Writers on Writing: Mark Twain

Quote retrieved from Twain Quotes.

I adore Mark Twain. Everyone needs humor in their lives and I find his writing refreshing. I’ve never read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I have, however, read several of his other works: “Advice to Little Girls”, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, The Prince and the PauperPudd’nhead Wilson, and more. My favorite is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Time travel, the Knights of the Round Table, and satire that pokes at the romanticized image of the Middle Ages? What’s not to love?

Today I’m going to discuss one of Twain’s quotes on writing that has been very encouraging for me during the editing process:

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.

~Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Notebook

It sounds paradoxical but also makes sense. The meatiest, most taxing part of writing is not the writing itself but the rewriting. We don’t know what we’re trying to say until after that first draft.

I know what a lot of you might say: I meticulously plan my (novel, short story, poem, whatever) before I pick up the pen; I know exactly what I want to say before the first draft.

Let me ask you this: how often is the first draft also your final draft? How many revisions do you go through before you and your beta readers decide that the work is finished (well, publishable)? How drastically does the piece change before you’re done?

We know generally what we want to say in the first draft but specifics are blurry. Sometimes even that “big picture” takes a turn in later drafts. It’s the nature of writing. We spew everything in our heads onto the page during the first draft and then we figure out the direction in which we really want to go.

The good news? This process means that it doesn’t matter if the first draft is crud. It’s supposed to be. All that matters is that you revise the work until you realize what you want to say and accomplish that message, even if you have to write it all over again. I’m learning this lesson slowly but surely as I edit stories for my end-of-year portfolio.

This photograph of an older Mark Twain was taken by A.F. Bradley for the purpose of helping poet laureate Ina Coolbrith, who lost her home in the San Francisco Earthquake.

Picture retrieved from the Mark Twain Wikipedia Entry.

The other good news? Mark Twain, the writer of the “Great American Novel”, didn’t always know what he wanted to write until after he started writing. He knew not to stop if the first batch was rotten. And you shouldn’t give up during or after finishing your first draft. You’re just getting started.

Do you have any thoughts on Twain’s advice? Do you have a writer whom you want me to write about in a future “Writers on Writing”? Drop a line in the comments or contact me at thewritersscrapbin@gmail.com.

And watch for the next “Writers on Writing” in which I’ll turn to Latin American writer Sandra Cisneros.

 

Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Contest for Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers: Writers of the Future

TGI Friday, fellow readers and writers. Today I want to bring your attention to a contest which I discovered quite a few years ago (sophomore or junior year of high school, I believe). It’s called the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. It’s for new writers and illustrators of the fantasy and science fiction genres.

Before I get into the specifics of the contest itself, I wish to address its founder. Yes, it was started by that L. Ron Hubbard, renowned science fiction writer and founder of Scientology. As far as my research has turned up, that is where the connection between this contest and the controversial religion ends. Please do not let any negative conceptions you have of Scientology keep you from this contest. I have rather…mixed feelings about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard myself but I still think the contest is a great opportunity for budding writers and illustrators who favor these genres.

Now, on to the contest. There are more details than I wish to cover here, so please follow this link for complete information on entering, prizes, etc. But here are some highlights:

  • Science fiction, fantasy, and dark fantasy stories of up to 17,000 words in length may be submitted.
  • Contestants retain all publication rights.
  • NO ENTRY FEE
  • The contest is quarterly with three winners each quarter.
  • The first place winners for each quarter have a chance to win the grand prize at the end of the contest year.
  • There’s also a branch of the contest for artists called the Illustrators of the Future Contest.
  • Cash prizes and publication in the annual Writers and Illustrators of the Future anthology
  • There’s a formal reception for the winners.
  • Contestants CANNOT have professionally published a novel or short novel, more than one novelette, or more than three short stories in any medium. More information on what is considered “professional publication” is available on the site.

I entered the contest once (and lost) but have not returned to it due to other paths calling my name. However, if you’ve a hand for writing in these genres, I highly recommend submitting to Writers of the Future.

Best of luck!

 

Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Experimenting in Writing: Just Do It

Writing is a balancing act between the new and the conventional. We want to branch out but we’re afraid that it won’t settle well with our readers. We often wonder, should we experiment in our writing or should we stick with the tried and true? The question seems simple but the answer is not.

This is me when I think about including my flash fiction experiments in my end-of-year portfolio.

GIF retrieved from GIPHY.

I often struggle with this matter. Most recently I’ve decided to try my hand at flash fiction. Honestly, I’m still baffled by it. The genre is powerful and complete in a way that’s inexplicable. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I have written anything salvageable.

The uncertainty makes me dread experimentation. I may want to try something but I’m so petrified by the thought of failing that I question myself constantly. Is there a plot beneath the new form? Are the characters well-developed? Am I conveying my thoughts well enough? The most persistent and dreaded question: am I “doing” this right?

