Writers are storytellers. No matter the medium or genre, writers work hard to craft delectable stories for public consumption. And we all know that some stories are better than others. So what differentiates a fascinating, compelling, riotous story from one that is just okay?
Moments of Reflection.
Something has to happen.
Make us care.
Stories work in academic writing, business writing, and creative writing, so over the next several weeks, I will be tackling each of the above ideas in more depth. But for now, look at the list and then look at a story you are writing…how strong is your opening line? Does it really catch your attention in such a manner that you can’t look away? When others read your opening paragraph, does it take their breath away or make them sigh or pause or gasp? If not, then back to the drawing board with you.
Create an opening line that snags onto your reader’s eyeballs, brain, and heart with double-barbed hooks and won’t let go. Stab your reader in the gut or make him chuckle heartily or make her so curious that she has no choice but to keep reading. No explanations, no meandering descriptions, no dull and flat verbosity to start your story. Hammer a statement. Get the reader’s attention. (Because if you are striving to publish, that reader will first be an editor and if you don’t catch HER attention, well, you’ve heard of the slush pile.)
Now let’s get 2015 off to a strong start by writing some amazing opening lines. Get to work.
Dear friends, readers, blog followers, and passers-by,
This has been a rollicking, crazy-making, exhausting, exhilarating, productive, and fast-paced semester. I turned in my seven binders of evidence for tenure and promotion, wrote 64 posts since I started this blog on August 4, 2014, taught 90 students, and graded 230 papers and 90 presentations. Now that it is over, I must recoup. As I have recommended to you in previous posts, it is important to rest, relax, have fun, and generally recover from the madness of daily life in order to be a better writer and happier human. I am now proudly taking my own advice. My plans for the next month involve lots of self-care, cooking, movie-watching, lounging around in my pj’s, teaching at a writers’ getaway, and even having a grand travel adventure! Lots of relaxation and fun on the horizon.
Some business housekeeping: If you wish to contact me about editing services, writing coach services, or writing consultation, please email me directly at amandamorrisphd (at) gmail (dot) com and we can certainly have a discussion about your writing needs and how I can help after January 15.
Fellow writers: If you have a topic that you’d like me to address, please leave a comment on this post or email me and I will be sure to add your topic to the 2015 queue.
Happy Holidays everyone, and please be sure to take some much-needed downtime for yourselves. You’ve earned it!
See you in 2015!
This is the season for resolutions. So many people resolve to create unrealistic expectations for themselves that they enter the new year destined for disappointment. When it comes to our writing practice, let’s think more realistically.
Know when to quit.
“What?!” You bellow. “I am a writer! I will NEVER quit!”
That’s good, dear reader. But hear me out. You’ve come along this far, whether you were with me for the past few months following my writing prompts and practical posts, or whether you just happened by this morning. Breathe. And consider this:
Perhaps you’ve been working on a novel for years. Or a series of novels. And have been rejected by one hundred publishers. “But J.K. Rowling and Stephen King were rejected more,” you moan, outraged. True, but are you really as good at writing novels as J.K. Rowling and Stephen King? Really?
If the answer is objectively yes, that you just haven’t found your niche, your publishing home, and an editor to recognize your endurable genius, then please, by all means, keep on keeping on. But just maybe…
…maybe you should consider quitting the novel for now. Switching genres. Trying something else for awhile. Perhaps attend some writing workshops. Or a writing class to work on craft in a more formal environment. Or join/start a writing group to get more substantive feedback on your novel because…horror of horrors…what you are doing clearly isn’t working.
I would never advise anyone who is driven to be a published writer to quit writing, but I would recommend that if that person is writing in a genre that doesn’t seem to be working, he or she should take a break, quit that approach for now, and try a new direction.
Plodding down the same well-worn path when that path isn’t taking you anywhere is counter-productive. If long-form fiction is your thing, why not try writing a long-form story for a literary journal instead of tackling a large novel? Or maybe ratchet back to short stories to work on concision and tight prose?
Maybe your subject matter isn’t working as well as you think it is. You love romance novels, but all of your efforts have failed? Friends politely smile and say, “That’s interesting,” instead of “Oh my god! That’s amazing! How did you THINK of that?!”
Perhaps your heart is filled with poetry, but when you write it, the words come out lame and limping.
Sometimes re-evaluating what we write and how we write it can be a useful exercise. Quitting one genre or style or subject might lead you to the successful genre or style or subject – something that is a better fit for you.
If you’ve worked at this particular genre/style/subject/form for years and had no success? Time to quit and try something new.
Take on the new year with vigor and determination not to tread the same inadequate path. Commit to trying something new or expanding your education in the craft in order to improve. Quit whatever isn’t working and by the end of next year, you will see positive results.
