“Here’s one for you,” said a friend, who works in hiring at a university. “Cooperative integration across spatial elements.”
“Ummm,” I said. “Computer science?”
He told me that an applicant for an administrative assistant position had listed this under her responsibilities as a kindergarten teacher.
“I have no idea what it means, but if our paths ever cross, I’m going to ask.”
It turns out that this jargon could be appropriate in the K-12 world, and that it might have been relevant, given that many organizations use digital scanners to automatically eliminate any resumes that don’t include certain keywords before they ever cross the desk of a real, live human being.
Still, the fact that she was applying for a very different kind of job made this point not just ineffective, but possibly hurt her chances of rising to the top of the applicant pool.
This is one of the three main issues I have seen in the resumes and CVs I have worked on in recent months.
Keep It Simple
In one sense, all writing is persuasive writing since you want to persuade the reader to keep reading. Anything that causes the reader to pull out of the immersive reading experience should be avoided.
Using three-dollar words where a fifty-cent word means the same thing can be risky, and this is not the time to take risks. This means using clear, straightforward language so someone reviewing your resume doesn’t have to wonder what you are trying to communicate. It also means using phrases instead of full sentences where you can, and bullet points instead of long paragraphs.
In terms of design, simplicity means having plenty of white space, with margins of an inch or more, and using a standard font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, with type that is 11 or 12 points in size.
One recent client had this to say about her performance as a receptionist at a doctor’s office: “Went above and beyond assigned duties to achieve excellence in all areas: interactions with medical staff, patients, and vendors.”
She sounds like the kind of employee any office would want—except that we don’t have any context to know what she means.
What were her assigned duties? Was excellence defined, and if so, by whom? What kinds of interactions did she have with people in these categories?
Being specific about your duties—and using quantifiable, objective measurements to indicate how you perform them—can help you stand out. In this case, her boss added a partner, and her workload doubled overnight (which is why she was looking for another job). In that case, adding objective measurements was easy.
In other cases, it’s a matter of thinking in terms of before and after. Answer the question, “How is my workplace better because I work there?” List any ways that you have increased productivity, efficiency, or profitability. And don’t be concerned if they are not dramatic. Getting to work on time every day says a lot about you. By being specific and thinking of how you benefit your current workplace, you are showing potential employers that you think like they do—in terms of the bottom line that keeps the organization going.
Put the most important information first, both in each section of your resume and overall.
If your work experience qualifies you for the job, then list that first, even if the most relevant job is not your most recent, and if you have been in the workforce for many years and have had jobs that are irrelevant to the one you’re after, then give them less space in your resume. If your academic degree or certificate gives you the expertise required in the job, list that first. (For most young job seekers, for example, their education or training is more significant than their job experience, so this section goes at the top.)
In other words, think from the perspective of the organization, not just your own experience. Focus on your skills, not when you acquired them. Ask yourself, “How can I help this employer achieve its mission?” To answer this, focus on your professional achievements, not a laundry list of your job responsibilities.
Being relevant means tailoring each resume to each job. You want to show that you know something about your prospective employer—what they do, and why and how they do it—and that you might be a good fit.
Keep in mind that your resume has one purpose: landing an interview. You want to make it to the next round in the process; or, more specifically, you don’t want to give the HR folks any reason to kick you out before you have a chance to prove yourself.
There are many more factors to consider when preparing your resume, but presenting your credentials in terms of how you would help the organization in these key areas will go a long way in putting you ahead of your competition.
--Ann Kellett, Ph.D.
A friend and I spent a couple of days on Galveston Island recently, and went to a tourist shop. In addition to T-shirts, knickknacks, and refrigerator magnets, it had bins filled with hundreds of colorful shells.
Someone had gone to the effort of putting a price sticker on every single one, and the pricing between bins seemed random. Intrigued, I asked someone who worked there how they came up with the prices.
I don’t think she had ever been asked that. “It’s about supply and salability, I guess,” she said. “And shininess.”
Makes sense. And could be a useful way to think about pricing your freelance services in a market where most projects—and your competitors—are utterly unique.
There are lots of handy calculators for determining how much to charge to earn a certain income once all your taxes, overhead, and non-billable time are subtracted.
But beyond the numbers, there are quality indicators that also must be considered.
Supply. Are you overwhelmed with work, or are you looking for work? If the former, charge more (if you think you can squeeze it in), and if the latter, think about charging slightly less (as long as it’s an amount that is still worth it). But also understand that if you have a more-than-steady stream of work, you probably need to raise your rates.
Salability. This one is more subjective, and could be likened to the question of how you are positioned among the competition. How much demand is there for what you do, compared to everyone else? If you have expertise in a certain field or genre, leverage that to earn more. Develop your strengths to stand out from the competition.
