Tag Archives: Question of the Month

Why do you write?

In a recent interview with Amanda Turner, host and producer of The Writers’ Block on Boise Community Public Radio based in Boise, Idaho, I was asked what advice I would give aspiring writers. “Know why you want to write,” I said. Running out of time, I added a few words about best-selling suspense writer Ridley Pearson, and the interview was over.

If I had had more time, I would have elaborated on that answer. I believe every writer should know why he or she wants to write, and here’s why. There are many reasons to be a writer. Not all of them have to do with becoming a published bestselling author. The way you measure success has a lot to do with your goals. For instance, maybe you write because:

  • you are a wordsmith, and like to play with words
  • you like to express yourself in writing
  • you like to tell stories
  • you have something to say
  • you want to make money
  • you want to see your name in print
  • you want to be famous
  • you want to be published

At base level, writing is writing. You sit down and put your thoughts on paper. You rearrange the nouns and verbs until the sentences make sense. For some writers this is enough; their success is seeing their words in written form. For others, success might be writing a story that has been passed down through generations. Others may not consider themselves successful unless they have published one book, two books, or earned a hefty advance.

I use Ridley Pearson to demonstrate what a successful writer looks like not because he’s a bestselling author, but because he knew what he wanted to accomplish as a writer, and did it. Some years ago, I attended one of his workshops at a writer’s conference before he was multipublished, and this is what he told us. He wanted to be a bestselling author before he turned forty. So he studied the industry and took steps to make that happen. He learned the craft of writing, did extensive crime research, targeted a specific market, networked, and queried. If you ask him, he will tell you he didn’t become famous over night. But he had a goal, and took the needed steps to make it happen.

Which leads me back to my advice for writers. Know why you want to write. It could be as simple as writing in your journal every day. It could be as complicated as writing a thousand page epic and getting it published. It could be to simply play with words. We all write for different reasons. Knowing why will help you get to where you are going.

-Bonnie Dodge

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Filed under Archives 2011, Writing

How Do You Want to be Remembered?

One of the first exercises I tackled when I started writing was to create my own obituary. The point of the exercise was to get me to think about what I wanted to accomplish with my writing. Why was I writing? How did I want to be remembered? What kind of stories did I want to leave behind? That was many years ago and I wish I had kept the exercise because I can’t remember what I wrote. I’m sure I wrote something like “her books are entertaining and character driven” because I always wanted to see my books on the same shelf as Charles Dickens.

This may be a depressing topic for the month of December when things are festive and people are thinking about Christmas, but because it is the end of the year, it is a good time to reassess goals accomplished, and maybe set some new ones.

I’d like to share a story about my friend Mary Inman. Mary joined the Twin Falls Chapter of the Idaho Writers League back in the early 1990s, about the time I left my job at the bank to pursue writing full time. Mary was one of those interesting characters who had more ideas and experiences to recount than she had hours in the day. She was health conscious and walked everywhere she could. She was usually bubbling with energy and ideas. Always interested in life and history, Mary created Gramma Maudie, and from her rocking chair gave many presentations about life on the Oregon Trail. Mary organized walking tours of the original Twin Falls Village, and wrote a book about Twin Falls, Idaho, called Twin Falls Centurybook, 1904-2004.

Not only was Mary interested in history; she was also interested in conserving the planet. She started a xeriscaping club that met once a week at the Twin Falls city council chambers. She did all the legwork, sent out notices, arranged for knowledgeable speakers, organized fieldtrips to the South Hills to view native plants, and xeriscaped her yard to set an example.

Mary was the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to take a canoe down the river alone, or sleep in her car. Instead of shying away from strangers and “No,” she’d extend her hand and ask, “Do you have my book yet?” She was positive, full of energy, and probably had no idea how many lives she touched.

Mary Jane Inman died October 27, 2010, at her home. She was 82. At her request, her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered. Also at her request, no service was held, nor did an obituary run in the local paper. She was a pleasure to know, and I will miss her.

As 2010 draws to an end, take time to reflect on what you stand for. You don’t have to write an obituary, but it would be a good time to determine what you have to say, and what you want to leave behind.

Like my friend Mary, I want to be remembered for making a difference. I want to create characters that live long after my demise. I want readers to ponder my poetry after the books are closed and put away.

