From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Question for YOU

It's been a while since I've dedicated a post to getting feedback from you guys, and it's about time to do that again. I may ask some of the same questions, so I apologize to those of you who've been here long enough to answer some of these. But I would still very much love to hear your answer, even if its a repeat, and there are some new questions too.

This, for me, is one of the best ways I know to figure out how I can grow and improve as a writer on the internet. I want to know what you think, and what is most beneficial and interesting to you. Yes YOU. I would love to hear your answers to all or any of the following questions.

1. What blogs do you visit most? I basically want to know which blogs are your favorite (in addition to this one, of course ;) and I'm thinking that one of the best ways to gauge how helpful a blog is for you is to see how often you find yourself going back. So which blogs do you go back to again and again? Give me your top two or three, or more!

2. What book are you reading now, and how/where did you discover it?

3. How do you feel about the following on author blogs: Personal stories/essays, flash fiction, poetry, photo essay (ie. pics from the bloggers personal life and excursions) or "home-made" comics/illustrations (kinda like Hyperbole and a Half or Debbie Ohi).

4. Do you regularly watch any YouTube channels? If so, which ones?

5. Are you currently subscribed to any author newsletters?

6. What Reader do you use for reading blogs? Bloglovin? Feedly? FriendConnect? Something else? Or do you visit blogs one by one?

7. What is the number one thing you spend time doing on the internet? Facebook? Pinterest? Blog reading? Shopping? YouTube videos? Reading fan fic? Gaming?

8. Any ideas or suggested changes that you think would make this blog more useful, entertaining, or easier to read? Seriously, I can take it. If there's something you love from other blogs that you think could be incorporated here, let me know. If there's something here that bothers you, let me know. Any random thoughts? Let me know.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer any or all of these questions. I truly appreciate it, and want to hear as many ideas and perspectives as I can to make this blog the most helpful and entertaining for you that it can possibly be. Your feedback is always welcome and valued. Thanks again, I very much look forward to hearing what you have to say!

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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  • University of Iowa Press: Two publication awards are given annually by University of Iowa Press for first collections of short fiction. Writers who have not published a book of fiction are eligible. Due Sep. 30.
  • The Filid Chapbook: The Filid Chapbook is looking for BLUE content. (The color, the music, the range of feeling—we're looking for explorations of the theme). We accept poetry, nonfiction, short fiction, visual art, and pretty well anything else that interests us. Due Sep. 26.
  • Clockhouse Magazine: Clockhouse, a literary journal published in partnership with Goddard College, seeks submissions from emerging and established writers for its 2015 issue. Clockhouse is devoted to a variety of genres, publishing fiction, poetry, memoir, creative nonfiction, and dramatic work. Due Dec. 1


Monday, August 18, 2014

4 Ways Writers Can Go "Back To School"

This time of year always gets me thinking about that wonderful line from You've Got Mail when they're talking about school supplies and "bouquets of sharpened pencils." It's been a few years since I've been a registered student, but I do get nostalgic for some of those school days. School is awesome.

Even if we're not technically students at an official school, this time of year can inspire us to further our education. I personally feel like the only "hopeless" person is the person who feels they have nothing left to learn. We are always learning, always improving. So without official school, what can we writers do to keep finding teachers, and keep learning?

1. Read great writing books. There are so many options out there. Just head to the Writing and Publishing section of your local Barnes and Noble, and you'll see. A classic, and my personal favorite, is Stephen King's On Writing. Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell was also incredibly helpful.

2. Listen to TED Talks. These really are one of the best ways to casually continue one's education. There are thousands of TED talks uploaded, each one inspiration and informative, even (especially) ones that seemingly have nothing to do with writing. They are fun to listen to while at work or in the car. Here are a couple of my favorites:

3. Watch educational videos on YouTube. In the same vein as TED Talks, YouTube provides an endless conglomeration of incredible educational videos on basically any topic. Whether you are doing research on a particular topic for a novel or looking to broaden your education in general, YouTube is a great place to start. My favorite channels for this are CrashCourse by the indefatigable John and Hank Green, and VSauce.

4. Add more blogs to your subscription. Whatever blog subscription you use, find a couple more blogs that do great posts and add them to your feed. That way you are constantly learning from active participants in your field. See the spotlight section below and in other posts for some recommendations.

