From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Being Professional: how creative writers can stand out from the crowd

I think I have mentioned before that I am involved in a local production of Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Obviously this is a community theater production as opposed to a professional one. I have been part of several community theater productions, and have thoroughly enjoyed myself doing so, but I've seen and learned something that can apply to and benefit artists of all kinds.

No matter the setting, behaving professionally will make you stand out from the crowd, and will make you someone who people want to support and work with again and again. In the show I'm in right now, as is the case in basically any community theater production, many times some of the cast and crew don't take the production as seriously as perhaps the director would like them to, and things happen such as missing rehearsals, complaining, dropping out, etc. I'm not trying to criticize anyone, and many times it is simply the case that people don't know what they're getting into, or something like that. My point here is that those who act professionally in this "non-professional" setting (i.e. show up on time, don't complain, do what they're asked, work hard, etc.) have a better experience, create a better experience for others, and open doors to further opportunities. I have gotten to know the cast and have had a blast so far in this show, and because I come early and do my best to behave professionally, I feel that my relationship with my director is such that I can trust to learn from her, and she can trust me with additional responsibilities and opportunities. It has been a great experience thus far.

The same goes for writing. Even if all you're doing is reading a poem for a few students on the staff of your local universities creative writing journal, be professional about it. Dress appropriately, behave kindly, be punctual and considerate, etc. When in communication with editors or agents, show gratitude and an extreme willingness to work. Respond as quickly as possible, and be understanding when things don't work out exactly as you'd hoped. All this will make you someone who those in your industry want to help succeed.

Have you had an experience where professionalism has been a factor? Any other thoughts on this?

Sarah Allen

Monday, January 25, 2010

Extracurricular activities for Creative Writers

One of the things I love best about calling myself a writer is that absolutely anything can qualify as "research." People watching, movie watching, book reading, game playing, music listening, grocery shopping, etc. It all counts, because it can all inspire and generate creativity. In fact, I think ever writer kind of needs something extra to keep the juices flowing and the blocks from staying.

Think of 'Julie and Julia.' Julia Powell accomplished her goal of becoming a published writer through the extra-curricular activity of cooking. J. R. R. Tolkien developed Lord of the Rings out of his love for studying languages. Shakespeare was both a writer and an actor, and I bet both activities fed into and inspired each other.

In my case, as an example, I'd say my primary "extra-curricular activity" is theater and film. This is a little easier to tie in to writing because both theater and writing are creative, artistic fields, but it works well as an example. You can meet people who inspire certain characters. You can practice inhabiting a character, which is essential for both actors and writers. You get to practice being rejected over and over again until you finally get a yes. You experience stories in a new and exciting way. All of this can apply to theater and writing.

But there are lots of other activities with more lessons to teach. Extra activities can help you heighten your emotional sensibilities, connect with other people, relax and expand your mind, refresh your bank of characters and plots, inspire a specific story, refresh your mind and body physically, keep you up to date with the modern world, teach you about the ancient one, find creative ways to market your work, and the list goes on and on. Find activities that work for you and derive your own lessons from them.

Here's a very incomplete list of extra-curricular activities that may help inspire you. It may be useful as a starting point:

-Theater/Film (acting, directing, reviewing, costume/set design, cinematography, dramaturgy, etc.)
-Improv (improv groups are a GREAT source of creative inspiration)
-Pets (breeding, training, loving, etc.)
-Mothering (this is a huge one)
-Sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting, etc.
-Sciences (biology, psychology, astrology, chemistry, etc.)
-Design (interior design, fashion design, ad campaign design, etc.)
-Physical training
-Anything else you like to do

What extra activities do you do for inspiration?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Publication Spotlight: Boston Literary Magazine

When I come across a unique or awesome publication opportunity, I like to spread the word. I'm starting with Boston Literary Magazine, because a couple days ago I received my very first non-form rejection from them. Not only that, but it was EXTREMELY intelligent and helpful. I don't know if sending out non-form rejections is common practice for them or not, but regardless, they're critique was wonderful.

