted to write about - is more than words.  It is an image.  It is a shape.  It is a collection of sounds you hear in your waking dreams.  And just now, at this moment, as you take each step nearer to the door, you hear these sounds coming from behind the door.  And so you reach forward, turning the knob, and opening your door.

Describe what you see.  Write as fast as you can until the time stops.

January 15, 2010: Freewriting with Heroes and Fruitcake

Everybody start your writing utensils for the first Friday Prompt of the New 1-2-Writing!
We’ll send these out every Friday to all Newsletter subscribers.  To post your work for feedback, please sign up for our Member’s Area.

Now then, Set your timer before reading further (10 minutes for this one), and have your paper or keyboard ready.  For this prompt, you’ll write down some “facts” for the story, and only after you’ve written down these facts should you go on and read the prompt itself...
Now, the “facts” of your story:

Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a mystical, magical land very different from our own.  It can be either a science fiction place with starships and a version of Microsoft Word that doesn't crash, or it could be a fantasy place out of Harry Potter where enchanted quills write stories of their own using lambskin parchment and black dye from Endless Ink, Inc.  Or, if you like, it could be a world very much like our own, except with one subtle change (think The Simpsons: there's a scene where the weather is terrible, it rains every day, but each raindrop is a sweet sugary donut).

Write down the name of this world, and the one key difference between this world and our own.

That done, imagine for yourself a kind of "hero" for this world. It can be an ordinary person with a special determination to "do right" by combating the scourge of donuts that have devoured the local weather, or it can be a superhero with some special power such as the ability to impose Linux stability on Microsoft systems with a wave of the hand.

Write the name of this character and the one "special power" or "special determination" which makes this individual a hero.

And now, The Prompt:

Your hero is getting married tomorrow.  It will be a very traditional wedding.  And the in-laws have brought a loaf of their famous fruitcake as a gift to the bride-and-groom-to-be.  But there's a catch: your hero is very, very, allergic to fruitcake.  And they've already set a healthy slice on our plucky hero's salad plate.  All eyes, now, are on the hero to pronounce this fruitcake delicious or...

(now write as fast as you can for ten minutes)

Happy Writing!


Be sure to sign up for our Member’s Area so you can post your story for comments – all freewriting feedback will be positive and reassuring.

If you have received this e-mail in error or would prefer not to receive such e-mails in the future, please reply back with REMOVE in the subject line.

Research in Fiction: The Foundation of Realism, the Structural Support for the Fantastic

When I was a junior in college, I took the "Intermediate Journalism Workshop" with Professor Ted Gup.  As a journalist, Professor Gup was renowned at the time for the release of his recent book The Book of Honor : The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives.  More, he's released his second book, Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life.  And he's received some pretty important awards for these books (including a nomination for the Pulitzer).  Clearly, working as a journalist around secrets as closely guarded as those held by the CIA, he knows his way around research.  He's probably met a roadblock or two preparing his manuscripts, making sure they have sufficient material - and evidence - for the general market.

Now, imagine a younger Ryan Edel taking Professor Gup's course.  I was an English Major by then, very excited about the prospects of becoming a fiction writer, and certainly proud of my own work.  And our first assignment sounded like cake - eight hundred words written about Cleveland's West Side Market.  And I was accustomed to writing ten or twenty pages  - I figured that 800 words would be the time to show my talent.  I even wrote over and then pared it down, cutting from 1,200 words to a magical 798.  And somewhere in there I also talked about my visit to the West Side Market.

I hope you see the problem in this approach.  Writing these 800 words for a journalism class, I approached the story not from the facts, but rather from the words.  On that trip to the market, I wasn't looking for knowledge about the market - I was looking for information for the story.  I walked around, gathering my laundry list of shops and locations, the general layout of the place, maybe a bit about the history.  The fact that my memories are pretty vague on this reveals something very important - I never actually experienced the West Side Market.

This of course became very clear when it came time to read our articles in class.  I tend to favor encouraging, positive criticism - Professor Gup favors direct criticism which is fair but very much too-the-point.  "Did you talk to anyone while you were there?" he asked.  And of course I hadn't - it never occurred to me that I should.  And even now, the thought of interviewing a living, breathing human being is rather scary.  I don't like the idea of asking personal questions, especially the awkward moments of sitting down for the express purpose of asking such questions.  But my list of shops was nothing to the history of the single stall that one of my classmates had written about.  Even now, I remember his line about "the smell of ground chuck" at the butcher shop, and then how he went on to read about the woman who had worked there for many years.  He didn't cover the entire West Side Market the way I had tried to - in 800 words, no one really can - but his article gave a name and a face to the place.  It revealed why a person would work there, how a person would find a life and a living there.  It changed the way I look at research.

Come back to the present.  Consider this idea that, as fiction writers, we must "write what we know."  And ask yourself - "What do we know?"  Me, I know about the Army and writing workshops and running.  I know a bit about books.  I can tell you what it means to be an RA, and I can talk about love and relationships and other topics I won't mention here.  But what about the weightless feeling of going into space?  Or how it feels to work under the hood a Jiffy Lube, coming home every night with the smell of oil permanently welded to one's hands?  Or how about the feeling of being ill and having no idea about treatment - maybe having tuberculosis in, say, one of those countries inhabited by two-thirds of the world's population?

Now let's say I wanted to write a story for one of these settings.  Clearly, I don't have personal experience with these situations, but I can still write about them.  Here are techniques for conducting the research necessary to do these situations justice.

1. Gain that Experience
This is very time consuming and potentially expensive, but it gives the most genuine result.  One of the reasons I joined the Army was so I could write better stories with a military theme.  Now, bear in mind that I enlisted the year after September 11th, just a few months after graduating as an English/German major with no other job prospects - there was a lot more going on than just a desire to write a better story.  But those five years in the military gave me an irreplaceable wealth of knowledge.  You can learn about claymores and RPG's and HMMWV's from books, sure, but can you also learn how to use a salute to insult an enlisted man?  Or how to say "sir" in such a way as to carry the mandatory respect while also telling an officer he's full of it?  These are aspects of the military one can only learn through direct experience, and this experience has significantly improved the realism in my stories.

