Category Archives: Blogroll

Live life or write? You can do both

You must know the feeling. The urge to write is so powerful you want to shut everything and everybody out to work on your story.

At those times, life often seems to get in the way. Your husband wants you to see something cool on TV. An old friend wants to catch up. Your children need you. Your club is meeting and you’re the host. There is one family crisis after another after another.

When the writing is going great, I am tempted to shut my office door and state in my best Greta Garbo voice “I must write.” I feel frustrated by all the interruptions because they remove me from that cool writing zone.

But I learned how to live the life and write. I talk on the phone and visit with friends. See what my husband thinks is so cool. Help my kids. Do crafts. All the while, I have finished novels and screenplays.

I know you are saying “How can I get anything done if I do all that?”

You can.  Write when you are not going to be bothered. Early in the morning. Late at night. When the kids are sleeping or husband is out fishing. Take a notebook or laptop everywhere and write when you get a chance. That’s what I did. I made time for the writing. I made time for life and all it brings. If you are dedicated you can accomplish it. I can still be passionate about life and writing without one robbing the other.

Without making time to listen to the laughter and dry the tears, without the phone chats about love and life, without the crisis, without the hugs–what in the hell do we have to write about?

–Patricia Santos Marcantonio

Question of the month: How can I write when I’m so dreadfully stressed?

Join the parade! This is what I’m doing. As long as I’m halfway up the wall I’m going to grab a foothold, brace myself, peek over and take notes. I might get some unique insights that would otherwise be lost in the fog of forgetting.

Let me tell you about stress. A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. At first my brain was in a muddle of confusion, I was scared and didn’t know what to do. Then it came to me. This is one of the GRAND ADVENTURES of my lifetime — I will probably not be back this way again in this existence anyway. A quick ride in the ambulance from my house to St. Benedict’s. Then a life flight from Jerome to St. Luke’s in Boise. I’d never been in a helicopter. The trip was exciting in a strange way. My mind kept drifting toward the source of life. The closer I approached the nugget of consciousness as we know it the more vivid my insights grew.

I saw infinity in all directions — matter, time, space, motion, wind, electricity, sound and entire worlds. I saw creation across the face of the deep when God stretched forth a hand and flung stars into the big bang and said, “Let there be light.” I realized I am stardust drifting forever in the cosmos, both infinitely conscious and unconscious. I am everywhere and nowhere all at one time.

One evening a thunderstorm rolled through Boise. I was on the ninth floor and I got an unusual display just outside my window. Since it was Independence Day, I thought it was pyre-techniques. Then it occurred to me what it was — I’d heard of but never seen ball lightening — absolutely beautiful in an awe inspiring way. It looked like twin fire tornadoes turned sideways. I looked first through one then the other when they lumbered past my window. Brilliant burning vortices — maws opened to the black depths of creation.

I saw birds and other animals both large and small, eating and being eaten in turn. Everyone eats. I glimpsed where I am ultimately going, and guess what — I’m already there. Although I’m not in any big rush to get back to the little spot where my life slipped through to this side when I was born, I know all I will have to do when the time comes is slide back down that life thread and figure out how to get back through the pin hole-divider to where I need to be. We are part of infinity. And infinity by definition is forever. There are no beginnings or endings in eternity. Infinity goes on and on forever in all directions, in all times, and all ways.

That is what I saw when I grabbed a handhold, braced myself against the wall and wrote notes. It doesn’t take much effort and the results are absolutely amazing. Who knows what you might see over your fence.

So next time you are making excuses about not writing because you are too stressed, think of the possibilities. You will be amazed at what you will see if you take the time to peek and write notes.

When Cleopatra faced her ultimate end I think she said it best, “I have immortal longings in me now.”

-By Dixie Thomas Reale

Are writing conferences worth the money?

I just returned from a writing conference where an attendee asked, “Are writing contests worth the time and money?”

“It depends,” the presenter said. “Is it a well-known contest? Will you get any feedback?”

