Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Resolving to Remain Resolute with Regards to Writing Resolutions

by Nathan Norton

Aside from completely redundant and over-alliterated titles, there are a few things I’m actually pretty good at. One of those things is procrastinating. Another is being lazy. I’m also a rather talented stone mason, but that’s neither here nor there.*

These talents of mine are bothersome things. Like the P90X discs sitting on my coffee table, they’re a pestering reminder that I’m particularly bad at keeping promises I’ve made to myself. Right around this time of year is when we make all those promises that we intend on keeping the whole year through and actually keep for approximately ten to twenty minutes, give or take ten to twenty minutes. It’s New Year’s resolution time, boys and girls, and as writers, we ought to be making some resolutions aside from “stop eating like an Ethipoian tribesman with a thyroid condition.”

Writerly resolutions are important. If you’re anything like me, you have a problem motivating yourself to write. There can be a lot of reasons for this. I’ll lay my soul bare a second and admit something to all ya’ll. Writing scares me. It legitimately frightens me. The ideas in my head always feel beyond my own skill as a wordsmith, so approaching a new story idea is intimidating. I with my problems, like you with yours, need to get over it.

Maybe you don’t share that particular hazard, but we all have our own. Sometimes it takes some real forceful decisions to make writing happen.

To keep your inner writer sharp and on its toes, you’ve got to treat it like a five month old Labradoodle. Put on your stupid bedazzled 2011 glasses and resolve to do three things for your inner writer: 1) Feed it. 2) Give it exercise. 3) Listen to its whining even in inconvenient times when you’d rather not, lest you have a mess on your hands.

Feed It

According to science, stuff dies if you don’t give it food. People, Japanese peace lilies, kangaroos, and most definitely you as a writer are all things that will one day stop thriving without some good victuals. Without nourishing yourself with mass amounts of other quality writers’ fiction, you’re going to dry up. Your mind won’t be working like a writer. It won’t be viewing the world through a writer’s lens. You won’t notice the details that make life worth noticing, and subsequently, you won’t have anything worthwhile to write about.

Make a resolution to read all the time. I’ll say it again, for those of you in the back: READ ALL THE TIME. Perhaps more specifically, make a resolution that works in your schedule, but is still going to involve a tidbit of sacrifice. Maybe one story a day. Maybe one story collection bi-weekly. Whatever. Just set a goal, and strive for it. And if you fail, try again. And if you keep failing, keep trying.

As for what to read, my suggestion is to consume the kind of writing you want to write. Short fiction and novels are two very different things. My thinking is that if you’re in short story mode you should get yourself a few collections from some top shelf writers and read every day, as much as you possibly can. Nowadays, you can get some used short story collections for pennies at places like or, so it won’t even cost you all that much.

Alternately, if you have a novel you’re working on, grab a few books like the kind you want to work on and feed your creative side with them. Saturate yourself in the taste of the novels. Take it in and soak in a bath of words. Somewhat unlike a double order of cheese fries with bacon and ranch dressing, it’s okay to gorge yourself here.

A writer has to read to write properly, because words are a writer’s bread and butter. Writing without reading is like dry heaving after forty-eight hours of fasting. Since you haven’t taken anything in, there isn’t anything with any substance to come out.

Give it Exercise

Here is where the big resolutions come into play. You have to write. Often. And without regard for quality. One of the resolutions you need to make as a writer this New Year is to set a word or page limit per day and stick to it. There’s a writer who churns out at least a single page a day, even (perhaps especially) on days when he doesn’t feel like he has any inspiration to work with or any desire to write. Many days, all he writes is nothing but one sentence over and over again. The point isn’t to construct a masterpiece every day. It’s to form a habit.

So what happens after you create the habit? In order to scratch that itch, sometimes home is the wrong place to do it. You’ve got to change things up more often than not. Very, very, very few writers get anything accomplished sitting on their couch. It’s too comfortable. It’s too usual. Home is where you go to relax and unwind, not where you go to be productive. Of course there are surely plenty of exceptions, but by and large, this is why you see so many open laptops at Starbucks.