(As you'll see in some of my other posts, one of my pet peeves is reading a military story that gets the basics wrong.  I'm reading a military sci fi book right now that has characters flat as posterboard, a plot thin as tissue, and language so direct that its stilted.  But the author gets the military part right - really right.  Maybe even too right, too perfect.  The book isn't that great, but it doesn't bother me as much because I buy the basic premises behind the military decisions.)

2. Interview Others - Better Still, Just Talk
I hate question-and-answer sessions unless I'm the one answering.  When you're answering, you have the power - you have the knowledge that someone else wants.  And for me, as a fiction writer, I already feel oppressed enough - my body simply isn't sturdy enough to support the dead weight of ego floating in my head.  So direct interviews are practically out.  And that's okay - tragic, but okay.  I've done a couple interviews, and I remember that I didn't like them.  More importantly, I understand why didn't like them.

Let's start with why interviews are important.  As I mentioned above, there are certain experiences that simply cannot be learned from books.  You miss the facial expressions, the tones of voice, the very subtle ways that people move their hands as they interact.  And interviews on TV don't quite provide the information you need, either - they're good, but the facts you need for your stories are very specific, and you alone will know what they are.  Unfortunately, you don't often know which facts you need until you hear the facts you're interested in.

This is where the interview comes in.  Say you're writing a story about the socioeconomic injustice of Jiffy Lube.  (Nothing against Jiffy Lube - I really like their service.  I actually take my car there for every oil change.  But for an example of some assertive interviews and a good reason for me to be wary of my favorite oil change, check out Channel 4 Takes on Jiffy Lube).  Now there are several perspectives on this - the needs of a business to thrive and prosper, the needs of those employees to keep their jobs and get paid, and the needs of customers to get their cars serviced at an affordable price.  If you really want to know what's going on, you'll want to talk with some people who work there - they are the ones who see the place day-in-and-day out.  Their lives and livelihoods depend on understanding the place and succeeding there.  They will understand the Jiffy Lube in ways that no customer or reporter will ever know.

But this isn't to say they'll want to share that knowledge.  Chances are, they won't just answer questions, especially if they don't know who you are and what you're after.  (If you look or sound like Channel of luck...)  This is where we switch to what I like to think of as the "soft" interview.  It's more of a conversation, really - just two friends, hanging out, talking about things.  Alcohol may help with this, but not in a "I'll get this person drunk so they'll talk" kind of way.  Actually, you should avoid that kind of thinking.  What we're going for here is comfort.  This is easy if you're having a conversation with a good friend or a relative, but it's hard if it's a stranger or a relative who's close enough that they worry about what your questions might mean for them.  (it would be like asking your parents about sex - probably not the best idea).

So what do you talk about during these soft interviews?  Lots of things.  You'll talk about yourself, and your new friend will talk about things you'd never think to ask about.  Conversations might slip to family, or they might slip to school, or they might slip to that topic you're really interested in.  Whatever you do, don't rush things.  Let it come naturally.  Ask questions to get your interviewee interested in the subject.  If you're ever lucky enough to talk with a former fighter pilot, for example, avoid starting out with "so what's the weight-to-thrust ratio of an F-18?"  Instead, go with the pilot's interests: "What made you want to be a fighter pilot?  How'd you like flying?  Which plane was your favorite?"  By focusing on the interests of your interviewee, you'll establish rapport and maintain they're comfort.  You send the message that the subject is less important to you than the person.  By doing this, you'll encourage your pilot to share vignettes about the pilot's locker room on the carrier, and then maybe that story about pissing off the colonel's daughter and getting a martini splashed in his face when he was actually hoping to piss off the colonel by feeding a martini to his daughter.  These stories might have nothing to with airplanes, but as you listen you'll find they have everything to do with being a fighter pilot.  (to any fighter pilots - I hope I haven't gotten things horribly wrong.  I've never had a chance to meet a fighter pilot, though I always wanted to be one).

Now you want to know how to meet all these people for your research.  The simple answer is to meet lots and lots of people - go to parties, volunteer, etc.  But this doesn't always work.  In fact, I do horribly at parties.  They're kind of like a serial interview, interviewing one person after the next after the next.  Not that I'm interviewing - it's just the stress of all the noise and people and having to "say the right things."  So I try to go out in smaller groups.  Whenever I see someone sitting alone at a party, I try to strike up conversation.  If I have nothing interesting to say, I ask a question.  It doesn't always work, but every little bit helps.

3. The Boring Part: Read.  Read a Lot.  Then Use Google.
I don't want to talk too much about this one.  It's mostly self-explanatory - read good books, find reputable websites, and learn as much as you can.  One strategy I do recommend is to do your reading before you do the writing.  Get a feel for your subject first - you'll find that research offers wonderful vignettes that find their way into your story.  For example, I'm working on a story right now that involves an electromagnetic pulse.  Now we all know from movies that EMP's wipe out cars, cell phones, and digital watches.  But would an EMP kill the brake lights in your car?  I didn't know.  But then I found this wonderful video of a guy driving a car under an EMP generator.  And yes, it killed the engine, but some of the dash lights still worked.  And, as an added bonus, I learned about why airplanes and certain kinds of research centers might (only might...still need to do more research...) be immune to the effects of EMP.  And this is very handy knowledge for when you're writing a story about advanced warfare.  Might change the plot a bit if the hero can find a drivable Mercedes parked on the street, or if he runs into the only nutcase in the state who has researched all this stuff so he could own said Mercedes...(trust me - if you have to ask, then your car would probably not survive EMP.  I checked.  If nuclear war is something you lose sleep over, then it's time to buy some beer for that interview with the local nutcase...)

