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Dec 15 14

Is E-Reading Finally Mainstream?

by BLH

How much of your reading in the last week was done online?
Probably a lot. But how much of your fiction reading was done online?
Probably more and more every week! E-reading has officially moved out of the fringe and has become mainstream in the past couple of years. There is a variety of devices you can choose from, from Amazon’s Kindle to Barnes and Noble’s Nook to Apple’s iPads. Even more people seem to be doing their reading on smartphones. So have paper books gone the way of the dinosaur? This has been a heated subject of debate for the past few years, but I think it’s only really become relevant to devoted readers recently. Now the cheaper prices of ebooks, combined with some pretty slick, convenient devices, make it hard to say no to e-readers, even for the most die-hard book devotees.

So where do you fall in the so-called war on paper books? Do you still love the smell, the feel, and the experience of opening a book? Would you rather save your money and buy more ebooks? Or do you prefer the electronic reading experience, with its built in lights and ability to check email or define words as you go?

I’m personally a half-and-halfer. I love having paper books, and I get inspiration from seeing my collection on the wall. But I appreciate the ease and convenience of ebooks. They’re great for traveling or when you’re far from home for a long time. They’re great for buying books that you don’t want to spend the hardcover price on. And if it leads to more people buying more books, that seems like a good thing for authors and readers alike. As long as sufficient protections for writers are built into the ebook business, as publishers and agents are hopefully starting to do, it seems like a good thing. But I’ll mourn the day when people don’t have books on their shelves.

So how do you feel about the ebook revolution? Do you use tablets for school, or read your homework on a device? Do you take a device traveling? Do you love cozying up with a paper book? Do you hardly even remember what paper feels like? Where do you fall on the spectrum, and what do you think is the future of the paper book?

Dec 9 14

New Prose Contest at Two Cities Review

by BLH

Deadline: March 1, 2015

We’re excited to announce the inception of Two Cities’ very first contest! Beginning December 1, 2014, we will accept entries for a contest with a prize of $250 for each winner in the Fiction and Nonfiction categories.

The theme of our contest is CITIES GONE WRONG. We’re looking for your dystopian societies, your transportation nightmares, your Hurricane Sandy disasters, your emotional state when the city fell apart around you, or your stories of how a bad breakup changed the way you looked at the city forever. Show us the dark underbelly or the dangerous and liberating side of the city. Above all we love inventive, top-quality writing. You may interpret this theme in any way you wish, as long as the writing is vivid, the story is riveting, and the characters are unforgettable.

GUIDELINES: There is a $5 entry fee for each genre of submission. A prize of $250, and publication in our fall issue, will go to the winner of both the fiction and nonfiction categories. Submit previously unpublished work of up to 5,000 words. We reserve the right to cancel the contest and issue refunds of entry fees if there is insufficient enrollment. Submissions will also be considered for general publication in the magazine. The deadline for submissions is March 1, 2015.

Dec 8 14

Your Story Isn’t Brave Enough. Here’s How to Make it Roar.

by BLH

As a creative writing teacher, I see a lot of beginner stories cross my desk that have very similar problems. One of the most common problems stories have is that they don’t go far enough; they aren’t bold enough; the writers simply aren’t being brave. It’s understandable, of course; writing is scary stuff. It’s difficult to put all your deepest emotions and most deep-seated fears on the page. But if you don’t invest anything of yourself in the story you write, you’ll end up with a story that is cowardly. Here are the most common ways that beginner stories run and hide in a corner, and here’s how to make them brave.

1) They hide behind cliches and old plotlines.
It’s easier to think of a storyline that relies upon cliches than to think of a realistic story of your own. So that’s why I see spy/thriller stories, serial killer stories, and weepy relationship stories all the time. These storylines aren’t necessarily bad, but when we can predict every twist and turn, it means the writer hasn’t been brave enough to throw a wrench into the workings of the cliche.

To be brave: Disrupt the played-out storyline. Have someone betray the main character in a way we wouldn’t expect. Or better yet, write a story about your own life, with all its twists and turns. If it’s real, it’s guaranteed to be original, because only you have lived your life!

2. It hides behind stereotypes.
Sometimes it’s too hard, or too scary, to imagine an inner life for a person who is different from ourselves. So we end up with shallow, stereotyped characters. Of course the girl is dumb and blond and spacey; of course the guy is jockish and unemotional, or nerdy and unemotional. We know how harmful and untrue racial and gender stereotyping is in real life, and it’s no less harmful and untrue in fiction.

