Giving My Time to a Nonprofit for Writers

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Every Thursday for the last eleven months, I’ve had the chance to volunteer at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, a nonprofit dedicated to helping both writers and authors achieve and continue to achieve their dreams. Here’s how helping out PNWA has helped me grow as a writer:

1. I’ve learned a lot about the business of books.

As a creative writing student, I learn about the art of writing. In class, we learn everything from Aristotle’s Poetics to the sublime to the use of dialogue tags. Other than the occasional “where is fiction headed,” there’s not much talk about the process a writer must go through in order to publish a book. In the eleven months I’ve been volunteering, I’ve learned how to write a damn good query letter, pitch a manuscript, research agents and editors (and why that’s important), self-publish, market a book; I’ve learned how much I can expect to pay an editor, and how much a book cover and a book tour can cost. I could go on, but you get the point.

2. I’ve learned more about honing my craft.

Events, workshops, and critique groups are always happening at PNWA. Each of these activities are presented or guided by either an author or a book industry expert or both. As a regular volunteer, not one event slips my calendar. I’m aware of what’s going on, and I always walk away from a workshop with a better understanding of how to strengthen stories.

3. I’ve built friendships.

This is my favorite part of helping out a community of writers. Aside from the crazy cool staff at PNWA, I’ve met many writers, authors, agents, editors, and artists. I’ve also met people who work in publishing, people who work or volunteer at other writerly nonprofits and people who help writers self-publish. (Bonus: I get out of the writing den every single Thursday. In other words, I shower and dress in something other than yoga pants and a fleece, then I go out and talk to real people. It’s exhilarating, talking to real people.)

4. I’ve made a contribution to the world.

Helping a nonprofit isn’t about making money. It’s about helping a community grow and thrive. It’s about supporting a cause you believe in. Every Thursday I walk out of the PNWA writers’ cottage with a skip in my step and a smile on my face, knowing I did something great for free. I’ve made the workload for the PNWA staff a little lighter, and I’ve lifted my own spirits at the same time.

So, what are your talents? What could you contribute, or how are you currently contributing to a writerly community?

Sincerely,

Sarah

Unpacking a Work of Fiction

For those of you thinking about joining a critique group, here is a list of guidelines to help you and your groupies get the most out of your time together.

10 Guidelines for Critiquing 

  1. What has the writer done particularly well? Let the writer know.
  2. Give the writer a general sense of what you believe the story is doing. If some unintended impression are coming across, the writer needs to be made aware of this problem.
  3. Note any themes. (This is not always necessary. Some writers have themes to their works, others don’t.)
  4. Do the elements of the story (plot, dialogue, tone, character, setting) work together? Are there elements lacking or heavily weighted?
  5. Observe the beginning and ending of the story or scene. Discuss.
  6. Is the main character developed and believable? What about the minor characters? Point out any places where a character seems out of character.
  7. Does the POV work? What about the tense?
  8. Look for little things that could be improved. Are there too many adjectives and adverbs? Are sentence lengths varied? How is the writer beginning sentences? Does the writer make apt noun choices? Are there any vague words? Does the dialogue sound natural? Are there any unnecessary dialogue tags? Are there any awkward sentences? Does the writer make any tense shifts? Any dangling modifiers? Are at least three of the five senses being used to make descriptions?
  9. Let the writer know how you think their piece could be improved. Be encouraging. Offer constructive criticism.
  10. Reiterate the positive elements of the writer’s work.

When unpacking my own work or the work of another writer, I keep these guidelines nearby. What guidelines do you use for critiquing?

Holy Historical Novel!

Author Megan Chance knows her stuff, and she has fourteen published historical novels to prove it. Over the weekend, I attended the critically acclaimed, award winning author’s workshop on “Structuring the Historical Novel.” Here’s what I learned from Megan’s workshop:

The Dos and Don’ts of Preparing to Write a Historical Novel

Do visit your local libraries. The reserve section of any library houses diaries, journals and essays of many different time periods. These sources will offer the philosophies and moral thinking of the society you’re researching.

Do check out the archives of the New York Times in any library. Remember to look at the advertisements; these will help you understand what people were buying.

