Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Importance of Your Opening Pragraphs

National Museum of the Pacific War
Fredericksburg, Texas

You can visit a Peace Garden given by the people of Japan to the National Museum of the Pacific War. This fine museum is located in Fredericksburg, Texas, which also happens to be the hometown of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz of WWII fame. 

Fredericksburg has many other draws that bring tourists from near and far. Shopping, dining of all kinds, lovely old homes and the scenic Hill Country all around it. This is, I believe, our fourth trip to this Texas community settled long ago by hardworking German immigrants.

I hope my opening of this post drew your interest because today's topic is actually openings of your stories, essays, and articles. 

When I was in high school and college, English teachers pushed writing the introductory paragraph to let readers know what the piece would be about. In that paragraph, the all-important topic sentence was to be the highlight. Sometimes those paragraphs were eternally long. And boring! They didn't really draw the reader in. So what should you do?

Start immediately with action in a fiction piece. Make it visual, bring your reader into the story as quickly as you can. A mystery might start with the actual murder, not the hours leading up to it. A love story could begin with the kiss at the wedding altar, not the courtship, proposal and bridal showers. Pull your reader in immediately. If you don't, they're going to move on to something else. 

If you're writing a memoir or a personal essay, begin with the most important part. Don't take pages or mulitple paragraphs to lead up to the 'good part.' Nope. Give the reader the good part right away. Later you can show them what led up to this.

What about a nonfiction article? Perhaps it's a how-to article on fixing a holiday dinner. Jump right in on the Easter, Passover or Thanksgiving Day meal prep in the kitchen. Show the hostess cooking and setting the table. Then bring in how she planned the meal, shopped for the meal and more. 

What about poetry? I am drawn in by first lines that show me something special. Or I'm turned off by the first lines that tell me nothing, show me nothing. You know the ones that try to set a scene and then get to what the poem is really about three verses later.

In today's world, time is Public Enemy #1. People are feeling constantly pushed for time. It's up to the writer to draw in the reader immediately. If you don't, they'll move on faster than a jackrabbit crosses the Arizona desert. 

Did I pique your interest with my opening in this post? That depends on whether you are a person interested in history, museums and famous people. Or like visiting interesting towns. My aim with this post was to make writers aware of the need of a good opening in whatever you're writing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Bluebonnets and Inspiration

We're in Texas on our way to spend a few days in the Hill Country west of San Antonio where the bluebonnets are blooming. The Texas state flower can put on a spectacular show.

April is National Poetry month. Now, who wouldn't want to write a poem about something this beautiful? The best time to do it is when the inspiration hits. That means I should have pad and pen while traveling in the car. The emotion is not the same sitting in a hotel room later. That old adage Strike while the  iron's hot applies here.

It's why you should write a story about your favorite holiday when that holiday is upon us, not six months later while you're just thinking about it. It's why you write the best travel stories when you're traveling, not two weeks after you return home. Oh sure, you can do it but it's so much better to write at the time you're in a new place.

What if inspiration hits when you have a long list of other things to do first? Those of us who are sometime writers run into this situation many times. If you can't delay the other things, at least make some notes about what inspired you and what you want to include in your writing. Then, get to it as soon as you can.

I've told you about the poet who suggested writing a poem from a dream but do it immediately upon waking. If you wake in the night after dreaming, that's the time to write. I know, I know--who wants to get out of a warm, cozy bed, pad barefoot in a possibly cold house to write? You might be very happy you did so. The best poem I ever wrote came that way, although I didn't get up in the middle of the night, I started writing immediately upon waking in the morning.

If you're inspired to write, do it as fast as possible. We're moving deeper into the Hill Country today and I'm hoping for more inspiration. Today, I'll have my pad and pen right next to me in the car. Come back tomorrow to see what our travels brought us on this Monday in April.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Thinking About Theme

A repeat of a post of a couple years ago. Sometimes, we need to review the basics.

Writing is a gift given by God to only a few people.
The craft of writing can be learned by anyone with a desire to write.

Some truth rings in each of these statements. There are definitely people who seem to have a natural ability to write prose that sings, but with study and practice, along with a desire to learn the craft, anyone can write prose that is worthy. That's my take on the two sentences.

It does not necessarily follow that because you can speak, you can write. Good writing comes down to identifying what tools you need to learn the craft and putting them to use.
An understanding of theme is one of those basic tools.

