Story Harvest

My summer of words may be over, but the fruits of my hard work are ripening.

I may have picked my last summer squash and soy beans last month, but the peppers are finally changing color, the carrots are fat and the corn is tall.

Writing isn’t that different from gardening. The first drafts are planted seeds. Revision is watering. Submissions are fertilizer. Acceptances are buds and publications are the ripe fruit they grow into.

Between now and the end of October, my stories will be published in a variety of anthologies and literary magazines.

Less than a year ago, simply having my work published on someone else’s website was thrilling. Now, I will get to see my work appear in anthologies that I can hold in my hand and download to my kindle.

And you know what makes it even more exciting? I’m getting paid! Two of the publications pay in royalties while others give a flat fee or combination of the two.

It’s not a lot of money, but in my mind, it’s enough to bump my writing out of the “hobby” category.

Reading is a hobby. I have to pay for books with money or reviews unless I borrow them from a friend or library, but then I have to give them back. I don’t like giving books back. It took me two years to return the last library book I borrowed. I haven’t been brave enough to ask about the late fee.

As a hobby, writing was better than reading because it didn’t cost any money and gave my brain more exercise. But now, I’m getting paid for most of my stories. Below, you will find information and teasers regarding my upcoming publications.

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The first one scheduled to be published is a flash fiction piece titled “Costume Connection.” The piece explores the difficulties of being in middle school student and the power that a single friend can have on a bullied child’s life. It will be in the company of 99 other stories, all 1500 words or less, in Centum Press’ 100 Voices Anthology. The authors and stories are a mixed group covering a range of topics from a range of places. If you are interested in reading this one, you can buy it at bit.ly/100VoicesV1 and don’t forget to enter the coupon code 100V86 to save 10%.

Screen Shot 2016-09-17 at 10.38.01 AM.pngThe second is a slightly more political story titled “Melanoma Americana:”

What happens when the health care system operates on the same kind of a marketing plan that cell phone companies and hotels use? Read Its All Trumped Up to find out! Its available for pre-order now, and will be released in a few weeks.

“Customer Service,” near future speculative fiction, will be published in Owl Hollow Press’ Dark Magic: Witches, Hackers and Robots anthology. It is definitely one of my darker pieces, but is very appropriate for anthology focused on how fear of the unknown can drive humans to extremes (like witch hunts). The anthology will be released on Oct. 15, and the cover will be revealed on Monday Sept. 19.

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https://owlhollowpress.com/anthology/

I’ve always been a fan of myths and fairy tales, but they don’t always have the most conclusive endings, especially if they are Disney retellings. “Happily Ever After” is a little too vague for my taste, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how other people imagined the characters lives went on in Horrified Press’ “After Lines.” My story, “Institutional Prophecy,” looks in on what some of my favorite Arthurian figures are up to these days.

Print/Electronic Magazine:

After getting a lot of rejections, “One Way,” a revenge tale about an abused woman taking control of her life, was accepted by Fantasia Divinity, and is scheduled to be published in their October issue.

E-zines:

“You Can’t Bribe the Dead,” a fresh yet classic ghost story, will be published on Scrutiny next week.

“The Elevator,” on of my first hybrid prose/poetry pieces, will be published by Sick Lit Magazine in October.

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Thank you for reading this post. Please help with the story harvest by buying an anthology or two!  -Sara

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on Cursed Child and a Lesson or Two on Character

In spite of all the hype about Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to read it. Was this going to be one of those instances where the author just couldn’t let go and ruined the series? Was the format going to give me a headache? Was it going even come close to the magic of the original series?

All these questions were shuffling through my mind while I walked the quarter mile back from my mailbox to my house. Even when I got home, I was hesitant to open it even though I was dying to know was inside. I went outside, picked some zucchini, then gave into curiosity and opened the package. After running my hands over the cover and smelling the pages, I started reading.

I had to work hard to keep up with the first few chapters as they quickly moved through time. Then, as the prologue-ish section ended and the action took off, I was once again under J. K. Rowling’s spell. The next five hours flew by, and I reached the inevitable words “The End.”

After months of anticipation, it was over in five hours. At first, it seemed a bit anticlimactic for the story to pass so quickly. However, I was left thinking about the piece long after I read the last page.

In the end, the book was more than a fast ride through a twisty time traveling plot. It was a lesson about character.

