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Polish Your Prose: An Editorial Cheat Sheet

A guest post by literary agent Nephele Tempest.

No matter your resolutions for the year, regardless where you stand with your current writing project, the time will come when you need to edit. I don’t mean rework your plot, heighten dramatic tension, or beef up your protagonist’s motivations. Rather I’m referring to that nitty gritty editorial process of looking at your work word by word, sentence by sentence, and examining the language you’ve used. Do your descriptions dance on the page? Have any clichés snuck into the mix? If you had to read aloud in front of an audience, would you find yourself running out of breath?

Sentence-level editing involves more than checking for missing words or making sure your Find-and-Replace changed a character’s name all the way through your manuscript. This is your chance to shape up your prose and show your skills, not just as a storyteller but as a wordsmith. But a manuscript can be a fairly long document, and sometimes it’s hard to remember everything you want to check as you work your way through from first page to last.

Here’s a handy cheat sheet of things you might want to keep in mind while editing:

  1. Cut your adverbs and make your verbs stronger.
  2. Rework any clichés.
  3. Eliminate filler words and phrases, such as “currently”, “that”, and “in order to.”
  4. Refer to people as “who” not “that.”
  5. Cut repetitious words and/or phrases.
  6. Divide long, hard-to-read sentences into two or more shorter sentences.
  7. Fix any inadvertent double negatives in long, complex sentences.
  8. Hyphenate modifying words.
  9. Minimize use of “very” and “really.”
  10. Beware of overusing passive voice/passive verb structures (is/was/-ing verbs).
  11. Double check the definitions of any words you’re not 100% sure you know.
  12. Determine and weed out any words, actions, or punctuation that you personally overuse as filler, such as characters smiling or taking deep breaths, ellipses in the middle or end of dialogue, exclamation points, etc.
  13. Replace general words with specific ones, such as “thing(s)” or “stuff.”
  14. Cut unnecessary chit-chat from dialogue; limit conversations to substance that moves your story forward.
  15. Limit distinctive dialogue quirks or movements to a single character; don’t give “signature” details to more than one person unless there’s a reason (child emulating a parent or older sibling, etc.).

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Writers – Have You Considered Sending Your Work Overseas?

In this guest post Tania Hershman, co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion, explains why writers should look beyond their own backyards when considering where to submit their work.

I set up ShortStops in November 2013 because the short story has a bit of an image problem around here, here being the UK & Ireland. The thing is, there is so much fantastic short story activity – but the other thing is, no-one knows about it. There was no one place where we could all jump up and down and celebrate! I was hoping someone else might do this first (since I should really be focussing on my own writing, sigh) but seemed as though it wasn’t going to happen and so ShortStops was born.

It emerged from a list I’d been keeping for several years on my blog of literary magazines in the UK & Ireland that publish short stories. I started the list just for me and it has grown and grown and generated so much interest, I thought it deserved a site of its own, where each lit mag has its own page and can publish blog posts with calls for submissions, announcements of new issues etc… The second exciting strand is the live lit events, which for me are injecting new life into short stories – writers or actors reading, audiences loving being read to! So we have listings of those events too, each has its own page and organisers put up news on the blog. As well as these two, there is an ever-growing list of UK & Irish short story collection authors, and I hope to be adding info on publishers, writing workshops and more.

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21 Residencies for Writers in 2015

Would you like a month in south-east France to work on your manuscript? Or perhaps an idyllic nature preserve in Kentucky would provide you with the inspiration you need to start a new project? These residencies provide writers with a chance to escape daily life’s distractions and focus on their work. Each residency has its own terms and conditions, so please read the relevant websites thoroughly before commencing any applications.

James Merrill House Writer-in-Residence Program
James Merrill House, located in Stonington, Connecticut, offers one four and a half residency between mid-January and the end of May, and three or four shorter residencies of 2 to 6 weeks during the months between Labor Day and mid-January. The fellowship provides living and working space to a writer in search of a quiet setting to complete a project of literary or academic merit. The Writer-in-Residence program includes a US$5000 stipend for the extended term with smaller stipends offered for the brief residencies. Applications close 15 January.

Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing
This residency is hosted by Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Named for the University’s renowned literary alumnus and initiated in the fall of 1993, the Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing offers up to four months of unfettered writing time for a writer working on a first or second book. The program provides lodging in Poets’ Cottage and a stipend of US$4000. Applications close on 1 February.

Brown Foundation Fellows Program
This program is offered by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It offers residencies to mid-career professionals in the arts and humanities, including writers. The residencies last between one and three months and take place at The Dora Maar House in Ménerbes, France. For fellowships between 1 July and 15 December 2015, applications must be submitted by 15 February.

Can Serrat Residency 
Each year Can Serrat Centre near Barcelona, Spain, offers two writers a full stipend which entitles them to a 30-day residency including free accommodation, breakfasts and dinners. The residency is open to writers in all fields regardless of nationality or age. All chosen candidates have the opportunity to do a reading / exhibition at the centre. There are two selection rounds: the first closes on 1 March and the second on 1 August.

Literary Journalism at The Banff Centre
This month-long residency offers eight established writers of non-fiction an opportunity to develop a major essay, memoir, or feature piece for a CA$2000 commission. Held at The Banff Centre’s Leighton Artists’ Colony studios, it enables writers to work on their manuscripts during individual consultations with faculty and during round-table discussions. Participants are required to arrive with a fully reported and typed first draft of their project, and must complete a final, publishable draft of between 5000 and 7500 words by the time they leave.  Past participants of the program have represented thought-provoking writers across Canada, however international applications are equally welcomed. The application deadline is 18 March.
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Too Much Information: Why Writers Should Conceal Their Research

“I have to resist the compulsion to reference everyone of these.”

In this guest post Drew Chial paints a cautionary tale about letting your writing get too technical.

A few years ago, someone approached me about adapting a thriller into a screenplay. Reading through the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure where the script should begin. The first scene involved an autopsy where the pathologist missed the symptoms of a biological agent. The author took us through each stage of the autopsy including each instrument the pathologist used, where he made his incisions, and the weight of every organ.

It was clear the author knew what he was talking about, but he wasn’t telling a story, he was teaching a lesson.

The scene had no conflict until the author told us about the crucial detail the pathologist missed. The prologue read like it was supposed to function as the opening stinger of a crime drama. This might have worked if the pathologist had struggled to find a cause of death or started to show signs of the contagious infection, instead he gave an extremely technical description of a routine procedure with no conflict.

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$19.50 – available hereContinue Reading…

Five Uncommon Tips on Your MFA Creative Writing Application

A guest post by Nathan Go

A couple of years ago, I made the decision to apply to MFA programs in creative writing. Compared to medical school or law school, the application process for an MFA can sometimes feel like a crapshoot, with the odds of getting into a fully-funded program hovering somewhere below four or five percent (and some programs like Iowa, Michigan, Michener—gulp—even less!). Still, it seems that every year, a few applicants manage to get admitted to a handful of programs, which brings up the question of whether the process is as random as one might initially think.

As a caveat, I’ve never served as a reader for any programs’ admissions committee (for a genuine insider look, follow Elizabeth McCracken’s Twitter and listen to everything she says!), but I happen to have been lucky enough to get accepted to several fully funded schools on my first try. Whenever someone asks me for advice, I get a little queasy, because I barely knew what I was doing back then. However, I’d like to think that I’ve had some time to reflect on the process and have spoken to many people, including students who’ve been accepted and faculty members. I’ve since graduated from my MFA and hold (at the time of writing) a Zell postgraduate fellowship in fiction at the University of Michigan.

I’ll skip the general consensus—polish the writing sample, apply to more than one school, get feedback on your materials, etc. Instead, I’ll offer some less common ones that I thought worked for me. I hope they help with your application, and I’m certainly indebted to many writers who came before me and similarly shed light on their own experiences.

