Posts Tagged ‘writing’

“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ Stephen King

This week I did an interesting and useful assignment for my fiction writing course. You take a character from your story idea, and use the following formula: if a character was a car, she/he would be_______. Then substitute “car” with “food,” “drink,” “movie,” etc. After that, write a description of your character using these metaphors (can be a sentence for each category, or an entire scene.) So I applied this to Cassie, a main character in the story that I recently started.

  1. if Cassie was a car, she would be a Beetle
  2. if Cassie was a food she would be a pomegranate
  3. if Cassie was a drink, she would be Silk (organic soy beverage)
  4. if Cassie was a movie, she would be Amelie
  5. if Cassie was an item of clothing, she would be a silk scarf
  6. if Cassie was a style of music she would be classical impressionism (Debussy, Clair de Lune )
  7. if Cassie was a musical instrument she would be a flute
  8. if Cassie was a flower, she would be a cherry blossom
  9. if Cassie was a tree, she would be a birch
  10. if Cassie was a style of dance, she would be ballet
  11. if Cassie was an animal, she would be a humming bird

The first six categories were given by the instructor, and I added five of my own. Then I wrote descriptions, based on the above statements. Here is one of them:

With the innocence and delicacy of a cherry blossom, Cassie would wrap herself around you like a silk scarf, light as a feather, hardly even there, smooth to the touch, yet firmly in place.

And one more:

He often pictured people as musical instruments or musical pieces. When he met Cassie, he instantly decided she was a flute, and the airy aura about her made him think of silvery moonlight reflected on water and Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy. (now you know what inspired my previous post :-))

I enjoyed doing this exercise (while listening to Debussy, of course) and I think it’s a great way to flesh out my characters and bring them to life.

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image via morguefile

After actively blogging for about half a year and having tankloads of fun, I suddenly got hit by blogger’s blues: I am not as enthusiastic about blogging as I was just a couple of weeks back; an occasional thought of throwing in the towel crosses my mind; I ask myself once in a while: what’s the point? And is it really worth my while? In other words – I FEEL TIRED.

I understand it’s just a phase, which shall pass, and all the colours of rainbow will return to my blogging puddle. Eventually. Meanwhile, I am trying to think of remedies for this condition.

  1. Time-machine: Going back in time to the blog’s humble beginnings and recalling the motivation and inspiration behind it. What was the blog’s initial focus? – To provide a creative outlet and find a spot under the blog-o-sun. I don’t think I lost my focus. What’s lacking then? Maybe because some days it feels more like a chore than fun?
  2. New direction: Writing a post on a different topic or posting a video or doing something totally different than usually. I could write about topics I haven’t touched yet like fashion/makeup/politics/dating/war criminals/cooking/celebrities/religion – but the problem is I don’t feel like it. A video might work, although that would take more time than any other type of post and I will end up even more tired.
  3. Fresh look: I have already made some changes to the right-hand side panel and poked around trying on new themes. I may try changing the header, although I really like the swans. Or is it too much water? According to some oriental views, excessive water can make you feel depressed.
  4. Editorial schedule: Writing NO MORE than two scheduled posts a week can provide some sense of control. And only after that writing more if time permits. But the very fact that I am writing this unscheduled post (while thinking of another two) demonstrates how hooked on blogging I am.
  6. Partner(s): I’ve been mulling over this concept for quite a while, but I am still not sure whether I like the idea of partners or multiple authors. It certainly works in business, but does it work for personal blogs? I’ve seen some examples, and I think where multiple-author blogs gain in numbers, they lose in individuality. I also noticed that blogs run by sisters, brothers, a married couple or two friends are doing better than blogs with three or more partners/contributors. If you’ve got any good examples of multiple-author blogs, please do share.
  7. Guest posts: That may work for blogs that already attract huge crowds. Mine is not there yet, and I doubt it will ever be. As a reader, I actually tend to skip guest posts (same as reblogged content), believe it or not.
  8. Reblogging: That’s like re-tweeting, although less conspicuous. It would surely look odd if two or three blogs that I follow reblogged the same post. Plus finding posts on other blogs worth reblogging may take some time. Yet there is no denying that reblogging can be useful.
  9. Awards: I have a very positive view on awards as they help build a sense of community and strengthen ties with other bloggers. On the flip side, the process itself may become quite onerous. I totally understand why some bloggers don’t do awards. And I totally understand why other bloggers enjoy them. There are a lot of creative ways to show your appreciation for the award, ranging from a simple thank you comment, to reblogging the award post, to including award badges with links on a separate page or side bar, to writing a full-fledged post that follows the rules to the letter. I also noticed that some bloggers ignore nominations entirely. That’s fine with me: bloggers are very busy people and I know it firsthand.
  10. Taking a break: As simple as that. You might lose some traffic and comments in the process, but when you are ready to return, you and your readers will really enjoy your fresh perspective.
  11. Things that make me tired: I’ve been reading a lot of blogs lately. And I have to admit I avoid really long posts like a plague. This post is about 800 words. And it already feels long to me. So, if you are still reading it, you are my hero! Thank you!!!
  12. Things that don’t make me tired: Punchy headlines; inverted pyramid format (used by journalist when the most important information comes first, less important second – it doesn’t always work though); intriguing opening with a hook; great photos or art; sound bites (a short quote and a photo to go with it); and simply awesome (not very long) posts.

