Tag Archives: story

College Essay Writing Tip #2 – Remember We Are All Beginners at Some Point

pen and paperThis might be the most important tip that I will share with you because it speaks to confidence. Believing you can write a great essay is the very first step to writing a great essay. Measured confidence can take you pretty far because you won’t be afraid to fail. You’ll just dust yourself off and sharpen your pencil again.

The beauty of the college essay is that it remains hidden until you decide to release it into the world. If you hate what you’ve written, you don’t have to submit it. It’s that simple. So go for it!

You must remember that writing is like anything else. Baseball players don’t show up at The World Series final game without practicing (a ton). Pianist don’t show up at Carnegie Hall without practicing (a ton). Teachers don’t show up to the classroom – Doctors don’t show up for surgery – Magicians don’t show up to the stage – Preachers don’t show up to the pulpit without a ton of preparation.

When you sit down to write your essay, remember that you are very likely a beginner. This means that it might be challenging in ways you didn’t expect. Just keep writing and revising. You will get there!

Here is what Ira Glass has to say about being a beginner…

So trust your writerly instincts and get busy creating that first draft!

P.S. For the full list of college essay writing tips, click here.

College Essay Writing Tip #1 – Helpful Revision Techniques

For the next few blog posts, I’ll be writing about the dreaded college application essay. Most students not only dread it, but actually fear it.

That’s because a blank piece of paper is scary. college essay writing tips monster under the bed

No, really. It’s worse than monsters under the bed even. How do you transform nothing into the most amazing story ever (and in 500 words or less)?

Not everyone can afford to hire an essay tutor, so here are some things to think about.

Write two drafts before you show it to anyone. The first draft will never be your best work. Magical writing happens in revision.

Read your essay out loud. Trust me. This is an amazing (and very inexpensive) way to find inconsistencies, over-used words, and grammatical errors.

Have some one else read your essay. After they read it, ask them these questions:

  • Where in the essay did you stop or slow down reading?
  • Did you stop because you liked what you read and you wanted to read it again?
  • Or, did you stop because you were confused?
  • What do you remember most about my essay?
  • What did you like the least about my essay?
  • After reading this, what is one word you would use to describe me? (This will speak to the theme of your essay. Here you can see if what you were trying to get across is actually what the reader took away from your essay.)
  • Are there any questions that my essay made you wonder about but didn’t answer?
  • Did I fully address the question(s) in the prompt?

These questions will help you see the strengths and weaknesses in your essay. It’s important to remember that this is not a time to explain to the reader why things were or were not the way they seemed. It’s a time to reflect on what the reader’s take-away was and if that was your intention. Remember that you will not have the opportunity to “explain” any aspect of your essay to the review committee. It will have to stand on its own.

Then revise, revise, revise.

Happy Writing (and revising!)

P.S. For the full list of college essay writing tips, click here.

 

The hero’s journey spelled out…

heroineThere are only some many stories in the world. I think the most popular count is 7. Two of those are leaving home and coming home–the hero’s journey.

It’s obvious what the hero’s journey is as an overall story idea where the main character goes on a quest or possibly runs away from a quest. But somewhere (and I cannot remember where, sorry smart person who said it first) I heard it spelled out. Lightbulb Moment.

Here’s breakdown–you can think of it as a map for the hero’s journey:

  • Main character gets called to journey (if you like the fairy tale model of storytelling, this is where Once Upon a Time is no longer the way it is. Something has changed and the hero must find it/decide to fix it/etc.)
  • The MC goes through trials
  • The MC faces her teachers
  • The MC faces the battle
  • The MC loses her fear (and lives happily ever after – or not)

This makes me think of almost every Disney animated movie but especially Kung Fu Panda.

Happy Writing!

The Art of the Story Writing Workshop with Tom Jenks in San Francisco…..