That's all for today, but I'm excited to see what ideas you guys have. What resources have helped you continue your writerly education?

Write on!

This Week on Social Media:

For more frequent updates, writing tips, and funnies, follow on FacebookTwitterGoogle+
YouTubePinterestTumblrGoodReads, and/or Instagram.


  • Chattahoochee ReviewThe Chattahoochee Review seeks submissions for its Fall/Winter 2014 double issue with a special focus on “Skin.” Literal and figurative explorations of the theme welcome. Due Sep. 1
  • The Conium ReviewThe Conium Review Online Compendium seeks flash fiction. Work must be unpublished. Simultaneous submissions are allowed. No reading fee. Due Oct. 1
  • The Minetta ReviewThe Minetta Review is a literary and arts publication managed by undergraduate students at New York University. If you are a poet, proser, prose-poet, painter, sculptor, photographer, digital illustrator—otherwise an experimenter of combining word and visual art—the Minetta Review staff encourages you to submit your work. Due Nov. 15
  • Writers Digest-Your Story 61: Write the opening sentence (just one, of 25 words or fewer) to a story based on the photo to the left. You can be funny, poignant, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story. Due Oct. 13

Monday, August 11, 2014

10 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Write

We all have those days.

So many things can zap your motivation. Maybe you got five hours of sleep. Maybe its a gorgeous day outside. Maybe it was a particularly hard day at work. Maybe its none of these things but just general blah-ness.

So what do you do when this happens? Muses are known for their fickle nature, and we can be more productive when we don't have to rely on them for our motivation. We want to to be able to be productive even when the muse seems to be missing.

Here are a few ways that help me rustle up some motivation when the normal flow has run dry.

1. Talk to other writers: This is one of the most helpful strategies for me when my motivation is lacking. On those days, often talking to other writers can sort of give you vicarious motivation. Talking to my writer friends, almost more than anything else, helps me re-feel my excitement, and remember what I love about writing, and why I'm doing this. On a specific level, even though I am definitely on the Say-Nothing-About-My-Project-Till-Its-Done end of the spectrum, talking vaguely about my projects helps me remember the exciting parts and the bits I super love. I firmly believe we humans are not solitary creatures, even us writers, and talking with other writers who relate to what we're going to can be incredibly valuable.

And remember, even if you don't know many writers personally, this is one of the best things about the internet and the blogosphere. There is a whole online community of writers who are willing to support you. (And in case any of you think you don't know many online writers either, my email is on the contact page and all my social media is at the buttons to the left :)

2. Visit a bookstore or library: This is one of my go-to strategies when bad days happen. I head on over to my local Barnes and Noble and just spend an hour or so running my fingers over spines of all the beautiful books. I read cover copy and look at pretty cover images. This is where we can physically visualize our end goal. At least that's how I feel. We can see the store shelves where our book would be. We can imagine our book next to all the others. We can see the folks wandering the store, and remember that the book they're lifting off the shelves might one day be ours. And that can be powerful motivation indeed.

3. Listen to pump-up music: I think music is a force that can change ones mood faster than almost anything else. Music sets its own tone, no matter where you are. Music can help when you need a quick boost. What's your favorite pump-up music? Here's one of my favorite pump-up songs, called This Year by the phenomenal Mountain Goats.

4. Read a bit of your favorite book: Sometimes just holding your favorite childhood book can make a bad day better. I just like the look of my old edition of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I love reading paragraphs from Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte or Wallace Stegner. Or reading chapter 33 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (Seriously. That Snape chapter makes the list of like the greatest things in all of literature. Next to the artwork by Don Wood in Piggies.) Best books are like comfort food. So pick up a Boxcar Children's book and remember why you love this in the first place.

5. Take a cat nap: Our mental health and physical bodies are very connected. Sometimes it's no longer an issue of mind over matter; sometimes your body is just tired. So take a quick nap. It can do wonders. Especially if you do it with an actual cat.

6. Go on a dog walk:  Meaning take a bit of time out in nature. I mean, it seems kind of counter-intuitive to recommend going outside when we're trying to get motivation to keep ourselves in a chair at our desks, but sometimes counter-intuitive works. Sometimes we just need a breath of fresh air to clear our heads. And like step 5, it works best with an actual dog :)

7. Read a poem: Imagine a concert pianist that feels blocked. One of the best things for that pianist to do might be to go back to the basics and start running scales. In a lot of ways reading or writing poetry can do that for a writer. I mean, its a little different because poetry is a full piece of art in and of itself, and by no means "basic." But poetry can bring you to sort of the core of literature better than anything else. It's word-power in its most condensed form. That can be a powerful punch and be like ice-water on a sleeping muse.

