Month: December 2018

My Words this Fall, in Summary

This fall, I got back into the submission game (no, this isn’t a sex post). My head has been buried in novels for so long, my submitting of shorter work fell off the cliff. Something clicked, and I wanted to re-up. But I wanted to do it differently this time.

I wanted newer, more interesting journals. Less staid grandfathers of literary excellence and more online ambitious journals. So (you know the drill) I researched, I paired work with journals, and I sent the suckers out.

In two weeks, the “fall” submitting period is pretty much over. I’ve yet to hear back from several journals (some of which I’ve got my fingers crossed for) but I’m soooooo happy with the results so far. Here they are.

“A Nun and a Baller Walk into a Bar” appeared in Crack the Spine. I was thrilled the story led off the issue (probably purely random), and the issue itself was lovely. The journal is very active on Twitter, sharing the work of its contributors, which I much appreciate. Here’s the opening:

The family is gone. My car is parked two blocks from the cemetery. I’m walking the gravel paths trying to make my brain remember what important thing happened, but I’m high on drugs. Legal, but still they mess with your mind. 

Have I told you this story already?

I’ve already told you about “The Yellow Line” which appeared in the December issue of StoryBoard Memphis. It was a delight. I had strangers contacting me about the story. 🙂 And old friends who read it reconnecting. 🙂 Fun, fun. For those of you not in Memphis, you can read the online version at the StoryBoard website. It’s the Magic Issue. The story starts at page 19, along with an Author Introduction and an interview of me. 

“Atomirotica,” an essay, will appear in Literary Orphans.  I can’t include an excerpt as that would blow the tension building as the literary world eagerly awaits the debut of the shocking essay (okay, I’m the only one eagerly awaiting, but still.) Stay tuned. 

Finally, “Never, Never, Never” will appear in 2019 in Connotation Press, an Online Artifact This story is an excerpt of sorts from THE BONE TRENCH (the characters in the story cycle through the novel until we realize who they are and the role they’re playing.). Since I lost my agent on THE BONE TRENCH, I’m particularly happy these words will release into the world. A while back, Ron Rash judged “Never, Never, Never” the winner of the Tennessee Writers Association Fiction contest. I got to meet him. He, the author of Saints at the River, said in “Never, Never,”Never” the Mississippi River is a character. That made me proud. I’ll let you know when it’s out in the world. 

So that’s the round up for today. Hope you have a wonderful Christmas and winter solstice looming. I’ve been sick FOREVER, so Christmas gifting will be hit or miss this year. I’m leaving you with my gift from my talented photographer sister, my new one-hand head shot. 🙂 Happy, happy to all! 

My Best Writing Learnings

Books written by my grandmother’s grandmother, Ellen Hebron

In my recent blog post I detailed how many, many writing classes I’ve taken and shared the best writing advice I’ve gotten. If you haven’t read it, jump over there and take a look. Be sure to look at the comments where others have offered their advice too. Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned from writing for the last 17 years. Self-given advice, if you want. I’m inviting you again to leave your own hard-learned advice in the comments below. Maybe our sharing can keep others from having to learn it the hard way.

  • If the title doesn’t fit, it means the story isn’t finished

This is backwards from most folks, but if the title to one of my pieces doesn’t make sense, I don’t need to pick a new title. I need to rework the story so that the point of title becomes clearer, to bring out this primary point. Only once or twice have I continued to work on the story and picked a different title. Never have I combed through the story for a different title and declared it finished as is.

  • Beginning a sentence with a conjunction seems necessary but seldom is.

My first drafts always have tons of sentences opening with “And” or “But.” It seems essential at the time to string the prior thought into the next. It isn’t. Good revision of one or both of the sentences usually makes that clear.

  • You can overdo “Show don’t tell.”

The reader needs some telling. It’s called exposition. Exposition gives the reader a rest. Unlike scene, exposition does a lot of the reader’s work for her. After all, the writer is telling the reader what’s happening rather than asking the reader to live it/figure it out via scene. I had so absorbed the “Show don’t tell” maxim that I frequently told zilch. That was a mistake.