I have not attended this workshop yet – but I will soon because I just got accepted yesterday. Yea! It promises to be amazing! Check it out…

One of my very sweet, and possibly delusional friends, mentioned that if I ever get famous enough for Mr. Jenks to admit  claim he’s worked with me, my name would appear below Kurt Vonnegut. That would not be awful! 😉

The Art of the Story with TOM JENKS

The class will meet every day for four days, with a morning workshop and an afternoon seminar focused on craft. For the seminar, there will be reading assignments and study of works by well-known writers. Each participant will have one manuscript workshopped in class and a second manuscript reviewed for an individual conference with Tom. We will study storytelling and the formal elements of fiction, including voice, point of view, characterization, imagery, plot, and theme. Attention will also be given to scene building, sentence making, and the dramatic movement of descriptive writing.

Enrollment is limited to twelve participants. (Acceptance into the class will be based on evaluation of a submitted manuscript.)

Class Dates:
San Francisco           January 15—18, 2015
San Francisco           January 29—February 1, 2015
San Francisco           February 26—March 1, 2015

Application deadline:

November 15, 2014

To apply or to receive more information:

  • Please send an email to Workshops.
  • The classes often fill quickly, well before the application deadlines, so if you’re interested in a class, we encourage you to contact us promptly.

WRITERS EDITED AND PUBLISHED BY TOM JENKS INCLUDE:

Rick Bass
Richard Bausch
Ann Beattie
T. Coraghessen Boyle
Janet Burroway
Robert Olen Butler
Michael Chabon
Frank Conroy
Don DeLillo
E. L. Doctorow
Andre Dubus
Stuart Dybek
Jennifer Egan
Gail Godwin
Donald Hall
Ron Hansen
Charles Johnson
Min Jin Lee
Bernard Malamud
Anthony Marra
Peter Matthiessen
Jill McCorkle
Arthur Miller
Susan Minot
Lorrie Moore
Alice Munro
Maud Newton
Joyce Carol Oates
Jayne Anne Phillips
Annie Proulx
Kirstin Valdez Quade
Philip Roth
James Salter
Scott Spencer
Robert Stone
John Updike
Kurt Vonnegut
John Edgar Wideman
Tom Wolfe
Tobias Wolff
Richard Yates
Alexi Zentner

If you enjoyed this post, you can read about other workshops here.

Why readings are important…

Over the past few posts, I’ve been chronicling my experiences at various writers conferences and workshops. You can check out the entire lineup here.

Many workshops offer the chance for participants to read their work aloud to a sympathetic and engaged group of readers. They will even clap loudly for you at the end, no matter how eloquently (or not) you were able to share your words.

I first realized that doing a reading was a possibility for me at the Yale Writers’ Conference a year and a half ago. Our workshop leader made the announcement as if she were adding broccoli to the lunch menu, “Oh, and by the way, you’ll all have a chance to do a reading. I suggest you try it. It’ll be good for you.”

That caught me completely off-guard. As you might have read here, insecurity ushered in my application for the Yale workshop. I mean, it’s Yale, right. And, as if submitting my novice work to be read and critiqued by others wasn’t brave enough, I was being encouraged to read it aloud. Where was that little tidbit in the application materials?

Honestly, the only reason I did it was so that, one day, when someone asks me if I have ever done a reading, I can answer, “Why yes actually, my first-ever reading was at Yale.” Hopefully, I won’t have to clarify, “Yes, the one in New Haven.”

So here’s what I learned about readings.

  • Readings are not in my wheelhouse. When I read in front of others, I sound like a hoarse frog that’s fallen off its very comfortable lily pad smack into very cold, murky water. Which is super weird because I’m quite comfortable speaking off the cuff in front of people.
  • Readings are an amazing experience. Ultimately, you’ll be glad you did it. Pinky swear.
  • Practice a few million times before you actually stand up to read.
  • Attend the readings of the other writers in the group and support them the way they supported you–clapping when they are done, not pointing out they sounded like a cold/wet frog, etc.
  • Respect the time limit. You will look like a disrespectful amateur if you don’t.
  • You must respect the time limit. (Nope, that’s not a typo. I meant to write it twice. 😉 It’s really important.)
  • Stop at a point that leaves the audience wanting to know more. This is especially true if you are selling books afterward.
  • Remember to breathe. If fact, if these were truly in order, time limit would be number one and this would be number two. Take breaths. Frequently.
  • Be familiar enough with your work that you can look up at the audience every now and then. It will make everyone more engaged. (If you’re like me, it might also make you more nervous when you look up and remember there are for real people in the audience. Just remember to breathe.)
  • And have someone take your picture.

