>Tips for Writers: Finding Time to Write


I used to have a great job. It was very demanding, and I often brought work home with me. I also traveled a lot (long overseas trips). So, even though I had completed a draft of a novel before I took that job, and managed a little bit of revision while I was in the job, I used the job as an excuse for not getting any new writing done. Too hard. Too busy. Too tired.
I feel kind of guilty about that now. Lots of people manage to hold down demanding jobs and still write. On the other hand, I did manage to create an opportunity for myself to put that life behind me in order to write all the time, so that’s a good thing.
The point is, lack of time is an excuse, but it’s not a reason for not writing. I’m reading a book right now called Writing a Novelwith Scrivener by David Hewson. It’s about using the software Scrivener to organize the pieces of a novel (which I’m doing for my new project). In a chapter called “Work in Progress,” Hewson relates questions that he gets constantly from people, including this one: “I can’t find the time to write my book, what do you suggest?”
His answer: “Get up earlier, work later.”
Hah! It’s true. That’s it. Get up earlier, work later. Excellent advice and my tip of the week.
Another answer, though, is “Get organized, and get focused.” And with that I refer you to my post from earlier this week on how to “Bring theRetreat Home.”

>Tips for Writers: Dialogue Tags—Keep it Simple


“Keep it simple,” he said. “What’s that you say?” she asked.
It is tempting for some writers to load dialogue tags with too much freight. In general, though, the simpler tags are the best. “Said” and “asked” are nearly invisible to the reader, and that’s what the writer wants. They don’t draw attention to themselves; the reader remains engaged with the content of the dialogue without being distracted by some odd delivery. Whenever possible, convey the method of delivery with the words themselves.
If you want to go beyond “said” and “asked,” though—after all, some variety in the work can be nice—be sure that you stick to what I call “speaking verbs,” verbs that describe the action of speaking words (such as “shout,” “yell,” or “whisper”). Some speaking verbs, however, should generally be avoided on the grounds that they tell the reader how the words are being spoken when the manner of speaking could more effectively be shown through the dialogue itself. For example, “commanded” is arguably a speaking verb, but a command is generally inherent in the words spoken. In general, avoid these “telling” speaking verbs.
Some writers go a step further and attempt to build a gesture or an expression into the dialogue tag itself, and that just doesn’t make sense. A character can say words while smiling, but he can’t smile the words. Likewise for “he laughed,” “he pointed,” “he worried,” and so on.
I see these problems all the time in student work, and it’s easily fixed and explained. But the reason I chose to write about this topic this week is because I’ve been reading some short stories by the great story writer W. Somerset Maugham, and he makes this same mistake all the time. Here, for example, is a line from the story “P.& O.” (which I’m reading in the short collection Maugham’s Malaysian Stories):   

“I suppose a woman of forty has no right to mind how she looks,” she smiled, as though he must know what vain thoughts occupied her.

Willie! No, no, no! What were you thinking? She didn’t smile those words! She may have been smiling when she said them, but you can’t smile words.
So here’s the tip: Keep it simple. When in doubt, stick with “said” or “asked.” Even if you’re Somerset Maugham. (That’s him in the picture, by the way.)

>Tips for Writers: Reading Aloud


I’m at a residency this week at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and it provided the suggestion for today’s tip, which is to read your work aloud.

There are several reasons to do this, applicable at different stages of the writing process. It is important to read your work aloud during the writing process. Writers who take language seriously must think about how words sound. It isn’t enough to tell an exciting story. We must also be aware of the sounds of words, repetitions (intended and otherwise), and the rhythm of our sentences. Whether or not a reader will ultimately hear the words, these factors will affect the experience of reading them on the page, and we must take them into consideration. For me, that’s part of the enjoyment of writing.

Then, at the proofreading stage, it’s important to read work aloud because it helps to identify problems in punctuation, grammar, spelling, and other problems that might have been overlooked when the words on the page have become too familiar. I even advise composition students to do this–and these writers are little concerned with rhythm or euphony.

