October 25, 2010

Too Much Dialogue in Your Fiction? Me too!

My characters are taking over my story!
This epiphany hit me last night. After spending a little more than an hour trying to rewrite a chapter with tired eyes, I grew frustrated. While my characters chit-chatted and my story sped on, I felt uneasy. Something was missing.

1. Setting - I could always use more details, more imagery. Sights, sounds, and a taste or two made their collective presence known. No touch though. And no smells either. How inhumane can I be? No wonder my characters are talking so much!

2. Subplots - In a first-person narrative, subplots are rather limited to the extent of the main character's perspective. Nevertheless, the depths of characterization from those who support him/her ought to be explored, especially if it is a longer piece of work.

Instead of using conversations between my main and supporting characters, I am substituting in more people-watching scenes for him. This should help me show those other characters through his perspective.

3. Pacing - In graduate school, I took a screenwriting course and loved it. However, I am afraid its influence has leaked more into my fiction than I want. When I write non-fiction, I use quoted material for support. This is the mindset I take with me into fiction rewrites.

Can I show this (scene) rather than depend on my characters to tell it? Almost always. Showing helps to slow down the tempo of the story, so it does not read like a script. Trying to show through heavy use of dialogue tags is distracting, and the preferred "he said/she said" approach with tags is often skimmed over by readers.

For me, it is easy to get caught up in listening to what my characters are saying to one another. Right now, it's distracting. Part of me wants to transcribe their conversations while fresh in my mind. There could definitely be good ideas in there upon which I can expand. Without having the dialogue written out, I may miss out on a great reference to setting or subplot. It's all about balance now.

Compounding my frustration last night was the realization that I had spent that valuable time proofreading rather than rewriting my chapter. Not until I had given up completely to call it a night did it hit me. A good night's sleep soon followed, but not before I scribbled out these three words on the cover of a magazine atop the mess that is my nightstand: "Too much dialogue."

I'm not going to go all-Cormac McCarthy, but I am working to cut out around half of these quotation marks. If my problem persists, sorry Mr. Keyboard. You're going to have a gap between your Colon/Semicolon and Enter keys.

October 21, 2010

Choosing a Beginning Writing Course: Composition vs. Traditional Workshop

Imagine being back in those wide-eyed undergraduate years with that shy temperament and the great American novel churning in your brain. You consider taking "English 101", a composition course taught in the lecture hall that seats hundreds of students. "Creative Writing 101", a workshop course taught in a small classroom with a maximum enrollment cap of twenty students, is also available. The requirements of the workshop may seem more of the freestyle-nature, right? You know in the composition course you will write essays on assigned topics complete with designated word counts and that the instructor will most likely be your only audience.

While disciplines taught in ENG 101 are necessary for learning rules of writing, how much more of your novel will CW 101 extract from you? You are sure to get more chances to workshop some of it. But what if your peers and instructor don’t like your story? And is there a possibility somebody will steal your ideas? 

Fears turn people towards safety. The comfort in composition is that it contains creativity within structure. Creative writing classes offer a counter to that structure in the workshop. For students, creative writing classes introduce different expectations. These expectations mix aspiring writers' apprehensions with the excitement of knowing that much of the course material is crafted and shared by its own participants. 

As for professors, they don a different cap when teaching workshops. Shedding the "power of the instructor" is necessary. This role could ease the judgmental worries prospective creative writing students may feel, as the the classroom is more student-centered.

Creative writing teachers, much like their composition counterparts, must somehow use the workshop as a means of assessment for each student’s growth as a writer. The challenge of extracting text from the students can be similar, but the text with which the creative writing students work is less prescriptive academically, favoring a more raw, progressive approach to the craft. Theoretically, the creative writing workshop is also ever-evolving; and thus, instructors must be open to the changes that such ideas as New Criticism, feminist theories, poststructuralist criticism, etc. introduce into each new class of students.

The traditional workshop model works successfully because it adds a social obligation to that of an academic one. In a composition class a student writes in an objective manner, following formatting and topical guidelines to achieve a high mark and meet a due date. In a workshop, students share texts with their circle of peers for the goal of receiving input to better their text, their overall craft while simultaneously developing their own feedback skills. The workshop fosters a sense of community, one that is unmatched in other academic settings.

My experience in an undergraduate workshop setting felt liberating because I wrote for me rather than to appease the standards upon which I would be graded. Sure, I wanted my writing to impress others into thinking I was the next Anne Rice or Allen Ginsberg. First, it had to communicate my message in a clear manner. My desire to do so amongst my peers provided me a different kind of motivation. The experience showed me that the traditional workshop model exemplifies what seem to be some universal understandings in the world of writers. First, the majority of us feel insecure about sharing our work. Second, having readers to share work with fires up more ambition to produce. Last, the writing community is more encouraging than competitive.

