Category Archives: writing tips

Harry Crews On Writing

Excerpts from Getting Naked with Harry Crews

“If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told. Sometimes the lies were told you by people who meant you well, and who meant the very best for you. Your mama might have. I know my mama told me some of them great lies. She didn’t mean it. She didn’t think they were lies. She didn’t think they were lies then, don’t think they’re lies now. I know in fact they’re lies. Don’t make her bad, it’s just the way we are. But if you’re gonna write fiction, you have to get right on down to it.”

“If you’re writing a thing honestly, there are plans you can make, there are outlines you can make, there are notes that you can make to yourself about your intentions. All of those things invariably change. They are reshaped and rethought. Writing is a very, very messy business.”

“Conception is pristine and pure and has all manner of hope in it, but between conception and execution, something gets lost. I’m sorry, bud, don’t let anybody shit you, there’s a big gap there. There’s always going to be a big gap there, and you can drink yourself to death over it or you can shoot yourself in the head over it or you can be an asshole to your family about it. There’s a lot of ways you can handle it, and everybody, every man and woman, comes to their peace with that however they do. I got no advice here, everybody works it out for him or her self.”

“As soon as something pleasant and cheerful and confectionery occurs to me, I’ll write about it; but I can only write about whatever comes. And what has come thus far has been a kind of blackness.”

“When I start writing, I say to God, ‘God, give me five hundred words. I don’t want to be greedy, although I am at times a very greedy person; but I’m not greedy today. Give me five hundred words and I’ll be satisfied. I don’t want to know the whole rest of the book. All I want to know is the next five hundred words. Thank you. Amen.’ And then, do it. Five hundred words, after all isn’t much. If you double-space and you’ve got good margins so you can make notes to yourself, you’re only writing two hundred and fifty words a page. That’s two pages. Now that’s going to sound very mechanical, very arbitrary, but that’s the way I do it. That’s the way I think. Many times those two pages go somewhere else, usually the trash basket or furnace. Andrew Lytle used to say, ‘Fire is a great refiner.’ And it is.”

“I’d give you this: that to be a fiction writer means you spend most of your time thinking about, meditating upon, trying to dissect and understand just those aspects of the human animal that other human beings try their damnedest never to think about.”

“Being a fiction writer is a good way to go crazy, it’s a good way to be a nervous wreck, it’s a good way to become a drunk. You continually pick at yourself, the little sores that you have. They scab over and you pick them open again. Other people not only let them scab over, they let them scar over. They leave it alone. Writers don’t do that. They can’t keep their fingers out of the sore. They’ve got to keep it bleeding. And it’s off that blood that they make their stuff.”

“And my mother to this very day does not understand why somebody would give you good money for something that was made up. As John Updike said when he accepted the National Book Award, ‘Fiction is a tissue of lies that’s truer than anything that ever happened.’ Yeah, the nuts and bolts in there may not be the truth, but the truth of the heart, again, those great abstract nouns, ‘hope’ and ‘despair’ and ‘love’ and ‘ambition,’ and all the rest of it. Those are the only things that are worth considering anyway, aren’t they?”

“Talent helps. Listen, get all the talent you can. But writing is guts and it’s courage. You cannot have a failure of courage. Everybody in the world is telling you you’re no good, and you can’t do it, and it’s not going to work. You’ve got to keep talking to yourself, say, ‘Come on, son. Come on…”

“I know writers are very fond of saying that they’re not in their own books: ‘Don’t look for me in my book, I’m not in here anywhere.’ Well, they probably are not in there in full form. But their prejudices, their sentiments, their biases, their angle of vision on the world – to say that’s not in the book is bullshit and they know it. ‘Don’t confuse me on some kind of one-to-one basis with somebody inside the book.’ This is particularly true if they’re writing a first-person novel. Readers are often inclined to confuse the voice, that ‘I,’ with the person that’s writing it, but that’s a distinction that writers insist upon, and I think rightly so. I know I sure as hell do.”

“You have to go to considerable trouble to live differently from the way the world wants you to live. That’s what I’ve discovered about writing. The world doesn’t want you to do a damn thing. If you wait till you got time to write a novel or time to write a story or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read – if you wait for the time, you’ll never do it. ‘Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”

“I can’t understand anybody who tells me that they enjoy writing, that it’s fun. Frankly, I don’t believe them. It’s certainly never been fun for me. What is a real rush, for me, is after you’ve done it, before you even sent it to New York, and that’s it. I know this is strange, but when you look at it, and you think, ‘Before me, this was not. Because of me, this is.’ Now that’s a rush.”