And then there is the stage when the work is being presented to the public, which happens frequently here at VCCA and also happens when writers are engaged in marketing the work. We often read the work aloud to an audience. And in that process, it’s important read the work aloud in advance. To practice, in other words. the picture above is taken from a blog post called Reading Aloud Will Improve Your Delivery. And that’s absolutely true. The readings here this week have mostly been very good. However, I’ve been to readings in the past that have been awful. (You might be interested in a short essay by Joe Mills on this subject: Dear Poet.) I once suggested to the director of a major writers’ conference that he organize a seminar on giving public readings, but the idea was dismissed because, he said, “The work must exist on the page.” Granted, of course. But then why do we give readings? And if we’re going to give readings, we’d best not put our listeners to sleep.

Read your work aloud. It will help.

>Tips for Writers: The Cover Letter


Some writers confuse cover letters with query letters. Indeed, there may be some overlap between the two, and their purposes are similar, but they are different beasts. I’ll deal with query letters another time, but in short they are letters sent to agents or editors in which a book is described and supporting information (bio and publication credits) is provided. (There are other sorts of queries as well—following up on a previous submission, or putting forth an idea for an article or other project.) The purpose of the query letter is to get the agent or editor to ask to see the book manuscript or proposal, and to that end it must include a compelling synopsis of the material. Query letter writing is almost an art unto itself.

A cover letter, on the other hand, is much more straightforward. As the name suggests, it is the letter that is included with short work—a short story, an essay, or a poem, for example—that is being submitted for consideration by a magazine. The purpose is to get the magazine to read the material, but in this case that material is already in the hands of the magazine. There is no need, therefore, to describe it or summarize it in any way. In fact, most magazine editors will be put off if you do that. The’ll be especially put off if you say how wonderful it is, or how wonderful someone else thinks it is. With short work, the writing stands on its own. All you have to do is name the piece being submitted, provide a brief biography, and list publication credits (or other relevant credentials). (Some cover letters are simply transmittal letters, accompanying work that has already been requested, in which case the bio and credits can be omitted.)
The cover letter would look something like this [Note: letterhead includes contact information including phone and email, but if this is going by email then I add that following the signature]:

November 18, 2011

Ronald Spatz, Editor
Alaska Quarterly Review
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Drive (ESH 208)
Anchorage, AK 99508

Dear Ronald Spatz,

I am submitting this story for your consideration. I would welcome any response you may have to “The Nations of Witness.”

My short story collection, In an Uncharted Country, was published in September 2009 by Press 53 and my novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, is forthcoming in 2012. My work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Cream City Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. I hold a J.D. and an M.A. in English from Indiana University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte. I have received fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Clifford Garstang
Simple, straightforward, businesslike. And the same letter can be used with email and online submission managers.
A few things to note:
Do not summarize or comment about the work being submitted.
·       Do not include every publication credit you have. Pick the best ones. Here’s a note from Writer’s Relief that may help you decide which credits to include: “From Best to the Not so Best”. As that article emphasizes, not all publication credits are equal.
·       Include only the relevant biographical details. Frankly, I should leave out my JD in the above cover letter unless I’m submitting to one of the few literary journals that is connected to a law school. But I do think it says something about my general level of education, so I leave it in. What is relevant may depend on the publication you are submitting to. On the other hand, if something shows your seriousness as a writer—attendance at a writers’ conference or a fellowship to a writers’retreat, for example—that should be included.
·       Do not invite the recipient to visit your website for more information. It’s okay to include your web address, but the editor won’t generally want to take the time to check.
·       Address the letter in accordance with the magazine’s guidelines. It is generally best to use the name of the actual person whose attention you want, even if you realize the letter will be opened and read by someone else (an intern, a managing editor, or whoever). I don’t think most editors are terribly offended if the letter is addressed to the Editor, or the Fiction Editor, instead of to a name, however. At least I’m not, and otherwise I’m pretty easy to offend, so I assume this isn’t a big deal.
·       Keep it simple and short. Never more than one page. The idea is get the editor to read the story or essay or poem, not the letter.

