Beginning, Middle, and End

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most of us were taught this basic principle back in our early school years when we first began reading and writing. This concept carried over to middle and high school where every essay had an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.

This straightforward idea can occasionally turn out to be more of a challenge than we initially imagine. The early stages of crafting a story typically start with brainstorming and research. We read background materials, gather facts and data. We may do an interview or several interviews with different people. Somewhere in that process, an angle (or in academia, a thesis) is formed. Then the work of constructing the story begins.

But what happens when the starting point of the story isn’t clear? Once we’ve gathered all of the information, where do we begin? The first struggle is often determining where to begin to tell the story we’re trying to share. Do we tell it chronologically? Do we start with an interesting tidbit to grab the reader’s attention and branch off from there? And then, what’s next? How do we wrap this story up in a logical and interesting place?

I had this challenge recently when writing a feature article. I had done my research and the interview, and gathered my notes. But I wasn’t sure where to begin. I knew what I wanted to say I just didn’t know how to say it.

I had the whole story written and yet it wasn’t finished. It was like having a bunch of puzzle pieces – they’re all part of one big picture. It’s about discovering which ones fit together. There are many different approaches and finding the right one isn’t always easy.

I tried cutting and pasting, reordering paragraphs and just couldn’t find a sequence that felt right. Finally, I had to take the story off the Word document and onto a different format where I could work it out.

This is what my living room floor looked like.

20160408_105945

I created a 3×5 index card to correspond with each paragraph of my story by jotting down a few words about each paragraph on a card and laid them all out in front of me. I moved the cards around, playing with the pieces of the puzzle. After reordering them a few times, I changed my typed-up document to reflect the new sequence. When that didn’t work, I tried it again.

Until finally, I found the right fit. This exercise helped me see the story in a different way.

There isn’t any one “right” way of putting a story together. There’s something to be said for laying a story out in another visual format besides one long document on a screen. It helped me see it in another way and find a beginning, a middle, and an end that worked.

 

Have you ever had this problem when trying to tell a story? What technique helped you?

Books for Writers: Writing Down the Bones

Whenever I face a writing roadblock, I turn to my bookshelf for help. Most recently, in an attempt to overcome my self-doubt, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. There are a lot of things I can share about this book, but I will focus on the things that were most helpful for me.

Goldberg emphasizes writing as a practice, one that we should live out daily. She attunes daily writing to a runner who warms up before a race: just as a runner must stretch and warm the muscles, the writer must stretch and warm up the voice. It’s part of what Goldberg calls “composting.”

“Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”

Writing down our observations, thoughts and memories is what leads us to our poems, our short stories, our settings, our characters. Not all of what we write will be good or usable but that’s why it is practice. Write about everything, write whatever moves you to put pen to paper. This is one bit of inspiration I am trying to incorporate into my writing life.

Another great takeaway from Writing Down the Bones is the importance of detail. Details breathe life into our stories. Goldberg says to be specific: “Give things the dignity of their names.” Details bring us into the present, into the moment. Plus, she adds, “Tossing in the color of the sky at the right moment lets the piece breathe a little more.” She goes on to say, “It is important to say the names of who we are, the places we have lived, and to write the details of our lives. …We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.”
The short chapters in Writing Down the Bones can be read sequentially or not, as they all stand alone so that you can open to any chapter and read it if you wish.

If you are feeling stuck, unsure of yourself or uninspired, open to any chapter that is of interest to you. You are sure to find inspiration within this book’s pages.

 

My all-time favorite book on writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. You can read my post about it here.

Writers, what books have been most helpful to you?

Resources for Submitting to Literary Magazines

For years, I have wanted to submit my writing to a literary publication or a contest.

Each time I have ventured into the world of literary magazines, I have become so overwhelmed, so daunted by the quality of work I have read in them, I have retracted, retreated with my tail between my legs thinking, “Wow. This stuff is amazing, my work would never make it into a journal like this.”

