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Free e-Books from UCP

2 July, 2014
Rubble near twin towers and velocipede shop

Reprisal during war (Photo credit: blacque_jacques)

The University of Chicago Press offers a free e-book each month from its list. The e-books can be downloaded in a variety of formats. But if you have a Kindle, only Kindle Fire is possible. I usually download it to my computer.

Last month the selection was a biography of Liberace. This month it is The Reprisal, which is set in an Italian village in winter 1943. Local fascist supporters capture a pregnant woman they think has collaborated with the partisans and hold a trial to decide her fate.

The author, Laudomia Bonanni, drew on real incidents to explore ‘the overwhelming conflicts between ideology and community, justice and vengeance.’ Publishers Weekly described it as a ‘profound, gritty novel’, one that for too long has been available only to Italian readers.



Talking to Writers As If. . .

7 June, 2014



Writer (Photo credit: Alan Weir, Flickr)


Elizabeth McCracken, in her article,  If Strangers Talked to Everyone Like They Talk to Writers, makes the humorous but true point that people consider writers to be fair game. People ask questions and make comments that they wouldn’t dream of addressing people in non-writing jobs.

Source: Electric Literature online magazine.



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Writing Help to Suit YOU

3 June, 2014


 Personal drive can help you move closer to reaching your writing goals. But even passionate, dedicated writers will find the writing path hard if they lack solid writing skills and knowledge.

Luckily, writing help is widely available and comes in many forms—classes and workshops, books and magazines, mentoring, blogs and websites. Writing education is a huge, lucrative market, with few quality controls, so heed the classical warning, caveat emptor—buyer beware.

When checking out educational opportunities to improve their writing, people tend to focus on five factors:

1-Costs & benefits.  Prices range from freebies to exorbitant. What are you willing to spend? More importantly, what do you expect to get in return, in terms of increased knowledge and skills?

2-Delivery mode.  Sometimes we choose an educational mode because it is convenient and comfortable, and other times we look for something unusual, taking us out of our comfort zone. Do you want the ‘any time, any where’ convenience of an online class, or a traditional classroom experience? Do you like the individualised attention a mentor can provide? Does independent study appeal, such as creating your own must-read list of writing articles, websites, blogs and books?

3-Duration and selectivity.   At one end of the spectrum are the short, basic writing workshops, open to anyone. At the other end are specialised offerings, such as long-term masterclasses, often with selective enrolment.  In terms of  your current writing skills, experience and knowledge, where are you on this spectrum?

4-Content level and scope.   Some writing-based subjects take a broad focus, e.g., the history of the novel, and some have a narrow focus, e.g., your novel’s first 20 pages. In terms of level and scope of content, your educational needs need to align with your writing goals. Do you like writing for the sheer fun of creating? Or do you pursue writing primarily as a personal investigation, to make sense of your life and explore ideas that interest you? Or is writing a major passion that you hope to turn into a major career?

5-Teaching expertise.   Writers, editors, writing educators—all offer workshops and other educational opportunities. What kind of expertise do you expect, and why? Remember, not every writer is a great teacher, so investigate.

What is your preferred learning mode?

Positive learning experiences depend, in part, on how well they align with your preferred learning mode.  When you process information, do you depend on the visual, aural, kinesthetic, or logical?

I once enrolled in an Introductory French class where the first fortnight focused on aural immersion. The textbook was withheld while the teacher spoke French. As a predominantly visual learner, I was adrift. When I was allowed to open my textbook and see the dialogue, French started to make sense.

Occasionally, you can gain insights when you move away from your dominant learning mode. Most of my uni assignments in literature required me to write research papers. But one professor let me submit an ‘artistic’ project in lieu. I had a great time creating a visual response to my chosen novel. The process, by taking me away from my usual learning mode, gave me insights that I would not have thought of.

  • Visual.  Do you process information best when you see it? Relevant learning activities include reading, note taking, observing, and getting visual information (charts, maps, pictures, diagrams, demonstrations).
  • Aural.  If you are hearing-oriented, you may prefer learning via talking books, CDs,  lectures and discussions.
  • Kinesthetic. Do you learn best through doing? Action-oriented activities include roleplaying, making models, and interviewing.
  • Logical. Do you process information best when you identify a subject’s underlying  ‘system’ or logic? Find learning activities that highlight explanations, well-structured information, and the theories and developments that underpin a subject.


Interpersonal or intrapersonal?

