Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Writing Lessons from Freshman English

My experience teaching first-year English this semester is bringing me back to my roots, so to speak--parts of the writing process that I no longer think twice about are proving to be real challenges for some of the students in my classes, which is in turn keeping me on my toes.

We're about a month into the semester, and I'm already taking stock of the things I've been learning from my classes--lessons that have been lying dormant for awhile, but are no less important than the first time I learned them:

Always remember the basics. Grammar, mechanics, word usage, and spelling (you know, the boring stuff) are the heart of any well-written piece. It's important to master these basic skills, as they serve as the foundation for all books, articles, screenplays, what have you. Stephen King calls them the "toolbox", and it's really true--a misplaced comma or misspelled word can change the whole meaning of your message.

"Hook" your audience early. Just as the tone of the class is all but set on the first day, a well-written introduction that pulls your reader into your piece from the beginning is essential. My students need to know the instructor's boundaries and expectations--your readers expect the same from you as a writer. What are you going to tell them? What do you expect from them as readers--a chuckle, a tear, or a "Wow, I never knew that!" Make it interesting from the start and your audience will stay with you the whole time.

Say what you mean. I'm finding that students take things literally, and since this is the first college course for many of them, I can't assume that they're familiar with any of the information I'm teaching them. Your choice of words and how you present them are important.

Have more than you need. Over-research, over-interview, write a long first draft of an article...you can always edit later! I'm living proof of the philosophy that over-preparedness may not be a bad thing! It's always much easier to cut out the excess than scramble to find info because you've come up short. I'm finding the same to be true with teaching--it's difficult to know how much I'll get done in a particular night, so there tends to be more free time than I'd like at the end of the class. I'm trying to work ahead on my presentations and have other material ready so we can move on to the next thing if time allows. I'm trying to have more so I can edit later. I'd rather fill up the full class time than let them go much earlier than they should!

Be consistent. As a freelancer, everything falls on us--querying, follow-up, researching, writing, invoicing--plus the various other elements of being a writer. Set some consistent standards for yourself and your work--establish your pay rates, focus on certain markets, and set up a tracking system that works for you. I'm learning that I need to take another look at the rules and guidelines that I've set for my classes so that there's more consistency and accountability, and that I need to follow through on the framework I set up at the beginning of the semester. A certain level of consistency makes life easier for everyone.

What are some "basics" that you still use in your writing today?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Guest Post at The Writer Today

I'm today's guest blogger at The Writer Today. Stop by for a visit!

Hope to post a little more this week. This teaching gig is a lot of work!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Some Post

This post is from the "D'oh! Why didn't I make that connection?" department.

One of the most creative spins on the writing life that I've seen in quite some time. This was posted last Friday on The Urban Muse, one of my favorite writing blogs:

Writing Lessons from Charlotte's Web

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What's Your Favorite Part of the Writing Process?

I have several irons in the fire lately, so I'm loving any time that I get to devote solely to writing. Strangely enough, most of the other fires that I have going are part of my plan to actually write more, so although they're "necessary evils" for the moment, I'm hoping my schedule won't be quite this jam-packed forever.

I'm on deadline with a few things, so I've been fitting in my writing time wherever I can. Over the weekend, I had my first long, uninterrupted chunk of time in weeks, so I made the most of it. It was awesome. There's really nothing like having a few hours at a stretch to be truly productive--the fact that I have so few of them these days make them even more precious!

With that in mind, as I worked I got to thinking about my favorite part of the whole writing process. Don't get me wrong, I love all of it--every torturous, "searching-for-the-right-word/best-way-to-say-this" moment--but I think my absolute favorite part is when I get into what I call the "zone". That's the time when things are beginning to gel, and I find myself thinking about the story and mentally composing parts of it over and over, until I can get back to the PC and fight with it some more. I might start a piece and do a little at a time, but actually wait until the "zone" mentality kicks in, and then I can't wait to work on it again. Sometimes, depending on how interested I am in the subject, I can actually feel it start to come together. I might still have to wrestle with it until it's exactly to my liking, but that's my absolute favorite step in the process.

Well, besides getting a positive email from an editor!

What about you? What's your favorite part of the writing process?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Guest Post: Discovering Your Writing Specialty by Priscilla Y. Huff

My great-grandmother was not only a suffragette, marching for the women’s right to vote, but also a published poet. My mother was a published poet, too, in addition to writing humorous non-fiction pieces and essays. When I began to write, I tried poetry and it was horrible. Instead, I found that I liked people and what type of work they did and thus began a writing career featuring boot-strapped entrepreneurs, specifically women who are and still continue to lead men in starting new businesses every year. If you are unsure what type of writing you can do best, here are five suggestions to help you find your particular writing specialty:

1. Write about your passion. No, I am not referring to the romantic kind, unless you intend to write in that genre, (which, btw is very lucrative). Write about what interests you, what you absolutely love to do. Consider your hobbies and what you like to do in your free time such as travel, gardening, birding, hiking, scrapbooking, making money, and any other pursuits that you adore.