Since Yale, I have read three other times. Once more at Yale, once at the Kenyon Review Workshop, and once at the One Story Workshop. I know. I know. I’m practically a frog professional.

Here is Yale. The first time.

2013_June_11_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_99And the second time at Yale.

Yale Writers Conf 2014-Jun 09, 2014-10I much prefer the podium.

And here is One Story…see how I am getting more comfortable? Practice makes comfort.

one story workshop-224At One Story, I read a very personal piece–a poem about a friend’s suicide. Even though I wrote it about 3 years ago, I had not read it aloud before. This is a really important thing to consider. I knew this audience provided a safe, accepting place for me to read this very private poem and I wanted to share it. But, I broke down and cried half-way through. Someone in the audience reminded me to breathe and my fellow writers were extremely supportive, waiting for me to catch my breath. I wiped my eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and made it through the piece. But it was hard. Brave and hard. I have wondered if I should have read something else. I’ll never know if it was the right choice. I do know that everyone was gracious after and I hope maybe my words touched someone in the audience. A few people cried right along with me. I will forever be grateful for that.

So, if you get a chance to do a reading, do it! And if you participate in a writing group, consider making reading aloud part of the meeting. Each writer can just read a few pages–it doesn’t have to be the whole piece. Words have a different echo when they are thrown out to grab oxygen than when they are simply lying flat on the page. Reading them aloud will make you a better writer. Pinky swear!

It’s also important to attend readings of authors you admire. It’s a chance to thank them for the many hours they spend toiling away on a story that has touched you. And it’s often a chance to meet them and get them to sign your book. Squee! It really is important to become a part of the larger writing universe. We can’t spend all of our time at our lily pads in our own little corner of the pond. Reading and attending readings is a great way to accomplish that.

Five sentence short story…..

I mentioned a little while back that Hannah Tinti from One Story was teaching online short story class. It turned out to be awesome. No surprise there.

The first assignment was to create a five sentence short story. Here is mine…

Paul and Maribeth sat in the small church holding hands and praying that someone would find their daughter alive. Maribeth mentally retraced their morning, trying to find some clue as to where Elizabeth could be. Paul looked at their intertwined hands and said, “I only left her alone for a moment.” Shocked, Maribeth left the church and headed toward the center of town. She found Elizabeth at the corner of 5th and Maple buying an ice cream cone from a vendor Maribeth had never seen before. 

I’m sure this seems to neatly tied up at the end but it’s just meant to be the framework of the story, establishing the setting, characters, conflict, plot, a secret, and the resolution.

A chance to write a story with One Story’s Hannah Tinti

In this week-long course, under the guidance of One Story’s own editor in chief Hannah Tinti, you’ll build a short story from scratch, learning the ins and outs of storytelling structure along the way. New lessons—in video or text—will be shared daily, but exercises can be done on your own time, and an active message board will allow you to communicate with fellow students and ask questions. For complete details and to register, visit www.one-story.com (look under “events” and then “online classes”).

This is an amazing opportunity to learn from one of the best editors in the business!

One Story’s Debutante Ball…..

One Story is a top-tier literary journal celebrating the best in short stories, novel excepts, confettiand stories for teens (One Teen Story). Once a year, they celebrate the authors coming out with a debut novel who have appeared in their journal  – it’s a big arse Brooklyn-style party and tickets are selling fast.

Not only does this party sound super fun, but the One Story folks are some of the nicest, most accessible people I have met. This an amazing opportunity to have a blast while meeting some of the most influential people in the literary world. Wowza!