>Tips for Writers: Write What You DON’T Know (about what you know)


An oft-repeated rule for writers is “write what you know.” Most of us accept this on faith because it seems to make sense. Among other things, the better you know a subject, the more details will be at your command and the more likely it will be that you will establish authority on the page that will inspire the reader’s confidence. Our most credible writers of war stories—Tim O’Brien comes to mind—are veterans themselves. (Happy Veterans’ Day!) They know what they’re talking about, and it shows up in their work.
However, one of America’s great writers of the Twentieth Century took a different angle on this rule. I had the privilege of studying with Grace Paley at a little-known writers’ conference in Mexico called Under the Volcano. I was in awe of Paley, despite the fact that she was this tiny, somewhat frail, extremely generous and kind, grandmotherly woman. And she was also full of good advice, including the debunking of some “rules” of writing.
It’s not, “write what you know,” she insisted, it’s “write what you don’t know about what you know.” Otherwise, it’s boring. For you and the reader. What’s the point of writing, I think she meant, if you’re just going to explore known territory. Stretch. Reach. Push beyond and take some risks.
And sometimes, knowing a subject too well prevents the writer from really seeing it.
For example, I once wrote a short story set in a coffee shop. In a workshop, I was told by the leader—a famous novelist—that the setting was too vague, and that the problem was that I hadn’t fully imagined the place myself, so of course I couldn’t render it on the page so that readers could see it. In fact, though, the opposite was true, and the famous novelist realized this as soon as he’d made his original pronouncement. The coffee shop of the story was based on a coffee shop I knew well and frequented. The reason that it didn’t appear clearly on the page was that I knew it too well, and was no longer really seeing it. I had an image of it in my head that subconsciously I believed everyone else could see, too. What I needed to do was to really see the coffee shop—the real one or an imagined one—in order to describe it effectively. I needed to discover things about this coffee shop that I didn’t know, or had overlooked, and that’swhat I needed to write.
I’m currently writing a novel set in Singapore. I know Singapore. I lived there for ten years. So I’m able to get a lot of what I need for this story just from my own experience. But then I’ll push beyond what I already know to discover some of the history of the country—which is more interesting than modern readers might imagine—and to “drill down,” so to speak, to discover things beneath the surface that I hadn’t seen before. But there’s more to this exploration, because of the character traits I’m writing about—but I’ll save that topic for another day.
For another take on this issue, see Bret Anthony Johnston’s essay from The Atlantic: Don’t Write What You Know.

>Tips for Writers: The Comma


There aren’t a lot of rules in writing fiction, but here’s one that’s too often ignored: punctuation matters. It is somewhat shocking to me to see poorly punctuated work by writers who are seeking publication in professional journals. Grammar mistakes are one thing; in fiction, many writers take liberties with grammar. But creative punctuation? I don’t think so.
Periods and question marks are pretty easy, although some writers aren’t sure what to do with them if there’s a quotation mark in the mix. Most writers stay away from exclamation points, either because they aren’t very emphatic to begin with or they’ve heard the maxim that writers are permitted only three exclamation points in a career and they don’t want to use theirs too soon. Semi-colons are harder, but lots of writers avoid them because they either don’t like them or know that they don’t know how to use them. Fair enough.
The real problem is the comma. I confess that I wasn’t confident in my comma usage until I started teaching Freshman Composition in a community college. I realized that in order to teach kids whose grasp of grammar and punctuation was weak, I was going to need to learn it myself. And with the help of Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference, a book I still refer to occasionally, I did just that.
Now, contrary to what I said above, in fiction, especially, one can be somewhat creative with commas. Although there are rules, and a misplaced comma will draw an editor’s attention (not necessarily a good thing), sometimes a writer wants to slow the reader down or to otherwise alter the rhythm of a sentence. A comma is good for that, although a wise writer would be sparing with such usages. But in order to break the comma rules for effect, you first have to know what the rules are.
Here’s the tip: find a grammar guide and learn how to use commas. Your editors will thank you.

>Tips for Writers: Walk This Way


My tip today is closely related to the previous one. (See The Thesaurus Throwdown.)

