Archive | August, 2011

The Low-Down on Literary Magazines

8 Aug

By Sammy Bina

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The first thing you’re going to be told at orientation, whether it’s for high school or college, is to get involved. Sure, you get sick of hearing it after a while, but in retrospect, it was pretty solid advice. I did theatre in high school, but in college I was looking for something a little more English-y — it’s what I majored in, after all. Lucky for me,  the professor teaching my summer creative writing workshop was in charge of our university’s literary magazine and encouraged me to apply.

I’m convinced it was one of the best decisions I ever made. And for a plethora of reasons! {Clears throat.} Let me list them for you now.

1. I’d just transferred, and besides friends from high school, I didn’t know anyone. The people I ended up working with have become some of my closest friends. We all shared a common interest, but came from all walks of life. While the majority of the staff were English majors, we also had people studying languages, nursing, law, and art. The diversity of the staff meant a greater diversity in what we published. Something I might have overlooked because it wasn’t my cup of tea was snatched up by someone else, and in turn convinced me it was worth reading. It allowed us to put together really great issues semester after semester, ranging from zombie stories to ones about bizarre circuses, Jesus, and math. If we’d all liked the same things, the journal would’ve gotten real boring, real fast.

2. I learned to better articulate my thoughts on reading and writing. Which, you know, is always a good skill to have. Once a week the staff would get together to discuss what we’d read. Sure, there were some weeks where you just didn’t have time to get to anything, but most of the time you needed to be prepared to argue for or against a story. If half the staff thought a piece was too cliche, but you really loved it, you needed to be ready to defend it and explain why that cliche worked. I was extremely hesitant to voice my opinion at first, but eventually I learned that if I didn’t, stories I liked disappeared. So not only did I learn to articulate myself, I also gained a healthy dose of confidence.

3. It really prepared me for entry level publishing jobs. Most of these positions require you to do a lot of reading, as well as writing reports and handling general office work. By working for a literary magazine, you learn great time management skills because you have to keep up with the readings. We got hundreds of submissions every semester, and it’s difficult to catch up once you fall behind. On top of reading 3 to 5 stories a week (and even more during contest season), I also took care of the office. Mail, phones, planning release parties, you name it, I did it. I’m a freakishly organized person anyway, but if you want to learn organizational skills, become an office manager of a lit magazine. You’ll learn fast.

4. I was exposed to some really great writing. We’ve talked about this before, but I’d just like to reiterate this point. By opening yourself up to new genres and types of writing (ie: flash fiction, short stories, poetry, etc.), you’re doing yourself a huge favor. I admit, I still can’t write a decent short story, but I’ve certainly grown to appreciate them. When I go to Barnes & Noble, I actually seek out collections of short stories (if you haven’t checked out Anthony Doerr’s work, you totally should). The added bonus of working for a lit magazine is that sometimes you’re able to bring authors in to do readings, and while reading their work on the page is fantastic, seeing them in person is even better. Exposure, guys. It’s a great thing.

5. You learn to handle disappointment with grace. This is probably one of the biggest lessons I took away from my time at the Madison Review. No matter how much you love a story, sometimes you’re the only one. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, it won’t be published. I’ve sat through meetings where we were trying to decide on the final issue, and people stormed out crying because their favorite pieces weren’t chosen. In this business, you’re going to experience ups and downs, and it’s important to take things in stride. Maybe your story didn’t get chosen, but there’s always next semester. Glass half full, people!

Now, most large universities will have a lit magazine. In fact, you may have heard of some of them: The Madison Review (obligatory plug!), Ploughshares (Emerson), The Columbia Review (Columbia University), and The Iowa Review (University of Iowa). Some smaller schools put out magazines as well, but if they don’t, consider working for the paper. You’ll learn the same lessons, all of which are extremely beneficial. And if anything, you’ll gain a whole bunch of friends who love literature and writing just as much as you! And isn’t that what we all want?

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Sammy recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Creative Writing. She just moved to New York City, where she hopes to find a job in publishing. Her free time is spent editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and you can find her on twitter, or follow her blog.