Lit Mags

But I kept writing. And as the years have passed, my writing has improved bit by bit. I thought that eventually, there would become a day that I would feel, “Yes, I am ready to submit to a lit mag!” That I would get a piece to such near-perfection that I would feel completely confident submitting for publication. But that moment has never come and frankly, I doubt that it ever will.

I will always have doubts. I will always wonder is a piece is completely finished, truly “ready.” But I could spend years, a lifetime even, telling myself that my piece isn’t ready yet, finding (or creating) flaws, discovering passages to rework or remove. There will always something that we could change about a story or improve upon.

I came across this line in an article about summer submissions, and the timing couldn’t be better:

“Here’s a funny thing about success: If you keep waiting for the right time to go out and get it, you might end up waiting your whole life.”

There you have it.

I do finally have a story that is more polished, more ready than any other story I’ve written before. And so, my trusted writer friend and I have decided that for both of us, it is time to push the baby bird out of the nest. We have read each other’s work, made corrections and suggestions, seen our stories through revisions. It’s time.

I’ve been doing my research, and putting together an excel spreadsheet (yes) of publications to potentially submit to either for this story or down the road.

I’ve only just begun, but I thought I’d share some resources I have found helpful in my research:

Poets and Writers – This is an invaluable resource for writers. Visit the Tools for Writers section of their website for a searchable database of literary magazines and their editorial policies, submission guidelines and contact information. If you subscribe to the magazine, they publish details about creative writing contests—including poetry contests, short story competitions, essay contests, awards for novels, and more which they make available on their website as well.

Your local library or bookstore – Libraries and bookstores may have literary journals you can browse through. Check used bookstores for past issues!

Writer’s Market – This is a great tool to find places to sell your writing. You can also try Poet’s Market, and Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, (all published by Writer’s Digest Books,) which give submission guidelines and detailed contact information. (Hint: your library may have these available for loan, too!)

Journal of the Month – I blogged about this topic recently and highly recommend Journal of the Month for any writer who is looking to publish their work. This is a great and inexpensive way to get exposed to different literary journals and get an idea of what kind of work they publish and what they are looking for.

What Editors Want – This article written by The Review Review is a must read for writers submitting their work to literary magazines. I found a lot of helpful hints.

Twitter – Yes, social media can be useful! Find a lit mag you think you might like to submit to, and visit their website. You may be able to read some of their current or archived content. If the publication is on social media, follow them on Twitter (or Facebook) and get friendly reminders of when they are reading or learn about upcoming contests. At least I can feel like I’m being somewhat productive while scrolling through my Twitter feed…

 

Writers – please help me add to this list! What resources have you found helpful in preparing to submit your work? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Journal of the Month

In my last update post, I mentioned that I am researching literary magazines in preparation for submitting my first short story.

I am beginning to think that finding the right lit mags to submit to (along with determining each of their guidelines and requirements) might turn out to be more time consuming and painstaking than the writing and revising process.

Admittedly, this daunting task is what has deterred me from submitting my work in the past. Just thinking about it overwhelms me. There are hundreds of literary journals out there, each with their own niches, their own styles and caliber of contributors. First, what literary journals accept work from new, previously unpublished writers? How is a writer to know which journals are reputable in the literary world?

I have a short story that I have written, rewritten, had critiqued, edited and revised, had critiqued again and revised some more. I think I am finally ready to begin submitting it.

So begins the process of determining which magazines to submit my work to. Every published writer I have asked about this subject says the best way to determine where to send your work is by reading literary journals and finding one that fits for your story.

But where to start? To subscribe to a journal for a whole year feels like such a commitment – what, if after reading the first issue, I realize it is not the right fit for my work? To subscribe to multiple literary journals can add up to be a rather hefty investment, particularly for a “starving artist.”

That’s why I was so excited (and relieved) to find Journal of the Month, a subscription to receive a different lit journal every month.

Lit journals

I’ve received two journals so far – aren’t they beautiful?! I was pleasantly surprised that both were between 150 and 200 pages which I was not expecting. To make this deal even better, my friend and I split the cost and are sharing the journals as they arrive.

