July 2019 archive

A Short (Enough) Story with a Literary Moral (and Horses)

ONCE, AT A HORSE SHOW, I watched a pair of judges assess the relative merits of a ring full of huge, glossy Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and other warm-blood hunter-types in a conformation class. Unlike most skill-based horse-show events, conformation ribbons are awarded to those animals who best meet the standards of excellence for the physical characteristics of their breed. (More like the Westminster Dog Show than a canine agility event, in other words.)

On that afternoon, almost hidden in the forest of sixteen- and seventeen-hand-high bay- and chestnut-colored hunters, a tiny, black-and-white Shetland pony arched its short, chunky pony neck. “How cute,” the spectator closest to me murmured, “but how disappointed its little owner will be. There’s no chance for her to get even a look-in with that sort of competition.”

And yet, twenty minutes later, it was exactly that “little owner,” a six-year old girl dressed in black and white to match her pony, who paraded her Shetland around the perimeter of the ring, blue ribbon oh-so-proudly affixed to its bridle.

No sentimental decision, the judges had weighed the equine contestants’ attributes fairly. The Shetland pony, small and unassuming as it seemed amidst the tall, regal company, was in fact a perfect specimen of its type and well-deserving of the win.

So … what about writing?

Recently, I judged a short story contest. In four days, I read fifty-one stories that spanned a myriad of genres. Not Thoroughbreds and Shetlands, but fantasy, suspense, sci-fi, romance, and contemporary/realistic—as well as a single picture-book entry.

As a whole, the stories were competently constructed and smooth-surfaced. No doubt, these were writers who had studied their craft.

Yet, as I read through the three-thousand-words-or-less stories, I noticed some failed to engage my interest because they lacked a distinctive voice. Some delivered a strong voice, but the stories were so predictable I could tell where they were headed before they’d even left the barn. And those that did find a fresh approach did not, for the most part, make it all the way around the course to create a satisfying narrative arc.

But the picture book?!

In a quick, bright voice, the PB writer created an engaging pair of characters—a grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter—who found themselves in an exciting and unexpected muddle over the destruction of the grandmother’s Sunday-best real-human-hair wig. Together, the characters struggled, they lost, they struggled some more—and then they triumphed!

In less than five hundred words, the lone PB writer managed to incorporate three elements vital for the success of even the shortest of narrative forms: a distinctive voice, a fresh, unexpected story element, and a complete narrative arc.

While the other competitors’ stories—like those big, beautiful Thoroughbreds I admired so many years ago—might have had size on their side, might have boasted weightier topics or more sophisticated story structures than the unassuming little picture book, not one of them made it to the finish line with all of three of those important elements in place.

If this were a horse show, make no mistake, Grandma’s real-hair wig would be sporting a brand-new, bright blue, First Place ribbon the next time she hoisted it atop her head and tottered up the aisle to her favorite pew.

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This post was first published on a former blog, THOSE DARNED RUBY SLIPPERS, in which I wrote about the magic I saw around me—and about writing, a magical craft of its own.

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10 Great Tips for Capturing Literary Agent Interest!

YOUR MANUSCRIPT IS AWESOME! You’ve had it critiqued and beta-read—and you’ve revised, revised, revised! But if you’re not getting the interest from agents you feel your book deserves, check out the resources below. May you discover the golden key to your success amidst these pages and pixels!

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1) Among other topics, in her article “10 Steps to Getting a Literary Agent” for Writers & Artists, Gilly McAllister talks common sense about having a complete draft ready before querying [querying fiction and memoir, that is; see number 2 if you’re writing nonfiction], what your first three chapters need to do, and what happens when you get a nibble.

2) However, if you’re a nonfiction writer, the rule about completing a manuscript before querying doesn’t necessarily apply. Instead, you might be well-served to create a fabulous nonfiction book proposal to start your agent search. In that case, you’ll find THE WEEKEND BOOK PROPOSAL (Writer’s Digest), by Ryan Van Cleave, a comprehensive guide.

3) The post “Tips for Finding a Literary Agent” on the NY Book Editors blog offers resources for editing your own work so you’re sending out the most sparkly, attractive version of your manuscript you can!