The Ball is being held on Thursday, May 22nd, at the Roulette in Brooklyn from 7p – 11p.

The authors being celebrated are….

Tickets can be purchased here – but hurry! 😎

And some pictures from past events can be seen here – just so you have an idea of what to wear. You’re welcome.

Hope to see you there!

How to find comparable titles for your story…..

Now that I am trying to figure out how
to capture the attention of a literary
agent for The Alligator Purse, I am learning a lot about the whole query/submission process.

One of the things I keep hearing over and over is that writers must be able to compare their story to another book that has done well in the same genre.

This proves that writers understand the market they are writing for and that they understand their genre. Kinda important stuff.

My first inclination was to pick Jeannette Wall’s wonderful story The Glass Castle. The main problem with that would be that the Glass Castle is a memoir. My story is fiction. Ahem.

Thank goodness someone explained to me that is a super huge no-no. I would have looked like a baffoon.

But then who? A friend mine suggested I look at Anna Quindlen’s work. I nearly fell over. But okay. Then I thought really, I am supposed to claim that I am as fabulous as say Anna Quindlen?

Well, probably not.

Actually…
absolutely not.

But what writers should be able to say is that “audiences who love the Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards would also be interested in The Alligator Purse.”

See how’s that’s different? I might not be as amazing as Kim Edwards but we at least appeal to the same readers.

But that’s tricky too because the Memory Keeper’s Daughter was wildly popular. Heck, they even made a movie out of the story.

So, a lot of other writers might be comparing their writing to Kim Edwards.

And, agents might be thinking, “Oh sure, your writing is just like Kim Edwards. You gotta bridge to go with that manuscript?”

I have been told (by someone who would really know) that audiences who buy Pieces of My Sister’s Life by Elizabeth Joy Arnold would very likely be interested in The Alligator Purse.

So, yea for me, someone who reads a lot knew a great example for my story.

The question I can see floating in your thought bubble right now is “Yeah, good for you, but what about me? How do I find titles to compare my story too?”

I’m so glad you asked that.

You read a lot of books in your genre.

Now your thought bubble is screaming, “How do I know what books? There are so many out there?”

Another good question dear thought bubble.

Check out the website called All Readers.

You can put in selection criteria that will narrow suggestions to a manageable number.

And now you are wondering why I am so so smart. Ha. I have an answer for that too. I am taking a class from Caitlin Alexander thru Media Bistro. She was an editor at Random House for over a decade so she knows a little somthin, somthin.

And then I can only say good luck – it ain’t easy. But it is critical.

Another contest I didn’t win……….

Obscura Journal hosts a short-story contest where they provide two pictures and you bridge the gap between those photos.

I entered once before and did not win.

Well, I am nothing if not consistent. I didn’t win again. 😎

But I don’t want my short little story to go to waste. So, I will share it with you.

Click here first to see the pictures (oh and I guess you can read the actual winner’s story if you must) …. then read on for my  interpretation of how those pictures make sense together.

Help Me

Thomas stumbled toward Ryan’s bed, leaned down, and shook his brother to wake him in the wee hours of a misty September morning. He raised his pointer finger toward his mouth and slowly uncurled it. Ryan started to speak but Thomas stopped him with his other hand, which reeked of marijuana smoke and cough medicine.

Ryan stretched his arms above his head and looked toward the retired milk crate next to his bed.  The hands on his grandfather’s watch revealed it was only 3:00 am. Ryan tilted his head, listening for the familiar sounds of sirens that often filled the night air. But this night was absent the common warning screech and Thomas’ urgency lost its logic. Ryan rubbed his eyes as Thomas searched for his brother’s shoes.  On the way out the front door, Thomas grabbed their sweatshirts and a crumpled brown grocery bag. Ryan grabbed his Rubik’s cube.

They marched through the hazy mist with Ryan leaning back into Thomas’ left-handed push. The older brother was agitated and frantic. As keys jangled in his free hand, he mumbled to himself something about “money, a lot of money” and “how was he going to get it”. He stopped twice under streetlights to look more closely at the keys on the large brass ring, refusing to answer questions or even look at Ryan.

