Welcome to another regular feature on The Writer’s Scrap Bin: Friday Fun-Day. Every Friday I’m going to dedicate at least one post to something fun, like interesting facts about a famous writer, literary crosswords, etc.
Today’s Friday Fun-Day post is a writing prompt. Three or so weeks ago my mother brought to my attention a particularly entertaining trend on Twitter. Marc Laidlaw tweeted “The first line of almost any story can be improved by making sure the second line is, ‘And then the murders began.'” As you can imagine, Twitter had a lot of fun with this concept, taking famous first lines and following them with “And then the murders began.” Thus #LaidlawsRule began.
In addition to getting a kick out of the tweets, I was inspired to create a new writing prompt.
Find a generic, horrible first line and add “And then the murders began” or some variation of it. Use this combination as the opening to a story and keep writing.
I haven’t had the time to fully pursue my idea yet, but I will put the opening as an example:
“Around here, strawberries don’t ripen until late spring. And then the murders begin.”
Make the first line as hilariously terrible as you can. Have fun, roll with it. When you’re done, post your opening in the comments. I’d love to see what everyone comes up with.
Happy Friday! The weekend is here (well, technically). I’ve decided to start the day with a brief announcement about a contest via Writer’s Digest.
It involves writing a very short story (maximum 700 words) for the picture prompt that they provide on the site. If you win, your story will be published in an issue of the magazine under their “Your Story” section. Deadline is April 10th.
Many, if not most, writers love to talk about writing. Their writing process, what they think about today’s literature, their thoughts on the literary world, odds are you can get a writer to discuss at least one of these. Thanks to the Internet we now have virtually unlimited access to their words of wisdom. In my “Writers on Writing” series, I will give my thoughts on one of these writers and one or more of their quotes on writing. Today I’ll be looking at one of the most praised American writers: Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway famously (maybe infamously) gave the advice to “write drunk, edit sober.” There’s no secret or debate behind Hemingway’s status as a heavy-weight drinker. A champion, really. But are we to take his advice literally? Should we get drunk–or just drink–to write and wait until we sober up to edit?
General consensus points to the literal. Even the article in The Guardian from which I got this quote takes it at face value. If that’s how you choose to take it, you’ll find that people are somewhat divided on the accuracy of the quote. The common thread among most of the analysis is that drinking may help relinquish inhibitions to a point, which can help writers to not censor themselves and be more creative. However, there is a point when drunk is too drunk and your writing will turn out like horse manure. I think the most intriguing take on this angle comes from this study, if you wish to look into it further.
My take on Hemingway’s advice is quite different. For personal but non-religious reasons, I don’t drink. It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility but I don’t see myself drinking in the near future. What, then, do I get from Hemingway’s advice?
Let’s look at the first half, “write drunk.” As I stated before, the benefits of writing drunk seem to be a lack of inhibition and enhanced creativity. In that case, I equate “write drunk” to “write semiconscious” or, from my own experience, “write half-asleep.”
I don’t have any studies or scientific evidence to support this interpretation. I can’t even speak for other writers. However, my writing seems to come most freely when I’m not entirely conscious. I have discovered that my writing is most productive when I first wake up (even if I sleep in) and around 10:00-11:30 p.m, not long before I go to bed.
I’m normally too tired to read or focus on much of anything but I can write with minimal distractions at those times. Some people might argue that there’s not much going on that can take away my attention and that’s why I’m more productive. They may be right. Still, I don’t have as consistent of luck when I just isolate myself from all external stimuli. I also have to admit that there are noises echoing throughout my neighborhood at any time of day, which detracts from this theory. (By “noises” I mean a motorcycle speeding by the house at 1:00 a.m., someone’s dying car starting up around 2:00 a.m., and dogs and birds sounding off at all hours.)
One of my biggest problems with writing is my inhibition stunting my creativity. I have voices in my head that cause me to doubt myself and my work constantly. The more awake I am, the louder those voices become. My sleepy state silences these inhibitions enough that I can get about a solid hour of writing in before I start wondering if it’s utter garbage. In that way, “semiconscious/half-asleep writing” is my form of “drunk writing” without as strong a possibility of memory loss.
The second half of the quote is rather self-explanatory when examined from this perspective. If “write drunk” is “write semiconscious,” “edit sober” must be “edit conscious.” Of course, it’s probably best to be sober when you edit as well. You’ll have your full faculties at your disposal. You’ll also look at your work with a more objective eye. You won’t have to (entirely) shut up your inner critic at this point and it will finally have its say. You’ll remember the rules of grammar–or be able to research anything you’ve forgotten–well enough to know when you should and should not break them. The more sober and conscious you are, the better you will edit without totally destroying your work.
Hemingway was a great writer but relied too heavily on alcohol. Let’s face it, he was an alcoholic. It doesn’t take away from his work but he may more have written well despite being drunk rather than because of it.
