How to Kick Miss Nibs to the Curb and Finally Own Your Sentences

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by Kate Maruyama

GRAMMAR! Grammarian. Correct grammar. Poor grammar. Good grammar. Eeek! For many these words are terrifying and I’ve got a pretty good idea why.

I’ve taught writing to all ages, from grade school to graduate school, undergraduate students or grownups who just want to write.

One constant I’ve encountered in all varieties of writers is a nasty residue I like to call the Ms. Nibs factor. It seems like all of my students, no matter their background, have been at one time or another in their life– most likely in their grammar school or in high school–smacked down for their writing in one way or another. English teachers in primary school tend to function on a rules and correction formula which is not the right formula for creative writing. And, unfortunately, as we’ve all had English teachers, no matter how good we get at creative writing, we carry that “I’m doing it wrong” Ms. Nibs hangover from our past. This sometimes rears its ugly head when we are sitting down to write. It prevents many students I know from writing at all.

We carry with us every criticism we’ve received on our writing and very often, every red mark we’ve seen on a paper. When we get notes from editors, it stings in the same way.

And somehow, when the word “grammar” comes up, it lands in the Miss Nibs category, and can lead to mini nervous breakdowns.

The truth is grammar is just the mechanics of how sentences are put together. It’s the terminology for each word you use and why you use it. And it’s essential for a writer’s toolbox.  The way to rid yourself of that baffled Miss Nibs feeling is to take hold of this toolbox and start wielding your verbs more mightily, owning your modifying clauses and discovering the music and the function of your sentences.

Once you have already written a draft (no one should get in the way of that creative process, especially not Miss Nibs,) it is time to go back into your prose and make sure each word is doing what it is meant to do and is chosen for maximum impact. Having a firm handle on how all these details work makes that final polish solid. Before you hand your work over to an editor, a beta reader, a potential agent, you have the tools to see that beyond creativity, story, and character, your writing is clear and powerful and has fully embraced the parameters of the language. And in doing this you have served your story well.

Kate Maruyama’s course, Grammar Redux: Comprehensive Tools for Writers begins on January 15th.

Kate Maruyama’s novel HARROWGATE was published by 47North. Her short work has appeared in Arcadia, Stoneboat, Whistling Shade and on Salon, Duende, The Rumpus among other journals as well as in two anthologies: Winter Horror Days and Phantasma: Stories. She teaches in the BA and MFA programs for Antioch University Los Angeles as well as for Writing Workshops Los Angeles and the inspiration2publication program. She writes, teaches, cooks and eats in Los Angeles where she lives with her family.

 

 

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Mining Neighborhood Treasures for Writing

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Blog post Julie Graham

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Here’s what I know about the little town I’ve lived in for the last 20 years, a small village by the Santa Monica Bay that basks in its relative isolation from the thrumming street life of Venice and Santa Monica. I know these factoids by osmosis, just from living here, talking with friends who have lived here all their life, reading the local paper, and walking the neighborhood:

  1. In the 1920’s an exclusive group of rich and powerful men built a ranch in a canyon below Sunset Boulevard and called it, and themselves, the Uplifters Club. The name was a play on words, since they supported the arts by promoting and uplifting artistic endeavors, but also because they drank heavily (uplifting drinks to their mouths) during the prohibition era in speakeasies hidden around the ranch.
  2. In a mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Thelma Todd, a famous and beloved actress, was murdered in1935. The mystery of who killed her and why has never been solved.
  3. A meditation center and shrine surrounded by a lush garden sits on a spring-fed lake at the edge of town. On the edge of the lake sits a windmill which has been converted into a chapel.
  4. In the mountains above my town sit the ruins of what was to be Hitler’s North American compound, had Germany won. It’s now a hiking destination and a graffiti artist’s dreamscape.
  5. A new street mall designed by a local developer is set to open next year, with nods to historical buildings of yesteryear.
  6. A small Italian restaurant next to the local Starbucks has a Hookah club after hours, members only.
  7. A champion Muay Thai boxer teaches and trains in a local martial arts studio. He’s the only man in the world who has ever won World Boxing titles with only one arm. He goes by the nickname “The One Armed Bandit.”

