Writing that thing you HAVE to get published

Throughout undergrad, my professors talked about having a healthy level of arrogance about our writing. It’s right there between being confident and being an asshole.

Mostly I’ve just been trying to reach the confident point—where I can objectively look at something I wrote and say, “Yes, this is a good piece people may read.” Just after that threshold, there’s rumored to be this other mindset that actually helps you get published. They say your attitude changes there. “This piece isn’t just good,” you’ll say. “It’s so good that it has to be read!”

Sure, I’ve had that thought. It was back when I started writing, and no one read a word of it, and I was sure my novel ideas were going to blow so many freaking minds. Then someone did read my first novel, and it did not blow his mind. Really, the whole thing just blew.

I learned to check my ego and to lean a bit more toward being objective with my work. Internally, I’m sure I skewed toward being an asshole toward people who didn’t “get” my short stories. But I still walked into every critique hoping I’d walk out with some ways to improve. That’s the mentality I’ve been stuck in through the last couple years of revising my manuscript.

While I was stuck, I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed at myself for working on nothing else. Even my blog has suffered. I decided to change that, so I opened a new Word doc and started a new blog post. It covered how I’ve grown over the last few months, the turns of my career, and some other hopeful things. It was the blog post I wanted to write for months, but I couldn’t get it right. It was too accusatory, too vindictive, too self-pitying. I hated writing it all those times as much as anyone would have hated reading it, so I never saved the work.

When I tried again last week, it wasn’t nearly the struggle it was before. The story was ready to come out and play. We played on the page, and I found all the magical things it had lacked before: an intention, the proper distance from the experience, and excitement from me, the writer.

But not just excitement. As I looked the piece over and cleaned it up, I realized it was too good for a blog post. Oh, no. This piece needed to go to The Huffington Post. While I’m at it, I might as well shop it around to some other places. This piece isn’t just good, it needs to be read. And it’s just not going to get the audience it deserves here on my blog.

Had I been writing this experience a few months ago, the story probably would end with an explanation of why I chickened out and decided to revise the piece until eventually giving up on it. Today, the piece is under review with The Huffington Post. And it’s about to be under review with some other publications, too.

Honestly, I expected this golden place of confidence/arrogance to feel like an exclusive club I had earned my way into. In reality, it feels more like unloading the dishwasher. This piece is going to these publications because it just belongs there. The plates go in this cupboard because that’s just where they go.

Studio Session: “The Perry Room hides literary artifacts and historical gems” by Megan Balser

We’ve got another opening paragraph to unpack on this fine Wednesday! This week’s volunteer is my former minion! We salute you, madam!

The Writer: Megan Balser (website)

The Piece: “The Perry Room hides literary artifacts and historical gems,” an article printed in Spirit of Jefferson. (This piece is no longer viewable online.)

The Charles Town Library hosts a treasure trove of West Virginia history in its Thornton T. Perry II Room – but no one seems to know it exists. Hidden in an inconspicuous corner of the library behind a solid wooden door, the room is invisible even to library employees.

We’re only working with two sentences here, but that’s perfectly acceptable. Since this is from a journalistic article, what we’re looking for in the first paragraph is a little different than what we’ve looked at before. In a piece of fiction, the goal is to keep the reader interested until the very end. That’s still the goal in journalism, but you’ve got to inform your audience at the very beginning.

The first four words ground us with the physical setting, which we find out is in West Virginia just a handful of words later. That answers the first of the 5 basic questions of journalism (who, what, where, when, why does it matter). We get more specificity with the name of the room — which is also in the headline, so we know we’re getting at the heart of the story right away.

The what and the why does it matter are also within the first sentence. It’s a treasure trove of history! Not only is it unique and valuable, but we start to get the impression it’s a lesser-known oyster before we even get to the phrase after the dash. Aside from telling readers why does it matter, it sets us up for an adventure. How? Let’s take a look at the opening of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson:

Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

This opening paragraph-length sentence doesn’t just say there was treasure before the story was written, but there is some yet to be found. Ms. Balser uses the same sort of trick to lure us into the rest of the story — you the reader can go to the Charles Town Library and partake of this treasure! Thankfully, she’s more generous than Stevenson’s narrator and provides the location.

After the “gather round and I’ll tell you a story” entrance of the first sentence, the second one starts that story. This one happens to bring The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien to mind (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”) just with the simple language we can all latch onto. We’re left with the image of the door and the idea that even the library employees hardly know this place exists if at all. We might find ourselves in Narnia in the next paragraph.

The magic this short paragraph creates sets us up to be enchanted by this secret place the writer will describe. By the end of the article, we should agree that it is a treasure trove and should be inspired to go.

The second paragraph should give me more concrete details about the way this room looks. As a piece of journalism, I’d expect a quote from someone to be the second or third paragraph of this article. Wherever it comes, I need some details that remind me this is a real place I can actually go visit and not just a magical place one only finds in books.

If you’d like to volunteer a piece of writing for a Studio Session, head to my contact page. I’ll go sentence by sentence, commenting on the writer’s voice, authority, intention, the expectations they create, and the level of intrigue. Any and all types and genres are accepted. I will happily give my two cents on the opening to your novel, short story, memoir, cover letter, artist statement, author bio, potentially rude email to professors or coworkers, ode to tater tots, and whatever else you creative geniuses come up with.

Please include your name and the URL to your website (optional), the title of your piece, a brief description, your first paragraph only, and any specific concerns you’d like me to address if you have them.

