Hello dear Real Writers, I haven't posted in a while as I have been editing manuscripts practically nonstop for the last eight months! It's wonderful that so many people are ready to put their books out there and share their stories, and know that working with an editor is a crucial step (however talented and well-meaning family and friends are!) in that process.
I also taught a class in the Johns Hopkins Odyssey program in April on writing a pitch and query letter and received this terrific review from one of the participants who has written a book with his mother. His comments reflect exactly what I strive to do so I'm glad I succeeded in this class.
So pardon me while I (sort of) sing my own praises!
"My mother and I have been writing our novel for 8 years and we believe in it as much as we've ever believed in anything. We know in our hearts that we have a winner. Yet, we've been trying to create "pitch" materials for about 1 1/2 years and have struggled with mixed results. Chris was able to quickly get us light years ahead of where we were and helped us to create pitch materials that are much better than good. They really capture the essence of the novel. While more polishing may be needed, we now feel very close to the point of being able to make legitimate submissions to agents. It's astounding that she could help us (and the other class members) so well without having read our manuscripts. My hat's off to her and the class was absolutely well worth it."
--Robert G., Young Adult, Maryland
If you're local, I'll be teaching a ten-minute playwriting class at Odyssey this Fall. The catalogue should be up in early August. This class is so much fun. I can't wait!
The new JMWW is online with lots of great poetry and prose, as well as my latest article on how to give a good reading. Here's the opening:
"Years ago, I hired someone via friend who called himself a "reading coach." He was an actor who ran a theatre in New York and had recently published a collection of short stories through one of the Top Five publishers. I was in Baltimore, but I e-mailed him anyway, asking if he made out-of-state calls and how much he charged. Turns out he had friends in the area and was already going to be in town in a few weeks, so we scheduled a session. So you don't think I'm crazy, I won't tell you the ridiculous amount he charged.
For two hours, he put me through my paces. I read poems softly, then loudly. I moved from loud to soft and back. I did the same with fast and slow. I stood and did stretches. I hummed and did scales. I lay on the floor and breathed in various ways while he pushed on either my upper chest or my stomach (he made sure I was comfortable with that first) to indicate where I should center the breath. The ultimate was me standing in the middle of the room reading while he circled me in his loose, fluid way of moving, and called out instructions: "Faster, slower, louder, softer, look at me, pause," occasionally coming over to pull my shoulders back or lift my head. I often felt pretty silly."
I haven't abandoned you, Real Writers, I've been working on my own novel, one of many rounds of editing, and it's been crunch time for me. I promised myself I would finish it by end of August. There was also a healthy dose of Game of Thrones binge-watching. I admit it. I came late to that party.
I post on my Facebook page nearly every day, however, so "like" via the badge to the right for news, tips, and my general rants about bad writing and how you can make sure it doesn't happen to you!
Below is my latest article on creative nonfiction for JMWW.
Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant
by Christine Stewart
It's time to give some love to the creative nonfiction writers, who have just as many cool tools to use as fiction writers (including the tools fiction writers use).
Per the quote from an Emily Dickinson poem that's my title for this piece, let's get one thing straight: there is no such thing as a true story. Even newspaper articles have a slant and a shape to the article. Even if you're telling a story about something that actually happened, you're telling a story. It's your version of events shaped and paced in a certain way. You’re telling it slant.
Facts are the only truth, but how one interprets them and which ones you share or leave out is the realm of story.
What is creative nonfiction? It's the reporter-like communication of information shaped like fiction using literary technique and style.
What falls under this heading: biography, autobiography, memoir, personal essay, travel essay, food essays, diary writing, history, which is the relaying of history in the form of a novel for example, from the point of view of the person or people involved. The same is true for literary journalism—the story is told as a story, with setting of scene, a narrator (character), the use of conflicts and tension, etc.
Check out some cool techniques (that you c an also use as a fiction writer); read more here.
My latest article at JMWW is up! Check it out and then read around a bit in the magazine to see if anything inspires you to write.
HOW TO BRING MORE SPONTANEITY, IMPERFECTION, AND RISK INTO YOUR WRITING:
This article is about not playing fair or being nice.
You're human. You're imperfect. Allow both in your writing. Let's see the struggle, confusion, questioning, disbelief, fear. Make a mess. Yes, you could end up writing 10 poems that end up failing. That's risk. Creativity can't exist without freedom to create anything, including a mess.
