Sunday, May 31, 2009

10,000 Hours

By Janie Kronk

Need a new perspective on what all those hours at the keyboard mean? Check out Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers.

Although this is not a book about writing, I recommend it here for two reasons:

1) It’s good. For anyone interested in “big idea” books, this will be an entertaining and informative read. Well-written and full of stories illustrating the ideas it puts forth, Outliers turns the notion of the American Dream on its head while examining why some people are successful and others are not.
2) It shows that practice is important, which can be a hard thing for a writer to remember while slogging through that first draft—or second, or third. Gladwell includes an eclectic mix of success stories, including those of Bill Gates and Mozart. What is interesting is that while the book does not deny the genius of these individuals, it does not focus on genius as a reason for success. Instead it focuses on the set of circumstances that allowed these individuals an opportunity to PRACTICE the thing they would become known for. One study described in the book separated university level music students into three groups based on skill level. What was the only thing that separated those that could go on to become world class performers from the rest? The amount of time they had practiced over the course of their lives.

So maybe practice does make perfect. What great news! At least, it’s great news as long as we can keep finding those opportunities to practice.

According to Outliers, there is even a magic number of hours of practice one must go through before becoming an “expert” (i.e. on par with Bill Gates in the computer world, or a world-class violinist in the music world), which seems to hold true in any field: 10,000. This could seem discouraging when you do the math and realize that this number corresponds to approximately three hours a day for ten years—what about our jobs? What about the kids?

But then again, how long have you already been writing? Is it necessary to be a writing expert to pen a story that is beautiful, or entertaining, or just plain good? No, it’s not necessary. That’s why we workshop. That’s why we edit.

The important thing to know is that practice makes us better, and, as long as we keep grabbing those opportunities to practice, no matter how brief, we will get better.

How close are you to your 10,000 hours?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's Been Said Before and Better

By Bonnie Stanard

This criticism goes to the question of creativity, especially as it applies to fiction. How can we produce writing that departs from what has already been published? The challenge to poets can be seen in the desperation evident in some poems published today.

We write from our feelings, intellect, and experience, things that make us human. However, these very things are as old as humanity, and we’ve been writing about them for hundreds of years. The scenery may change, but there are no new plots or characters.

Our feelings are strong motivators. We’re tempted to turn our love life into a novel, but an affair, unique to us, becomes boy-meets-girl as a plot. The angst of puberty, loneliness of old age, and pride in battle are but a few examples of stories that have been retold many times.

Can our intellect save us from writing a rehash of what has already been written? It is possible to develop new concepts from our perceptions, as people like Freud, James Joyce, and Shakespeare bear out, but how many of us are in that league?

Surely each person experiences life differently from every other person. This may be analogous to saying nobody has my recipe for chili. The “ingredients” of life may mix, interact, and react differently, but we all have the same ingredients. You may say, “Nobody else can remember the time I cut my foot on a glass bottle while swinging on a vine.” That may be unique to you, but is it original? See what I mean?

The point here is that if we think we’re on the road less traveled, we may be unaware of the traffic backing up in our lane. One of the few ways we’ll discover derivative or mundane aspects of our work is from critics in our workshop. Our group is cautious with criticisms. Questions often mean the text being discussed is weak. If your manuscript gets hardly any reaction, it is either very good, very bad, or very long.

The advice I’ve heard at our SCWW conferences has devolved into my current writing strategy, which is to reach for the unexpected in characters and the unpredictable in plot. For instance, the guy sitting in a nearby seat just mailed a rattlesnake to his girlfriend. The little girl with him is not his daughter. If a character seems to be falling in love, the last place for the plot to go is the bedroom. The boss who promises his secretary a promotion is demoted himself. Screams in the night aren’t murder. They’re cat fights. A pizza delivery man knocks at the door, and he’s carrying...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Writing Groups

By Alex Raley

During our last writers group meeting, I realized that I am the oldest person in the group, by both years of age and by years in the group. You might ask why I am still in a writers group. Have I not learned to write? Oh well, I suppose passing a writing test is not beyond my abilities. But, the group is not about learning to write. Most of us write fairly well, thank you.

The writers group helps me make my writing more interesting. Group critiques are honest and to the point, the point being to truly communicate and hold the interest of a reader. There is a bountiful supply of diverse thinking in the group, so there is always someone who clicks immediately with what I write, but if just one person seems to miss what I intend to say that is a good reason to take another look at the writing.

