Bring on the Drama, Mama!

I don’t keep up with the news as much as I should but occasionally a little sound bite from the living room, where my husband watches TV, invades my study. The snippet “Less Drama, More Mama” recently made its way into my head, and as rhymes do, it lodged there.

Giving up the “drama” of politics makes sense for Kellyanne Conway, a mother of four, but the opposite is true for fiction writers. Our mantra should be “Bring on the Drama, Mama!”

When we pen short stories, drama is absolutely essential. It raises the stakes for our characters and magically captivates our readers. For example, if we’re writing a story about a young mother coping with a painful separation, we can’t make her circumstances too easy. Suppose she holds out hope that her husband will come back. The worst thing in the world would be for Sam to just walk back into the house with his suitcase and say: “Mary, I’m home!”

It’s not that we’re being cruel. It’s not that we want to watch Mary suffer. But we have to be realistic and understand that in real life these things don’t work out so perfectly. We want our reader to care about Mary and root for her. The best thing we can do for Mary is to increase the drama even more. We should have her discover that Sam has not only been cheating on her with his secretary, they’re now living together. And although Mary dreams of helping support her two kids by opening a bakery, her loan application gets turned down. To make matters worse, the bank repossesses her car! Poor Mary.

Not so fast. Because we’ve seen glimpses of Mary’s extraordinary baking talent and her compassion for making muffins for an elderly woman in the neighborhood, we don’t feel sorry for her. In fact, the reader has every reason to believe that Mary has it in her to survive these events. We like Mary and because Sam is a selfish lout, we believe she deserves a good life without him.

The fiction writer increases admiration for Mary by watching her react to events that might crush the average person. For example, when Sam refuses to co-sign a new loan, we show her react by baking more muffins. That’s when it dawns on Mary that due to the pandemic, a business in a public building would be a very bad idea right now. So she decides to start her bakery at home, and not only does she make enough money in one weekend to get back her car, she’s far too busy to miss Sam anymore.

For the writer, the act of adding more tension to our story makes it fun to write. We don’t have to worry about “blank-page-itis” anymore because we’re suddenly enthralled with helping Mary develop the qualities she needs to thrive. The reader gets to see a little of herself in Mary, and grow along with her. The world is suddenly a better place. So bring on the drama, Mama!

Drama is just one of the topics that we’ll cover in my upcoming Charlotte Lit online workshop: Let’s Write a Short Story: Studio. What makes this course different is that every student gets a special “Story Worksheet” created by me just for this course. As we go along, I’ll be helping students fill out the worksheet step-by-step. This will enable students to thoughtfully construct each of the five essential elements of the short story before writing it. That way, when students start writing, which is the next step, they’ll have all the elements in place to captivate their readers, page by page. And they’ll receive help from me every step of the way. These lessons will help students generate even more stories well beyond this course.

“Let’s Write a Short Story” Studio starts on Sunday, September 13 and runs through Saturday, October 10. Enrollment is limited to just twelve students, so sign up soon to reserve your spot. What are you doing this fall? Raking leaves or fretting about COVID? I hope you’ll be writing along with me.

Learn more and sign up here.

New Online Class on the Short Story Starting September 13!

Great news! For several weeks this summer, I’ve been at work with my friends at Charlotte Lit designing an exciting new online class–my first ever. This class is what we call a “Studio,” which means that it offers deeply engaging, content-rich online modules and a combination of pre-recorded and Zoom live course instruction through a really cool platform called Wet Ink. The course runs from Sept. 13 – October 10, which will give students the rare opportunity to draft a full-length short story AND receive detailed feedback from me. It’s unlike any course I have ever taught, so I am really excited!

Most short story workshops throw students into the open sea without a life ring. What makes this course different is that students have the benefit of using a “Story Worksheet” created by me just for this course. As we go along, I’ll be helping students fill out the worksheet step-by-step. This will enable students to thoughtfully construct each of the five essential elements of the short story before writing it. That way, when students actually start writing, which is the next step, they’ll have all the elements in place to captivate their readers, page by page. And they’ll receive help from me every step of the way. These lessons will help students generate even more stories well beyond this course.

During our time together, we’ll also study model stories by masters such as John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, and Alice Walker, but we’ll also cover excerpts by contemporary authors such as Tessa Hadley and Ralph Hart. I’ll also share how this same technique helped me write “Golden Delicious,” a short story which earned first prize last year in the Starving Writers Competition sponsored by the Franklin County Arts Council. Studying the work of other writers will give students the opportunity to learn how to read a short story like a writer, another exercise that will deliver practical dividends throughout their lives. Even better, the principles we learn can easily be applied to the novel as well!

