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The Writing Life: How It’s Done 101

2014 April 9

The Writing Life

It’s spring! It’s National Poetry Month! It’s… just another day in the life of a writer. And how do we do this, day in and day out? Whether it’s how to keep up a daily regimen, how to pursue further education, how to proofread, or publish, or persevere—we’re here to talk about these challenges.

This entry is the first in a two-part post about some of the basic steps for moving forward with your writing. Read on for advice from emerging and seasoned writers about: strategic organization, finding your best reader, and poignant tips for self-improvement. In part two, we’ll hear more about the submission process and protecting your artistic ego. To shed light on these pertinent questions, I’ve taken a straw poll from writers with varying experiences, and here they are!

Puppet-sympathizer, Andrew Watt, is a screenwriter and filmmaker. He is a member of the Loft, volunteer with the Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota, and he recently created a puppet show for Open Eye Figure Theatre’s quarterly cabaret, the Full Moon Puppet Show. Check out Andrew’s newest short film, Sharky.

Our very own, Timothy Otte, is a poet, playwright, and critic. He is currently working on a manuscript of poems. Timothy will be performing in the inaugural event of a monthly night of new works in Minneapolis called The New Shit Show at Fox Egg Gallery. The event is on Friday, April 18th, doors at 7pm.

University of Minnesota alum, Ethan Rutherford, is currently working on a novel. His first book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, was published in May 2013 by HarperCollins Publishers, and was just awarded the Minnesota Book Award!

Hungarian poetry specialist, Dennis Arlo Voorhees, is the poet of the chapbook Milk Replacer. As a Fulbright scholar, Dennis translated Hungarian poetry into English. He is currently training for the Boston marathon.

Comic relief, G. Xavier Robillard, is the author of Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves. His (free!) essay for McSweeney’s can be found here.

And without further ado, the Q&A!

 

Hazel & Wren: If you’re working in prose, do you believe that the first thirty pages need to be irresistible? If so, do you have tips on how to write and organize the first few sections?

G. Xavier Robillard: The first 30 pages of longer prose should be compelling, fresh, and intriguing. Absolutely. As a further yardstick, I’d extend that to the first 50pp. If the work isn’t intriguing to me when I hit page 50, I start to question whether I want to have a long term relationship with this work. I’ve abandoned plenty of would-be novels when I realized that I was no longer motivated at that point.

Some beginning novelists, especially in genre, will tell me they plan to “save x plot point for book 2.” This is a huge mistake: if something is vital or compelling, don’t save it for later. Submit your best work. Your creative well will not evaporate overnight.

Consider the initiating impulse of the work. In memoir, it might be delving into how your life was shaped by A Series Of Unfortunate Events. You might organize your beginning around that bolt of lightning: don’t take 30 years or pages to get us there.

H&W: When you’re working with short stories, vignettes, or poems, how do you organize them? Do you have a particular strategy? Can you speak to the aesthetic sensibility you enact? 

Timothy Otte: I usually try to group poems that feel, to me, in a similar “mode” together. I write in what are, to me, two very distinct ways and when submitting I try not to mix the two, though others might argue it’s good to present a range of voice. Right now I’m working on a manuscript that has a lot of poems that play off of one another (though I hope they work on their own!) so I try to group them as a small version of that larger manuscript. There’s not a “narrative” per se (by which I mean a story with a plot, etc.), but I want the reader or editor to have an experience when they read them. An emotional narrative, I suppose.

H&W: Who do you ask to review your work before you submit it? What are some of the most important qualities of a reader/proof-reader, in your opinion?

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: I ask Marshall; he’s a drunk philosopher with a high school diploma. A poem needs readers outside of academia. If Marshall doesn’t get it (or a semblance of it), nobody gets it.

Timothy Otte: I have a few fellow writers who I ask to read my work. Some are in the same city as me so we can meet in person and mark up the pages in front of us, and some are farther away. We write letters or emails. That’s the revision process for me, and, if I can, I avoid thinking about submitting at all during that process. I like people who ask questions of the poems in front of them, people who are willing to point out the obvious, because I’ve usually missed the obvious thing.

Once I’ve decided I’m submitting somewhere and put together my submission, I usually don’t ask someone to take a look. I comb through the submission for spelling and grammatical errors myself, though I really should get someone to look them over one last time…

Andrew Watt: My dad, who provides reliable no-bullshit feedback. If I want to feel good about my writing I ask my mom. You need a proof-reader upon whom you can rely to provide tough, constructive feedback. Friends and family are usually a bad idea. Writing workshops will provide that constructive feedback and help you understand what kind of person you want reading your work.

H&W: Any other tips for yearling writers? 

Andrew Watt: Get to know yourself as a writer. Write what you enjoy writing, not what other people tell you you’re good at or should write. If you’re struggling to write “respectable” poetry and are a romance novelist at heart, you might want to tap into that. You’ve gotta enjoy what you do.

Ethan Rutherford: Read read read.  Widely and deeply.  Take a chance on a literary journal or five.  Go to readings.  Subscribe to small, independent journals.  Buy your books at independent bookstores.  If you read something you love, something that blows the top of your head off, take the time to find that writer, and let her know.

Timothy Otte: Though I’m a yearling writer myself and I’m as eager as anyone to have more publications to my name, I would still say waiting to submit is wise. I’ve only had a few poems published, and I’m very, very proud of them, but I think I got started submitting too early. If I could go back and tell myself to wait a few more years before starting to submit, I would.

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Read “Ode to a Nightingale” every night before you go to sleep. This is the fastest way to becoming a better poet.

G. Xavier Robillard: For me writing has to be a discipline: and to enforce your discipline, it’s worthwhile to promote other disciplines. Running is that for me. And here’s a brief plug about creating space for yourself.

 

Share your advice in a comment!

And tune in soon for How It’s Done 102 where you’ll find even MORE insight from these five wonderful writers! 

 

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