Spooktober Reading Bingo

In honor of October and open spooky season, I’ve put together a reading bingo for all things horror and Halloween. If you enjoy sinking your fangs into a good scary story, this card is for you!

Available in four designs (click image for full size, which should print as 8.5 x 11in):

Spooktober Bingo - v3 Spooktober Bingo - v4

Spooktober Bingo - v7 Spooktober Bingo - v2

Remember, your mark-off options don’t stop at books: short stories, poems, and even internet articles can count, too! Alternatively, swap out “Reading” for “Story” and you can use even more mediums: movies, video games, Halloween episodes, etc. Get creative, and most importantly: have fun!

What do you wish you’d known about writing as a teen?

Have you ever found something you wrote in high school and nearly died of simultaneous laughter and mortification? Spoiler alert: I HAVE!

Revisiting an old story of mine, last week I came up with some simple tips that could have vastly improved my writing as a teen and posted them in this Letter to my Teenage Self.

What was your writing like as a teen? What would have made it better?

What starter tips would you give teen or novice writers today?

The Writing Major, Part II: How it DID prepare me for life as an author

Last week I looked back on my university writing major to evaluate the things it didn’t teach me about being an author or trying to write books for a living. This post is the follow-up to highlight the ways my program did prepare me for a career as a novelist.

Author Things my Writing Major Taught Me:

  1. That you need to read seriously if you want to write seriously. Half my writing program was lit classes, and here’s why: If you want to write well, you need to read well. You need to know what great writing looks like and learn from it. And a rounded diet doesn’t hurt, but somewhere in there you should be reading the kinds of things you want to write.
  2. A basic canon of literature and theory including everything from Shakespeare and Aristotle to Emily Dickinson, Raymond Carver, and Jonathan Safran Foer (see: plays, essays, poetry, fiction). I consider this an author thing because exposure to a wide variety of work gives you a broader understanding and palette and can translate to richer, more upmarket fiction (that happy place between literary and genre).
  3. How to critique and be critiqued. Classroom workshops were perfect for learning to give and receive constructive criticism, which is helpful because criticism is vital to revision. My classes helped me see that feedback improved my work, to develop a thicker skin, and also how to filter the useful from the outlier criticisms of a beta-reading team.
  4. That you need outside perspective. Last week, I said my major didn’t teach me to distance myself from my work so I could evaluate it objectively. But it did teach me the importance of getting other people to read it—because while we, the authors, will always be too close to our work and biased to some degree, foreign eyes will not. They will see things we don’t. And a classroom you share with friends (those who are careful of our feelings) as well as strangers (those who will be more direct) is a great place to realize that you don’t just want compliments from readers; you want the kind of comments that will help you make the story better.
  5. To read aloud in order to edit yourself. This was the one trick we learned in my program for gaining some objectivity in our own writing. Not the most practical for long-form (novels), but great for testing passages.
  6. To keep your day job (or at least, not expect to live off your writing anytime soon). Self-explanatory.
  7. The mechanics of good writing. It may have seemed harsh last week to say that my writing major didn’t teach me how to write a compelling story (or anything about writing a book), but that’s because you have to know the materials before you can build the house: the fundamentals. Craft rules like Show, Don’t Tell, pacing, good dialogue, killing the runway, using active voice, sensory detail, nouns and verbs over adjectives, etc. Rules such as these I think make the bulk of education in writing, because they are the elements that can be taught.

In sum, a formal (undergraduate) education in writing is about laying the foundations for becoming a great writer– introducing you to the craft, the tools, how to collaborate/give and receive artistic criticism, the great works that have come before. Where you take those lessons (fiction, journalism, screenwriting, etc.)– and how– is entirely up to you.

What have I missed, fellow writing (or English) majors? Share in the comments below!

The Writing Major, Part I: What it didn’t teach me about being an author

A recent chat with a friend got me thinking: There’s a lot a formal education in writing doesn’t teach you about writing—specifically, about being a novelist. And since the start of many collegiate school years is coming up and aspiring authors will be contemplating majors and minors, I thought it’d be a good time to reflect on my own studies, what they taught me about writing, and what they didn’t.

This will be a two part post, beginning with:

