Tag Archives: nonfiction

Braving the Slush Pile in Pittsboro!

Slush PileOur mission was brutal. The email from Al Manning, the head of Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out went something like this:

Pretend you’re an editor of a prestigious publishing house. It’s Friday afternoon. You’ve had a busy week and you’re still staring at a stack of unsolicited manuscripts–the dreaded Slush Pile. You’re tired and you want to go home. You’ll raise your hand as soon as you hear something that would cause you to reject the manuscript in front of you.

Yesterday I had the honor of serving as a panelist (along with writers Ron Voigts and Judith Stanton) at the 3rd Annual Slush Pile event at the Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out meeting. As we listened to the 300 words submitted anonymously by the brave ten writers who participated, we agreed, disagreed, and agreed to disagree on the elements that would cause a busy editor to move to the next manuscript in the pile.

And that’s what editors do. What I liked most about a manuscript didn’t necessarily appeal to the other panelists and vice versa. It goes without saying that writing submitted to an editor shouldn’t contain typos or grammatical errors; these are easily caught by a diligent proofreader. We truly didn’t see many of these–the majority of the manuscripts we reviewed were quite polished and free from pesky errors of this nature.

To help, I’ll share what resonated the most with our panel in terms of style. The manuscripts we “rescued” from the slush pile shared four basic elements:

  • Strong opening–and this includes the title!
  • Engaging and unique characters. What’s your character’s point of view?
  • A good blend of exposition and action. And by action, I also mean dialogue.
  • Conflict and tension. What’s at stake for your character? Why should we care?

Above all else, if you’re writing, submitting, and braving a very real slush pile, it’s most important that you NEVER despair. Don’t give up. Editors are, after all, human and have their own peculiarities as far as taste and style. So, if you find yourself drifting in a slush pile, pull out that manuscript days (or weeks!) later, and view it with fresh eyes.

And as you revise your work and prepare to share it with the world, please consider joining me for your choice of two separate workshops in 2020 on the subject of submission. We’ll talk about revisions, cover letters, markets, and much, much more.

Check out my Events page for more information and how to register.

 

Creative Writing Events Near You!

Are you wriwritingting short stories? How about creative nonfiction or true-life essays? And let’s not forget about the third leg of this literary stool — poetry! Are you ready to submit your work?

No matter what you’re writing, revising or preparing to submit, you’re bound to find a local special event that may help you in your creative endeavors, from readings to classes, talks, and more! And some events are free! By attending, you’ll also meet other like-minded writers who can help you in your journey. Writing is by nature a solitary act, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

As a special note, in addition to teaching a class at Central Carolina Community College this fall, I’m also honored to be presenting two workshops at Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, Inc. later this fall and in January. I look forward to working with and meeting writers in the Charlotte metro area.

Hope to see you at one of these events. In the meantime, keep writing and delighting!

Click here to view the latest list of Upcoming Events.

Be a Shape Shifter!

little puss

What do you see in the magical coat of Little Puss? Evil snowman or smiling panda bear? This tricky feline is a shape shifter!

What’s your favorite genre, someone recently asked me. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays? My answer: All of them!

The longer I write, the more I’ve learned that the various writing genres are not mutually exclusive. The same solid idea that sparked a short story could easily morph into an essay or a poem. Especially if you still have curiosity about the topic. So why limit yourself to just one form? Be like Little Puss, a shape shifter!

Case in point. Shirley Jackson. This renowned writer didn’t just pen short stories and novels; she also wrote essays and even drew cartoons! Here’s another:  Vladimir Nabokov. He wrote stories, novels, poetry and his nonfiction memoir, Speak Memory, is a model for any writer in terms of craft. Dorothy Parker: poetry, stories, book reviews. And Tennessee Williams wrote much of the above and even took playwriting to another level by tackling screenplays.

Shakespeare was also a notorious shape shifter, excelling in every form available at the time. If he lived today, in addition to the plays and poetry, he’d probably dash out a sitcom or two, don’t you think?