What a great way to get exposed to a variety of journals! How did I not know about this?!There are 32 participating journals, including The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Salamander, Indiana Review and The Pinch.

I know you’re wondering, where do I sign up?! Here is the website for Journal of the Month Simply select your subscription length(from 4 journals to 24 journals) and your preferred frequency of delivery: monthly, every other month, or quarterly.

Subscribe, share with a friend, or send to a loved one  and insist that they get this for you for your next birthday, anniversary, or… just because!

I love hearing from you! What do you think of Journal of the Month?

Floor Plans and Visuals in World Building

There are lots of ways I plan and generate ideas when I’m building the world of a story. When I’m working on a novel, I get a notebook where I can jot down everything from outlines and timelines to characters sketches and scene ideas.

I’ve heard of many writers who doodle and draw in their creative process. While I like visual inspiration,  I am no artist, so my brainstorming usually takes written form – journal entries, letters and scribbled questions.

One thing I do like to see a visual of is a layout of my character’s home.

floor plan

When I am building the world of my characters, it often starts with the place where they live. Do they live in a studio apartment, a townhouse, a mansion? How many rooms does it have? Is it spacious or cramped?  How is it decorated?

In the days when Internet was dial-up, I used to look through home and garden magazines and department store catalogs to find images that seemed to reflect my characters’ tastes in bedding, curtains, furniture and gardens. I would clip them and save them in folders that I could revisit when I needed help describing something or setting the scene.

Pinterest has since replaced my magazine clipping and is a fun way to collect ideas and inspiration. (see my post on Pinterest for Writers, Readers and Bloggers)

I found websites that let you design floor plans for free which can be a ton of fun but mostly, I don’t have the patience for all that. All I need is a rough sketch to help me visualize things.

Sketching a floor plan usually comes somewhere in the middle of the creative process for me. I’ll have a vague image of the space in my mind as I’m writing, but eventually I get to a point where I like to see how everything is connected. Once I draw out the floor plan, it helps me to understand where my characters (physically) are as they move through the rooms.

After I have a solid grasp around the layout of the rooms, I can focus on the details like the  arrangement of the furniture and the location of windows and doors.

Then I turn to visuals like Pinterest to think about the decor and how it reflects the character’s personality and tastes.

Slowly, it all starts to come together. I no longer have characters walking around in white-washed rooms, they have a leather couch to collapse on to and a copper tea kettle on the gas stove to make a warm beverage.

Writers, do you create floor plans when you’re world-building? Do you sketch or draw as part of your creative process? What sort of visuals do you use to inspire your stories?

Weekend Writing and Why I Hate Mondays

As a writer with a day job, I have to make the time to write when I can.

I have found that mornings are great for writing, when I’m in that half-asleep daze, still connected to that subconscious dream-like state, the right side of my brain firing more than the left side. In the morning, I can get (some) writing done before my day begins. Writing in the morning is the best way for me to write every day.

But I’ve never been a morning person – especially in the winter. Especially during this particularly long, cruel winter – I have spent many mornings pulling the covers over my head to delay facing another day of snow and single-digit temperatures. Get Up

For these reasons, I haven’t been doing much morning-writing these past few months.

This is why weekends are when I get most of my writing done, particularly the Saturdays and Sundays in the dead of winter. Where summertime is filled with barbecues, bonfires and afternoons spent outdoors enjoying the sunshine and warmth, wintertime sees everyone disappear into hibernation for weeks at a time.

These quiet gray days are perfect for writing. For me, the weekend is when the world slows down. I can get lost in the world I’m creating and the characters I’m developing.

I typically have the house to myself as my husband works most weekends. So I can wake up on my own, read the newspaper and enjoy a cup or two of coffee, then fire up my laptop and start writing.

On a gray Saturday or Sunday, I lose track of time as the morning passes into afternoon. I am comfortable on the couch with the newspaper discards strewn around me, laptop in my lap, the keys clacking as I write or blog.  I am under a blanket and a cat is curled up beside me, another napping at my feet.