To be brave: Write a character of a different race, or gender, or sexual orientation, and try imagining him or her as a fully-realized human being, not just a cartoon character.

3. It hides behind perfect characters.
It can be scary to make the character you love have flaws. But it’s the flawed characters that we love the most in fiction. Without being brave, we end up with dull, two-dimensional characters. We writers have a name for this kind of character: the Mary Sue. Mary Sue always gets good grades, and is the smartest kid in class but doesn’t flaunt it. Mary Sue has a handsome boyfriend and they never fight. Mary Sue is wealthy and generous, kind and forgiving, popular and artsy all at once. And Mary Sue doesn’t exist.

To be brave: Be honest about what flaws you have, and give your characters some of those flaws. Make them impatient or irrational, prone to anger or prone to laziness. Show them at their best and their worst.

Nov 26 14

How to Win at NaNoWriMo

by BLH

It’s that time of year again, writers: National Novel Writing Month has presented its challenge to us! I’ve written before about Why I Said No to NaNoWriMo. But don’t let me stop you; who has taken up the gauntlet? Who will try to write an astonishing 50,000 words in just thirty days? Can it even be done? Of course it can — if you’re smart about it. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to win at NaNoWriMo — and have the pride, honor, and accomplishment that comes with having written a novel.

1. Bank extra words when you can.
The daily word average you must maintain is about 1600 words in order to reach 50,000. But there’s a problem with just telling yourself, “Hey, I’ll just write 1,600 words every day!” The problem is that day when you come home from school exhausted, or when you have a night flute lesson to go to, or a party out on a weekend night. Suddenly the 1,600 word goal doubles and triples. That’s when it becomes impossible to keep up. So you’ve got to work smart by banking more than the average on the days when you’re on a roll. Write 2,000 words whenever you can, and then you’ll have a little cushion of words to fall back on.

2. Make a plan and outline, outline, outline.
When writing novels, many published writers make an outline of where the story will go. They don’t plan absolutely everything, allowing room for spontaneity and imagination, but they have a general direction in mind, a final destination that must be reached. As you’re writing, you must keep that destination in mind, and make at least a few sketched-out notes of how to get there. Figure out where the characters should be on the final day, and bear towards that like a ship in the night heading for the lighthouse.

3. Don’t edit! Go, go, go!
NaNoWriMo is not a time for editing. In fact, if you stop to take a breath and examine your work, you’ll never make it! It’s essential to push on through the doubts and the self-loathing and just get words on the page. Follow your own momentum and let the sentence flow from your fingertips. Let characters clash how they will. And whatever you do, don’t stop!

How is your NaNoWriMo project going? Tell us about it on the Teen Ink newsletter forum!

Nov 24 14

What Children’s Books Do You Hold Close To Your Heart? And Some New Ones to Add to the List

by BLH

Children’s books have a funny way of sticking around in our minds and in our hearts. They catch us in our earliest days of reading, and they’re often beautifully poignant, sweet, or sad in ways that adult books struggle and fail to capture. Some children’s books stay with us forever. I’m thinking about books like THE GIVING TREE or CHARLOTTE’S WEB; these books teach us about death, about hardship, and also about generosity, friendship, and love.

So what books from your childhood still have a special place on your shelf or in your heart? Which books would you want to read to future kids in your life, whether it’s as a teacher, parent, or cool aunt/uncle? Here are some faves of mine, as well as some new recommendations for children’s books that might reach that special place in your life.

CHARLOTTE’S WEB: Yes, this is the big granddaddy of sweet, sad, moving books. We grow to love Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton the Rat, and all the rest; and we learn about compassion and the cycle of life.

A CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE: I loved this one, involving a country Connecticut cricket who finds himself in the subway station of Times Square, befriending cats, rats, and bodega owners. It’s beautiful and funny too.

Z FOR ZACHARIAH: This one falls more in the category of young adult, but it stayed with me long after I read it (for the third or fourth time). In a post-nuclear world, one little valley seems to have avoided the fallout that has spread across the rest of the globe. There’s just one girl there, until a man arrives with a suit that can withstand radiation. But there’s only one suit — and he’s very protective of it.

Check out this article to see some new children’s books that are sure to move you: http://www.bustle.com/articles/41588-7-childrens-books-that-are-even-more-healing-than-the-self-help-section

And how about adding YOUR favorite books to the list? What children’s books should be handed down from generation to generation?