Theme is often misunderstood or even ignored by the beginning writer and also by some who claim experience in the writing world. In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George says “…most novels are unified around their theme. This—the theme—is the basic truth about which you are writing, the idea you’re playing with..., or the point you are attempting to make.” This internationally best selling novelist goes on to say that even if theme isn’t addressed directly, the unification of the subplots will make it clear to the reader.

The theme in fiction and nonfiction is the central idea, or focus, that runs through the entire story.  For instance, most fairy tales use the theme of good vs. evil. We select a theme from both good and bad principles of life—guilt, greed, revenge, kindness, service to others, and unconditional love are all possible subjects for a theme in a story. Try making a list of conceivable themes for future stories.

The story you write should illustrate the theme without preaching to the reader. Few readers want to be told what the theme is. It’s much more fun to figure it out as you read. The theme should come through in subtle ways. If it doesn’t, it’s time to go back, rethink and revise. Ask yourself what message you want the reader to take away.

Some people confuse theme and plot. An author friend who writes historical fiction says that what your characters do in a story is your plot, but what they learn is the theme. The plot should illustrate your theme and leave a lasting impression on the reader.

Do you select a theme and write a story around it? Or should you write a story and see a theme emerge little by little? There is no set rule. Either way works, but you must be careful that you don’t scatter too many themes throughout the story. All that is does is to confuse the reader who might think: What in the world is she trying to tell me? Pick a theme and stay with it.

When you pick up a book for your own pleasure, read with a critical eye. Look for theme in every piece you read. Search for the message the author sends and ask yourself if the plot of the story brought out the theme. With practice, you’ll find it easier to mentally critique the stories you read, and writing your own stories with a theme in mind won’t be nearly so difficult.

Some Points To Remember  

  1. Theme is the central idea, or focus, that runs through the entire story.
  2. The story should illustrate the theme.
  3. What characters do is a plot, but what they learn is the theme.
  4.  Let the theme come through the story in subtle ways; don’t preach.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

We All Love Surprises

Maybe the something this poster mentions is wonderful because it's unexpected. Don't we all love surprises? Isn't it fun when you pull the envelopes from your mailbox and find one that is not a bill, not a piece of junk mail, or not an advertising circular? Maybe it's an envelope holding a letter from a friend, one who passes on email and still sends you snail mail letters. I love getting those hand-written letters.

How about when an email pops into your inbox from an editor telling you he/she is going to publish the story you sent months earlier? That never fails to please me. A writer friend decided to try to write a Chicken Soup story for a particular book. She asked me for some thoughts and then I critiqued the story for her. My last piece of advice to her was send it in and then forget about it. It could be many months before you hear from them, or you may not hear at all. Move on to new projects.

Her story is a good one and I have high hopes of it getting into the final cut stage and then into the book. If it happens, it will be that something wonderful for her.

When that something wonderful does occur in our writing world, it helps to diminish the hurt and frustration of the times when we were rejected, or ignored.

One thing to keep in mind is that something wonderful cannot happen unless you keep sending your work to editors. Not once or twice a year--keep the ferris wheel moving at all times. The more you submit, the greater your chances of publication.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Writing About Special Springtime Celebrations

There are lots of special days in the spring of the year. I've noted just a few above but you can also add Passover, St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day and Father's Day. Many publications, whether in print or online, seek stories to commemorate each one of these celebrations.

It's a great opportunity for writers. Fiction, creative nonfiction, essays and poetry are all sought by editors of magazines, ezines and newspapers. The writing can be serious or humorous. It can be a made-up story or fact. Just be sure the made-up story is labeled fiction. 

Memoir writing works well in this holiday or special day writing category. There are anthologies filled with holiday stories. The market is there, but what should you consider when writing for it?

1.  Decide on a children's story or one for adults. This should be step one and an easy decision to make. Unless you're like me and write for both children and adults.

2.  Gather information and background before you begin to write. We have the information about our own family celebrations but it might be to your benefit to read all you can about the day--how it started, what different people do to celebrate, how it became popular and more. Weave these bits of info into your story or essay, or keep it strictly an informational article with many facts and figures.

3.  Don't try to hurry up and write something for a special day happening next week. This, to me, is one of the big problems when writing holiday, or celebration, stories. You know that Easter is on a certain date each year and a week or two ahead, you decide you'd like to write a story and get it published. Not likely to happen that quickly. Editors want stories for special days sent in far ahead. They need them early for planning purposes. But you and I both know, we do our best when writing for a special holiday when it is close and we are seeing advertising that brings back memories. Or, we're getting ready to celebrate within our own family. The emotion is there. If I try to write a Christmas story on a hot July day, I'm not going to be able to feel it as well as I might in early December. What to do? Go ahead and write the story when the holiday is close but save it to submit the following year. You'll have plenty of time to let the story simmer on the back burner, plenty of time to revise and edit. Write too close to the celebration day and you hurry, you have less chance of being published, and you probably won't do your best writing.

