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  • Writing Tips Tuesday: Creating Compelling Characters

    Character is perhaps the most important part of a story or novel. If readers don’t care about or relate to your characters, they aren’t going to continue reading. It’s like that annoying, close-minded uncle you have to converse with at family reunions.

    So, how can you build a dramatic, compelling character? Here are two crucial things your characters must have:

    1) Characters need depth. They need flaws and weaknesses just as much as they need strengths. Characters should have as much complexity as real-life human beings, because let’s face it, our characters are real to us. Think about the person you’re closest to. They’re not perfect, and you probably wouldn’t like them as much if they were.

    Ree Dolly, the main character of Daniel Woodrell’s amazing novel, Winter’s Bone, is a very deep and complicated character. Her bravery and stubbornness are perhaps her greatest flaw and strength. She must face her drug-addicted, meth-making extended family and convince them to help her find her father who has disappeared. Ree is caring for her two younger siblings and her mother, who has lost her mind, and has no money to feed them or pay the bills. While I admired and loved her for not giving up, she was pushed down a flight of stairs and almost beaten to death in the process. If she’d died, she wouldn’t have been able to find her father or feed her family. Had she given up or not gone looking for him at all, she wouldn’t have been able to find her father and feed her family.

    2) Characters must want something. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character must want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Whether your character wants to date his secretary (Don Draper style), adopt a child from Korea, murder her nemesis, eat papaya directly off of a tree in Mexico, or snag a copy of the latest Kanye West album, readers need to know what your character needs and watch them try to obtain it.

    In fact, every character should have goals and motivations. Every character should have a plot arc, no matter how small.

    Ree Dolly wants to find her father. She wants to feed her family. She wants to protect her siblings. She doesn’t want to get involved with meth and prison like everybody else in this small Missouri Ozarks town.

    Once you’ve created a character that desperately wants something and goes after it full-force, a character with depth, flaws, weaknesses, strengths, and relatability, you’ll be well on your way to a powerful story or novel.

    What is the one thing your character wants more than anything? What are your characters weaknesses, flaws, and strengths? Think about these same questions and apply them to your favorite characters from published stories and novels.

    To try:
     

    Make a list of all the flaws, habits, rituals, hobbies, and strengths of people you know. Next time you create a character that isn’t quite believable, give them one of the things from your list.

    Write journal entries from your character’s point-of-view. You’ll be able to get right inside their head and find out what they really want.

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    Writing Ourselves Out of Ruts

    If nothing else, we have this much in common: we write.

    We plop down in front of laptops or desktops. Or we sit in stiff wooden chairs or on cushy leather couches clutching spine-weary composition books and favorite pens. Some of us may even stand (like Hemingway, Nabakov, and Camus did), or stretch across the carpet on stomachs, or recline on couches or in beds or even in bathtubs to do our work.

    No matter how we do it, if we ever hope to be any good, we write. And write. And revise. And edit. And revise again. And then edit again, laboring for the words on the page to mirror the labyrinth of ideas unfolding in our minds.

    Through extensive use, we learn that the writing process is a recursive, messy business.

    When we are lucky, an idea seizes us so fully that it pushes us to our favorite writing positions and holds us captive until it takes satisfying shape in scratchy cursive or stalwart font. Those privileged to hear the song of such insistent muses read the results of these interludes with a joyous disbelief that borders on ecstasy, wondering, Did I really just write that? We long for the rare occasions a piece of writing comes to us almost whole, all but wrapped in a billowy bow–an experience that creates an energy surge that pulses through our hearts, our veins, our perhaps pounding heads. I call it a writer’s high. Few other experiences compare to it. But let’s face it, the muse is fickle.

    When we find ourselves abandoned by muses, we writhe under the dominion of the dreaded blank page, waiting for inspiration.

    The good news is that facing that blank page leads writers to some interesting strategies. I’ll share a few ways I invite inspiration into my writing life as well as some of the stranger ways successful writers practice their art. Who knows? Perhaps some of the strategies I outline will spark your muse.

    Prewriting:

    One way to spice up your writing is to seek out new ideas. A quick internet search will yield many sites devoted to writing prompts. A few I like are:

    * http://writingprompts.tumblr.com/

    * http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts

    * http://www.creativewritingprompts.com

    In addition to writing prompts, changing how you write can spark your creativity. After years of writing alone, I recently discovered the incredible power of writing with others. Those of you with MFAs already know the benefit of writing in a group. Those of you who soldier alone, a pen or keyboard the only weapon in your arsenals, may want to add one or more of the following to your writing life:

    1. Find a writing partner. Write together on a regular basis, at least once a week. These meetings should begin by focusing on generating writing. After deciding on a writing prompt (or two or three), you write together for thirty minutes (or more). Then you read aloud what was written and offer feedback that focuses only on “what stayed with you” in your partner’s piece of writing—no critique, no questions, no suggestions. In this way, the writer hears feedback without suffering through an inappropriate critique of first draft work. Eventually meetings with your writing partner may include sharing later drafts of work and critique, but be sure to begin with a focus on simply generating writing. This practice alone has transformed my writing in the last year, making me more prolific and stretching me in ways I could not have done alone.

