wow challenge 5: art as inspiration

This post published itself before I could get here to alter it. Recent devastating events in Boston have alternately left me at a loss for words versus bursting with writing power. This contest is still in place until April 24, but I will be republishing this on Monday. Please peruse it now if you’re looking for something to do. Until then: #bostonstrong

Welcome to the fifth installment of the “Week of Writing” (WOW) challenge! Please scroll to the bottom of today’s writing prompt to view the full contest details.

Today’s #wowchallenge: art as inspiration.

In the movie adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, we meet Patrick Bateman — a character unlike any other character in the world.

By JBBStudio (Flickr: Bret Easton Ellis), via Wikimedia Commons

By JBBStudio (Flickr: Bret Easton Ellis), via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities series, which are shown in
Guggenheim Museum

Craft a creative piece that is inspired by a work of art. Writers find inspiration everywhere: coffee shops, within their personal relationships, the frenetic energy of a city, the calm tranquility of the countryside. This time, you’ll compose something based off of an image.

You can choose one of your own (if you do, please post the link!) or use Robert Longo’s “Gretchen” as inspiration.

This concept isn’t new. William Butler Yeats composed “Leda and the Swan” after seeing Paul Cézanne’s oil painting; Samuel Yellen wrote “Nighthawks,” inspired by Edward Hopper’s classic; even Anne Sexton wrote “The Starry Night” based on van Gogh’s famous artwork.

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The #wowchallenge Contest Rules:

Based off of the feedback I receive after this full week of writer’s challenges, it has a high potential to run again in the future.

Basically, how it works: there will be 5 challenges (Monday through Friday of this week.) Writers who submit one finished product in the comment section (of any 5 challenges) will get their name in a hat. If you submit two finished products, then you get your name in said hat twice. Three, three times. That said: you have up to five chances to get your name in the hat by submitting your writing.

What do you win? One of two prizes!
(If you don’t want to be considered for one of the prizes, then please make that clear in the comment section.)

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A A Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers. This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and thought inspiration.

image (6)image (9)

Prize 2: I’ll do a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of your writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) This does not have to be the one that you submit for the challenge. It can be ANY story or poem, a college essay, an email… anything.

Winners will be picked from the hat and announced on the blog on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. When you submit your comment, please submit with the understanding that a collection of my favorite entries will be published in a special blog post, with full credit given to you.

Happy writing! Be sure to post your work in the comments section to be considered for the #wowchallenge contest.

wow challenge 4: the bite-sized brain

Welcome to the fourth installment of the “Week of Writing” (WOW) challenge! Please scroll to the bottom of today’s writing prompt to view the full contest details.

Today’s #wowchallenge: bite-sized brains.

This challenge is a tough one, but it requires some background.

Have you ever heard of the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease and Grade Level tests? They are a pair of readability tests, run by Microsoft Word, that judge the comprehension difficulty of your writing. Both tests are computed by assessing word and sentence length, although they’re weighted differently. Essentially, if your work scores a 6 on the Grade Level score, then it should be at a sixth grade reading level.

Without going into specifics, according to Wikipedia, if a document has a “Reading Ease” readability score of 0-30, it is best understood by university graduates; if it has a score of 60-70, then it could probably be understood by students ages 13-15, and if it’s up in the 90-100 range, then it’s best suited for 11 year old students.

Logic would follow, then, that if you’re writing a young adult book, then you should aim to have a readability of 67 or so, with a Grade Level of, say 8.2, right? And if you’re writing adult fiction, perhaps aim for a lower readability, and a Grade Level of 10.0 and up?

Wrong.

An analysis of popular fiction has a high readability, and most importantly, a score of 6 or below on the Grade Level Score.

This is in addition to a number of other common traits, including: short words and sentences, and the use of an active voice (He ran, not: He is running).

Some publishers rely on these scores, some publishers don’t – so take them with a grain of sand. Politics aside, here is one interesting fact.  Obama’s 2010 State of the Union addresses rated the fourth-lowest Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score in history, at an 8.8 – especially surprising, as compared to George W. Bush’s 10.4 score. Again, politics aside, the majority of Americans rate Obama as a great public speaker. Food for thought.