Shininess. This one is even more subjective. I love writing and editing because, unlike being, say, a professional athlete who is past her prime at thirty, experience brings expertise that makes you worth a great deal more as time goes by. After several decades, we can say that we truly say we have “been there and done that” for most job requirements. We have the knowledge not only to do produce excellent work, but we require less time to produce it, making us worth more per hour of our time.
The lesson is to understand the kinds of clients you want to attract, as well as your relative worth compared to that of your competitors. If you’re just starting out, it’s worth it to charge less to gain experience. After you’ve developed your skills, charge what you’re worth!
After all, the shiniest shells sell faster.
-- Ann Kellett
He was a mathematician and practically before our handshake was over he let me know about his “tiny hint of Asperger’s.” He had a story to tell and like a horse in a corral, he was raring to go.
During our first three meetings, I repeated some form of “the first draft will be utter crap” so many times that I worried that he thought I was somehow focusing on his Asperger’s.
We got to work. And like clockwork—just like dozens of infographics on Pinterest promise—at about the twenty percent mark, he became discouraged. The light in his eyes dimmed.
His mood plummeted and by the sixty percent mark, he was in despair. The kind where you run your fingers through your hair and then cradle your forehead in the palm of your hand.
“This isn’t working and furthermore, it will never work,” he said.
“The first draft will be utter crap,” I said. “But your crap is actually really, really GREAT crap!” It was true.
He looked at me through his fingers, a shock of hair flopping over one eye. The eye that was visible looked at me like I didn’t know crap about crap. Like he wondered if it was too late to fire me and bring on the next editor on the list.
By the ninety percent mark he was still filled with doubt, but at least the end of the project was in sight. I would be blessedly out of his life soon enough.
And you know what? The first draft wasn’t the crappiest crap ever put on paper, and the third draft was pretty good.
The light came back on in his eyes. He loved and doted on his new creation.
“This was the best experience ever,” he said to me at the end. “I’ve already got some thoughts about the next one.”
--Ann Kellett, Ph.D.
The authors of the series of white papers I’m editing this week pay a great deal of attention to language use and formatting. I’m not finding much to note, except for one thing.
Many of them make the error of omitting “that” when it would improve clarity.
Yes, whether to use it or not is largely a judgment call. When in doubt, though, it’s better to leave it in. Including it is rarely wrong, and at worst, it might be unnecessary. But leaving it out can be wrong.
An example: “The survey results suggested South Texas English teachers do not have access to professional development.”
Technically, this is correct. But adding “that” helps the reader know to shift from the survey the results: “The survey results suggested that South Texas English teachers do not have access to professional development.”
Let’s not go overboard, though. Sometimes, it’s better to omit it. “The head of the National Governors Association said professional development was important.” Here, “that” is not necessary after “said.”
But in some cases, leaving it not only confuses the reader, but is incorrect.
Consider: “The head of the National Governors Association announced the plan would be implemented today.”
“That” is needed after announced to prevent confusion. And it’s especially important in cases like this, which have an element of time.
Otherwise, it’s not clear whether the plan will be implemented today, or if it was announced today.
Leaving out “that” here muddies the message. And that is the last thing we want to do!
When it doubt, leave “that” in.
Three of my favorite memoirs that I have read in recent weeks have a something in common, besides being beautifully wrought: they don’t follow the genre’s typical format.
In Safekeeping, Abigail Thomas brings immense depth and texture to pages where white space often dominates. Some chapters are only a few sentences long, yet we feel we are right there with her as she becomes a single mother in her mid-twenties, a widow much later after her beloved second husband dies, and as she experiences the wonders of everyday life.
Thomas proves that short, blog-like prose can pack a powerful punch.
In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi shows that sweeping and universal themes can be profoundly communicated in the form of a graphic novel. We get so swept up in her childhood in Tehran under the Shah, and then the Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq, that we forget we are immersed in images rather than text. (And she does a remarkable job of showing us life not just through her eyes—but also through a hijab.)
Satrapi proves that simple, black-and-white drawings can render as complete and colorful a world as text.
And, finally, in H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald shows that a life’s chronology (in this case, dealing with grief) can be shown not merely as a straight line, but through narratives that move back and forth in time, from past to present and back again, yet are woven together masterfully to tell a coherent story.
Macdonald proves that memoir does not have to be held prisoner to the linearity of the life as it is lived.
These memoirs can help you understand how your own story might transcend the mundane.
Do you readers a favor and make a pass through your manuscript in search of "be" words.
Any time you see is, am, are, was, were, be, being, or been, figure out if you could rewrite without losing any meaning.
We were in a blue and orange hot air balloon and were looking all around. It was quiet—until this huge gust of wind started up. Before we knew what was going on, our balloon was out of control. The pilot was pulling on the cord to try to lift us above the air current we were stuck in. We were thrown against each other as we headed toward a tall building. Everyone was scared even though we were trying to be calm. Miraculously, we lifted until we were as high as the roof and hit it, hard. The basket was dragging along, knocking over the air conditioning units.