    2. Start a writing group. This might be a group of your writing friends, or you can volunteer to lead a group at an organization, senior center, homeless shelter, or library. Facilitate weekly meetings during which you write with the group. Everyone is invited to read aloud the writing elicited by the prompt(s) and the feedback given is limited to what in the writing “stayed with” people when read aloud. Though people can pass when it comes time to share, I’ve challenged myself always to read what I’ve written. I typically like a piece better after reading it aloud. And the feedback I get as a writer is helpful. I encourage you to keep a larger group like this focused on generative writing. Pat Schneider’s wonderful book, Writing Alone and With Others, is a great resource for running writing groups.

    3. Write in a power trio. For some reason, I write best in a group of three.

    Drafting:

    First, set a daily writing goal for yourself. Some writers set time limits, others set page or word limits. Stephen King writes ten pages a day, no matter what, even on holidays. No wonder the guy is so prolific! Thomas Wolfe wrote ten triple-spaced pages a day, a number that translates into roughly 1800 words. Hemingway wrote 500 words a day, but labored over them, swooping back through the text like a hunting hawk. Flannery O’Connor wrote for two hours a day, lupus undoubtedly making longer periods of time uncomfortable for her. Find a realistic goal that stretches you and then stick to it.

    Second, create an environment conducive to writing. Many writers (Francine Prose, for one) write facing a wall in an effort to limit distractions. No matter where you write, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to set aside sacred time for writing. Let nothing interrupt this time—not family, friends, work, the telephone, the internet, Facebook, pets, hunger, nor the doorbell. Sequester yourself for your solitary writing in a way that helps you to be productive. Visual art, pleasing smells, and music can provide creative stimulation as you write. For ten hours a day writer Haruki Murakam listens to American jazz as part of his creative process. Screenwriter Ben Settle plays inspirational movie themes on repeat while he writes. I love to play classical music. Though I have eclectic taste in music, I find lyrics distracting to my writing process. Poet Friedrich Schiller placed rotten apples under his writing desk (out of view), believing the odor boosted his writing output. Find sensory stimuli that make you want to write.

    Next, discover your best time of day for writing and reserve it. Joyce Carol Oates gets up every morning to write. Even when she must lecture that day, she writes for at least 45 minutes before her class starts. On days she does not have to teach, she will often write from early morning until two or three in the afternoon.

    Many successful writers have adopted unusual habits. Are these eccentricities responsible for their prolific masterpieces or merely another sign of the genius within? I can’t say for certain, but recent psychological research indicates that creativity can be cultivated.  Anyone can boost creativity through novel experiences that help us capture fleeting ideas, unique challenges that knock us out of behavioral ruts, a focus on broadening the techniques we use to generate ideas, and environments with diverse stimuli.

    What do the masters have to teach us? Here are a few of the stranger-than-fiction habits of successful writers:

    * Many writers dress for writing. Some dress up before they sit down to write (Poe wore black, and Dickinson wore all white to write). Others prefer comfort over professionalism in their clothing (Cheever writes in his underwear, Smiley in her bathrobe, and Francine Prose in her husband’s pajamas). Still others fly a freak flag to do their work. There are nudist writers, including Victor Hugo (who gave his clothes to a servant with specific orders not to return them until his work was complete) and theatrical writers, including T.S. Eliot who wore cadaverous green face paint and bright lipstick to write his verses. You must discover what makes you most comfortable as a writer. I personally prefer loose clothing (i.e. sweats and t-shirts) because I need to forget about my physical self when I write.

    * Many writers walk or swim when they get stuck. Incorporate movement as part of your writing routine. Henry Miller was a walker. Charles Dickens was known to walk twenty to thirty miles a day as part of his writing/thinking process. Philip Roth walks at least a half-mile a day as well. When I get stuck, one of the best things I can do is go for a long, brisk walk. I love the thinking that happens while I’m in the fresh air. I sometimes fear I might actually be talking aloud as I walk (and frightening the neighbors), but the benefits are worth the odd stares.

    * Several successful writers used alcohol as part of the writing process. Faulkner, Bukowski, Hemingway, and Hunter S. Thompson declared alcohol a muse in their writing lives. I encourage you not to buy into the mythology that an altered state is required for “true art” and to keep in mind that Hemingway and Thompson both committed suicide. In contrast, Rita Mae Brown encourages writers to work sober. I stand in the middle of these two camps, arguing for moderation. A glass of wine or two can loosen things up for me, but I don’t drink every time I sit down to write.