So, with these tips in mind....Happy Research!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Vacations and Writing: Overcoming the Upheaval of Holiday Travel

So here I am, on my second trip of the past two months (Christmas in January...that's what happens when you visit your girlfriend's family in Thailand over Christmas).

For some, the happy stress of travel actually helps inspire new writing.  Watching a live cobra jump a moat and a low wall to fly into the bleachers of tourists - excitement like this can lead to some wonderful new takes on Edvard Munch's "The Scream."  For example:
The Scream, c.1893

The Scream, c.1893


Munch, Edvard

Buy at

The Scream, c.1893

The Scream, c.1893

Art Print

Munch, Edvard

Buy at

Unidentified Woman Screaming with Maid Coming Down Stairs in Foreground

Unidentified Woman Screaming with Maid Coming Down Stairs in Foreground

Giclee Print

Buy at



Art Print

Munch, Edvard

Buy at

You see that third one?  The entire painting has changed.  There's even a second person, now, and all the details are sharply defined - clearly the work of a live cobra sneaking into the room.  Somebody better call G.I. Joe before it's too late...

For others, the idea of writing while traveling is simply untenable.  And the reason for this is simple: most travel isn't that exciting.  Bangkok, for my girlfriend, isn't exotic - it's home.  With airline tickets what they are, normally she and I drive to exciting places like Illinois or Iowa to see my family.  Again, we're not talking about exotic - we're talking about home.  We're talking about "how the hell am I gonna write my novel when I'm surrounded by nieces and nephews and - God Forbid - my parents??"

I'm here to reassure you that writing while visiting friends and family is indeed possible.  Here are some tips and techniques for Escaping the Creative Suction of Well-Meaning People Who Love You:

1. Stay at a Hotel
Expensive?  Yes.  Antisocial?  Depends on the size of your family.  But with a refuge away from the smorgasbord of turkey and cranberry, you can take some time out to work on your story when you wake up in the mornings and before going to bed.  Assuming of course you aren't married.  In case of marriage, you may need to request a separate hotel room from your spouse.  And trust me, this is will give you lots of good material to write about - but you won't stay married for long.

2. Bring a Laptop
If you have a computer, this adds to your credibility as a writer.  Tell your friends and family that you're working on the next bestseller.  Some in your family will roll their eyes and leave you alone.  Others will be extremely fascinated by the idea of your novel.  They'll ask you all kinds of questions about the plot, the characters, maybe even which publishing house will offer you largest advance.  (Be sure to smile and be polite - there isn't a publishing house on Earth that knows the name Ryan Edel, let alone would give me an advance right now.  And I even have my own website.)  Some of these relatives will even remind you of the importance of sharing profits with loving and lovely family members.

This latter group of relatives is the group you most need to escape.  The most certain means of flight will require a fresh box of baking soda.  Clutching your laptop to your chest like a Roman shield, toss a handful of the white stuff into your mouth - the foaming will be mistaken either for rabies or cyanide.  If you have a strong enough grip on your computer, you can work on your novel in the ambulance on the way to the ER.  Either that, or you'll have to hope that defibrillator damage to home electronics is covered by your insurance.

3. Eat Lots of Sugar
It's a known fact that the brain does not use fat or protein for energy - neurons can only metabolize sugar.  And maybe caffeine.  So the more Christmas cookies you devour, the better your novel will be.  Assuming, of course, the sticky bits of sweetness don't jam your keyboard.  Or give you diabetes.

4. Eat a Ton of Fats and Salt
Good for maintaining a healthy weight?  No.  But your adrenal glands require healthy amounts of cholesterol and salt in order to function properly.  Symptoms of adrenal dysfunction include depression, inexplicable anger, and an inability to deal with stress.  All of these symptoms are exacerbated by the loving words of people who care more about your weight/finances/occupation than you do.  So toss back some hefty helpings of adrenal gland goodness.  Then wash it all down with some orange juice - the sugar helps with salt absorption, and the Vitamin C is also critical for healthy adrenal function.

5. Try Coke
Skip Coca-Cola, I'm talking about the real stuff, that white powder you snort up your nose.  Powdered sugar, flour, baking soda, anthrax - pretty much any white-powder substitute will do.  Some families might sit you down for an intervention, but most families won't.  Instead, they'll try to pretend they didn't just see you snort a line of powdered lemon-lime Kool-Aid, and you'll be able to sneak away to the garage with your laptop and a lawn chair.  As an added bonus, they'll actually hope you're out there smoking that cigarette you've been craving all morning.

6. Bring a Jacket, Gloves, and Voice-Activated Word Processing Software
Let's face it - your parents' garage is cold, especially over the holidays.  And it's nearly impossible to type with gloves on.  Or mittens.  And mittens are warmer.  Though they do make it pretty hard to clutch that cigarette you've been using as a dual-purpose lamp/nose warmer.

7.  Stay Home
The decreased consumption of wine, spirits, and medicinal nicotine will lower your chances of diabetes, heart disease, and lung cancer by up to 30%.  And you can assure your in-laws that this statistic is supported by irrefutable scientific evidence.  And you'll soon have irrefutable proof that divorce is financially taxing.

8. Fake Your Own Death
Socially irresponsible?  Naturally.  Tasteless?  Absolutely.  Especially when your own mother discovers you very much alive on her trip to 7-Eleven to buy soda for the wake.  I mean, really - those potato chips could have waited until after the priest consigned your immortal soul to God.

9. Drink.  Then Drive.
Vehicular Manslaughter carries a pretty stiff prison sentence, so you'll have plenty of time to write after the trial.  The downside is that it'll in be longhand on toilet paper.  And if you've resorted to this for the sake of your writing, I'm guessing you weren't married in the first place.

