From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, February 14, 2011

Writing Through Pain, Discomfort and Disruption

Though I hope you all are having a fantastic Valentine's day today, that is not what I want to write about, first because I have nothing to say about it, second, there is something I would rather talk about. Everybody has pain, discomfort and disruption in their life; surgery, broken bones, sickness, insomnia, getting stuck at airports, a bunch of other things. So the question is, when that is happening, how do you write through it?

First off, why should we even care about writing through it? I mean, we all deserve breaks sometimes, don't we? With all the changes in the publishing industry going on, the answer is that the most commercially successful writers are most likely going to be the quick and prolific ones. From the research I've done, the publishing path that makes sense to me is to do what I can with Big Publishing, give them my best work, and then use Print-on-Demand and eBooks for the rest, and that means I'm going to need to have a good literary output. We'll see how that works, but basically, in todays world its important to write lots and write fast. (This is coming from a commercial perspective. Every writer is different, and each has to balance this commercial side with the artistic side. But the days of the writer being taken care of are gone.)

The only answer I can really think of for this dilemma is to just write. Just push through, just do it. You can always come back with a fat red pen if/when you need to. Just do what you can. Perhaps writing in spurts can help. Music, movies and other books can help calm you down. Have you had these experiences before? What helps you write through pain, discomfort and disruption?

Ok, so here's the real reason I wanted to write about this today: tomorrow I'm getting reconstructive jaw surgery. I'll be in the hospital for a few days and be on a liquid diet for six weeks. Honestly, there are others (my mother) much more worried then I am, but its still going to be painful and uncomfortable. I would love your ideas about how to get writing done during situations like this. And if you don't hear from me in the next couple days or hear something kind of disjointed and drugged up, you'll know why. I'm not planning on going out of commission, but thats exactly why I'm writing about it--I need your help to keep things going.

There are a few other things you could do for me, if its not too presumptuous to ask.

First, your prayers, if you are so inclined, would be appreciated. Any and all prayers.

Second, tell a friend about this blog. I've been having much more success with it then I've ever had, and for that I thank you. I'd like to keep that up and keep the readership growing. If you know anyone who may find it helpful or at least entertaining, maybe let them know about it.

Third, I'm going to be unable to do much but lay around for the next little while, so I would love some movie recommendations. If you would put a list of your favorites in the comments, that would be awesome. For a few weeks my life is going to not be much besides reading, writing and movies. Ok, so its mostly like that anyway, but still...

Anyway, thank you so much for all your help and support. I'm pretty excited to get this over with and move on to the next adventure, but I hope to use the next few weeks to really crack down on my book. We'll see how everything goes.

Sarah Allen

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Last Five Books

I think its time to get some book recommendations. I want to know the last five books you've read and what you thought of them. Here's my list:

Tiger Eyes, Judy Blume: Short, wonderful book you can read in one sitting. To be honest, many times YA protagonists seem angsty and dumb to me, but Davey Wexler was a sweetheart, and I didn't mind her teenager-ness. Very good YA read. There's a reason for Judy Blume's wonderful reputation.

Villette, Charlotte Bronte: Oh wow. What to say about this book? It is such an intense emotional journey--you spend the majority of the book being dragged through the mud, being let off just enough to catch your breath so you don't suffocate. You crawl and struggle up a hill, still dragging in the mud. You get to the top and finally have a chance to stand up and dust yourself off. Then you get a knock-out punch in the face. I absolutely loved it. Charlotte Bronte is a genius. Not as mysterious or positive as Jane Eyre, but just as wonderful.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson: Beautiful, beautiful book. Almost musical in tone. Not the typical structure for a novel. It's written as a letter from a dying father to his young son. Stunningly beautiful. One of those books that really does take your breath away.

A Virtuous Woman, Kaye Gibbons: Another short, sweet book. I will admit that it took me a bit to get into the tone of it, but I ended up very much enjoying it in the end. Most of the book is written in first person, and then there's a switch to third in the very end, and this end part was my favorite. Kaye Gibbons really can get to the emotional gut in a wonderful way.