We don’t all have to get drunk in order to write well. Any writers who do drink shouldn’t get too drunk if they plan on writing. People end up regret drunk texting. Can you imagine drunk writing? Instead, find under what conditions your inhibitions are lowered. Is it when you’re a little tipsy? Tired? Comfortable? So stressed and crunched for time that you simply can’t stop and give heed to your inner critic? Once you figure that out, use it. You may be surprised at how much your productivity and the quality of your writing increases. Just remember to listen to constructive feedback once you start editing.
Rejections: all writers face them. They’re the bane of our existence and our careers. That’s not to mention how soul-crushing and discouraging they can be. If you’re a seasoned veteran, you are already acquainted with these little demons. If you’re just starting, brace yourself. Odds are your first submission will be rejected. And your second. And your third. J.K. Rowling received rejections from twelve publishers before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was finally accepted. Cut yourself some slack when you get your first.
I’ll give you advice on how to handle rejection at a later date. Right now I want to provide you with encouragement and entertainment in the form of famous authors’ rejections.
A quick Google search and you’ll find site after site listing not just writers’ rejections but also rejections of famous artists, musicians, etc. Everyone in the world of art has to deal with them.
Not a fan of Moby-Dick? Lord of the Flies? Then you might find some kindred spirits–or a good laugh–in some of the rejections your search will generate. Even novels and collections that we consider “classics” faced (sometimes brutal) rejection. The writers still tried again and again until they succeeded, proving that persistence pays off in this trade.
With that in mind, below are four lists of famous authors’ rejections. (There is overlap but each list adds another writer and/or interesting facts about the rejections. They’re all worth a look.) If you just got your first rejection, you’re feeling downtrodden, or you want reassurance that you’re not alone in this experience, check these out:
Whether it specifies the length (novel versus short story), the kind of writing (prose versus poetry), or the content (romance versus fantasy), I’m not a fan of the “genre” concept. I find genres unnecessarily divisive. Nothing is ever that black-and-white. Nevertheless, genres are a prominent concept in writing and I must address the matter if I wish to discuss writing. I have too many thoughts on this subject to cover everything in one post, so I will present them in a new series of posts that I call the “Genres” series.
While genres can be used to organize literature, they also lead to heated debate among readers and writers. Every genre comes with its elitists, people who think the genre is superior to all others and, conversely, people who think the genre shouldn’t be considered literature. Some fans refuse to try other genres or refuse to admit that they read more than one genre. The results of this divisive attitude? Literary cliques and anxiety for writers.
This divide most clearly affects writers. If a writer mostly works in one genre, deviations risk drawing criticism and disapproval from fans. Beginning writers must be careful as to which genre they practice. Pedestrian and literary fiction, for example, are typically considered more worthy of pursuit than speculative fiction. Some writers can’t decide where to submit their work because it does not clearly fit into one genre alone.
But is any genre really superior to the others? Should writers stick with one genre and avoid cross-genre (hybrid) work? Should aspiring writers pursue literary fiction for the sake of building their reputation?
The short answer: no.
I’ve already covered passion driving work in my “Writing for Yourself” post. Now I want to revisit the necessity of variety. As readers and writers, we need to dip into several genres to broaden our horizons. Different genres teach us different things. The more diversely we read, the more we can grow as writers, intellectuals, and people.
I focus on speculative fiction, particularly fantasy, in what I write and what I read. However, it’s not the only genre into which I’ve delved. I adore books like Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This year, as part of my Master’s program, I’ve read a spectrum of literary fiction from Gogol and Chekhov to O’Connor and Boyle.
All that I’ve read has shaped me as a person. I owe my tolerance and sense of social justice to books like Harry Potter; my political stance can be traced back to Dr. Seuss; and my ever-expanding understanding of other cultures comes from writers likes Jhumpa Lahiri.
Just as importantly, reading and writing across genres have strengthened my skills as a writer. Dabbling into realistic fiction has proven especially fruitful, and crossing between realistic fiction and fantasy has added depth to my writing in both genres. Realistic fiction helps me with the technical side of writing fantasy. In return, fantasy gives me practice in world building.
The most notable change is in my dialogue. As recently as this academic year, my dialogue was one of my weakest points. It sounded unnatural and dragged the story down. (I can only think of one fantasy story I wrote last summer that does not fit this bill.) Then I read Flannery O’Connor for my Master’s program. O’Connor is well-known as a master of dialogue. She even inspired me to write realistic stories. My first try still requires a complete rewrite. Nevertheless, my dialogue improved tremendously. It was arguably the most salvageable aspect of that piece. The next story I wrote was also realistic fiction. Feedback on that work suggests that my dialogue continued to get better. As long as I don’t limit myself to one genre, I know my writing will remain on this upward trajectory.
Dividing literature is akin to dividing people; too much division and all you’ll have are narrow minds in a flat world. Sometimes you have to force yourself outside of your comfort zone in order to grow. So go ahead, read a genre you don’t like. Write in an unfamiliar genre. After all, what do you have to lose?