Too often, I read YA books and middle grade books in which the characters undergo rather terrifying adventures that would leave a real person traumatized. By the end of the book, the adventure is over and the character is changed but whole. A little epilogue shows the reader that things are going to be okay. Even the Divergent series, whose ending left one of the main characters grieving, had an optimistic, hopeful ending.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these endings. The make me, as a reader, feel satisfied. However, I always get the gut feeling that there is more to the story.

At the end of Deathly Hallows, when there was that scene with everyone grown up sending their first child off to Hogwarts, it felt a little too neat and tidy, like they survived a traumatic battle just to go on and have perfect lives. It was too much of a happily ever after ending for a series that got so dark before it ended.

It was a relief, then, to see that in Cursed Child, Harry was still struggling with what happened in his youth. He wasn’t a perfect dad or perfect wizard. He was flawed, human, and still haunted by the terrors of his childhood.

Cursed Child made Harry and his gang more real for me. It reminded me that the best characters are the ones who are flawed and who make human mistakes. They do stupid things that make me cringe, and because of it, both the characters and I learn something profound.

The lines were blurred, not as black and white as the earlier books. Dark Magic didn’t go away just because Voldermot was dead. It reminded me that I don’t have to write perfect endings or perfect characters. My protagonist doesn’t have to be likely or do the right thing. The more fuzzy and gray I can make things, the more interesting it gets.

Remember, if you feel like your stuck, or need to improve, the books on your shelf can be the best teachers. Read and re-read your favorites, noticing the moves they make as they describe the setting, move you through the plot, develop characters and bring you to the end. Read to learn just as much as you read for fun.

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©Sara Codair

Feedback is a Two-Sided Coin

Every writer needs feedback, and I am not exception. I hunt for it more than my cat hunts for bugs. However, I was recently reminded that I really need to be careful with how I use and respond to it in the same way that Goose needs to realize its okay to hunt flies, but not bees. If I’m not careful about what feedback I take, I might just get stung.

Feedback comes from people. People are all unique and different from each other. They have different preferences. One person may hate a story another loves so every writer needs to be careful with how he or she uses feedback. Three personal rejections I received for the same  story illustrate this fairly well.

Rejection A: “Thank you for giving me a chance to read “Berserker.” The opening scene of this grabbed me and it held my attention to the end, and I think it’s an interesting premise, but overall the story doesn’t quite work for me. In part, the changes of becoming a mother don’t feel like they’re really followed through on. In part, Mina’s change of heart at the end feels too abrupt to me, and the story doesn’t deal with the consequences of her getting caught committing an assault. I’m going to pass on this one for ____, but I wish you best of luck finding the right market for it. I appreciate your interest in ____and hope that you’ll keep us in mind in the future.”

After rejection A, I did make some changes. The feedback was specific,and in some ways, objective. It wasn’t just about what the reader likes, but pointing out a loose thread of plot. Once I was confident that I had tied up those loose ends, I started submitting it again. I got some form rejections, but I also received two more personal ones.

Rejection B:  “I like the overall concept. The present tense isn’t helping you. The piece needs proofreading. I wasn’t as engaged as I’d have liked, and her victory over the curse was too easy. The piece relies on the curse selecting people who are definitely bad, which removes some of the most interesting moral potential from the story.”

I thought about making some changes after reading this, but in the end, all I did was fix a few typing errors. The story was about more than just Mina’s victory over the curse, and changing the nature of her victims would take the story somewhere I didn’t want it to go. I was nervous, but I kept submitting.

This was my next rejection:

Rejection C: “We thoroughly enjoyed your story–it’s one of my favorites so far. However, with limited space in the anthology, we didn’t feel like it was the best fit for our theme. It’s a unique premise and the writing is strong, so I have no doubt you’ll be able to find a home for Berserker. Thank you for sharing, and best of luck in seeking publication.”t 

Yes, it is a rejection, but it does validate my opinions of my story. I knew when I sent it to this place that the piece was only loosely connected to their theme. In fact, it took me a fews days to convince myself it had any connection to the theme at all. Even though it got rejected, I’m glad I sent it. The piece is in progress with a few magazines and contest that are not restricted by theme, and to one more themed anthology that it is more directly related to. If at least one of those editors reacts like C, then hopefully, I will get an acceptance letter. If not, I’ll keep on sending it out.