What do these factoids about my town have in common? Any one of them could be become a travel essay.  The truth is, any fun fact — large or small — about your own hometown can make fascinating reading; the possibilities for travel writing are endless.

As a travel writer, this is how I look at any place I go, even if it’s just around the corner. What would I want people to know if I had to write about this place, or this person. What’s unique to the story? Recently, for instance, I wondered why there are different types of trees planted on each block in the neighborhood?  What’s the city planning history behind this section of my town? And why is my street the only one in the town with a Japanese name?

I’ve lived in many urban areas that have infinite places of interest to write about and I’ve lived small bedroom communities too. Although it seemed at the time that there was nothing exciting about those humble suburban towns, in hindsight through the lens of travel narrative, I can now think of a dozen ideas that would make great reading. There are stories everywhere we look — journeying miles across oceans to find them is not necessary.

Seeing your neighborhood, town or city through the eyes of a travel writer is an incredible way to connect to your town.  Writing it into a travel essay connects your hometown, and a bit of yourself, to the rest of the world.

Learn more about writing your own place in Julie’s class, Crafting Your Hood: Travel Writing from Your Own Backyard

Julie Graham has written award-winning articles on Halloween in Obidos, Portugal, theater costuming in Berkley, California and izakaya-hopping in Tokyo.  Her work has appeared in Pilot Getaways, including destination vacation pieces on Sundance, Utah and St. Helena, Carmel and San Diego, California. Although trained as a news journalist, her penchant is for literary travel essays and memoir.  She earned her degree in Communications and Journalism from Mills College and her Masters in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles.  Julie has two teenaged kids and a dog named Jasper; all of them drive her crazy, but when she travels, she misses them fiercely.

Release Your Imagination!

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by Jacquie Nichols

The clouds are gathering, dark gray masses obstructing the moonlight. The days are dwindling to only scant hours of natural light. The year approaches its close and the breezes begin to bite at your skin, demanding coverage. The answer, some may say, is to cuddle up in your fluffiest jammies, draw the curtains against the cold, and binge watch your favorite shows on Netflix till the weather breaks and the sun shines again. I say, that’s for the obedient folks who live complacent lives only to repeat the next day the same as the last. Now, for those who are willing, I propose a challenge. Forget the monotony of the so-called normal life, drag yourself away from the plastic lives of reality stars and embrace the unknown. Reach out and grab hold of it until you can claim it as your own. Take a class that will forever change you into the person you will become, the person that has gained more knowledge than the one on the couch and revels in the wonder of what may come next.

Learn how to write the stories that celebrate the darkness. Release your imagination and run the streets with the zombies, unravel the mystery of the specter in the basement, destroy the serial killer at the circus—or let him triumph and kill them all! The possibilities abound, it’s all up to you. Do you watch the same plot twists replay with different faces all winter, or do you learn the secrets behind building suspense on the page and making your reader cringe while gripping your story in their fists, pleading for it to end but unable to put it down? You tell me, has the couch already begun to mold to your backside? If you’re ready to deny your furniture the warmth of your flesh, click the link below:

 

Frightening Bursts of Creativity with Jacquie Nichols

 

If horror isn’t your bag, that’s not a problem. We have options here for all. If non-fiction is your preference, check out a class on travel writing:

 

Crafting Your Hood: Travel Writing From Your Own Backyard with Julie Graham

 

Or document your everyday with:

 

Mommie Brain: Document Your Parenting Journey with Rachel Schinderman

 

Maybe it’s poetry that’s coursing through your veins, searching for an escape. If so, try this one on for size:

 

The Phases of Military Deployment and the Poetry Within with John Holt

 

And if none of those tickle your fancy, yet you still want to expand your knowledge and heighten your craft, this one may just fit the bill:

 

How to Make Your Novel More Cinematic for the Reader with John Reedburg

 

Come on! Click one! I dare ya!