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Saturday Grab Bag

6 Aug

Mashup

Here are some great links on writing, the industry, and all things book related. Some are serious, and some are just downright hilarious. We highly recommend you read them!

Curious minds want to know: what are you guys reading this week?

QOTW: Keeping Personal Bias from Your Stories

4 Aug

This week’s question is from Ramani, who asks:

How do you keep personal bias from your stories? Like, I’ve noticed that my relationship with my mother often reflects on my character’s mother.

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Interesting question. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that issue… Maybe because my character’s lives are so very different from my own? Also, I never model my characters after real-life people, so maybe that’s another reason why bias has never come into play. For example, all the mother figures in my novels are drastically different from my mom (like, they’re cruel, filled with secret pasts, or money-hungry while my mom is loving, honest, and generous).

That said, my attitudes might make appearances. I feel strongly about the environment and global climate change, so if I ever wrote an MC in a position where those issues mattered, I’m pretty sure my protagonists would feel the same way I do! And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing–like, if it was appropriate to the story, I wouldn’t try to keep that personal bias out.

I think as long as your bias isn’t negatively affecting your story, then there’s no need to worry! If it is, then clearly your conscious of it and can change it! Remember, in the end, YOU control your characters–not the other way around. 🙂

Susan Dennard

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I’m with Sooz in that I don’t really have that problem either — I generally steer clear of basing characters on people I know in real life. Fiction is about exploration, and what fun is that if you’re just dredging up things you see and experience on a daily basis? Obviously it’s good to write about what you know, but it’s just as important to use your imagination. Honestly, you know yourself pretty well, and the great thing about writing is that it’s fluid — you can always go back and delete any personal bias with the hit of a button. If it suits the character, leave it. If it’s definitely you speaking through them, then it’s time to reevaluate.

That being said, my characters definitely tend to share similar likes and dislikes with me. All of my characters hate bananas, dress well, and listen to great music 😉

Sammy Bina

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I totally agree with Sammy and Sooz–very rarely do I base characters on people I know in real life (though I mighttt have used some names of particularly awful people for villains that meet untimely ends in my novels). Some of my novels or scenes, however, DO come from personal experiences–not the exact details of those events, but the feelings behind them.

My characters all share SOME things in common with me, mostly in terms of their quirks, dietary habits (like me, Celaena, the heroine in QUEEN OF GLASS, abhors eating fish), and musical preferences. But I also like to make heroines that are vastly different from me. In A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES, my YA “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, Feyre, the heroine, is nearly illiterate. As someone who can’t LIVE without books, it was really fun and challenging for me to write about a girl who grew up without the comfort of books/stories. It made me, as a writer and a person, really re-examine what life would be like without those things–and without the privilege of an education. It was both fascinating and a bit terrifying.

Like Sammy said, though, fiction is about exploration! There’s nothing WRONG with your heroine having a similar relationship with her mother, but don’t be afraid to branch out. You might discover some new things about yourself–and your writing–in the process! 🙂

Sarah Maas

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I am very careful while writing to never force my own feelings and opinions on my characters. I hate it when authors give their characters the same exact social and political outlook as themselves; it’s a type of self-insertion behavior I associate with immature writing (fan fiction anyone?). Also it can frequently read as preaching, which is obviously a big no-no. Note: I’m talking about really obvious preaching, not occasionally sharing some of your attitudes with your characters, as in Susan’s case 🙂

I had to learn to take a lot of political stuff out of Nameless just because it’s not interesting to anyone else; if they want to learn about gender equality issues hopefully the story will inspire them to learn more, not my preaching in the novel.

But it’s not exactly like not preaching is some huge sacrifice. I love getting into different perspectives with my characters, and of course you can always apply details from real life into the anecdotes that explain why they feel a certain way. For example, in my YA zombie book, Milani’s father was stationed at the military base at Pearl Harbor. My own father was in the military, so I was able to draw character similarities between our fathers just based on their military training, even though her father and mine are vastly different people.

I think it’s fine that you’re exploring your relationship with your mother through your characters, as long as you stay true to the character and don’t turn the story into a platform for preaching, or get into the habit where you insert so much from your real life that it hijacks your plot. 🙂

Savannah Foley

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Do you find your own viewpoints and biases sneaking into your stories?