The Bonesetters Daughter, Amy Tan: I enjoy Amy Tan's stories. She is not the most elegant writer, but her stories are extremely well-crafted and fun to follow. She understands relationships very well, I think. Good read, I would definitely recommend it.

Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens: Ok, so I know this is six. But I just could not leave without recommending this book. Absolutely phenomenal. If you like Dickens, or even if you don't, this is such a sweet book with so much Dickensian awesomeness and humor, and so much heart. Little Dorrit herself is one of the great characters in literature. Seriously, read this book.

So those are the last five (ok, six) books I've read. Right now I'm reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. I'm enjoying it a lot so far, though I'm not too far into it yet and its different from my usual. But I like McMurtry's style.

Anyway, the point of this is to get some recommendations from all you guys. What are the last five books (or so) that you've read? Which ones would you recommend, which ones not so much? Every clump of writing advice I've ever seen includes the thought that to be a writer you MUST be a reader. So this can help me read voraciously for the next little while. So, books?

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The difficulty with my genre is...

This is something I've been thinking about while I have been working on the first draft of my first novel. There is still no title yet, but it is an adult mainstream book. That is the typical genre that I write in. The thing is, I'm becoming a bit nervous that it isn't exciting enough. I am extremely excited by the story and the characters, but there are no car chases or gun fights or lawyers or kidnapping or murderers, and there are no vampires or teenagers in love with paranormal creatures. I guess I'm feeling intimidated by the fact that I am not writing thriller or paranormal romance. Those seem to be the popular genres of the day, and I'm worried that my story is not going to catch peoples attention because it is not within those genres. I know thats a ridiculous worry, though, because I don't really read thrillers or paranormal romance either, so I know that there are amazing books out there outside of those genres, but my question is: how do I know, in this era of thriller and paranormal romance, that my book is exciting enough? That it won't bore the modern reader to absolute death?

I have another question about genres. I want to write in many different types of genres. I'm doing adult mainstream right now, and that is probably going to stay my main genre, but I know I want to try YA and I may want to try my hand at fantasy or western or adventure or romance, other genres like that. Is that possible, in todays publishing world? Will agents, editors and publishers allow writers to do that? Have any of you done this, and how has it turned out for you?

Here's the thing. I'm going to write no matter what, and write what I want to write no matter what. But I still have questions and doubts about whether and how I can be successful doing that. So advice and info would be fantastic. Thanks to all of you for your amazing help and support.

What are the difficulties for you in your genre? Do you find it useful to write in a variety of genres or not, and why?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Writing Lessons from Larry Shue and 'The Foreigner'

This weekend I went to a fantastic production of Larry Shue's The Foreigner. Those of you who have seen this play know how phenomenally well-written it is. Those of you who have not seen it, leap at the absolute next chance you have to see it. There is such heart, humor and honesty in this play. As far is this play goes, Larry Shue is a genius.

In the playbill, there is an About the Author section that has a quote from Larry Shue that I find interesting and helpful. Here is the paragraph:

"To author Larry Shue, buying a hamburger was a near overwhelmingly big deal. This is perhaps why there is such honesty in Shue's protagonists, including Charlie Baker, a man who describes himself as 'shatteringly, profoundly--boring.' Shue, himself, admitted that he was his own best inspiration for plays, remarking, 'I write plays out of embarrassment...I generally write them either about my personal experiences, or I find an interesting character and try to fill in the world around him.'"

I don't know about you, but I find this relatable and interesting. I think writing out of an honest, even embarrassing exploration of yourself is an incredible place to start from. It can lead to human and honest work that is successful at touching the reader/audience. It is, I think, what makes a piece unforgetable.

Happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Monday, February 7, 2011

How do you assess a literary magazine?

I've been wondering. I counted up yesterday, and with all my poetry, non-fiction and short stories, my work is submitted to a total of 29 different magazines. So this is something I really need to understand better. How do you assess a literary magazine?

How do you judge the quality of a magazine? The only real litmus test that I know is whether or not a magazine has been anthologized in Best American. Those are some obvious ones, like The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, Granta, etc. What are some other tests? How do you tell if a magazine is considered a "high quality" magazine or not? I believe there are certain awards out there that one could use, but I'm not too aware of what those are.