Great action, but BO-ring! How about a rewrite?
We soaked in the view as our blue and orange hot air balloon climbed. The higher we rose, the quieter everything became—until a huge gust of wind hit. We lost control even as the pilot pulled on the cord to try to lift us above the air current. We stumbled and fell against each other as we headed toward a tall building. Everyone looked like they wanted to scream, but no one did. Miraculously, we rose and hit the roof, hard. The basket dragged along, knocking over the air conditioning units.
The rewrite isn’t perfect, but eliminating “be” words makes it tighter and more interesting.
The client was the senior physician at a busy medical practice. He wanted to blog “because so many other doctors do it,” and it might even “be fun.”
His first post was about diabetes. But it read like an article from a medical journal, full of jargon, footnotes, and ten-dollar Latin words. He was coming at it from his perspective, not that of his readers.
By answering one, simple question, I was able to chop, simplify and energize his prose.
“What’s in it for me?”
All writing is sales writing. We want to persuade the reader to keep reading.
And that means getting personal.
Think first about why readers would be interested in your blog post (or murder mystery, or letter, or whatever). Make sure they know what’s in it for them, and they will be persuaded to stay with you to the end.
A while back, I emailed a book idea to one of my favorite authors--I’m talking if-I-were-on-a-desert-island-with-only-five-books favorite--Erik Larson, and asked him for his top writing tip.
Less than ten minutes later, his reply hit my in box.
I have rarely been happier.
Larson writes wildly popular narrative nonfiction, including Isaac’s Storm (about the 1900 Galveston hurricane that until last week was the worst in U.S. history) and The Devil in the White City (parallel stories of two charming and brilliant men working in Chicago in the early 1890s: the mastermind behind the 1893 World’s Fair, and one of the nation’s first and most horrifying serial killers).
He said he had already picked his next project, but that my pitch was the best he had ever received.
Nice of him to say, whether true or not.
And his writing advice was this:
Before you stop writing for the day, always know exactly what you’re going to write when you sit down the next day.
Simple, yet powerful.
We get stuck because we don’t know what to do next. We need to take a step, but in which direction? If we don’t know the answer, then vacuuming the living room or trimming the cat’s nails suddenly becomes enormously tempting.
Knowing what to do next keeps our work flowing. It makes the process seamless. And so far, it has kept me from getting stuck.
Are stories out there, waiting to be discovered, dusted off, and launched into the world?
Stephen King thinks so. “Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground,” he says in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
As a plotter (who outlines, as compared to a “pantser” who writes by the seat of their pants), I’ve always been skeptical.
But then I saw a quote on the wall of an exhibit on archeology at the Natural History Museum of Utah: “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”
And it hit me: Writers are, in fact, archeologists. It’s just that we’re creating the bones ourselves, as well as giving them life through story.
We create what readers find through plot, setting, and characters. But that's just a start. We then use subplot, context, and voice to give them something to find out.
We can either stumble upon our story as we wander around in our wild, subconscious mind, or carry the map we prepared with our methodical, conscious mind.
Either way, as Stephen King notes, a writer’s job “is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”
There were six hundred and twenty-one words about how the writer enjoyed her walk that morning.
The trees she passed were tall, and their leaves a burnished amber in the fall. Dead leaves crunched under her feet. One of her French bulldogs--a rescue--loved to frolic in the leaves. The younger one didn't. The woman smelled the smoke from fires in the fireplaces of nearby homes, but she personally thought it best to wait until it got colder to light a fire. She heard the sounds of small critters rustling in the woods. Maybe it was the squirrels that swiped all the bird feed from her feeders. She wore the brown leather boots she got in college, and her favorite green sweater. The cold made her cheeks red. When she got home, she took off the sweater but left on the flannel shirt underneath, and made a cup of tea—Earl Grey.
You get the picture.
We know we should “show, don’t tell.”
But readers aren’t interested in a blow-by-blow account of how you make breakfast or choose which wine to buy. We are doing all this ourselves, minute by minute.
We read in part to escape this relentless unfolding of everyday life.
We need to see only enough to orient ourselves into the world of the character at a particular moment. We need only the important stuff.
In this example, it might be a brief mention of two sensory details—perhaps the cold on her cheeks and the crunch of the dead leaves.
And then, one additional detail that gives insight into the character or what’s going on.
The most interesting detail would be the boots she’s had since college. Why did she keep them? What does it say about her sense of style, of who she is? How have they held up over the years?
This tells us more about her world and how she experiences it.
Only the important stuff. That’s what keeps readers turning the page.
The client knew he had to talk. He hired me to tell his life story, after all.