Shape shifting is also more efficient. In my case, my essay “Eulogy of a Northern Red Oak” eventually turned into a poem. It’s essentially a condensed form of the same essay but with unusual line breaks and intentional omissions, the sadness of the topic–the loss of our natural habitat–is exacerbated. The poem was named a finalist in the 2019 Poet Laureate Competition and will be published in “Waiting for the Wood Thrush,” my first poetry collection by Finishing Line Press in November.

As I plunder through my old writing projects, I’m continuing to “shift shapes.” Or is it “shape shift” ? Maybe I’ll breathe new life into an old essay and turn it into a short story. And I think I have a poem or two that might work as a short story….humm….let the magic begin!

 

Seeking Last-Minute Gifts? Give Someone the Gift of Creative Writing!

Wondering what to give that “certain someone”? Perhaps they’ve seen it all or they’re notoriously persnickety and whatever you get them, you just know they’ll be returning it.

Consider giving the gift of creative writing and signing them up for a Spring 2015 class at Chatham Central Community College! And if you happen to be that “certain someone” yourself, sign yourself up.

Why?

1. The college’s unique Creative Writing program on the Chatham County Campus is the only Continuing Education program of its kind in the state. And we have something for everyone—from 10-week classes or one-day workshops in poetry, fiction and non-fiction led by celebrated authors Ruth Moose, Ralph Earle, and Judith Stanton, just to name a few. Considering what you’ll get in return, the price is nothing short of a bargain.

2. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. You’ll make new friends worth knowing! And the wisdom you pick up will be priceless. Warning: these classes are addictive.

3. You’ll have a new hobby worth bragging about. Instead of things like “I learned how to change the oil in my car” or “I learned how to julienne a carrot” (as important as those things are), you’ll get to say things such as “Just finished up a flash fiction piece about my day at work” or “Wrote a poem today about the cardinal in my yard.”

4. You’ll never look at life the same way again. If you already enjoy creative writing, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But if you’re a newbie, the opportunity to share your unique experiences with others will bring you boundless joy. You’ll feel more connected to the world and the people around you.

5. Need inspiration? Okay, here’s Warning #2. Here comes a shameless plug. Sign up for a workshop lead by yours truly!  It’s called “Jumpstart Your Poetic Imagination: Stop, Look, and Listen.”  You can find inspiration for poetry everywhere – from reading newspapers and periodicals to mining your daily life and memory. In my workshop, we’ll improvise on sample poems written by other poets and participate in fun and collaborative exercises meant to spark your own imagination.

For more information, check out the Spring 2015 Creative Writing Course List for Chatham Central Community College. Register today by calling 919-545-8044, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. M – F.

Hope to see you there!

A Walk on the Wilder Side

Today as I wade through my co-worker’s copy of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, I keep thinking about just what makes the book superior to any electronic form. You see, I’ve resisted buying a Kindle, Nook, or I-Pad longer than most folks. My most recent literary love affair has been with a paper copy of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure.

This book brings back so many memories—my own love of the Little House books and how I could so easily escape into “Laura’s world.”  You see, like McClure, I, too, imagined myself making candy by boiling maple syrup and pouring it onto snow; I, too, had wanted to help Pa make those twists of hay that kindled the family’s fires;  and I, too, had wondered how on earth Ma could feed her starving family on nothing more than a bag of wheat during the Long Winter. Thanks to McClure, who does all these things herself and more, I think I now understand why Ma sometimes seemed to be in a bad mood!

As she retraces the steps of Laura’s life, McClure takes us on an enchanting journey behind the real story that leads her on some interesting adventures of her own, from sleeping in a covered wagon during a hailstorm to participating in a homesteading experience hosted by some “kooky survivalists.” If you are a Little House fan who’s ever suspected that the real story may not have been the saccharinely sweet version portrayed by Michael Landon, this book is for you. Ever wondered why the Ingalls family moved around so much? McClure does her own detective work and reveals that Charles Ingalls may have been skipping town for a reason. And did you know that the Ingalls family had once included a baby brother named Freddy who died tragically young? And have you ever wondered about the relationship between Laura and her only surviving child, Rose Wilder Lane? It’s a lot more complicated than I ever thought.