Speaking of food… this brings us to the actual challenge!

By Brownretail, via Wikimedia Commons

By Brownretail, via Wikimedia Commons

Your job, today, is to write a poem, flash fiction, or short story all while using words that have 5 letters or less. 

Got that? There can’t be a single word in there that’s six letters long.

Take, for example, a big wedding cake. While it’s admirable to look at, it’s hefty to tote around, ridiculously expensive, and cumbersome to cut and serve.

This compared to the ease with which a simple cupcake can be baked and served in a matter of minutes.

By Arnold Gatilao (originally posted to Flickr as Pink Velvet Cupcake) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Arnold Gatilao (originally posted to Flickr as Pink Velvet Cupcake) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Something that’s easily digestible and fun – that’s your goal today. Try not to get too cute and serve two meals in one, though.

By Janet Hudson, via Wikimedia Commons

By Janet Hudson, via Wikimedia Commons

The #wowchallenge Contest Rules:

Based off of the feedback I receive after this full week of writer’s challenges, it has a high potential to run again in the future.

Basically, how it works: there will be 5 challenges (Monday through Friday of this week.) Writers who submit one finished product in the comment section (of any 5 challenges) will get their name in a hat. If you submit two finished products, then you get your name in said hat twice. Three, three times. That said: you have up to five chances to get your name in the hat by submitting your writing.

What do you win? One of two prizes!
(If you don’t want to be considered for one of the prizes, then please make that clear in the comment section.)

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A a Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers. This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and thought inspiration.

image (6)image (9)

Prize 2: I’ll do a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of your writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) This does not have to be the one that you submit for the challenge. It can be ANY story or poem, a college essay, an email… anything.

Winners will be picked from the hat and announced on the blog on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. When you submit your comment, please submit with the understanding that a collection of my favorite entries will be published in a special blog post, with full credit given to you.

Happy writing! Be sure to post your work in the comments section to be considered for the #wowchallenge contest.

WOW challenge 3: dreams

Composition Notebook

Welcome to the third installment of the “Week of Writing” (WOW) challenge! Please scroll to the bottom of today’s writing prompt to view the full contest details.

Today’s #wow challenge: dreams.

After a series of really crazy, vivid dreams, I began thinking about keeping a dream journal by my bed. I recently posted about dreams that my friends have had, and how I use them to sharpen my writing skills.

For example, I woke up this morning after having a dream where my husband told me to go out on a date. I went out with someone named Leonard, who took me to a restaurant where a child asked me: “Mommy, can I have some orange juice?” When I said I didn’t have children, Leonard kidnapped me for seven years, but then I “woke up” in the dream (it was a dream-within-a-dream wake up) and I had only been gone one night. I think I need to lay off the sleeping pills.

my copy of MY FRIEND LEONARD, by James Frey

book cover of a copy of MY FRIEND LEONARD, by James Frey

Hence, today’s writing challenge.

Ask three people about a dream that they’ve had recently, or the most distinct/weirdest dream ever. Or use my dream – whatever works for you!

  1. Use one as inspiration to write a poem, microfiction, or short story. 
  2. Use one to write a fake book blurb. 
  3. Think about – and develop a character who would be in one, and fill out the 25 questions. 

 

Here’s a copy of what I did a couple weeks ago:

One friend – we will call her Louise –  had a dream that her dad was killing people. She figured it out and wasn’t sure if she should report him.

What if you turned this into a book blurb (also called a jacket summary, or a book synopsis – it’s the writing on the back of a paperback, or on the inside of a hardcover)? This one is particularly funny, because her dad is a junior high science teacher.

“When people in her sleepy town begin dying, fifteen-year-old Louise is just as scared as everyone else… until she figures out who the killer is: her father. Funny, charming, and smart, Mr. Ridge is every student’s dream science teacher. Could he instead be the town’s worst nightmare? How do you love someone who might be evil? And, most importantly: can a daughter turn in her father to the police?”

And now, it’s a young adult mystery book blurb.