10. Forget Writing: Bask in the Dysfunctionality that is Family
You've had a rough life - first childhood, then school, now this whole trying-to-make-ends-meet thing.  Enjoy the few days you get with the people who will still invite you over for Thanksgiving after that whole fiasco with rehab.  Actually listen to the loving words they have to say to you.  Later, you can use these words as material for your bestseller.  Or, failing this, you'll have a stronger testimony to rest on as the judge considers your plea of temporary insanity...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Free and Instant Publication! The Joys of Hosting Your Own Website...and then Navigating the Minefield of Online Freedom

Okay, so I don't get to publish exactly for free...I pay like $6.95 a Month...but it's still my own website, and I can post whatever strikes my fancy.  And this, perhaps, can be a problem.

One of the major strengths of the internet is the way we can access simply vast amounts of information at the click of a button.  Yet, for all the convenience this offers, we also face the terrible specter of abuse.  Information is often misrepresented online - just look at the way some businesses will fill out their own customer ratings to give themselves more "I loved this place!"-type reviews.  Worse still, many individuals use the internet as their own hunting ground - I recently saw a poster at a bus stop here in Baltimore stating that one out of every five children is solicited online.  Now, I don't know how they came up with the numbers (are 20% of American children online often enough to be solicited?  Are 20% of our children visiting websites that would allow pedophiles access to their attention?  I don't know...)  However, we do know for fact that useful sites like craigslist and eBay have been used to sell nonexistent merchandise and even lure people out of their homes to be murdered.  We do know that some children have been solicited online - an even just one child is one too many.  And this is despite continual oversight by both the websites themselves and the authorities.

So what, then, should we think about the rest of the internet, the ones that fall in that middle ground somewhere between famous and utterly irrelevant?  Places like  No one will punish me if I post bad writing advice.  I could post outright lies, actually, and no one could do much - I don't offer services or require physical meetings which could endanger anyone's life, limb, or property.  About the only thing illegal I could do would be to accept money for classes which were subsequently never taught - it's a possibility, certainly, but credit card companies do a good job of stopping that kind of behavior very quickly.  (Not to mention I wouldn't be able to sleep at night - accepting someone's money is a bit more than a promise to do something, I think).

Money aside, though, how should we approach this freedom of the internet?  Thomas Jefferson once wrote that "ignorance may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it" - and I believe very strongly in this.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate defense of free speech.  But how do we know this works online?  How do we know that reason is combating ignorance?  Do they have a little button on Google you can press to defend yourself?  I'm thinking something along the lines of a link to "Combat Ignorance Now!" - maybe even make it a complete widget, with advanced tools like "Reference Wikipedia" and HTML code for "Fire Claymore."

Unfortunately, such automated functions will never exist.  Or, if they ever do, they'll never work in the ways we require - by the time technology is advanced enough to provide such wonderful toys, we'll need something still more advanced just to keep tabs on the technology.  (Terminator fans, anyone?)

As writers, we are particularly vulnerable to the lures of the internet.  Although we have many websites to protect our rights (SFWA's Writer Beware is a great example), the vast majority of writing websites are assembled by individuals like myself.  For the most part, we're small-time or part-time writers looking to claim a bit of online real estate, build up a following, maybe even get our names out there.  No one really checks up on us - no one needs to.  We aren't dangerous - we're writers (lol...)

This decentralization mixed with the very portable nature of our work (an entire novel can be attached to a single e-mail of less than one megabyte...) makes it very possible for scams to weave their way among our numbers.  Although the vast majority of writers, writing coaches, editors, and agents are legitimate, it only takes one bad one to ruin your year.  You might find yourself paying hundreds (or possibly thousands...) of dollars for online workshops or editing services which aren't worth either the time or the money.  You might even find yourself reading a website which tells you that everything you've ever thought about writing is absolutely wrong - that you should quit now and never write another word (note: even free advice can be bad advice).  Or, in the true nightmare for the unpublished author, you may actually find someone to steal your manuscript and sell it as their own.  (Please note: I have never heard of a single instance of this happening.  But I know it's one of my nightmares.  I know that other writers share this nightmare.  In my opinion, most people dumb enough to steal a manuscript wouldn't be smart enough to market it.  But it remains a compelling sort of nightmare...)

So what do you do?  Well, I have a few suggestions.  And I think these are focused just as much on keeping your sanity as protecting yourself:

1. Go to Real Live Writing Conferences
Online, it can be hard to know who you're talking with.  At a real live conference, though, you can meet people, shake hands, exchange business cards.  Many of these people have legitimate websites, and they offer very helpful services.  Or they have friends who do.  There's no better way to come in contact with reputable help than through word-of-mouth.

2. Talk to As Many Fellow Writers As Possible
I already know of a counterexample to Number 1 above - a friend of mine once paid very large amounts of money to a reputable writer for feedback that wasn't helpful.  Meeting people in person is great, but it's best to meet lots of people, if possible.  And this is where the internet is even more useful.  If you see a writing website that looks interesting, and you really want to check it out, then there's a good chance that others have already visited and commented on it.  Go ahead and Google the site you're interested in - you'll probably find feedback about the site (whether good or bad) that you can use to decide if it's a reputable link.

3. Use Your Own Judgement
In grade school, our biology teacher told us that when you get a bad feeling about something, there's probably a reason.  And I believe this is very true online.  If something seems too good to be true, or if the website just doesn't look the way you think it should for the services promised, then try to figure out what's up.  It might be nothing, but you never know.  A big giveaway, though, is spelling.  If you're visiting a website that promises writing or editing services - and yet the site itself is filled with misspellings, typos, or grammatical errors - then there's a good chance that something is wrong.

4. Beware Those Fees!
On the internet (as in life), know what it is you're paying for.  Any reputable vendor will let you know up-front what your money will buy.  If someone offers a workshop or editing services for a fee, feel free to ask them how much you can expect for your money.  My friend mentioned in Number 2 above would have been much better off had the reputable writer provided an estimate before doing the work.  And this lesson should apply to your entire writing life, especially when you seek publication - be aware of the fees a typical agent will charge versus the fees your prospective agent will charge.