“Let’s Write a Short Story” Studio starts on Sunday, September 13 and runs through Saturday, October 10. Enrollment is limited to just twelve students, so sign up soon to reserve your spot. What are you doing this fall? Raking leaves or fretting about COVID? I hope you’ll be writing along with me.

Learn more and sign up here.

Clacking Away in the COVID-19 Quarantine….

Typos? No problem! Just keep writing…..(Pictured: A 1957 Smith-Corona Electric Portable typewriter)

How are you spending your time these days? If you’re like me, you’re alternating between enjoying brief moments in the sun and trying to write your way through this pandemic.

Today, a terrific advocacy group dedicated to redefining narratives around disability, mental health, and chronic illness kindly published “How a Writer with Multiple Sclerosis Finds Unexpected Gratitude with an Antique Typewriter,” which is my story of how I’m using the extra time to find new ways to think, and hopefully improve my writing.

I’ve set a goal of writing two new poems each day on an old typewriter, and I have to say, it’s very refreshing to just clack away and not worry about typos or grammatical lapses. The kind of things best left to my inner critic, who takes an extended coffee break during these times.

In other news, I was recently honored to be asked to write a monthly marketing column for Women on Writing, my favorite writing community. This column is focused on writing inspiration and market listings for writers of all genres, from poetry to fiction to memoir. The newsletter is free, and if you’d like to start receiving it, you can easily subscribe by entering your email address into the box on the right at the top of the website.

Additionally, I’m taking a training course on the technicalities of teaching online classes, something I’d like to try in the future. As much as I adore leading in-person classes at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, these times cry out for a new way for people to learn from the safety of their homes. And I’m all for that. It might be a stretch for me, but as I’ve learned by experimenting with my typewriters, it’s always good to branch out in some way.

Please stay safe (and sane), and of course, keep telling your story!

A New Year’s Resolution: 5 Easy Steps for a Pain-Free Year of Blogging

IMG_3254I’ve decided to use the down time before the New Year to do something I’ve never done before: write a strategic plan for my blog. Allow me to confess. Other than scheduling some book reviews in advance last summer, I’ve just relied upon serendipity for my blog. While I’ll always leave room for sudden inspiration, I’m planning for a more meaningful (and painfree!) experience for 2013. Here’s 5 steps that might help you.

Step 1: What are your writing goals for 2013? Before you address your plans for your blog, ask yourself: what are my writing goals? For maximum benefit, the two ought to be aligned. Do you want to find a publisher for a completed novel? Do you want to create a following for your writing interests in the hopes of bringing people together? Or, do you want to explore a new topic in the interests of learning something? My overall mission (as a writer) is fairly simple and it’s in the tagline of my blog: Exploring the joys of fiction writing and learning from the very best.  With this in mind, my goal for 2013 will simply be to improve my writing. I’ll then create a blogging plan that supports this goal.

Step 2: Take advantage of holidays, birthdays, and other milestones. It’s common sense to celebrate your own writing milestones and traditional holidays such as Valentine’s Day. But one of my favorite things to do is to take advantage of the abundance of wacky holidays. This worked well for me last year, as I was heavily promoting Naked and Hungry. In honor of one of my main characters, a cantankerous canine, I blogged about National Mutts Day. Which bizarre holidays (tied to your own writing goals) can you commemorate? Check out the list for 2013. And a year’s worth of blog entries means that somebody’s going to have a birthday. Will I have a blog entry for Flannery O’Connor or Anton Chekhov, two of my writing idols? You betcha! On this subject, why not celebrate a victory or milestone earned by a writer friend? I promise that this will be time well spent.

Step 3: Link to other blogs or websites. Have you been interviewed on a blog or garnered a new review? Did you read an online article that you applied to your own life? These can be the simplest of blog entries. You need only write a paragraph from your perspective and link back to the article or interview itself. This can be made easier by subscribing to other blogs or newsfeeds as a way to get ideas. I recently read a great article that could easily inspire multiple blog entries of my own. Conversely, did an article or opinion rub you the wrong way? Don’t be afraid to write about a controversial topic. Hemingway made a living doing just that. Can you imagine the following he would have generated if he had had a blog?

Step 4: Interview another writer. Whether you’re a writer, chef, or gardener, you’re bound to know others with similar interests. Let their wisdom be a part of your blogosphere. I need to get better at this. It can be as simple as emailing other writers questions ahead of time and asking for a picture. Easy-breezy. They do the writing and you do the posting!