  • What seems like a normal amount of text on a typed computer page can be very dense on the printed page

For spacial reasons I’m sure, large paragraphs look more normal on the computer screen or printed page than they do when printed in a book. On the printed page, they look overblown, run-on, unnecessary. I believe editors know this, which is why they’re always trying to get authors to trim, but no one has ever actually told me this. But it is my observation.

  • If I have a sudden, brilliant insight on a word that will work in a sentence, it’s usually because I’ve used it in a nearby sentence
  • This has happened more times than I care to count. I’m casting about for a good word. I have a sudden epiphany on the perfect word I need. I put it in, then I look up the page and down. Yep, there it is. Like my brain saw that word and said, “Hey, I know a brilliant word you can use.” Lazy brain.

 

My burl wood that looks like a brain

Learn your writing/revision cycle and work around it

My first draft I underwrite. Always have.  Next drafts, I overwrite, mostly trying to explain everything that’s not clear in the first draft. Final reviews, I ease back on the throttle, trusting the reader to do some of the work. It cycles like this every time. I know to look for it now, the explanations that need to be added in early rounds, the fat to be cut in later rounds. The biggest mistake I make is believing the fat rounds are the final product. Yeah, it makes sense, but usually those are the most boring versions. Give it a bit more time. Make the fat sizzle.

Which brings me to my final, most important learning:

Writing takes a long time

I have recently discovered that I write a lot of novels (7 to date) to a point where I think they’re finished then move on to the next novel, which I write until I think it’s finished, and so on. But the novels aren’t finished (I had an old agent make this same mistake with Tracking Happiness, believing it finished when it wasn’t.) When I realize this, I go back and revise the old work while also working on the new novel. I wind up juggling 2-3 novels at a time. (Right now, I’m polishing HARBORING EVIL and doing one final round on THE HART WOMEN while readying MODEL FOR DECEPTION for publication.)  I read a marvelous interview of Deborah Eisenberg by Erin Bartnett in Electric Lit wherein she said:

When you sit down you write, I don’t know a page or whatever you write, two pages, a paragraph, and you think “Ah! Isn’t that marvelous. I’ve expressed myself so utterly and beautifully.” And then you look at it the next day and you can’t believe what an idiot you were! I mean you just can’t believe it! It’s so mortifying. But I think it’s very very important to develop the confidence through experience that you can make things almost infinitely better than they start out being. If you keep working on it, it’s going to get good. And the fact that it’s bad at first doesn’t mean that you’re ill-suited to do it, it just means that it takes time.

This quote was very comforting to me, especially the mortifying part. 🙂

What about you? What have you learned along your writing journey?

What I’m reading right now


The Yellow Line

I spent eight years assisting those who were experiencing homelessness to get their voices into the world. So I am acutely aware that in my short story, The Yellow Line, I am writing in the voice of a woman whose experiences I cannot actually know. But Leroy Scott, one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness, once told me, “Ellen, you’ve been with us every week for years. You can do that.“

The Yellow Line short story in Storyboard Memphis

So, Memphis folks, go pick up a copy of Storyboard Memphis. Read The Yellow Line. Then say a silent thank you to the men and women who joined the Door of Hope Writing Group and let me be a part of their lives, if only for a little while.


The Backstory

He stopped me in the stairwell of the yellow brick church on Monroe. It was our first session of the Door of Hope Writing Group held at the church. The church was temporary. We’d moved there from the backyard of Manna House where I teetered across the gravel in my high heels and June Averyt flung out her arm and said, “This is Ellen Prewitt. She’s going to teach us how to be a writing group.” In the church, we wrote in the kitchen, but at least we were inside.

I didn’t know him. I didn’t know anyone yet, though Leroy Scott and Tommy Payne had already lodged themselves in my memory. I don’t know if I even recognized him from a prior session—was his beret familiar?—or if this was our first time going from strangers to a person. He wanted to know, “What was that word you used about my writing?”

We talked about craft in writing group. We talked about it a lot. Each time a member shared their writing, I commented on something craft-driven in what they’d written. He had written a story about his time working on Beale Street and, to describe the impact the glittery African-American street in Memphis had on this small-town boy, he included backstory on his life.

“Backstory,” I told him in answer to his question. “When you include something that is necessary to understand the point you want to make.”

He repeated it—”Backstory”—like I do when I wanted to stick something in my brain.