2. Write about your work. Your industry or profession, no matter what it is, has one or more publications related to it. Editors of trade journals, industry newsletters and web sites, welcome articles, papers, and books to assist managers and employees to improve their performances, learn about new innovations, and catch up on industry news.

3. Write about where you live. You may not feel where you live is exotic or unusual, but every place in the world has some history or some occurrence that was notable. When I asked questions about a wall mural in my local post office, I learned the artist was hired during the Great Depression, along with many others to paint murals in post offices, railroads, and other public buildings. My question led to a feature article in a regional magazine. Read your daily and regional papers. They often contain news that could easily be a current feature story of interest on a national or international level.

4. Write about your life. No, not necessarily to write an autobiography (unless you are famous or for your own family), but what is happening now to you or what you have “survived,” involving family members, cancer, shopping, causes, religion and more. Others who are going through what you have, will be interested how you tackled and coped with a particular problem.

5. Write about what you read. If you read cooking magazines, for example, or visit related web sites, or are a regular subscriber to other publications, you already know the audience(s) and can provide new insights through an article or book. If you read mysteries, fantasies, or other genres, see if you can come up with a new twist in a plot line or series. Editors love it when their writers are familiar with their readers’ interests.

These methods can be incorporated in both your nonfiction and fiction. In fiction, your characters will be interesting because you, the author, will have them perform work or leisure activities with which you have actual knowledge of what they experienced. Think John Grisham, Kathy Reichs, Nevada Barr and others who have intrigued millions of readers using the background of their professions to highlight their characters and stories. Read the writer’s/author’s guidelines of the publications or publishers of the books you like to read, and make a list of possible article/book ideas you might like to propose and then query those editors. The only way to find your ideal writing specialty is to start writing about what you know, and you are sure to uncover your ideal writing niche that was there all the time, just waiting to be discovered.

Suggested Resources (purchase in book stores or check for current copies in your public or college library):

*How-To Writing Publications: Writer’s Digest Magazine (www.writersdigest.com); The Writer (www.writermag.com).
*Writer’s Market Guides: Writer’s Market (www.writersmarket.com); Literary Market Place (www.literarymarketplace.com/)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How Writing Groups Can Help You Stay on Track

I'm probably biased because I'm president of my local writer's group that I also co-founded with another writing friend, but it's hard for me to imagine where my freelancing efforts (not to mention my fledgling writing career) would be had I not gotten involved with such a group.

Our group is a bit more formal and structured than, say, a critique group (though we have a few of those who meet outside of our regular meeting times). The purpose of our group is to provide programming and resources to our members so they can be armed with the tools they need to get (and keep) writing. One of my favorite parts of my role in the group is scheduling our speakers. We've had a huge array of folks come and share their knowledge with us--we have a wide membership, so we try to include speakers for everyone and cover as many genres and aspects of the craft as possible. The majority of our membership are fiction writers, so most of our programming focuses on elements of writing fictional pieces, but we try to work in something for us nonfiction folks, too.

If you don't have a writer's group in your area, why not start one? There are a few other groups near me, and they follow various structures. Here are the most common types of writers' groups:

  • Education-based. This is my group. Every month, we have a speaker who talks about some element of the art or craft of writing. This year alone, we've had speakers cover blogging, finding markets for your work, playwriting, writing creative nonfiction, and developing a plot. We also allot some time for one of our members to read some of their work, and the rest of us provide feedback.
  • Critique Group. This is the group for you if you're strictly looking for feedback on works-in-progress or a push to get motivated when you need it. I personally haven't checked out any of the critique groups associated with our larger writer's group, simply because I haven't had time--most of my work is on deadline and I don't have time for lengthy editing sessions.
  • "Open writers". The third type of group seems to be a combination of the other two. I know of one local group like this. I can't say much about their meeting structure, as I haven't been able to make a meeting. From what I can gather, writers gather and are given a writing prompt, and they either work on the piece right there at the meeting, or work on it on their own time and bring it with them to the next meeting. This seems to be a good fit for those who are just starting out or aren't that confident in their writing style and need some motivation.

As I said in my last post, I don't think I'd be nearly as successful with my writing efforts had I not gotten involved with the group and met other writers. I live in a very small community, and the literary/artistic types tend to be well-hidden, so our group has been a great way for more of our local writers to network, share resources, and learn from each other. It's the best feeling in the world to come home from a meeting with a particularly inspiring speaker, sit down at the PC, and jump right in to whatever I might be working on. It's been a great motivator, and I definitely think the meetings and my commitment to the group has helped me in many ways.