The happiest of holidays and a most productive New Year to you all.
Fellow writers! You might have seen previous posts about this workshop and now it’s crunch time. I need a few more participants to fill the workshop – three seats. I suspect that at least three of you are working on a creative nonfiction project that would benefit from this intensive workshop weekend. If you are working on a memoir-in-progress (at ANY stage! Even if you just have a few chapters – or some islands!) and want some feedback as well as some inspiration, please consider joining me for an Advanced Memoir Workshop this January in New Jersey.
I know, the Jersey Shore in JANUARY?! Yes. The Stockton Seaview Inn is beautiful, spacious, and warm with terrific service and good food. When I taught at this workshop weekend last year, I was so impressed with the congeniality of fellow staff and all of the writer-participants. Everyone was fully engaged in the writing process and brought a high level of enthusiasm and insight to every session.
If you want to be around like-minded writers and focus 100% on your memoir-in-progress (no matter where you are in that process), join us in New Jersey in January! It may be just the jolt you need to keep going. So don’t buy a new TV today – buy yourself a productive writing weekend! 🙂 Hope to see you there!
(Note: My workshop is limited to ten participants so that we can really dig in to everyone’s works and have super productive discussions.)
Specific workshop details:
What Matters is Not What Happened: Advanced Memoir Workshop
Writing workshop in New Jersey
January 16-19, 2015
Led by Amanda Morris
Using Vivian Gornick’s famous line about “what matters,” we’ll investigate the best way to tell your story in this advanced memoir workshop. With your own memoir-in-progress as a springboard, you will explore the importance of seeing your first-person narrator as a character in your story, experiment with writing exercises and discuss your new work. Be ready to submit 2-3 pages on which you need feedback by Dec. 15 (or if registering after that date, submit within a week of registering). The workshop leader and participants will read each submission before the Getaway.
*Limited to just 10 participants.*
“As a first-time attendee, I was very impressed. The hotel was beautiful and everything was so well organized. My workshop leader, Amanda Morris, was full of energy, interesting, encouraging and inspiring. I would come back just for her, but I very much enjoyed the whole experience!”
~ Susan, Newtown, PA
In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.
When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.
Give it a try! 🙂
Writing Prompt: Inspired by #tbt
For those not in the know, #tbt stands for “Throwback Thursday,” and is often cited on such social media networks as Facebook on Thursdays when people post old photos of themselves or family and friends. This week’s prompt is inspired by this idea of honoring the past.
First, without thinking too hard or too long, write down your favorite food. I know you have about a hundred, but what’s the first dish that pops into your mind when you read that sentence? Write that food down.
Second, close your eyes and think about that food. Recall all of the juicy sensory details – how it smells, how it is prepared, how it feels in your mouth, how it makes you feel, where you usually eat it.
Finally, think about the happiest experience with that food you’ve ever had. It might have been yesterday or twenty years ago. But it is important that you focus on that one, most memorable, most exciting, most happy moment.
Now write that moment. Bring it to life and make us feel it with you; make us love that food and that first experience with you.
If you are a writer, you will be rejected. Not once. Not twice or thrice. Hundreds of times over decades of writing your guts on a page. And sometimes the reason you are rejected is entirely subjective – the editor, the editorial board, the publisher, the agent – just didn’t like what you wrote. It has nothing to do with the character, detail, and depth of your prose – they just didn’t like it. Personal preference. Think of your writing as cilantro or opera – some people will love it, some will hate it. Such is the writing life.
Subjectivity gets an unnecessarily harsh rap in the publishing world. We writers bash editorial subjectivity ruthlessly, and yet we claim it jealously for ourselves. Hmm. Something rotten in the herb garden here. We hate it when applied to our work from an external source, but we demand our right to it when we review others’ writing. See the hypocrisy?
The fact is that most of the time your work will be rejected because it just didn’t fit what the editor was looking for in a particular issue, as long as that work is, in fact, extremely strong, well-composed, and grammatically sensible for its purpose. All else being equal, the editor may love your piece, but knows that it just doesn’t fit. I recently received such a rejection for a piece I wrote and submitted as a blog post entry on a literary journal’s web site. They announced a call for posts, a friend shared the link, I looked over the submission guidelines and decided that my piece wasn’t a precise fit, but I wanted to give it a go just to test the waters. Turns out, within a few hours, my piece was rejected, but the editor called it a “very provoking read” and wished me the best in finding a good home for it, explaining that their scope was focused more on stories with clearly defined broader cultural connections.
I was glad to receive this response and immediately sent that piece off to another journal for consideration in an upcoming issue (not a blog). Currently, my Submittable account shows “In Progress” for that journal, which is good news. It hasn’t been rejected yet! However, if it IS rejected, I know that it may be because they just didn’t like it. And that’s okay.
