With the beginning of the new year, begins the newest submission season for From Sac. And this year couldn't be more excited about our theme for 2016: OUTSIDER. For the first time, From Sac will be accepting submissions from everyone!
We know it can be hard submitting blindly to a press, especially blindly to people. So let's meet the editors (who have not changed since very beginning) for the 2016 issue of From Sac:
Elison Alcovendaz (Editor)
Hi, my name is Elison.
I'm that friend who didn't really like Star Wars: A Force Awakens (but still owns a plastic lightsaber he uses when it’s pitch dark and he needs to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom, only to stop in front of the mirror and have a ten second lightsaber battle with the darkness). I'm the guy who works in a cubicle 8-10 hours a day thinking about how important the invention of the paper clip was then comes home debating whether to go to the gym, watch Big Bang reruns, or eat ice cream (or watch Big Bang reruns and eat ice cream). I’m that guy who spends too much time: in fantasy sports land, scrolling through my Facebook feed, reading any random book I can get my hands on, and looking up random pains on WebMD then spends the next two hours wondering if its lupus (it's not lupus, says House). I’m that dude who still uses the word dude, who thinks 90s Hip Hop is the best musical genre (Ja Rule, bruh), and thinks J.K. Rowling and Derrida are equally important authors (don’t get me started on deconstructing Harry’s scar).
My work has appeared in Gargoyle, The Portland Review, The Alarmist and a bunch of other beautiful literary magazines that you should buy after you purchase From Sac. I have a completed YA novel I’m shopping around and am working on a short story collection, a flash fiction collection, and five different novels (because I keep starting new ones… someone stop me!)
But enough about me. Let’s talk about you, the submitter. When I’m reading submissions, I’m either looking to be impressed – by your bravery, your intellctualism, your originality, your voice, etc. – or genuinely moved, whether to laughter, to tears, to anger, to something. In other words, be you and be the realest you you can be. Don’t try to be your college professor or Hemingway or Borges. Don’t try. Trying is for suckas. Like Yoda and Nike said, “Just do and just be.”
Tess Perez (Editor)
“I love writing my own bio,” said no one, ever. Overall I am a light-hearted person. Most things in life I find funny even the things that aren’t funny which cause me some issues. I put serious artsy films and a great comedy on the same pedestal. My habits in reading are a bit schizophrenic, all based on mood. I’ll read several books at once and never finish any of them. In the past I used to finish a book even if it felt like I was being run over by a car over and over and over…you get the point. Life is too short to waste your time on anything that doesn’t bring you joy. I don’t believe that just because somewhere, at some time a book was deemed a “classic” means that the book is actually good. I got half way through Wurthering Heights and I wanted both Catherine and Heathcliff to die so I didn’t have to hear them whining any longer. There are other books/authors I have similar feelings for, but I’ll omit those for fear of being stoned by my hardcore literary friends.
There was a two-year stint where I taught Literature and Film and Composition. Teaching comes easy to me. I find comfort in being in front of a classroom full of students. It is a job that allows you to keep learning, playing the role of the teacher and the student at the same time. Teaching is also a hard profession to get into, at least at the college level. I’d still be teaching if the school I taught for didn’t have to shut down. But I haven’t lost hope. The search continues.
In the meantime, I write and I edit. You know you’re a nerd when…you get excited to edit another writer’s work. Do you remember how Scroodge McDuck used to roll around in his pile of money? That’s me when I have papers to edit. You may be annoyed with the five pages of notes I’ll return back to you, but I guarantee that I will have spent time with your work and gave it my full attention. Per the usual response of a writer, “I’m currently working on several short stories, blah, blah, blah.” But no, really, I am working on two short stories at the moment, along with a project I hope turns out to be a novel and I am working on a collaborative project with another writer. When you simplify it, writing is just playing with words. Shaping them into something beautiful to share with others who will read them. If I am not constantly playing, I might as well be…let’s not be so dramatic.
Jon Alston (Executive Editor)
Here’s the thing: I hate talking about myself. Mostly because I have no idea what to say, but also because I’m incapable of distinguish between important facts and odd quirks that make people uncomfortable. Such as: I get this weird tingling sensation in my mouth whenever I hear ripping fabric; a very visceral rippling through my tongue and the lining of my mouth. I can’t explain why, I just do. My life is complicated like that, mostly with oddities that really don’t have a whole lot of correlation between each other. And yet, I press on.
