Tuesday, December 31, 2013



Resolutions for Writers
Rhonda Browning White

Turn the calendar page. Better still, break out an entirely new calendar. We have more than a new month ahead; we have a whole new year in front of us! Blank squares waiting to be filled with important appointments, blank lines waiting to be filled with significant words. The year 2014 presents a fresh start—a chance for growth and improvement—for every writer, so let’s resolve to do something vital and vivacious with each new day that’s given to us. What good is a New Year without a few resolutions, anyway? Print out this list, and make it yours.

·         . . . Write five days a week. If you’re one of those writers who lives by the mantra, Write every day, then goody for you! I live in the real world, however, where writing is a job—my career—and like any job, I do it five days a week, reserving the other two for my family and myself. Besides, life gets in the way, and it’s unrealistic to think we can (or would even want to) write every single day. We set ourselves up for failure when we insist we must write 365 days a year. Don’t fail. Allow yourself a couple of days off, but write the other five.
·         . . . Write 100 words a day (five days a week). Anyone—anyone!—can do this. You pound out several hundred words a day on Facebook, a thousand or more via email and a dozen at a time on Twitter. One hundred words a day is nothing. Nothing! A few of my friends and I started this 100-words-a-day challenge, and we hold each other to it. We report in daily, sometimes admitting defeat (kid is sick, car broke down, computer on the fritz), but more often gloating that we wrote 200 words—or 2,500 words. You’ll find that, more often than not, 100 words leads to 500 words, and soon you’ve written multiple pages. Even on the busiest days, you’ve accomplished something toward your goal, even if it’s only 100 words.
·         . . . Read, read, read! You can’t be a great writer unless you’re an avid reader. Read the genre in which you want to write. If you write romance, read the latest romance novels on The New York Times bestseller list. Be sure to read the masters. If high school was the last time you read Hemingway, Hawthorne or Flannery O’Connor, you’ve done yourself a great disservice as a writer. Works by these canonical writers are still around for a reason. Figure out what that reason is, and apply those lessons to your own work.
·         . . . Study the craft of writing. Resolve to read six books on the craft of writing this year. That’s only one book every other month. Easy-peasy! Some of my favorites include The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, and Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. Especially good for beginning writers is Sandy Tritt’s Tips and Techniques Workbook  (available for automatic download online HERE), which includes fill-in-the-blank worksheets and direct examples to help improve your writing. Take a writing course at your local college this year, or attend a writers conference that offers courses in writing craft.
·         . . . Type “The End.” Have a file full of half-finished short stories? Seven different novel beginnings? Three memoirs that total less than a hundred pages each? Stop procrastinating, and finish something! This is where the 100-words-a-day challenge can help you reach the end of your first draft. Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard. Write!
·         . . . Have my work professionally edited. What’s the difference between a traditionally published author and an unpublished writer? Many times, an editor. What do author-editors have in common? We have our work professionally edited. Yes, editors hire editors. It’s true that we can’t see our own mistakes in our writing, so it’s important to have trained eyes look over our final drafts. Professional editors will do more than find typos and grammar mistakes; they’ll point out that your character has green eyes in chapter one and blue eyes in chapter twenty. They’ll remind you that you left a loose sub-plot thread dangling back in chapter eleven, and explain where the middle sags. They’ll show you where you forgot to include internal conflict in a scene full of external conflict. In other words, they’ll help you make your writing much better.
·         . . . Network with other writers. Join a writers group in your area. Don’t have one? Start one. Your local library is a good place to begin, or post a bulletin on Meetups.com. Attend a writers conference where you can meet writers at your same skill level, as well as network with professionals in the field from whom you can learn. And by all means, support other writers. Write a positive review on Amazon.com or Goodreads.com of any novels or books you’ve loved, especially if those books are written by new or up-and-coming authors. One day, you’ll want someone to return the favor and write a review of your latest novel.
·         . . . Submit. Writing a novel and having it professionally edited will do you no good at all if you allow it to molder on your laptop. Whip out a polished query letter (which, of course, you’ve revised, edited and proofed), and send that manuscript out the door. Realize up front that you’ll receive rejections, and know that you may have to send out a few hundred queries to land an agent or publisher. Still, you must submit your work in order to have it traditionally published, so you may as well get started this year.