Boston Literary Magazine

What makes this magazine unique is that they don't publish anything longer then 250 words. They also publish Haiku's, and magazines that do that can be hard to come by. They have specific categories for stories that are 100 and 50 words exactly. Remember my 100 word story from the BYU Word of Mouth Podcast? Well, I sent it in to this magazine and here is what they said:

"Hi, Sarah, very good setup here, but I wish the ending had come as a surprise later in the story... in other words, your story's twist is that she put her earrings in and went out to her book group. I think this would have been stronger if you'd led up to the scene more and then had that be the last line... not that he nods, dazed... that she walks out the door... and what's going on in his head... so I am going to pass. Thanks anyway."

Great advice, right? I think so. I'm absolutely going to rework my story with their critique in mind before I send it out. I think thats the best thing to do with non-form rejections. Those of you with more experience then I, what is your typical response to non-form rejections?

So if you have a flash flash fiction story, send it! If not, take 100 words as a challenge and see what you can come up with. I'd love to know how it goes for you.

Sarah Allen

Monday, January 18, 2010

Objectives, Conflicts, and Tactics

Here are more principles of theater that I think can be very well applied to creative writing. Objectives, conflicts and tactics make for exciting theater and characters, and it can do the same for the characters in your book.

Objectives: If your character doesn't want anything or isn't trying to get something they become flat and boring. Its not exciting to watch someone sitting there being content. All your characters need more general, overarching objectives that lead them through the whole book. But in every scene your characters need much more concrete, specific objectives: she wants her husband to admit he's having an affair--he wants to leave the house--she wants her sister to let her borrow the stunning green dress. The objectives are usually most successful when they go through another character. They need to be so concrete that there is one action that will signify when the objective has been obtained (leaving the house, admitting an affair, getting the dress). Then once you've got specific objectives, take the next step: raise the stakes. Make every objective life or death. She wants him to admit to an affair, because she's having an affair and needs to justify herself. He needs to leave the house because if he's late for work one more time he'll get fired. She wants her sisters dress because the boy she's liked for three years finally asked her to a dance and its the only dress she feels beautiful in.

Conflicts: These are obviously what is keeping your character from getting their objective. The most exciting conflicts are another characters opposing objectives. He won't admit to an affair because he wants to keep having it. He can't leave the house because his wife won't stop accusing him of having an affair, and leaving will just increase her suspicion. She can't have the dress because her sister was planning on wearing it that same night. Make sure the conflicts are legitimate obstacles. And don't be afraid to pile them on. Maybe while they're arguing about an affair the dinner starts burning. Maybe one of their mothers will be coming in five minutes. Maybe its July in Texas and the air conditioning is broken. Maybe mom already told her she's too young to wear a dress like that and if she hears them arguing about it then both of them will just get in trouble. Just keep it coming.

Tactics: For me tactics are where things can get really interesting. Tactics are the ways the character tries to get their objective. They need to be concrete, specific action verbs: seduce, anger, threaten, guiltify, excite, pacify, flatter, the list goes on and on and on. What makes things interesting is when you use tactics that are completely unexpected. What if she tries to seduce him in order to get him to admit an affair? You can play with these in so many ways, and tactics are what make your characters unique. Make the most of them.

Happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Friday, January 15, 2010

Character Songs

Right now i'm in the play 'Much Ado About Nothing.' I'm playing Verges, Dogberry's little sidekick. My director had us find a song that epitomizes our character. It was much more difficult then I thought it would be, but also more enlightening. It really helped me access a deeper side of my character, even though it is Verges, who probably doesn't really have a deep personality :-)

Anyway, I thought this could effectively and beneficially be applied to creative writing. For main characters in particular, and any other characters you're having a hard time grasping, finding a song (or for main characters, maybe two or three) that just clicks with them may give you the inspiration you need. It will give you a certain feeling or aura about that character, and I know that for me that's often how I can most successfully get to know a character. Especially complex main characters who have complicated personality traits; it takes more then just a personality checklist, and often a song is just the thing to help you capture what you're trying to capture.

Have you ever done this? What songs have helped you? Do you think this could actually work, or do you think it would be distracting?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Elite, Popular, Folk

In my American Folklore class, we talked about these terms as types of aesthetic categorization, and I found it rather intriguing. This type of categorization can be applied to everything from music to medicine, but I, of course, am going to look at it from a literary standpoint. First, lets define terms:

Elite. Best, highest quality, most prestigious. The kind of art you generally study in academia. Examples: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Herman Melville.