Do contact the historical society that has memorialized the events surrounding your story. Most historical societies will be happy to show you around their archives.

Do check out online sources. For American social history check out the Making of America (MoA) project online at Cornell University and University of Michigan. Find information about attire on The Costume Site.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Look for creditable sources. If the material you’re reading seems dicey, delve into the bibliography.

Do read a few fiction books published during the time period you plan to write about.

Do trace your character’s roots. Map out their family history. Understanding what kind of people your character came from will help develop his or her character.

Don’t agonize over whether your time period is the absolute perfect fit.

Do organize and save all pertinent research. Having all your research in one accessible location will save you writing time.

Don’t write a historical novel to display your knowledge of a particular time period. What you know comes second to your story.

What dos and don’ts would you add to this list?

Literary Jaunt Around NYC

What does a writer do on her first trip to New York City? Here’s a list of things I fit into a four-day trip:

1. Lunch at The Algonquin Hotel

imageThe Gonk,” on West 44th Street in Manhattan, was once the regular lunching spot for famous New York critics. Writers such as Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross, Alexander Woolcott, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, and George S. Kaufman, were just a few of the critics who made up the “Vicious Circle” that met at the Algonquin. The opinions of this round table of critics largely impacted many well-known writers of the 1920s. The Gonk was also where William Faulkner penned his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Lunch at the Algonquin is decently priced, and the ambiance transports you back in time. Today, a round table, presumably the Vicious Circle’s table, sits in the right corner of the hotel’s restaurant. A mahogany bookshelf looms over it. Waiters in light-blue dress shirts and black vests walk the dining room, running free hands across the top of cushioned dining chairs. Some of the men carry steamy dishes of chicken smothered in mozzarella on plastic trays. And Matilda, the house feline, stretches herself across a brass bellhop cart.

2. A Stroll through the Morgan Library

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The library of financier Piermont Morgan was donated to the public by J.P. Morgan Jr. in 1924. Among the museums holdings are manuscripts, rare books, paintings, drawings, and prints.

The Morgan Library also features a number of unique exhibits. I had the pleasure of viewing a series of letters written by J.D. Salinger. From 1941 to 1943, Salinger wrote a number of letters and postcards to an aspiring Canadian writer named Marjorie Sheard. Salinger was quite flirtatious in his correspondence with Miss Sheard, asking her to send him a portrait of herself. Cheeky.

Among the Morgan’s collection of drawings, I was surprised to find a drawing entitled Château fantastique au crépuscule by Victor Hugo, famed author of Les Misérables. Who knew Victor Hugo could draw? I sure didn’t.

If time permitted, I would have liked to attend one of the museum’s concerts or films. I just missed the Morgan’s Edgar Allen Poe exhibit, opening October 4th. So, go see it for me and let me know what you think. The Morgan Library is located on Madison and 36th Street.

3. A Reading at The Center for Fiction

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The Center for Fiction, on Madison and East 47th Street, is one happening place for fiction readers and writers. It’s the only nonprofit organization in the United States that’s solely dedicated to fiction. With regular author readings, writing workshops, reading groups, a bookstore, a library, and a quiet writing room for members, the Center is a strong cocktail of all things fiction.

While I was in town, the Center hosted authors Pamela Eren and Jonathan Dee. Pamela’s recent Tin House publication, The Virgins, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection, and Jonathan’s novel, The Privileges, was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Poor Pamela had lost her voice before the read, so Jonathan gave an eloquent reading of both author’s works. During the book signing, I had a very pleasant chat with the Center’s managing director, Kristin Henley. Kristin, a warm and relaxed individual, explained all that the Center has to offer to a writer, and made me feel right at home. So if you’re visiting NYC, don’t be afraid to poke your head into the Center for Fiction and see what’s going on.