4.  Aim for a religious or nonreligious market, don't try to mix the two. Another decision that should be fairly easy. A mix of these two is pretty difficult to achieve in a satisfying way even though it can be done. I'd suggest aiming at either the religious side or the commercial as your main thrust.

5.  Look for a new angle. I see editors remarking over and over that they get too many of one kind of story or another. Approach it from a different angle and you might hit paydirt a lot sooner.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Selecting Your Writer Name

This is a post from 2012 that I thought worth repeating. 

When I first began writing, I used the name Nancy Kopp. Why not? It's mine, and I felt proud to have it on my work. Some writers choose to use only initials and last name, others use both names and still others choose to use a pseudonym. I've always thought they did it if they weren't proud of their work, but perhaps they wanted anonymity only for privacy sake. If I spend hours writing an article, story or poem, I'd like my real name on it. I’ll admit that I didn’t give a great deal of thought to the name that appeared on my work at the beginning of my writing life. I spent my energy on the content instead.

Then, one day I was walking through Walmart and passed by the book section. It's nearly impossible for me to ignore a book browsing spot, so I wheeled my basket around and went back to scan the titles. My eyes moved from one shelf to another until a certain book stopped me cold. I couldn't tell you the title today, but in big letters under the name of the book was the author's name--NANCY KOPP. My heart beat faster, and I grabbed the book. I checked the back cover, frontispiece and inside to see who this imposter was. It turned out that this Nancy Kopp works at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and writes mystery novels on the side. What are the odds of having two Nancy Kopps who are both writers? I placed the book back on the shelf and moved on to the grocery section, but as I picked out lettuce, melons, and green beans, my mind kept wandering back to the book section.

As the week progressed, I continued to ponder the discovery I’d accidentally made. I wondered if it really posed a problem of any kind. After all, I don’t write mystery novels. But at the time, I lived only an hour south of the novel writer. Maybe that could be a bit too close for comfort. For days, I did nothing, but the whole thing kept nagging at me. What solution served both of us, hurt neither of us and could be accomplished in a relatively easy manner?

A simple answer was to add my maiden name, so I typed it to see how it looked, and I liked it. It looked professional and rather nice, so my new writing name came into being, the easiest birth ever. I've used it for a number of years now, and it feels comfortable, especially when an envelope arrives by Snail Mail addressed to Nancy Julien Kopp with a check inside in payment for something I've written.

If you hope to publish your work, give some serious thought to the name you want to use and be consistent in using it. Google your name, along with the keyword writer, to learn if there is any other writer with the same or similar name. You can use two monikers and still be the same person. The nurse in the doctor's office may know you by one name and your readers by quite another. Pick one for your writing life that feels good to you, one you’ll be proud to see in print under the title of your published work. The writing you present to the world is important, but so are you, the author. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Get Off The Worry Wheel

There's a lot of truth to this poster. I should make a copy and put it where I see it every day. Lately, I've been worrying about a lot of little things. Nothing that is going to change my life greatly but things that matter to me, maybe more than I realized until I started worrying. I know better, but things get to you sometimes.

The problem is that,once you start the worry wheel going, it gets harder and harder to stop it. Ever hop on the worry wheel when you don't know why your submissions bounce back to you or are never acknowledged by an editor? If you're a writer, you'll answer in the affirmative. It happens to every writer now and then.

As the poster says, it's a waste of time to worry over the fact that you're not getting published as often as you'd like. Or ever perhaps. It definitely is not going to change unless you get off that worry wheel and start figuring out the why of it.

Take a look at the submissions that haven't made it. Then look at the ones that you have had published (if you've had some). Do you see any differences? Does anything stand out? Try to be objective, and I know how difficult that can be, but try it. Be honest with your assessment. Ask yourself If I were an editor, would I want to publish this? 

Ask yourself some other questions:

Is this piece polished enough to be published?
Does it engage the reader right at the beginning?
Would someone want to keep reading?
Did I include lots of sensory details?
Have I used emotion in my writing?
Are there lots of active verbs? 

You get the picture. Ask yourself these questions and more. Sometimes we can figure out the reason(s) that a piece did not get accepted. Other times, we can never come up with the answer. It could be somethng as simple as having a great story but choosing the wrong market.

Don't waste your time on the worry wheel. Don't let it mess with your mind and steal your happiness.