1. Presenting yourself

Most of us writers tend to dislike being pigeonholed, or to accept the idea that there are certain themes or styles we keep reverting to again and again.  I definitely struggled with this (and continue to) but for the application process, presenting ourselves in a way that is unified and meaningful can sometimes spell the difference between sticking out in the pile or not. I write a lot about the Philippines, where I grew up, and this location not only influences the setting of my stories, but also informs my thematic sensibility as well as my identity. My personal statement talked about my background growing up in a predominantly Christian and Chinese-Filipino family, the conflicts at the dinner table as a result of our ethnic and religious upbringing, and how these issues are explored in my work. My fiction samples were chosen with this in mind (of course, they also happened to be my best work at the time), and I imagine my recommendation letters further attested to my experience as an immigrant. As a result, I believe I demonstrated myself as someone who deeply cares about what I write and has something important to say about the world around me. A place or region might not be the element that binds your application materials together. It might be a style, philosophy, or occupation—but whatever it is, it should resonate meaningfully in all aspects of your work (you can even ask your recommenders to talk about it). If readers can come away with the feeling that they know you and what motivates you to write, then you only need to show that you also can write.

2. Range and length of sample

This might sound like a contradiction to the above, but it really isn’t. Rather, this is the part where you get a chance to display your skill and flexibility as a writer. For my sample, I chose three stories with varying styles: fabulist, comedic, and straight realist. They also differed in their lengths: short, medium, and long. What kept them all together was the setting of the Philippines, which again referred back to my personal statement and kept them from feeling haphazardly chosen. You might wonder if this is a good idea, since schools often just ask for 25 to 30 pages of creative sample, and might even say something to the effect that they’re looking for “a demonstration of sustained, quality work.” I debated with myself on the correct approach, and you might not agree with my conclusions: If programs clearly ask for just a single story, and if they feel more traditional in their aesthetics, then perhaps sending a longer story is better. However, the risk of sending one story is the risk of increasing subjectivity, and has to do more with the practical reality of the selection process than anything else. We all know that readers have different tastes, and if for some reason they don’t connect with the first few pages of your work, they most likely won’t read on. If you present them with a shorter work first, they might be willing to read the beginning of the second story, and if they still don’t like that, then the third. If each story is different stylistically, you’re increasing the chances that one of these would be appealing to the readers, and they might reconsider the stories that they passed on the first read.

3. Potential

I’ve heard anecdotes of applicants being turned down because the admission committee thought they were “overqualified” to be studying in an MFA program. This probably doesn’t apply to most of us, but the principle remains: administrators are looking for people they believe can get something out of the two-to-three-year experience. In other words, they’re looking for writers’ potential as much as writers’ ability. I can certainly speak to this. When I applied, I’d barely taken any creative writing workshops. I’d just started writing literary fiction and I was unpublished. I took screenwriting as an undergrad (a related field, I know) but I still emphasized the things I anticipated learning from an MFA, including the benefit of being in a community. I did not downplay my background in screenwriting (and as it happened, also journalism), but I was able to articulate how each tradition influenced me as a writer. You might be someone who’s majored in creative writing as an undergrad and knew for a long time that you want to write literary fiction. That’s okay (in fact I think that’s great!). But you still have to find a way to communicate your limitations while playing to your strengths. To a large extent, it seems to me more of an attitude check: nobody wants to be with the writer who feels privileged and entitled to a seat at the MFA table.

4. Preparedness

Sometimes, perhaps because I got in on my first try, I wonder if my acceptance was a fluke, and if I was really ready for the MFA experience. Of course, I’ve heard many people who felt similarly, some who even have a lot of creative writing background under their belt. The impostor syndrome aside, I do think that it’s good to gain as much exposure to the literary world as possible before applying to an MFA program. This not only gives you a better sense of why you write and what you write (going back to my first point), but moreover it increases the likelihood that once you are accepted, you’ll know how to make the most out of your time and the resources being offered. I had a wonderful experience at the University of Michigan—indeed, I’ve never read or written more in my life than I did at that point, and I could not have asked for a better set of cohort or mentors. I have grown exponentially as a writer. Rightly or wrongly, though, I did consciously set myself apart as someone who was a beginner, who had the most to learn about writing literary fiction. This attitude has enabled me to develop in leaps and bounds. At the same time, I could see how—had I been further along in my progress—I could’ve used the MFA in a different way: writing that novel I’ve always wanted, giving more thought to the direction of my career, the business side of the industry, finding an agent, etc. I think there’s something valiant and admirable about finding yourself as a result of experimenting during the MFA years, but it might also be worth considering and being aware of the different trajectories in entering a program. As a suggestion for preparing yourself pre-MFA-application, I highly suggest going to a conference (the Napa Writers’ Conference, Wesleyan Writers Conference, and the Key West Literary Seminar being some of the more well-known ones I’ve personally attended and recommend).