A short summary: I like to create. Whether with words, paint, wood, wire, food, glass, metal; you name it, I want to try it. Using my hands is what makes me feel useful. It’s what makes me feel like I have a purpose.
On a whole, I’m a simple man. I want a (mini)house. I want a Malamute. I want to be a full time writer. I want to have a few acres so my family can enjoy nature and grow things and be productive, self-sufficient, members of our community. I don’t need to be rich. I don’t need to have the latest phone/car/toy/thing/whatever. Just simple stuff. Of course, life doesn’t work out like that often, and so for now I work retail full-time, teach university part-time, and write when I have the chance and the kids are asleep; and then when that’s done, From Sac. Most weeks are 60+ hours and are devoid of anything creative. Such is the life of a young family man.
Family is my life right now. And I love it. I won’t lie, it’s hard. Way harder than I thought. And frustrating. Two kids still in diapers—only 19 months apart—can be horrifying and wreak havoc on your soul. But that’s okay. We did it to our parents, now our children get to do it to us. Such is the cycle of the universe. When I’m not at work, I’m chasing the kids around from one mess to the other while their mother works tirelessly on homework and TA grading. We could not be busier. So of course we take on projects like quilts and paintings and photography sessions and across-states visits to friends and family.
That’s just one definition of what it means to be a writer.
To just live and be. And that living and being gives you fuel to create. Most of the time you are too tired to make something beautiful out of all the experience; but every once in a while, there is a moment when all is silent and your world stops, giving you that subtle break you need to capture the essence of what has been.
***New updated photos of everyone coming soon***
Watch this video:
Often we writer's find ourselves sitting before that blank page, waiting for something to come, for that brief glimpse into Art--that unknowable space where beauty lies just out of reach, that place we yearn for in hopes of tasting the smallest morsel--but the black page stares back, void, hollow, relentless in its nothingness. And so we find ourselves slipping off the page and onto Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, Reddit, Pinterest, Youtube, etcetera etcetera etcetera. That Crazy Monkey Mind rips you away from your passion, your desire, your goal. We sit, falling down the rabbit hole into webspace (or any other time wasting ventures that produce nothing), saluting the Crazy Monkey Mind, spouting soliloquies to our master, affirming its power, "Yes sir, yes sir, you are in control, sir." Our minds, it often seems in the creative fields, control us.
I'm no meditator by any stretch of the imagination; I am also not in control of my mind, either. In order to be successful creators, we must first be successful controllers of the part of our bodies that is designed to create. Because it will do it's own creating without your saying so. And nothing will get done.
Become friends with your mind, and your writing will improve exponentially.
Last November I deleted my Facebook account. I did this for many reasons, one of them being distraction. It had come to my attention that Facebook became a wasting of my time. Instead of sleeping when I laid in bed I would spend an hour or two flipping through my feed, taking quizzes, watching videos, etc. and wake up in the morning feeling groggy and tired. Checking my Facebook app became a habit. Stand in line; check Facebook. At lunch; check Facebook. Sitting on the couch; check Facebook. Get out of the shower; check Facebook. You get the picture. None of this enhanced or added to my life. In fact, it took away from my life. Instead of being productive, paying attention to my surroundings, getting sleep, engaging in and being present in social settings, I was allowing myself to be distracted by a screen. Something needed to be done about this bad habit.
After deleting my account, it felt a bit like I had cut myself off from the world. I was amazed at how Facebook created a sense belonging to a community. After this dissipated, I came to enjoy the disconnection. Gone were the days of distraction and procrastination. My writing time increased. I started reading more and participating in more creative endeavors. I also spent some of this time contemplating my intentions in using Facebook. The more time that passed, the less I felt like re-entering that world. The one thing I did miss was the connection with my writing community. I began exploring how I could re-enter the Facebook world for the purpose of staying connected to my writing community without becoming distracted again and wasting time. Seven months after deleting my account and taking a well needed break, I created a new account; this time with different intentions.
In life I have come to believe the following to be true: “Everything in moderation.”