Harry Crews (1935-2012) was an American novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist.

The Dirt Worker’s Journal: Jason E. Hodges talks to Harry Crews

Writing Resolutions

I used to jot down yearly writing resolutions, goals that I hoped to accomplish in the twelve months ahead. After a few years, I realized most of these were simply part of the day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year life of a writer. Alas, no need to write them down now… but here they are anyway.

Write write write. Stories, chapters, plays, poems, and screenplays. As much as you can, whenever you can. Waiting for the right mood only leads to writing paralysis.

Read read read. This helps to keep the inspiration juices flowing. When my reading falters, I notice my writing slows down as well.

Submit to magazines and journals regularly. You want to maintain that thick skin for the ongoing rejections that are inevitable. Oh, and keep good records.

Attend more lit events, readings, fairs and festivals. Drag your introverted self out to at least a few of these every year.

Sign up for a creative writing class. Or a grammar class or a screenwriting class. Something related to the craft. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet a writing buddy or two. Maybe a mentor.

Join or start a writing workshop. Having other writers critique your work through revisions can help you stay focused. A group keeps the wheels turning.

Read aloud. Finally checked this off my list last year with my first reading. It was terrifying, to be sure, but like everyone said, the second was a tad easier.

Blog and tweet. Meaningful thoughts and nonsensical crap. Hey, writing is writing. A great way for hermits to connect with the outside world, with other writers.

Expand your vocabulary. Sit a dictionary by your bed. When you wake in the middle of the night, read a page and let new words sink in to your subconscious.

Record dreams. An excellent source of inspiration for new work or revision problem solving. Keep a notebook by your bed, alongside the dictionary, to write down dream memories while they’re still fresh.

Enter contests. Although I’m not much for contests, it’s another way to get your work read and possibly published. Entry fees often include a subscription.

Apply for grants. Get to know what’s available (some grants only require one publication.) True, they’re a pain in the ass to write and decisions can be super random, but writing applications does get easier with practice.

Journal. Go buy a shiny new notebook at the dollar store. A place to scribble random thoughts, ideas, and dialogue that come without warning.

Revise or finish older work. Sift through those half-finished abandoned drafts lurking in the shadows. Find a gem desperate for your attention.

Write outside your comfort zone. If you always write in first person, try third. Love the past tense, try present. Always writing realist works, try a sci-fi tale. Your comfort zone isn’t going anywhere.

Research publishers and presses. You know, for when you finally get that book done.

Write a better bio. I need to do this. Still trying to think of something clever without sounding like a jackass.

Believe believe believe. Keep your delusions of grandeur alive and well. Hard work and patience do pay off, but daring to dream the impossible helps one persevere.

Do you have writing resolutions? Will you keep them?

Ordering Short Story Collections

My short story collection is finished! Well, almost. A little more tweaking to do. About 3/4 of the way through my manuscript, I made a table of contents to see my stories as a whole and to think about ordering. Although my stories span five years of writing, there are reoccurring themes that run throughout. I want the order to reinforce these.

“The placement of a story in a collection can alter both its meaning and its affect.” -David Jauss

This isn’t to say an editor won’t change what you, the writer comes up with, or ask you to cut a beloved story, or ask you to write new stories. Authors’ and editors’ opinions on ordering a short story collection differ, but there are commonalities.

First and Last Story

Place your best story first to grab the reader’s attention (a previously published story or one that has garnered much praise). Some editor’s say not to use a story that is too dark, that you want it to appeal to the largest demographic. The last story should also be strong and unifying. 