I could say the same thing about writers’ conferences.

Most of the writers I know have more than one job: they work to pay bills, and they also write. Digging up a couple hundred bucks to attend a conference, not to mention making time to go, can be daunting. It’s too expensive. It’s too far. The kids need braces.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve organized writers’ conferences so I know how expensive they are to host. I’ve also been the writer staring at a brochure, trying to justify squeezing money from an already tight budget. 

But I am a writer. How can I improve if I don’t mingle with my peers?

Other professionals—accountants, attorneys, bankers, and lawyers—attend conferences and workshops to stay current with their industry. Why shouldn’t I?

I’ve been writing a fair amount of time, and I’ve attended many writers’ conferences. Some were good, some not so good, but I always gleaned something, even if it’s something not to do—like answer a text message in the middle of a presentation. Besides the current information on craft and submissions, what I find even more valuable is a word most introverted writers hate, “networking.” As writers, we sit alone in our office creating great stories, and now we are expected to extend our hand, introduce ourselves and tell everyone what we write. It’s painful, but where else but writers’ conferences can you discuss the craft of writing with other serious writers? We know they’re serious because they’ve spent the kids’ lunch money (just like we did) to attend.

Maybe the biggest reward for attending writers’ conferences is the energy that percolates from the meeting rooms, filling the halls and building with palpable enthusiasm, propelling us home eager to finish our novel or book of poetry. As Mastercard says, “Priceless.”  

Only you can decide if entering contests or attending conferences is worth your time and money. Before you decide, I would encourage you to look at writers’ conferences as opportunities to grow your career and improve your craft. Take a risk; put yourself out there. Ask questions. After a session, thank the speaker. Shake his/her hand and ask for a business card. Network. Talk about what you love most, writing. And in the meantime, get busy saving those pennies.

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Lance Thompson at the 2013 Idaho Writers and Readers Rendezvous talking about log lines.

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Alan Heathcock talking about originality.

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Alvin Greenberg and Doug Copsey

How to write a compelling story.

Shortly after seeing the musical, Les Misérables, I ran across this post by Joe Bunting: How to Write a Story Like Les Miserables
http://thewritepractice.com/les-miserables/

It started me thinking. Why do some stories like Les Misérables, Jane Eyre, and Moby Dick have such staying power? They were written over a hundred years ago. What makes them so compelling artists find new ways to retell them, over and over again?

Bunting believes five elements make a story compelling.

1. Your character has to change. He calls this test transformation. We want to see how characters change, how they struggle to become a better people.
2. Write about something with historic significance like the revolutionary war, or some other life-changing event for a country, not just one person.
3. Have a big cast, many characters people can relate to. Instead of a story about one man’s journey, create a story about many character’s journeys.
4. Show what your characters want. Give every character an arc. This gives us more characters to root for. To use Bunting’s example: Jean Val Jean wants to be righteous. (man against self) Inspector Javert wants to catch Jean Val Jean. (man against man) Cosette wants to be loved by a family. Marius wants both Cosette and the revolution. (man against society) Éponine wants Marius, and The Thénardiers want money.
5. Sacrifice Everything. In his book The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler calls this rebirth. A character who risks everything for a virtuous goal, including his life, returns a hero and someone worthy of our respect.

In school we’re taught there are three story types: man against man, man against society, and man against self. If a writer can incorporate all three, his story has a better chance of being compelling, one others will want to relate over and over again.

The next time you sit down to write, ask yourself, why is this story important? What can I add to make it more compelling? Then pick up your pen and begin to write.
-Bonnie Dodge

You’re a great writer, but can you tell a story?

A writer lamented recently about a rejection she received. The agent loved her writing, but the book was still rejected. The reason? The writer couldn’t tell a compelling story.

I’ve been there. For more than three years I worked on a book with mystical elements set on a tropical island. My story had great themes and characters. Several agents told me they loved my writing. But the book was rejected again and again because I didn’t know how to tell a story. Oh, I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I had outlines and character sketches and over three hundred pages. But in those beautifully written pages, nothing much happened to bring my story to a compelling resolution.