Instead of seeing Facebook as a distraction, I worked out a way to use it as a tool and create some balance and moderation for myself. These are a few things I contemplated and the ways I altered my Facebook page to work for me as a writer:
1) Figure out what you are passionate about.
Don’t just leave Facebook open to anything and everything. Think about what you are passionate about and then move to number 2.
2) Follow people and pages that encompass your passions and tailor your news feed.
Everything you “like” on your page will tailor what you see on your feed. If you “like” a friend’s posts that are constantly negative, then your feed will bring you negativity. Be picky. Don’t just “like” things for the sake of liking things. Don’t “friend” someone or accept a “friend” request out of obligation. You get to create your Facebook world. Don’t invite others in who bring negativity. Tailor your news feed to see only what you want to see. Follow those who have similar passions, in my case I follow writers, friends that write, pages about writing, etc.
3) Set aside time for Facebook instead of checking it whenever, wherever.
With access to Facebook on your phone, it is easy to get caught up in this compulsive action. Checking Facebook can become a mindless act once the habit is created. Set limits for yourself. For example, you don’t need to check Facebook while sitting down to a meal, in the middle of a conversation or while at the register at the grocery store. Be mindful of this.
These three steps are what I used when re-entering the Facebook community and setting up my page. My tailored personal intentions were made up of the following:
-Create a community of writer friends and other pages having to do with writing.
-Like/follow pages that cater to my interests, such as backpacking, hiking, growing things, etc.
-Tailor my news feed to only “feed” me with information that will enhance my life with knowledge, joy and positivity.
-Limit my use of Facebook and constantly be aware of my intentions.
So far I have created an informative Facebook page full of notifications from journals for submissions, local readings/writing events, updates on publications from writer friends, banter about writing, language, teaching, etc. and informative articles about all things having to with writing and outdoor topics. To have so much information about writing in one place makes Facebook operate as a tool for my writing and with submission season in full effect, this is very helpful.
Not everyone may need this kind of discipline, but for me it is so easy to get lost in the screen. I no longer allow myself to take Facebook breaks when writing and just this tiny change has made all the difference in my productivity level. Hopefully sharing this will help you think about the little distractions in your life that keep you from doing what you really love to do and help you create a change or two that will restore balance. Especially for those who write, we all know that discipline and focus is the key to getting your words to reach an ending.
Remember story time? Those moments in our younger years when a teacher, librarian, or a parent sat us down and read a story. Lately I have been thinking about how having a story read to me is different than reading a story on my own. I miss those days stretched out on the carpet or in my bed listening to another voice read the words out of a book. How my imagination runs differently hearing the story fall from another’s mouth. No one reads to adults unless they purchase an audio book or get to sit in on story time for a little human. This is a sad fact. I am sure if I asked one of my friends to read me a story I would get a strange look and would probably be asked if I had been drinking.
Lucky for me I discovered a brilliant podcast called Snap Judgment on NPR. The show is described as “stories with a beat” and the host is Glynn Washington. He has a wonderful story telling voice, the kind of voice you can listen to all day. Each story has a soundtrack and sound effects. Washington usually leads off the podcast with a story he personally tells followed by a couple other stories from other people that fit into the theme of that podcast. They are a mix of some fiction and some memoir. It is important as a writer to hear stories being told. It allows you to think about your audience. Listening to the stories on Snap Judgment force me to step outside of myself for a moment and consider my own writing. The stories are short; not long stories that have to be committed to for a long period of time. The topic range is so broad that I may listen to a story I may have otherwise skipped over.
Hearing a story read out loud rather than reading it is a simple pleasure, one that reminds me of childhood. And what better way to enjoy a warm evening than lying on the couch listening to a story. Take a moment to change things up and have a story read to you.
Oh…and if you are a writer, you can submit stories to be read and performed on the podcast.
Check out the website: www.snapjudgment.org
I recently visited the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, and by pure happenstance, came upon a reading by two of my favorite authors, Lydia Davis and Jonathan Safran Foer. As you probably know, there are two types of readings: 1) the kind where people simply read their work (and where there’s probably an open mic), and 2) the kind where authors show up to sell their books. Generally, most authors conducting the second kind of reading repay the attendees’ attention and financial support by signing books and chitchatting with them.