Popular. Mainstream, part of the culture, mass produced. Examples: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King.

Folk. Informal, societally based, more down to earth, tales, legends. Examples: Greek mythology, Norse mythology, fairy tales, campfire stories, jokes.

Now, if you were paying attention, you'll notice something about the examples. None of them quite fit exactly in one category. Jane Austen was also popular. Rowling draws on all kinds of mythology and folklore.

Take Shakespeare, for example. Obviously he is considered elite; he has written some of the greatest works in the English language that we have been studying in our universities for years. He was also popular; he wrote plays to pay the bills and feed his family. The average people of his day knew who he was and enjoyed his work. He also draws on folk stories and mythologies, sometimes indirectly, and sometimes, such as in Midsummer Nights Dream, very directly. Mark Twain is another writer who we consider great and study in our schools, who was popular and well-received in his own day, and who drew heavily on folk stories and language in his work.

So why does this make a difference in our own writing? Well, by drawing on elite, popular and folk literature, we can expand our own mental cannon. By accessing many types of literature we can reach many types of people. So study your school reading, keep updated on the New York Times bestseller list, and make sure you know a little ancient mythology. No matter what style or genre your writing, being intelligently versed in all three categories will greatly expand your mental resources when you sit down to write. You may be surprised at what happens.

So how do you think each of these categories can help your own writing? What is beneficial to you about each of them?

Sarah Allen

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Flash Fiction Story: the Podcast is up!

A while ago I mentioned that a flash fiction story of mine had been accepted as part of a flash fiction contest for the Word of Mouth podcast at BYU. I got to go in and read my story as part of the podcast, and now its finally up. The best thing about it is that one of the professors talks about the stories, and hearing his ideas and input is awesome. So anyway, check out the Word of Mouth Podcast if you're interested, and I would love to know what you think. (Here is a link to the exact audio file if thats easier, not just the home page. And as a warning, it sometimes takes a while to upload.)

Anyway, I hope if you listen to it that you will let me know what you think. They introduce things and talk for a while, but mine is the first one read. I'm pretty excited that I got to have this opportunity, but I'm always looking to improve and find even more opportunities, as I'm sure you are. Thanks so much for your help and support!

Sarah Allen

Friday, January 8, 2010

Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)

This movie has been out for a while, and I've wanted to see it since then, but tonight I actually got to. And I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Here is what I think creative writers can learn from J. J. Abram's success.

Pull no punches: Give your characters everything you've got. As I heard somewhere, chase them up trees. Then throw rocks at them. I don't think I could count on one hand the number of times Kirk was nearly throttled to death, every time by someone new. Because no punches were pulled in this movie, there was never a dull moment. Something important was always going on, and the characters will always in significant, meaningful situations. Make sure every moment in your book is meaningful. If it can get worse, make it worse. If its too easy, it won't be that big a deal to your character, therefore, not that big a deal to your reader. Make your characters work for everything they're worth, and then when they finally emerge victorious in some way, then they and your reader will feel that they've truly had a meaningful experience.

Show the inner marshmallow: On the outside, Spock is completely intellectual, stoic, and apathetic. After all, he's Vulcan. But he's also part human, and we see this in his break down moments, and moments of romantic affection. This is why the emotionally driven human audience can relate to him as a character. Whether your characters are human or not, we need to be able to relate to them in some way. Even some human characters aren't completely "human". Think of Ebeneezer Scrooge. But even then, by the end of the book, we see how utterly human he truly is. And this is why we love him.

Hit the cultural core: Imagine you're a lifelong trekkie, devoted to the show since the beginning. Now, almost half a century later, yet another Star Trek movie comes out. As you sit there watching, the one and only Leonard Nemoy appears on the screen. Not only that, but the ending sequence of the movie is Nemoy himself, reciting the infamous Trek monologue. Those kind of things makes the movie mean that much more. Its a bit of art that has already proven itself, so much so in fact it has become part of our culture. Use it! Pull in bits of art and culture that already mean something to people, and when you do it right, you pull in those people.

So what do you think of this movie? What did you learn from it?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

J. R. R. Tolkien Trivia

This is the first week of a new semester, so I apologize for the minor blog slacking. I'll try and get things under control super quick and get back to our regularly scheduled program.