Make 2014 the year you take your writing to the next level. Start today! 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Make up Your Own Mind: Letting the Reader Write

Rhonda Browning White

During my MFA days, I kept a journal of important suggestions and bits of advice passed down to me by professors, instructors, visiting writers and my cohorts; epiphanies, ah-ha moments, words to live by, definitely words to write by. I still turn to these one-liners, these brief explanations, these light-bulb statements that point me in the right direction when I feel lost or need inspiration. One such statement came from my mentor, author Robert Olmstead, who said to my workshop peers and me, “It’s not about what you write, it’s what you don’t write. Make the reader do some of the writing. Invoke, invoke, invoke. Make the reader conjoin A and C. Leave out B. Don’t burn words.”

For years, I’d spelled out everything for the reader. I wanted her to understand. I wanted to explain. Suddenly I realized that the best fiction—stories I love and re-read, are the stories that allow me to draw my own conclusions. And sometimes, in the re-reading, my opinion and conclusion changes. These stories become, for me, timeless.

Since then, I’ve sought short stories in which the narrative and its elements are not spoon-fed to us, stories where we are allowed to develop a relationship with the characters and draw reflective meaning from their experiences. Here are two examples I’ve found in The Best American Short Stories 2010, which we can examine and learn from to prevent ourselves from burning words.

In her story “All Boy,” Lori Ostlund writes of Harold, a studious and introverted child who is audience to the breakdown of his parents’ marriage (Ostlund 263-78). His father is gay. We know, without being specifically told, that Harold’s mother fears their son may have homosexual tendencies, so she protects him from being ostracized by teachers and classmates by telling them, “I guess Harold’s just all boy” (Ostlund 275). Ostlund never points out these things directly, but lets the reader reach this conclusion and determine for herself if Harold’s mother is in denial of her husband’s and son’s tendencies, or if she’s merely operating in the protective role of mother. Ostlund never tells us until the last paragraphs that Harold’s father is gay. We are allowed to experience this revelation as Harold experienced it; gradually, by applying our own knowledge and societal frames of reference to what is taking place. We experience for ourselves what Harold is thinking and feeling, so much so that at the end of the story, we want to usher him back into the safety of the womb-like closet, where he is protected from the harsh realities of the world.

We suspect from the opening line of Tea Obreht’s “The Laugh” that the darkest part of the story is over. “They were talking about the funeral when the lights went out” (Obreht 246). Still, suspense builds throughout as we learn that Neal, our narrator, feels guilty over some instance that occurred between him and best friend Roland’s late wife, Femi. He loved her, I inferred, though no steamy affair ever made print. Throughout the story, Neal does everything he can to protect Roland; physically, when he follows him into a pack of wildebeests without a loaded gun; and emotionally, when he places heavy sacks of flour into Femi’s empty casket to keep Roland from discovering that hyenas stole her body. Neal came face-to-face with one of these hyenas, though a pane of glass separated them. But the hyenas’ laugh, not their vile golden eyes, was what tormented him. “It was the laugh that made his stomach turn, and they laughed all the time, every night they were there, as if they knew their laugh made him wonder, made him want to come outside to them in the dark, or, otherwise, put a gun in his mouth” (Obreht 257). Yet, when the story ends, it isn’t the hyenas’ laugh that haunts him, it is Femi’s laugh. Again, the reader is left to her own inference, her own conclusion, based on her knowledge—not of hyenas, but of humans and human nature.

It is what we leave out, then, not what we put into a story, that provides the reader with a satisfying, poignant or devastating twist. Leave out the B parts. Let your reader reveal what has been hidden, let him write what is missing.

Works Cited

Obreht, Tea. “The Laugh.” Russo 246-62.
Ostlund, Lori. “All Boy.” Russo 263-278.
Russo, Richard, ed. Introduction. The Best American Short Stories 2010. New York:
          Houghton, 2010. Print.

Reprinted with permission of the author and Why The Writing Works http://whythewritingworks.com/2013/12/03/make-up-your-own-mind-letting-the-reader-write/