We also differ in terms of the degree of interactivity we feel comfortable with. People who are strongly interpersonal tend to learn best when they participate with others, e.g., informal discussions, question-and-answer sessions.

People who are strongly intrapersonal ted to prefer educational opportunities where interaction with others is minimal. Examples: Structured online or traditional classes, books on writing, individualised help via a mentor.  I’m happier and achieve more when  learning on my own or when I’m in a structured learning environment, such as a formal class that has a subject matter expert as leader, a syllabus, specific tasks, and clear outcomes.


What type of writing education best suits you?




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Just Get on With Your Writing

24 April, 2014
English: Doris Lessing, British writer, at lit...
Doris Lessing, 2006. Credit: Wikipedia

What if you had the chance to have  famous writer as your roomie and mentor?

In the ’60s, when writer Jenny Diski was 15, she was expelled from school and, as she puts it, ‘stuck in a loony bin where no one knew quite what to do with me.’ The person who took her in and ‘saved’ her was the famous British writer, Doris Lessing. (Click this link to read Diski’s article in The Guardian.)

Living in a writer’s home/workplace gave Diski three useful insights about a writing career.


1. Call it  working, not writing. 

Woman machinist, Douglas Aircraft Company, Lon...
(Credit: Library of Congress)


Lessing showed Diski what it means to establish a purposeful writing life. For Lessing, being a writer held no glamour:  ‘When I’m writing, nothing else happens here.’

Perhaps this is why Diski prefers the term working rather than writing. In a way, it makes sense. Saying  you are writing sometimes gives people the wrong idea.

It’s like the term gardening. I live where there are many show gardens. The people who maintain them do hard labour—weeding, hanging off a ladder to prune trees, fertilising, mowing, replanting. But I suspect that for some non-gardeners, the term conjures up a restful image, of trailing along perfect garden paths, stopping to cut a few flowers or make minor decorative changes.


2. Shorten the mental distance between your thoughts and your writing.


English: Screenshot from Linux software KTouch...
(Credit: Wikipedia)


Diski remembers the ‘sharp clatter of keys hitting the platen’ when Lessing was working. Lessing drafted her work on her typewriter, Diski does the same at her computer. Diski believes touch typing creates ‘the shortest possible distance’ between thoughts and writing.

Some writing books suggest that drafting first by hand helps you identify your deepest, true thoughts. But as someone who types fast at the keyboard, I agree with Diski. I enjoy the almost instantaneous movement of  ideas,  brain⇒to fingers⇒to screen.  When I use pen and paper, the process is slower and my first thoughts are overwhelmed by second and third ones. I end up editing prematurely, before I’ve worked out what I want to communicate.


3. Know thyself and just get on with writing.


Pushing the car
(Credit: Flickr– __MaRiNa__)


Lessing wrote in order  to earn a living but also to  ‘fulfil her need to be what she was.’ It was Lessing’s ‘implacable understanding of what it is to be a writer’ that showed Diski what matters most in writing.

It has nothing to do with the  decisions about how and what to write. All of that comes later.  For Diski, a writer’s elemental focus, ‘before anything else’, is  ‘knowing that you are a writer and getting on with it.’  Your writing identity grows out of process, not product. And although writers need to pay attention to both, but it’s a matter of weighting.

I admire process-oriented individuals, who get on with what they love doing. Like my friend who is a botanical illustrator. Her process activities include attending workshops, experimenting with and improving her technique, collaborating with others, setting goals. She also pursues ‘product’, entering work in exhibitions. But she does not let the judges’ decisions define her as an artist. After all, such decisions sit in the laps of the fates.

Putting  undue weighting on product can skew writers’ sense of achievement, to the point that they measure that their growth, participation, and success  solely in terms of external approval and recognition.


 © Marsha Durham, Writing Companion blog on WordPress, 2014.

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A Raft of Poems This Month

18 April, 2014

(Photo credit: spo0nman)

I’ve been enjoying the wonderful collection of poems this month, chosen by Susie Meserve for America’s National Poetry Month.

Here’s one exampleStationery, from her choices this month. It’s a poem that has stayed in my mind all day.

I enjoy reading poetry, and I seek those special poems, ones with the ability to move me beyond the daily grind and grasp something profound and elemental  about life itself.


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Query Letters That Succeed

14 April, 2014

Query (Photo credit: amortize)

Need help writing a query letter? The query process can be scary, confusing and alienating, particularly for writers who have yet to chalk up runs on the board in terms of publication.