This week I was teaching an adult education class in writing fiction. The group has been enthusiastic and fun, and they seem to appreciate the tips that I’ve been able to share with them. Each week we read a couple of stories by well-known writers that illustrate some aspect of the craft and we discuss them. On the subject of handling Time, I assigned Tim O’Brien’s amazing story “The Things They Carried” from his amazing book of the same name. The way backstory is delivered in the story is quite amazing. (Subtip: don’t overuse words like “amazing.”)

But that’s not what I’m writing about here. Early in the story, the narrator says this:

“To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive.”

I love this narrative intrusion into the story to comment on the choice of the word “hump,” which is exactly the right word for the action described because of the extra weight that the word itself carries. When choosing the right word—a verb, or a noun—those implications are critical, and this alternative to the verb “to walk” is a great illustration. Whenever I see “walk” in a student’s story, I circle it because there is almost always a more evocative alternative. Not a synonym, but a word that is more precise or one that has a connotation that will provide more depth to the sentence in which the word is used. “To hump” implies burdens far beyond the intransitive. But what does “walk” really mean. Can we visualize “to walk”? Does it suggest anything about mood?

Maybe, but there are so many other ways that one can render motion from one point to another that I have to believe there will always be a better choice: step, tread, pace, stride, stride out, move fast, strut, stalk, prance, mince, be proud, tread lightly, tiptoe, trip, skip, dance, curvet, leap, tread heavily, lumber, clump, stamp, tramp, goosestep, toddle, patter, pad, totter, stagger, lurch, reel, stumble, oscillate, limp, hobble, waddle, shuffle, shamble, dawdle, move slowly, paddle, wade, go on foot, ride shanks’ mare, foot it, hoof it, hike, footslog, wear out shoe leather, plod, stump, trudge, jog, go, go for a walk, ambulate, perambulate, circumambulate, pace up and down, go for a run or a jog, take the air, take one’s constitutional, march, quick march, slow march, troop, file, file past, defile, march in procession, come after, walk behind, follow, walk in front, precede.

(All of these are from a thesaurus, and note that the word “hump” isn’t included, and yet that was exactly the right word for O’Brien.)

>Tips for Writers: The Thesaurus Throwdown


This post is the first in what I hope will be a regular Friday discussion on Tips for Writers. Not that I know any more than anyone else, but I’ll put some things out there for people to consider, dispute, elaborate upon. The first one deals with the writing process itself.

In the September issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Mark Doty comes down hard on the thesaurus: “If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else. I am not sure that a poet should even own one of the damn things.” When I read that, I nodded, knowing from my stint as a teacher of Freshman composition that a thesaurus can be dangerous, much like an English-French dictionary can be abused by beginning language learners. Just because a word is in the thesaurus or the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s the right choice in a given situation.

But today the new issue of TWC arrived. (It came Priority Mail, for some reason; maybe the AWP folks thought I was having a writing emergency of some kind.) A letter writer, Ralph Culver of Burlington VT, complains about Doty’s comments, and says that it’s “one of the oddest statements I’ve ever read in your pages–and poets say some pretty strange things. . .” He goes on in that vein, defending the poor thesaurus, and the magazine allows Doty a response.

I confess that while I agree with Doty about the dangers of using a thesaurus, I’ve got one handy at all times while writing, and I do resort to it. But, knowing the dangers, I use it with extreme caution. I don’t set out to discover words I didn’t know existed–words that I might not be able to use properly, and that will almost certainly sound stilted in the context of my normal vocabulary. Instead, I simply use it to remind me of words I already know. Maybe everyone else has a better memory than I do, but when I’m writing I will often feel a word swirling in my brain just out of reach. I know that I’m looking for just the right choice, the precise noun that indicates the color I’m thinking of, the verb that states exactly the action that I want to describe (without having to rely on one of those evil adverbs). I struggle, and it doesn’t come. So I reach for the thesaurus and begin the hunt for just the right word. Usually–not always, unfortunately–I find what I was looking for and couldn’t remember. It’s a small triumph, but such is the life of a writer.

So, I mostly agree with Doty on this point, and I think Culver misses the point. A thesaurus can be dangerous in the hands of an amateur. But I keep one close just the same.