Do you get bogged down in some aspects of blogging? How do you conquer blogger’s blues?

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Image by reflectionsinapuddle

I found her in the forest, where light and shadow romp in a fanciful dance; where timid light slinks away with a hint of a cloud in the sky; where earth is soft with moss and air is filled with the smells of tree bark and sap and damp dirt.

She was sitting motionless in her hammock that was spread among tree branches. I sat beside her and watched.

“You are staring,” she said with a hint of reproach.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to be rude.” I replied taking my eyes off her.

“You have to be quiet, or you’ll ruin my story.”

“Your story? I didn’t know… What kind of story is it?”

“This kind, “ She waved her skinny arm ambiguously.

“Can you tell it to me?” I pleaded, intrigued.

She looked at me bemused and shook her head.

“You are big, but you can’t see beyond the end of your nose. You’ve been looking at it all the while.”

She rolled her four pairs of eyes at my ignorance, and went back to spinning her web.

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photo by Ed Yourdon

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon (Creative Commons)

My GWW creative writing 101 is on the home stretch and will soon approach the finish line. I’ve submitted my last assignment for peer feedback — not without heart palpitations and butterflies launching attacks on my stomach. A couple of good comments from my classmates assuaged my anxiety, but I wasn’t as lucky as some other students who received a “whopping” number of comments – three! (Peer feedback was something I’d really missed in this class.) After the instructor provides his comments on our stories, the course is officially over.

Usually when a course ends, I feel proud that I’ve made it that far and accomplished something worthwhile along the way, but this always comes with an immense sense of relief: pressure’s off, no more poring over textbooks, no more burning midnight oil, trying to get things done by a looming deadline, or at least not until I decide I really need to take some other course. In that sense, CW101 is a refreshing change — I just don’t want the course to end! At the beginning of it, I was enthusiastic, yet dubious about my ability to write a single sentence that could remotely qualify as creative. And despite my misgivings, I fell in love with fiction writing. I am still unsure whether the love is reciprocal. Will I ever be?

So, what’s next on the horizon? GWW offers an online fiction course that spans 10 weeks (with CW101 it was only six), which I will likely take with the same instructor, Chip Livingston, who’s been very supportive and responsive and provided really good feedback (in a sense that his feedback was constructive and helpful.) But that’s almost a month away. Meanwhile, I’d like to go through the CW101 lectures and do some of the suggested exercises that I didn’t have the time to complete during the course, and – fingers crossed – I’ll have enough time and motivation to keep writing.

All in all it was a great course, well worth money, time and effort spent, with a lot of useful tips and inspiration.

Six most important lessons learned:

  1. Treat writing like a job: show up (preferably every day), write on schedule and toward a goal (word count is a good place to start)
  2. Read and learn (any piece of writing, good or bad, can teach something, but good literature is the best source of learning)
  3. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open to new experiences and ideas
  4. Assume that the first draft is never good enough – write and re-write, then edit more
  5. Make it a goal not to be good, but to get better, draft by draft, piece by piece
  6. As with any creative pursuit, have fun!

