Can journalists become “creative” writers?

When I was a baby writer, I had no interest in journalism. I wanted to be Robert Frost or Louisa May Alcott. In high school, I did not get involved with the school paper. I took creative writing. This was in the 1960s, and our “magazine” was a brown paper bag called “Your Bag” in which we inserted colored slips of paper with poems and stories typed on them. Those were wacky times, my friends. Lots of beads, miniskirts, and long straight hair parted in the middle. The scent of marijuana everywhere.

When it came time to choose a college major, I would have loved to major in creative writing or music, but I didn’t come from a wealthy family. College was a luxury we couldn’t really afford. I knew I had to make a living, so I chose journalism. At West Valley Community College, I edited a magazine full of poetry, fiction, and airy articles illustrated with black and white art. At San Jose State, I wrote lengthy articles for the school magazine. I did not get involved with the frantic activity over at the Spartan Daily office.

Then I needed a job, and guess where I ended up? Newspapers. One after another after another. Writing, editing, taking photos. Covering city council, school board, features, business, local artists, and everything else. I loved it. I was good at it. But I still wanted to write fiction and poetry.

Many years later, I went back to school and earned my MFA in creative writing, specializing in something called “creative nonfiction,” true stories using elements of fiction like point of view, characters, setting and plot. I was probably the only student sneaking time between classes to conduct interviews for my freelance article assignments.

So, now I was a certified creative writer. But what had all those years of journalism done to my skills? In academia, there’s a big divide between literary writing and journalism. Art vs. trade. Some literary types imply that journalism ruins a person for creative writing. Does it?

Let’s look at the pros and cons:

Pro:

  • Writing regularly for publication teaches you to write quickly and efficiently. There’s no time for writer’s block. You just do it.
  • Journalists develop information-gathering skills and learn how to translate that information into palatable prose.
  • In the course of their work, journalists meet a wide range of people and learn about many different subjects.
  • You can build up your clips and develop a recognizable name which can lead to other opportunities.
  • You usually get paid actual money for articles.

Con:

  • Because of deadline pressure, journalists don’t have much time to revise and polish. They crank it out, do a quick spellcheck and turn it in.
  • Because of a lack of space, journalists may not explore stories in much depth.
  • Because the language of most newspapers is plain and simple, there’s a tendency to use a limited vocabulary.
  • Sometimes the articles are little more than free advertising.

I think working as a journalist is a good thing for any kind of writer. Hemingway and Mark Twain did it. Pete Hamill and Tom Wolfe did it. Why not you and me? After all, you’re working with words every day, polishing your skills, and learning about the world.

But do those skills translate into creative writing? Read this article, “Journalists Who Turn to Fiction Writing Can Find It Tough Going,” about journalist-turned-novelist Scott Flanders.

What do you think? Can journalists also be literary writers? Why or why not? Please respond in the comments.

Now let’s go write.

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Let Your Writing Marinate for a While

Dear writers,

Did you miss me last month?

I learned two important things while I was off-blog. One is that I missed doing this blog, even though I have two others to keep me busy. I like talking about writing, teaching it, and editing it. I just like playing with words.

Last month, I did some teaching at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon, but I did even more learning. The big thing that I learned is the value of setting a project aside for a while. I’m talking about my novel, Being PD, which does not yet have a publisher. At the conference, I pitched it to a couple of agents who were interested but made no promises. I also attended a “First Page Gong Show” in which actors read the opening pages of participants’ novels. A panel of agents and editors “gonged” them as soon as they lost interest or heard something they didn’t like. Only about four first pages made it to the end. I was number 38, and they never got to my page. Thank God. Most important, I took several classes from Jennifer Lauck, author of four memoirs and a fantastic teacher. Her workshops on structuring one’s novel or memoir blew my mind.

While struggling with a memoir, I’ve been marketing my novel. I was sure the novel was finished, that I could not make it any better, and that even though 105,000 words is a little long for a novel, the editors would just have to live with it. I did not plan to look at it again until an editor from a publishing house demanded changes for the final version. I’ll bet you can see where this is going. After talking to agents and editors, attending the Gong Show and inhaling the wisdom of Jennifer’s classes, I came home and started tearing PD apart.