But he started getting defensive as soon as I broached the subject that was the turning point in his life, the line that divided before and after.
He was a man of few words, and didn’t like dwelling on the obvious.
That made my job tricky.
His mid-life cancer likely was his motivation to write this book. This episode would be the focus of more than one tenth of his 60,000-word memoir.
But he wasn’t ready to respond to my prodding.
So, instead of asking subjective questions about this very personal experience, I asked objective questions like the following.
By framing this very personal ordeal in objective terms, the client was able to look beyond himself. He could frame it as an experience similar to making his first million dollars, or moving his company to new headquarters.
And once he got going, he felt more comfortable looking inward and sharing the kinds of personal observations that make the story much more powerful.
His story now has a heart as well as a litany of facts, and will be much more appealing to his readers.
Identify the one thing the scene is about. In this example, the scene is about the author, and it is set during her physical transition from post-World War II-era Germany to the United States. This is a major milestone (placed at the correct point to be the inciting incident). Given this, everything in the scene must reflect her thoughts and actions.
Condense or delete information that detracts from what the scene is about. We need to know that the stewardess (the correct term for the era) speaks, because this signals the end of the flight, but we don’t need to know exactly what she said.
We need to know that the author prayed, because that shows us her worldview and character, but we don’t need to know the exact words she used.
Move information that is important but irrelevant to this scene to the appropriate scene. We need the reference to the author’s mother protecting her children during the war, because that highlights the contrast between the author’s old and new worlds, and her own role as a new mother, but this is not the best place to mention her request to carry on the name Samuel. That is important, but belongs in a scene that shows the author and her family under immediate threat of being taken to concentration camps.
We need to know that the birth was difficult, but that belongs in a scene related directly to the birth.
Contrast the original text, below, with one possible revision that takes the reader more directly to the heart of the scene.
Original (527 words)
It was May 19, 1963. The voice of the stewardess on the intercom woke me up from a light doze. I could only understand a few words of what she was saying in English, and my heart pounded with mixed emotions. Her language changed to French, which I partially understood, and then she spoke German, my native tongue.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching New York International Airport, the United States of America. Please refrain from smoking, fasten your seatbelts, and place your seats in the upright position. Upon disembarking from the aircraft, please go into the passport inspection station and proceed through customs. Please have your passports ready as you enter the inspection station. After that, you may continue to your next destination. We hope you enjoyed your flight with Trans World Airlines today.”
I glanced at my sweet son, Samuel, next to me in the baby carrier. Her strands of brown hair and fair skin made her look like a porcelain doll. He was finally sleeping after a long and restless flight. I stroked his forehead feeling thankful and blessed to be the mother of this precious child. His birth had been difficult and I still had not recovered fully. I promised to love and protect him with my life, trusting that Samuel would have a better life, compared to my childhood. I prayed, “Lord, if something should happen to me, please watch over Samuel. I request your blessings to protect him from the ravages of life. Grant him a life of dignity and freedom in America, a country I have loved and cherished since I was a child.”
Samuel opened his eyes as if he were confirming my thoughts. After months of anticipation and preparation, the suspense would soon be over. We would be a happy family, with my beloved husband, the father to our child, and live together in Chicago. This would be the very first time that Roger would see his son, our Samuel, as he had returned to his duty station before Samuel’s birth. I looked forward to holding my beloved husband in my arms again.
My dear mother deserved the credit for my courage and faith; I had observed her profound courage, how she managed to maintain her optimistic attitude even under the most trying of circumstances. She was determined to make the best of every situation, and so would I. I remembered her request that if any of us ever had a baby boy, to name her after her Uncle Samuel. She wanted the name of the man who saved us from being sent to one of Hitler’s concentration camps to live on.
I remembered how loving and protective she had been as she huddled over us children during the terror of World War II; now it was my turn to be a good mother.
My heart pounded faster—finally my childhood dream was coming true! As we disembarked from the airplane, I was experiencing joy, fear, and anticipation, all at the same time. Soon I would set foot on what I had felt for my twenty-six years of life must be holy ground, the United States of America.
One Possible Revision (221 words)
May 19, 1963. The voice of the stewardess welcoming us to New York International Airport woke me from a light slumber. Looking out the window as the horizon drew closer, I saw the Statue of Liberty. I cried tears of awe and wonder as she majestically welcomed Samuel and me to our new home.
We landed, but I did not get up. I wanted to relish this moment between two worlds. As the others gathered their belongings and disembarked, I stroked Samuel’s brown hair and fair cheeks as he slept in his baby carrier. In a few hours, we would be in Chicago, and Roger could hold his baby boy for the first time. I vowed to do all I could to make Samuel’s life in America better than my life had been in Germany, and to be a good wife to Roger. I prayed for guidance. I remembered Mama’s strength as she huddled over us children, shielding us as much as she could from the terror of World War II.