Science Teacher Serial Killer

Another friend – we’ll call her Marie – said: “A few weeks ago, I had a bad dream about me starring in a horror movie with Jamie Lee Curtis. But in the dream, I knew what was going to happen because I had seen the movie before, but then all of a sudden, we were in a scene that I didn’t recognize and the killer was about to murder me. Then I woke up.”

By Josh Hallett at http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/ → http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/4700190029/  via Wikimedia Commons

This movie-within-a-dream trick isn’t new (Inception, anyone?). In fact, it’s fodder for a pretty good fantasy dystopia.

In a world where… (kidding.)

“Marie has had a pretty normal life, until one morning, when she wakes up – or doesn’t. She’s become trapped in a dream world, where she knows what’s about to happen… and she doesn’t like it. Marie fears she’ll never get back to reality. The only thing that can get her out? A drastic, dangerous plan that relies on the help of a mysterious stranger named Jamie. Can they succeed?”

Sure, they’re not the best written or most intriguing book blurbs around, but they’re fun to use as practice. What about you? What’s the strangest dream you’ve ever had? Do you ever use it in your writing? (Stay tuned for a writing exercise about this coming up in a few short weeks!)

The #wowchallenge Contest Rules:

Based off of the feedback I receive after this full week of writer’s challenges, it has a high potential to run again in the future.

Basically, how it works: there will be 5 challenges (Monday through Friday of this week.) Writers who submit one finished product in the comment section (of any 5 challenges) will get their name in a hat. If you submit two finished products, then you get your name in said hat twice. Three, three times. That said: you have up to five chances to get your name in the hat by submitting your writing.

What do you win? One of two prizes!
(If you don’t want to be considered for one of the prizes, then please make that clear in the comment section.)

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A a Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers. This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and thought inspiration.

image (6)image (9)

Prize 2: I’ll do a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of your writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) This does not have to be the one that you submit for the challenge. It can be ANY story or poem, a college essay, an email… anything.

Winners will be picked from the hat and announced on the blog on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. When you submit your comment, please submit with the understanding that a collection of my favorite entries will be published in a special blog post, with full credit given to you.

Happy writing! Be sure to post your work in the comments section to be considered for the #wowchallenge contest.

 

 

wow challenge 2: extra, extra

Composition Notebook

This challenge is meant to stimulate your brains into writing something – nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and more – into a new direction. I came up with this post pre-bombing yesterday. It is too true that these tragedies bring out media in droves, which makes this prompt all the more relevant.

*

Welcome to the second installment of the “Week of Writing” (WOW) challenge! Please scroll to the bottom of today’s writing prompt to view the full contest details.

Today’s #wow challenge: Extra, extra – read all about it.

Skim through your local newspaper, favorite online news source, or a stray magazine. Don’t read the stories, though – just look at the headlines.

Pick a headline at random (or, really, whichever strikes your fancy). Then, write a brief poem or flash fiction based on the direction that the headline sends you.

Need inspiration? Here is a screenshot of the Boston.com homepage, for example, from one week ago today (April 9):

Headlines galore!

Headlines galore!

“Mayday Mayday: A True Story by the Man Who Fell” – um, amazing.

Here’s an example of one I wrote about seven years ago. (And now, I feel old.)

“Spare Dreams”

He perches on the city street. His haunted eyes
peer over his colorless beard. I think
a worn, tattered coat even adorns his shapeless body.
Gritty and pale, his hand shakes a battered cup.

“Spare dreams? Can you spare some dreams?” I deposit
one of mine in his cup. It was an old one, anyway,
that I’d given up some time ago.
He won’t know the difference.

The #wowchallenge Contest Rules:

Based off of the feedback I receive after this full week of writer’s challenges, it has a high potential to run again in the future.

Basically, how it works: there will be 5 challenges (Monday through Friday of this week.) Writers who submit one finished product in the comment section (of any 5 challenges) will get their name in a hat. If you submit two finished products, then you get your name in said hat twice. Three, three times. That said: you have up to five chances to get your name in the hat by submitting your writing.

What do you win? One of two prizes!
(If you don’t want to be considered for one of the prizes, then please make that clear in the comment section.)