Things my Writing Major Didn’t Teach Me

  1. What makes a compelling story. We always discussed what we read, why it was great literature, terminology. But did I learn what made me care about characters? What made me feel, what pulled me into a narrative, what kept me turning pages? No. These are things I’ve only found through years of personal, recreational reading and writing—things I’m still realizing today. If you’re a writing major aspiring to authordom, I highly recommend a steady diet of personal for-fun reading alongside any scholarly assignments.
  2. High concept. True, high concept (a unique premise that can be pitched in about a line—“boy goes to wizarding school,” “safari-style park of DNA-resurrected dinosaurs,” or “100 delinquents sent to test living conditions on post-apocalyptic earth”) doesn’t apply to every work of fiction. But grasping the term is invaluable in storytelling, as is being able to detail your concept—what your story is about—before you even start writing.
  3. How to write a book. My program offered courses in short stories, plays, poetry, and creative nonfiction—but no “Engw 401: How to Write a Novel.” I actually can’t even remember discussing plot in a story-craft capacity, except once in a Spanish lit class. En Español!
  4. The significance of revision. Oh, we revised—but not nearly enough. The best lessons are the ones I’ve found in my own pursuits since graduating: (1) Final draft = first draft – 10-15% (Stephen King). In other words—CUT A LOT. (2) “Revisions” =/= line edits, stronger wording, moving punctuation around. Revisions mean extreme, sweeping changes to the entire story, with large portions cut and other large portions rewritten. (3) “The first draft of everything is shit,” (Hemingway), but two drafts doesn’t do it, either. Try five or ten or twenty.
  5. That distance (time away) is a necessary part of revision. On a semester schedule, there was naturally not enough time to let our work sit between drafts so we could come back to it with fresh eyes after a month or so. But this is essential to seeing your work, especially novels, objectively: to evaluating what needs to change, and how best to change it.
  6. How to find an agent.
  7. How to write a query letter (to an agent). We did just barely touch on querying literary magazines, but in the book-writing realm that ended up being irrelevant. Why? Because
  8. You do not need publication credits to get an agent. As an aspiring author, I heard time and again that pub credits looked good in your query letter and increased your chances of getting an agent. And there’s probably truth to that. But ultimately, you don’t need credits to land an agent. Your novel is what you’re querying, and your novel is what they’re looking at. So if you want to write books, write books—don’t struggle over short works unnecessarily.
  9. To daydream. To recognize and collect things that interest you, the seeds of ideas; to connect and develop them into larger stories. This is something I’m still figuring out, and while I’m getting better at it, it’s not a skill they can really teach in the classroom.

I imagine this list will grow with time and progress in publishing, but in the interim, what about you? Whether you’ve studied writing formally or not—what lessons have you had to teach or learn for yourself?

Stay tuned for the second half of this post next week: What my writing major DID teach me about being an author!

“What is it about?” – a personal milestone

Today I mentioned to my sister I was working on a new book idea. Before she could even ask the time-feared question, “What is it about?”– the thing every author has probably hid beneath a table from at least once in their writing career– I elaborated. And in about two sentences, I delivered Who, What, and Why in a compelling package.

Not only that, but when she wanted to know more, I could expand off the cuff without a single er, um, or ah!

Me: (Reflecting a moment) Well that’s never happened before.

With my first book, ANY TIME someone asked what it was about I would start to explain, realize after a minute that I was rambling, trail off, get awkward, and quickly jump ship with “Pitch needs work” or “It’s still coming together.” Granted, that’s probably because the story was inferior (first novel = learning experience– I know worlds more about storytelling today), but regardless: because of that initial faltering, my body sort of learned to fear the question “What is it about?” early on. I’d clam up whenever asked, and if I could, avoid the topic entirely.

Which is why it was such a marvel to me to realize today that Hey, I just described a book premise with the ease of describing a movie, and not only that, but I lied: Today wasn’t the first time that’s ever happened. I’ve been quick-pitching the book that got me an agent to people who’ve asked about it for ages.

I’m getting better at this.

7 Things I’ve Learned About Coming Up With Ideas

Traditionally, I’ve always entered the brainstorm stage with equal parts dread and thrill: thrill because the slate is clean, the world is wide, I can write anything; dread because the page is blank, and so is my head, oh god, why did I choose writing?*

Between different drafts of projects this year, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out, trying on, mocking up and tearing down ideas. Emphasis on the tearing down part (There’s a reason that this

ideas 1

is a writer stereotype.).

Fortunately, somewhere between all the desperate searching and lists and freewrites and plotting and summaries and metaphorical and actual crumpling of pages, I’ve managed to learn a few things about brainstorming and developing ideas efficiently. Things like:

1. Don’t wait until you’ve finished writing Project A to begin looking for/developing ideas for Project B. In the three novels I’ve written to date, I’ve always worked very one-project-at-a-time. While I think that’s productive in terms of keeping your head in the right story, it’s also a bit like going cold turkey off exercise or coffee or your favorite TV show whenever you get to a stopping point: suddenly a major part of your routine is gone, and you’re left dizzy and wanting and yes, probably even a bit cranky. You’ll save the stress if you have the core of another project (say, the logline) ready to go before you set the current one down.

2. Keep track of what interests you. Anything in this category has the potential to bleed into the important question, What is a story I’d want to read?, and its faithful companion, the story I want to write. Create a collection, real or virtual, for this express purpose, and if you’re ever in need of a starting point, just open it and play with its contents.

3. From one certainty, the world (Look for ideas in likely places). I’ve talked previously about sparks, the thing entire stories unfold from. While I still believe that sparks cannot be made, I do think we can be smart about where we look for them (see #2). And if we’re willing to mine away in a likely place, working at it even when we can’t see that first edge that glitters, chances are we’ll strike something precious eventually.