Now it was my turn to be a loving mother. Samuel opened his eyes, as if confirming my thoughts. I wiped my eyes, picked him up, and got our things. I stood up straight and took my first step onto what must be holy ground: the United States of America.
The caller said she wanted me to edit a 200-page doctoral dissertation—and several more projects would follow.
I did a happy dance around the living room.
This was my first inquiry for my brand-new freelance business, and her research was in my field. I hadn’t even finished my website or ordered business cards.
She didn’t hesitate when I gave her my price. This is great, I thought.
How hard could it be to make a good living doing what I love?
A few months later, I ended our relationship—and did another happy dance.
These are the red flags I look for now (but thankfully have not seen again):
She isn’t ready to work with an editor. The sample she gave me was okay, but when I got her complete dissertation, it was a structural mess. I thought I could rework it, but didn’t know enough about her specific topic to feel confident doing so. I gave her an outline that specified what should go where.
I talked to her for an hour and a half about it. I even volunteered to spend an afternoon with her to go through it all until everything was in the right place. She wasn’t interested.
She expects you to do much more than she hired you to do. In her discipline, direct quotes that are more than a certain length must be indented. She had a lot of long quotes, so she told me that she didn’t want any of the quotes to be more than ten words.
In other words, she wanted me to rewrite as well as edit. (In some cases, rewriting is part of editing, but I draw the line at work for which someone is getting academic credit.) She also sent me articles about her topic and asked me to “work them into” her dissertation. No, thanks.
She doesn’t respect your time. The client had a fairly demanding job, so I didn’t mind talking to her after business hours and during weekends. But when she started calling at nearly midnight, or before seven a.m., I let her calls go to voice mail.
I had to remember to silence my phone to avoid the dings that announced the barrage of text messages that followed.
She brings other parties into conflicts. I tell clients that they are the subject matter experts. I leave comments and suggestions for things that are confusing or inconsistent, but ultimately, it’s their work entirely, with their name on the cover.
When I questioned her use of a particular statistical analysis that I was familiar with, she didn’t talk to me about it, but sent a blistering email to her committee chair, complaining about me. The committee chair copied me on her reply (which is how I found out about it), telling her to do as I had advised.
She does not communicate for months, then expects you to meet a tight deadline. When nearly nine months went by without a peep, I assumed she had found an editor she was happier with. Then, she emailed me her dissertation, completely rewritten.
And by the way, she needed it four days later. I thought about telling her it would cost more, since this was a different document entirely, or saying I didn’t have time. Instead, I did the work, not wanting to give her a reason to badmouth me.
A few weeks later I got a text: “I’m officially a Dr. now!! Woo hoo!! Couldn’t have done it without you!”
“Congratulations,” I replied.
“And I have reworked it into a journal article. Check your email in a few minutes.”
I sent her an email explaining why it would be best for her to find someone else, and gave her a list of other freelance editors. I wished her the best of luck.
I wished her new editor luck, as well. He or she was going to need it.
Three of us get together at a bakery every month to critique the murder mysteries we're writing.
I spent five or six minutes going through my friend’s pages, suggesting more precise wording, asking about a description that seemed to conflict with what was said in a previous chapter, and noting places where the back story could be broken into smaller chunks and perhaps woven more artfully throughout the story. I praised an outstanding metaphor.
As an oddball INTJ, I was proud of my ability to see the big picture as well as the smallest details. I thought I had helped my friend.
Until it was the other person’s turn, that is. “Why is this chapter necessary?” he asked. “What does it add?”
It was like being struck with lightning—the kind that kills your darlings without them knowing what hit them.
The chapter was unnecessary and added nothing.
It did not tell the reader anything new about the action or the characters. That made it worse than pointless, because it was likely to throw readers out of the story completely.
When you write, just write. Don’t think about grammar or punctuation. Don’t worry about formatting or theme or flow. Just write until you can’t think of anything left to say.
But before you edit, remind yourself that everything in your work must either advance the plot or give insight into the characters.
After each scene, ask yourself, “Did this move the story forward or show the reader more about a character?”
If the answer is no, you must kill it or rewrite it. It’s that simple.
Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. D.H. Lawrence
Art is the only way to run away without leaving home. Twyla Tharp
To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes. Akiro Kurosawa
Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. Pablo Picasso
Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life. Henry Miller
The artist’s vocation is to send light into the human heart. Robert Schumann
No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time. It is just that others are behind the time. Martha Graham
A Writer’s Approach to High School Reunions (Part 1)
Dr. Matthew Lieberman, in Psychology Today, noted that many of us attend our high school reunions for "the same reason why we would watch a Friends reunion show all these years later. We know it wouldn’t be very good, but we still want to know how the story turned out. Humans are storytelling, story-loving creatures.”