Title Story
If your title story (if you have one) is your best, it should go first or last. If it’s merely the best title, it can be placed anywhere in the collection as long as what precedes and follows are cohesive.
Story Length
A novella should be the last story in a collection. Short shorts or flash fiction pieces can be sprinkled throughout to alter the rhythm and and flow.
Cluster stories with similar themes together.
Think what kind of ride you want to take your readers on. Is it a roller coaster, or do you want a slow build to a big finish? 
Arrange stories with overlapping characters side by side and in chronological order. You may want to group stories by the protagonists’ age group.
Place can influence order. Keep stories that share a geographical location together or spread them out.
Consider how a reader might feel at the end of one story, and decide whether you want to maintain that mood or shake things up. A transition might be an image, key word, or title that relates to a previous story.
These stories stand out from the collection because of style, structure, or pov. Place these somewhere in the middle as you want to bookend with work that is most representational of your style. A story might not belong, instinctively you know this, but you’re hoping to sneak it in. I say go for it – the editor will tell you if it’s a no go.

Write each title on a separate index cards or strips of paper. Underneath, write the word count, theme, mood and a couple of key words. Spread the cards out on the floor and begin arranging . . . and rearranging. This will help you move from one possibility to the next with ease until you feel what’s right. Some ordering is subconscious, similar to the writing process.

Short Story Titles

What’s in a title? A lot. It’s the first thing a reader, editor, or judge responds to. A good title piques interest and raises questions before the reader knows what your story is about. A bad title may turn someone off from reading further.

Of course, you can’t please everyone. Perhaps you’ve titled a story Brenda’s Biscuits. Not bad. Now imagine a reader who as a child was bullied by a girl named Brenda, whose grandfather died from choking on a biscuit, and who was scorned by a teacher for using excessive alliteration. An extreme example, but you get the picture.

A strong title may suggest an emotion or create a mood. It should not only sound good but also look good. If a reader likes your story and wants to recommend it, would they remember the title, or is it too long and obscure sounding? Originality is a bonus. Titles can’t be copyrighted, but if someone searches for your short story online, it would be a shame if there were four others titled the same.

Titles come to writers at different times. In my experience, the best titles appear early on when writing a short. I once changed a story’s title after each revision – twelve times! Some writers are okay to wait until a work is completely finished before naming a piece, but I prefer to have a working title, even if it is the wrong one.

If a suitable title eludes you, don’t wait for it to magically appear – ask other writers and mentors for suggestions. Objectivity can muddle up titling the same way it can revisions. You don’t want to sit on a fantastic piece of fiction just because you’re not convinced you have the best title. Submit your work, an editor may suggest something better.

On the flip side, don’t get too attached. I once thought up a great title early on in drafts. By the time the story was done, the title didn’t quite fit, but I kept it anyway because I thought it sounded cool. Just like characters, you sometimes need to kill titles or at least save them for different stories.

Good titles seem to come without much thought, but if you are struggling, consider these suggestions.

  • name of character
  • possessive and object/subject
  • name of setting
  • theme or symbol
  • conflicting moment or event
  • expression
  • line from story

Brenda’s Biscuits was an extreme example of how a title can turn a reader off. A more likely scenario: a reader picks up an anthology of short stories, yours included. They only have time to read one. The reader will skim over the table of contents and choose a story whose title intrigues them the most. Will it be yours?

Any tips or anecdotes about short story titles?

Dreams for Writing Inspiration

Dreams can be a wonderful tool for fiction writing because the creative mind continues to spin its magic beyond our waking hours. If friends roll their eyes when you begin a sentence with, “I had this dream…”, stop talking and start writing. What develops in our unconscious minds is unique and personal – characteristics of a good story.

Dreams can inspire at different stages of writing. You may write an entire piece of flash fiction or only use one aspect of a dream – a character, imagery, setting, or mood as a seed for a new story. Night visions can also help solve problems you’re having during revisions. Try reading your piece right before bed. The story may work itself into a dream and provide you with a solution.

Of course, you have to remember your dreams. Keep a notebook and pencil beside your bed. When you wake, write everything down right away. Once in this habit, you’ll find your dreams become clearer and that you remember more often. In the middle of the night, I reach for my cell phone (no need to turn on the light) and tweet basic themes.

Dreams are often fantastical and wouldn’t make sense translated directly to the page unless you write magical realism or science fiction. But similar to using real life experiences for inspiration, anything can be altered for the sake of story. A giant hairy monster chasing you can be written as a 6 feet tall stalker with hairy knuckles. That said, don’t forget the nightmares.

What is your connection between dreaming and writing?