I seek feedback wherever I can get it without spending more than a few dollars, but I am very selective about how I use that feedback. We should all analyze and think critically about how we use the feedback we get. Here are a few tips for doing this:

  • Reflect on your initial reaction to the feedback. If it is something like “Oh, that makes so much sense! I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself,” then you might just want to take their advice. If it makes you cringe, ask yourself why.
  • Does the reader seem to get the point of the piece? If your answer is yes, then you might use their suggestions. If the answer is no, then you probably shouldn’t take their advice. However, if they didn’t get it, then there must be a reason. Try and figure out what it is so the next reader does “get” your piece.
  • What effect will the suggested revisions have on your piece? Don’t be afraid to explore and take risks, but in the end, you probably should take advice that feels wrong. If it brings your story in a direction you know you don’t want it to go, then don’t do it.
  • Think about how the feedback is framed. Is it about the editors preferences? or an objective comment about the structure, plot or character? Are they using words such as like, prefer or want? These might signify the response is based on their personal preferences. If they use more specific, concrete language, you can get a better idea of whether or not its a piece of advice you want to take.

Remember, the story is your creation. Feedback can help you see things you got too close to notice. It can help you help other people to appreciate your work. However, if you let it control your work, and you find yourself writing to please one editor or another, then your writing will no longer be your own, and more than likely, it will get worse, not better.

Hunt for feedback like an alley cat stalking a mouse. Use it as selectively as a spoiled house cat who only likes a few flavors of fancy feast.

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A True Cliché: It’s Darkest Before Dawn

As a writer, I often strive to avoid clichés. However, there are times when they are just necessary. The title of this blog post was one of them.

I’ve gotten over 100 rejections since I started sending stories out to publishes, but last week, and the week before, the stream of rejections was more intense. It was dark, and wore away at the thick skin I thought I had grown. Every morning, I woke up to at least one rejection in my inbox, and saw at least one more before bed.

Last Friday, I had three in morning and two more before bed. One of them was for a story I had really thought was going to get accepted. My thick skin had been pierced. I thought I was doomed to never be published again. I thought my writing sucked. I was a failure.

Saturday morning, I woke up to not one, but two acceptances. The first was saying Centum Press had accepted a story to their 100 Tails Anthology. The other was from book publisher expressing interest in a children’s manuscript I had sent them. I was and still am off-the-wall excited. I haven’t gotten a contract yet, so I don’t want to share any details, but I’m too excited to not saying anything at all.

The sun was finally starting to rise.

I did get one rejection Saturday, but nothing Sunday. Monday had a stream of rejections, which were thankfully tempered by an acceptance to Sick Lit Magazine. Tuesday, there were no rejections at all. Just an acceptance to Ink in Thirds.

Today? One personal rejection with a sentence of feedback that will help me revise the story, and one form rejection.

Since school got out for the summer, I’ve been sending at least one submission a day, sometimes as many as five. I’ve been constantly writing and revising. Whether its obsession or persistence, it’s working.

Things got darker for a little bit, but they the sun came up and washed away my doubts.

Jim Butcher, one of my favorite authors, said if your in a group being chased by a grizzly bear, you don’t have to be the fastest person, you just need to be faster than the guy next you. It may sound harsh, but the market is completely saturated with great stories. The writers who get overwhelmed by the rejections and slow down get eaten. The ones who keep writing and keep clicking that submit button get published.

I will not be eaten by the Grizzly of Despair.

I will keep running. I will keep writing. I will find homes for my stray stories!

And one of these days, I’ll actually get paid for them.

Write on!

©2016 Sara Codair

 

 

Practicing Patience: Gardening and Writing

Practicing Patience: Gardening and Writing

By Sara Codair

As you may know from my previous posts, patience is something I struggle with. Sometimes, I’ve wondered if my lack of patience was going to prevent me from succeeding in the writing world. I wrote about this struggle, and how it can be both a gift and a curse, in  recent post on The Muffin.

Just last night, I submitted a second draft of a story and felt sick after hitting the submit button. My instincts were telling me I should have let the story rest and revised it more before sending it out. Especially since on Monday, a story that had been revised and rejected more than ten times was accepted to an anthology called After LinesI had to wait 59 days for a response, but in the end, it was worth it.

I know I need to be more patient, so during the summer while I have the time off from teaching, I try to do things slowly to teach myself to be patient. One way I do this is with my garden.