    * Some writers get quirky to invent characters and dialogue. Ayad Akhtar keeps a special chair near his writing desk where he imagines his character sitting as he writes. Aaron Sorkin stands up and acts out his dialogue in loud voices. Like Sorkin, I find myself muttering dialogue for my characters as I do dishes or the laundry. I’m certain my roommate thinks I’m insane.

    * If you don’t already have one, consider getting an animal. An amazing number of famous writers had animal companions they considered muses. And these muses were far from the typical house cat or domesticated dog. Most people know that Flannery O’Connor raised over a hundred peacocks (the birds or their feathers appeared in many of her stories). Sylvia Plath was a beekeeper. Oscar Wilde loved to shock people at Oxford by walking a leashed lobster through the streets. When told he could not have a domesticated animal on campus, Lord Byron famously kept a bear while studying at Oxford. The bear lived in his dorm room and made frequent outdoor appearances. I myself tolerate two obnoxious dogs who like to annoy me while I write, but I also have a small tank of freshwater fish. Graceful and dumb, the fish are my preferred animal muses.

    * If you can, experiment with changing your sleep schedule. You might get up in the middle of the night or wake up very early to write. Great thinkers like Da Vinci and Edison tended to nap for short periods, rather than sleep a full eight hours. They believed a scattered sleep schedule contributed to their creativity.

    Writing is a laborious, often lonely enterprise. When you feel yourself stuck, remember both the advice of psychologists who say that creativity can be cultivated and the weirdly wonderful examples set by some of the world’s most successful writers. To boost your creative energy and improve your writing, be willing to venture outside your ordinary habits as a writer.

    My final thought? If you have not yet done so, assign yourself the 3Elements prompt. Submissions are due October 10th, and we think writing a piece for us provides you with exactly the kind of rut-escaping challenge any writer needs. Happy writing!

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    The Job of the Editor, The Job of the Writer

    This article, “What Editors Want; A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines,” is about the job of the editors and the job of the writer. We feel that it is so spot-on, we wanted to share and reiterate a few important points. Written by the editor of Gulf Stream Magazine, Lynne Barrett, this article is crucial if you want to be published here, or anywhere.

    The Editor’s Job:

    •  “A magazine editor is a person who enjoys bringing new writing to the world in a publication that will be seen, read, appreciated, and talked about.” What we want more than anything is to read something so fresh and powerful, that we can’t wait to send you an acceptance letter.
    • We read multiple submissions each day, sometimes right in a row, so if you start your story off with a misspelled word in the title (we’ve seen this), a run-on sentence,  an incomplete sentence, a character who sits and thinks, we’re going to be a bit disappointed. While we read each piece from start to finish to give it a fair chance, we just want to be dazzled by beautiful and interesting writing.
    • Does anybody read the guidelines? It is very obvious when you haven’t read them and much appreciated when you have. If the three elements are nowhere to be found in your work, it’s an automatic decline. Reading the guidelines (and back issues, if applicable), is so very important if being published is really what you desire.

    Your Job:

    • “Remember the editor’s deepest wish: Send something perfect for us, please.” We don’t have time to make suggestions for another draft and edits, even if we do like your piece. Your piece needs to be ready to go. We are grammar nerds, so please proofread your work!
    • “Your job is to help the editor by sending work that is developed, complete, thoroughly revised, and—of great importance—appropriate for the magazine.”

    Submitting:

    • Format your submission according to the magazine’s guidelines.
    • “You can include one sincere sentence about the magazine to show that you have really read it. ‘I especially enjoyed So-and-so’s story or poem in your Spring issue, because of: say something specific here.’ You have no idea how ridiculously rare this is.” We know this isn’t possible until after our first issue debuts, but for future reference, and as a tip for submitting anywhere, if editors know you’ve read their magazine, they will know you have an idea of what they are looking for.
    • In your cover letter, tell us who you are and what credentials you have, but be concise. We actually can’t even see your cover letter until we have voted on your piece, because submissions are blind. However, we can’t wait to find out whose submission we are accepting.

    Rejection:

    • The last thing we want a rejection to do is hurt your feelings. It just means that the piece is not right for us or isn’t yet of publishable quality. We are writers, too, and understand what rejection feels like. It’s not personal.
    • If we said no to your piece, send it to the next place on your list.
    • “Do not take the rejection slip, underline words or phrases on it, and send it back with a scrawled note saying: ‘Doesn’t suit your needs at this time?’ YOUR needs? Well, who cares about you and your pretentious magazine that I never liked anyway, etc., etc.’  When people do this, editors post the missives in the office, to be mocked as coming from an immature writer who completely misunderstands how impersonal this is. You may set fire to rejection slips, show them proudly to your friends, use them as coasters for consolatory margaritas, but do not write anything in response.” We respect you, so please respect us!

    Please read the article in its entirety here.

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