Stephen King, an excerpt from Writers Dreaming
5 Famous Books Inspired by Dreams

Ditching Drafts

When I began writing, I’d come up with an idea, write a first draft, and revise until it was done. Repeat process. I’d heard of authors keeping folders full of abandoned drafts. The idea of unfinished stories reminded me of plants yearning for a drink.

In an early effort to avoid online draft hoarding, I sat down and wrote a list of story ideas with a few points around plot, character, etc. This would keep all my ideas in one tidy place. I was green, thinking I could control the writerly brain from doing what it wanted.

Alas, I have a bulging drafts folder, where first drafts, half-drafts, ideas, and story tidbits are kept. Nothing moves from here until it is submission worthy, then it graduates to the almighty folder: Julie’s Stories. Let’s just say the drafts folder is getting a lot bigger than that of the finished works.

I try to clean up my files every so often because redundant crap irritates me. Before computers, I hated keeping papers of most everything. If I got a bill, I paid it and then promptly threw it away. I’ve also been known to recycle newspapers before people have a chance to read them.

So what to do about this ever blossoming drafts folder? A part of me wants to take the whole thing and throw it in the trash. Why not, another one will grow in its place. A voice inside says NO, you can’t get rid of anything, you never know when you might go back to an idea. I agree to a point, but clutter, whether it’s on the computer or in my immediate environment gnaws away and infects my creative process.

I will be discerning and only let crazy nonsensical ramblings make their way to the bin.

Files labeled Fucking Idiot, Perverse Dialogue, Sneezing Attack, and Housewife have been deleted, and it feels great.

Twitter Explained

I live in The Land of Twits, and I like it. Well… most of the time. I haven’t met ninety percent of the people I follow because my “real life” friends don’t participate, but they are curious.

I created my first account two years ago during a bout of insomnia. I didn’t tweet much in the beginning, not understanding the point of it all, so just lurked about, reading what famous people were saying.

Then one night, I convinced myself that Twitter was an extension of the Illuminati – I listen to Coast to Coast a lot! I deleted my account and vowed never to return. Six months passed, and another sleepless night had me back on.

Questions from those keen on joining the Land of Twits:

Who should use Twitter?
Anyone who wants to connect with a particular community, locally or internationally. I use it as a way to network with other writers. There’s a niche on the site for everything. Or… anyone who has time to fart around, reading what celebrities are blathering on about.

What do you Tweet?
Most of my tweets are writing related – process, events, links to my blog, articles, other writer’s sites, quotes, and yes, the odd cat photo. I generally dislike Facebook updates but, for some reason, don’t mind sharing random thoughts and activities with people I’ve never met.

How often do you Tweet?
Sometimes a few times a day, sometimes not for days. My quantity is reliant on mood. I tweet more when I’m in a good head space.

Do you engage with people on Twitter?
I don’t unless someone tweets something I can’t resist replying to. You can communicate through the newsfeed which is visible to followers or direct message which is a private internal email system.

Do you follow someone if they follow you?
This is the polite thing to do. If someone follows me, I check out their account to see what they talk about. I need to be interested in what someone has to say to follow them.

How long does it take to build a following?
I don’t focus on this aspect, mine has been gradual. You can increase your followers by following like crazy because most people are polite.

Is it a waste of time?
I was on it a lot more when I first joined and thought it was a bit addictive. Now it’s more in my periphery. I do enjoy the connections I’ve made; it would be cool to meet some of these people in person.

What annoys you most about Twitter?
I think it’s a great way to praise and promote others’ work and passions, but I’ve seen a fine line between this and being a sychophant. As with most things, moderation is key.

Do you think Twitter will be replaced by something better?
Probably… either that or the Illuminati will gain control, and I’ll be forced to quit again.

Why do you tweet? Or not tweet?

Writing Workshop Success

F&G Writers began as an idea over beers at Betty’s two years ago. Fellow students and I had just finished Short Stories II, a creative writing class taught by Emily Schultz, and thought it would be cool to start a writing group. After a few pints, I volunteered to organize. The next morning, I woke not only with a hangover but also with fear and dread. What did I know about starting a workshop? 

Weeks later, two of the kids from school sent me emails. Was I still on board? Crap, they were serious. My comfort zone would need serious renovations. I had taken three classes with Emily who ran super fluid productive workshops; I used her as a model. I also talked to writer friends, and yes, there were discouraging tales of woe, but after sixteen workshops, F&G is still going strong.