Watering

DSC_0793.JPGUnless it rains, I water the vegetables every morning. I don’t use a  hose or sprinkler. I do it by hand with a single watering can that I fill from a rain barely.

The can takes a few minutes to fill, especially when the barrel is near empty. Next, I have to carry the watering can over to the garden. I have tomatoes, peppers, corn, summer squash, winter squash, cucumbers, salad greens, soy beans, carrots, onions, potatoes, scallions and strawberries. There are several of each plant. One can only does a fraction of the garden, so I have to make several trips and wait for the watering can to fill every time.

The task is time consuming, but since I am only working ten hours a week in the summer, I do have the time for it. It forces me to wait for something, to do nothing for a few minutes while the watering can fills. In those moments of doing nothing, I can think and reflect, I can listen to the birds and watch my surroundings. Thankfully, I have a very good view from the rain barrel.

Corn

DSC_0796.JPGThe corn plants take a whole can of water by themselves. However, watching them grow from seeds was also a test of patience.  I wanted the instant gratification of seeing their little green leaves poking up within a day or two of planting the seeds. Every morning when I watered, I would stare at the soil and see nothing, much like I obsessively refresh a submission manager hoping to see the status of my story change. Both corn and submission responses take time. I had to wait, and my patience was rewarded when a week later, I finally saw those green shoots poking out of the soil. Now, I have to patiently water and weed around them while the spend the summer growing.

Tomatoes

The tomatoes were also a test for my patience. They germinated quicker than I expected, but came up stringy and floppy, unable to stand up on their own. I thought they were doomed. I waited a few days, and when they didn’t stand up on their own, I started searching on google to see if there was anything I could do to help them.

One website said that if I buried most of the stem when I repotted them, they might get stronger and be able to stand up straight as the stems thickened. However, I was afraid the stems were to fragile and would just snap if I tried to transplant the tomatoes.

I did my least favorite task: I waited.

I let them grow like floppy vines. They didn’t die. The stems got thicker and they grew a second pair of leaves. I moved them to my mini green house on the patio and waited some more. When the stems grew even thicker and the roots came out the bottom of the seed tray, I moved them all to bigger pots, burying three quarters of them stem.

For a while, I thought they were going die. They wilted and they still flopped. I bought a few tomato plants from farm stands and flea markets, just in case. However, I never gave up on my floppy plants. I kept watering them and turning them to they had to straighten out to face the sun. Eventually, they got too big for the shelves of the green house and went in the ground.

Now, they look healthier than the bought plants.I forced myself to be patient, and it paid off.

Peppers

The peppers were one instance where my patience failed me. They are stories sent out too soon.

They germinated and grew quickly, like a draft finished in one sitting. When I saw their roots getting tangled at the bottom of the seed tray, I should have just moved them all the bigger pots. However, we were past the last frost date, and the weather was hot, so I thought, “why not put them in the ground?”

I knew it was still early for peppers and that Massachusetts weather is fickle. Just because we get one 90 degree day in late May doesn’t mean much. I put more than half of my peppers in the ground and a week later, the days were barely reaching 70. Those peppers have not really grown in two weeks. The ones still in the green house are twice the size.

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Green House Peppers

 

Squash 

While the peppers may have been a failure, the squashes were not. I started them indoors and planted them late may. I remember looking at all the empty space in that patch of my garden, fighting with myself, resisting impulse to plant more squash. I resisted my impulses, telling myself to be patient. And it’s a good thing I did.

While the yellow squash and cucumbers are taking their sweet time, the zucchini plant is sprawling across its designated space. It has several flower buds of both genders. It won’t be long before I’m picking my first zucchini of the summer!

Growing Stories

I have yet to perfect the art of patience, but I am improving. This year, the garden is already doing better than it was last year, and my list of accepted and published stories is growing. My plan is to keep practicing patience, and to keep documenting it through writing so that both me and others struggling with the same issue can learn.

Over the next few weeks, keep an eye out for posts about my raised beds, growing potatoes in trash barrels, gardening lake safe, writing, tutoring, and traveling with a cat. I’ll also continue to post micro stories and the occasional poem or recipe.

 

Writers, Book Signings and Exorcisms

It had been a while since I’d gone to any kind of author talk or writing event, so when my friend, Artemis, asked me to go see Grady Hendrix speak at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport, I agreed, even though I had never heard of Grady Hendrix or read any of his books. Artemis said we both needed to be more involved in the local “writing community” and even though I didn’t think this was going to be quite what she had in mind, I went along anyways.