Step 5: Give yourself a vacation by writing in advance. Take advantage of technology and schedule content ahead of time. You can create a “mini-series”, such as I did this summer with book reviews, parts 1 and 2. I scheduled them in sequence, which meant that I could take a vacation with impunity. Whew! My writing friend, Rick Bylina, is a natural at planning; in fact, he posts a book review at least once per week.

There are some technical things I should mention here, too, such as linking your blog to your Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts but I’m going to assume you have that figured out. As for me, I now have a smorgasbord of exciting blog entries planned for the new year. For your inspiration, I’ll jot down my own outline for January. It really can be this simple!

  • January 7 – Celebrate the patent of a primitive typewriter in 1829
  • January 8  – Ashley pens guest blog on Dames of Dialogue Blog
  • January 15 – Review of Write Like the Masters by William Cane
  • January 19 – The master of suspense: Edgar Allen Poe’s Birthday
  • January 29 – A storyteller for all time: Anton Chekhov’s Birthday

So now I’ll tackle February, March, April and so forth. With the time saved, who knows? Maybe, just maybe, 2013 will find me floating in a Bahamian bay reading a book!

Here’s to a great year ahead. Whatever your plans, may 2013 bring you bountiful rewards, enduring fellowship and joy!

Ashley

Welcome to Blurb Boot Camp!

I had a serious wake-up call last May when my editor asked me if I had any promotional blurbs to print on the outside of Naked and Hungry. You’ve heard of blurbs, right? Those jazzy little snippets kindly provided by more successful writers. Oh, and we had about a month to get these. Gulp!

The good news is that I didn’t have time to panic. So I reached out to friends and other writers, some whom I knew and some who were referred to me by dear friends such as the inimitable John Graham, literary muse and more to hundreds. To be fair, some folks said no but most, surprisingly, said yes. This yielded three blurbs as well as three more proofreaders, all of whom generously pointed out errors in my manuscript that I had missed.

Next, I reached out to a publisher who declined to publish my book but hired me as a copyeditor for his own books. And since every “no” may hide a “yes,” I reached out to an editor who denied my short story (too long for his publication) but had offered to review my novel in his literary journal. And last, I reached out to the editor of my hometown newspaper and a local environmentalist  (another friend’s referral) since my book had an environmental theme. Fini!

Now that I passed basic training for writing publicity (albeit barely, whew!), I thought I’d share these hints as well as my blueprint for the next time. For my second book, I plan a bolder and slightly savvier approach First, I’m starting much, much earlier and reaching a little wider. I plan to reach out to the same kind of writers who inspired me. What do I have to lose? I also plan to reach out to more area journalists and local booksellers whom I’ve met as I’ve promoted my first book.

I also plan to submit more of my writing such as shorter pieces or publication and to contests. Hopefully, this will not only yield more exposure it will introduce me to more influence leaders who might be willing to lend their name to my second book. Worst case, I’ll make even more friends!

Because I’m still learning, I’d be remiss if I didn’t reach out to all of you and ask your thoughts. Referrals, ideas and thoughts are welcome!

Dig Deeper

I recently read a profile of writer Pat Conroy and his wife, Cassandra King, also a novelist. I can’t remember his exact words, but in the article, Pat stresses the importance of “digging deeper” when he reaches an impasse in his writing. The answer is there, but he must dig deeper within himself to find it.

As an itinerant gardener, I found this advice to be very useful. My efforts are mostly confined to container gardening—quick payoff for minimal effort—but I’ve always admired the true gardeners, those who know what they’re doing. They’re willing to invest the time to make sure the soil is properly prepared. They, too, “dig deeply” to tender the loving care necessary to yield maximum blooms.

It’s the same way with writing. When I’m struggling, I can drift off the page for “research” but the truth is that most solutions are within my reach if I think carefully enough. Curiously, some of the best solutions happen when I’m not writing. They happen when I’m gardening, cooking, or walking the dog. Or, they can also arise during time spent with other writers.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a workshop hosted by the Burlington Writer’s Club in Graham. Young adult writer Maureen Wartski, novelist and teacher, led a group of us on revision. From description to flashback, we spent time on the little tricks that writers use to propel their stories. At the end, she encouraged us all to created detailed outlines—much in the way that a gardener might create a landscape blueprint—to help guide our stories. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much writers and gardeners have in common. Gotta go…it’s time to prune my bushes!