4. Shopping at the Strand

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In the late 1920s, forty-eight different bookshops spanned six-blocks near Union Square, NYC. This area was known as “Book Row.” Of these forty-eight bookshops, only the Strand has survived. Today, the Strand claims to be in possession of eighteen-miles of books. On the main floor, you’ll find everything from classic literature to cookbooks to store merchandise. On the top floor, you can explore the Strand’s impressive collection of rare books. Find the courage to strike up a conversation with a Strand employee; all are very friendly and well-read. There isn’t much seating inside the bookstore, but if it’s a nice day out you can enjoy your new read on one of the many benches outside.

5. A Day with Book Lovers at the Brooklyn Book Festival

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By luck, I happened to be in New York for one of the nation’s premier book festivals. Founded in 2006, the Brooklyn Book Festival annually brings together authors, readers, writers, and the general public. The week-long festival is free to the public and includes author signings, readings, workshops, themed lectures, and tons of vendors. Some of the vendors I spent time with included One Story, The Paris Review, Wave Books,  Brooklyn Poets, Melville House, Poets & Writers, and PEN American Center.

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Scattered throughout the vendors were panels of authors discussing their books and the writing process.

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The whole festival was pulsating with literary hip. I tell ya, I don’t think I blinked the entire day. So if you happen to be in NYC in the month of September, don’t miss the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Have you been to any of these places? What do you think every writer should do when in NYC?

Character Insights

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending author Terry Persun‘s workshop on Character Development. Terry, whose recent novel, “Cathedral of Dreams” is a finalist in the ForeWard magazine Book of the Year Award, pays considerable attention to his characters and what motivates them along their journey. In his workshop, Terry moved beyond mere character profiling to character insight.

Here are my key takeaways from Terry’s workshop:

Understand the Nuances of a Character’s Childhood

Experiences in your character’s childhood affect the way they think and experience the present. Become familiar with a few essential childhood experiences that have shaped your character. Pay particular attention to the way the character responded to those childhood incidents. How did he or she respond when the textbooks fell into a puddle at school? Each character in your story will have different responses to the fallen textbooks.

Know Your Character’s Skills

What your character does professionally will affect how your character behaves. If your protagonist is an interior decorator by trade, he will have a keen eye for wall colors. If your character is a police officer, he’ll profile the people and situations in a room. Your character’s profession will affect the way they speak. If your police officer sounds like Ryan Seacrest, you have a problem. Your goal is reader believability. Allow your character’s profession to show in a handful of ways, and you’ll build trust with your reader.

Break Down Character Stereotypes

Putting your character in different situations will allow the reader to see different facets of your character’s personality. If your character is a sharp-tongued lawyer, break down that stereotype by showing him at home with his children. Characters must be multidimensional. Whether it’s coin-collecting or a child, even your antagonist must have something he or she loves.

Interview Each Character About Fellow Characters

You have a cast of characters, and each character interacts on some level with the other characters in the story. Sit down with a character and play psychologist. What does your protagonist find irresistible about his or her friend? Why does your character find her parents annoying? Why does your antagonist despise the protagonist? Maybe your antagonist thinks he or she is actually being loving toward the protagonist. Investigating your character’s feelings about fellow characters will allow for smoother interactions between characters and your character’s intentions will be clearer. Playing psychologist will help you understand your character’s mental pathway, motives, and actions.

What insights do you have about the development of characters? Share them below.

For information about more writer workshops in the Seattle area, visit pnwa.org.

Sincerely,

Sarah

What Should Publishers Publish?

In the 2013 September/October issue of Poets & Writers magazine, writer Tracy Strauss discussed sexual abuse in writing in her article entitled, “A Topic Too Risky.” Tracy’s topic held particular interest to me because much of my writing centers on some form of abuse or another.

Like Tracy, I’ve also received negative feedback concerning plots centered on sexual abuse. Recently, a fellow writer remarked that though my plot was “moving, no publisher would ever publish it because of the sexual abuse.” Ouch.

The Stats

Let’s compare numbers for a moment. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2010 Crime Clock, one murder occurred in the USA every 35.6 minutes. Whereas, according the 2010 CDC statistics on reported child sexual abuse (and my own calculations of those statistics), roughly one child sexual abuse report occurred in the USA every 106 seconds.