Comfort is a necessity for creative writers in a workshop setting. Without it few would attend, preferring instead to remain unnoticed, in the back of a lecture hall, amidst hundreds of other hungry-for-the-security-of-structure writers. This is in no way a knock on composition classes. I love taking them. I love teaching them. If I had to start again, I would still take the composition course first. Just a structure first, creativity later-type of guy, I guess! 

All writers are different. If you are choosing a beginning writing course, research the requirements of the course. Know your own writing level. If you feel strongly enough about your mastery of the language, go for that creative writing course. You won't regret it. But remember: there is always much to be learned in a composition course.

October 16, 2010

MFA Thesis: Rewrite, or Chuck It?

One lesson I took with me after reading Stephen King's On Writing was that a writer should take a good deal of time before rewriting that first draft. Hide it away in the back of the closet. Pull it out in six months with a fresh eye and mind. Rewrite.

That lesson struck gold in me because at the time I was wrapping up my MFA thesis, which so happened to be a novel length work of fiction. I figured I'd knock out the first draft, polish it up with my classmates' and mentor's feedback, and stash it away for half a year after graduation. Well, I graduated in October of '09. It's been a full year and I still have yet to dive back into my "debut" novel. The poor thing is buried way back within a folder of a folder that's within a folder that is My Documents. There is a hard copy too, which is sure to be in one of two spots: the office closet in some unlabeled box that should be labeled "Misc. Crap", or in the bottom file cabinet drawer that always puts up a fight when I try to open it.

As you can see, my problem is not that I don't know where my story is. My problem is I don't know what to do with it. Like that bottom file cabinet drawer, I am simply stuck.

The story that makes up my thesis is one I conjured up back as an undergrad. Then, everything seemed so fresh. The world was mine to write. I scribbled notes creating this great, apocalyptic landscape complete with dense forests and deformed humans. The end of the world happenings would flesh out history's mysteries, such as vampires. In fact, two vampires would play important roles in my story. One was my protagonist's love interest; the other was the main antagonist. Ahhh, the innocence of yesteryear.

Now, quite honestly, I am vampired-out. Back in 2000, the Anne Rice novels dominated vampirology. Her stories were cool, calculating, and exposed aspects of humanity that I had never before considered. Today, the shared success of the Twilight series, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries has taken bloodsuckers from the realm of the supernatural to the front covers of the celebrity gossip mags.

The next hot, new monster?

If I am vampired-out, then surely others must be getting there as well. The window for vampire-themed entertainment will cycle out within the next few years once some other sexy, cool new creature takes HBO and the CW by storm.

One thing is for sure: I want to cut the vampires out of my thesis. If I am going to rewrite that and work it into my first novel, then that is one aspect of my story I must change. The tough part is figuring out how to change those characters into some other superhuman being that can still bounce from treetop to treetop (insert Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon joke here) and kill victims with little remorse. Once I decide on antagonists that offer both sweetness and villainy, I can make a go of it. Up to this point, my indecisiveness is stalling me. My thesis story stales by the day. In a way I have already given up on it, chalking it up to a learning experience. I'm afraid that's not the right decision though.

Meanwhile, I have started a new chapter (in the most literal sense). While I go forward with this new story, my thesis, my once-expected-to-be debut novel idles. Creating new material is such a thrill, but the screaming distractions that are my thesis' plot holes are tough to ignore. I am considering donning my most powerful mental earplugs until I finish the first draft of this new novel, but easier said than done. Winter is fast approaching, which means the apocalyptic setting of my thesis will be most relative to my seasonal writing disorder. I began my second novel during the spring, so it features a much lighter, more summery theme. 

The thesis. Make it into something or move on from the learning experience. Tough choice.

October 15, 2010

Morning Procrastination Practices

Getting off to a good start every morning is important for writers with stories on their minds. Here are some  ideas that might save you a bit of time in those wee hours o' the morn.

1. Use a French press.
No having to wait for the percolation. No depending on the clean operation of the pause-and-serve feature. Spills, after all, keep you from your work station even longer. Those one-and-a-half to two minutes could make all the difference between catching that idea worded to your liking or having to settle for the default sentence strung together by the limits of your short-term.

French press is where it's at. Take it to your desk with you, but make sure you initially pour in enough creamer for a few warm-ups straight from the coffee maker. Sit back and guzzle. You will get a good three cups. That should suffice at least until 11.