8. Work in a different medium: Maybe you like to sketch or play guitar or fiddle with photo-shop. Sometimes making art in a medium other than words can be the refresher you need to get out of your slump. It can be rejuvenating. Go crochet or work in your garden or buy sculpting clay even you never have before. Working in a new way or place can hopefully get the creative juices flowing that you can then use as fuel when you go back to your writing.

9. Watch a movie: I am a firm believer in the power of cinema. I think watching movies or tv shows on a slow motivation day serves a dual purpose. It can be creatively inspiring. I have gotten some of my best ideas from my favorite movies and shows. But since watching movies takes less mental effort, it can also be one of the best ways to give your brain a break, and sometimes that's just what you need. At least I do. I find movies the best solution for when I'm feeling worn down. Like I said, it's the best combination of mental break and creative stimulation. So on your next down day pop in Babe. Or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or re-watch an entire season of The Office. I won't judge.

10. Sit down, one sentence: Okay. The thing is, all of these strategies can help, but what it really comes down to is just getting words on a page. Sometimes that can feel incredibly overwhelming, like hiking a mountain. But the longest hike starts with one step, and that's all you have to think about. All you have to think about is sitting down and putting out one sentence. Just one. Just start with that. If you're having a really drained day and need to stop after one sentence, let yourself do that. Then go on a walk with a dog and nap with a cat and pop in a Disney movie. But more often than not, I'm betting after one sentence another will come. And maybe even another. Maybe even an entire paragraph, even a page, which is a huge victory on some days.

I hope these strategies help. What do you do to motivate yourself to write?

Write on!

This Week on Social Media:

For more frequent updates, writing tips, and funnies, follow on FacebookTwitter
Google+YouTubePinterestTumblrGoodReads, and/or Instagram.


  • Dogwood Magazine: Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose will begin accepting entries of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for the 2014-2015 issue and contest on July 1, with a deadline of Sept. 5. A prize of $1000 goes to one winning entry, with two additional entries receiving $250 each. Due Sep. 1
  • New Delta ReviewNew Delta Review seeks entries for the second annual Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Short Fiction, a contest judged by the amazing Roxane Gay, author of An Untamed State and Bad Feminist. We are looking for a full narrative in a small package (1500 words or less). Winner will receive a $500 prize and publication in the winter issue of New Delta Review. Due Oct. 4.
  • Medical Literary Messenger: The Medical Literary Messenger is now accepting submissions of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, photography, and visual art for our Fall 2014 issue. We are an online journal that promotes humanism and healing by publishing honest and engaging narratives by physicians, patients, and caretakers. Due Sept. 1
  • River Teeth Nonfiction Book ContestRiver Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length manuscript of literary nonfiction. All manuscripts are screened by the head editors of River Teeth. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication by The University of New Mexico Press. Due Oct. 15


Monday, August 4, 2014

5 Tips for Writing 3 Dimensional Characters

I submit to you that writing well-rounded and complex characters is maybe the most important part of writing a story. Some may say that a page-turning plot is the most important, but engaging characters are what pull the reader in and keep your story in the reader's mind long after they read the last page. I have read plenty of books and seen plenty of movies where the plots were slow, but because I cared so much about what happened to the characters, I was hooked the entire time. And vice versa. I have read plenty of books with thrilling plots that I raced through, then when I was done, threw the book over my shoulder and could hardly remember anything I'd just read. (*ahem* Da Vinci Code anyone? *ahem*)

So how do we create characters that live and breathe on the page, and stay with the reader for a long time after they're gone? How do we write characters that feel real? I'm definitely still working on improving this myself, but I thought I'd list a few things I've seen done in my favorite books that might help all of us write more three dimensional characters.