Let me bullet those 2010 statistics for you:

  • 1 murder every 35.6 minutes
  • 1 report of child sexual abuse every 106 seconds

The Publishing World

So, why would publishers and/or agents shy away from representing a book with sexual abuse in it, but happily represent one riddled with murders?

That question is loaded with assumptions. Yes, in the real world child sexual abuse occurs more often than murder. However, the sexual abuse of children doesn’t become easier to absorb simply because it occurs more often than murder. In fact, it’s more likely that the topic hits too close to home for many readers — Psst, publishers and agents also count as readers. Perhaps, it’s easier to read about murder because it’s less familiar to the general populace.

Furthermore, there’s a fear associated with the topic of sexual abuse. The harming of children is tragic; it wrenches the soul. I commend those emotionally brave enough to write about the topic in whatever the genre. I also understand the readers who cannot bear to read about child sexual abuse. I can vouch for the unrest the soul feels when cases child sexual abuse occur in the lives of those we love. Remember if you do a fictional character justice, your reader will love and defend that character.

Okay, let’s talk capitalism.

Publishers and agents need to make money. Books are their business. The content of a book must be marketable in order for the publishing house to make a return on the money spent producing the book. For them, it wouldn’t be good business to publish what won’t sell.

What we’re really asking is should publishing houses internally regulate what’s being published in order to promote social causes? That’s getting awfully political if you ask me. But it’s not uncommon for the arts to promote social change. For every banned book, there was a publisher standing behind it.

I’m of two minds about the claims regarding sexual abuse of children in fictional books. On the one hand, I agree that writing about child sexual abuse might be risky for the book business. On the other hand, I’m not sure if the claims about publishers and their distaste for books with sexual abuse are actually true. Look at the success of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini or The Color Purple by Alice Walker or Little Bee by Chris Cleave. Each novel contains some form of child sexual abuse, yet each novel found a home with an agent and a publisher.

The Point

Regardless of the risk, the writing of a story goes beyond whether or not it will sell. I will continue to write my stories, some of which contain the tragedies of child sexual abuse, in the hopes that one day they’ll find a place in the publishing world.

What about you? What are your thoughts?

Sincerely,
Sarah

Bounty on Grammar Cops

Recently, on Twitter, poet and novelist Sherman Alexie took a shot at “grammar cops.” Here’s what Alexie had to say:

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Are “grammar cops” poor writers? I couldn’t tell you. What I can say about grammar cops is this: (a) they sound arrogant, (b) they come off as insecure, and (c) they’re poking at Pluto while the rest of the universe continues its orbit.

What do I mean by that last bit? Great fiction is built on strong characters. And, how do we build strong characters as writers? We listen. Hemingway once said, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” To me, grammar cops, at least those who vocalize their findings in a public forum, are listening (1) to correct, (2) to find fault, and (3) to seem smart.

Great writers listen to the language going on around them to strengthen their characters. Writers listen and note a speaker’s diction and word choice. These elements add to the believability of their characters. They see Pluto as an integral part to the whole of the universe.

While it is true that great writers are at least somewhat aware of grammatical rules before breaking them, it doesn’t mean writers are professional copyeditors.

Not long ago, Katherine Pickett, a copyeditor from Silver Spring, Maryland, reached out to me to let me know of a spelling error in my profile on Twitter. Yikes, right? Did she publicly ridicule my error? No. She direct messaged me to let me know. She gained my good opinion in three ways: (1) she let me know she was one sharp copyeditor, (2) she corrected me in a tactful and professional matter, and (3) she showed me she was invested in my success as a writer. Win-win.

So, here is my advice to writers:

  • Know the rules as best as you can manage
  • Invest in Grammarly
  • Invest in a damn good copyeditor

And lastly, here is my advice to “grammar cops:”

  • Make friends, not enemies
  • Use bad grammar as fodder for writing
  • Help other writers with your mad skills

Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with grammar in the comment section below.

Sincerely,
Sarah

Facing Writerly Doubts

For me, doubts arise all the time. They smack me upside the head when the outline of a plot just isn’t coming together or when writing time is sparse or when past or present nightmares come a-haunting or when it’s time to do another rewrite. Doubts are always peering through glass windowpanes.