I will break from writing to gather and start the laundry, run the vacuum and unload the dishwasher, and get the weekend chores out of the way. But I always return to the laptop, a book or three and a notebook and pen within arm’s reach. For me, that’s a perfect way to spend a Sunday (and Saturday too, if I’m lucky!)

This is why Mondays can be so difficult. I often find myself in a Monday morning fog with that eerie feeling where you arrive at your destination but don’t remember getting there.  I go through the motions of turning on my computer and going about my tasks while my mind is still lingering over that last scene.

After spending two whole days with the freedom of going at my own pace, after two days of leisurely writing time, Monday means leaving my fictional world and returning to the Real World. It means a return to days with sleep interrupted by an alarm clock, coffee in a to-go mug, commuting and traffic and email and paperwork. It has nothing to do with the job itself and everything to do with its contrast to my writing life.

I can try to recreate my writing zone in the evening after the work day is done, squeezing in time between dinner and dishes and preparing for the next day, but I can’t get as easily lost in it as I do on the weekend. And so I must wait until the weekend comes around again.

So pardon me if I seem a little out of sorts on Mondays. You’ll have to excuse me for being a bit cranky and dazed on the first day of the work week. Though my feet are planted in this world, my head is still in another world entirely.

Do you dread or adore Mondays? Writers, how do you handle the transition from your writing world to your day job?


Subscribe to my blog for more posts like this and follow me on Twitter @IamJenniferK for more musings on the writing life.

This post was inspired by, Does Anyone Else Look Forward to Mondays? on the Live to Write, Write to Live Blog. 

What does “Write What you Know” Really Mean?

We’ve all heard the writing advice: write what you know.

If taken literally, this bit of wisdom can be perplexing. If we only write what we know, how can we pursue new places and things in our stories? If I only wrote what I knew, all my stories would be about a middle class white girl in the suburbs.

So what does this advice really mean?

A few months back I came across a blog that shared this video, and it has really stuck with me. Take a look:

Gervais says, “Being honest is what counts. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary is so much better than starting with the extraordinary because it doesn’t really connect…”

I think what Gervais is touching on here is that it’s the intimacy with what we know that comes across on the page. We must start with the details: the smell of tea and lavender. These are the (perhaps seemingly mundane) details that breathe life into the world of our story. The sensory details, the specifics we pull from our everyday lives are the things that make our stories feel real, they are what our readers connect with.

Natalie Goldberg writes, “…using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believably and truthfulness. It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build.”

Our experiences are the basis for our stories, they are what we bring to the table as writers.

Anne Lamott said, “…good writing is about telling the truth.” She also said, “When you tell the truth it turns out to be universal.”

We might believe that unless we have overcome some great hardship, endured a tragedy or experienced a wild adventure, our lives are uninteresting. But hidden in those seemingly mundane experiences of our everyday lives are the secrets we thought we’d never tell anyone, our fears we believed would make us freaks or outcasts – these are the universal truths we uncover in our writing.

For example, I’m currently reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and there was a magical moment where I learned I was not the only socially anxious English major to have had a fear of college dining halls:

“In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you, (And the ones you can’t Google.) Like, where does the line start? What food can you take? Where are you supposed to stand, then where are you supposed to sit? Where do you go when you’re done, why is everyone watching you? …”

From chapter 2, Fangirl Copyright 2013 by Rainbow Rowell

And all the time I’m reading this, I am thinking, Yes! I thought I was the only one! I thought I was the only socially awkward person with these irrational fears but here is this author, writing about it as if she pulled the thoughts from my mind.

Perhaps Rainbow Rowell had these fears too or knew someone who was brave enough to share those fears with her. Those are our truths that turn out to be universal.

This is the intimacy, the truthfulness, I am always trying to achieve in my writing. Moments like this are why I write (and why I love to read.)

What is your take on this advice? What does “write what you know” mean to you?