4) The always-helpful Writer’s Digest shares “11 Steps to Finding the Agent Who’ll Love Your Book,” by Chuck Sambuchino. While Chuck doesn’t shine a spotlight on much that’s new, his point about research is supported by …

5) … the Writer’s Digest’s annual GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS!

6) In addition, the ever-awesome POETS & WRITERS magazine has a free online literary agent database for your perusal. P&W says, The Literary Agents list includes agents and literary agencies that represent poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers, plus details about the kind of books they’re interested in representing, their clients, and the best way to contact them.

7) Meredith Quinn discusses the power of pitching agents at literary conferences in her article “Do You Know What Attracts Literary Agents?” for THE WRITER MAG.

8) But wait! Do you really even need a literary agent? That’s a great question! Here’s a link to Claire Bradshaw’s Writers Edit article “Do You Need a Literary Agent?” which offers some of the pros and cons of being agented.

9) Jane Friedman‘s “Should You Submit Your Work to Agents or Editors?” helps you determine whether it’s better to seek an agent or focus your sights on making a direct deal with a publisher.

10) Finally, you might want to subscribe to former literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. I’m pretty sure this will be the gift that keeps on giving, as Bransford consistently and reliably discusses writing for publication in helpful, bite-sized nuggets. Yum. (Thanks to writer pal Bonnie Cehovet for introducing me to Nathan’s blog!)

Good luck! May the literary force be with you!

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Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of the Key from the CELTIC LENORMAND.

 

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Look Again! A (Tarot-Inspired) Writing Prompt

I’VE LOOKED AT THIS CARD SO MANY TIMES. Is there anything I haven’t seen? There’s the lyre embroidered on the patriarch’s cloak; the heraldry on the archway; the shy little kid, who will barely remember her grandfather when she’s grown; the gray pups, grateful for their master’s notice; the graceful young couple; the flat blue sky of autumn. I’ve noticed all these details before.

Today, I challenge myself to find something new, something significant—at least to my understanding of the card—something I haven’t noticed before.

My gaze travels around the edges of the image. Nothing new there. I pull my focus back and take in the scene as a whole. Nope. Still nothing. Homing in on the middle of the card, I notice the woman’s fond (and familiar-to-me) glance at her husband. Following that glance, I consider the curve, like a sail, of the man’s blue cloak.

Lovely, but … significant?

Then, as my eyes travel that blue curve, I see it! The young man holds a staff, a detail I have never noticed in the hundreds of times I’ve considered this image! With this observation, suddenly his grip and his posture evoke the dynamic Magician holding his wand aloft! Although the young man in the Ten of Pentacles has yet to raise his own staff high enough to invoke its power, this subtle suggestion of The Magician’s potency changes—yes, significantly—the stories I can tell myself about this card.

Now, I perceive the courtyard within the skirt wall’s embrace as a womb, a cauldron, a place designed to protect and foster the young man’s latent powers. And, jeez, what stories could that notion conjure?

“The devil is in the details,” they say, but so is the life force animating every moment. Here, we find that force pulsing at the exact center of the image, the spot from which all the card’s energy emanates—challenging the weighty, static notions of generational obligation and inheritance that can be associated with this card.

Having experimented myself with this oh-so-familiar image, I offer you this …

Tarot Writing Prompt

Look closely at a familiar image, maybe a family photo. Jot down a dozen or so details as you scan the image, seeking the juice, the motor, among those details. Ask yourself, “Is it this? This? This?” Such close observation reveals what’s pulsing underneath. That, in turn, builds energy for writing.

Next, write the scene which occurs to you to write from either the cumulative weight of all the details you’ve noticed or from your close, fresh observation of just one. Make whatever associative leaps you need to get yourself someplace new.

EXTRA CREDIT! After writing that scene, let it cool for a day or two. Then, return to what you’ve written and to the list of details that inspired it. Reconsider both. Do you see anything that escaped your notice before? Write a new scene based on your second look.

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Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of The Magician and the Ten of Pentacles from the RIDER-WAITE TAROT.