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vortex of colour

Image by reflectionsinapuddle

She floated in darkness, tranquil, like an autumn leaf on a puddle, when, from an ocean of nothingness, a tiny speck of light the size of an ant’s eye blinked shyly and lodged at the base of her soul. As she focused on the light, it began to swirl and shimmer, vibrating and expanding, until it burst into a myriad of shards, carving an opening in her heart. Through it she fell into a wormhole filled with incessant chirping of legions of invisible crickets. The wormhole twisted and turned, its raging waterless rapids battering her like a leaky raft. She was falling… whether eons had passed or a second, she couldn’t tell. At some point, it came to her — she was falling upward.

As her endurance began to wane, the wormhole suddenly collapsed, and she was in the dark again. But this time there was a change. She felt tingling in her palms. Weak at first, the tingling grew more intense with every breath she took, spreading through her body like a forest fire. When it reached her face, her lids fluttered, and she opened her eyes.

She found herself curled up in what seemed like a cave with its porous walls lit up with faint green light; she sniffed at the wall, then licked its surface – it was rock solid and tasted of sand and fire. Following an ancient instinct, she began to crawl clumsily in search of an exit, twisting her sinuous body and clawing at the rock under her feet. After coming across the same crevice the third time, she realized she was going in circles and… there was something else. As she looked in disbelief at her sharp talons and a long powerful tail covered with scales and spikes dragging along, her mouth opened wide, as if on its own, and a blood chilling shriek rolled out of her throat, an echo bouncing off the walls like thunder.


“Jake, Jake, wake up! You have to look at this… Now, quick, come to the window!”
“Go back to sleep, Sam…”
“Look, look, Jake, the moon is cracking! Just like an egg!”

Jake yawned, rubbed his eyes, and got out of the bed. If that again had to do with the elusive monsters hiding in the closet, his younger brother was in big trouble. Jake didn’t bother with the slippers, just headed straight for the window, and stopped dead in his tracks: outside, a huge glowing orb of the moon was suspended in the black sky. The orb cracked open, like an egg, and spit out a creature that looked part like a bird and part like a snake. The beast regarded the two gaping boys with its emerald eyes, unfolded a pair of magnificent wings, and soared toward the stars, its serpentine tail waving. Farewell.

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Chip Livingston

Chip Livingston

Chip Livingston  is the author of the poetry collection Museum of False Starts. His fiction and non-fiction are also widely published, in journals including Ploughshares, Cincinnati Review, Potomac Review, Court Green, Subtropics, and Crazyhorse. He holds a BS in Journalism and a BA in English from the University of Florida, an MA in Fiction Writing from the University of Colorado, and an MFA in Poetry Writing from Brooklyn College. He teaches creative writing, poetry and fiction at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, where I am currently taking creative writing 101. I asked Chip if he could do a short interview for my blog, and he kindly agreed. Some of you submitted questions for Chip; they are included in the interview. I appreciate your participation very much. I would also like to thank Chip for his insightful responses.

Natalie (reflectionsinapuddle): Do you write for a specific audience? If so, how would you describe your ideal reader?

Chip Livingston: Usually I don’t write with a specific audience in mind. With poetry, I keep in mind that not all my readers are poets or even poetry readers. I don’t want to deny anyone access to my work, so I hope I am making myself as clear as possible.

There are times when I’ll see a call for submissions from a literary magazine I admire having a special themed issue, and sometimes this will spur me to come up with something appropriate to the theme, but that’s not a common inspiration. Usually I just try to write what I think will translate to the page.

N: What are you working on right now?

ChL: Right now I’m proofing the layout of my new book of poetry, “CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK,” which will be published May 1, 2012 by New York Quarterly Books. I’m writing new poems for the eventual third poetry collection. And I’m trying to revise an old novel manuscript to see if it’s salvageable. And constantly working on short fiction. I’ve always got a couple of stories in process.

N: Could you tell us more about CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK?

ChL: CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK is a project I’m really proud of. It’s poetry, and the book is divided in two sections, Crow-Blue, which covers the southerner’s experience in New York City, and Crow-Black, which covers the experience of the North American in South America. The first section is strongly influenced by the New York School of poetics, whereas the second section is more influenced by Native American and South American literature.