Being rejected for subjective reasons HAS to be okay. We writers must accept this as part of our reality and stop fighting so hard against it. If you hate cilantro, you don’t want other people demanding that you eat it anyway. So think of your prose as literary cilantro – some will love it; some will say it tastes like soap. Your job as a writer is to keep pressing on until you find the editors who love your type of cilantro.
That’s right. I said it. There is no such thing as writer’s block.
When writers become stuck in their process, the usual suspect causes are procrastination, fear, doubt, lack of research, lack of brainstorming, lack of idea-brewing time, lack of purpose, anxiety (about the subject matter, a deadline, etc.), diminished passion for the existing work, uncertainty, and a desire for perfection (knowing instinctively that this is impossible). I may have missed some, but these are the essential blocks to a writer’s progress at any stage of the writing process.
Let’s look at a few and think about how to deal with them.
Procrastination. We all do it. We know the paper, article, essay, story is due and we put it off, usually for one of the other reasons on the above list. Also, maybe we are so damned busy at work and at home that there is just no mental energy or literal time to tackle this piece just now. Sometimes, we must prioritize and that essay or story isn’t always at the top of the list. Notice I don’t list “laziness” as a reason for writer’s block. I’m pretty sure all writers think we are “being lazy” when we aren’t writing, but that is a negative judgment that we imagine society imposing upon us for our “lack of productivity,” so we abuse ourselves with this internal whip. I know lots of writers. And none of them are lazy. Procrastination happens and that’s okay because the work always gets done.
Idea-brewing time. Like tea, wine, and cheese, ideas need time to fully mature. You may have felt a jolt of inspiration for a poem during a writing class, but then get home and no words come to mind. Or perhaps you were inspired by a conversation you overheard on the subway and think you can create a short fiction story, but when you sit down to write, only boring, unfocused, and overly detailed writing without purpose lands on the screen. Sometimes, when inspiration strikes, you may sit down and pound out 2,500 words without stopping or thinking and then look back at the text and think, my god, how did that happen?! Great. That has happened to me, too. But that is not what happens every time. Most of the time, our ideas need time to brew and roll around in our conscious and subconscious minds. Not all ideas are ready-made for the page the moment they come to us; most ideas only work once mature. So give your idea a chance and move on to something else for the time being instead of forcing it.
Diminished passion for the existing work. I can’t tell you how often this happens to me and every writer I know. When I was working on my dissertation, I reached a critical point where I just wanted to be done already. I had read and revised and re-thought every moment, every theorist, every example, every claim so many times that I was word-weary and just bored. I loved my project and hated it all at once. When I was a journalist, sometimes the article subject matter was a bit dry and I really had to work hard to make it interesting for a general public audience. Procrastination often sounded more appealing than doing that work because that work is difficult to do. Perhaps you started writing a novel last year and you’ve been whittling away at chapters and scenes and slowly, over time, you’ve lost interest in your own story, but you plod along diligently, probably figuring that as long as you stick with it, the sunshiney enthusiasm you initially felt will return. Bzzzzz. Wrong. If you have reached a point in your creative writing project where YOU, the AUTHOR, are bored and disinterested, there is nowhere to go but down. Close the file. Step away from the computer. Forget about that piece. Start something new and fresh. Perhaps in a year’s time, you will return to that drudgery piece with fresh eyes and new insights to breathe life into its dying form. Until then, start afresh on something else. Diminished passion is a tough problem, but sometimes time is your friend, so take all you need.
You’ve completed your masterpiece. An essay. A report. A story. A novel. A thesis. There are lots of documents that might qualify as your masterpiece.
Now it’s time to revise and you feel your sternum seize up, a growing dread from your intestines to the deepest reaches of your brain. Paralysis takes over.
Wait, wait, wait! It doesn’t have to feel this way!
As a published writer in academic, business, and consumer contexts, I know what it takes to get published. I’ve written radio ad copy, web site content, opinion editorials, investigative articles, brochure copy, annual reports, a dissertation, academic articles, creative nonfiction, and much more, all published and shared in some way. Revision and editing are the only way forward, but you are not alone.
I can help.
Yes, my editing services cost money, as all professional services do, but I am also willing to work partially for trade, so if you have a business and a service or product to trade, let’s talk. If you are a fellow writer in need of an experienced eye-o-meter to whip your masterpiece into shape, give me a try and we’ll make that story shine. If you are a high school or college student working on an application essay for a scholarship or program, contact me or have your parents contact me. Business people working on drafts of reports for picky bosses will also appreciate my keen editor’s eye. If you can write it, I can edit and help you revise.
Email Amanda today to start the conversation: amandamorrisphd (at) gmail (dot) com or complete the contact form below.