3 Simple DON’Ts when Querying Agents

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by Lilly Barels

I’ve heard the odds of getting a literary agent are like winning the lottery. Or being struck by lightning. But I’m here to say it can be done. With a lot of work and dedication, it is possible. (Side note: The day my agent called to offer representation is an experience I wouldn’t trade for any winning ticket.)

The purpose of a well-written query letter is to interest an agent so much that she requests your manuscript for review. Consider a query to be the 30 seconds you get in a round of speed dating: Introduce yourself, pitch the manuscript, and be respectful. A query letter is your single chance at impressing the agent so much that she loses sleep over waiting for your manuscript.

If you read examples of successful query letters, they all have a few traits in common. A query showcases the writer’s knowledge of the types of projects the agent represents. It also describes the writer’s manuscript in a succinct and intriguing way. Finally, the letter describes the writer in a brief, relevant bio.

Now, just like speed dating, there are definite No-No’s when it comes to writing a successful query letter. Consider the following don’ts before you begin drafting:

  1. Sending an unfinished manuscript: Do not query until you’ve drafted, revised, and reworked your manuscript to be the very best version of itself possible. Many think they should start the query process while they’re completing the manuscript because finding the right agent can often take a long time. However, this is misguided. Querying a partial manuscript is a mistake because the agent assumes you’ve completed the project. So when she requests it, the agent expects to receive the full manuscript in a timely manner—not in six months when you finally finish.
  2.  Groveling: Please do not beg, brown-nose, or suck up. An agent expects you to be confident, courteous, and professional. The query is your opportunity to display your skill as a writer as well as the type of client you’ll be when you’re signed. I’ve heard of aspiring writers sending flowers and boxes of chocolates to potential agents. Spend the extra time on drafting an impressive letter because you’re a skilled writer, not because you have extra money to spend on gifts.
  3. Sharing TMI: Be specific and concise with your bio. Leave out anything that doesn’t directly apply to the manuscript or your writing career.  Do not make up publishing credits.  Do not discuss your dog.  Keep it relevant and to the point. Another mistake aspiring authors make is including information in the bio that has nothing to do with the legitimacy of being a writer. Provide a list of publishing credits and writing awards. The literary agent doesn’t need to know about accolades not associated with your writing career, unless you can creatively tie them in with the reason for writing the proposed manuscript.

For more advice, tips, and resources, check out Lilly’s upcoming class:

Art of the Query Letter: How to Woo an Agent from the Slush Pile

So, you wrote a book and now it’s waiting to be on bookshelves. If you aren’t planning to self-publish and the owner of Penguin Random House isn’t your cousin, then you probably need a literary agent. Join me for this 2-week crash course that’ll get you down and dirty with the elusive query letter. We’ll use real examples that worked–including mine! And create a plan of action for taking your query into the world of literary agent slush piles. 
(P.S. if you aren’t sure what the heck a slush pile is, I’ll be sure to explain that too).

More about Lilly Barels:

 A decade after receiving her BS in neuroscience from UCLA and being named Valedictorian, Lilly decided to pursue her true passion for writing and received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2014. She resides on Oahu as a full-time mother of two sandy children and a part-time writer of three novels. Lilly enjoys being an active member of the SCBWI and incorporates avocado into every possible meal. She is represented by Sarah LaPolla of Bradford Literary Agency. Connect with Lilly on Twitter @lillybarels

“Mom!!You WROTE About Me??” Question of Boundaries and Ethics for Mothers Writing

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by Rachel Schinderman

I had a writing teacher who once said, “Write as if your parents are dead.” The meaning was not to censor yourself and to write freely despite thinking your parents may see it, which could be embarrassing. Others have said, “if you didn’t want to be written about you should have been nicer.” As a writer who has written extensively about motherhood, and therefore my children, I think about this differently. Now, I won’t imagine my children not being here, but I must take them into account. And being “nicer” isn’t really appropriate for someone going through what is often called the terrible twos or are referred to a as threenager.  In fact it is developmentally appropriate for them to not be nicer. Or at least that is what the parenting books tell me.