I was working on a deadline. I had assured the agents I would send the book to them within two weeks. So I cranked into high gear and got it done. Suddenly I could see exactly what I needed to do with this book, none of which had occurred to me before the conference. The first thing I did was ditch not only my first page but the whole first chapter. I didn’t need it. I needed to start closer to the action. Plus the gong panel was universally turned off by certain bodily functions. So, bye-bye. Cutting that chapter meant I needed to figure out how to include certain necessary details later, but it was not difficult.

The agents said I needed more romance. That was easy to add. And most surprising, I found oodles of words I just didn’t need. Excess verbiage. As I cut, the word count went down painlessly. Another big chunk went out toward the end of the book because I could see the ending went on too long. I trimmed approximately 9,000 words in all. Now I’m in the ballpark. And now I know this novel is the best one I’ve ever written. I was certain it was perfect before. I was wrong. It was good but not quite cooked. To read a brief excerpt from the new and improved opening, click on the Being PD link at the top of the page.

I couldn’t have done this revision if I hadn’t set the book aside for months while I worked on the memoir. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing. We all want our books out in the world as quickly as possible. But we need to let them marinate for a while, then throw away the excess sauce to make them the best they can possibly be.

It also helps to bring in someone with a fresh set of eyes, whether it’s a critique group, a teacher, an editor, or an agent. Take classes, read good books, never say “good enough” just because you’re tired. Set it aside and come back to it later. It will be so much easier than if you didn’t wait.

Jennifer Lauck teaches online as well as in-person in Portland. You might want to check out her classes. She strongly recommends Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.

The annual Willamette Writers Conference takes place in Portland, Oregon the first weekend in August.

Now, let’s go write.


Take your notebook on a writing vacation

I was feeling all tangled up with the many different projects I’m working on, so much so that I dreaded sitting at my computer. Outside, it was summer, and I live in a place where people come for dream vacations. I decided to play tourist for a day. I went on a long drive that ended at the beach, gathered treasures at a used bookstore, and ate crab cakes at a swanky restaurant with a fabulous view. You know what I was doing the whole time? Writing. I filled page after page in my journal with observations, ideas and even a new poem. Suddenly the tap was wide open, all because I took myself out of my usual setting and my usual schedule. I also got away from the Internet, which was a big factor. I had forgotten to charge my phone, so I had to turn it off. And my brain said, “Yippee! let’s play.”

At lunch, while I was scribbling in my notebook, I couldn’t resist writing a description of a woman sitting at a corner table by herself. She wore casual clothes and her hair up in a ponytail. She had her laptop open in front of her and was eating with one hand and typing with the other. What really got my attention was that she was drinking champagne. As the bubbles rose in her glass, I wondered what she was celebrating and whether she actually tasted the champagne or saw the incredible view just outside the window. What’s her story? My imagination is still toying with that picture, which I would not have seen from my desk at home. You might want to play with it, too. Who is she? Why was she drinking champagne alone at noon in an expensive restaurant at the beach?

I’m taking the month of August off from this Writer Aid blog. More sunny days and other projects need my attention. My assignment for you is to take your notebook–I mean the paper kind–and a couple of pens or pencils and take yourself on a mental vacation. Turn the phone, tablet and computer off. Write down whatever comes to you. Don’t worry about marketing or any of that. You’re creating raw material. If nothing comes, just breathe, just live life for a while. The words will come when it’s time.

While I’m on vacation, you might want to look at my updated list of resources for writers. I welcome suggestions for things I have missed and alerts to links that don’t work.

See you in September. Let’s go write.


Must we finish every writing project we start?

Finish everything you start, Mridu Khullar Relph advises in “The Secret Art of Reaching ‘The End,'” published at Writing-World.com. It’s a good column full of helpful advice. Yes, we  tend to get a little squirrel-brained. We keep starting writing projects and not finishing them. We’ll never get anywhere unless we do actually finish something, she says. I totally agree.

Relph quotes the late Apple computer co-founder Steve Jobs as saying, “Real artists ship.” He means that at some point you have to stop tweaking, stop obsessing, stop revising, and send your product out into the world.

Relph adds that we need to look at how we’re spending our time and back off from tasks like social media that might be keeping us from finishing our work. We need to not just start projects but finish them.

All good points, BUT what if a product, be it a computer or a story, is defective, just not as good as it should be? What if no matter how hard you work on it, it just doesn’t have that special something, what one of my teachers called “juice.” Should you still finish it? I don’t think so. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you need to spend some of them eating, sleeping and relating to other people. If a writing project is not working, move on. But if it is working, finish it. Revise it, polish it, proofread it, find an appropriate market, and send it out. If it gets rejected, send it out again.

