Posted in Reading, Writing

Book Review: Becoming a Writer

Becoming a WriterBecoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often read writing books really slowly. After all, the best writing books make you want to WRITE, which makes them easy to put down. It took me almost a year to finish this little 175-page volume by Dorothea Brande, but I’m glad I took my time. It enabled me to let her advice seep in and stay there, infusing my process with better habits. I recommend this book to writers, especially ones who are feeling stuck or sluggish or, as Ms. Brande would say, in the “slough of despond.” There are a lot of good, practical tips in here to get you going again. And don’t be deterred by the fact that it was published in 1934. Replace “portable typewriter” with “laptop” and “talking pictures” with “movies” and most of it is still relevant today.

Here are 10 of my favorite quotes from Becoming a Writer:

From the forward by John Gardner: “Ms. Brande comments on the workaday world’s stereotypic idea about writers– how they’re childlike, undisciplined people, possibly witches, since when writers are very good at what they do, they seem to know more than a decent person ought to know.” (page 14)

“The writer is at a disadvantage shared by no novice of the other arts. He does use the medium of ordinary conversation, of friendly letters and business letters, when he exercises his profession; and he has no impressive paraphernalia to impose respect on the layman. Now that everyone has his potable typewriter, not even that badge of his profession is left to the young writer. A musical instrument, canvas, clay, carry their own persuasiveness by seeming exotic to the uninitiated. Even a good singing voice does not issue from every throat.” (page 50-51)

“When you have completed a fair first draft you can, if you like, offer it for criticism and advice; but to talk too early is a grave mistake.” (page 52)

“When you have found a passage, long or short, which seems to you far better than anything of the sort you are yet able to do, sit down and learn from it.” (page 106)

“It is well to understand as early as possible in one’s writing life that there is just one contribution which every one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us.” (page 120)

“If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.” (page 123)

“How your hero meets his dilemma, what you think of the impasse– those are the things which make your story truly your own; and it is your own individual character, unmistakably showing through your work, which will lead you to success or failure.” (page 125)

“Once we have learned to use words we must be forever using them… The conclusion should be plain. If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways. Instead of going to a theater, hear a symphony orchestra, or go by yourself to a museum; go alone for long walks, or ride by yourself on a bus-top. If you will conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage.” (page 133)

“Every author, in some way by which he has come on by luck or long search, puts himself into a very light state of hypnosis. The attention is held, but just held; there is no serious demand on it. Far behind the mind’s surface, so deep that he is seldom aware… that any activity is going forward, his story is being fused and welded into an integrated work.” (page 160)

“Teach yourself as soon as possible to work the moment you sit down to a machine, or settle yourself with pad and pencil. If you find yourself dreaming there, or biting your pencil end, get up and go to the farthest corner of the room. Stay there while you are getting up steam. When you have your first sentence ready, go back to your tools. If you steadily refuse to lose yourself in reverie at your worktable, you will be rewarded by finding that merely taking your seat there will be enough to make your writing flow.” (page 174)
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Posted in Writing

Nowhere and Everywhere

I used to wonder where writers got their ideas. I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and tried to imagine where he came up with the story of Bill Forrester and Helen Loomis and the dish of lime-vanilla ice. I read To Kill a Mockingbird and speculated about the character of Boo Radley. Where in Harper Lee’s mind did he live before he arrived on the paper? Then I started writing, and I never again asked an author where the ideas came from, because I knew.

They come from nowhere and everywhere.

Some stories sneak up on us from our own lives, and we don’t even notice until someone points it out to us. You. There you are. I see you. Others spring from the news or photographs or prompts created to push us into new territories. But most of my stories don’t come from such concrete places.

One of the first short stories I ever wrote was about a disturbed man who blew up a hot air balloon full of his enemies and also, due to a last minute glitch in his plans, the only person in his life who he truly cared about. I never intended to write such a dark story. In fact, the day it came to me I didn’t intend to write anything at all. It was Christmas Day. I was on an airplane with my husband, flying from my family’s home to his. One minute, I was holding a piece of stationery with a hot air balloon on it and looking out the airplane window. The next minute I was furiously scribbling the first draft of “A Fair Day” on a notepad. I had no idea where it came from. I still don’t. The story went through a few rejections and many rounds of revisions, but the basic idea stayed the same, and eventually it found a home in Darker Times Anthology, Volume 5, as runner up in one of their monthly contests.

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The inspiration for “The Night Children,” published in Havok Magazine in October 2016, came from this library book. I wanted to know who “The Day Children” were. And, if there could be Day Children, didn’t that mean there could also be Night Children? What was their story?