Tips and Strategies for Organizing and Moderating a Workshop:

1. Personalities. This can be tricky because writers are a strange lot. Invite writers you’ve met in classes and friends whose work you’ve read. Diversity of life experience, style, voice, and the ability to give constructive feedback are all important factors. No hotheads or crybabies.

2. Commitment. Crucial for longevity. You want members who are focused on their writing despite other interests and day jobs. The group can’t be a drop-in.

3. Size. It matters. I thought eight was the magic number, but it took careful time management and lots of reading and critiquing. Two writers left in the first year and then six seemed perfect. We lost one more and five works fine although new blood is about to be injected.

4. Consistency. We meet on a Friday night, every six weeks for three hours. Do not deviate from your plan as juggling dates around individual schedules is a nightmare. We meet at my home. You want a place that is comfortable, quiet, and accessible.

5. The Work. Anything goes fiction. We write short stories, flash fiction, excerpts, beginnings, and the occasional genre piece. Encourage submissions that are under twelve pages. Give occasional prompts to challenge one another (e.g., write 2nd person POV, use the word murder on the first page, write an urban legend).

6. Format. Ask members to email their fiction one week prior to meeting. At the workshop each writer reads a passage before the group gives feedback. Encourage everyone to comment before the member explains and/or asks questions. Written feedback is optional. Give equal time to each story (varies with story length).

7. Chill. Writing is serious work but workshopping doesn’t have to be. As time passes and trust is built the group will become more laid back and open. We take each other’s work seriously, but there’s a lot of laughing and joking too.

8. Extra Curricular. Plan dinners out between workshops. This gives you a chance to talk shop (processsubmissions, books, rejections and successes), and of course, to have fun. Add literary field trips to book launches and readings.

Running F&G is about process, much like writing. I didn’t know how it would work or if it would work before it began, but it has definitely been worth the effort.

Publication Anxiety: 3 Stages

Your story has been accepted. Cool. If it was published next week that would be great, but it’s slower than beans out there which leaves plenty of time to ruminate. Someone is actually going to read what I write, weird. Who is going to read it, anybody? The worst part about this stage is rereading your story. I did this once, made revisions, sent it to the editor, and asked if he could print this much improved version. But of course I couldn’t stop. I sent two more rewrites, promising the last was the last. My roommate told me to leave the poor guy alone, and I finally did. Once your story is out in the universe, let it go.

You’ve received your contributor copies. As you skim through your story you see typos. Gasp! Or the table of contents reads your story is on page 21, but it’s really on page 22. Oh no! Or the editorial states your story was submitted as creative non-fiction, but it wasn’t. Ugh! Or, my favourite: your last sent version (The National Corvette Museum is in Bowling Green, Kentucky NOT Bowling Green, Ohio) didn’t make it to the printers. I did cry about that one. Do not dwell. Take heart that someone wants to publish your work and get back to the task at hand – writing.

You’re writing a new story. You wonder if you will ever be published again? I don’t know if this ever stops. Occasionally, you pick one of your publications off the shelf to remind yourself that someone gets your writing. But this has trappings of the first stage because your writing has improved, right? You will see lines and think, god that was crap; or realize, wow all of my characters are named after dead pets. Stay focused on the craft and the writing you are doing now. This 3-stage cycle will repeat, I promise.

Writing Paralysis

This slump has affected my fiction, blogging, editing, and even tweeting. I knew I was in trouble when I stopped reading a few months back. My top ten excuses:

1.  Grammar Boy – kissing on fire escapes and park benches is more fun than writing, right?
2.  Work hours increase – who has time to write?
3.  The Cats – they need mummy and will not be ignored.
4.  NFL – need to study to achieve success in my pool.
5.  Tired – nothing new, always been an insomniac.
6.  L-I-V-I-N – I’ll write about it later.
7.  School – focusing on my editing career.
8.  Writing in my head – pen to paper is the challenge.
9.  Wrong mood – not that I know what the right one is.
10. Low-Grade Anticipatory Stress Disorder – made this up but sounds about right.

Now that I’ve shared this crap with the blogosphere I’m hoping it will get me back on track. What excuses do you dispense when you’re not writing or doing what you’re passionate about?