How do you tell if your work would be a good fit in a magazine? The best answer is to read it, but even then, it is nearly impossible to be objective about ones own work, so even if you read a magazine cover to cover it might still be difficult to judge whether your work is what they are looking for. So how do you tell? Is there a poor persons answer for people who can't afford to buy the magazine, and so can't read it?

I would really appreciate some of your ideas. What are the criteria you use? What seems to work best for you?

Sarah Allen

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Creative Writing and the Super Bowl: 3 Lessons for Writers

Considering what day it is, I thought I'd try and see if there is anything useful for creative writers about Super Bowl Sunday. Of course, it's completely possible to be a determined writer and an avid football fan, I'm just not one of those people. I enjoy football, sure, but I thought I'd try and see if I could enjoy it even more by relating it to my life, i.e., creative writing. So here is what I came up with:

Subject Material: use your experiences/knowledge about football and the Super Bowl as the subject of your creative writing. Write about a football player who gets injured. A nerdy guy trying to impress a girl who knows more about football than he does. The crazy, mustached aunt who visits on Super Bowl Sunday, never on Christmas. The old man in the retirement home who does nothing but watch Super Bowl re-runs. Winning two tickets to the Super Bowl, only to have them stolen from you at gunpoint. See what I mean? Lots of options here.

Marketing Ideas: personally, I am more entertained by the Super Bowl commercials than I am with the actual football game. No where can you find better examples of good marketing, I think, than these commercials. Learn from them. What makes them effective or hilarious? What works? Use that in your own marketing. Make random YouTube videos using those ideas to promote your books. Even the fact that this is one of those times that people are getting together could be used for marketing; let your buddies know about your book, give copies to your other friends who are having Super Bowl parties and have them laying around for people to look at. What other marketing strategies can we writers get here? Any other ideas?

Traditional Value: and I don't mean moral conservatism. Let me explain. Super Bowl Sunday is one of those American traditions. Even those who don't watch the game know when it's Super Bowl Sunday. It's become part of our collective subconscious, in a way. Certain books do that too. A Christmas Carol is part of our collective Christmas celebration. You can talk about any character from Harry Potter and basically everyone will know who and what you are talking about. You can say "To be or not to be" and even those who have never picked up a Shakespeare in their life can finish with, "that is the question." Now, obviously there is not a one-track, guaranteed formula for how to become an American institution. I wish there was. I'm simply trying to bring attention to the fact that these things exist (the Super Bowl being one of them), and being aware of them, learning from them and imbibing what we value from them, perhaps can help us become more universal in our writing and expand our audience. I hope that makes sense. Being aware of our culture can help us become a bigger part of it.

What other lessons do you think we writers can learn from the Super Bowl? What are ways literaria and athletics can benefit each other?

Sarah Allen

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Kid History: Storytelling by the Little Ones

Kids are hilarious story tellers. We writers are story tellers too, right? So here is an awesome example of the stories kids tell:

Kids stories are wonderful. Hope you enjoy as much as I did :)

Sarah Allen

Friday, February 4, 2011

Steve Carell is a genius: Michael Scott in "The Search"

Ok, I want to use this post to squee about something that brought me painful amounts of joy. Last nights episode of 'The Office' was, for me, one of the best episodes in a long time. I adore this show, and last nights episode shows exactly why.

I am a hopeless romantic, and last nights episode was a veritable feast for that sappy sentimental part of me. The search for Michael was both hilarious, with Dwight's classicly hilarious antics (telling Holly to imagine a clown or small bunny...great stuff) and most of all, completely and utterly sweet. And then of course, THE moment of the show, when Holly finds Michael on top of the building and they have one of the sweetest conversations in all of TV history. "Can I kiss you?" Let me just say I was imploding from delight.

Here's why I think these moments work so well. What I love about them is that we've been with Michael for so long, we know how ridiculous and frankly awful he can be sometimes. We know that he's kind of crazy. We also know how lonely he is, and how much he wants to be accepted. Then in these moments, when we know that he has finally found someone who not only knows how to deal with the ridiculousness, but appreciates how loving and lonely Michael is, and everything just seems right with the world. These are the moments that show the heart amidst the ridiculosity and humor. The Office does this to perfection, and I think its something we writers can learn from them.