There is very little I could say about myself that I would censor. I am pretty much an open book (hence being a memoir writer), but by writing about motherhood I am writing about my children and this can be sticky.

When my children were babies, I had a newspaper column where I explored our day to day lives and challenges. My son could not give me permission to write about him, obviously.  Those columns were not just about sleep challenges (they were there and then some) or ear infections (had those too), but were more about our daily struggles in the aftermath of a birth trauma where my son almost died the day he was born. To me, this very personal and intimate tale was mine to tell. This was my story of how motherhood was unfolding in a different manner than I expected. But did my son have any say in this? Did his brother when he arrived four years later premature and we added another layer of challenges?

And so I stopped my column. To be honest it was mostly that I was overwhelmed with parenting, not for any privacy or ethics concerns, but even without the column I found that I still wrote about motherhood and my children. I needed to. And so I told our stories in shows like Expressing Motherhood.

Writing for me is an outlet.  A way to explore what is going on my life, in the world.  It guides and focuses me.  Ona Gritz explores this idea beautifully in her New York Times piece “Finding Myself on the Page.” But is it fair for me to share my story when it involves someone else, especially when that someone else is the person I am supposed to protect above all else?  Now that he is older, 11, my son has asked me not to publish certain stories ones he may find too revealing and I have listened and done as he asked. But now that he is older, he also revels in the celebrity aspect of being written about. He thinks he is famous if he can find his name in a Google search.  I haven’t the heart to tell him mommy isn’t that well known and therefore anything I write won’t make him famous.  He will have to do that on his own.  And he is up for that challenge.

I explored this issue in my column, “Debating the Benefits of Sharing Our Kids” and revealed that I was written about as a child.  My mother, Eileen Douglas, wrote a children’s book called Rachel and the Upside Down Heart, about our lives after my father died when I was only four.  What I discovered in writing that column is what I hope my sons will also discover, that I felt great value in having someone write down my story.  It elevated what was happening to us.  It made me feel like it, and therefore I, mattered.  And what could be more motherly than helping your children find value in their stories?

As I wrote in my column:

But I found strength in writing. And I found strength in having this document, this book that my mother created. I had beautiful illustrations depicting my childhood. I had words that captured a specific, though difficult time in my life. This was a time I may otherwise have shut away never to have remembered.

So now as I look for ways to remember these early years with my child, in addition to taking numerous photos and videos, I write.

In doing so, we as mother/writers must also be aware of our children, and write not as if our parents are dead but as if our children will read it one day.

Rachel Zients Schinderman is a writer, teacher, and mother living in Los Angeles. As a teacher, she is the creator of the writing groups for moms, Mommie Brain  (www.mommiebrain.com), which was featured in Daily Candy.  As a writer she has had her work appear in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, The Nervous Breakdown, The Manifest Station, The LA Times Magazine to name a few and had an ongoing column about parenting in The Santa Monica Daily Press also called Mommie Brain. As a mom she has two sons, ages 7 and 11. Learn more at rachelschinderman.journoportfolio.com or http://www.mommiebrain.com to read some of her work. She is also a regular performer in the hit show Expressing Motherhood and has placed twice in LA Parent’s Moms Who Write Contest.  She has a Masters in Professional Writing from The University of Southern California and a Teaching Certificate from Antioch University, but more than all of that, she is excited by other people’s stories and helping them discover them.  