What would you like people to say about you when you are gone? Decide how you want to be remembered, and then get busy and do the things that will make it happen.
-Bonnie Dodge

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Filed under Archives 2010, Question of the Month, Writing

Grabbing story ideas at Stricker Ranch

As a writer, I look for story ideas everywhere I go. Recently, Patricia Santos Marcantonio and I took in Fright Nights in Old Towne Twin as a way to increase our cache of stories. For two hours we heard about the history of Twin Falls County and some of the colorful people who lived there. Not only did we come away with a better understanding of the area, we also came home with several new story ideas.

What if a ghost really haunts the public library?
What if Lyda Trueblood isn’t really buried in the Twin Falls Cemetery?
What if Stricker Ranch really is haunted?

As The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz declared, “I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I doooo.”, I do believe there are good story ideas all around us. All you have to do is reach out and grab one.
-Bonnie Dodge

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Philosophizing on writing

During dinner one evening, my friend and I talked about family, what’s happening in the world and our backyard, but ultimately the discussion turned to writing. Our usual chat over sushi.

We each had stories that we were working on, so we brainstormed ideas, ironed out character bumps, filled in plot holes.

But that night, the talk turned deeper, to the basics of why we sit in front of the computer and produce thoughts, characters, words, stories, essays and poems. The question was what do we want to get out of writing.

It was a damn good question.

My friend said that while having her work published would be great, she strived for perfection. To make each word and sentence count, to make each meaningful and to make the story go forward. That was what was keeping her writing.

“And you’re writing for the money,” she said.

“No,” I answered. I wrote so that I could get to a place where I would have the freedom to write full-time.

I think we both said aloud something we had probably been thinking for a long time — What we wanted to get out of the writing.

That is a good question for all to ask.

Do we want recognition? Or to see our name in print? Do we want the joy of expressing those thoughts and feelings that seem out of place if we speak them?

I have friends who are freelance writers who must write to pay bills, while others want to tell the stories within them as only they can and want satisfaction from that process.

Others may want an outlet for creativity, as music and painting is for others.

My friend reminded me of what Joanne Pence, a best-selling author, said at the workshop sponsored by The Other Bunch in April. Joanne said that writing and publishing are two separate things.

That makes total sense because the discussion was not what we wanted out of publishing, but what we wanted out of writing. That indeed makes them two different things with two different directions and sometimes, the twain will never meet.

What do we want out of writing?

Our answers may change over time, or not. But there is no wrong answer.

There is just the writing.

– Patricia Marcantonio

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Handling Rejection

Question: How many rejection slips should I receive before I decide to give up on my article or story?

Answer: There are many reasons stories and articles are rejected. Some of the reasons have to do with weak manuscripts. Others reflect the market and the editor. Marion Zimmer Bradley, in her article, “Why Did My Story Get Rejected?” claims the main reason stories are rejected are because “editors feel that the particular story will not give their readers the kind of specific reading experience they want or expect . . .” Even if you are a great writer, if the story isn’t right for the market, it will be rejected. So, instead of looking at rejection slips as signs of failure, look at rejection slips as tips for improving and revising your work. Rejection, if used properly, can make your work better.

Common reasons manuscripts are rejected:

Theme was weak, morbid, or depressing
Weak plot
A similar story has already been published
Insincere story, writer lacks knowledge of human nature
No suspense
Lack of motive
Unfit, unsuitable, or untimely
Not in harmony with editorial policy
Too long, too short
Editor does not like it
Weak or slow pace
The story was not complete or had a weak ending
The characters were cardboard with no imagination
Nothing much happened in the story. It was boring

If you want to be a writer, you must develop a thick skin. A dozen publishers and sixteen agents rejected John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, before it was accepted for print. Frank Herbert’s, Dune was rejected twenty times before successfully reaching print. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was rejected thirty-eight times before finally finding a publisher. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by a dozen publishers before a small London company published it.

Rejection slips sting. The best thing to do with them is use them to improve your manuscripts. Do your homework. Know who is publishing the kinds of stories you want to write. Write the best story you can write, then send it out again and again and again until you find that editor who loves your story as much as you do, and is willing to take it to market.

-Bonnie Dodge

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You’ve got to love and hate the Internet

We all can admit to this one.
The Internet is a wonderful tool, for not only communication, but also research. For my latest book, I used street level Google maps for the city where I have set the novel, among other great tools.
The Internet allows us to pitch stories on line and keep in touch with other writers through such sites as email, Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which I especially love.
However, the Internet also poses a danger as a vicious eater of time through those very social networking avenues.
I wanted to share this blog from veteran freelance writer, author, and political blogger Julie Fanselow about how she deals with the balance.
She doesn’t go on Facebook until she’s put in time first on her writing.
So enjoy this inspiring column, which she so generously let us post on our site.
I may not be as dedicated as Julie, but I’m working on it.