Thomas only let go of his brother’s shoulder when they reached the doors to the library. After a quick scan of the area, Thomas unlocked the glass doors. He returned his grip on Ryan and ushered him over to the olive green couch in the empty reading room. Then he motioned for Ryan to sit down and threw the brown bag onto Ryan’s lap. Thomas immediately started pacing and Ryan nervously worked to solve the puzzle in his hands and in his thoughts.

He knew too well that nothing good ever came from Thomas’ pacing.

Behind them, a man in a striped suit with his jacket tightly buttoned flung the doors open and rushed toward Thomas. But Thomas stopped him just inside the threshold and whispered, “Not yet. Let me leave first.”

“Hey Ryan, I’ll be right back,” Thomas yelled over his left shoulder, as the man escorted him out with the same pushing motion that landed Ryan in the library’s lobby.

Ryan set aside his cube and squinted at the books on the wall. They were all so thick with lots of letters in their titles. Without his glasses he couldn’t be sure but he imagined there wouldn’t be a single picture among their dense pages. He wished he had brought his comic book. Curious, he turned his focus to the bag’s contents – a piece of charcoal, a sketch pad, and a soft green apple.

Thomas knew Ryan loved to draw. He even complimented his work when he wasn’t too busy pacing. Just as Ryan opened the pad and positioned the charcoal, an older man came in through the doors. He walked slowly over and joined Ryan on the couch. As the man started talking about the big wall of books, his dusty scent distracted Ryan and tickled his nose.

Just after Ryan sneezed, the old man pulled out a handkerchief. He covered Ryan’s face with it and Ryan fell asleep gripping the piece of charcoal. His sketchpad dropped easily to the floor.

When Ryan woke up, he found himself on at least the second floor of an abandoned building. He noticed the charcoal was beginning to stain his sweaty palms. In his imagination, the air smelled like home and he hoped it was close by. He scanned the opening to the room below hoping for Thomas but heard only mumbling from beneath the rickety staircase. Out of the corner of his eye, Ryan saw a rat scatter away with his apple. He dropped the charcoal as he screeched.

Instantly, heavy footsteps pounded on the staircase until a shadow appeared over Ryan. His shoulders curled as he scooted into the corner.

The man in the striped suit fanned a stack of money at Ryan’s face.

“Your brother’s a real hero. He owes us cash and he gives us you instead. Turns out you might be worth more anyhow.”

Ryan could barely breathe as the man crushed the charcoal with the toe of his black shoe. Then, chuckling, the man lowered his pudgy finger into the dust and mockingly wrote “Help Me” on the wall and turned to go back downstairs.

Laughter erupted when he returned to the older man below. Smoke rose through the holes in the stairs and Ryan grew increasingly nauseous. The morning sun shone through the slits in the dilapidated walls and shed light on the true horror of his situation.

The rusty hinges on the front door groaned and Ryan heard Thomas’ shaky voice declare, “I have the money. Give me back my brother.”

“Oh thank God,” Ryan thought, grateful that the worst possible truth might not be real and that his older brother could still be his hero.

And then he heard a crack, as the man in the striped suit bent Thomas’ arm backwards to prevent him from reaching the stairs, “No, actually the boy is better. We’re keeping him. Someone’s coming over in a few to check him out.”

Thomas stammered, “No. A deal’s a deal. I have the money.”

“That’s right,” the man agreed, “but you have a lot to learn about the rules. When you’re late, there’s hell to pay.”

The jovial tone of the men shifted when Thomas clicked the hammer on his freshly polished 45.

“Whoa, there. We outnumber you. Don’t do anything stupid.”

“This will fix the stupid that’s already been done.”

Ryan fainted when the third gunshot echoed up the stairs. He collapsed just a second too soon to hear his brother’s footsteps on the stairs and the man in the striped suit pleading, “Don’t just leave me here, man. Help me.”