 

Rachel’s class, Mommie Brain: Documenting Your Parenting Journey provides real tools for writing on motherhood. Begins on Monday, October 30th

Personal Essays: Good for the Soul and Good for the Writer

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by Andrea Tate

When I was a kid, my family made fun of me because I had a journal at my bedside. It wasn’t your typical youth journal, no bright colors, and no lock and key— just a simple spiral notebook. It was open for anyone to see. I had nothing to hide in this journal. My journal was a list of what I needed to do that day—a way for me to empty out all the details that were running around in my head. The first thing on the list was “Wake Up!” which my mother found hysterical. “Won’t you already be awake when you read #1?” She was right, but I didn’t care, it was part of my process.

My bedside list was a system in which I could makes sense of my thoughts, a way to work through things.  A personal essay has the same function. It helps the writer assimilate the machinations of their mind. In G. Lynn’s book Writing and Being, he talks about personal writing and how it  “is essential to finding our own voice in a society that is always calling us away from ourselves, always telling us the answers are out there somewhere.” As creative writers, many of the answers must be found inside us. Writing personal essays assist all genres of writers. Whether you are writing in fiction, poetry, screenplays, or young adult, personal essays will help you hone in on your creative ideas. Fiction writers can increase their visibility and platform by having essays on a topic related, or unrelated to their current novel. A published personal essay is the perfect addition to an author’s media campaign. 

Personal writing is good for clearing your monkey mind, coming to terms with a stressful situation, or creating essays worthy of publication. Personal essays are like a teacher’s chalkboard. Ideas are written on it, comprehended, and then erased for the next lesson. Writing a personal essay can be a self-lesson. Studies have shown that writing your thoughts and feelings produce beneficial mental health results because it helps to calm the mind.

Even if you aren’t a nonfiction writer, writing a personal essay on an idea you are tackling in your novel, poem, or dialogue can help you sort out the minutiae. Personal essays are not only a genre, but they are a clearing house for the mind. If you feel stuck and don’t know what to write about, perhaps just use the prompt, “What’s bugging me today?” You might surprise yourself with the first draft of your next essay, or at the very least you’ll get that Trump rant off of your chest.

If you would like to investigate more about the personal essay, check out Andrea’s online class the begins Sept. 11th: Learn from the Best: Redefining the Personal Essay with Andrea Tate

And click below to see one of Andrea’s personal essays on the Huffington Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrea-tate/older-bride_b_9283170.html

Andrea Tate is an adjunct writing professor at Antioch University, Santa Barbara. Her essays have appeared in the Huffington Post, Role/Reboot, A Daily Dose of Lit, and Bleed. Andrea’s story “You” was published in the anthology Extract(s) in 2014, and is part of a memoir currently in progress. Andrea is an award-winning theatre director and an advocate for theatre arts in early education. She teaches acting and nonfiction writing workshops for Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks. Andrea received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles.

 

 

7 Reasons You Should Never Stop Writing

 

 7 Reasons Blog Photo

by Nathan Elias

Writing is such a mysterious thing. Some people marvel at the task and enjoy its fruits (like books, movies, or music) while others take on the task of trying to create the things that people love. If you’re someone who has started on the writing path, be warned: it can be daunting. But don’t let the winding road deter you—it is a trip worth taking. Here are seven reasons you should never stop writing:

  1. Developing The Habit

Pick up any book about the craft of writing and somewhere the author will advise committing a specific amount of time to writing per day, per week—whatever works for you. Here are some examples:

  • “The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day—every morning or every night, whatever time it is that you have.” –Walter Mosley (This Year You Write Your Novel, p.7)
  • “You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.” –Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird, p.6)
  • “…in order to achieve mastery [writers] must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what [they] write, because practice for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.” –John Gardner, (The Art of Fiction, p.9)
  • “…successful writers attest that unless they prepare the conscious mind with the habit of work, the gift does not come. Writing is mind-farming. You have to plow, plant, weed, and hope for growing weather.” –Janet Burroway & Elizabeth Stuckey-French (Writing Fiction, p.13)
  • “You just have to sit in the chair,” –Donald Ray Pollock, paraphrased in conversation.

No matter how you look at it, one reason you should never stop writing is the knowledge that if you’re serious about it, you have to commit.