While Lydia Davis was warm and attentive after the reading, Foer was completely the opposite. While I was speaking with Davis, Foer grabbed his book out of my hand, signed it, and handed it back to me without even looking up once. I stood to the side and asked if I could ask him a question, to which he nodded.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling. “Do you think writers need an MFA?”
He sighed and leaned back, casting a sideways glance at Davis, who was busy talking to the bookstore employee managing the autograph line. Foer grabbed the book of the person behind me and said, not looking at me, “Did Kafka have an MFA? Did Kafka have an MFA?"
Foer himself doesn’t have an MFA, but he must consider it important as he teaches in the MFA program at NYU. As such, he should probably know that Kafka wrote before MFA programs were even a thing. I stood there, his signed book in my hand, waiting for more, but he took the book from the next person and dismissed me with a slight wave of his hand.
No, he didn’t owe me anything. Maybe he had a bad day. Perhaps he was just your everyday asshole, except he started his reading by talking about the importance of the literary community. He said that if there was one bookstore left in the world, it should probably be Shakespeare and Company and how deeply honored he was to be part of the bookstore’s community. He must’ve used the word “community” at least five times in those first few minutes.
And yet here I was, a part of that literary community he just spoke about, trying to pick the brain of someone who existed in a place I want to someday be, and I was being disposed of as though I was the terrible first draft of a novel that would never be published.
As I walked back across the Seine, all I could think about was about what being a community means. And above all, it means being generous. And as I thought about all the literary communities I’d been in, all the classes, all the workshops, all the back and forth online reading of drafts, I realized that if I was being honest, I’d have to say generosity wouldn't be the first word that came to mind.
Take writing workshops, for example. It’s a completely vulnerable thing, putting your work out there. When our pieces are being workshopped, we sit in anxious anticipation of the feedback we’re going to receive. Some of us want validation, but most of all, we want critical feedback. And despite that, when we respond to someone else’s work, or provide marginalia to their draft, we don’t take the time to really read their story, to think about their story. We usually do these in a rush. An afterhought. If you’ve had to grade this type of feedback, then you know. Most feedback is mediocre at best. We want sincere, critical feedback to our work but are unwilling to provide the same to others.
Why is this? Is it because the core of what we do – the act of writing – is a solitary endeavor? The solitude of the writer is such an ingrained myth that most of us think being alone is necessary. But as writers, knowing how vulnerable writing can be, how alone it can sometimes be, you’d think we’d be more open to provide help and feedback whenever we can. All words are important, not just our own.
So here are a few suggestions to play a better role in the literary community:
1) Submit to literary magazines.
This is the easiest thing to do. You’re already writing stories, so submit them. Enough with that fear of rejection. Rejection sucks, sure, but literary magazines have readers and readers need something to read, which they can’t do unless you submit. So submit.
2) Subscribe to and buy literary magazines and books.
Look, we all know that money is an issue for a lot of us, but think about where you’re spending your money. Forgoing one Oprah Chai Latte a week would be enough to buy one or two literary magazines a month, not to mention the free e-zines out there. On top of that, you can get a better idea of what’s going on in the lit world now. If writing is important to you, getting a hold of a wide range of lit mags and books is imperative. If you can't buy lit mags and books, edit for one.
3) Write to authors.
Do this. If you read something you like in a literary journal or a blog or whatever, send the author a note. Tell them why you loved it. Tell them why it affected you. Let them know that their words reached someone. Let them know they impacted the world in some way. Let them know they’re not alone.
4) Participate for real in workshops.
Writers can be solipsistic. We’d rather get to writing our own stories than reading someone else’s. Understandable. But these people are trying to do the same thing you’re doing. They’re going through the same struggle. So if you’re in a workshop (and you should be in a workshop or other type of writing group), provide the same time and respect to their stories that you want for yours. Not only might you learn something from reading their work, you might develop relationships and networks along the way.
5) Don’t be an ass.
If you’re lucky enough to be someone whose books people actually want to buy, whose autograph people actually want, then don’t be an ass. Got that?