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A a Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers. This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and thought inspiration.

image (6)image (9)

Prize 2: I’ll do a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of your writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) This does not have to be the one that you submit for the challenge. It can be ANY story or poem, a college essay, an email… anything.

Winners will be picked from the hat and announced on the blog on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. When you submit your comment, please submit with the understanding that a collection of my favorite entries will be published in a special blog post, with full credit given to you.

Happy writing! Be sure to post your work in the comments section to be considered for the #wowchallenge contest.

 

wow challenge 1: opening and closing lines.

Composition Notebook

Welcome to the first installment of the “Week of Writing” (WOW) challenge! Based off of the feedback I receive after this full week of writer’s challenges, it has a high potential to run again in the future.

Basically, how it works: there will be 5 challenges (Monday through Friday of this week.) Writers who submit one finished product in the comment section (of any 5 challenges) will get their name in a hat. If you submit two finished products, then you get your name in said hat twice. Three, three times. That said: you have up to five chances to get your name in the hat by submitting your writing.

What do you win? One of two prizes!
(If you don’t want to be considered for one of the prizes, then please make that clear in the comment section.)

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A a Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers. This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and thought inspiration.

image (6) image (9)

Prize 2: I’ll do a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of your writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) This does not have to be the one that you submit for the challenge. It can be ANY story or poem, a college essay, an email… anything.

Winners will be picked from the hat and announced on the blog on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. When you submit your comment, please submit with the understanding that a collection of my favorite entries will be published in a special blog post, with full credit given to you.

Today’s #wow challenge tackles opening and closing lines. It’s in the spirit of John Irving, who always knows his closing line before he begins writing a book. According to Irving at a recent J.F.K. forum, his working closing line for his upcoming novel is: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”

Today’s challenge is a two-part one. You can use it to bracket a poem, short story, or even a novel, if you’re brave.

First, come up with an alluring opening line based on this picture.

Hint: this brunch photograph was taken on a late September morning in a major U.S. metropolitan city.

If you’re curious: this brunch photograph was taken on a late September morning in a major U.S. metropolitan city.

Then, come up with your closing line. You can choose to either:

1. Come up with a line based solely off of the first picture/what might happen there, or

2. Invent an entirely new line based off of the picture below, and use your creative magic to get from A to B.

Rooftop Pool

This picture was taken on a late August morning at the top of a hotel in a relatively minor European metropolitan city.

BONUS: If you can guess both cities, then you get your name in the hat one extra time. (Your writing doesn’t have to be set in either one, but the pictures should serve as inspiration.)

Happy writing! Be sure to post your work in the comments section to be considered for the #wowchallenge contest.

Composition Notebook

5 things friday: the best movie villains ever, and a contest

Today’s post chronicles my five favorite movie villains of all time and introduces my very first writing contest.

Most literary novels, which by definition are nearly always character-focused, will take on a social crisis or hot button issue in order to have a driving force at work. In movies, there’s usually a villain character – whether it’s comedic genius, like Regina George, or downright terrifying à la Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal. Today’s 5 Things Friday chronicles 5 of my favorite movie villains of all time. And at the end, check out next week’s #WoW Challenge contest. 

5. The Comic: Shooter McGavin, played by Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore. 
(Runner-up: Gordon Gecko, Wall Street)
The name “Shooter” aside: Anyone with a signature golf move (“pow-pow-pow!”), the necessary contacts to hire a stalker during a sporting event, and the gall to steal the gold jacket is a winner in my book.

4. The Cartoon: Hexxus, voiced by Tim Curry, Fern Gully
(Runner-up: Scar, The Lion King)
I’m not sure what it is about the “oil-man,” but this guy used to make me hide in my couch fort way back in 1992.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJeb016pPU4

3. The Actual: Amon Goeth, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, Schindler’s List
I will never, ever forget watching this man portrayed in this movie for the first time. Nothing screams villain like a real-life historical figure brought to life on the big screen. Amon Goeth, SS captain, commander of the Płaszów concentration camp, and more, was responsible for tens of thousands of lives lost during the Holocaust. The movie clips are far too disturbing to post. Fiennes was nominated for an Oscar after his portrayal of this figure:

Amon Goeth, via Wikimedia Commons

Amon Goeth, via Wikimedia Commons

3. The Insane: Michael Myers, Halloween
This guy was born to kill people. Two words: Intentional silence.

1. The Psycho: Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, The Shining
Readers of Stephen King’s beloved book disagree on whether Jack was possessed by a demonic spirit or whether he descends into a personal mental hell. My opinion lies in the latter. I believe he’s the perfect candidate to star in MTV’s adaptation of True Life: I’m the Victim of a Mental Psychotic Break.