  1. Self-Discovery (and Discovery of the Other)

Fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, screenwriting, journaling—any genre of writing requires a writer to either look into the Self or observe Others (people, places, or things). When learning the fundamentals of writing, even on the most basic levels, a writer begins to see aspects of the world in different ways. Trying to write about characters and bring them to life on the page, a writer might use aspects from their own lives, people they know, or lives they’ve learned about. In attempting to understand ourselves and others truly, self-worth and empathy can help strengthen a writer’s identity as a person.

  1. Literature is a Continuum

So you’ve committed to writing habitually and using writing as a form of discovery—now you’re wondering if your writing is worth it. Doubt starts to creep in, maybe you think your writing is an embarrassment to yourself. It is important to remember that most writers write terrible first drafts, and put relentless hours into perfecting the work we love them for. You might pour your heart into a novel for over a year only to hear back from an agent that it “just isn’t hitting the mark.” Do not fret—if you’ve committed to the writing life, who knows what writing boundaries you might transcend in the years to come? You may rediscover yourself and your book at a time when literary trends are different. Literature is always evolving but is also cyclical—trends usually are “the same but different.”

  1. “You’re not a writer unless you write”

Life gets in the way. It’s a fact. Not everyone can commit to writing every day, as the “masters of the craft” have advised. From family, to school, or work, writing is often a passion that slowly becomes a meager hobby over time. The struggle is to find a way, no matter what, to wedge in some writing time. Get something, anything, on paper. If you only have a few minutes during a lunch break to scribble a few sentences, then that’s what it takes. Keep a project in mind, as small as a poem or as big as a feature-length screenplay. Keep a notebook or a document open on your computer, and get the words down as soon as possible. Not everyone can afford to sit for an extended period of time—but what makes a person a writer is simply getting the words down.

  1. “I write to Save Someone’s Life, Probably My Own” – Clarice Lispector

Stories need to be told, and we all have them. If you’ve ever toiled over a friend or loved one’s real life issues, you probably know the feeling of helplessness. Writing for other people can help us come to terms with parts of life that we cannot control, or even see things from a new perspective. Maybe there is a secret in your own life, or something in your history that won’t stay buried. Writing, like time, can heal some emotional wounds and, like daily vitamins, can be antidotal.

  1. The task is never finished

Like any art, it can be a scary thing to release your work out into the world. How do you know when your story, poem, or book is finished? How does a painter know when a portrait is finished? A song can always be re-recorded or remastered, and books can be rereleased. So where is the line drawn? You could have written a swell book, signed with an agent who is excited about your project, and still wait for years before publication. So you have to keep writing. Think of the next thing and begin again until it is time to revisit old work, if that opportunity arises.

  1. Writing is a healthy meditative practice

Whether it is journaling, composing poetry, or any other type of mindful writing—the act of conjuring language into meaning can be a cathartic experience for anyone. From writing about trauma to simple observations about the world, the process of making sense of one’s thoughts can serve as a form of release—a profound letting go of the past, or embracing the present. The act of sitting down to write can be like meditation: focused breaths, clear thoughts, and concentrated energy help stabilize the mind and soul, especially if done in controlled periods of time. And like walking meditation, or hyper-awareness through the day-to-day activities, writing can also become a mental activity carried on by the subconscious.

The amount of reasons to write or be a writer are plentiful—they don’t end here. There is no one way to be a writer, but one area anyone can agree is that a writer is someone who writes. Hopefully this list can help you stay inspired and committed on the path.

Nathan Elias is the program assistant for inspiration2publication, and the author of A Myriad of Roads that Lead to Here (Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, August 2017). His work has appeared in Literary Orphans, Hobart, The Blotter, Red Fez, Eclectica Magazine, Birdville Magazine and elsewhere. In 2015 his short film The Chest premiered at Cannes Film Festival. He has served as genre editor for the literary journal Lunch Ticket, and is working on an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.