Reunions can provide a wealth of storytelling ideas:
Curiosity and comparison. Some people are there because they want to see what their peers are like after all this time—and perhaps to show everyone how much better they’re doing by comparison.
Justice or closure. Some might want to finally put their high school nemesis in his or her place, even if just by recognizing how the tables have turned over the years. Others might want to more formally reach closure with that person, or to apologize to someone for some long-ago incident.
Hope. Some might want to rekindle romance with an old boyfriend or girlfriend.
These are basic—and dramatic—human motivations.
Use them to your advantage!
Attend your reunion as an observer as well as participant. Pay attention to what others do and say, and how they carry themselves.
Add a little imagination and “what ifs,” and you’ll have plenty of juicy material to work with—and the results might be very good, indeed.
—Ann Kellett, a proud Wampus Cat from Conway, Arkansas.
Writing is solitary, creative, and self-directed—the opposite of high school. Those of us who become writers might be tempted to skip our class reunions.
I’ve been to only one, but the subject is on my mind as my husband and I make plans to go to his thirtieth reunion in the Texas Hill Country. In my highly scientific poll of the six writer friends I happened to see this week, five said they have not attended any.
One said he goes every time, but he’s one of those weirdo extroverts.
If we weren’t part of the in crowd, or if we couldn’t wait to graduate and move on, or if we can hardly remember our teachers, much less the majority of our classmates, why should we attend?
I can think of three reasons why writers should make the effort:
To learn from our interactions with others. Like the novelist E. M. Forster said, only connect. It’s just for a few hours, and these are people you have something in common with. Use the time to network: reconnect with those you’ve lost touch with and reach out to those you don’t remember at all.
Promote yourself and your work. Watch their eyes light up when they find out you’re living the thrilling and glamorous life of a writer.
Try to leverage your connections into something mutually beneficial. Think of it as a game. Is a classmate a member of a book club that might enjoy your novel? Do you write about a topic that would make a good program for an organization a classmate is a member of? Can you get a mention in your school newsletter—or offer expertise that the school might hire you to provide?
To satisfy our writer's curiosity. Are the cool kids still cool? Does anyone still dress like they did in high school? Did the nerds make it big? What are the jocks doing now, all these years later? Who lives in other countries, and who never left home? Who looks so much better than they did in high school—and why? Whose career is most surprising, given what they were like in high school?
To sharpen our observational skills. Pretend you’re doing research for a job, or explaining the experience to a reader or client. How would you describe the energy in the room? The people? The food? Come up with five adjectives for the whole thing. Come up with a hook for a short story based on what you see, and its first line. Note your most interesting observations for use in your work at some point.
If you go, you might rekindle relationships that could benefit you personally and professionally—and no one has to know that the writer’s life is not that glamorous.
—Ann Kellett, a proud Wampus Cat from Conway, Arkansas
Setting refers to when and where a story takes place, and the circumstances that affect the characters.
By thinking about your setting the same way you think about your characters, you can use setting to fulfill the critical functions of advancing the plot and giving insight into personalities (the most important functions of any aspect of your work). Doing so adds depth and realism to your work and frees up your real characters to take on other roles.
Here are five ways to craft your setting as you would a character:
Give it personality. The Shire in The Lord of the Rings is thought to be based on the pastoral English countryside: compact and green, with pockets of forests. It is gentle, but substantial, providing sustenance and stability to the hobbits who live there. The book’s hobbit protagonist, Frodo, demonstrates similar qualities of maturity and substance that constantly remind the reader of the beloved home he left behind—a good trait in a quest story.
Make it unique. Only one thing claims Scarlett O’Hara’s heart in Gone With the Wind. Husbands come and go, the latest fashions from Paris become irrelevant, and the family members closest to her—her father and young daughter—are taken away from her. But her homestead of Tara endures as a tangible representation of both a lost way of Southern life and the only hope she sees for her future. It is as uniquely hers as her own reflection in the mirror.
Give it secrets. A setting does not have to be big or bold to have profound dramatic impact. Consider the “secret annex” where young Anne Frank hides with her family during the Nazi occupation of Holland (Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl). These cramped quarters underscore every aspect of life for Anne and the others: boredom, a lack of food and other basic necessities, and the constant threat of being discovered. The space is both protector and antagonist, and thus serves as a kind of character.
Give it contradictions—both good and bad qualities. The ocean in The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea provides a way for fishermen to make their living—as well as to meet their demise. Like most people, it is not one dimensional, and thus adds depth and texture to the plot.
Make it change. Weather is part of setting, and can quickly turn as deadly as any other literary antagonist. Into Thin Air, the story of a disastrous expedition up Mt. Everest, and Isaac’s Storm, the story of America’s deadliest hurricane to date, are beautifully crafted examples of how weather can drive the actions and thoughts of characters
Setting refers to when and where a story takes place, and what’s going on in society that influences the characters.