Millions of other bloggers and authors have written on this subject. For that, I am sorry. But from what I’ve gleaned they all appear to say the same thing: read more. Read and read and read. The more you read, the better you write. And just as important: write. Practice writing. Write at least an hour a day. Schedule a time every day to write. Get into a routine of writing. Make it happen. If you want to get good at something, you have to exercise, so write as often as you can. I’m simplifying here, but you get the point.
This post is not one of those posts.
Although reading and writing more can and does help improve writing, it’s not the only way, or the best way, to improve your craft.
Here’s what you need to do:
Step One: Put down that writing implement
Whether it be pencil or pen or typewriter or phone or tablet or computer, put it away. Stop writing. Just stop it, right now. This may sound counterintuitive, but bear with me.
Step Two: Go outside
Seriously, do it. Stand up, open the door, and go outside. I know the outside with its Sun and light and nature and elements can be scary as hell, but just try it.
Step Three: Do something besides write
This is the apex of all art: you have to do other things. As a writer, you can’t just write and write and write, and read, but do nothing else. How can you write about the smell of rain if you stay inside all the time thinking about the smell of rain but never actually smelling the rain when it pours? Or how can you find the right words to describe how it feels when you first think you might love someone, if you’ve never been twitterpated before? With what feels like a limitless conglomeration of words to choose from, how do you know which is the right one for the sense or feeling you want to get across? This goes for all writing. And all art. In order to create, you have to experience.
Step Four (kind of): Try other art forms
Step four is a continuation of Step Three. You don’t actually have to go outside, so for all those Heliophobes out there, fear not (but it sure is nice out there in the big open air). I have found one of the best ways for me to improve my writing is to try other forms of art, other forms of expression. What better way to re-think or re-see a character or scene or experience than by capturing it in a different medium? Whether painting or sculpture or sewing or jewelry making or carpentry or landscape design or film or photography, whatever you find that you love, spend some time on that. Let that art form influence and improve your writing. After all, that’s what writing is all about.
Improving yourself, your community, and hopefully this little blue marble.
I’ve been married now for a little over two years and I love married life. When you find that person and commit to them with that level of sincerity, it can solidify you. But there was a time when I wasn’t married and went clubbing three times a week and asked girls to dance or for their numbers and got rejected so often you might’ve thought I had a Surgeon General’s warning printed on my forehead:
WARNING: Do not date this man. Actually, don’t even talk to him. If it doesn’t work out, he will write about you in a future novel or blog post and he won’t change your name (which isn’t true... I’ll at least change the name... maybe).
In my late teens and early twenties, rejection like that bothered me a lot. I’d finally get a date and not get a second date. Once, a girl asked me to sing to her on the phone and afterwards never called me back because I sing like a dying pig. Still, I felt like I had a lot to offer and wasn’t being given a chance for whatever reason. After a long night at the bar or club or one of those set-ups where your friends go out as a group to try and introduce you to someone, I’d stay up at night and wonder what was wrong with me.
I talk to my single friends now and it seems even worse. I keep hearing, “How do you meet someone?” You’ve got Match.com, Tinder, Christian Mingle, and a million other sites and apps all designed to help you meet people. But in a lot of ways, rejection of this sort is even worse. Instead of those 5-10 girls I got rejected by on any given night, thousands of people could be looking at your profile or your pic and “swiping right.” A lot of my single friends refuse to get back on these sites for such a reason. You put a little of yourself out there only to get smacked in the face.
Now that submitting stories to lit mags and queries to agents is part of my daily life, it almost feels like I’m trying to start dating again. I counted how many I received last year and it was close to 200. These letters have ranged from the “this is a you suck form letter and we are really busy which is to say it wasn’t good enough to warrant some additional comments” to the “wow, this is great, but doesn’t fit what we’re looking for, so please send us more of your work in the future” letters. It really doesn’t matter, though, does it? Rejection is rejection.