In the meantime, I'm taking a couple classes that I think may be of interest to the writerly/artistic type. I'm taking 1)symbolic anthropology, 2)writings of Isaiah, 3)American folklore and, best of all, 4) J. R. R. Tolkien.

I'll start of with a cool bit of trivia that I learned in my Tolkien class this morning: The word Hobbit comes from a combination of the words hobgoblin and rabbit. Isn't that awesome?!

Anyway, not much time today, but I'll leave you with that. Hope your new year is going splendidly, and best of luck with the writing!

Sarah Allen

Monday, January 4, 2010

Creative Writer's Guide to Twitter

Twitter is not only one of the biggest online phenomenons of the past year, but it is one of the best marketing tools any writer has. I'm a relative new comer to twitter, but I've been using it for a few months now and here are some things I've learned that may help you writers in your twittering.

Networking: From what I've found, there are two kinds of connections that writers can make on Twitter. 1) Potential readers and word-spreaders. 2) Other writers. Basically anyone on Twitter can end up being a positive, beneficial contact. You may form great connections within the publishing community, and just by forming lots of mutually beneficial relationships on twitter you'll have a bigger network of people ready to support you when you need it. Who knows, you may find your agent or next writing gig using Twitter.

Inspiration: An entertaining tweet may be the basis for you next short story. The tweets of one follower may inspire you in character development. Not only that, but the writer friends you make on twitter can inspire you to get more writing done. You'll have a writerly community to support you, and won't feel as much like your in it alone.

Promotion: Its obvious that Twitter is a great tool for getting out the word about your newest publications, blog posts, etc. However, there are two things to keep in mind. First, nobody wants to be your friend if all you're doing is trying to sell them something. Be involved, honest, and natural. Be sincere in your virtual relationships. Second, I think posting stuff like "here's my book" or "here's my blog" may not be the best way of going about it. One idea I read somewhere that I think is a good one is this: tweet an intriguing line or bit of information from whatever you're trying to direct followers to. So, instead of saying, "Buy my book here," say something more like, "It was raining for the third day in a row, and only Truman knew how significant that really was." You've worked really hard on hooking in your readers. Use that hook on your Twitter followers.

Here's my twitter profile and here's a list of helpful, knowledgeable writers that I follow. What has helped you in your use of Twitter?

Happy Tweeting!
Sarah Allen

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Keeping up with your creative writing new year resolutions

Its day two of new years resolutions. How are you doing? If you're like me, you're already realizing how difficult your resolutions are actually going to be. Life just gets in the way so often! How do you keep up on your writing resolutions past the first day?

Control yourself. Let's start off with a not-to-do list from 52 Projects. Very entertaining list, and true. For example, careful not to spend too much time online. Creating a web presence is such a part of a writers life these days that it is way too easy to spend hours on end doing online stuff. The online part is an important part of being a writer, but its not the most important.

Time yourself. Both the distracting things and the writing things. Say you'll spend one hour online in the morning, and then get in three good solid hours of writing. Something like that. And then stick to your limits.

Inspire yourself. There are tons of great quotes about writing from authors who have succeeded. Find ones that inspire you and stick them around your desk. When your tempted to slack off, the quotes will remind you what you're aspiring too.

Stretch yourself. Branch off into new and different types of projects that you haven't tried before. Try new styles and genres. That way you can avoid getting bored and frustrated with your usual stuff.

Resign yourself. Just do it. The only thing really stopping you from becoming and accomplishing what you want to is you. Sit your butt in the chair and just write. I probably need to work on this one more then most, but it is a necessary part of being a successful writer.

Market yourself. Keeping in mind that one can't spend too much time online or distracting themselves, its important that writers put themselves out there and spread the word, and more then that, it can be fun. Making friends on sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Twitter, etc, can be exciting and rewarding. Market yourself online, but also research local opportunities like book clubs, writing groups, etc. Making new friends can help you avoid feeling like you're in this by yourself.

Forgive yourself. No one is perfect. You won't get done what you want to every day. So get over it, and do better tomorrow. If you wallow in your mistakes you'll never pick yourself up and make progress. If things just don't work out one day, then work harder the next. Do the best you can every day, do better the next, and you'll be surprised how much progress you can make.

What challenges have you been facing with your writing resolutions? What has helped you?

Happy writing!
Sarah Allen
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