And finally… the contest! Here are the rules for the #WoW (Week of Writing) challenge.

Next week, on April 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19, I will be posting one writing prompt a day. Writers who take on the prompt and submit one finished product in the comment section (of any 5 challenges) will get their name in a hat. If you submit two finished products, then you get your name in said hat twice. Three, three times. That said: you have up to five chances to get your name in the hat.

What do you win? One of two prizes! (If you don’t want to be considered for one of the prizes, please make that clear in the comment section.)

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A A Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers. This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and truly just thinking.

image (9)

Prize 2: I’ll do a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of your writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) This does not have to be the one that you submit for the challenge. It can be ANY story or poem, a college essay, an email… anything.

Winners will be picked from the hat and announced on the blog on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.

a conversation with khaled hosseini

Today, I had the opportunity to participate in a live chat with bestselling author Khaled Hosseini, hosted by People.com

via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Department of State (U.S. Embassy in London), via Wikimedia Commons

Readers of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns are already quite familiar with his work. Hosseini also has a new book entitled And the Mountains Echoed (coming out on May 21). Hosseini came off as funny, engaging, humble, and grateful, which are pretty standard good-guy character traits.

A couple things I learned about Hosseini:

  • He was born right in Kabul, Afghanistan, and is now a Goodwill Envoy for the UNHCR. (Very cool.)
  • He’s a trained medical doctor who left medicine for writing.
  • He doesn’t write with an outline in mind; he prefers to be surprised. 
By Joe Burger from Siegburg, Germany (flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

By Joe Burger from Siegburg, Germany (flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

One thing this blog focuses a lot on is the writing process – especially the “unplugged” version. When asked about his writing process, Hosseini writes:

“I write at home, on a computer, in a room I have turned into office. I write from morning, from about nine AM, to about 2PM. My goal is to get about 3 pages a day. Some days I exceed that and other days that goal seems far too ambitious. I have written as well in libraries and coffee shops, but they are often too noisy and I get distracted.”

On advice for new writers (the text in bold is what I think best sums it up):

“I wish I had some illuminating, earth shattering advice to give to new writers, but the truth is that, the way I see it, there are two things that are indispensable if one wants to be a writer: First, you have to actually write (I cannot tell you the number of times people walk up to me and tell me they are sure they have a novel in them if they could get around to it.). Second, you have to read. You have to read a lot, and all the time. I think writers learn from each other, especially young writers. The business side of it is a combination of luck and perseverance, assuming the manuscript is of quality. There are entire books written on ways to get published, etc. But the first thing is to write a compelling story. If you have written one, then you have to believe in it and persevere and hopefully you will catch a break and get the manuscript into the right hands.

I have no doubt that I’ll download this book ASAP, but if you’re curious about the description of an upcoming book directly from the source, here it is:

And the Mountains Echoed is structured a little bit like a tree. There is a trunk at the center, and then a number of branches that sprout from it. The trunk of the book, if you will, is about a brother and his sister, named Abdullah and Pari, whom we meet them in the early 1950’s when they are ten and three respectively. They live in a remote, impoverished little village south of Kabul with their father, their stepmother and a little half-brother. Abdullah and Pari have a very close, tender, and loving relationship, they are really each other’s world. They are, as one character puts it, two people in whom love of the simplest and purest kind had found expression. But when we meet them, the family is at a crossroads and has to make a painful, agonizing decision, the end result of which is the rupture of the bond between Abdullah and his little sister. And it’s this act of rupture, borne out of desperation, that sets the rest of the book into motion. And what the book does is then pursue the far reaching ripples of this event, both geographically, across continents, and through time, and it examines a number of different characters, who whether they know it or not, are connected to one another because their lives have been touched and transformed by this early event in the story.”