5. Always Know You Can Walk Away
If a website just doesn't provide what you want, don't feel obligated to use their services.  If they're genuine, they'll understand.  If they start sending you lots of e-mails promising "Oh, just give us one more try" or "you should think twice about passing up our Deluxe Service," then that's all the more reason to walk away.  (Honestly, anyone who abuses your e-mail should be ignored.  All reputable vendors I know of will offer you the opportunity to be removed from their e-mail lists).

6. Tell Others About Your Experiences
Nothing can be more helpful - or more damning - than word of mouth.  If you've had a positive experience with a website, let your friends know.  If a website provides an exceptional service, post that on your own website.  Likewise, if you are dissatisfied with a website (e.g. "Those F***ers totally S****ed me!), then you should post this to online forums somewhere.  And it doesn't matter where - whenever most of the links to a site say "Don't go here, these F***ers will S**** you," then people tend to stop going to that site.

(You'll note that here on I provide links to sites like HostMonster and and Storm the Castle.  This is because these websites have made my own site possible.  For full disclosure, though, I do receive a commission from HostMonster if you click their link on my site and then sign up for a website through them.  It's the same with all the Amazon books listed on the site.  I still recommend them, of course, but you have a right to know where I'm coming from.)

I hope this article has been interesting and helpful.  If you have comments on it, or you'd like to relate some of your internet writing experiences, please feel free to comment below.  Of, if you prefer, you can visit our homepage and then follow the links to contact me directly.

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Welcome to the 1-2-Writing Blog!

On a website like this, it's important to develop a genuine community of writers.  This blog is dedicated to bringing in many writers who will share their thoughts, their perspectives, and their techniques for creative writing.  My hope is that this blog will serve as a central place for inspiration on the site.

Happy Writing!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Marching Orders: Write the Beginning of a Novel

About a month ago, my thesis adviser gave me "marching orders" for my novel-in-progress: "I want you to write the first fifty pages," she said.  "I'd hate to have you graduate without getting that down."
What she means by "getting that down" is one of the most fundamental aspects of writing the long fiction piece: the ability to write a solid beginning.  And we know from publishing practices that the very first lines of a book manuscript can determine if that first chapter gets read by an agent, and the first three chapters can play a very, very critical role in determining whether a publisher picks up your book.  Learning to write the beginning, then, is not only a necessary skill for becoming a full-fledged writer, but also a strong economic move - and you know a writer needs every economic advantage he or she can find.
In this post, I'll talk about how to go about writing the beginning to your novel while also discussing why I'm having so much trouble writing the beginning to my own.

1. Find Your Character's Voice
The first step in writing any beginning is to determine the voice of the work.  Many writers and writing coaches present this as a kind of tactical decision - they recommend that you decide which point of view can tell your story best, and then you use that point of view to "show what you need to show."  I actually disagree with this approach - for me, the voice of the piece must be a natural extension of the work, and you won't always know that voice until you start writing.
For my own novel, I'm somewhat lucky - I have a very strong character who I've been writing about for years.  His name is Jonathan Mitchell, he's soldier (and I'm a veteran, so I can relate to his mentality), and he's fighting a bunch of aliens from the future (a very original plot, I know...).  For me, when I sit down, his voice just comes right out.  I'm very comfortable writing him.  And, unfortunately, his voice is not a storytelling voice - if he was a living, breathing person, he would never tell anyone the story that I need to turn into a novel.  He's more of the taciturn type, the "I've been there and back and there's no reason you have to share the pain, too" kind of person.
So when I refer to the voice of the work, I'm not necessarily referring to the voice of your protagonist.  In fact, it's quite possible that your main character will not even provide the primary point-of-view of the work - just think of Dr. Watson telling the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or the narrator who relates the stories of Poe's C. Auguste Dupin.  If your story is written in third-person, you may purposely pull back from the main character at times, telling the audience what the main character is thinking (or a fact he doesn't know yet, or a perspective he's never thought of).  For me, I write the Jonathan Mitchell character from a very limited third person - we only ever see what he sees.  At the same time, though, the narrative voice is not his own voice:
He motioned with the gun and told her take a seat.  She reminded him, somewhat, of a girl he'd known in high school - short, petite, that red hair.  He had trouble thinking of her as an enemy, someone he might have to shoot or possibly even kill.  But she was Martian.  She wore their uniform, had that eternal stoned look to her eyes.  Still, when he took the seat across from her, he forgot, for a moment, the dangers.  He set the pistol on the table.  He closed his eyes.  He was tired.  He really wanted to sleep.  Only then did he jerk awake - she was already reaching for the gun.
Now, if Jonathan was going to tell us what happened, it would be a very different story:
I told her to sit down.  I shouldn't have set the gun down, but I was really tired.  If I'd been smarter I would have stayed on my feet - I should have known better than to take a seat.
Note that Jonathan's person voice is very focused on his own sense of "should have" and "shouldn't have."  He misses - or simply doesn't care about - many of the details that a reader would need in order to fully see this story.  The look of the Martians, for example - the fact that they look so human that "she reminds him of a girl he knew in high school."  He'd never let on a detail that personal, but understanding him requires that the reader sees this about him.
Now I'm not saying that the first-person perspective here is necessarily the wrong approach to this story - it would simply be different.  The tone of Jonathan's first-person narrative is somewhat reminiscent of a hard-boiled detective novel - "I should have known better than..." is the kind of line we here just before bad things go down, and the relative lack of information could be used to build some inherent tension.  But it really depends on the writer.  As a person, you'll find that you naturally gravitate to certain voices, that they resonate with you in interesting ways.  Hopefully you can do with more than one character voice - this gives you more room to experiment when it comes to Step 2 below.