Structure: The likely source of your problem

Ever start writing a new scene or paragraph and you get the feeling it’s just not working? Maybe you’re just not in the zone, or you’re hungry. You take a walk, make a sandwich, get some coffee, tell the dog to get off the kitchen counter… anything to get your creative juices flowing.

But before you do all that, take a look at what you wrote just before you started having problems. More than likely, there’s some structural issue there that’s messing you up.

On the smaller scale, this can be as simple as an out of place word. Maybe you’re writing a memoir piece and by the third paragraph, you start to sound like you’re looking down on the wastrels of the world, smoking a pipe in your overstuffed armchair by the fire. Look back to the first paragraph, and you notice you used the phrase “vigorous moments of exercise helped my mood tremendously.” Right there, you’ve set yourself up to echo the sound of that phrase later on.

If you’re trying to go for a lofty voice, then this example might not work for you; I took it from a memoir on of my classmates wrote. But let’s say you’re working on a novel, writing a scene where everything is business as usual until someone comes in, saying they have a problem.

Instead of writing it out, you think an easy fix is to have someone say, “Let’s talk about it.” Out of earshot for your POV character, of course. Then you don’t have to think too hard about the dialogue or setting up all the little details of the situation and can get right to having your characters solve the problem! Action, right?

Except you get to the “exciting” part and there’s no tension. Why? Because you skipped the setup. Instead of giving writers a scene in which someone is panicking and talking about a problem with some really big consequences, you took a shortcut. This amounts to, “Yeah, let’s go do the thing because bad stuff happens if we don’t.” And who wants to read that?

So you go back, find that spot where the structure’s faulty, and write that scene out as you should. Fix the transitions to that scene you were struggling with later on, and suddenly the excitement’s there!

For those of you who wag your finger at those of us who edit as we write, you can absolutely try plowing your way to the end, then come back and find all your structural issues. I took that approach when editing the first draft of a sci-fi novel I’ve been working on. After addressing the problems in the first few chapters, I had to completely rewrite everything else. Once the first part worked, the rest just didn’t make sense.

Doing this kind of editing as you write might delay you in moving forward, but it will make sure you go in the right direction.

Callous: Why I didn’t want to be a writer

Elementary teachers love to predict the careers of their teachers students.* Several pegged me as a writer even during that time when I insisted on being a scientist. I liked to tell stories, like the one I wrote for some fourth grade English assignment. I couldn’t tell you what happened in it, but I remember it centered on a knight and a farmer. That story stands out in my memory because I decided I never wanted to be a writer after I wrote it.

This decision had nothing to do with the story itself; apart from my terrible handwriting and issues with spaces between words (“tome” and “tothe” frequently appeared where they shouldn’t have), there wasn’t anything really wrong with it. I didn’t want to be a writer simply because my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mullenax, had a callous on her finger.

She was tall and largish in the way many elementary teachers are, with gray hair streaked with silver down to her shoulders and the crooked yellow teeth of a habitual smoker. I rarely remember seeing her wearing something other than a denim overall-dress over a white T-shirt.

Mrs. Mullenax didn’t like me for a number of reasons. Every time we started on math, I got a headache and asked to go to the nurse (in retrospect, this was likely dehydration or hunger). Sometimes I would slip out of the classroom with the other cool girls and hang out in the bathroom (just to stand around giggling, then hide if anyone else came in). And sin of sins, I wouldn’t shut up about New Mexico.

I was born there, in what I remember as a land of cracked dirt, scraggly bushes, vacant lots, black widow spiders, stucco walls and mountains. The year I started fourth grade was my first year in Virginia (the second time around; I was born in New Mexico, moved to Virginia, then back to New Mexico, then back to Virginia when I was very young). Virginia had tall, bushy trees surrounded by swampy terrain, brick houses, an unusual affinity for sports and frightening pride in its history.

I couldn’t stop pointing out the differences, both in landscape and education. Mrs. Mullenax used to pull me aside and say, “Stop talking about New Mexico. You aren’t there anymore.”

The day she graded that English assignment, she called us to her desk one by one to go over our grades. When she called my name, I sat next to her and beamed at her praise for my story. Whatever happened between that farmer and that knight was enough to make her think I would be a writer one day. I would have gone forth completely neutral on the subject if she hadn’t held up her right and in front of me and said, “And you’ll get one of these, too.”

She had old hands, the knuckles wrinkled by a lifetime of curling and uncurling. Dry, cracked skin covered her palms and split around her nails. On the inside of her middle finger, just beside the nail, was the most grotesque dome of flesh. Cracks surrounded the layers of flaky white skin. It looked like some foreign object crashed into her finger and got stuck there.

That gross thing could grow on someone else for all I cared. I wanted no part of writing.

In high school, I noticed my callous for the first time. The years of handwritten homework gave birth to my own knot of skin just beside the highest knuckle on my middle finger. At first, I thought it was a blister. The little bump was smooth like skin over bone, innocuous and obscure. You wouldn’t see it at first glance. If you noticed any abnormality, you would probably think I just broke my finger long ago and it healed that way.

But here was this thing I never wanted, quietly cushioning my finger with every word I wrote. I chose to be a writer long before I saw it. Sure, if I stopped writing by hand and drawing, it would eventually soften and disappear, but why would I? Calloused hands have always been a sign of a hard worker. Small and subtle as it is, my callous is like a secret. My hands may be soft and well-maintained, but the signs of hard work are there if you look close enough.


*The original sentence had the word “teachers” repeated by mistake. I do what I can, but nobody is perfect.