As I near the June graduation date for my MFA degree, people often ask me, “What are you going to do with that?”
“Write a best-selling novel, of course,” I say.
My husband nods his head and cites the success of authors such as Stephanie Meyers, Stephen King, and James Patterson. The tens of thousands of dollars invested in my education will surely pay off, and he will be able to retire from his full-time job by 50.
But let’s face it. We don’t all get to be one of the world’s highest-paid authors. Just like very few actors get to be George Clooney or Julia Roberts. So, what are the rest of us supposed to do?
A friend of mine works as a proofreader, an editor, a copywriter, and a ghostwriter. These are all dream jobs, in my opinion, short of becoming a best-selling fiction author. So, I was surprised when she told me that people have implied her profession – particularly the ghostwriting portion of it – is akin to prostitution. In their minds, writing under someone else’s name has shame attached to it.
As fiction writers, we make hardly any money on our work, especially in the beginning. We spend time writing and submitting to journals, most of which will reject us, and we will make very little (if any) money when the stories are accepted. Also, we spend many years writing novels that, when complete, could sit on our hard drives for decades as the rejection letters pile up. We can only hope that each story is better than the next, and maybe one day we will earn a living in our craft.
In the meantime, most of us have to work. We could hold day jobs doing something unrelated to writing, such as accounting, sales, engineering, or teaching. In fact, any profession we might choose offers material for our fiction. Or we could spend our days doing what we love best: writing.
I choose the latter. I have started freelancing as a copywriter for businesses. My assignments don’t help me with character development or plot, but they allow me to practice meeting deadlines, organizing my thoughts, and choosing words for better clarity. Working on others’ projects has improved my writing discipline, and my own stories have gotten better.
So, think what you want. My services are for sale. I would even – gasp – ghostwrite a book if I had the opportunity. When a potential client asks me what kind of writer I am, I will lean over and whisper into his ear, “What kind of writer do you want me to be?”Read More »
It’s been a busy summer since our last blog and the arrival of our very first issue. The staff of South85 spent the summer working at their day jobs, taking care of family, and, of course, cranking out the pages. But, alas, summer is nearly over. The good news is that we get to dive back into the journal. Our fall issue will be out very soon, and we will be accepting submissions again beginning September 30. We are especially excited about our switch to Submishmash as our method of submission, which will make everything much easier and reliable for both writers and staff.
The blog will be back up and running, too, with entries from staff (and maybe some guest bloggers, too.) Which leads me to my other reason for writing: we needed to break our blog silence! After an entire summer without a single entry, I’m afraid I’m woefully out of practice. As I thought about what to write, I kept coming back to my summer reading.
I am an organized person, and I like to have a plan. The same often goes for my reading, and this isn’t the first summer that I set out with a reading agenda. The summer between my junior and senior years in college, I tried to see how many titles I could read from an MFA suggested reading list. This summer, I went on a Philip Roth binge. I had never read any Roth and always meant to, and I’ve often heard it suggested that you can learn a lot from a writer by reading everything they’ve ever written in one long stretch. You can see their growth as a writer and make discoveries about what’s important to them. Sounds great, except Philip Roth is prolific. Really prolific. (What can I say? I’m weak. There were other tantalizing books stacking up on my nightstand.) I chose three. Actually, “chose” is a bit of an exaggeration. I read three titles that a friend lent me. The best part is that the titles were from different ends of his career. I started with The Ghost Writer (1979), and then followed that up with American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000.)
I won’t bore you with all my thoughts on the books. Suffice it to say, they left me hungry for more. The best part was the hours of discussion they created between me and the friend who lent me the books, hours of discussion that led to other far-flung topics and ideas that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. And isn’t that a big reason why we read/write literary fiction in the first place? To make us think and then share those thoughts with others?
So, if you’ve never done it before, I encourage you to pick an author and go nuts. It doesn’t have to be fiction. Try it with poetry or essay collections. Only, please take a break from your full-on immersion to check out our fall issue. See you September 30!
Sarah GrayRead More »
Do you sometimes suffer from writer’s block? Have you written yourself into a corner and can’t get past the character/scene/overarching theme behind your work? Are you obsessed with one idea that constantly permeates your writing? Do you feel like everything you write resembles marketing copy (see prior three sentences)?
