Letter from the Editor: Five Tips for Writing Feature Stories

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We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
–Ernest Hemingway

So I am officially the Editor-in-Chief for the college newspaper in the fall, which will be my last semester at PSC.  I will graduate with an A.S., and, because I want to go farther, an A.A. (as I am so done with math).

If there’s one thing that the class from hell (i.e. Statistics) forced me to do, it was learn superior organization, which will come in handy when leading each project, or issue.

However, I am a confirmed introvert, so being a leader of anything is intimidating, but I tell myself, “I can do this.  They’re just people.”

That said, I am very excited about this opportunity.  I wasn’t going to go for it, but let’s just say my adviser made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

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Since my post about tips for writing college feature stories (https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/04/feature-story-ideas-for-a-college-newspaper/) has, by a landslide, been the most popular, I thought I’d share a few other things that have helped me become not just a better, but a more prolific writer:

  • Be aware not just of what is going on around you, but also the people around you—eavesdrop, pay attention to quirks, such as distinctive tattoos, and even cars with a bunch of crazy bumper stickers.  For example, on the first day of my ENC1102 class, my professor asked everyone to write something true and something untrue about themselves; the rest of the class was supposed to guess what was and wasn’t.  Listen for the interesting truths.
  • If you’re in online classes, and there is a “Get To Know You” discussion forum, read all of the bios—but, as Troy Moon (a local journalist for The Pensacola News Journal) said, “Everyone has a story, but not all of them are interesting.”
  • Craft your interview questions in such a way that you won’t get a yes or no answer.  You want meaty quotes!  Otherwise, you’ll find yourself wanting to paraphrase everything.
  • An easy way to gather quotes (speaking from the introvert’s point-of-view) is to cover events where people are speaking.  This way, you don’t even have to ask questions, unless you need more or better quotes.
  • Read other college newspapers in-depth, because all I’m doing is telling you how it’s done–they’re showing you.

My ultimate goal for our publication is to get more student names and faces in every issue, because, as Diane Varsi (playing Allison MacKenzie) said in the 1957 movie, Peyton Place: “It was nice to come back to a place where the names in the newspaper meant something to you.”

That embodies the very idea of “community,” and we are a community college.

What I Learned Last Writers’ Meeting (from an honest-to-God publisher of books)

So I belong to a local writer’s group called WriteOn! Pensacola.  Last week was the first time we had a guest speaker (Dan Vega, from Indigo Publishing).  I not only had a blast, but I learned a ton about what publishers are looking for (this one in particular).  I learned that I am totally okay with forfeiting my rights–I still win.  I get my book published, make money, a movie based on it is made, generating more book sales, and I make even more.  However, if it is a bestseller, then it’ll be the one and only time I’ll do that.

I learned that this is a lady to check out:  http://peggymccoll.com/, and you must be involved on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter).  I consider this blog a bonus.

Some tips for submitting to a publisher:

Figure out your target age range within a 15 year mark (such as age 35 to 50 years old). Is it more male than female? Go as narrow as possible at first. (Really.)

Find out why people should read your book, so you know how to market it later.

How is a person different after reading your book? (You have to have a “vision” for your book.  This was really hard.  The only vision I’d had before was that it’d become a bestseller.)

Readers today want shorter books (we have 12 seconds–the attention span of a goldfish–to hook a reader).  Books between 125 and 175 pages Paperback, 8.5×11 Or 6×9 in size are recommended.

Self-help books, biographies, business books are easier to market than novels.  Cookbooks and children’s books are a bit harder to sell because of more time and less profit margin involved.

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So, I attached my novel, “Because of Mindy Wiley”, to an e-mail to Mr. Vega and his staff at Indigo River Publishing, with these notes:

Genre:  Southern Gothic Horror

Word count:  220,000 (Book is naturally divided into three parts, so I would be willing to publish it as a series).

Audience:  Female, between the ages of 20-35; those who enjoyed “Flowers in the Attic” and “Peyton Place” would like “Because of Mindy Wiley”; also, former Mormons.

Vision:  To provide pure escapism while bringing awareness to how rigidly aligning with any religion can improve or diminish one’s life or the lives of others around them.