Catherine: What are  your suggestions on getting published. In your experience, what was the best route to take? What were some of the challenges you faced?

ChL: Catherine, the best way for an unknown writer to publish a book is by getting it in the hands of someone who would seriously consider it. In poetry, the typical route is through “first book contests” run by small, independent or university presses.

Usually, the manuscripts that win these contests contain poems that have already been published in literary magazines, and especially when sending a manuscript to a press for publication consideration in a non-contest scenario, being able to mention that you’ve previously published some of the contents of the manuscript individually can help you get your work a more serious look. The best way to get individual poems and stories published is to read and submit to literary journals. There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of literary journals in print and online that accept submissions from writers, and these are usually the first places beginning poets and prose writers “emerge.”

Catherine: How do you feel about self publishing now that companies like Amazon and Apple make it possible to do?

ChL: Another good question. I think electronic books and the ability to distribute them through Amazon, Apple and other outlets allow for a lot more writers to have access to sharing their words/works, and there are several well-known examples of these self-published titles getting such a record of sales and recommendations that they catch on to big presses and get the book put into ‘print.’

The drawback [of self-publishing] is advertising and distribution. If a writer self-publishes, how does he/she let the world know that the book exists. Traditional press publishing comes with some plan of media promotion and the press has contacts at bookstores across the country or world as well as access to online and electronic sales.

If you want your book to change the world, you need an agent or publisher with a network of connections to get your book to the world.

Malena: My question is about the roles of writer and author. When is it that one can say he/she is an author?

ChL: Malena, the way I think it’s generally accepted is that an “author” is a writer who has published a book. I think of the ways authors and writers are written about in bios in literary magazines and blurbs, and if they have published books, the bio will generally refer to the writer as “The author of __.”  Or “Jane Doe has authored five books of poetry.”

N: You travel a lot. Do you find your inspiration in discovering new places?

ChL: I absolutely attribute much of my inspiration to new places and new things in new places, new perspectives. And learning and speaking Spanish has also given me a lot to think about in terms of sentence structure and the ways words can combine to modify each other.

N: Have you ever experienced being “chased” by a poem or a creative idea?

ChL: Yes, there have been times, even with the writing of “Yesterday my father was dying,” where the words themselves rattled in my head over and over until I had them on paper, though the initial impulse was witnessing the ants carry the cricket like pall bearers carrying a coffin.

And I had the experience of having the ghost of a poet follow me around and whisper poems to me. It was a once in a lifetime occasion. A professor loaned me a poetry collection by Tim Dlugos because she said she saw something similar in my recent work to his poetry. I became obsessed with the poet, felt like his presence was literally following me around, and I asked the poet Kenward Elmslie, who was the owner of the building I lived in, if he knew anything about Dlugos, and he told me that Dlugos had lived in my apartment twenty years earlier.

N: Sounds like a great idea for a novel! Speaking of which, your first novel is unpublished, but won numerous awards. Can you tell us more about it?

ChL: Yes, it’s the project I’m thinking of returning to. It won a contest from University of Arizona Press, but the press had a very similar manuscript under contract (two gay Creek Indian novels) and they worried the two titles would compete with each other. My agent at the time didn’t want me to sell it to a university press, so we agreed not to publish it with Univ. of Arizona. It won another contest as a short story collection, because much of the novel had been published as short stories, but the contest press said they thought it was a novel and not a story collection, so they withdrew it from consideration. I took a lot of the material and turned them into poems that went into my first poetry book, and lent its title, MUSEUM OF FALSE STARTS. But I worked so hard taking it apart that when Univ. of Oklahoma asked me if they could read and consider it a few years ago, I felt it was unpresentable. Now I have it in mind to see if I can put it back together again. Wish me luck.

N: Good luck with your novel! I would really like to read it some time.

N: We often hear that a writer has to “show-up” to do his or her work. But what about talent? Do you think it can be taught?

ChL: I think talent can be taught. Ideas can be nurtured and texts can be studied as examples. I don’t think any writer starts out great. It takes practice and practice and practice and practice, and then editing and editing and editing and editing. I don’t think it takes any special gene or gift to make something artful, but it’s not easy. It takes showing up for the work and the prewriting (of reading) and postwriting (of editing). I absolutely believe that everything I know about writing has been either taught to me by my mentors and professors or has been taught to me by the authors of the books I read.