2. Experiment
Honestly, this shouldn't be listed as Step 2 - it should be combined with finding the right voice above.  In order to find the right voice, you may well need to experiment a lot.  When I write stories, I often start anywhere between three and ten drafts before I find the right combination of voice and opening scene.  And sometimes these drafts are pretty long - one of my short stories (20 pages or so) was written from scratch after I cut a 33-page opening.  Those 33 pages were going great until one morning I woke up and realized "no, that's not right."
I'm relating this to you as a separate step because I really want you to give a lot of attention to experimentation.  Too often, I see classmates in workshop submit the same stories written in the same ways.  They write a story that feels "comfortable," and then they lock in that opening as if it was gospel.  I feel that this is the wrong approach.  I strongly believe in writing quickly and trying to churn out drafts as quickly as possible - it really helps you keep the creative and emotional energy flowing at full-tilt (either that or it's a sign of mania - I think the verdict's still out on that one...)  However, when you write, don't chain yourself to the comfortable.  If you wake up one morning and something doesn't feel right, feel free to rewrite.  In fact, given the choice between editing and rewriting, I believe rewriting is often a stronger way to go.  Just as master painters will sketch multiple "studies" of a subject before laying brush to canvas, so too should you write studies.  Try out rough drafts, experiment with different voices, feel free to rewrite.  What I've found is that through rewriting, I often discover a voice that I couldn't have envisioned before, a much stronger voice than you'd find in my original openings.  And when this happens, you as a writer will take a stronger interest in your own work.  The story will begin to write itself.
This said, it is possible to take experimentation too far, especially with the opening of a piece.  It's very likely I'm guilty of this.  Currently, I'm on opening draft 30-plus with this Jonathan story - that's not 30-plus pages, but rather over thirty different first pages.  Some even go up to five pages.  By the time this story really gets rolling, I may have a few hundred pages of slush taking up space on my hard drive.  (Can you imagine if I was writing this stuff out by hand?  Or on a typewriter?  I wouldn't have enough space in my apartment to store the excess pages.  I'd need a burn barrel next to the shredder just to stay sane.)
At a certain point, a story does just need to be written.  So if you do find yourself in the kind of position I'm describing, I recommend you don't follow my example.  Instead, continue to experiment with the voice of your work as you move on past Chapter One.  If your gun-toting muscle-bound marine suddenly decides to a cigar-smoking Kara Thrace in Chapter Three (see Battlestar Galactica), then just go with it - you can always rewrite Chapters One and Two later.

3. Bum to Seat - Keep Writing

 My thesis advisor's marching orders for me require fifty pages.  Now fifty pages is a good chunk of story, especially when you consider that a complete novel may be eighty to two hundred pages.  This kind of writing requires diligence - you won't write this much in just one day (trust me, I've tried.  I think I've maxed out at up to 35 pages in a single day - that's eight to eleven hours of writing in one day.  By the end of a day like that, I start to lose touch with reality.  It gets really hard to think about things like eating or going to class when you've immersed yourself in a story like that).
The goal here is to be reasonable - push yourself, write for long enough periods to let your inspiration get warmed up, but don't overdo it.  (Or if you do overdo it, treat yourself to lunch at Chipotle or something to get out of the apartment and experience this amazing thing called real people).  The main thing with writing a novel is that it requires sustained effort spread out over the course of days that stretch into months and possibly years.  We're talking about a real investment of time and energy - we're talking about the kind of labor usually reserved for a Ph.D. thesis or the architectural plans for a skyscraper.  And with that reassuring thought...

Step 4: Enjoy Yourself
I'm serious - cherish the moments you write.  If possible, steal away from things you "should" be doing to write - it adds a sense of adventure to the undertaking (especially when your landlord is pounding on the door for rent money that you won't have until you publish the bestseller that's just waiting to be written...and no, that's never happened to me, though I did once lose a job because of National Novel Writing Month - I was writing long into the night on opening day when I "should" have been studying for employment training.)
Something here I want to emphasize is that the best stories are often written without the author really knowing where they come from.  You sit at the computer or with your legal pad, and you scribble away, and sometimes a character will just jump out at you.  You keep writing to find out what this character will do next.  Pretty soon, this character's life becomes far more interesting than your own.  Or maybe this character's life is your own, and you can feel all the pain and heartache of regret just pouring out of your soul and onto the page.  These are the moments when the real writing occurs - enjoy them.  Let them happen.  Follow them wherever they take you.  Because honestly, these moments don't last forever, and they might not come every day.  So...

Step 5: Accept Disappointment, Learn from It, and Keep Writing
When I say that writing a novel may take years, this is especially true for the first one.  Something to bear in mind with this process is that novels are not necessarily written in a linear fashion.  I read somewhere that Margaret Mitchell, when she was writing Gone with the Wind, would keep each chapter in a little folder, and she'd just pull out a different chapter each day to work it and rework it.
The novel I'm currently working on is actually one I've written before - at least the main idea.  I wrote it while deployed to Afghanistan - we had no movie theaters or restaurants and only limited internet, so it was a great time for some serious writing.  So in about ten months I wrote a science fiction novel that was 190,000 words.  And I felt great - for me, it was the most amazing thing I'd ever written.  I felt for sure that I'd finally "done it" - written something that would get me noticed.
It didn't take long though before I realized that the "novel" I'd written was actually really bad.  I mean, it's so badly written that I get a vague sense of nausea every time I open it to take a look.  And I still keep a printed copy handy - it's sitting in a three-ring binder on the floor by my desk.  I tried to line-edit it soon after finishing the last chapter, and that's when I saw the real flaws - the protagonist (Jonathan) made no real decisions, much of the plot was forced, and the lines themselves were so convoluted that I had to make the pages bleed red with all the run-on sentences I needed to cut.
That was December 2005, when I finished the last chapter.  Now it's January 2010, and I'm rewriting the same story - those 190,000 words turned out to be a first draft.  Or a very long study in characterization.
As you can imagine, I was disappointed by that manuscript.  I wasn't what I had hoped for.  It wasn't even close.  Worse still, publishers rarely accept any novel over 100,000 words from a first-time writer - unless I wanted to self-publish, that manuscript wasn't making it to the bookstore shelves, let alone the bestseller lists.
But this isn't to say the story wasn't important.  In many ways, writing that long, convoluted, deus ex machina text provided a critical turning point in my writing.  It taught me a certain discipline which serves me very well now that I'm an MFA student - when I need or want a story, I can sit down and write it.  If need be, I can churn out words, pumping out those long studies in characterization.  Some of them even become full-fledged stories.  It is much, much easier to experiment when you write enough to try more than one approach to a given story.
Just as important, though, is the fact that the long work really showed me the major flaws in my writing.  In writing, the greatest disappointments often teach you the most important lessons - it's when one of your own stories really fails that you see what it takes to make the story work.  And I believe that writing a novel - any novel - is one of the best ways to learn your own writing style.  After writing a novel manuscript, you can't help but compare it to the books your read from other authors.  It makes you appreciate what the best authors do - you see the entire process of writing in a new, more refined light.