1. Characters are NOT place-holders: I recently saw a movie that was quite well done, yet many of the characters felt flat. I thought about it that night and realized that the issue was that the characters felt like place-holders rather than unique individuals. The story was compelling, but the characters were used almost like moving pieces, there mostly to make the story's point. In other words, even for your secondary characters, give them their own unique back-stories and motivations. For example, if you have a drunk father, remember he is his own unique character, not simply "The Drunk Father." Your rebellious teenager is his own unique character, not just "The Rebellious Teenager." This seems like an obvious, overly-general strategy, but I know that for me just keeping this in mind as I write has helped a lot.

2. Triple-check your dialog: One of the quickest ways I've found that characters can fall flat is through poorly written dialog. My general rule of thumb that holds particularly true for dialog is that if it sounds even remotely like something I've heard before, re-write. Read your dialog out-loud, and then if possible, have someone else read it out-loud to you. Sometimes it helps me to physically loosen up, shake my shoulders out, stretch my arms, and then speak in my own, normal way of speaking, the lines I need my characters to say. Hopefully these strategies help us end up with natural dialog that makes our characters sound real.

3. Make sure there's an internal goal: We all know that our characters need to be struggling to accomplish something. Sometimes it's making it to a dance, sometimes its running away from wolves, sometimes its saving the city or country or world from the evil super-villain. These goals are what pull the story forward. But remember that in addition to these plot-moving goals, there also needs to be some very strong internal motivation. Even saving-the-world stakes need to be made personal in order for us to connect with the character.

My favorite example of this done brilliantly is the character of Russel from the Pixar movie Up! What is his external, forward-moving motivation? He wants his scout badge. He wants it so badly he's flying around in a house with a grumpy old man in order to get it. But why does he want it so badly? That is the key, and what Pixar always does so brilliantly. He wants it because he wants that connection with his dad. This is only directly referred to in a few short lines, but those lines really connect us as an audience with his character and really make us feel for him.

4. Give them a flaw: This is another often-stated bit of advice, but it is important. Nobody is perfect, and the characters won't feel real if you try to make them that way. Sometimes this flaw is the cause of all their trouble, sometimes its just something that makes it that much harder to solve the original problem. Whether the flaw is a major obstacle or a handicap, watching the characters strive to overcome it helps them feel real to us.

Think of Jane Austen's Emma. She is a witty, engaging character, but can be incredibly nosy and condescending. In other words, she is majorly flawed. But we see the problems that arise from these flaws, and because Emma does too, and acknowledges that she has lots of improving to do, we can not only forgive her but feel for her and wish the best for her. This imperfection and struggle makes her feel real.

5. How do they feel about other characters?: Perhaps one of the quickest ways to add dimension to our characters is to put them in context with other characters. Going back to our Jane Austen example, think of Mr. Knightley. It's his interactions with Emma that show us who he truly is. We see him check and mentor Emma as well as stick with her through all her mistakes, and we come to love him for it. That's the kind of man he truly is, and it's his relationship with Emma that shows us.

What about characters who are less pleasant than Mr. Knightley? Characters who kind of hate people? Think of Dr. Gregory House. Admittedly his caustic misanthropy can be kind of hilarious (another way of adding dimension). But if that was his only note, don't you think it would get boring? It's House's moments of vulnerability, when we see how much he really truly needs and cares for other people (i.e. Wilson) that give him such beautiful complexity.

Can you think of other tips for writing 3 dimensional characters? What are your favorite examples of well-rounded characters?

Write on!

This Week on Social Media:

For more frequent updates, writing tips, and funnies, follow on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, GoodReads, and/or Instagram.

  • Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Stories. Due Aug. 30.
  • Building Red AnthologyWalrus Publishing, an independent press from St. Louis, Missouri, is now accepting submissions for our sci/fi anthology, Building Red-The Colonization of Mars. Due Nov. 1.
  • The Birds We Piled Loosely: The Birds We Piled Loosely is a new online literary magazine looking for work by published and unpublished authors. We are a quarterly magazine focused on poetry, flash fiction/creative nonfiction, photography, and art. Our only requirement is work that surprises and excites us. Due Aug. 31.
  • Emerge Literary JournalEmerge Literary Journal is an annual print journal featuring poetry and flash fiction dedicated to emerging writers and their words. Due Oct. 1.
  • Wag's Revue: A prize of $1,000 and publication in Wag's Revue is given twice yearly for a poem or group of poems, a short story, or an essay. The editors will judge. Using the online submission system, submit up to 10 pages of poetry or up to 10,000 words of prose with a $20 entry by August 31.


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