N: What was the best piece of advice you received from your mentors? And what is the best piece of advice you can give to your students and aspiring writers?

ChL: The best piece of writing advice I received was from poet/novelist/memoirist Linda Hogan, who remains my all-time favorite writer in any genre. She told us in a fiction workshop to always try and “write two pages past what you think is the end of the story.” I particularly had the tendency to end the story right before the punchline, so it was good advice for me.

My advice to aspiring writers: Read good literature and study it. Don’t give up.

N: Once again, thank you very much for the interview! Maybe you could share with our readers one of your favourite poems by Chip Livingston?

ChL: My favorite poem so far is from my first book. It was first published in Ploughshares literary magazine.

poem by Chip Livingston

That owl was an omen
Driving home from the airport
Not once but twice
It rose in my headlights
From rain black asphalt
Great white wings nearly touching
Windshield wipers    that low flying escort
Stretching sixty miles toward Alabama
The owl was always right
Something died and something else
Was just about to
I checked my daughter’s red-eye slumber
In the rearview mirror
No need to worry her with divination
An hour drive delayed by rain
And now this trepidation on the slick black road
Certain as miscarried fortune
Her coming home to Mama in an autumn storm
And no such thing as California
Just a red clay creekbed down the road
From the house I birthed her in
Filling up to bathe away a sorrow
Blinking lights behind us
Before I hear the sirens
Firetruck passes on the narrow bridge
Then Crabtree Church in flames beyond the graveyard
My daughter wakes and guesses lightning
But I never heard the thunder crack
And only saw the lightning white of dreaded wings
I pull in   step out   open an umbrella
Stand with the firemen    watch the frame fall down
The Marshall asks if we saw anything
Like kids driving away in a four-wheeler
They found tracks in the mud
Whiskey and beer bottles    a gas can
Burn!  All those years of homecoming
Annual dinners on the grounds
Hymns around a weather-warped piano
Burn!  My granddad’s Indian education
Walls that heard a thousand lessons
A thousand prayers in high soprano
Burn!  Fifty paper funeral parlor fans
Cokesbury hymnals and sixteen pews
Reduced to flakey carbon tamped with rain
The death of wood and glass
And half a baby’s ashes in my daughter’s pocketbook
All the little names we’ll never sing
I aim to find that messenger again and scare him off
Litter the road with his insolent feathers

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As I mentioned in my previous post, I would like to share with you what I’ve learned in my CW101 class so far. I’ll start with my second week’s assignment and skip week one. That one I’ll save for later, because it has the potential to become a full-fledged story, and I would like to work on it in secret. Just to be sure I am not infringing on anyone’s copyright, I checked with Gotham’s administration about what I can and cannot share about the class. I was told two exercises are OK. (I suppose I can share my own stories (not the actual instructions or themes), because stories are mine and I can do with them however I please.)

Assignment rules the way I remember them: Write a scene under 500 words, based on a short “telling” paragraph. Stick to the facts; show rather than tell.

The paragraph the way I remember it: Mick and Loretta, are driving along a lonely wintry highway. Suddenly they hear a loud noise. They start bickering about who’s been drinking. Then they get out of the car to only find … nothing.

Just a couple of notes before the actual scene. I didn’t want to write in 3rd person (whatever it’s called in proper terms.) And I didn’t want Loretta to be the narrator. I didn’t come up with the title as it was not required by the rules, but tried to stick to 500 word count and found it incredibly hard. I actually wrote over 600 words, but then had to pare it down. I struggled with the collision paragraph, because it was  hard to incorporate the loud noise into the story — it would change everything, and the scene wanted to be written with a “heavy thud.” Oh, almost forgot: the female character swears.

I will greatly appreciate your ideas about how I can improve the scene without increasing the word count. I haven’t gotten any feedback on this yet, so you can go to town ripping it apart. I think I’ve grown thick enough skin to take criticism, if not with acceptance, but at least with dignity. 🙂 Enough talk though.