Any Office/Steve Carell fans out there? See, its no wonder Dan In Real Life was such an incredible movie. Steve Carell is a genius. What did you think about last nights episode? Did you get as much pleasure out of it as I did?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, February 3, 2011

When You're Down and Troubled

So, it's been one of those weeks where I've gotten several rejections, lost several competitions. Usually rejections don't phase me in the least, but several of them added to losing multiple competitions in one week can get you kind of down. Most of the time I'm chipper as can be about facing the dreaded who-knows-how-long-it-will-be pre-published era of a writers life. I've gotten some small publications under my belt, for which I am eternally grateful, but I know I'm barely starting that part of my writing career. I'm still working on my first book, and still presumptuously submitting to magazines like McSweeney's and The New Yorker. But weeks like this seem to call up every rejection and every ounce of effort I've put in to writing since seventh grade, all the research and staying at school until midnight with my teachers getting ready for next-day competitions (again, eternal gratitude), and it's not like others have not worked just as hard, which I know they have, and its not like I'm more talented and deserving, which I know I'm not, but I HAVE worked hard for a long, long time, and it's just been a while since I've had anything to show for it. Basically, some validation would be nice, even though of course I'll keep writing regardless. It would just be good to not feel like a hack, you know?

What do you do when lack of validation starts getting to you? I mean, other things in my life are going great, and there are still awesome things in the world that make me happy, but that doesn't necessarily translate into feeling writerly validated. I don't think I'm alone in feeling like this every once in a while, am I? What do you do to make yourself feel better about your writing--when writing success hasn't happened in a while? I think its just a matter of patience, and there's nothing you can really do except keep writing and keep submitting.

Anyway, I think the point here is that sometimes things just don't work out as quickly or as well as you want them too, but thats okay because it happens to lots of people, and what makes the difference between succeeding and not is that you stick with it. I wish you the best of writing luck.

Sarah Allen

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

6 Questions about Submitting to Literary Magazines

I have some questions for you all in regards to submitting short stories, poetry, creative non-fiction, etc. to literary magazines:

-How do you keep track of what you've submitted where and when?
-How do you find new magazines to submit to?
-How do you tell which magazines tend towards your type of work? [something more efficient though perhaps less effective than the obvious answer of reading the magazine.]
-What do you put in the cover letter when they ask you to write a cover letter.
-How do you know when a piece is ready to submit?
-How do you know when to give up on a piece, and what do you do with it then?

I have some answers to these questions, but they either aren't working for me as well as I would like, or I would just like some corroboration or fresh ideas. I keep track of pieces by listing them in a word document along with where and when I've submitted them, color coded with submitted, accepted and rejected. I look on and NewPages. I am very lacking in ideas for how to see which magazines would like my work. I usually put previous publications and maybe something interesting about myself in the cover letters. I never think a piece is ready to submit, but I submit it anyway, and I'm still thinking of what to do with pieces I've given up on, but one place I've been using lately is DeviantArt. I've heard that a good rule of thumb is forty rejections.

Anyway, I really would love your answers to any or all of these questions. Any advice could make my and other writers lives much easier. So, what are your brilliant or even not-quite-brilliant ideas?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Well-Wishes to Egypt

From my limited understanding, it seems that today is the big day after a week of protesting in Egypt against its president, Hosni Mubarak. Today is the "Million member march" against the Presidential palace, and the estimates of actual turn-out that I've heard are from hundreds of thousands to the actual million they were looking for.

Egypt has given the world such beautiful things. Hieroglyphics, the pyramids, the Nile, everything up to Naguib Mahfouz. I hope that what is happening in Egypt right now does indeed lead to progress. I hope that this can be a step forward, not a step back. I believe it can. I hope things can be resolved peacefully, and that Egypt can continue to be such a beautiful, historic country.

This is a break from a direct post about writing, but everything counts as writerly research, right? Maybe short stories about these protests have already been written. And also, I know we all wish for Egypt to come to a quick, peaceful, and progressive resolution. We hope and pray for them.

Sarah Allen
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