But if you are reading this, then you’ve likely committed to the first step. You’ve submitted a story here or somewhere else. You’ve put yourself out there. I know a few writers who are so scared of rejection they never submit anywhere. Don’t be that person unless you really want to be. It’s like your friend who says “all men are douches” or “no woman really wants a nice man” as a cover for their own insecurities and never puts themselves out there. So you’ve commited to submitting stories but now you’re getting rejected and thinking of quitting. Here are a couple tips to keep you chugging along:
1) Look at the stuff you’re writing. It’s likely that you’re writing the stuff you think other people want to read instead of writing what’s really within you. So stop doing that. Meditate for 20 minutes, then immediately after, put your projects away and write what’s in your soul. Even if it starts out as a poem or a journal entry, do it. You’ll be amazed at how more successful you’ll be if you’re being yourself.
2) Why are you writing? Write down the reasons. For me, it’s understanding more about myself, other people, society, the world. It’s about connection. It’s about breaking down people’s barriers (and my own) and developing relationships.
Then ask yourself why you are submitting? Write down the reasons. Are you hoping to develop a career as an author and not have to work a 9 to 5 (my hand is raised)? Is even a part of you craving validation that you are doing something worthy and different in the world (guilty again)?
Take a look at both lists and figure out if they jibe. If they don’t, why not? Understanding your motivations can go a long way in reminding yourself why you’re doing this. Probably, those reasons are greater than the depressed state we all get when we get rejected.
All of the editors of From Sac are writers as well and trust us, we’ve received tons of rejection letters. We hate receiving them and we hate sending them. We go through periods of doubt and failure and hopelessness. It hurts to put yourself out there and continually get shot down. There have been several times where I thought of quitting, of how easier life would be if I didn’t have to deal with these levels of rejection.
But then I remember the last time I was single. I’d made a major life decision to quit a career and go back to school to learn how to write. I moved back in with my parents. I drove my dad’s cargo van at times. I’d decided that I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I knew who I was and I’d spent so much time being someone else that I thought people wanted me to be. And it was then, broke and one of the oldest people in all my classes, that I met my wife.
We all have stories like this. Times where we were true to ourselves and good things happened. As long as you are being you, writing what you want, submitting for the reasons that are right for you, then rejection is nothing to get down over. Because that means you’re a writer, and that’s awesome.
I want to make this short; we are all busy writers trying to make beautiful writing, and we know you are too, which means that we don’t always have time to write blog posts (or read them for that matter). So I’ll get to my point:
Writing is a bodily experience.
Each letter, word, sentence, and paragraph, all the way through the entire length of your poem, story, or book, you are making choices. We all know that. Everything in art is choice, and some artists are better at making choices than others. But what many of us forget is that each choice is a physical one.
Whether you write by hand or on a typewriter, or you prefer laptops and tablets, each letter and punctuation mark is a physical choice; a somatic movement to make that choice.
I write by typewriter—my handwriting is illegible and when I get on the computer I lose myself to cat videos and silly games. I need a typewriter to get any work done at all. But what I love most about it is that I have to work for each letter and word. It’s not a simple tapping of a computer keyboard or tablet screen, I have to mean every single letter I choose. All the muscles in my hands and arms and shoulders get a good workout typing. Writing becomes an exercise for me. It also slows me down, keeps me from outrunning the story with words. It is because of my typewriter that I am able to sit and write 1000-1500 words in one sitting: I can’t go back and erase what I’ve written; once I start a word or sentence, I can’t restart it, I’m stuck with that thought and I must finish it, even if it’s terrible; I get more on the page because all I can do is move forward. It’s what works for me.
You have to find what works for you.
But here’s the problem: more often than not, we forget that our bodies are part of our writing. The world is experienced through senses, a measly five senses to boot. In order for us to recreate those senses, to create scenes and characters that are believable, we need to experience the world through our own senses. We need to touch things, smell things, taste things, see things, and hear things. Our bodies give us the understanding we need to select the right words for those experiences; then through our bodies those words find themselves on the page/screen.
Without our bodies, we cannot express anything. Thoughts and ideas only exist in our bodies, and can only be communicated through our bodies. It’s why we write. It’s why we do anything.
So when you’re writing this next week or so, think about your body. What is it telling you? Where do your muscles lead you? Follow them. Let them tell their stories.
In a moment of frustration and passion for my writing I vented about the loneliness that
has followed me since completing grad school. Just when I thought I wasn’t being completely heard (because let’s face it, I could go on about writing for days and bore a person not interested in the subject) I received this little gem as a gift.