Bill Johnson, in his book A Story is a Promise: Good Things to Know Before You Write that Screenplay, Novel, or Play, says understanding “that a story is a promise is a cornerstone of the foundation for understanding the art of storytelling.” Further, a good story sets out its promise and moves an audience toward a desirable resolution.

Telling stories sounds simple, but it isn’t. As a writer I have to stay focused, to remember what I promise my readers—this is a story about a young woman who finds something to believe in—and then make sure I deliver. Side tales about enchanted forests and supernatural sharks may be entertaining, but do they really move the story toward its resolution? If they don’t, they’d better be deleted.

Knowing how to tell a good story is as important as being able to write beautiful words. If the story you love is getting rejected time and again, the rejection may have nothing to do with your skill as a writer. It just might be that you need to learn to become a better storyteller.
-Bonnie Dodge

Rewriting made easy, well easier

My writing friend and I whined the other day about rewriting, which is not unusual. We both agreed that writing the first draft is a joy because it all pours out and we don’t have to answer to anyone, not even ourselves.

But then comes the rewriting. Making sure the piece makes sense to someone else besides ourselves. Making action words out of the passive. Killing off those nasty words that make editors cringe. One way to start a rewrite is to read your writing out loud to catch the rough spots and make sure your dialogue sizzles like fajitas. I do that with most of my drafts and my dogs and cat love it because they think I am talking to them. I know the process is faster without reading out loud, but you will be glad in the end.

A few years ago I attended a great workshop on rewriting that made the chore easier. This includes terminating the “tell” words that slow down our writing, and replace them with showing. So after I finish with a major rewrite I do a find and replace these words when I can. It makes me work harder but the writing is better. Try it on these words:

thought

remembered

imagined

felt

saw

smelled

knew

decided

realized

understand

reminded

it

was

You’ll find this challenging because it requires you to work harder. Yeah, I whine about rewrite because it is work. In the end, the effort pays off.

-Patricia Santos Marcantonio

QUESTION OF THE MONTH

How much detail should I include when writing a story?

This can be a tricky balance.

Generally obscurity in writing is deadly for the average writer. Sure I remember in literature classes in college — I often had to look up obscure references to places, people and even customs of the past. I did the research so I could talk about the authors intelligently in class discussions, or on examinations given by sadistic professors. Understanding the minutiae of authors lives added another level of understanding to an already thick tapestry of meaning in stories written by giants like Joyce, Shakespeare, Twain or Faulkner.

College students may grumble about the research but they do it because they know the effort will add to their understanding and should even improve their grade.

However, the average reader is not going to bother looking up many, if any, unexplained references in a story by an acquaintance from Small Town, Idaho. Nothing personal, that is just the way it is. Remember time and distance have made many details in stories by the greats unclear or ambiguous. If the reader is going to fully understand the story he needs to be aware of the particulars.

At the same time, including too much detail is just as fatal. Imagine reading ten single spaced pages of minute detail enumerating every step in a search through archives located in the basement of a library for specifics of life events of a historical figure. Who cares? Only a fellow researcher, certainly not the average reader of fiction. If you have to include details of the fictitious search cut it down to a paragraph or two.

You have to find the right balance in your stories. It lies somewhere between writing simply the name “George” and writing “George Washington, born in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732, signer of the Declaration of Independence, commander in chief of the Continental army during the American Revolution, first president of the United States, father of the nation, husband of Martha, step father to” . . . You get the idea. But remember only you can decide which details to include. After all, it is your story.

Dixie Thomas Reale

Question of the Month. Does doubt keep you from writing?

My friend and I have been writing for more than ten years. In that time I have published two books, many stories and several articles. My friend has published nothing. Her problem, I think, is that she is afraid of success.

Just last week we had a conversation about a short story she wants to submit. She has been working on this story for several months now. She has even taken this story to her critique partners for feedback. Now that the time is nearing for her to submit, she is second-guessing her story. “Did I put in too much?” she asked me. “Is it going to be good enough?” she worried.