2. Autonomize your dog.
The little furry friend wants in and out for potty breaks or just to chase a squirrel along both fence lines. Leave the door open. She doesn't have thumbs to turn that doorknob, so her sense of autonomy suffers.

When she's in, she wants out. When she's out, she wants in. Leave the door cracked for her. To hell with it. A house can always use a fresh flow of air. It's getting a bit too chilly now for many flying insects, so take the risk.

The computer needs more attention than your anxious pet. Only one offers you unconditional love. Take advantage of it.

3. Run through your social networking sites first.
Face it--even if you ignore all browsers in a daily attempt to focus on working only with your word processing program, all those unread emails, tweets, and Facebook updates swirl around in the back of your head. Get them out of the way first.

The trick is to limit your time involvement in these sites during the early hours. You don't want to look at the clock and see it's almost noon and that you've been doing nothing but blogging for four hours. But do scan through your pages to prioritize important information that you feel you will have to get back to. Who knows? Something somebody posts could be exactly what you need to read that day to help with your next writing hurdle.

Ahhh, the art of productively procrastinating. Everybody has the same 24 hours in a day. Some of us use part of that time wisely...to blog to ourselves.

Surely, there has to be some afternoon procrastination practices. I'll get into those later.

October 14, 2010

Writing Workshops in San Antonio

On a mission to find a writing workshop in S.A.?
"Join a writer's group or workshop."
This is a common comment made in many bios of debut novelists. It's always intriguing to read how others got their "big breaks". It's fun to imagine how they reacted to the highs and lows they experienced during their respective processes. Many attribute their successes to a certain practice they developed and follow, such as getting up early every morning to write, reading everything they get their hands on, or staying active in the writing community.

Getting active in the writing community can test the agoraphobic visions of the lone writer hammering away at the keyboard, up all night in "the zone" swearing off the rest of the world. Though when the sun comes up, joining a writer's group or workshop doesn't sound so intimidating. Choosing which one to attend is a big, initial step.

Being rather new to San Antonio, I have yet to look for any groups or workshops around here other than those offered in the neighborhood community center catalog. Those seemed a bit pricey for non-members. Plus, the members were of retirement age. I'm in my mid-thirties. 'Twould be nice to have a couple more folks from the Millennial Generation there.

So I used this thing called Google and came up with a short list of writing groups and workshops holding meetings here in the 210.
  • The San Antonio Writers Guild looks to be the mothership of all things writing in the city. S.A.W.G welcomes writers of all levels and sponsors contests, offers workshops and critiques, and holds meetings every first Thursday of each month at 7PM. Meetings are free and often feature guest speakers. 12-month memberships cost $28 for individuals, $36 for couples, and $15 for full-time students.
  • Gemini Ink is a non-profit organization that aims towards building community through literary arts. It encourages writers and readers of all ages and levels to participate in its programs and events. Open workshop classes can be taken from the Writers in Communities or the University Without Walls programs. Classes and many events take place in the organization's bright turquoise building located in the heart of San Antonio’s Southtown Arts District and King William Historic District.
  • The San Antonio Writers Meetup Group gets together on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month at La Taza Coffee House in the Brookhollow shopping center. Participants are encouraged to bring with them an 800-1,200 word short story for a light critique. Informal meetings allow writers to choose their own subjects or they may select from those provided by the group. "We provide the inspiration. You provide the perspiration."
  • For romance writers, there is SARA: The San Antonio Romance Authors group. Meetings take place on the third Wednesday of each month. The group also sponsors its own contests and publishes a monthly newsletter.
  • For Texas teachers, Discovery Writing Company will feature Gretchen Bernabei's Voice Lessons for TAKS Writing workshop in San Antonio on October 26, and Barry Lane's Hooked on Meaning workshop on November 15. Both workshops are scheduled to be held at the Norris Conference Center.
When teaching night classes though, committing to workshops is rarely an option. And it is not always feasible to attend on weekends. However, I can sign up for an online workshop. Research is a must there, which I will do for an upcoming post. Workshop suggestions?

October 12, 2010

Fear, Procrastination, and the Apparent Lack of Confidence in Writers

How ironic is it that the writing articles that most appeal to me lately are all based on writers' fears? Fear of simply expressing the self, or of rejection, or of not being considered an expert, or of some unconfirmed worthlessness leads an aspiring writer straight into procrastination. At least, that's what I've gathered from the countless numbers of online articles found via my Twitter feed and in each back issue of Writer's Digest I continually rotate.