The full session (available here) was truly eye-opening. Thank you to Khaled Hosseini for the time and invaluable advice!

Next week, I’ll be hosting a “Week of Writing” (WOW) contest with a double prize! Stay tuned. All of the details will be released tomorrow.

 

5 signs your memoir has the it factor

Simply put, a well-done memoir is an unforgettable read. In a world where anyone can be internet famous, though, what makes a memoirist attractive? A memoir might have the It Factor if it addresses:

  1. The world. When a story is more than just about you; or when it reaches into a broader issue, perhaps. No one cares about your problems unless you de-individualize them. In most of Augusten Burroughs’s work, he alternates between perfect self-deprecation, addiction, humor, and family trauma with staggering brilliance. 
  2. Emotion. Writers must be what author Holly Robinson calls “brutally honest on every emotional level” in order to truly connect with their audiences. Hit ‘em where it hurts. 
  3. The unanswerable. As of today’s date, two of the top six NYT bestsellers concern the subject of heaven (Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, and Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo “with” Lynn Alexander). Other notables: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which concerns both race and science and has been on the top 20 list for a staggering 108 weeks. 
  4. A successful struggle. Read through any book jacket and see that nine times out of ten, the writer is going to take a triumphant journey while struggling vs. A) drugs, B) rotten parents, C) other addictions (sex, gambling, food), D) death, E) weight loss/gain, F) disease.
  5. Nonconformity. Your family cannot be normal. (I know, I know: your family isn’t normal.) But take Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, for instance, where her family lives as nomads. That’s not normal.
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

French Memoir. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Other important things to remember about writing memoirs:

  1. You’re not important, or unique. Everybody wins, remember? You probably won’t have a successful memoir, unless you’re incredibly successful or famous already. (Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling represent 10% of today’s bestseller list.)
  2. A simple search for “memoir” on Amazon, as of today, returns 295,114 hits. That is insane
  3. Your memory might be an elephant or a sieve, but no one’s is completely accurate. Everyone remembers things differently. 
  4. Your protagonist – so, you – has to undergo that transportive change. If your memoir is about your struggle with gambling, and you played Keno last night, well… keep a diary, save the memoir.
  5. Regular writing conventions still apply.

I am a huge proponent of the memoir/nonfiction essay, however, and think that these have a real and increasing value in our culture. The New York Times “Lives” section. Salon. Slate. The Sun. The Real Simple “Life Lessons” column.

unwind.

unwind.

I’m not certain my life is interesting enough for a full memoir, but I do have this blog. Blogs themselves are (typically) memoir-driven, right? In the November 2008 Atlantic, professional blogger Andrew Sullivan writes of the “confessional genre,” noting that ”…a blog, unlike a diary, is instantly public. It transforms this most personal and retrospective of forms into a painfully public and immediate one.”

Let’s look at two people who draw in Americans daily.

Last night, my husband said that I was not American because I don’t like cooked fruit, any pie, burgers, or hot dogs. I countered back with the fact that I am most certainly American, because I am obsessed with Amanda Bynes’s Twitter page. (I want her to make a Britney Spears style comeback in the worst way possible.)

This version of Bynes is way different than 2013 NYC Bynes, right?

Image By Shay Sowden, via Wikimedia Commons

Image By Shay Sowden, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a million terrible things going on in the world. Childhood obesity, the gun control debate, foreign relation anxieties, the stabbings at Lone Star College. But the internet is absolutely aflame today with Lindsay Lohan’s interview on Letterman last night. Letterman starts out by showing a picture of Lohan from her Parent Trap days (reminding the audience of what has since been lost). Soon, he asks: “Aren’t you supposed to be in rehab now? … What are they rehabbing? … What are they going to work on when you walk through the door?” Lohan breaks the cardinal rule of the “natural late night talk show rapport” by commenting, “We didn’t discuss this in the pre-interview,” which reminds the audience that jokes are pre-planned, that celebrities might not be as cool and calculated as we think. (She also does this without any of her face moving except for her lips, which makes her that much more interesting.) Letterman fumbles with a few more questions; Lohan cringes and tries to change the subject:

Letterman: “Do you have addiction problems? Is it alcohol? Do you drink too much?”
Lohan (pause, glare): “We’ve discussed this in the past.”