Jane Friedman has recently added a post on this subject. She targets fiction writers but will be providing another post for those who write nonfiction.

As an inveterate info hunter on the Web, I’m used to an incredibly mixed informational bag in bloglandia. Jane’s post stands out. She’s generous with her experience, educates in a friendly and non-pushy way, and covers most of the bases. And in explaining the rationale for each part of the literary query process, she demystifies it.

There is no guarantee that we’ll be successful when we query, but she shows us how we can be professional.

The Complete Guide to Query Letters That Get Manuscript Requests

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Research—Finding a clear need

28 March, 2014

Books - Frontal Attack(Photo credit: Whistling in the Dark)

When researching a writing project, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the material you gather. It may help to remember that the data you collect is only the straw. You still have to spin it into gold to create your book, article, or whatever you are writing.

In the beginning:  What start works for you?

Do you research first, write first, or start in some other way?

  1. Research first. Starting a writing project by first investigating a topic is a familiar process. We learned it when we were students, checking the views of experts before starting an assignment. I suspect many of us also like to start with research because as step one, it’s more engaging than writing. Our early writing can be demoralising as we wrestle with competing thoughts and stare at a blank screen. Research provides action—we hunt down sources, make piles of notes, accumulate enough material to give us a sense of accomplishment.Starting with research is fine—if we control it. It is easy to go too wide or too deep. Some writers collect such diverse information that they end up with information overload, swamped by various points of view and interesting but inconsequential material. Some writers go so deep into a particular topic that they begin to doubt if their individual take on it is worth writing about.
  2. Write first. Barbara Turner-Vesselago, who teaches a writing approach called Freefall Writing, believes that making writing your first step helps you discover your story/topic. You temporarily remove your analysis hat and write without constraint, capturing the first thoughts that come mind.This approach can enable you to capture more ideas than usual.  Because much of this first writing is raw, ragged and wild, you may discover a new direction or find new themes you would not have thought of otherwise. And it may help you identify what you do not know, so that you can focus on where research is needed.
  3. Question first.  Some writers make questions their first step. The answers they come up with help them focus both their writing and research. Examples: Why do I think  my topic or story is interesting and of value? What do I most want to communicate about this topic? Why would readers find it valuable or interesting? What kinds of readers would my material attract, and why?The focus on motive helps you assess what and how much material you need. It can also show you what material dissipates this focus, shifting readers’ attention elsewhere. 
  4. The Middle Way or ‘Sandwich’
    This approach has three stages:
    Base:  Undertake a  small, focused investigation to discover the most important ideas.
    Filling:  Develop a loose first draft to see where it leads you.
    Top: Conduct further research as needed.

Find the known in the unknown

Once we have our topic and work out what we know and don’t know, we can jump into research—right? Turner-Vesselago suggests one more pre-writing step:  Identify whatever you know about unfamiliar areas in your topic.

Her example:  We may know nothing about the ‘anxious situation’ that prevailed in the 17th century French court. But by drawing on what we understand about human nature, we can grasp how people may treat each other when in a similar situation.

Motivation and emotions are two important elements that entice readers to keep reading. By focusing on the important issue of WHY, we get a better idea of what and how much to include of the WHEN, WHERE, and other details.

More research while writing

After the initial research and drafting, we usually have more research to undertake. New material comes to hand, new ideas change our thinking.

Turner-Vesselago cautions against halting your writing to undertake more research because you run the risk of never getting back to your writing. I know that problem. I can lose myself in looking up various facts and ideas. When I return to my draft, I find I’ve lost the flow.

Now I resist the urge to stop writing. Instead, I type the word CHEKME at each point where I need information. I make the word a different colour so I can find it easily and sometimes add an explanatory note, such as CHEKME  DEATH-DATE. If I’m on a roll but see where more information is needed, I add a quick XXXX. Like CHEKME, it helps locate points to develop later. If you love researching, refraining from looking up material  immediately when questions come up may seem like cruel and unusual punishment. Persevere!

Geraldine Brooks is a  former journalist now lauded for her award-winning historical fiction (e.g., Year of Wonder, March). She suggests researching only when a writer sees a clear need to do so. In one of her 2011 Boyer Lectures she explains that although facts form the basis of her historical fiction, fiction dictates its design. It is the story that  ‘must tell me what it is I need to know.’ Whenever she discovers that she needs more information, ‘only then do I go looking for it.’

© Marsha Durham, Writing Companion blog on WordPress, 2007-2014.

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