Conclusion: Go Write Your Novel
I don't believe I've made the novel sound simple, but I do hope that I've shown the benefits and sacrifices inherent in writing the longer work.
Hopefully, many of you who read this are working on or are planning on writing a novel.  Even if you aren't, though, many of the techniques described here work well for any kind of writing career.  To succeed - to write stories and poems that will be published and then loved by readers - takes a great deal of dedication.  You should enjoy it so you can love it - otherwise, you may find yourself staring at a blank screen and hating your life for years at a time.
Success in writing rarely comes overnight.  And many times, people measure success in the wrong ways.  I know that I've mentioned publishing several times in this article, but I don't want you to think that publication is the be-all and end-all of writing.  The writing you do should first be for yourself - it should represent the stories that you personally need to tell.  Only then will your stories and poems resonate with the kind of genuine truth necessary for your own satisfaction and, later, publication.
Bear in mind that every great writer starts somewhere.  Wherever you are in your writing - whether scribbling your first story into a journal this week or punching away at the keys every day in hopes of publication - you are a writer.  Whether you write for a living or simply write for your life, you are taking part in one of the most important pursuits I know - printing lives and perspectives to a more permanent record, to a literature that can be shared with readers across time and distance.  Whether your stories are read by thousands or even just by the grandchildren yet to be born, they will represent your legacy in a way possible through few other means.

Happy Writing,

Blogging Thoughts

Websites are a funny thing.  I started 1-2-Writing after a few less-than-positive experiences with writing workshops - both online and in-person.  The biggest problem I ran into was price - I was paying money for workshops (some rather serious money - $500 for one of the online courses I took) and getting some really bad service.  It wasn't that I disagreed with the feedback or that the instructors were people I didn't like - it just seemed like they didn't know how to teach.  They were good writers, great people, but not very well organized.  I wouldn't have minded if the workshops were free, but they weren't.  It didn't help that I was barely employed at the time - I had just gotten out of the Army, I was paying rent for the first time in my life, and the only jobs I had were these part-time spots that barely covered rent, let alone food and health insurance and car insurance and my internet cable and...but who's counting?  When you get to the point that you're buying generic dried beans from Harris Teeter so you can make a batch of chili that's even cheaper than the last batch, you get a bit irate after dropping a few hundred dollars for a writing course that doesn't pay off.

Like I said, though, it wasn't that I disagreed with the feedback.  The real problem was the relative lack of feedback.  The course for which I paid $500 was a 15 week novel writing course - I received no feedback from the instructor until after I submitted my third assignment some nine weeks into the course (and trust me, two months is a long time to wait for feedback worth $500).  We were told the problem was instructor illness, and then the course was extended, and a new instructor brought in, but it was very hard to get back in the swing of things.  The web administrator offered us all $250 refunds, but there was no reply back when I e-mailed in.

You can imagine that this experience turned me off to online workshops.  Unfortunately, I think I was one of the lucky ones.  After this experience, I made it into an MFA program, so I don't pay money for writing courses now.  But I have friends who do.  I've seen one friend pay a very, very large amount of money (thousands of dollars) for writing help with turned out to be little more than line edits.  And it galls me because there isn't a lot I can do about it.  I'm not exactly famous, I can't exactly say I've written enough to argue with these instructors who've published several books each.  All I have out there is a short story and the fact that I'm earning in MFA.  But I do have some knowledge.  Maybe I haven't published much yet, but I've written a lot, especially compared to where I was when I first dropped engineering to pursue creative writing.  It's not so much that I know enough to teach everything, but I can teach more than some of my teachers have.  They may have known more, but they didn't have the time or - in my opinion - the knowledge of teaching necessary to convey their experience.

That, however, was two years ago - before I'd even finished applying to MFA programs.  Since then, I've taught three semesters of undergraduate writing as part of our MFA program.  What amazes me the most about teaching is not how much I know about writing, but how much I still have to learn about teaching.  I've had to reconsider what I thought about the $500 instructor who disappeared.  Sometimes, I wonder what I would really do if I became so sick that I couldn't teach - I'm not sure I would want my students to know just how sick I really was, and it's possible that she really couldn't continue with the course.  And although I feel that I am a better teacher than some instructors I've met, I realize now that I am not the best teacher out there, not by far.  Over the years, I've learned how to provide good feedback and good encouragement, but I've taken workshops from teachers who can literally light up a room.  Two teachers I highly recommend for anyone who has a chance - Zelda Lockhart and Pat Schneider - changed the way I write.  Another writer who I've only met through an online workshop - Karlyn Thayer - really kept me going when I was first learning to tighten my short stories.  I wish I had space here to list all the teachers who've helped me - there's no way I would have made it even this far without the help of many, many people, most of whom I've only known for brief periods between moving.  I have more than enough proof that writing workshops do work - maybe not always, and maybe not perfectly, but they do help your writing.