Later, Letterman presses on about rehab, but Lohan deflects: “Let’s, let’s… we’re here for a movie.”

Watch the entire trainwreck here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEF53jCmL3c

Despite the things of actual importance, there is still room for vapid fascination. Is it because it’s a joyride for us to watch someone who does not value his life the same way we do? Because it makes us feel better about ourselves? Whatever it is, remember this: Instagram is getting over 5 million uploads per day, and the most-watched video of 2012 was Gangham Style. 

What are your thoughts? Next week, I’ll be hosting a “Week of Writing” (WOW) contest with a double prize! Stay tuned.

the do & don’t list for lit submissions

In college, I started my “literary career” (I use this term very loosely) by being selected, along with two other students, to be the editorial board of Providence College’s international literary journal, The AlembicThe three of us were responsible for choosing the final selections for the journal. We received thousands of submissions, though it’s more likely that we received tens of thousands of submissions. Each submission first went through a group of about 30 students, who were in a “Literary Editing” class. They voted on pieces as a class, which cut down on the final choices in a major way.

The Alembic

Although it was very time consuming, it was also a very teachable moment – more so than the majority of my courses were, in fact. I learned some very valuable things about what editors look at. And more importantly, I learned what not to do.

The first time I saw my name "in print."

The first time I saw my name “in print.”

Now, I’m on the editorial board for The Penman Review. It is an entirely different experience, but it’s one I value. For starters, it’s an online journal, which means that I need to think about submissions in a new light. It’s also phenomenal to have everything at my computer, rather than thousands of pages of marked-up material, paper clips, and folders taking up space.

I’ve also submitted work to various magazines. Some of it’s been rejected, but then again, some has been accepted. (Let’s face it. You don’t need to come to this blog to hear that rejection is a part of any writer’s life.) J. K. Rowling, for one, was rejected about a dozen times before the 8-year-old daughter of her future publisher changed the world. Pre-Potter, J. K. also has had every other writer-cliché happen to her. I’m pretty sure she typed up the series without electricity, walking uphill both ways.

Just reading Harry Potter at the White House. No big deal.  Image via Executive Office of the President [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Just reading Harry Potter at the White House. No big deal.
Image by Executive Office of the President [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For what it’s worth, here are my personal suggestions for any aspiring writer who plans on submitting to literary journals. This is coming from both sides: that of a writer, and that of an editorial board member.

Do:

  • Review all submission guidelines. If your piece does not work for it, then do not submit it.
  • Pay attention to each submission guideline. Some journals don’t want your name to appear on the page at all. Some journals request a word count directly on your work. (If it’s not specified, I’d say to include it.)
  • Include a cover letter. In the cover letter, you should include the word count, genre, and title of your piece. Perhaps write why your work would fit well within the magazine. 
  • Include a third-person bio below your signature. You can point toward this in your cover letter: “I have pasted a brief biography, as requested, below.”
  • Read each word of your work out loud. If I see a spelling error, there’s probably a 97% chance I wouldn’t take it.
  • Start small. Because while it would be unreal to be a first-time writer published in the likes of The Atlantic, the odds are not in your favor.  Remember that you can add every publication to your resumeé, C.V., and bio.

Don’t:

  • Copyright your work. “This is the property of Joe Schmoe” stamped on the bottom of every page makes me think that you are paranoid. I’m not going to steal your work. 
  • Have an extensive heading on your work. For example, if you wrote the piece for school, remove the professor’s name and other identifying information from there. 
  • Stray from the beauty of “said” and “asked.” If your character is sneering, chuckling, growling, chortling, or any of the like, it’s probably time for a simple rewrite.
  • Submit multiple publications to places that do not accept multiple publications. You never know whose toes you might be stepping on, and networking is important in every industry.
  • Forget the importance of tense. Flipping back and forth from past to present is a big no-no.
  • Name people we aren’t supposed to care about.