What other types of writing groups are out there? How have they helped you?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When Did You Start Taking Yourself Seriously as a Writer?

The first step to being a serious writer is to take yourself seriously as a writer. How can you ever expect publishers, agents, or editors to believe in you if you don't believe in yourself? Taking the craft seriously and thinking of myself as "a writer" above all else is something I've only recently allowed myself to do. Until very recently--as in, within the last year or so--writing just didn't seem practical, even though I'd slowly built up a freelancing career and had been learning all I could about the craft.

I've always written, and, as most writers probably do, I always had it in the back of my mind that I "would write a book someday". But it never occurred to me that writing could be a serious career choice, or that I could make actual money from something I just chipped away at "for fun".

I didn't start taking myself seriously until a few years ago, when I started a writer's group in the area with my friend Kathy. Our first meetings drew writers from all genres, and it really started to sound like something I could do, and maybe make some money in the process. I started asking some questions, and thanks to encouragement and the patience of another writer friend (who'd been in the game for years), I finally felt comfortable enough to send out my first query.

I've had my share of rejections, of course, but there have been quite a few successes, too. Now I can't imagine how my life would be had I not gotten involved with the writer's group, and was brave enough to send out those first few queries. Now, I think of myself as a writer above everything else. Now, about a dozen or so clips later, I absolutely feel that I'm on the right path.

What about you? When did you start taking yourself seriously as a writer?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More Local History: The Town That Was

I just did an article about this place, and I'm having my classes watch the movie and comment on it in the not-too-distant future, sooo...let me share it all with you, as well!

First, I live in a pretty unique location, geographically speaking. I'm literally an hour (or thereabouts) north from the Chocolate Capital of the World (Hershey, PA), and I went to college about 10 minutes from there. I'm an hour south of Scranton (yes, as in Scranton-where-The Office-is-set-Scranton), and my work is a block away from Yuengling Brewery. Plenty of people are envious when I tell them how close I am to any of these locales.

Second, there's a downside to where I live. I'm right in the heart of coal mining country, which has posed more than a few dangers over the years. This is important for you to know, because another small town in the heart of mine country has virtually been wiped out because of the region's biggest commodity--coal.

If you've never heard of the Centralia, PA mine fire, let me give you the abridged version: In 1962, a routine controlled garbage burn in an abandoned strip mine has turned into one of the longest-burning, most dangerous mine fires in the country. As the town's firemen burned the refuse, flames from the burn accidentally made their way to a coal seam, igniting it instantly. Though efforts have been made to extinguish the fire over the past forty years (some funded by the federal government), all of their attempts have been unsuccessful. The fire has continued to burn underground ever since, causing dangerous carbon dioxide and other poisonous gases to seep into people's homes. The heat from the fire caused an irreparable crack down the middle of the town's major highway. Back in the 1980's, most of the town's residents voted to relocate, leaving their homes and neighbors. As residents moved out, the government razed the homes. Nothing remains of the once-active small community besides grass-covered lots where homes once stood, a few sidewalks, and two cemeteries. Many of the town's residents may have left, but they return to be buried in their hometown.

It's a creepy place, no doubt about it. I remember passing through it years ago, when more homes were still standing but were in various phases of demolition. So sad to see boarded-up windows of otherwise perfectly good houses, destroyed for no other reason than they were in an unfortunate location.

Want to see how bureaucracy handled it, and how the town became divided? Read The Day the Earth Caved In by Joan Quigley, or watch the documentary The Town That Was. The book gives some excellent background on the fire, a 12-year-old boy's near-fatal tumble into a sinkhole that opened in his grandmother's backyard, and the steps taken to preserve what was left of the town. The Town That Was picks up a bit where the book leaves off, focusing on the town's youngest resident and how he has fought to remain in his home and look after his few remaining neighbors.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Blah blah blog

I may be doing considerably less posting over the next few weeks, as I've landed a new gig--I'm teaching 2 English classes! I'm confident in my knowledge of the subject matter (please--talking about reading and writing, and actually reading and writing, is no problem for me!), but I'm a bit less confident in my lectures and presenting the material. BUT--so much of writing is just sitting down and doing it, and much of the time will be spent with the students working on their assignments and having me provide feedback right there.

I literally just got thrown into this--three days before my first class started last week! Initially they said they didn't have anything available that meshed with my schedule, but lo and behold, another professor backed out, so here I am. Everyone has been telling me that things will sort of work themselves out, so I'm hoping that's true. Writing is one of the very few areas of my life where I feel totally confident and comfortable. However, I realize that most people don't feel that way--many of these students are taking classes to get a better job or improve their status in life...not because they love the subject as I do. I hope that my enthusiasm for the subject comes across, at least.

So, I'm planning to drop down to 2 posts a week if I can manage it. What a jolt to my comfort zone this week has been!

In other news, thanks to Stephanie for the props!