5. On success

My final note on the application process is less of a tip and more of a reminder. When the time comes around to February or March, and should you find yourself not getting into the programs of your choice, recuperate from the rejections and take them in stride. View the result both as a sobering reminder of the odds stacked up against anyone applying for an MFA, and also as an opportunity to become better prepared, so that if you do get in later, you will be in an improved position. Similarly, should you be fortunate enough to get into your top programs, view the achievement as the means to an end, and not the end in itself. If a study were to be conducted on MFA admittances, I’m almost sure that the findings would show that acceptances to programs are in no way predictive of future success in publishing. Only diligence and perseverance are positive indicators of writerly success, and in this sense, we all can take comfort in the fact that all of us have a fair shot if we’re in it for the long haul.

Nathan Go holds an MFA in fiction from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Previously, he was a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. He is currently at work on stories and poems about the Philippines. Follow Nathan on Twitter.

This article was originally posted on Michigan Quarterly Review blog; reproduced with permission.


15 Ways to Write a Novel

25 November 2014 — 7 Comments
15 Ways to Write a Novel
Max Barry is one of Australia’s most exciting writers. His speculative fiction novel Lexicon was named as one of the 10 best fiction books of 2013 by Time magazine. In this post Max shares some of the methods he and other authors use to write a novel. 

Every year I get asked what I think about NaNoWriMo, and I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t want to say, “I think it makes you write a bad novel.”

This is kind of the point. You’re supposed to churn out 50,000 words in one month, and by the end you have a goddamn novel, one you wouldn’t have otherwise. If it’s not Shakespeare, it’s still a goddamn novel. The NaNoWriMo FAQ says: “Aiming low is the best way to succeed,” where “succeed” means “write a goddamn novel.”

I find it hard to write a goddamn novel. I can do it, but it’s not very fun. The end product is not much fun to read, either. I have different techniques. I thought I should wait until the end of November, when a few alternatives might be of interest to those people who, like me, found it really hard to write a goddamn novel, and those people who found it worked for them could happily ignore me.

Some of these methods I use a lot, some only when I’m stuck. Some I never use, but maybe they’ll work for you. If there were a single method of writing great books, we’d all be doing it.

1. The Word Target

What: You don’t let yourself leave the keyboard each day until you’ve hit 2,000 words.

Why: It gets you started. You stop fretting over whether your words are perfect, which you shouldn’t be doing in a first draft. It captures your initial burst of creative energy. It gets you to the end of a first draft in only two or three months. If you can consistently hit your daily target, you feel awesome and motivated.

Why Not: It can leave you too exhausted to spend any non-writing time thinking about your story. It encourages you to pounce on adequate ideas rather than give them time to turn into great ones. It encourages you to use many words instead of few. If you take a wrong turn, you can go a long way before you realize it. It can make you feel like a failure as a writer when the problem is that you’re trying to animate a corpse. It can make you dread writing.

2. The Word Ceiling

What: You write no more than 500 words per day.

Why: You force yourself to finish before you really want to, which makes you spend the rest of the day thinking about getting back to the story, which often produces good new ideas. You feel good about yourself even if you only produced a few hundred words that day. You don’t beat yourself up about one or two bad writing days. You give yourself time to turn good ideas into great ones. Writing feels less like hard work. (More on this.)

Why Not: It takes longer (six months or more). It can be difficult to work on the same idea for a very long time. It may take so long that you give up. Continue Reading…