4. Think big (picture). Zoom out. When developing ideas into stories, start with overarching elements like concept, plot, conflict. Your spark might be a smaller detail, but the big stuff is fundamental. A good test to see if your story is ready to write (indeed, objectively sound and interesting enough to be worth writing): can you write a compelling synopsis in 100-250 words? How about a logline?

5. Legos, and let go. Here is why I’m suddenly feeling like I’ve learned something in this game: In playing with the bigger pieces first (attaching items that intrigue me to different characters, situations, formats, etc., and experimenting/rearranging them like Legos), I feel I’ve become able to recognize early on ideas that don’t sing: aren’t compelling enough, remind me too much of another story, would work better in another genre, etc. And when I do, I can swiftly set them aside and try something else.

6. There is value in knowing what you DON’T want to write, too. Seriously. Just crossing items off the list of endless possibilities (“not fantasy”; “not romance-based”; “no suicide, no road trip, no manic pixie dream girl”) is grounding and steers you in the right direction (or at least, away from the wrong ones).

7. If you’re focusing on a specific category, do recon. Ideally, you’re well read in that category already. Whether you are or not, one quick way to learn about it and maybe even generate ideas is to make a trip to the bookstore or library and spend time reading jackets. Reading the premises of many different stories in your genre, you’ll get a better understanding of what’s been done before and what hasn’t, what compels you and what doesn’t, not to mention find potential comp titles and additions to your TBR! All of which feeds into your idea pool.

Other things you’ve learned about finding and developing ideas? Share away!


*I could not help but notice that part of this sentence formed a haiku:

The page is blank and

so is my head, oh god, why

did I choose writing?

My Summer Reading Giveaway! — on tumblr.

summer reading giveaway banner june 16Hey, guys! Two things have happened recently:

  1. Tumblr’s become the social media I’m most active on, which lead to
  2. I discovered the Book Depository.

The Book Depository is a magical and wondrous place where you can buy books online and ship them to over 160 different countries— FOR FREE. Yes. FREE. Shipping. Worldwide. As such, it is the perfect vehicle for internet-based giveaways. Which leads me to the grand announcement…

In honor of discovering TBD, some writing milestones, and an upcoming birthday, I am hosting my very own book giveaway on tumblr! The prize is $20 (USD) of books from the Book Depository. Full rules and details here. You can enter until August 22!

Please note that for ease of operation, this giveaway is open to tumblr users only. But I hope to see some of you over there!

Hope your summers (and summer reads) are off to a great start!

Active Daydreaming: When do your thoughts fly?

So today I was working out– running and listening to music– with a new book idea in the back of my mind. At some point, I started thinking about that book. I started thinking about the main character and who she was and how she behaves and what’s in her past and these scenes, these tiny glimpses of her life just began to reveal themselves to me. I started seeing relationships between things, characters, picturing events. After a while I looked up and was stunned to see 30 minutes was nearly up. I had totally tuned out my music, though my body was still running in time with it. I had been in THE ZONE.

One of my biggest rules for idea development is to spend time in places you can hear yourself think. This invites the mind to wander, to slip into domino thought streams and envision and invent, but I must admit, getting into active daydream mode (where your ideas freely leap from one to the next for any real stretch of time) is something I find much harder to do on command than not. Near impossible to do before a word processor.

The reason I wanted to share today’s experience (other than sheerly marveling that wow, that actually happens sometimes) is that to ask other writers: Do you notice any pattern about when your mind seems to open up the most (e.g., when you do dishes, exercise, read, etc.)? When parts of the story come at you of their own volition? I once read that Stephen King walks for three hours every day, thinking about his books. Maybe there’s something to it.

Why writing a crappy first draft is important.

It may seem paradoxical of me to be writing this post from the depths of revision #832-B in my current project, but the fact I would quote such a number, even in hyperbole, should convey something in and of itself about the mutability of a story and how frivolous it is to try to get anything right the first time.

There are two major reasons it is useful, even necessary to write the most horrible first draft you can:

  1. The one you hear all the time: Because it’s the only way you’ll FINISH the darn thing! Creating an entire story and funneling it from your head onto paper is difficult enough without wanting it to glow in your first draft. I think many writers dive into a project with high energy, but then they lose steam in the tough spots because they want the prose to be just right, the plot point to be just right, the transition to be just right, and when it eventually, inevitably isn’t they get stuck and frustrated and jump ship. With the first draft, you just have to let loose. Hokey pokey, being bad is what it’s all about! Write with reckless abandon, worry about the fine stuff later. Who cares if it’s full of holes when you finish? That’s what revision is for!
  1. The one you hear less often, because many manuscripts never make it that far: The story will fluctuate with every revision. Sometimes in colossal ways. You will add one scene and cut another. Write a character in or out. Work things up, work things down, slash whole chapters, change the ending, adjust a huge plot point that has repercussions all throughout the book. Writing a crappy first draft is important because you need to get all the pieces on the board before you can step back and see the story objectively, in its entirety, and figure out how to adjust the parts to make the whole better.

What’s your first draft process like? Any tips for first-time novelists? Share in the comments below!