~ \ ~

The night fell and enveloped the world in a soft blanket of falling snow. A ribbon of treacherous ice that was the highway streamed beneath the wheels of my Land Rover. On both sides of the road, pine trees raced — solemn, watchful, wary — their spires reaching for the pregnant firmament that was about to collapse under its own weight and relieve itself in one monstrous dump.

I looked at my watch. 8:05 pm. We had to hurry. If we didn’t reach the cabin within the next hour, we could be stranded in this godforsaken wilderness until morning. I glanced at Loretta’s profile silhouetted against the backdrop of the blurred hibernal landscape – she was fast asleep. My left hand on the steering, I rummaged through her purse with my right hand, fished out her cell phone and checked the screen. Just as I expected, the screen flashed lugubriously “No Service.”

I was about to return the cell to the purse, when suddenly, with a heavy thud the Rover shook like a giant beast and lurched into the empty oncoming traffic lane. I slammed on the brakes, and the truck screeched to a halt barely an inch away from the edge of the road.

“What the f*** was that?” Loretta croaked.

“I’ve no clue. I think I hit something.” I replied unbuckling my seat belt and shifting the gear into “park.”

“What could that be? A deer?” Loretta asked. She turned around to look at the highway.

I followed her gaze, but couldn’t see much – the rear view was half blocked by snow.

“Mick,” Loretta was now staring at me, her eyes glistening with suspicion. “Have you been drinking?”

“No. Why would I be drinking?”

She continued to stare at me in silence, her eyes growing harder, her mouth tightening and turning into a straight line, her chin pushing slightly forward. At that moment, she looked like a pitbull ready to attack.

“You tell me why,” she finally uttered. Her hoarse voice didn’t portend forgiveness.

“I haven’t,” I coughed up, my throat suddenly dry. “I haven’t had a drop of alcohol in my mouth for several months.” It was a lie, but she didn’t need to know that. Not now, not ever.

“And you expect me to believe this? Of course, you haven’t been drinking. Why then are we sitting here in the middle of nowhere and having this conversation?”

“Get off my back,” I opened the door and jumped out of the quietly humming truck. Loretta followed suit.

We made a few steps in the direction where our collision ought to have occurred, expecting to see… something. A deer?.. Santa Clause? All we saw, however, was a deserted highway, sentry pine trees, and a promise of big trouble if we didn’t get out of here soon.

Loretta touched me lightly on the shoulder. “Listen!” she whispered. I strained my hearing, and realized that the world grew quieter than in a coffin.

“The truck!”

The end

Related posts:

Adventures in Creative Writing

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Taking creative writing classes has been my longtime desire, but until recently I haven’t had the courage to act on it. Unlike many aspiring writers, I never claim to have wanted to be a writer ever since I learned my first letters. Although I remember writing poems in secret. Once, in a summer camp, I wrote a poem and put it in my drawer; another girl found it and said it was no good. My feelings were hurt beyond measure. After that I only wrote poems-parodies and shared them with a few friends. I even attempted to write a sci-fi story and sent the manuscript to a youth newspaper — the story never got published. Over the years, I’ve come to think of myself as a “visual” person, rather than a “word” person. But life happens, changing the way we see the world and our place in it. So here I am, hooked on writing at 44, venturing into the wonderful world of fiction not as a spectator, but a storyteller. And, oh boy, is this fun!

I am now two weeks into Creative Writing 101 offered by Gotham Writer’s Workshop. It’s an online course, and my classmates and instructor are all connecting from different locations and time zones. Once a week, we receive a lecture and, using a discussion board and live chat, discuss among ourselves what we’ve learned. Our weekly material also includes an array of writing exercises for practice and one assignment that we turn in by the end of the week for instructor’s feedback. The course is well-paced and fits into my busy schedule nicely. It gives me enough breathing space, so I can focus on my writing assignments without feeling overwhelmed or pressured. Although it’s still early in the course, what I’ve learned so far has already changed the way I read fiction. I began to pay more attention to the aspects of language and storytelling that I often took for granted. In that sense, I can say my reading experience has acquired a new dimension and is becoming more enjoyable the more I learn about creative writing process.