This morning, while sipping coffee in the bay window, I read from Mary Oliver‘s “A Poetry Handbook.” In her book, Mary writes “We too write our early poems in imitation of the first poems we heard.” Of course, this line took me back to my first experiences with poetry.

At seven-years-old, I’d sit cross-legged on my grandparents’ tile floor with a giant hardback of Mother Goose poems. I adored that book’s frayed spine and its yellowing pages littered with metrical verses. Each page’s dusty scent carried an antiquity which made its printed words marvelous.

Before I knew it, Mary’s line had me meditating on my love for Poe through middle school, and the times I’d write family newsletters while home from school sick. I remembered a time I’d stacked books and journals near my bed, so, should the house catch fire, they’d be within reach of saving. I thought of the long strolls along the lapping waters of Huntington Lake with my journal.

Recalling these moments served to remind me that since childhood I’ve carried with me a great passion for all things literary. Writing and reading, well, we’ve had a steady romance. It hasn’t been all teddy bears and kisses, but whose relationship has? Perhaps, this discovery will be Echinacea to those pesky doubt viruses. The momentum of all those years reaffirms what I am doing today. Today, I am writing.

Have you always known you were a writer? What experiences reaffirm your passion during seasons of doubt?

Sincerely,
Sarah

Using Writer’s Digest 2nd Draft Critique Service

While the water in the tea kettle sputtered away, I read Guy Bergstrom’s “Why critique groups MUST DIE.” In his blog post, Guy acknowledges three reasons critique groups need to die (there are actually four, but I’m not counting “Because I Said So” as a legitimate reason). The three reasons are: (1) finding the time to meet up, (2) the social problems of group editing, and (3) critique groups can’t handle the volume of what is being produced within the group — it boils down to quality of critique verses quantity of critique.

Essentially, Guy puts into words the frustrations most writers have when donning the critique group hat. Of course, a writer depends on excellent critique, which is why Guy does suggest hiring a professional editor. He is not the first writer to suggest this route. He is, however, the first writer to prompt me to action.

So what did I do? I stopped scouring meetup.com for a critique group and began a search for a professional editing service, that’s what. Thanks to the high-speed internet and google, I had Writer’s Digest 2nd Draft Critique Services open before my tea had steeped.

Although 2nd Draft offers a gambit of editing services (WD professionals critique everything from manuscripts to synopses), I needed an editor for a seven-page short story.

So, here’s how 2nd Draft Short Story Critique worked for me:

  • Payment. I bought seven-pages worth of critique at four bucks per page. Did I pay those extra four bucks for the one sentence on the seventh page? Yes, I did.
  • Confirmation and Instructions. Once I paid for my seven pages of critique, I received an email with my order confirmation number and instructions about the submission process.
  • Submission. I created a new email to the address provided, using my order confirmation number as the subject. I included a brief message in the body of the email with my contact information, and most importantly, I ATTACHED MY STORY.

Simple, right? I’d finished sending my short story off for professional critique before I’d finished my cup of Earl Grey.

And then, I waited.

The 2nd Draft webpage claims to take between four to six weeks to get a critique back, and I suppose it could take up to that long depending on the length of a work, but my critique was in my inbox after THREE DAYS.

Now, I’m making it sound as if the three days went by as the batting of an eyelash, but they didn’t. In fact, by the time day three came around, I was considering giving up the creative writing profession to pursue a career in professional bon-bon eating and soap opera viewing (if there are such things). So, thank goodness that critique came back when it did!

The critique provided detailed pointers on how to improve my plot. For example, the critiquer clearly articulated that in order to increase my plot’s potential, I’d need to increase the emotional development of the story by strengthening the viewpoint or POV and I’d need to allow for more sensory descriptions between dialogue. The critiquer also let me know that my draft was well written, and had the potential to be a saleable story. That kind of feedback revs up the creative engine for revisions.

All in all, my experience using 2nd Draft Short Story Critique was easy, efficient and well worth the $30.41 from my pocket. What have your experiences of critique groups or professional editing services been like? Have you ever used 2nd Draft? If so, what did you think?

Sincerely,
Sarah