My first published short story was “The Jack-in-the-Box,” which came out in Issue 12 of Dark Moon Digest. That story was born from a combination of experience, memory, and “what if.” I was sitting on the floor of my cousin’s house, playing with her three-year-old daughter. She had a jack-in-the-box with a dragon inside and she begged me to turn the knob over and over and over, delighting each time the lid popped open. As I turned the crank again and again, I thought back to my own childhood jack-in-the-box. It had a clown inside, and the surprise of the POP, though predictable, terrified me so much that I refused to play with it. As I watched the dragon emerge time and time again, I thought, What if one time something was different? I held on to that idea, and when I got home, the first draft of “The Jack-in-the-Box” flowed from my fingers.

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The idea for “The Other House” came from my friend’s three-year-old. I like writing stories that scare children, but I love writing stories that scare their parents.

Sometimes though, letting go of an idea is as important as holding on. The story I wrote for Growing Pains, the YA horror anthology from Horrified Press, was inspired by a Facebook post. A friend wrote: Omg. Something in my attic is *knocking*. Like, “Hello? Is anyone home?” knocking. If I don’t come back, don’t send anyone after me. While my friend was dealing with her attic guest, I was typing the first draft of “The Girl in the Attic,” a tale about a twelve-year-old girl who hears a knock coming from the inside of an attic door that has been nailed shut for sixty years. She decides to pry the door open. But the more I wrote, the more I realized there was a problem. It was the knock. It didn’t fit with the rest of the story, and the more I tried to make it work, the more the story fell apart. Finally, I realized I had to let that part go. While the eerie knocking sound had been the instrument of horror in my friend’s real life, in the story I’d created, it was superfluous. It was hard to hit the delete key, but the piece was made better by the cut. (By the way, my friend DID investigate the sound in her attic, and she made it back just fine.)

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“Teardrops and Watermelon Seeds” is my favorite of all my stories. It was inspired by an article about magical realism in this issue of Writer’s Digest. “Teardrops” was first published in Spark: A Creative Anthology in 2016 and will soon be appearing in Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things.

Our ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. They slip in through cracks. They whisper in our ears while we’re sleeping. They pounce on us from shadows. Some of them even knock. Our job is to let them lead us, and then know when to let them go.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Halloween, Writing

Let’s Investigate That Strange Sound! (And Other Bad Choices During the Month of October)

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October is here, and that means one thing: neck aches. Why? Because if you’re smart, you’ll constantly be looking over your shoulder.

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This particular creepy crawly got started a little early this year. It decided to hide IN MY BED last weekend. Not funny, Ms. Scorpion. Not funny at all.

October is the month of Halloween. It is the month when spirits roam the earth, and the dead play tricks on the living, and creepy crawlies have their fun.

October is also the month of poor choices. It is the month when people decide to watch slasher movies at midnight during thunderstorms, and hunt vampires at sundown, and say things like, “Let’s split up!” when there’s a madman on the loose and their cell phone battery has just died.

In other words, October is the month for horror. It is my favorite month.

Every year, I spend October scaring my loved ones and scaring my neighbors and (ultimately) scaring myself. Despite my knowledge of October’s wiles and my propensity for carrying flashlights into the dark and peering out windows before opening doors and always, always, always checking behind shower curtains, I too make poor choices during this month of spooks and specters. I often spend so much time looking behind me that I run face first into a spider’s web. Or I wander into the yard at night to bring the dog inside, only to realize that our dog is in the house and isn’t the thing making that snuffling sound in the bushes. Or, sometimes, I get distracted and accidentally trick myself with my own traps. (A hazard of haunting.)

This year, though, I’m taking my October foolishness to a whole new level.

This time tomorrow, I’ll be flying (alone) to Pennsylvania to spend five days in a remote cabin in the mountains with ten strangers who write horror. Oh, and there’s limited cell phone service.

Why would I do such a thing? Because I’ve been given the incredible opportunity to attend the Books With Bite workshop at the Highlights Foundation. There, I will study with authors Nova Ren Suma and Micol Ostow, and that is worth sleeping with one eye open while cuddling a baseball bat.

Still, if you haven’t heard from me in week, send help. Just make sure the person comes alone, at night, in a car that’s low on gas, and doesn’t tell anyone where they’re going first.

After all, it’s October.

Ghostie

 

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October is also my birthday month, and I love giving gifts almost as much as I love getting them, so I’m hosting a giveaway. On November 1st, I’ll be selecting three winners to receive one of the following prizes:

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  • A copy of The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (the first book in my favorite series: Lockwood & Co.)
  • A copy of Susan Rooke’s debut fantasy novel, The Space Between (Susan is a friend of mine and I’m so excited about her new book!)
  • Your choice of one of the journals from my Etsy shop.

To enter, just comment on one of my October blog posts OR share one of the posts on social media, and use my contact form to send me a link to it. Each person can enter up to five times, so feel free to share on multiple platforms. Good luck!