If so, you are like me — desperately in need of a shape-shifting change that will stimulate your creativity, spark those synapses, and invite a different kind of muse to your brain party.
Whenever I encounter this problem, the first thing I do is read. Read more, write more, right? But if I am truthful with myself, I often gravitate (quite naturally) to the same authors, the same kinds of content, that I most enjoy. And while this practice is indeed enjoyable, perhaps it doesn’t always challenge me enough to experience the kind of break-through momentum that I need to write the mind-blowing, triple-trope abecedarian I yearn to get out.
Most recently, I have found that conversations (yes, in-person, face-to-face chats) with persons who are not writers have provided the inspiration needed for getting my writing back on track. Meeting eye-to-eye and mind-to-mind with great thinkers — no matter their discipline and/or lack of creativity as traditionally defined — typically leaves my brain reeling in so many directions that I then encounter a new problem: focus! So many new ways of thinking, so much convergence between idea and possibility and output…
And while I think there is great merit in literary artists hanging out with other literary artists, perhaps a stretch could be to talk with some visual artists, a few musicians, even a culinary artist to reintroduce yourself to some different perspectives. Need an even bigger stretch? Meet with a physicist or an economist and begin to see your work shifting into shapes you never thought possible. Have dinner with a string theorist, and you may begin seeing patterns in your work you didn’t realize were there (and if you’re lucky, you may even hear the dissonant harmonies, too!).
But if you desire to be an island (not all of us are extroverted) and not venture out to talk to new people, you can still venture out of your comfort zone: take in an indie film, visit a local art gallery, or go to a live show.
After seeing songwriter Darrell Scott twice in 24 hours last weekend (I was on a music binge), I wrote five poems, came up with an overarching theme for a book, conceived of four new businesses, started a non-profit organization in my head, and constructed a well-articulated letter to one obnoxious national talk-show host. Not bad for three hours of out-of-the-norm inspiration!Read More »
Laughter is the best medicine. Ask anyone. Well, maybe not a doctor. At the very least, laughter is a great way to pull a reader into your story, to make them connect with your characters, and to strike the perfect pitch and tone. But using humor effectively is fiction is no laughing matter (see how easy it is to botch it?)
There is a great difference between making a reader laugh with a character and making the reader laugh at a character (WARNING: Literary references ahead). We laugh with Huck Finn when he outwits the King and the Duke, but we laugh at the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” when she leads the family astray, only to realize the house she wanted to visit was in Tennessee instead of Georgia. By laughing with a character we as readers are drawn to them, and we feel a connection with them through shared experience. But when a writer directs us to laugh at a character, we laugh because of the distance between us and that character. We know more than they do, we know better than they do, and we know what is to come better than they do. The humor arises from the reader being distanced from the actions within the story, rather than from situations where the reader feels like they are right there on the page.
Now I’m not claiming that you should never make a reader laugh at your characters. Flannery O’Connor uses this technique well in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”. We laugh because we can see the grandmother for the nasty, nasty woman that she is. This suits the writer’s purpose and fits well within the story. But it is Flannery O’Connor after all.
Whether you are making your reader laugh with or at your characters, it is important to be sure that there is a purpose to your humor beyond being funny just for the sake of it. This is an important point for short stories, which have a very limited amount of time to make their point. It is less of an issue in a novel, though still worth considering. If your humor can advance the story or connect the reader to a character as well as making the reader laugh, then you’ll have a powerful story as opposed to just showing off how clever you are.
Few things draw a reader into fiction more than humor, but it can backfire if not used wisely. As Uncle Ben says, “With great power comes great responsiblity.” So make them laugh (or groan), but be aware of how and why you are doing it.
I’m such a hypocrite. I say that I’m afraid of technology, but I own a smartphone so I can check my email and social networking on the go (actually, the prospect of living without Angry Birds was too difficult to bear.) My own handwriting is steadily suffering because I write on a laptop. I hate using snail mail so much that I groan audibly when I see that a journal doesn’t accept digital submissions (South85 does though!). When I talk to other people about my fear of these things, I tell them that I’m afraid of the disconnect that may come from relying on a digital medium as our sole form of social interaction. But, it’s really because I’ve seen Terminator too many times.Read More »