Online presences in which to promote book:

  1. Facebook account
  2. LinkedIn account
  3. sarahleastories.wordpress.com
  4. twitter.com/SarahLeaSales

The end.

Of course, I always think of something I should have included after I’ve hit send.  Though my book is primarily a Southern Gothic horror, there is also a light touch of magical realism (think Alice Hoffman) to it.

Writing Tips

There is not a single writer’s group meeting I attend that I do not learn something, or at least get inspired or motivated.  I even got a blog post (this one) out of it, plus a possible regional short story idea.  I like to write regional, because as Allison Mackenzie stated (at least in the movie) in “Peyton Place”, there is nothing like opening up a newspaper where the names mean something to you.  There is a peculiar sort of delight when I open up a book and see Pensacola (my hometown) or Poplar Bluff (my birthplace) mentioned.

One of the neatest things I learned was that it is possible to “age appropriate” your writing.  Just as there aren’t any recommended ages listed on children’s books (which I think is done on purpose, to sell more books; I’m such a cynic, I know), I wasn’t aware there was a way to figure out how to determine at what age level my writing was.

For my second collection of children’s nursery rhymes, “Golden Forks and Silver Spoons” (“Golden Stars and Silver Linings” being the first), in the “Just-so Stories” section (a la Rudyard Kipling), I “graded” my poem, “How the Colon Became a Semicolon” (who doesn’t love semi-colons, the noncommittal things they are), and have realized that perhaps I wrote a book of children’s poetry rather than simplistic nursery rhymes.

Because I am a “For Dummies” kind of person (I am consulting the “Dummies” books, rather than my textbook, to help me slog through the college course known as Computer Concepts), I want to share how grading our work is accomplished, screenshot by screenshot (as I am a visual learner).

Basically, just follow the cursor.  In the fourth screenshot, just make sure “show readability statistics” is checked.

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That is how I wish all computer programing books were laid out, because I would so get it.

Now, onto my list of writing tips (which have helped me).  The 5-minute freewriting challenge that was posed to us at the meeting was on what makes one a successful writer, and this is what I came up with.

  1. Write everyday.  (Stephen King writes at least 2000 words a day.)
  2. Don’t edit as you go.  (For a perfectionist like me, this is extremely hard, but I’ve gotten better, because I’ve found that once I get it on paper, it’s a snap to go back and clean it up.)
  3. Submit at least twice a month.  (I would say once a week, but I haven’t even reached this goal myself yet.  I try to count my blog posts as submitting/publishing).
  4. Become a proponent of lifelong learning.  No matter what your major is, there is inspiration for writing everywhere.  My Anatomy and Physiology class inspired a series of medical poetry.  My ethics (philosophy) class has just plain inspired me.
  5. Nurture your spiritual side.  Just one verse in the Bible can (and has, for me) inspired an entire poem, short story or novel.
  6. Become proficient in Microsoft Word.
  7. Stretch your writing muscles by writing in different lengths and genres.  (I’ve also written the same story in poem and short story form.  However, I have found that before writing a novel, decide whether to write in first-or third-person.)
  8. Share your writing, but also be willing to listen to others share theirs, and give sincere compliments and constructive criticism.
  9. Have another creative outlet, such as photography, crafting, etc.  Anything that gives you a break from the screen, but keeps you away from the television.
  10. Don’t watch too much TV, or at least be purposeful in what you watch.  Don’t just turn it on for the sake of turning it on.  I don’t channel surf.  When I turn the TV on, there is something specific I want to watch.
  11. Be persistent.  What one publisher may not take a shine to, another one might.  Just look at the rejection as another opportunity to make it better.
  12. Once you believe a piece is as good as you can make it, put it away for at least six weeks (Stephen King may say six months, I can’t remember), so you will look at it with fresh eyes.  However, if there is a deadline, give it your best and send it in.  This is where being a perfectionist can be a hindrance.
  13. Read!!!

 

 

Have fun with language. Make a list!