So the real story wasn’t as pure and simple as the books led us to believe, but that knowledge doesn’t diminish my appreciation of the Little House books one bit. It brings Laura’s story to life even more, told through the lens of an author who also admired Laura and longed to experience a fragment of Laura’s life herself. While McClure’s book is nonfiction, her story underscores the role of fiction in our lives. Her book reminds us of the beauty of novels and the importance of letting oneself enter the world of an author and feel something felt by someone besides ourselves.

As Carr so painstakingly reveals (with neurological evidence to boot), our brains are being reprogrammed to resist the urge to lose oneself in a book thanks to the “ecosystem of interruptions” surrounding us. Who would have thought that my mother’s torment (“Don’t think you can lose yourself in a book today, Missy; we’ve got chores to do!”) might one day be physically impossible? With a nod to Laura, this tragedy is a little bit like waking up one day and finding the wheat field of your mind destroyed by locusts.

Fiction or Nonfiction?

Fiction or nonfiction, which do you prefer? Like many writers, I enjoy reading and writing both. But if you had to choose one or the other, which one would you pick?

Perhaps it’s a silly thing to debate. My 90-year-old grandfather and I recently had a mini-debate over the best kind of berry. Although he grudgingly admitted that his favorite is the blackberry, he didn’t defend his choice with much passion. Why, he finally asked me, do I have to choose?

The fiction vs. nonfiction debate is one that my dear friend Melissa and I often enjoy, mostly for academic purposes. We know we don’t really have to choose but the competitor in each of us loves drawing the battle lines and defending our positions.

For me, it’s easy. I’ll take fiction any day. Why? While nonfiction can be absorbing, especially if done well, (like my friends at SMITHSONIAN or dear Malcolm Gladwell) can you really lose yourself in these pieces the same way that you can a novel such as 1984 or Great Expectations? The best nonfiction writers employ fictive devices (the narrative, the flashback, the climax) to draw the reader in. And for good reason. They work.

The fiction writer, similarly, steals from the real world. She recreates her own version of a Manhattan neighborhood that is modeled from life. She may give a character a signature expression that she borrowed from a real person. And certainly, if she needs to describe the fragrance of a peach, she would do her readers a disservice if she had never actually picked up a fresh one and inhaled from its fuzzy flesh.

What’s the difference then? Why is the experience of fiction for some more enjoyable than that of nonfiction? For me at least, I find the experience of being transported into an author’s private world — his emotions, his sense of place and his story — utterly irresistible. Best of all, I know that there’s something larger at work. I know that there will be a resolution of some sort. It may not be the happiest of endings (think again of 1984 or Great Expectations) but thanks to the author, the loose ends will be wrapped up in some way. As the reader, I will be treated to a resolution.

Real life, on the other hand, is full of ragged edges. As much as I’d like to think otherwise, the longer I live, the more I suspect that some things don’t happen for a reason. A straight newspaper article about a bank robbery, while interesting, doesn’t capture my imagination the same way that a novel about the same subject might. A novel about a bank robbery would build to that climax slowly, perhaps explaining the motivations of the robber. It might even describe the same situation from the point of view of the victim. And the author would be bound by his honor to pull these details together in a way that rewards the reader.

I adore nonfiction for the same reasons Melissa does: its sharp detail and its immediacy. She is also a photographer (no surprises there) and one of the most efficient collectors and retrievers of facts that I know. In a word, she is brilliant, and I jokingly call her Me-Google, or my own personal Google. Facts are useful, no doubt, but aren’t they best enjoyed when interwoven into a story of one’s own?

Another friend named Kelly and I once studied Buddhist meditation for a few weeks. We made it almost to the end of the course, but my interest gave out when the teacher insisted that while meditating we focus on the “experience” of our day rather than the “story.”  But the story, my version of events and how I will tell it to others, is far more dear to me than any experience. Even today, I can’t remember the details of our defection, but in my mind, Kelly and I slipped out of the darkened room and drove to Bojangles where we spent the next hour drinking sweet tea and laughing. Our “story” ended up being more memorable than the “experience” of sitting cross-legged trying to clear our minds.

The debate will go on between me and Melissa, and I look forward to more spirited discussions on the matter. But for me, first there’s fiction. And everything else will always be nonfiction.