What I find especially enticing about this course is an opportunity to learn from a master of the craft. My course is led by Chip Livingston, author of Museum of False Starts; his next book is slated to come out this spring. Without doubt, I am impressed with Chip’s accomplishments, but most importantly, I appreciate his leadership and active engagement in the class. I also find his timely feedback on our assignments invaluable, unlike some other programs I took in the past, where I had to wait for instructor’s feedback for weeks.

To my utter delight, Chip kindly agreed to do a short interview for this blog. I think it might be of interest to those of you who are passionate about writing. I also think it is only fair to give you an opportunity to take part in it. So, you are welcome to submit one or two questions about writing (via comments to this post) that will be used in our interview with Chip. Questions in the interview post will be properly attributed with a link to your blog, or to your Twitter/Facebook account, in case you don’t have a blog. Below I included one of Chip’s prose poems from his Museum of False Starts book, which he shared in our class.

I am also planning on sharing more of what I learn in the class in my future posts (within Gotham’s guidelines, of course.)

Stay tuned and I look forward to your interview questions!


Yesterday my father was dying
by Chip Livingston, Museum of False Starts

Yesterday my father was dying, and he asked me why – in a voice so hoarse and dry I had to lean in close to hear him – why I flew two-thousand miles.  I asked myself: about the odor from the cracked shell of his skin; about his breath, which smelled as if he’d crawled from underneath the house, or drifted up from ocean’s depths, like the one I flew across, only to borrow the truck he could not drive, and race to a gas station for cigarettes, when I had not smoked in years.

I sit out on his front porch swing, another thing untouched since I’ve been here, and watch a trail of ants raise a cricket from the ground.  Paralyzed, swollen, and I hope numbed, she drags her egg stick on the cement like a broken magic wand, her feelers twitching uselessly as they lift her up and carry her – like the clumsy paramedics hauled my father to the funeral home.

We’re all alone, I thought, that cricket and my father’s wife and me.  And we can’t grasp what carries us.  It isn’t grief, at least not mine, that moves us to another’s house, for days or weeks, a time of strangers leaving chicken made in casseroles, and frozen, labeled with dates, names, and numbers, like toe tags, so we know where to return the clean dishes and Tupperware.

I sit and smoke and stare in space, watch the insects scale the bricks, not knowing if the cricket laid her eggs, or where the ants will carry her, or if I give a damn what they do with my father.

How would I know what he wanted?  I wasn’t here, and we weren’t close. His wife should know better than to ask me if I care if she buries him in her hometown three states away; or if she keeps the urn; or if I want to share his ashes.

Though, maybe I do.

There is a hint of rain in this morning’s humid air, and the ants have moved the cricket to the concrete’s edge, where she teeters before falling in the weedy flower bed.

I find their nest.  The sandhill’s higher on the western side to keep the rain from rushing down and flooding them.  The hole, too small to fit the carcass underground, is perfect for a final cigarette.

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This book is an excellent resource for everyone who is writing professionally. Based on the book, I’ve created a 28-point list that I use as a reference/reminder in my on-the-job writing and editing, as well as other types of writing. I do a quick refresher every once a while by going through all points, and once in a while I re-read the entire book or select chapters. I suggest you take the time to read the entire book.