“My last morning on Facebook”

Patricia Santos Marcantonio

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Filed under Archives 2010, Question of the Month, Writing

New Year’s writing resolutions

OK, so we’ve all made the usual New Year’s resolutions about dieting, exercising more, and all that. But as a writer, we should make a whole other list of resolutions to keep in the New Year.

  • Write five times a week — This is a hard one and so easy to break, but so important to work at. What we really are doing is setting goals for ourselves. Even if you just write a sentence or two, you’ll feel good. (Notice I didn’t say the weekend, because those are my times to relax. As I’ve written ad nauseam, if you don’t live life, what have you got to write about?)
  • Write expanded life sketches for the characters in your books and stories. I find that when I don’t do the most comprehensive job of character sketches, their motivations become a bit hazy. That is not to say they won’t change as you go, but a good character sketch will help you create a living, breathing person.
  • Don’t beat yourself up so much. We know that we are our worst enemies when it comes to self-doubt about our writing. Don’t do it. There is enough negativity in the writing world, what with rejections and the state of publishing. Instead, say to yourself, “I love my job as a writer. I’m doing the best that I can and will write more to hone my craft.”
  • Take a writing class or attend a writing seminar. Spend the time and money to learn and it will re-energize you, I promise.
  • Network, network. Writers need to get out there and find out what is happening in the writing world. If you live in a tiny tiny town, join national writing groups.
  • Join a critique group. It may take a bit to find the right people, but they will help you immensely.

Those are a few resolutions to start. E-mail the Other Bunch if you have more to share and we can post them.
And don’t forget to diet and exercise more.

Patricia Santos Marcantonio

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Filed under Archives 2010, Question of the Month, Writing

What is creative nonfiction?

Perhaps the best way to define creative nonfiction is to first define nonfiction. Generally, nonfiction is anything that isn’t fiction, or made up. In other words, nonfiction writing is the truth as reported by a reporter or a journalist.

Creative nonfiction goes one step further. Based in fact, rather than a story being told in the journalistic manner of who, why, when, what, where, the “reporter” or narrator of the story shapes the facts to read like fiction. In addition to “only the facts, Ma’am,” a reader will encounter the elements of fiction–plot, setting, character, conflict, symbols, and point of view. In creative nonfiction, the facts come alive, and a reader will encounter the narrator’s voice and style as themes of the story are shown rather than told. At its heart, creative nonfiction has an interest in universal human values, not just facts.

Personal essays, memoir, food writing, biography, literary journalism, autobiographies, travel writing, history, cultural studies, nature writing–all fit under the broad heading of creative nonfiction.

Authors noted for creative nonfiction include Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Maya Angelou, Russell Baker, Wendell Berry, Truman Capote, Rachel Carson, Pat Conroy, Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, Maxine Hong Kingston, N. Scott Momaday, David Sedaris, Alice Walker, David Foster Wallace, and Virginia Woolf, to name only a few.

If you’ve never read creative nonfiction, give it a try. It’s an entertaining way to learn something new.

-Bonnie Dodge

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Filed under Archives 2009, Question of the Month, Writing

When life gets in the way

I admit it freely. I’m really late with this month’s column. Life got in the way.

A vacation and wedding got in the way, and preparing for vacation and a wedding. Excuses, you say. Justification, you think.

You’re absolutely right, it is in an excuse. It is also a reality for every one of us writers who have a day job, who have life outside the computer and beyond the pad and pen. I’m talking to those with children to raise and parents to watch over. It is a time to take care of the business of living, of loving, of being a part of this sometimes crazy, often wonderful world.

That is not to say I totally cut myself off from writing during my vacation. I took one of my manuscripts to edit, which I did at the airport or when my mom retired for the night. During my trip, my writer’s brain often kicked in, that is the observer in me who steps outside my life and takes mental notes of the way people dress, talk or behave. I think, “Boy that would make a good character in a story.”

Life away from the computer also is a time to reflect about life. Why I am here. Why people act the way they do. Which way will the world spin. There are times when I can’t write because I’m too tired or too busy because of life that got in the way. I become frustrated because without my writing life, I’m not whole, just as I would be incomplete without my life away from words and sentences.

So the conclusion of all this is — letting life get in the way is an absolute necessity. Unless we let life get in the way, what do we have to write about?

PATRICIA SANTOS MARCANTONIO

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Filed under Archives 2009, Question of the Month, Writing