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Let me start by saying I am not a fan of Shakespeare.  I have always found reading his work boring.  Maybe there isn’t enough yolk in my head to like what I have been told is one of the greats.  However, I do think it is possible to appreciate something without liking it.  Shakespeare did invent many new words, many of which I like, so, I came up with a few myself.

1.snowblowhard–one who chooses to live in the South, but complains about everything Southern (like the weather, for instance).  A friend of a friend (on Facebook)  referred to Florida Christmases as fake because we didn’t have snow.

2.raggedbagger–a woman who carries a designer handbag while dressed like a bum.

3.paddyfibber–one who claims to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

4.stackie (see shelfie:  http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=shelfie)–a stack, or tower, of books that have not yet made it to a shelf.

5.crucifixation (I can’t take credit for this one, as my brother made it up)–one who is fascinated by the macabre elements of religion (exorcism, speaking in tongues, etc.)

6.manicurist–I know this is already a word, but I think it should be brought back.  Nail technician?  Please!

7.multi-tabber (liken to multi-tasker)–one who has at least several tabs open on their Internet at one time.  This is me.

8.mom joke (a.k.a. lame joke)–if you knew my mom, you’d understand.  An example of a mom joke:  Q:  What did the one casket say to the other casket that had a cold?  A:  Is that you coffin?

9.femoir–a fake memoir.  See:  http://listverse.com/2010/03/06/top-10-infamous-fake-memoirs/

10.fictionary–this list!

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Maybe one of the amendments to my list of New Year’s Resolutions should be to learn at least one new word a day, which would be an accomplishment for me, as I tend to have the memory of a goldfish.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the Shopaholic series so much was because it was set in England, and I learned some British words/slang.  Words matter.  One of my favorite English phrases is “cheesed off” (which means disgusted or fed up).

When I lived in Montana, they used the word “spendy” to mean pricey.  In Southeast Missouri, where my family is from, they use the term “whopper-jawed” (I think that means jacked-up); my parents still say “warsh” instead of “wash”.

Local lingo adds an authentic flavor to a piece of writing.  A setting (just like a time period) is an important character, even if the place is made up.  I’d rather see an author make up a setting than do injustice to a real one.  “Peyton Place” was made up, but felt very real (I’m referring to the movie and not the book).  Of course, it was based on a real place, like Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith, Missouri, in “Elmer Gantry” (another example where the movie was far better than the book).  Even Oz felt like a real place–just not on Earth.

One of the many reasons I love Christian author Linda Hall’s books is because almost all of them are set in Maine–a place I’d love to visit someday.  I also tend to gravitate towards books set in New Orleans (ironically, a place I have no desire to visit); the only reason I read any of Elin Hilderbrand’s novels was because most of them were set on Nantucket Island (where I’ve wanted to visit ever since I became a fan of the “Wings” TV series).  Dorothea Benton Frank’s “Sullivan’s Island” has made me want to go there, too.  However, the last two authors only made me want to visit the settings of their novels, not read another one.

Setting is great, but character still matters.

Flowers in the Attic: A Young Girl’s Inspiration

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I don’t picture myself blogging too many movie reviews, but since I grew up with “Flowers in the Attic” (the book and the movie), I just felt compelled to put in my few cents about the most recent celluloid adaptation, which was much truer to the book, but lacked all the creepiness of its lackluster predecessor.

Lifetime’s production had a cheap look to it, and though the children were hidden away in the attic for three years, it looked and felt more like three months.  I wouldn’t recommend watching it for any reason other than curiosity.

V.C. Andrews was one of the greatest inspirations for my own writing.  My book, Because of Mindy Wiley, is V. C. Andrews meets Mormonism meets Peyton Place.  I’d written a sequel to My Sweet Audrina many years ago as a fan fiction piece, and I don’t know what ever happened to it.  Many of my early writings have been lost, though I am considering redoing the project, which I would simply post on my blog as “fan fiction.”  But then, why work on that when I can post original content?

I know with certainty Audrina Revisited would be better than the novels Andrew Neiderman has written under V.C.’s name.  The Logan series was the last that still felt like it had been written by Ms. Andrews.  However, with the exception of the prequel, they had a rushed feel to them.

My advice:  Don’t waste your time after the Logan series.