The diversity of age in the group sometimes points you in a different direction, or supports what you have written. The group read a poem I had written about the regimentation we build into the lives of children. In naming such events in the poem, I asked what child needed a project on PowerPoint. One reader said that was too adult, but, before I could explain that my second- and fifth-grade grandsons had just completed PowerPoint assignments, the younger folks jumped in to say that children are indeed dealing with PowerPoint in school. And, of course, I love to hear the wise, calm voice of an elder in the group when the younger folks are railing for more action, more detail.

We recently had a new person visit us. He said that he had sent a manuscript to an editor, or agent, who responded that the story did not have a narrative curve, or some such name for the peak in a story, which usually occurs just before the writer pulls all threads of the narrative to a conclusion. I would say to that visitor that we may not be able to give you a well-written definition of the narrative curve, but, through the thoughtful and caring responses to your writing from our group members, you will develop your own narrative peaks and writing style.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What Are You Working on Now?

By Vikki Perry, moderator of Columbia II SCWW

Last month, I participated in a contest offered by The Knight Agency. The prize was a critique and possible representation by an agent. They asked participants to send a three sentence pitch about their novel to their submissions email box. After the contest was over, one of the agents posted that they had received 1200 submissions and that there were 20 winners. I was not one of them. It was an awesome exercise.

Why am I telling you about this? That's easy. I want us to do it too! Soooo, here is what I propose. In sixty words or less, pitch your novel or book-length writing work (memoir, creative non-fiction, non-fiction,etc.) If you are not writing book length fiction, tell us about your latest poem or short story. Just scroll to the end of my entry and click on "comment." A page will appear which contains a box to make comments. In this box, type your 60 words. Then complete the "word verification" by typing the letters you see above that box. Choose an identity and publish. If you are unable to publish your entry, email your copy to me at with a copy to Ginny at

To sweeten the pot and encourage participation, I will throw in a copy of Chris Riordan's Don't Sabotage Your Submission. This book will go to a commenter on this blog. The critique group will be judging the entries at the June 15th critique meeting and we will post a winner.

To get you started, I will share the pitch that I sent to to the Knight Agency. (Yes, I know this is more than sixty words.)

"Cursed World War II flyer, Seth Avery, is soul sworn to prevent an ancient magical dagger from falling into the wrong hands. When Mackenzie Russell, a modern historian, discovers the dagger’s hiding place, she incites a string of events that attracts the attention of a cult of ancients who desire the dagger’s magic for their own evil gain. Fighting the powerful and forbidden attraction that flares between them, Seth and Mackenzie must flee the ancients who will not hesitate to kill anyone in their path, and prevent the dagger's power from being unleashed on an unsuspecting world."

Now tell us yours! You have until June 10th to submit.

Thanks and good luck,

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Capturing Pictures or Voices?

By Deborah W. Yoho

How do you know when you are finished with a piece of writing? I can’t seem to figure this out. I was flabbergasted when my new friend Ilmars announced that he had “finished another novel”.

I had to ask, “You mean you are finished with the first draft? Did you write it straight through?”

“Yes,” he answered, “now I will go back and edit it.”

I wish I could do that, write straight through. I can’t compose a sentence without editing it as I go. (I just changed the last sentence to substitute compose for the word write. But I’m not at all sure the result is better.) Ilmars’s method seems much more efficient.

Fifteen years ago I wrote a short self-help book. At one point I decided I was finished with it. But when I pulled it out six months ago with the idea of actually publishing it myself, it was clearly not ready. Here I am now still fooling with it.

Is writing an art form, an activity suited to spontaneity and experimentation? Or is it more like a craft, the result of carefully honed skills perfected only by consistent practice? If it is an activity to be practiced, I have surely had plenty of that! Yet the more I practice, the more unsure I am about my ability to put two words together sensibly.

There is something profoundly visual about how I go about this activity. So often when writing, I stop, cock my head sideways, stare at the print, and ask myself, “Does that look right?” Look right, not sound right.

When I am reading, the words become sounds in my head. Authors speak to me, rather than write to me. I think I’ve got this all backward, or inside-out, or something.

So I’ve decided to tack into a new direction. I’ve bought a digital recorder, and I will try to speak my thoughts “straight through” before putting them to paper.

I’ll let you know whether or not this works. But I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. The written word is not the same thing as the spoken word. Many articulate speakers are not good writers.

Perhaps what I am after is to match my written words with the pictures in my head. What I see in my head, I think, is what motivates me to write. I want those thoughts to have life!

Hmmm, maybe writing is about visualization after all.