If you’re like me, you have plenty of ideas, but they don’t all get turned into completed poems, stories, articles, or books, often because you have a better idea that has more juice. Yes, you might have piles of incomplete writing and scraps of paper on which you scribbled what were brilliant ideas at the time. But I think that’s part of being a writer. Sometimes it takes numerous false starts or practice runs to get to the good stuff. You might write 20 poems and realize that only one of them is good enough to send out, but you got to that one by writing the other 19. You might have 20 ideas for novels, but nobody can write 20 novels at once, so you pick the best one and write it. If we had to publish every word we ever wrote, we’d be too stressed to write. Let the words flow. Figure out later whether it’s worth finishing.

Let’s talk a minute about Harper Lee and the just-released so-called sequel for To Kill a Mockingbird. (Why not? Everybody else is.) From what I can gather, Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before her bestseller. She considered it an inferior book and did not want it published. To Kill a Mockingbird was the new and improved version. Check out this sad review of Watchman from NPR’s Maureen Corrigan. I feel bad for Harper Lee. I’m also tempted to burn all of my earlier drafts of unpublished novels for fear some fool will publish them when I’m too old or too dead to stop them. The thing is, we all have projects we start and don’t finish or never publish because they’re not good enough or we lost interest. We need to focus on the ones that have the juice. Finish those, get them out, sell them, get famous.

Meanwhile, if you need some spare ideas, I’ve got a few thousand I can share with you.

So, what are you writing today? Let’s go write.


Little things that drive editors nuts

Hey, did you know that . . .

* “Alright” is all wrong? It’s “all right,” two words. I know you see it in print all the time. It’s still wrong.

* When you’re about to recline on a bed, floor, beach, etc., it’s “lie” not “lay,” as in “I’m going to lie down now.” “Lay” is the past tense. “She got tired, so she lay down.”

* The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” Not “sunk.” Use it wrong and you are sunk with this editor.

* “Your” is a possessive word that indicates something belongs to you. “That’s your shoe.” If you want to indicate a state of being, such as me praising your wonderfulness, the correct word is “you’re.” “You’re wonderful.”

* “It’s” and “Its” are not the same thing. “It’s” is short for “it is” as in “It’s hot today.” “Its” is a possessive word, as in “The dog was chasing its tail.”

Editors care about this stuff. Get these things wrong on the first page or in your query/cover letter, and they’re going to move on to the next manuscript. So make sure you’re using these words correctly.

Maybe the Internet and Smart Phones are making us more casual with our language, but as writers using words as our tools, we need to get them right, at least in our final drafts. All right?

You might find these links interesting.

Commonly misused words and phrases from Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference

12 Commonly Misused Words and Phrases from the Huffington Post

Wikipedia: List of Commonly Misused English Words (It’s a long one!)

Now let’s go write.


Write your ABCs and 1-2-3’s to grab readers

I found myself reading an article all the way to the end this morning even though I really didn’t have time. I was drawn in by the format. The writer went through the alphabet offering words of advice for writers. A is for anecdotes, F is for focus, etc. And I just had to read all the way to Z. Alphabet articles get me every time.

Why?

1) They’re easy to read.

2) I’m curious what words the writer will connect with each letter

3) The letters act as mnemonic devices that help me remember what I read.

Letters and numbers can work for you, too. I’m going to talk about articles first, but hang in there, poets, fiction writers and essayists.

ABC articles are common, but numbered list articles are even more common: Ten hidden treasures on the Oregon coast, five reasons why your child should go to summer school, eight ways to get better orgasms, a baker’s dozen gluten-free cupcakes. Look at the front of any consumer magazine to see how popular list articles are.

These articles are rarely great art, but they are easy to write, easy to read, and they sell. If you offer an editor 10 ways to ___________, he or she knows exactly what you’re offering and where it will fit in the publication. Write an intro and a list of what your list will contain, a bio paragraph about yourself, and your query is done. When the editor says yes, fill in the list.

A few cautions about writing the list article:

1) If you start out with the alphabet, you have to use every letter, and if you go with numbers, you need to follow through with all of them.

2) Each item must have value, no cheating, no excuses like X is useless, nothing starts with X. Find something and make it good.

3) The pieces all need to fit together somehow. Think of those exam questions that ask which item doesn’t not fit in the list: apples, oranges, bananas, snickerdoodles.