“Don’t talk yourself out of submitting,” I warned. “Send it out and get on with your novel.”

The self-doubt my friend is experiencing is normal. Many writers wade through doubts every day. Faced with a blank page, they often freeze. They ask themselves, “What do I have to say that’s important? What do I have to say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times?”

Carleen Brice, author of the novel Orange Mint and Honey, (which inspired The Lifetime Movie Sins of the Mother), recently said that as a writer she has doubts every day. “I’m working on a rewrite of my third novel, which sometimes fills me with so much anxiety I want to crawl not just under the covers, but under the bed,” she writes in a guest blog.

I know the feeling. I, too,  battle self-doubt. Instead of hiding under the bed, I turn on spider solitaire and eat up all my writing time matching suits in digital decks of cards. Why do I do this?

Audrey Marlene, in her article, “Self-Doubt – An Illogical Perspective”, says doubt can be caused by many things, including

• Feelings of inferiority
• Low self-esteem
• Feeling a lack of control over your life
• Believing you are not good enough or smart enough
• Anticipating failure even before you begin
• Rejection
• Believing that your emotional security depends on someone or something

It all boils down to fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of losing control. Fear prompts me to focus on what I cannot do rather than what I can do, or on what I desire. Marlene claims the best way to let go of self-doubt is to build self-confidence.

I want to be a writer, and I know that I have to push self-doubt away if I want to be successful. To help banish my self-doubt, I continue to hone my craft, and, if I’m feeling particularly negative, I’ll call a writing buddy to help get back on track. I submit. If my work is rejected, I submit again.

I’ve been writing long enough to know that every word I write isn’t golden. I’ve come to accept, even anticipate, rejection because I know that writing is subjective. I’ve learned that if someone says it isn’t good enough, I can rework the story or throw it in the garbage, where it might possibly belong.

William Shakespeare once wrote, “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

Conquering fear isn’t easy, but it gets better with practice and positive self-talk. I will remind my friend of this the next time she claims her story isn’t good enough.

Are your doubts traitors? How do you push through them to achieve your writing goals?

-Bonnie Dodge

Short story contest, deadline August 12, 2011

What are you doing to sharpen your writing skills? Here is a challenge.
Boise State Public Radio along with the Idaho Department of Tourism and The Story Initiative at Boise State University are sponsoring a writing contest open to anyone with an Idaho story to tell. Here’s the kicker. Stories must be no longer than 120 words and must mention at least one Idaho location.

A short story in 120 words? Is that possible?

Yes. I’ll show you how.

I recently attended a workshop where we were required to write a story spurred by a picture from a magazine. In my picture, two boys stood beside a barn, their cowboy hats tipped over their faces. All you could see was their chins. We had fifteen minutes to write a story. When we were finished, we were instructed to count the words in our story and cut the scene by 25%. We were then instructed to reduce the story to one sentence.

What? Impossible? No, it wasn’t. It did take some creative thinking though, and what I discovered was that paring the story made the heat rise. Every word had to pack a punch.

To illustrate, here is what I wrote:

Jonathan’s hat teetered on his head, always tipped so I could never see his eyes. I’ve know Jonathan since he was a toddler and though he has changed dramatically through the years there has always been one thing constant, the way each straw hat he dons dips slightly so I cannot see his eyes, or whether or not he is listening to me as I speak, or if his eyebrow teaks and twitches when I talk about his sister Cara.

In his younger years, Jonathan’s hats changed rapidly, almost faster than the size of his T-shirts and Levis. His body grew fast, but his head seemed to grow faster, sprouting as if it were trying to grow away from his body. The first hat I remember was a straw cowboy hat his grandmother had given him on his first birthday. It was woven from straw and had a red string that wrapped around his chin.

25% cut

Jonathan’s hat teetered on his head slightly. I cannot see his eyes or if his eyebrow twitches when I talk about Cara.