What Feeds Your Fire?

DO YOU KNOW WHAT FEEDS YOUR CREATIVE FIRE? While it might be as plain (or as stunningly gorgeous) as the nose on your face, sometimes it takes a mirror for us to see exactly what helps us thrive as writers, as artists, as creative participants in our lives.

MIRROR MIRROR: I’m taking an intensive creative challenge, ICAD (Index Card a Day), with Tammy Garcia of Daisy Yellow—and about 300 other fabulously creative, engaging, encouraging folks (600, if you include Instagram participants)! When I asked Tammy what I should sign up for next, she said, “I think you really thrive on the group interaction,” and suggested I choose another workshop with a dynamic group.

I don’t know Tammy well, nor have I known her for long. But she sees my preference for creating within a group as plainly as she does the nose on my face—which I can’t perceive myself without a mirror of exactly the sort Tammy kindly provided.

Tammy is right. I thrive in groups. Not only do I make art most happily in highly interactive groups, but I also

  • attend three busy yoga classes a week, as much for the friendly social interactions as for the fabulous instruction at Winter Park’s Full Circle Yoga,
  • create writing groups just to have others to write with,
  • am a happy co-author of two published projects—PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK and the reading guide for THE PORTLAND TAROT—and am currently co-writing a third book with two literary partners in crime!

My friend Hugh Holborn, the After Fifty Adventure Man, allowed himself to be a model for an ICAD portrait!

When I’m feeling stuck, having partners, or at least compatriots, fuels me. Their support, or feedback, or even participation fires up my engine again.

So, back to you: What fuels your creativity? Do you know which circumstances or types of support allow you to play fully and freely in your preferred forms of art or creative living? If not, ask three of your closest friends what they think gives you the juice you need. I bet they’ll provide you with a strikingly accurate reflection of your creative self (and your adorable nose).

Walk a Mile in Your Antagonist’s Shoes: A Writing Prompt

UPSIDE DOWN, BOY YOU TURN ME . . .
My puss Bert flips upside down to survey his kingdom. Sometimes, from his inverted perspective, he spots a faux mouse not visible from right-side up. But mostly, upside-down, Bert just watches—noticing what I, with feet firmly planted, can’t see.

Role reversal
As a writer, I can learn from Bertie’s up-ended view. For instance, my short story heroine Sharon would prefer to have me present her predicament as if it were all Lars’s fault. Instead, following Bert’s example, I’ll flip the story on its head, step back, and re-write (at least temporarily) from Lars’s point of view.

I expect to learn something from Lars that Sharon would rather I not know (protagonists are notorious for angling stories so they look good!). If nothing else, I certainly stand a better chance of approaching an honest complexity if—instead of just taking Sharon’s word for it—I peek through Lars’s eyes, too.

“And, action . . . “
The 1951 Akira Kurosawa film, RASHOMON, relies on four characters to tell its tale: In the film, two crimes are commited. As viewers, we’re shown the crimes—a rape and a murder—from the perspective of four different witnesses who each give a different version of the events.

Witness box
As each witness—all of whom are also defendants in the case—tells his story, new and contradictory details are revealed. While the crimes in the film are never solved, RASHOMON conveys a powerful message: Truth is no absolute. It is as mutable as the living, breathing creatures that perceive it.

Closing argument
This understanding absolves us of the obligation to “solve” our stories. Instead, we can work to uncover real tensions between those who live in our fictional worlds. We needn’t think in terms of “good” or “bad”—just let our characters tell their own truths.

Writing prompt

What do you think?
Want to play by Bertie rules? If so, tap out a brief scene from one character’s POV. Now, flip yourself upside down and write it again from another character’s perspective. Did your second character reveal something the first omitted?

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This post was originally written for a former blog, Workshop Porkchop. Today, I repost it in honor of Bertie Botts Morris (now passed on to the big catnip field in the sky).

The image of XII The Floating Cat (The Hanged Man) is from the MYSTICAL CATS TAROT, written by Lunaea Weatherstone, art by Mickie Mueller, published by Llewellyn Worldwide and used with Llewellyn’s kind permission.

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