Contrarianism. I have it.

3 Aug

by Savannah J. Foley

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One of  my articles on Sassiness not indicating a strong character got a great response, and provoked a lot of thought about trends, gender roles, and tropes. The discussion reminded me of the topic I’d like to talk about today.

At the time I was writing that article, I was also writing the part in my Sleeping Beauty retelling where the character describes how she looks (or in this case sees herself for the first time after waking up with no memory of her former life). Here’s what she said about her body:

I discovered I had solid limbs with muscles lying dormant beneath slightly freckled skin. My breasts were small but not completely flat, my belly pooched out slightly, and I had what I felt were very masculine feet, but then again there was nothing to compare them to.

Let’s recap: thick limbs, imperfect skin, small breasts, tummy, masculine feet. And this character is still going to kick ass and be beautiful because of who she is.

Not because I’m a feminist or an equalist, but because I’m a stubborn, irreverent contrarian, and I think you should be, too.

When I write, I want to show you characters that are as real as I can make them. That means they don’t look like book cover models (okay, Nameless is an exception because all the men are pretty, but that’s because they’re biologically engineered that way so it doesn’t count). They’ve got stretchmarks and acne, and they hate their noses. They get greasy hair and they stink sometimes. In a genre filled with descriptions of ‘icy blue ‘or ‘startling green’ eyes, I give most of my characters brown eyes. And they’re still, I hope, people you want to be because of what they have inside.

But like I said, that’s not because I’m on some moral high horse. I just happen to have that annoying condition (I can’t help it!) where I dislike what everyone else likes simply because everyone else likes it.

When I was in elementary school, I refused to talk to my friends on the phone because that’s what girls my age were expected to do. I wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt to school EVERY DAY because I was expected to wear cute clothes and jewelry.

When we had to write screenplays in Drama class and the teacher told us they had to start with ‘once upon a time,’ I asked if my story could start, ‘a time upon a once.’  Just, because, you know… I’m a contrarian. *facepalm*

Not always and not on all issues, but a lot of the times I am, and nowhere is this more obvious than in my writing.

Physical characteristics aside, I have a tendency to write YA characters who have a lot of responsibility or maturity for their age, which has created some problems for me. I’ve had to rewrite characters to make them ‘sound younger’, and change plots so that they face more ‘teen-like problems.’ I don’t quite know what to make of this. On one hand, I know that I was always way more adult-thinking than was normal for my age group, but surely I’m not the only one. Where are the readers who want to read about teens with immense leadership responsibilities and making long-term life decisions? Surely there’s a market for that, right?

Pretty much my worst fear is getting a review on one of my books where the reviewer says the characters are either stereotypical or too perfect to be real. There’s a lot of pressure in the industry to write a book that will appeal to a lot of teen readers, but the truth is that in real life individual personalities don’t appeal to everyone.

So how do we balance that?

I’m not blinded by my contrarianism. I understand that you can’t have a germaphobic agoraphobe go on this epic adventure and have it be realistic, no matter how brilliant the character’s creation is. Instead, I fit my desire for ‘real characters’ in the details of characters who have the type of personality that can carry the plot.

For example, on the side I’m currently working on a YA story about a girl trying to escape her high school during the zombie apocalypse. To propel the plot, I needed a girl who could be brave and resourceful, and who is motivated to escape not only out of a sense of self-preservation, but also through the desire to rescue her little brother.

Here’s a typical character who could fit that role (and who I think we see a lot of these days): pretty, athletic, semi-popular (she has a BF and a BFF at least), middle-class, white.

But here’s who cropped up: Milani, a half-Hawaiian, half-white, culturally displaced teen who hates tourists, coping with the potential death of her parents and living in a foster home in Texas after Hawaii collapsed under the zombie infection.

Milani is filled with guilt, hate, confusion, and love, and I find her infinitely more fascinating than Mary Sue, the midwest soccer player.