Like every element of your writing, your setting has two jobs: to advance the plot or provide insight into the characters.
Unless your plot could take place anywhere, your work will be much better if you make your setting as interesting and important as any human character. There’s a reason it’s Sex and the City, not Sex in the City. The physical infrastructure and pulsing energy of New York are present in nearly every scene, making the landscape a character that drives the plot and give insight into the other characters.
One way to think about setting as character is to tap into the Jungian archetypes (patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious) that are found in a place.
A few examples:
Forests. Forests are wild, dense and dark, beyond the reach of civilized society. They often represent the unknown, and thus are great settings for scenes of transformation as your character “wanders in the wilderness.”
Possible substitutions: a city, a prison, an inner-city school, or even a nursing home.
Gardens. Unlike the forest, every aspect of a garden is overseen by humans, usually with the goal of creating beauty. They are perfect for scenes of retreat and contemplation, where your character sorts out something in a setting of safety and carefully curated opulence. (Gardens also can represent longing or nostalgia for the lost Garden of Eden.)
Possible substitutions: a museum, a high-end retail store, a high-end hotel.
Mountains. Mountains can be dangerous and difficult to climb, but reaching the top gives your character the chance to see clearly in all directions. Mountains also are often associated with a higher, supernatural power, so that characters have additional wisdom and insight when they return.
Possible substitutions: a university (the “ivory tower”), a skyscraper.
Caves or tunnels. While these, like forests, also represent the unknown, they usually provide a much more singular and focused experience. The entrance typically is also the exit, and there are few predators. Alone and hidden, characters can (or must) face their deepest fears, and emerge with greater self-knowledge and direction.
Possible substitutions: a car, a ship, a hotel room, an office, a hallway, a lonely highway.
Water. A lake (or calm water) can represent contemplation or repose (or to its extreme, stagnation), while the vastness and power of the ocean represent alienation, danger, and nature’s dominion over humans. Crossing a river can signify the conclusion of the previous way of being and the beginning of a new way of being or adventure (and the river itself often signifies the passing of time).
Possible substitutions: a church (lake), a corporation (ocean), a venue where a rite of passage is held, such as a wedding ceremony or graduation (river).
A setting that reflects what the character is thinking and experiencing will give readers much greater insight into the plot and empathy for your characters.
Vacations end way too soon. But there are ways to ease back into your creative routine.
Start the next section of your writing before you leave. It’s much easier to write after a break (even if it’s just overnight) if you know exactly what comes next. Your creativity will continue to be hard at work while you are away, and when you sit back down to write, being able to pick up where you left off will be a boost.
Get back to work as soon as possible. It’s tempting to add a day or two of down time after returning home, but you’ll be better off if you get your rear in the chair right away, while the glow of your vacation is still with you. The laundry and bills can wait.
Give yourself something to look forward to. You can buffer your post-vacation letdown if you promise yourself a reward, however small, for getting back to work—that book on writing you’ve wanted to read, or an hour of browsing at the bookstore.
Be grateful for the things you have at home that you missed while away. It will be easier to get back into your writing routine if you find reasons to be glad you’re back: your cat that is always by your side, your neighbor who gives you homegrown tomatoes, that blend of coffee available only in your town.
Keep a reminder of your vacation near at hand. Put postcards on a bulletin board, magnets on your fridge, or photos as your screensaver, for an instant lift. Think about what you learned and the fun activities you participated in, and try to find a way to add them to your writing.
Look for and photograph interesting textures, shapes, and colors. You can find plenty of images of famous landmarks and objects online. But when you’re there in person, try to truly see what’s before you. Find beauty in tiny spaces. Notice details and patterns. Consider the thought processes of the creative minds that developed them, and the hands of the laborers who built them.
Every night, think about the most surprising thing you saw or learned that day. Camels used by the U.S. Army in the Big Bend region of Texas in the 1860s? Yes! An international scale, high-profile art installation in the lonely desert 30 miles from Marfa, Texas, that is a replica of a Prada store—followed by an anonymous, during-the-night transformation of a railroad building into a Target store about sixty miles away in Marathon? Yes! And get acquainted with other travelers. You can learn a lot from the person next to you on the plane or at the breakfast table.
Play the “what if” game. What if you sold everything you own and moved to the place you’re visiting? What if your antagonist had grown up there? What if you had to make this place the setting of your next work? What if you had a lecture and book signing scheduled next week at the largest venue there?
Ignore the work awaiting you back home. Getting away for a while stimulates our brains, makes us more open minded, and boosts our creativity. And breaking with our daily routines can bring us those “aha” moments that we so often get while in the shower or washing the dishes. To the extent possible, leave your cares behind and make the most of your time away.