In addition to a word or page limit a day, make the resolution to give your inner writer some exercise by at least getting off the couch and sitting at a desk in your room. This’ll help. Better than that, though, you’ve got to get out. Go somewhere out of the ordinary. When you displace yourself from the everyday with the express purpose of honing in on a single goal, you’re motivated to follow through with that self-made obligation. When you’re a little out of your element, you’re more likely to tune out your surroundings and focus only on the writing, on what you left the house to do. There simply aren’t as many distractions out-of-home as there are in-home. It doesn’t matter if the place is as loud as a Metallica concert during the first annual performance of the London Jackhammer Symphony Orchestra. You came here to write, and by the beard of Zeus, write you shall.

Listen to it

Ideas are like ninjas, only stealthier. They sneak up on you, strike, and vanish just as quickly. If you don’t take advantage of that fleeting moment of inspiration, you’ll lose it, nine times out of ten. Your third writerly resolution for 2011 should be to carry around an apparatus to record the random day-to-day ninja lightning strikes of awesome.

Many writers do it many different ways. One novelist I read about said he bought an old answering machine and a land line to call when ideas came up. He’d call the answering machine and record the idea the moment it struck him. Another writer carried a handheld tape recorder. Another kept a pocket-sized notebook in his back pocket. Personally, I stick to trendy pieces of tech. I use an iPod Touch.

While driving the freeway other day, I saw a man in a pristinely nice pin-striped suit driving a rust-raped ozone-disintegrating tow truck with a clearly broken crane. It was a beautiful image that struck a chord with me. Against advisable safety precautions, I whipped out my iPod and jotted down the image so I could incorporate it into a piece later on. This happens all the time.

If you don’t listen to your inner writer whining, “Hey! Hey look at that! That’s something! That could be something fantastic!” you’ll be left with a memory of something nifty you saw and precisely no more detail than that; a mess of half-remembered ideas with no option for advancement. The first and foremost job of a writer is to notice. To notice and disregard is a sin punishable by death of evocative writing.

In 2011, Resolve to remain resolute in your writerly resolutions and see where you are in 2012. I’m willing to bet your inner writer will be in better shape than it was last year.

*That’s a lie. I am not a talented stone mason, but I can cook a mean pork loin.**

** That’s a lie too. I can barely make a bowl of cereal without burning the house down.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Poetry Daily Feature

Poetry Daily's recently posted prose feature is a reprint of Mark Halliday's contribution to our Fall 2010 Symposium on Writing and the Midwest. The piece is titled "Kenneth Koch of Cincinnati" and can be read in the current issue or online in full at Poetry Daily.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Best New Poets 2010

Originally published in the Fall 2009 issue of Third Coast, Luke Johnson's poem "Remembering the Old Testament While Walking the Dog," is featured in Best New Poets 2010, release just last month.

Congratulations Luke!  We're very excited to have been the first home for this poem.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thoughts from the Editors: What is one of your favorite short stories or novels?

Brandon says...

Patrick McCabe wrote a book called The Butcher Boy. There are a lot of great things to be said about the novel, but here are a few specifics I hope to find in every story I read.

Tension is present at all moments of the story, and Francie Brady is written in such a way that the tension becomes more powerful as the story moves forward; I care about him.

There are real consequences for Francis when his mother dies. There are real consequences for Francis when he gets into fights with other characters. I repeat: there are real consequences.

The town has a history and that history plays a role in the present. This is achieved without a hundred pages of back story that read like a history book instead of a novel.

McCabe uses voice to capture Francie Brady's Ireland and does so without forgetting that he was telling a story. The voice doesn't get carried away and talk simply out of admiration for itself.

Although this is a realist novel, realism is not required in order for a writer to create characters whom a reader can connect to. And that's something I want desperately.