I’m glad I let her drag me away from my little lake house and my keyboard.

Why?

DSC_0733.jpgI laughed. I learned random facts about the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s. I bought two books, and had one signed by the author.

I was awkward and asked Grady about his writing process, discovering he basically rewrote his book from scratch three times. I am more or less in the process of my third major rewrite, though it’s really the 8th revision if I count less dramatic revisions. I know everyone writes differently, but when I hear successful people following a similar method as me, it gives me hope that I am on the right path and that when I do get brave enough to send it out, someone will buy it.

I gained insight about the balance between research and just making things up. Grady said when he started writing, he went as far as having a chart on the wall with what the weather was like certain days and was upset when the real weather didn’t match what he wanted it to be, until he remembered he could just make it up. More importantly, what he said really got him into the right mindset to write a book set in the 1980’s was getting in touch with his own memories.

I’m not writing about the 80’s. My protagonist wasn’t even alive in the 80’s. However, Grady’s story reminded me that the best way to write YA, to write about being a teenage, is to really remember what is was like to be one. Even the tiniest memories can help me capture that state of mind and immortalize it on the page:

Trying to remember why locker combination while staring at a row of piss yellow lockers, getting overwhelmed the noise in the café and the smell of bad pizza, eating lunch alone, outside, in my hot pink parachute pants, or the exhilaration of getting to gym class, where I could finally run and move around freely can just bring me back to the write mindset to write a character who is 16 or 17. Even if that character isn’t anything like me, the memories help.

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DSC_0735.jpgWhen the talk was over, Artemis and I bought books, got them signed, got stickers and went for a walk around Newburyport.

I had fun listening to is author talk. I learned a lot about the decade I was born in and about writing. I can’t wait to read his book. Most importantly, I left feeling motived to finish revising my own.

 

Two Peas in a Pod: The Writer and Antique Dealer

Two Peas in a Pod: The Writer and Antique Dealer

By Sara Codair

 

My mom is an antique dealer, and has been since I was about three years old. She choose that line of work so she could have a flexible work schedule that allowed her to earn money without taking too much time away from me. She was always able to pick me up from school and be the mom that drove my friends and me everywhere, and in the summer, I went to work with her.
We would spend our Saturday mornings trolling from one yard-sale to another, searching for treasures that she could make a profit on.2012-05-28 11.01.36 During the week, we would antique all over the five New England states. When she started, she sold in a publication called the Antique Trader. That allowed her to sell things nationally for higher prices than someone could get in a store, and by the time I was in elementary school, Ebay made her work much more profitable. Now, she could take a piece that sold for $20 in a New Hampshire shop, and sell it to someone in California, Japan or Germany for $200.

I never fully embraced the business myself, but it left me with a keen eye for undervalued items.
I can usually tell when one person’s trash would be treasure to someone else, and I can spot connections between her success as an antique dealer and my journey as an emerging writer.

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Persistence and faith pay off.

My mother has always been a devout catholic, and persistent when it comes to supporting her family. We were never rich, but I never went without. Whenever money got tight, my mom would keep searching through shops until she found something that she could sell to pay the bills. Even now, with me out of the house and my dad on the verge of retirement, she is still going strong. This week, she was getting overwhelmed with vet bills and expensive car repairs. Just when she thought she wasn’t going to be able to pay everything off, she found and purchased an Elvis Presley dress for $10. She put it on Ebay, expecting it to sell for a couple hundred. When the auction ended, the high bid was over $2,000, which was more than enough to cover the veterinary and mechanical bills.

When it comes to my writing, the rejections can be overwhelming. No matter how tough it gets, I have to keep swimming against the tide. I keep revising and submitting, believing that eventually, something will get accepted. Last week, I was starting to get down and doubt myself. I thought if I saw another “Thank you for submitting ___. Unfortunately…” I was going to chuck whatever device I was reading on across the room. While I was out to eat with my mom and a friend, I took a trip to the restroom. While I was waiting in line, I refreshed my email on my phone. There was a response from Women On Writing in my inbox, telling me my story had made the top ten in their contest. This means the story will definitely get published, and I will get paid for it. I still don’t know if I am a runner up who is getting a $25 amazon card, or one of the top three who gets a cash prize. Either way, it will be the most money I have gotten for a story so far.