Turns out I was not only heard, but listened to and this book has been just what I needed.
“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”
Kleon reminds his readers that it isn’t just about writing or painting or drawing, it is about the creativity. Creating is not necessarily about being original. As stated in the title, creativity comes from all over, including “stealing” from everyone and everything around you and making it your own.
The book is organized in just that fashion, a bit like a journal with things stolen from others. There are drawings, quotes, pictures etc. It is a collage of Kleon’s writing mixed with what he has picked up on his writing journey. The chapters are short, yet insightful and full of things that an artist may already know but needs to be reminded of from time to time. The book is small and perfect for a coffee table. It’s more of a tangible reminder to be creative rather than a book you read and then place onto a bookshelf. Since I have had this book it has been thrown in my bag, brought to work, rested on my night stand, laid on my couch and tossed around in my car.
Chapter five is one of my favorite reminders: Side Projects And Hobbies Are Important. Within this chapter there is a section called Practice Productive Procrastination. Kleon advises his readers to do other things, to “bounce between” different projects. I have found this beneficial as of late. My notebook sits around the house while I practice the guitar, water my plants, make homemade candles, make coasters, fix jewelry and all the while I am thinking about the new character in the story I am writing. If something new pops into my head, I write it down and then carry on with what I am doing. I also steal from some of the other things I am working on and incorporate them into my work. This comes into play when sitting and writing is just not flowing the way I want it to.
Kleon’s suggestions are easy to incorporate into your life, not mention the book is a quick read. I chose to savor it, read a little at a time, but it can easily be read in a day. Which is nice if you need a distraction or rather, a procrastination from your work. I could go on about this book, but it is short and I don’t want to give it all away and ruin your experience. My suggestion is that you go pick up a copy, spend a day reading it and then go be creative.
Check out Kleon's website: http://austinkleon.com/
You wake up to your alarm clock thinking about stories. You write. Maybe you’ve read On Writing by Stephen King or some other book about writing. Maybe you’ve participated in a workshop. Maybe you’ve taken a writing class. Maybe you’ve even graduated from a creative writing program. And if any of these things are true, you know the following rules:
1) Show, don’t tell.
2) Use the active voice.
3) Adverbs are lazy.
4) Characters should change (sorry, transform).
5) Write what you know.
6) Above all else, keep writing.
After going through the MA Creative Writing program at Sacramento State, I learned all of these things and a million more. Some of us may have learned this in middle or high school. And it becomes so engrained in your head that you hate yourself when you break them. You see “to be” verbs in your writing and you want to slash the page with that red pen. And then you read some of the lit mags out there and realize that everything you learned is wrong.
Well, not everything, but more of a realization that you need to un-learn some of these “rules” to expand your writing because you’ve been writing the same thing over and over again. You need to un-learn to grow into something else. Think about it. If everyone is writing by these very rules, then of course our stories are boring. Read any lit mag or modern novel and you’ll see the best stories break the rules.
So here are some tips to help you un-learn:
1) Show, don’t tell. Ah, Commandment #1. The point of this rule is to help you concentrate on scene instead of thoughts, feelings, and other abstractions. And focusing on this rule works well for scenes. But what about in between scenes? What if you want to write a novel where you actually have to explain backstory, world building, etc.
Storyboard your favorite novel chapter or short story and see what percentage of the story is “telling.” 60%? 70%? 80%? The problem with learning the “show, don’t tell” rule isn’t the rule itself, it’s that you are beat over the head with it. But no one really ever teaches you how to “tell” properly, how to connect scenes. So if you’re interested in doing this, here’s an exercise:
Copy that favorite novel chapter or short story word for word. Focus on the exposition. Study how the author moves between scenes, how the author moves inside and outside of the narrator’s heads. Try this a few times and you’ll start seeing how telling works in the overall structure of stories.
2) Active voice. Can you imagine if every single sentence was written in active voice? Much like the “show, don’t tell” rule, this is one of those golden writing commandments. The point is clarity. You may have also had a professor who told you to “activate” your writing. If you’re like me, you have a penchant for starting sentences with “There were” or “She was” and it makes you want to throw a laptop across the room. There was (heh) actually a time in my life where I tried to write whole stories with no passive voice at all.