Now, you writers of fiction, essays and poems, some of my favorite works are done with lists. You can get painfully corny with alphabet poems, which actually have a formal name, abecedarium, but some are truly works of art. Many great poems, essays and short stories have been written in numbered sections that draw the reader along and come together in a way that straight stanzas or paragraphs wouldn’t. Actually, how different is this from numbering chapters? They’re just much shorter, sometimes only a paragraph or even a line. Try it. It works.

There’s an annual A to Z blog challenge which I did last year. I was surprised at how easy it was to find ideas with the simple prompt of a letter of the alphabet. Try a list. Or make a list about why you’d rather not.

Some links to check out:

1) Poets.org offers an explanation of abecedarium poems and some great examples.

2) At Blue Sky, Big Dreams, a lesson and some examples.

3) New Yorker Short story “Permission to Enter” by Zadie Smith, example of short fiction told in numbers.

4) Also from the New Yorker: “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists” by Maria Konnikova.

Now let’s go write. 1-2-3 GO!


Are Writers Really Loners? Should We Be?

The old stereotype shows writers sitting alone in their garrets writing for hours, avoiding people while the bills and the trash pile up—and maybe the empty whiskey bottles, too. But is that really where it’s at? I don’t even have a garret.

I ask this because it came up at our board meeting for Writers on the Edge, which puts on the Nye Beach Writers Series in Newport Oregon. We are running out of volunteers. Even though writers and fans claim to love what we do, nobody seems to want to commit to working on the team that makes it happen.

In wondering why it’s so hard to get volunteers, some of the board speculated that it’s because writers are lone wolves. But are they? Writers are always asking me as president of WOE where they can hang out with other writers. They want to chat, they want critiques, they want to just set their laptops side by side and work. They need that extra push of someone caring whether or not they write to make them put words on the page. Some want classes, many want deadlines.

I read online recently about a group of women that meet to submit their work. Side by side with their laptops, they pound out their manuscripts, queries, and cover letters. Every time someone hits send, they all celebrate. This is similar to the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) write-ins that happen all over the country in November. I have not attended these. I prefer to write in silence. Also, I speak my words as I type them, which would no doubt drive the others crazy. But if you would like to write with other writers, you don’t have to wait until November. Invite somebody for a writing date.

I prefer to produce my rough drafts and do major edits alone, but I don’t like to be alone all the time. I enjoy the company of other writers, and I love the extra push from workshops and write-ins where everybody’s writing at once. Over the years, critique groups have been very helpful. Several of the most successful writers I know, including Chuck Palahniuk, Cheryl Strayed, Chelsea Cain and Lidia Yuknavitch, are part of a Thursday night writers group in Portland, Oregon  that meets regularly for no-holds-barred critiques. I have no doubt that their association has helped them write better and get published sooner.

You may or may not like writing with other people around. I did it for years as a newspaper reporter and editor, so I know it’s totally possible to write elbow to elbow with other writers writing, phones ringing, police radios squawking, and people coming in and out. When you’re facing a deadline, you just do it. Now, I enjoy the peace and quiet, but I can write and have written anywhere.

I’m shy about reaching out to other people, but I do think we need other people once we hack out our early drafts. At some point, we need someone else to look at what we have written and tell us what works and what doesn’t. When we get stuck, they can help us find a way out. We also need someone to tell us it’s worth doing and urge us to keep going, especially when we’re getting nothing but rejections.

And when it comes to submitting our work, dealing with queries, cover letters, and sharing market information, it really helps to have friends to talk to, even if it’s only on Facebook.

The connections we can make with other writers are pure gold. Through my activities with California Writers, Willamette Writers and Writers on the Edge, I have met big-name writers, editors and publishers. I mean, they know who I am and what I write. They can help me with my career. If nothing else, they make me feel as if I am a real writer and my big success is just around the corner.

So are writers really loners? Not any more than the rest of the population. Have you noticed how many of us are on Facebook, Twitter and other social media? Quite a few writers I know prefer to write in coffee shops and other public places. You do have to put those words on the screen by yourself, but when you’re done, back away from the computer and find another human being to talk to. It’s healthy.

And if you live on the Central Oregon Coast, we sure could use your help with the Nye Beach Writers series. Write us at info@writersontheedge.org.

Are we loners? Are you? I welcome your comments. The comment link is at the top of the page just below the “tags.”

Now let’s go write.