No matter what happens, I need to keep going and believe that things will fall into place, sooner or later. Faith is important whether it is in a higher power, numbers, or both.

Just because several people reject something, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there who wants it.

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The glasses sat on Etsy for months. They sold in a few hours at Todd Farm.

This morning, I met my parents at a local flea market called Todd Farm. We filled our shared table with items that had languished on internet markets like Etsy and Ebay without selling, no matter how low we dropped the price. It was refreshing to see the items fly off the table, especially when the customers didn’t even try to haggle. By the time the unseasonable cold winds drove me from the field, my boxes were nearly empty and my wallet was full of cash.

It reminded me of how my favorite authors got dozens of rejections, in some cases, more than 100 rejections, before having their books become bestsellers, and how some short stories get accepted to pro markets after being rejected by dozens of other publications. I have some stories nearing ten rejections, but my experiences with the flea market renew my hope that sooner or later, they will sell.

Writing and antiquing aren’t all that different. They both deal in stories. They both deal with rejections. They both offer rewards for those who are persistent enough to withstand the rejections and just keep searching for the next Kodak moment.

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The Magic of Tuesday Acceptance Letters

Tuesdays are the best and worst day of my week. I leave the house at 8:30 a.m. and don’t get home until 9:30 p.m. I tutor all day and teach at night, ending the day with my favorite group of students. By the time I get home, I’m exhausted, hungry, and off-the-wall hyper.

This Tuesday, I got home, made myself a cup of chamomile tea and curled up on the couch to watch This Old House. After watching a foundation poured and inspected, my husband and I found ourselves in a classic millennial situation: sitting out the couch with Mac Books on our laps, focused more on screens than each other. I would have rather had the cat on my lap than my computer, but he was unwilling to grace me with his presence.

I looked up from my screen, watching the cat bat his noisy ball around the living room. Glancing over at my husband, I said, “You know, for the past two Tuesdays, I’ve gotten good writing news.”

“Thats good,” he said lifting his eyes away from Facebook Messenger.

“Two weeks ago, I found out I was a finalist for that contest. Last week, I got a story accepted for an anthology. I didn’t get any rejections today, but there wasn’t any good news either.”

He shrugged. “No rejections is still pretty good.”

Our attention shifted back to our screens. An email notification popped up on mine, informing me I had a new message from Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

“Crap,” I muttered as I opened the message, expecting a rejection.

Then I jumped out of my seat. “Wait, I just got an acceptance!”

“You spoke to soon,” he said closing his lap top.

After a doing a proper happy dance and playing the the cat, I took my laptop to the kitchen table to withdraw the story from the other places I had sent it, update my bio and find a decent photo of myself. I only accomplished two of those three things before I went to bed, but I was happy and confident that there was a point to my obsession with submissions. It was worth all the hard work. I had found a home for another one of my stray stories.

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Write What You Know (or not).

“Write what you know” is a saying I have heard from many different people. I don’t usually agree with it, and find I prefer to use writing as a tool for exploring what I don’t know. The internet and library data bases can tell me almost anything I want to know about any subject. Writing about the unknown is the best way to motivate myself to do research and come to understand the research by writing about it, whether I am incorporating it into a novel, blogging, or writing academic prose.

As much as I like to think of writing as a tool for inquiry, I will not deny that it is easier to write about things I am familiar with. This month, I was reminded of just how big an impact knowledge and confidence can have on a person’s ability to write coherent prose.

There is one student who has been coming into the writing center on and off for a couple years. Lately, I have been tutoring him at least once a week. I’ll call him Bob for the purpose of this post.

Bob is a very good writer, lacking more in confidence than skill. Last week, I was working with him on a beautifully organized essay about business etiquette in his home country. Since English isn’t his first language, he needed help with the grammar, but little else. The essay had a strong voice, specific purpose and clear organization.

Today, he brought me an essay his instructor asked him to revise. To be honest, this essay seemed like a different student wrote it. The ideas were all over the place and some sentences were very difficult to decipher. If I hadn’t been working with him for so long, I might have suspected that the previous essay had been plagiarized.

As our session went on, I came to understand that he knew almost nothing about the topic prior to starting his research. He had been thorough with his research, but his lack of knowledge was having a major impact on his writing. He was disorganized, jumping from one topic to the next before he was done explaining it. There were missing sentences, missing words, and errors with tense and punctuation that I knew he had mastered last year. He was so focused on making sure he got his facts straight in both the writing and revising process, that he failed to organize the paper in a coherent manner and missed dozens of grammatical errors. His level of knowledge really effected what he was capable of.