For example, check out the following. The reader is swarmed with names (and a tense change) in a mere 39 words.
“Who wants breakfast?” asked Dave Johnson.
“I do,” said his 75-year-old mother, Anna, glancing over at him.
They sat at the small bar in their kitchen, where Dave’s father, Joseph, used to enjoy his breakfast every morning. 

Here’s how I might revise that one:
“Who wants breakfast?” he asked Dave Johnson.
“I do,” said his 75-year-old mother, Anna, glancing over at him.
They sat at the small bar in their kitchen, where Dave’s father, Joseph, used to enjoy his breakfast every morning.

What about you? What are some of your absolute do-and-don’ts of literary publishing?

5 things friday: 5 likable movie characters

I’m going to go ahead and call the coherency of this post into question, because my insomnia kicked up into high gear last night. Despite being physically in bed at 11 p.m., which I almost never do, I was wide awake until at least 4:35 this morning. When my alarm went off at 7:19, I was furious. And now I’m cross-eyed.

On the plus side, I did a lot of thinking about this new novel I started this week. After writing 1100 words in about an hour yesterday, I was feeling good – and I had a great idea somewhere around 2:45 this morning.

One thing I’m thinking about, though, is the oft-repeated concept of “making a protagonist likable.”

I completely understand this concept, especially as a reader. I root for the characters who I like. Right? If a character is whiny, or annoying in some other way, then you’re not going to particularly care where things wind up.

But sometimes, the most successful books have really unlikable characters. I’m sure I’m not alone on this, but I can’t stand Holden Caulfield. He is petulant and narcissistic, and I don’t care if he succeeds or fails.

It should go without saying that what makes one character likable for someone isn’t going to cut it for all readers. For example, when a character is very sweet and kind, I immediately dislike him and become suspicious of his motives.

I had upwards of 17 professors who warned against making a protagonist a “damsel in distress.” I agree, completely. But then, characters like Bella Swan of Twilight fame and Anastasia Steele of the Fifty Shades trilogy rule the bestseller lists; thus, I become bewildered. (Sidebar. The last names in this series are Steele and GREY? Are you kidding me? Steel grey?) In one scene, Bella is actually carried by her supernatural hero because she is so tired.

So for today’s 5 things Friday, I asked myself what my favorite characters possess – and how that makes me like them.

5 Things Friday: Likability Edition

5. Humor.
I could do a million 5 things Fridays on my favorite characters in movies, but honestly: why do I love Forgetting Sarah Marshall so much? Scenes like this.

4. Jerks who do nice things for people.
I suppose this is really just a form of redemption, but when a jackass does something nice, it’s worth way more than when an already-kind person does something fantastic. It’s like brushing your teeth. Everyone does it twice a day, so it’s pretty routine, but what about someone recovering from a traumatic brain injury who brushes his teeth on his own for the first time? Heart becomes warm.

3. Innocent people who are doomed by the world at large.
In a literature sense, it’s easy to think of this as the Lennie complex (Of Mice and Men). These characters break my heart into a thousand sad pieces. The #1 soul that takes the cake is John Coffey from The Green Mile. 

2. The presence OR absence of self deprecation.
In real life, I love self deprecating people. For example, Jennifer Lawrence describes her first meeting with Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence as follows: ”Our first conversation was on the phone. I was in the bathtub, and I had to tell him that I was in the bathtub because I was afraid he would think I was, like, playing in the toilet when he heard water swishing around. [...] Then we had breakfast in Santa Monica, and I spit egg inside of his mouth when I was talking. Like, it went in. Into his mouth.”

In characters, I LOVE people who take themselves too seriously. Case in point: Rex Manning, from Empire Records. Best quote by far (with accompanying hand gestures) is: “Why don’t you all just… fade away.”

1. Intelligence.
In Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is the Ultimate Victim. Framed for the murder of his adulterous wife, he spends the majority of the movie in prison, where his naked intelligence is so admirable I almost despise it.

What do you like in real people, or in characters?