This blog has talked a lot about Mary Sues. Susan (whose main character in SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY displays some contrarianism herself) did an article about self-indulgent fantasy, and Biljana did one about how Mary Sues are good (in the beginning).

Today I guess the point of this article is just to ask that we all have a little more contrarianism while writing. The world does not need another book about a girl who doesn’t realize she’s pretty until everyone starts telling her so. We don’t need someone who is ‘special’ or has some hidden talent that makes them Important.

Who is more interesting: the girl who was born with a special power that transforms her into being totally kickass over the course of a chapter, or the girl that has to struggle and fight her way to the top in order to achieve that same level of kickassness? Who is going to be the most realistic role model for teens today?

I think we need more real characters, characters that people can relate to through their flaws. Today I encourage you to add detail to your characters that make them more unique, more flawed, and more realistic as human beings. Seek out alternatives, and find the individuality in your characters.

Provided it doesn’t interfere with your plot, of course. (That’s a whole other article about self-indulgence).

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When have you been exhibited contrarianism in your writing?

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Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Her website and blog is at www.savannahjfoley.com. She is currently working with her agent to sell a sleeping beauty retelling about a girl who wakes up after a hundred years with no memory of her former life. You can read excerpts from her stories here.

Writing as therapy.

1 Aug

by Biljana Likic

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My sister keeps diaries, and she has all her life. It’s a form of therapy for her; getting it all out. It was also a form of frustration whenever she thought I read them (I still maintain that I never did). There would be times where she’d shoo me out of the room so she could have her alone time with a pen and journal.

I have to admit, I was a little bit jealous. I tried, by her example, to start a journal, but would always end up ripping the written pages to bits out of paranoia that somebody would read them. This paranoia was incredibly unfounded. I never wrote things down that were personal. In fact, I seem to remember one particular entry to be something along the lines of this:

Dear Diary,

Today, Daniel peed his pants! It was so funny.

Love, Biljana

Fascinating, I tell you. It was an embarrassing situation, but not for me. It was embarrassing for somebody else. Sure, there had been a time or two when I was little that I couldn’t hold my bladder, but you would never catch me writing about that in my journals. You would always find stories of what other people did, or which boy my friend liked.

And I would still take the pages, rip them up, and throw them out, scoffing in the process, and always feeling slightly self-conscious. Because even though the stories weren’t about me, they were still my stories.

It’s a revelation that came to me recently. My sister would write about herself in her journals, and I would write about others. Almost every story I wrote would be one I could relate to. Sometimes they’d be embellished, other times too plain, but ultimately, the reason my diary-writing was short-lived, was because after a while I felt like I was lying. The stories would suddenly have things in them that never happened in real life. It didn’t matter that they were little things, like saying that we ate spaghetti when really we ate pizza, they still made me feel like what I was writing wasn’t worthy of a diary because it wasn’t true.

It was around that time that I discovered creative writing.

Suddenly, lying became okay. I stopped feeling guilty about changing the details to make a better story, because when a whole story was fake, it didn’t matter. My early characters would have problems similar to mine, living out situations that I once lived through, and in themselves became to me what a diary was to my sister: therapy.

To me, writing a story is a way of writing a universal diary; something that anybody can read and say, yes, that’s exactly that, I feel exactly that shitty, or that happy, or that jaded. It’s a way of baring my soul without really baring my soul. Of discovering the reality behind an enigma and in that way, having one less person in the world that’s misunderstood. It doesn’t matter that it’s made-up. All that matters is the knowledge that having someone else feel what you feel is entirely possible. All that matters is reading that in the end, it can be okay; people do triumph. The time will come when we’ll be able to succeed, and the road will be easy, or tough, or hardly noticed, and we have all the coping templates we could ask for no matter which way life takes us.

You see, my biggest problem with diaries is that they take place in the present. I already know how I’m feeling right now. I want to know how I’ll feel when it’s all over; months from now; years from now. I want to know how I’ll feel in the future. Stories have a future you can explore. They are instant emotional gratification, a form of vicarious living. No waiting years and years before you can learn from your mistakes. They make you wise. They help you understand. Not just yourself, but people.

They help you understand people.

I find this incredible.

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Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She’s going into her second year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.