Perfect is boring. Perfect is lifeless and flat. Perfect is claustrophobic. Don't connect every dot in your writing, just the key points. An object is stronger for being broken, for having cracks. Let there be cracks and gaps for the reader to enter and fill in on their own. Make leaps in your logic that don't seem logical (but not illogical—there should be a thread of logic). Use a word in the 'wrong' way, a surprising way. Say something crazy. Allow the Freudian slip. Say what you really want to. Free pass. You can edit later. No one is going to grab it out of your hand and send it to the New Yorker and your mother to embarrass you. Allow the unexpected. If any of these happen, leave them and keep going. Let the faucet drip!
Admit you have a problem. Do you keep encountering the same problem in your piece? You can't really see the image you're trying to convey, your lines or sentences are coming out choppy when you'd rather they were long, all of a sudden the poem rhymes or you're slipping in and out of verb tenses, or one character is taking over.
Take another look at what you're calling a problem. This may be the piece telling you what it really needs to be. Go with it. Use another image, let your lines come out short, rhyme to your heart's content. Change your verb tense or your narrator. Stop rowing so hard and just float.
My latest article for JMWW about point of view in fiction. This one is a bit serious, fair warning. POV misuse is a pet peeve of mine so I shared things that I see people doing wrong and ways to figure out what POV is best for you as a writer and your story.
Point of view, the angle from which your story is told, is a pet peeve of mine, so pardon me if I lecture you a bit in this installment. It's something even experienced writers don't always get right, either because they don't fully understand it or don't police their work for errors. But it's one of those key foundational parts to a story that hold it together. Before a writer "officially" starts his/her story, it's important to take time to figure out the point of view.
Some point-of-view basics for you:
These days, the view on first person is that it needs to come from an exceptional character with a unique perspective to work. Speaking in first person (i.e. "I") must be necessary to the story and the voice must be compelling, not your general "everyman" type voice. It's going to be very close as the reader only sees what the "I" shows. The tone depends on the personality of the "I".
In my opinion, this is a rule you can break—not set in stone—if you find your voice for a character and story best in first person. You can also just write in first and then go back and change it to third. A lot of work (!), but the result will have greater intimacy than your average third person.
I'm currently teaching a class in the Johns Hopkins Odyssey program on writing ekphrastic poetry and wanted to share an exercise we're using.
Ekphrasis is writing that comments on works of art; it began as a Greek rhetorical term referring to a passage that described an object in either prose or poetry. Horace first connected visual and verbal art in his Epistles with the words, ut pictura poesis, meaning “as painting, so poetry.”
In this class, we read read classic and contemporary examples of the form, and then embarked on a field trip to The Walters Art Museum in search of three art works (painting, sculpture, object) to write about in subsequent classes.
Encounters with works of art are a form of contemplative and creative exercise. Our seeing may be both sacred and profane. Something catches our eye--whether it's an image, color, symbol, shadow, brushstroke--through which we can explore the whole work and its meaning—in the moment, for the world, or just for us.
I've asked the students to use another exercise besides The Hermeutical Circle exercise I created (see my article at JMWW: The Art of Ekphrastic Poetry), using the ancient practice of Lectio Divina.
The Latin words lectio divina, which mean "divine reading" or "spiritual reading," refer to the slow, meditative reading of a passage from Scripture. It is a form of prayer that focuses on listening and responding. Lectio divina is traditionally characterized by four movements: lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (contemplation).
This exercise is useful for reading through the notes you've written after doing The Hermeneutical Circle, but it can also be an exciting way to engage with any poem you're reading and want to understand in a deeper way.
If you read the above article and decide to give this form a try, use Lectio Divina to process your notes on each type of art work post-museum visit.
1) Read (Lectio): Read your notes. Does a particular word or phrase speak to you? “Shimmer” in your mind?
2) Reflect (Meditatio): Read your notes again. Reflect on the word or phrase that shimmered for you. What is being conveyed by that word or phrase? Perhaps list multiple meanings idea that come to you.
3) Respond (Oratio): Read your notes again and then this list in response to the word/phrase – “dialogue” with it, dig in. Express, engage, connect with the poem personally, socially, philosophically, metaphorically, etc. Where can this word/phrase take you?
4) Rest (Contemplatio*): Read your notes again and the dialogue/digging in #3. What came out of this analysis and dialogue that compels you? Start there, either with the idea, or the word/phrase that shimmered or something from the list in #2. The contemplation is the poem.
Writing a poem means you keep finding layers to what you wanted to say, what you thought you wanted to say, and what the poem is really saying. By moving through The Hermeneutical Circle exercise, and the stages of this Lectio Divina exercise, you have already peeled back several layers that should give you a more three dimensional approach to your poem.
If you're just reading a poem, why not do this exercise and take it a step further--write a poem starting from whatever shimmered for you?