And something else to consider is what I've learned from the writing instructors who weren't as helpful.  Sometimes, the books that best show you how to write well are the ones where you can see where the writing failed - I think the same is true for writing workshops.  The great workshops gave me the experience and the desire necessary to take up writing - it was the bad ones that pushed me to take charge of my writing, to stop waiting for my writing to "improve enough" for me just just start publishing.  What I've found is that it doesn't happen that way - some days you write well, some days you write through setback, and some days are so bad that you want to write but can't.  Regardless of the situation, regardless of where you're at or the resources you have, you have to keep faith in your writing and push onward.  If you read a book that's terrible, you sit down to write another one - if you take a workshop that's not worth the money, you start a website and do better.

With this thought, I encourage each of you to keep up the faith and know that, whatever your publications or lack of publications, you're a writer.  And something I've learned over the years is very simple, but many people forget either one side of it or the other: every writer has something to learn, and every writer has something to teach us.

Happy Writing,

Friday, January 1, 2010

Teaching Meter

This is the lesson I’ve been working on the past couple semesters, and I think it finally works pretty well.  The main idea is just to expose them to meter and to give them the freedom and confidence to play around with it.  If you find ways to improve or condense the lesson, please let me know.  --Ryan

Explanation of iambic pentameter and language
•    English is a stressed-syllabic language very similar to German – we naturally speak with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables (the “Nazi Staccato” used to stereotype German in old war movies is a result of this effect being exaggerated)
•    When people converse, they generally speak in short exchanges.  Ten syllables is relatively close to how much a person might say before expecting another to speak.  (for chemistry or physics students, you can think of this as a “quantum” of conversation…)
•    Romantic languages also have stressed syllables, but these stresses are determined by position in a sentence and not by relation to other words.
•    In languages such as Japanese, no syllables are stressed in relation to other syllables, so iambic (or trochaic, dactylic, etc) patterns are nonexistent in poetry.
•    In German, plays from Shakespeare’s time were often written in iambic pentameter.  German sonnets and other poems also relied heavily on meter.

For Reference (students don’t need to memorize, just need to know they exist):
Iamb (Iambic)        Unstressed + Stressed            Two Syllables
Trochee (Trochaic)    Stressed + Unstressed            Two Syllables
Spondee (Spondaic)    Stressed + Stressed            Two Syllables
Anapest (Anapestic)    Unstressed + Unstressed + Stressed        Three Syllables
Dactyl (Dactylic)        Stressed + Unstressed + Unstressed        Three Syllables

Demonstrations of Meter
Live demonstration is the best way to reveal the inner workings of meter.  For science students, you can compare this to poetic vivisection (real-time dissection of a living, breathing poem…perhaps even a purple dinosaur…)

Demo 1 – The Barney Song:
o    I love you, you love me (Anapestic)
o    We’re a hap-py fa-mil-y (iambic/trochaic)
o    With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, (Changing meter – note the way the anapestic portions split the line into two natural sections)
o    Won’t you say you love me too? (iambic/trochaic)

Demo 2 – Dialoge: A change in stress changes the meaning of a sentence:
    “What did he do?” (i.e. What scandal did that politician pull off this time?)
    “What did he do?” (i.e. I don’t believe the explanation you just gave me – what in God’s name that that idiot actually do?)
    “And what did she do?” (i.e. How did his wife respond?)
Demo 3 – Ask students to provide an example sentence
Any kind of natural sentence will work (don’t use a quote from literature or movies, though).  Write it on the board.  Ask them to identify which syllables are stressed (and encourage discussion when not everyone agrees).  Point out that multiple stresses are possible, and that some changes in stress may change the meaning or impact of the sentence.  Use stressed/unstressed marks above the syllables to show which ones are stressed and which ones are unstressed.

Now discuss the “shortcuts” to identifying which syllables will be stressed and unstressed in natural speech.
•    Polysyllabic words: the stress in these words is carved by God and cannot be changed.  Example: Zom-bies and Were-wolves are always trochaic.  zom-BEES and were-WOLVES simply don’t sound right.  Sounds like some kind of timber wolves went after the beekeeper.
•    Single-syllable words: stress is determined by word type and position in the sentence.
•    Nouns and Verbs: these are the most important words in a sentence, and they are generally stressed.
•    Adjectives and adverbs: these are middling words.  They will be stressed or unstressed depending on their importance in expressing meaning:
•    “My car is blue.” (i.e. “Only a sicko like you would get a forest green Hybrid” – the emphasis is on differentiating my tastes from yours.)
•    “My car is blue.” (i.e. “The reason you can’t find the green shrubbery parked in front of my house is because it’s green and not blue, you idiot” – emphasis is on differentiating the car from the shrubbery.)
•    Conjunctions and Prepositions: These are the least important words.  They are almost always unstressed.  Placing them beside one another can be used to provide a length of unstressed sentence.
•    Articles: These are even less important.  You can bully them around, rearranging them to shift the meter within your sentence.

    Exceptions to these rules happen all the time – they are guidelines only.  It’s important to remember that all words in a sentence carry a natural stress, and that you cannot force stress on words to “make” them fit the needs of your meter.  A poem is considered metrical because the words are arranged to create the stress – a poem that requires stress to be forced has not been written in meter.

Return to the Barney Song Example
Note which words are stressed and unstressed and how this relates to their grammatical role in each line.

Now use these shortcuts to rearrange the example sentence into something poetic.
    Change the word order to put the sentence into iambic pentameter.  Add or remove words as needed, but keep the meaning the same.
    Now rearrange the words in such a way that the stress will make the words take on a sarcastic meaning.
    Then rearrange them to convey emotions like anger, hope, sadness, and resignation. (Depending on the sentence, only one or two might be doable).