Century plant at the Gage Hotel, Marathon, Texas; wall at the Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis, Texas; wallpaper in the women’s restroom at the Murphy St. Raspa Co., Alpine, Texas; locks on the fence behind Prada Marfa, Marfa/Valentine, Texas
Having dinner with novelist friends is not like having dinner with normal people.
After a while, conversation turns to things like how a large enough dose of potassium can mimic a heart attack . . .
how being forced by his father to spend a night killing and plucking chickens at a poultry processing plant at the age of fourteen was a rite of passage, although he didn’t know it at the time . . .
how overhearing a conversation on a bus provided the hook for her next book.
Someone said, “We’re not nosy—it’s a writer thing.” Someone else said, “We’re not know-it-alls—it’s a writer thing” and “We’re not obsessed with details—it’s a writer thing.”
“It’s a writer thing” is an apt defense for the weird intricacies of the writer’s mind.
Embrace it and be proud of it!
Memoirists in particular must let readers see and experience what they see and experience.
Here is one example.
The original scene, in Russia just after World War II:
We were walking down the street one day when a mad woman began swinging a big piece of wood with nails in it and screaming that she had lost her family during the war and did not know what to do anymore. “My dear husband, my Anatoly, is not here anymore. He’s dead! I can’t live without him,” she cried out loudly.
We were scared. She swung her two by four wildly and struck a man who was walking by and some others. The police arrived and took her to the mental institution, and the ambulance picked the man up and took them to the hospital.
One possible rewrite:
Marina and I took our usual route to school that morning. As we passed the bakery, a woman came charging at us, swinging a two by four with nails in it. Her eyes were wide and glassy. “Anatoly is gone—killed!” she screamed. “I can’t live without him!”
We froze, and she turned to a man who had just come around the corner. She hit his shoulder from behind and he fell. She swung at others, hitting some and missing some. Two policeman came and grabbed her arms. She quit screaming and started sobbing as they carried her away. A few minutes later, an ambulance came.
They have the same number of words, but the rewrite has more information to help the reader experience this event.
Notice how just a few key details let the reader see the bigger picture.
We don’t need to know what the woman was wearing or what she looked like. Her “wide and glassy” eyes show us enough.
We don’t need to hear her say that Anatoly is her husband. The context of war and loss means we can assume he is her husband or son, and their exact relationship is not important. (It’s also a bit unlikely that she would announce this to everyone in this situation, which might throw some readers out of the action.)
By adding a few, specific details, writers can make scenes vivid and realistic for the reader and entice them to turn the page.
You use passive voice instead of active voice. Here’s how you can tell the difference: If you can add “by writers” to the end of your sentence and it still makes sense, then it’s in passive voice. In other words, passive voice should never be used by writers.
Why not say “Couple struck by tire iron at least 17 times?” If the published headline is correct, then the real news story is how an inanimate object was able to do anything at all.
Your punctuation is confusing. As it stands, this headline makes no sense. “Man shot; another stabbed; woman loses teeth” is better.
You have unnecessary words. Every word should move the plot forward or add insight into character or setting. "Data" does not add any information and should be omitted.
Your writing isn't as straightforward as it could be. Why not just say “Houston man drowns at San Luis Pass?"
You try to be clever or cute when it doesn’t fit. This writer made a pun for “free for all,” but it doesn’t work well since the connection with the topic of fleas isn’t clear.
The sentence: “By the time I was middle aged, I realized I looked like my mother.”
The idea might be interesting, but few readers (besides the client’s mother, perhaps) will want to read more. It is a fuzzy, gray blob of a sentence. There’s nothing to hold on to.
I asked the client to go deeper. We talked about the three parts of the sentence: her at middle age, the realization, and her mother’s looks. We reminded ourselves that every sentence should move the plot forward or give insight into setting or character (even, or perhaps especially, in memoir).
We focused on the writer’s obligation to honor every word.
She ended up with this.
“The morning I turned fifty, I brushed my teeth as I always did. But that day, in front of the bathroom mirror, I realized that I had my mother’s nose.
I felt cheated.
Mother spent her days in the yard or on the tennis court, never with a hat or sunglasses. Skin care meant a daily scrub with Ivory soap and a dab of Noxzema.
And while she had a fine nose, by the time she was fifty, she had the nose she deserved: enlarged pores and tiny capillaries in the creases by her cheeks.
She looked middle aged. And now, I did, too.
This was despite decades of slathering on sunscreen and seeking out shade, of avoiding the sun between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, and of preferring the taunts of my peers at the beach to the leathery skin in their futures. Of spending one fourth of my first paycheck on a regimen of salves and astringents and serums that promised to keep me dewy forever.
I felt cheated, and then I felt liberated.
Who the hell is looking at me, anyway? I would continue to wear sunscreen on the tennis court and add a hat in the garden, but never again would I let my vanity keep me from living life.
I have a fine nose, too.”