I love reading these "lack of confidence" articles because I can relate. Or is it more because I want to relate? I want to struggle with other writers--aspiring or professional. Ideas can escape my mind quickly, so in the meantime I can at least read one of these articles on how to "write what I know" with "passion", drafting it out with no respect to grammar. "Just get the ideas out onto the page." Okay, but before that I need to read one more article with tips on how to avoid distractions and how to just plant me arse in the chair. Stare at the damn, blank screen all night if you have to.

Fine. I will stare at the blank screen all night right after I read your related, linked article about avoiding writer's block. Then, I will summarize my new wisdom gained from all the blogs and articles I read when I could have been writing. Then, I will open up that Word file in my taskbar titled, "TitleUnknown", and will edit my newest short story, or novel, or whatever it is before writing a new scene. That way, the story is fresh in my head, as are the lessons learned from all my readings.

Fortunately, I went through this process yesterday so now I only have half of my pages left to edit before beginning that new scene. Unfortunately, I've left my wife (still getting used to saying/writing that because I'm newly married) alone in the living room and she needs my opinion. Jonathan Adler is being featured on HSN and there is a nice looking salt & pepper shaker set. One is a pear and the other is an apple. You can leave them out year round, as their shade of green is presentable across all four seasons.

Some Fall Writing Contests

Autumn's oranges and browns will soon dominate the lush green of summer. Now is the time of year in which summer readings begin their initial step back in lieu of winter writings. Of course, there is always time for both.

If you are like me though, I look forward to the pick-up in my writing production during the colder months. Something about sipping hot beverages, flipping fire logs, and the anticipation of the holiday season feeds my creative hunger. It also helps that Mother Nature is more determined to keep me indoors for the next four months.

Looking for some writing contests to enter this season? Here are some links you may find useful.


Narrative's 30 Below Story Contest is open to artists ages 18-30. This is an annual contest focused on finding emerging new artists in such categories as fiction, non-fiction, photography, film, and graphic novels/comics. Submission deadline is October 29.

Glimmer Train is accepting submissions for its Family Matters category throughout the month of October. The Portland, Oregon based press offers this opening biannually for short stories that focus on...well, family! 

Inkwell's 13th Annual Short Fiction Contest and 14th Annual Poetry Contest is accepting submissions. Deadline is October 30.

The Writing Site is sponsoring the 6th Annual Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction. The contest is welcome to all writers during the month of October. Stories may be up to 6,000 words.


Middlebury College's Bread Loaf Writers' Conference accepts submissions for its Bakeless Literary Publication Prizes until November 1. Prizes are awarded to the categories of fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry.

Narrative is also accepting submissions for its Fall 2010 Story Contest. Here are some of its guidelines:
We’re looking for short shorts, short stories, essays, memoirs, photo essays, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. Entries must be previously unpublished, no longer than 15,000 words, and must not have been previously chosen as a winner, finalist, or honorable mention in another contest.
Glimmer Train Press, Inc.'s Short Story Award for New Writers accepts submissions all throughout the month of November. As the contest title indicates, submissions focus on original, unpublished works from new voices. Stories may be up to 12,000 words.

Roanoke Review is accepting submissions for its $1000 Short Story Contest. Stories should be 5,000 words or fewer. Deadline is November 8.

The Writer's Guild has these fall submission deadlines for its awards:
Fri. Oct 15 - Deadline for submissions: TV-Radio and Paul Selvin Award scripts
Fri. Oct 15 - Deadline for online submissions: Drama/Comedy/New TV Series
Tues. Oct 26 - Preliminary Drama/Comedy/New TV Series online voting begins
Fri. Nov 19 - Deadline for submissions: Theatrical Screenplays
Tues. Nov 23 - Deadline for Documentary Screenplay, New Media Writing and Videogame Writing submissions
Tues. Nov 30 - Deadline for Preliminary Drama/Comedy/New TV Series online voting
Choose your contest(s) wisely, as entry fees can add up in a hurry. And remember to always follow each contest's submission deadlines exactly how they are written. 

Best of luck to you and write on!

October 11, 2010

More About Me

Writing has made me a fan of deadlines. Whether they are firmly established dates or just some incessant internal reminders, time escapes me when I'm not writing. Also, it's nice to feel forever parented.

I'm not an expert on anything, except I think I am one in fantasy football. That, my opponents would say, is debatable. Non-fiction is my wife, fiction is my mistress. Or is it the other way around? I am not a fan of redundant questions, but I am a fan of italicizing thoughts out of the side of my mouth keyboard.

Stories often get stuck in the back of the mind waiting to be told, don't they? A movie preview can trigger them. A childhood memory a grandparent shares perhaps. Or maybe just some coffee-infused brain activity during those quiet moments right before dawn.

Regardless, something must be written everyday.

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