I know that there is no “right” way to write. Some forms, such as flash fiction, are so different from the others that I keep wondering what makes some stories work and others not. The best solution, of course, is to ask other writers to review the stories and give feedback. Should be no different than any other story.

This conversation is always going on in a writer’s head, just more loudly when they’re experimenting with a new form.

Image retrieved from Pinterest.

The problem: I am still petrified by the thought of failure. In this case, the failure would manifest as embarrassment in the company of my peers. I can’t get myself to ask for feedback because I’m too worried that they will think less of me if the work is a mess.

You see the conundrum? I’m going to get nowhere if I continue like this. I could decide to avoid experimentation period. At least I’ll know that I will please some readers, right?

There’s a problem with that approach, too.

Beyond the external factor of people criticizing writers for repeating themselves, there’s always a reason why they want to experiment. Often, as in my case, it’s because they aren’t inspired. They’re having a problem with the same-old, same-old. They have writer’s block and have to shake off the cobwebs. If they don’t break from the rut, all of their future work will be stale–if they produce more work at all.

What’s a writer to do?

Simply put: JUST DO IT.

We never know if something will succeed if we don’t try. Yes, we might fail. We’ll more than likely fail over and over. Will we embarrass ourselves? Possibly. It depends on how we react and the thickness of our skin. Without failure and possible embarrassment, we’ll never reach our full potential. We’ll never learn if we don’t make mistakes and we’ll never stumble across our greatest works if we don’t cast our nets wide.

I know, easier said than done. I definitely know that. I’m partly using this post to convince myself that it’s OK for me to experiment and that I won’t humiliate myself if I ask someone to look these pieces over. Sometimes you have to fight back the inhibitions and do something without knowing how it will turn out.

Besides, you may find your next favorite way to write when you experiment. Isn’t that worth the risk?

 

Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Trending: #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear and #WhatWoCWritersHear

Warning: This article is about a controversial issue that women writers face. People may not want to read about it and that’s their decision, but I highly encourage everyone to continue. Even if you don’t personally relate to anything, you may gain a better understanding of other people’s struggles with this business. My language is probably not politically correct and I apologize for any offense I cause. I did my best but I’m only human.

Women writers, especially Women of Color (WoC) writers, are often given a hard time in the writing/publishing world. As a white woman writer, I have not experienced any negative bias based on my gender identity, let alone race. However, I’m just starting my writing career. Being a woman may, at one point or another, through obstacles my way in the future. I know for a fact that women writers still experience discrimination despite how far Western society has progressed. (I really cannot speak for anyone outside of Western society.) Perhaps the most notorious example is J.K. Rowling using initials so that boys would read Harry Potter.

Don’t believe me? Think it’s women whining about rejection or that it’s just “victim mentality”? Let’s look at two hashtags that have been making the rounds the past few days: #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear and #WhatWoCWritersHear.

According to Book Riot, #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear started with Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat.  L.L. McKinney, a.k.a. @ElleOnWords, created #WhatWoCWritersHear. I followed the hashtags out of curiosity and what I’ve seen has made me furious that this still happens in 2017:

My favorite:

Among other things, that last one acts as though single women, career women, lesbians, generally women who don’t rely on husbands aren’t writers (or don’t exist).

The things WoC writers have heard are no better. I can’t imagine what it’s like to hear what these women have:

Imagine if someone said that to a white writer because their character was white.

I don’t know why anyone would dare tell a WoC writer something like this:

Yes, they’re so lucky that they’ve been so severely underrepresented and oppressed that their stories are now (supposedly) in high demand.

Why am I talking about this if I haven’t encountered it? I can’t possibly understand if I don’t go through it.

That’s exactly why I’m writing about it. Just because it hasn’t happened to me does not mean it doesn’t happen. As a society we need to get that through our thick skulls. Some women may not have heard such remarks but it doesn’t mean they won’t in the future and it definitely does not mean other women haven’t.

As importantly, white women–white people overall–shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the experiences of WoC writers. White people can’t ignore them just because those aren’t their struggles. We can’t brush it off or call people ungrateful because “things are so much better in the Western world now”. White people are part of the problem–actually, white people, myself included, are the problem. Yes, many of us don’t actively participate in it. However, we allow this attitude to continue when we don’t speak up.

I’m not trying to bag on white people or men, and I apologize if it seems that way. I think that bias against anyone for their gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc. is unjustified and wrong. We need to acknowledge the bias and address it. Pretending the issue doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.

I also have to agree with one user’s Tweet about hearing about gender bias for men:

The only way we’re going to eradicate bias is to listen to both sides. I’m not saying that women’s grievances are any better just because men experience bias, too. Far from it. Rather than telling women “oh, we all have problems”, men should say “I understand the issue and I’ll do all that I can to help end it.” If we’re going to end this infestation, we have to work together, not tear ourselves apart.