While its fine for an experience writer to throw rules like “Write what you know” out the window and use writing as a tool for research and discovery, beginning or developing writers do much better when they are familiar with their subject.

It is good to let students write about things they are familiar with and gradually move them into using writing for inquiry.

When writers are taking their first adventures into fiction, they might want to start out by writing stories set in places they’ve been with characters doing things they know a lot about. Once they get a good handle on the craft (organization, detail, plot, structure, character, dialogue and grammatical control), then they can branch out to the unfamiliar.

I love to use writing to explore “what if” scenarios. If I am curious about what it is like to be exist as a hispanic teenager, an overweight man or a trans woman, I read, I watch, and then I write. When I get bored with my world and cease to appreciate it, I make up a new world that is far less comfortable than my own. Through writing, I experience thing that make me appreciate the privileges and comfort of my own life.

I used to just write what I understood. Now, I go out of my way to write what I don’t.

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©2016 Sara Codair

A Fun Run for the Developing Writer’s Brain

Creative Writing exercises are my favorite thing to do in class. However, I used to think there wasn’t room for them in a first year writing class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Teaching any kind of writing without creative exercises is like a coach who doesn’t encourage his or her athletes to run or weight train.

Whether you are training to improve you skills at soccer, crew, or baseball, running is one way to progress. Or, if like me, you are not a fan or competitive sports, you can run to make your body stronger and healthier. I run because it eases my anxiety and keeps the copious amounts of cookies I consume from sticking to my hips. One could say the same thing for pushups, crunches and weight training. They improve your body so you can use it more effectively.DSC_0394

Creative Writing exercises are like running or doing push ups. They strengthen the brain and its ability to translate thoughts into words. It doesn’t matter if a person’s goal is to write copy for a website, a lab report, a short story or a persuasive essay. Doing writing exercises on a regular bases will strengthen the parts of his or her brain that translate ideas into sentences and paragraphs.

This is a realization four years in the making for me. When I first started teaching English Composition or College Writing, I thought that since my goal was to teach academic writing, I had to use traditional academic methods. At the time, I believed that mean brief lectures about essay structure followed by discussions on nonfiction texts.

There is nothing wrong with having students read and discuss texts that follow a similar style to the ones they plan to write. However, a college writing class can be much more than that. Boredom, Breadloaf and a slew of academic articles have convinced me that I can and should teach creative writing in a class where the end goal is an academic research paper.

It shows the students that writing can be fun while enhancing their ability to efficiently translate their thoughts to the written word, it facilitates skill transfer proves to the students that they have something to say and that it doesn’t take too long for the first draft of that idea to be born on the page.

One of my favorite creative exercises to do with my students is the never-ending story. Here are the directions I give my students:

  • Take out a blank piece of paper.
  • In a few minutes, I am going to play a song. When the music starts, you are going to start a story. The story can start with a character, a description, action or some combination of all three as long as it is inspired by the music.
  • When the music stops, pass you paper to the right.
  • Read what is on the paper that was passed to you.
  • When a new song plays, continue that story. However, you should let the music inspire how you continue it.
  • We will repeat this process eight times.

I play a variety of songs, ranging from Lindsey Sterling’s Crystalize to Drake’s Hotline Bling. A large variety in genre and style will wield hilarious stories and an interesting discussion about what kind of music facilitates writing and what kind interferes with it down.

The reflection and discussion that follows can’t be skipped. This is where students realize the activity was more than just a way to destress at the end of the semester. If you can get them to name the skills or strategies they used when composing on the spot, they can put those aside as tools for when they get stuck on an assignment. If the students get can make a connection between the kind thinking they did during this process to the  kind of thinking they did when doing other kinds of writing, they will begin to understand that skills do transfer from one genre to the other (something some academics think doesn’t happen in first year writing classes).

On the surface, the never ending story and other creative writing exercises may just seem like “fun” ways to fill time in class. However, they are actually valuable strategies for encouraging metacognition, skill transfer and team work.  They encourage students to think quick, reflect on how music or sounds affect their writing and asks them to participate in a non-verbal collaboration. They focus more on the process than the end product. Most importantly, the have fun while they are learning something.