Characters in quirky situations that are created by writers who are so smart that they forget their first job is to tell a story bore me more than anything. In fiction I prefer a failed attempt at honesty to a successful attempt at wit every time I read.

If you want a perfect example of what I'm looking for, The Butcher Boy is it.

Third Coast on the Web

From Sandy Longhorn, a lovely review of the Midwest Symposium in the Fall 2010 issue of Third Coast: Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty: What I'm Reading: Third Coast Fall 2010.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Case for Contests

In January 2009, I read an article in Poets &Writers titled "A Case for Contests." And Jacob M. Appel's succinct points and optimistic attitude have stuck with me.

In the article Appel makes his stand for literary contests.  Pointing out rightly that contests are a great equalizer.  Any above board contest is reviewed anonymously, and gives "each contestant an assessment of the work by a judge who does not know the author’s identity." No publishing credits? No problem. At Third Coast, a staff member removes all cover letters along with any other identifying information that may arrive with the submission. (I should know; I sorted out several hundred submissions last year while I was Managing Editor.) From there the submission is given a number and sent along to editorial readers. "In the submissions pool at a literary contest," Appel writes, "nobody knows you’re not Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates. Contest participants can’t hide behind a laundry list of previous publishing credits, or an MFA from Iowa, or their good fortune in having once escorted one of the journal’s senior editors to the high school prom."

Appel also points out that the pool is smaller in the contest--dropping from competing with several thousand entries to several hundred in the case of a modestly sized magazine--and the best writing quickly rises to the top. "The other significant benefit of entering writing contests, if you are fortunate enough to win or even to rank highly, is that a strong performance often provides far more exposure than publication through the traditional submission channels."

In the full article, Appel lays out some math for when a contest reading fee is reasonable and when it's too much: as long as the fee is 20% of the offered prize or less, then the fee is reasonable. (At least I'm attributing it to Appel though it might have been another P&W article.) What he doesn't say is that many contests offer single issue or year-long subscriptions when you pay the fee. As a writer, these are the only contests I enter because I always know I'll get something for my money. (BTW I make a lousy gambler, I'm never willing to go for the risky bet.)

Appel reasons:
While a single contest fee is not going to drive even the poorest writer into bankruptcy, once one starts sending out ten- and twenty-dollar checks by the handful, the sacrifices entailed may seem prohibitive. Yet I urge my students to submit their fees anyway. Find a way! If they were studying to be physicians or attorneys, I remind them, they would pay far greater sums for multiple years of schooling—banking on a future payoff. To my mind, creative writing is as much a career as medicine or law, even if the odds of meaningful financial payoff are considerably lower (especially if you’re a poet). I also remind my students that many of them have already spent small fortunes in pursuit of graduate education in writing. Now that they are ready to tackle the literary marketplace, contests are not the place to begin nickel-and-diming. If one is willing to expend months or even years polishing a manuscript, one should be willing to spend a reasonable sum to give it a fair shake in the world. (I also point out that it takes only one contest win of five hundred or a thousand dollars to earn back their outlay and then some.)
Appel ends his article with the notion that the contest's greatest appeal is that somebody has to win. As last year's winner of the fiction contest John Matthew Fox told can attest, it only takes one submission: the Third Coast fiction and poetry contest was the the first place he submitted his story "Fatu Ma Futi" to.

Eileen Wiedbrauk is currently Third Coast's creative nonfiction editor. 2010 fiction contest winner "Fatu Ma Futi" by John Matthew Fox and the poetry contest winner "Before Knowing Remembers" by Jake Adam York, can be found in the Fall 2010 issue, out now! Look for an interview with contest winner Fox on the blog in the near future.  Contest guidelines for the 2011 Third Coast Fiction & Poetry Contest can be found here.  Appel's article can be found in the January 2009 print issue of Poets & Writers or online elsewhere.