I know I’m going to get grief for this. People get upset and lash out. It happens. Still, it’s my choice to talk about these Tweets and it’s your choice to ignore this post, if you like. I post plenty of articles that don’t have this sort of controversy, so you can stick with those. All I ask is that anything you say in response to this or any of my posts remains civil. I’m open to debate but only if we’re engaging in intelligent conversation, not pointless name-calling and bullying.

I’m not perfect. I don’t read as diversely as I should but I’m working on it. Please, if you have any recommendations for women and WoC writers, drop a line in the comments so I can check them out.

For the women and WoC writers reading this, do you have any stories like these to share? What do you think we can do to reduce the frequency of this issue? And to add some positive energy, do you have any stories of GOOD #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear (i.e. you inspired me, you helped me realize I wasn’t alone, you got me through a rough time, etc.)?

And keep an eye out for L.L. McKinney’s book, A Blade So Black, planned for release in Fall 2018.

 

Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

J.K. Rowling: The Writer Who Made Me

This June will mark nineteen years since my mother and I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. We read the book on a trip to Disneyland for my fifth birthday. Nineteen years. It’s hard to believe. I was so young that I don’t remember much about life before the books and I don’t want to imagine my life without them. Harry Potter has become an indispensable part of me and J.K. Rowling is my hero.

On Sunday I watched a special about Rowling on Reelz Channel. Memories flooded me, memories of the books, the movies, the midnight releases. I rediscovered that which I already knew about my role model and gained a little more insight into her life. Most importantly–and the point of this article–the special reminded me of how much J.K. Rowling has influenced me.

Author, philanthropist, activist, J.K. Rowling is more than just the Harry Potter writer.

Image retrieved from gettyimages.

A lot of people say that Harry Potter got them or their children interested in reading. Honestly, that’s not the case with me. Even at five years old I loved to read. My oldest brother and I both started reading at a very young age, and my mother read to me every night. I can’t say that Harry Potter ignited my interest in fantasy, either. My mother and I read C.S. Lewis books together before we got our hands on Sorcerer’s Stone and my mother is an avid fantasy fan, so my love of the genre was inevitable. No, what J.K. Rowling has done for me runs deeper.

She didn’t inspire me to become a writer. That honor belongs to my seventh grade Literature teacher, my mother, and my deceased grandfather. Rowling did, however, help me believe that I could be a writer.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, one of my favorites, was released on my tenth birthday. Interestingly, the U.S. cover is blue, which happens to be my favorite color. I find more reasons to love and connect with these books and their writer every day.

Image retrieved from Amazon, artwork by Mary GrandPré, published by Scholastic Publishing

I’ve discovered multiple parallels between Ms. Rowling and myself. As children we were both bookish and smart and we felt like outsiders even with friends. Our dream colleges rejected us. (I wanted to attend Stanford originally but it was for the better that I went to U.C. Davis.) The death of Rowling’s mother changed her writing drastically. Similarly, my grandfather’s death pushed me to pursue this career path more fervently. We both have anxiety and we’ve suffered from depression at some point in our lives.

To see someone so much like me succeed gives me hope. I’ve always lacked self-confidence and I continuously oscillate between thinking I can do anything and thinking I can do nothing. The story of Rowling’s life–her struggles, her failures, her successes–reminds me that I can’t approach my life and career that way. I may triumph, I may fail, but the possible rewards outweigh the costs. Every time I read Very Good Lives or her Twitter feed, she reminds me that it’s worse to do nothing at all. I’ll get there someday and it will all be worth the risk. I have to keep trying or else it’ll never happen.

Of course, Rowling has influenced my career in a much more direct way recently. Remember that contest for which my story was longlisted? Well, I wouldn’t have entered if it weren’t for her.

My mother saw Rowling’s tweet about the contest a few months ago and forwarded it to me. At first I didn’t think I should enter. The Crime Writer’s Association runs the contest and the criteria is based on a quote by a famous detective fiction writer. I’ve never written this genre before. Frankly, I’ve barely read it before. The closest I’ve gotten is one book and a short story, each starring Sherlock Holmes. So why did I enter? I figured that if Rowling, someone known for her fantasy books, could succeed as crime writer Robert Galbraith, I could give it a whirl as well. What would be the harm in trying?

That’s the best thing that any role model can give you: the courage to try even when you’re doubting yourself.

Some of you may think it’s an exaggeration to say that Rowling made me. After all, I’ve had several other influences: other writers, other books, family, friends, teachers, movies, actors, singers, etc. I admit that she and Harry Potter are not all that made me. However, they’ve done a lot for me. From a bonding agent with potential friends to a boost of courage, I owe this writer and her works a lot.

Which writer has influenced you? Who makes you jump in when you know the odds of making it are slim? Tell us all about them in the comments.

 

Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011