I heard in a writing class once that a study determined effective writing – that is, being optimally understood – contains 70% active voice. What does this mean? It means that if you have a paragraph that’s ten sentences long, you can actually have three sentences that are in passive voice! Get out, you say! So how do you unlearn the desire to scratch off every passive sentence with bold, red ink?
It’s called the three second breath. While editing, before automatically slashing out something just because it’s in passive voice, stop and take a three second breath. Then exhale and ask yourself how the passive voice is working. Are you softening tone? Changing a rhythm of a paragraph? If so, then maybe you should leave it. Chances are you’re being too hard on yourself.
3) Adverbs are lazy. When you're a beginning writer, this is an important rule to keep. The beginning writer tends to use adverbs instead of picking the right verbs. Verbs are usually the most important part of a sentence as the indicate action. Adverbs “soften” action. Take for instance the following:
He ran into me heavily.
He slammed into me.
But once you’ve got some experience writing, adverbs can be extremely useful. Just look at any of your favorite modern stories and you’ll see them. Take for instance:
She stomped into the house as though she owned it.
She stomped into the house possessively.
In this case, the adverb makes the sentence more efficient and less cliché. So don’t automatically eliminate all adverbs from writing. Write them all down in your draft. When you edit, circle them all and truly ask yourself if you’re being lazy or trying to make your writing more “pretty.” If so, take them out. But if not, it’s perfectly okay to leave some of them in.
4) Characters should transform by the end of the story. This is a classic creative writing lesson. It likely derives from James Joyce’s epiphanies, where the protagonist would, as a result of the plot, learn something new about themselves or the world and would touch on the story’s theme. You likely learned something similar. Maybe it was a story isn’t a story unless a character transforms. They must change.
But this rule can be very limiting. It often causes a writer to write inorganically, forcing an epiphanic revelation and/or theme that just isn’t there. I personally struggle with this. So instead of coming to a story with a pre-ordained theme, do this. Go to a restaurant or café or somewhere in public and focus on a group of people. Write everything you see, hear, and smell. Write what they say. Do not write any opinions, narrative intrustions, and the like. Just pure “sense.” If you do this for a long enough period of time, you’ll see that you have a story with a beginning, middle and end, and likely there won’t be a “sudden realization” about something that wraps things up so nicely.
5) Write what you know. I’m sure you’ve heard this. For the beginning writer, it makes sense. You’re trying to learn about craft and so it’s easier to focus on craft instead of content.
If you think of the best stories, though, they are stories of discovery, where the ending feels inevitable and yet surprising, almost as though the writer discovered the story as you were reading it. So here’s a tip: don’t outline before you write. Sure, get a general plot down, but once you start outlining things before you even know what your story is about (or what your characters are going to do), you will force your story into what you already know because you’ve already determined it. But stories aren’t paint by numbers. Get some stuff on the paper first, then outline or storyboard. But let your plot develop naturally; let your characters go where they’re gonna go. As an old professor said, don’t be a fascist with your stories. Your characters have their own lives, even if you don't know what they are yet.
6) Whatever you do, keep writing. What do you mean? How can this be bad? It’s not bad, but sometimes we focus so much on writing, even when we’re sitting in front of a blank page for weeks on end doing nothing, when there are other things we could be doing to improve our writing. For example, sometimes it’s better to read. If you’ve written crap every session for a week, take a break and read something. Or go do something you’ve never done. Or talk to a stranger. Or talk to someone who is not a stranger. The point is that writing is just not about writing. It’s about everything. So yes, keep writing, but don’t forget to keep living, too. Living helps writing.
Also don’t forget that something important must always be at stake, that the denouement should always tie every loose end, and that you should never use exclamation points!!!!!!!!
Okay, okay. These rules are important. But remember the most important writing rule: if it works, it works. Also remember that this is "creative writing." Creative. If you're a writer who lives by writing rules, then you need to try different things. Write a different genre. Or a different form. Or in longer or shorter sentences. Or in second person. You get the idea. In order to write something fresh and new, some rules are going to have to be broken, well except that one about opening stories with someone waking up to an alarm clock. Don't do that. Everyone has done that and it doesn't work.
Good day, and happy writing.