Here is my 28-point summary:
1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs
Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right. Place subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence. For suspense and tension save subject and verb of the main clause until later.
2. Order words for emphasis.
Place strong words at the beginning and at the end. Put the weakest point in the middle, strongest at the beginning and end.
3. Activate your verbs.
Strong verbs create action; save words, and reveal the players. (active voice) Avoid verb qualifiers (adverbs), use the most appropriate verbs that convey the right meaning.
4. Use both passive and active voice.
Use passive verbs to call attention to the receiver of the action. Active verbs move the action and reveal the actors. Passive verbs emphasize the receiver, the victim.
5. Watch the adverbs.
Use them to change the meaning of the verb. Do not use them if they repeat the meaning already contained in the verb. E.g. “He listened surreptitiously” to “He eavesdropped.”
6. Take it easy on the –ings. (verbs with –ings resemble each other, extra syllable, diluted effect)
7. Fear not the long sentence.
Tips: It helps if subject and verb of the main clause come early in the sentence.
Use the long sentence to describe something long.
Chronological order helps.
Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
Use the long sentence as a list or catalogue of products, names and images.
Make every word count.
8. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist. Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.(perfectly parallel “boom, boom, boom”, with a twist “boom, boom, bang”. E.g. “truth, justice, and the American way”.
9. Cut big, then small. Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves. (Make every word count.)
Cut any passage that does not support your focus.
Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader.
Eliminate every element that is not doing useful work.
Targets for cuts:
Adverbs that intensify rather than modify
Prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious
Phrases that grow on verbs: seems to, tends to, should have to, tries to.
Abstract nouns that hide active verbs. (consider vs consideration)
Restatements: a sultry, humid afternoon.
10. Prefer the simple over the technical. Use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity. (defamiliarization, familiarization strategies to achieve a certain effect). Avoid using longer words where short ones will do.
11. Give key words their space. Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect. (avoid repetition, unless intended)
12. Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids, but the average reader understands.
13. “Get the name of the dog”. Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.
14. Pay attention to names. Interesting names attract the writer – and the reader.
15. Seek original images. Reject clichés and first-level creativity. Use straight language instead of a cliché
16. Riff on the creative language of others. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
17. Set the pace with sentence length. Vary the length of the sentences in paragraphs.
18. Vary the length of paragraphs.
19. Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.
One for power. E.g. The girl is smart.
Two for comparison or contrast. Eg. The girl is smart and sweet.
Three for completeness, wholeness, roundness. Eg. The girl is smart, sweet and determined.
Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.
20. Know when to back off and when to show off. When the topic is most serious, understate; when least serious, exaggerate.
21. Learn when to show, when to tell, and when to do both.
22. Learn the difference between reports and stories. Use one to render information, the other to render experience.
23. Show characteristics through detail, scenes and dialogue.
24. Juxstaposition. Put odd and interesting things next to each other. Help the reader learn from contrast.
25. Foreshadow dramatic events and powerful conclusions. Plant important clues early.  (Chekhov’s Gun: “one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it”)
26. To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers. To propel readers, make them wait.
27. Build your work around a key question. Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader.
28. Place gold coins along the path. Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle. (journalists – top heavy – most interesting points go to the top). In other words, place shining pieces strategically, to engage the reader and fan her interest.

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Thanks to Cassie’s recommendation, I am now enjoying this awesome book about writing fiction and all the personal drama of a novelist that seems to come with it. To tell the truth, I am in awe, stunned, speechless. It blows my mind just to think that a book about writing can have such profound effect on a person. As if the sky opened up, and, for a brief moment, I’ve glimpsed a reflection of something bigger than life. The sense of awe (and acute awareness of it) struck me even before I arrived at the following sentence: “This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of – please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered world.” Wow! That was Lamott’s intent all along! Not only am I delighted with her ability to produce such magic, but also with my ability to be part of it as a reader. Within every page, things are revealed that I didn’t know, didn’t pay attention to or couldn’t put into words before; with every sentence, my mental picture of writing and the reasons why we write is gaining more clarity, vibrancy and depth. I understand now why we love to write so much – it gives us a chance to transcend our personal limitations and connect with Beauty, Love, Compassion, God — even though to do it, we have “to open veins and bleed.”

Half-way through the book, when I was reading about creating believable characters and letting them do their own thing, a thought crossed my mind that it may be so that I haven’t got even an ounce of literary talent. I stayed with the thought long enough to look at it from this angle and that, waiting to see which emotion would rush to surface. Shockingly, it was relief. Now I can put my worries about “talent” (or lack of it) to bed and simply go about my business. This discovery, however, makes me wonder whether I will harbour any dreams of ever writing a novel. Oh, forget the novel, how about a short story for a start? Memoirs?.. At any rate, I’ve enrolled in Creative Writing 101 and decided to include in this blog a few posts about my experiences growing up.

Back to the awe-inspiring book. I actually don’t have much to add, except that the book is funny and insightful. You’ll learn a ton about being a writer and maybe even how to write fiction. You’ll learn about being a reader too, which is also important. (Just for perspective, along with Bird by Bird I was also recommended Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. No doubt, it’s a good book, very well written, but after reading the first 20 pages, I gave it up, because I was bored out of my skull. Maybe some other time.) Bird by Bird is like a breath of fresh air: lighthearted, humorous, delightful. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

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