Gradually, I came to know him as Roderick. Roderick Baldwin. I wasn’t clear if he was a guest at Door of Hope or in charge, but that was a decision I made early on, not to differentiate between staff, who often joined us writing, and guests who were experiencing homelessness. Over time, he became the manager of the Door of Hope support center where we moved shortly thereafter.

Roderick—along with Leroy Scott, Tommy Payne, Robb Patton, and William L. Hogan, Jr—was a founding member of the Door of Hope Writing Group (not me, because—and this is basic—one person can’t start a group; I was the instigator, trigger, grit in the oyster, but not a founder.) He was at the first organizational meeting of what became The Bridge, the Memphis street newspaper started by the Rhodes College students. He because its vendor liaison. He became one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. He became my mentor, guiding me along the path of interacting with those who were living on the street. And he became a friend.

Unless Roderick was out of town or had a doctor’s appointment, I think it’s safe to say he attended every Door of Hope Writing Group meeting we ever had. We met for 8 years. Weekly.

Roderick and William who were such good friends

Roderick passed last week, and we will be having his funeral Saturday. We talked on the phone whenever I was out of town. We visited whenever I was in town. One of the last things he said to me when I told him I was stopping by with something for him but not coming inside because I had a bug and might be contagious was, “Oh, you and me, we’ll be okay.” Of the Door of Hope Writing Group founding members, only Tommy remains.

The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Gotten

In 2001, I quit practicing law and decided to learn to write. That was 17 years ago. I’ve taken all kinds of writing instruction—continuing ed at local colleges. Audited classes in real MFA programs. Writing conferences in town, out of town, and out of state. Day workshops, weekend workshops, week-long workshops, and one marathon 16 day workshop. (Thank you, Sewanee). I’ve been a member of 3 long-running writing groups where writing was discussed and shared. And here, on this very blog, is a distillation of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.

What about you? Please offer your favorite advice in the comments below.

  • Write the sentence so that the reader has to read to the end to get the needed information

My Very Southern Voice business card

This one is hard to explain, but it’s invaluable. For example, don’t write, “The cat vomited up a big hairball when I turned my back.” The reader is going to stop reading at hairball. Instead write, “When I turned my back, the cat vomited up a big hairball.” So, yeah, there were probably better examples, but I hope you get the point, which came from the very talented Richard Bausch.

  • Write each scene as if you were sighting through a camera lens

I really love this advice. It keeps you in the proper point of view. It insures you include enough (and the correct) details for the reader to visualize what’s going on. It must be working, because one of the recurring comments I get on my writing has to do with readers being able to see the story as if it were a movie.

  • Read your drafts out loud

Reading to a real audience at the book signing for TRACKING HAPPINESS

The friend who gave me this advice read her drafts to the teddy bears lined up on her bed. I have upgraded this advice to where the mechanical voice on my computer reads the manuscript to me. It is THE best tool for finding typos and eliminating repeated words.

  • Cut extraneous prepositions

This is a subset of the general advice to know your personal tics and revise for them. The problem is, I’m from the American South. We Southerners consistently add prepositions when they’re not needed. (“out of the window,” for example). This advice not only streamlines my writing. It also keeps me from sounding like a rube.

  • Have a non-word-based creative hobby

This advice came from the writing instructor who told me I needed to get a book published while I still did “good book jacket.” Missed that deadline. But her advice about having a 2nd, physical creative outlet was genius. She made hats (I know, crazy lady in hats.) I’ve done various things, but my latest involves making weird dolls from broken and found objects. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Looking for your own way in the world

  • Write what you love

I got this bit of advice after a looooooong period of writing about the difficult things in my life. It was an amazing release, a long sigh of relief, a big hallelujah of joy. Writing has been a lot more fun ever since.

  • Do whatever works for you

This sounds so simple, but for a long time when I first took up writing, I got very rigid, “you have to do it this way” advice. Make outlines. Diagram your plots. Use storyboards.

Me, when people tell me to write a way that doesn’t work for me.

My worst experience of giving into the didacticism was when an editor said we needed to do “rounds.” I knew that process of breaking revision into character, plot, theme, etc., wouldn’t work for my brain, which needs all the material out there at once so I can see how it fits together.  It was a disaster. That sealed my determination to do it my way.

So what writing advice do you find yourself going back to over and over again?

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