Jonathan’s hats changed rapidly, almost faster than the size of his T-shirts and Levis. His body grew fast, but his head grew faster, sprouting as if it were trying to grow away from his body. The first hat I remember was a straw cowboy hat his grandmother had given him on his first birthday.

One sentence

Jonathan’s hat teetered on his head like a shadow every time I asked about Cara.

Try it. In 120 words or less, write a story about Idaho. Pick any subject, say the Malad Gorge, and in a stream of consciousness way, write everything that comes to mind about the gorge. Don’t ponder, just free write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, begin revising, cutting useless and redundant words like small, very, ly adjectives, etc. Revise again and again until you have 120 words. When you compare the two versions of your story, I bet you will discover that your second version is clearer, tighter, and more powerful.

What are you waiting for? Get busy. The deadline is August 12, 2011.

Here is more information about the contest:

Call for submissions: BOISE STATE PUBLIC RADIO LAUNCHES
‘ONE MINUTE IDAHO’ STORY WRITING CONTEST

Boise State Public Radio (BSPR), along with the Idaho Department of Tourism and The Story Initiative at Boise State University, present “One Minute Idaho,” a writing contest open to anyone with an Idaho story to tell. Stories must be no longer than 120 words and must mention at least one Idaho location. Entries may be mailed or emailed by midnight, Aug. 12. Contestants may send multiple entries.

The “One Minute Idaho” writing contest is part of BSPR’s ongoing effort to engage with the community, and the contest plays a significant role in demonstrating the important contributions individual experiences make to the community and state.

The top three winning stories will be recorded, posted on the BSPR website for download and aired on BSPR stations. Winners also will receive tickets to see Ira Glass, host and executive producer of National Public Radio’s This American Life, at the Morrison Center on Nov. 5, to a reception prior to the main event and an overnight stay at an Idaho bed and breakfast. Glass will select one of three winning stories to read aloud from the stage of the Morrison Center.
For official contest rules and to submit a story, visit http://www.iraglassinboise.com.
– Bonnie Dodge

Red, Michael Corleone, Hannibal Lector — Unforgettable characters all

Charles Foster Kane, Hannibal Lector, Atticus Finch, Red, Ellen Ripley.
You’re probably thinking what do these people have in common. The answer is that they are all unforgettable characters.
They are in movies I can’t pass up when I’m flipping around the channels. They make me stop what I’m doing and watch them. Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, Silence of the Lamb, Alien, Citizen Kane, To Kill a Mockingbird. The list goes on.
As writers, we have to ask, what makes them unforgettable? What makes them universal? Why do we remember what they say and do? What are their goals, both interior and exterior? Why do we love their strengths and weaknesses? What are their character arcs?
I am fascinated by Michael Corleone’s slide into corruption even as he rises to power. I love how Red in Shawshank Redemption is so strong, but not enough to hope. Ripley’s character in Alien is tough, vulnerable and a survivor rolled into one.
In The Searchers, Ethan Edwards displays an almost psychopathic hatred of Indians, but puts that aside to save his niece. In the end, he remains an outsider.
While brillantly brought to life by wonderful actors, these characters still were born on the page by a writer who forged them out of words. They wrote their dialogue, gave them motivations, strengths and weakness, complexity.
Charles Foster Kane is among the most complex. Enjoying the power of money, but he does not totally understand what money can’t buy. He wants to be loved, but doesn’t know how to give it and may not even love himself.
William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs of New York is indeed a butcher of people, but when he blesses the young man who eventually tries to kill him, we feel his vulnerability, fleeting as it is.
My goal as a writer is to create unforgettable characters. One readers will relate to. One they will remember and tell their friends about. A character they wish they knew or one they wouldn’t want to be locked in a room with. One they might quote.
I hope I can accomplish that, and as Andy told Red, “Hope is a good thing.”

For more unforgettable movie characters go to.
http://www.filmsite.org/100characters.html

-Patricia Santos Marcantonio