Oct 13 14

How Do You Carry the Fire?

by BLH

Candle light burning 1437374 mToday’s post title comes from Cormac McCarthy. In his incendiary novel The Road, his main character, an unnamed boy, keeps reminding his father that they’re “carrying the fire.” It’s an unexplained refrain with unmistakable spiritual overtones; the idea that they are keeping something of humanity alight within them. This is an old connection that many religions make between human beings and fire. We are the only species to keep and use fire, after all, and so we see it as our sacred duty to maintain it, to keep it alive. The Bible tells us not to keep our light under a bushel, and the Buddha tells us that all our lives, we are on fire, burning as if consumed by desire, and our bodies are the fuel.

There are many spiritual meanings for fire; it purifies, it protects, and it is a central metaphor for what makes us human. But in many cultures, fire is also a symbol of creativity. This quality, too, is fundamentally human, and yet it’s the only thing (or one of the few things) that elevates us beyond the plane of simple humanity. It expands the possibilities of what we can be. So in Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire from the Gods; fire, and creativity, is a semi-divine thing, one that we nevertheless have the audacity to steal.

All this is my way of thinking about creativity as a kind of flame held within the glass case of our lives. Nowadays, creativity is one slender candle flame amid a teeming electric switchboard of lights; so many demands and worries and constraints and expectations compete with that light. It is very vulnerable as a result. So I’m wondering about the ways that you carry the fire of creativity within you.

What are the greatest threats to your fire? Is it lack of time, or family obligations? Is it exhaustion? Is it entertainment temptations, like television or the internet? Does it come from within? Perhaps your own doubts and anxieties pose the greatest threat to your little candle. If you’re going to keep the flame alive, the first step is to identify what threatens it.

Next, I want to hear about what you do to carry the fire — and what you intend to do in the future. Though sorely overtaxed this semester with my usual teaching load, I’m making efforts to find time for myself and my writing in between classes and before I get home from work.

I find that when I get home from a full day of teaching, my mind is ready to quit for the day; I drop my bag to the floor and want dinner and entertainment, not work. But if I stay in a cafe or a comfortable lounge area in the office for an extra hour before I go home, then I can write. I also find that in the long gap between classes on some days, I usually waste the time, goofing off on the internet or reading articles (not terrible, but not the only thing I want to do). I’m making an effort to use that time more wisely, by reading or writing, or using that time to grade papers so I’ll have more weekend time to myself. And finally, if I’ve used those slices of inbetween time well, then I have more weekend time to go to the library or a cafe, and think about my writing.

I don’t accomplish all of these things in one week. Some weeks the papers have come in for grading, or there’s a weekend event. But if I do some of these things, then it means I’m getting a little creative work done. The candle burns another week.

So how do you carry the fire? What advice can you give, and will you try finding slivers of your time to work?

Oct 7 14

On the Fringe of the City

by BLH

Sorry for the hiatus, readers; I’m in the middle of a very transitional period in my life and career, working on a move to a new city and thinking about what steps to take next with writing and teaching. I’ve been hard at work on my own short stories, and I’m excited to report that stories of mine will be coming out in a few literary magazines very soon. You can find one of them, “The Visitation”, up at Narrative Northeast, right here.

A recent move has me living on the edge of the city I used to inhabit, looking in a little wistfully. It’s a temporary arrangement, but for several months, I’ll be driving to work in the mornings, blasting along a major commuter highway to the north shore and through Boston. It has me seeing a different side of the city I know; and that reminds me that no matter how much you can get to know a city, there is always another way to know it. We can always be different people, looking at the city from the perspective of office workers or street dwellers, late night partiers or garbage collectors, suburban commuters or city loyalists. There is always another way to see. And what we writers must know is that there is always another way to look.

As a car-owning commuter these days, I see a lot of traffic. I also see the highways that circle viciously about the borders of most cities; and I see the corporate-and-big-box stores that form depressing haloes around most American cities these days. As I head outward I see the sad strip malls and signs for discount furniture and kitchen and tile and pet supplies and food, so much fast food. I wonder who stops at the restaurants in particular, who would want to sit in the window of one of these places and hear the whine of traffic. I think these places are mostly for people who are tired and lonely, the ones whose dinners have been cancelled, whose spouses aren’t home that night. And then, there’s something reassuring in being able to get something hot and mushy and head home with a box warming the passenger seat of the car.

But I still find these outer rings fairly bleak; like who decided every American city had to be surrounded in the same way? It makes me want to live right in the middle again, where I can avoid such sights. But I also want to avoid such snobbery and disdain. These are quintessentially American sights, after all, and if I want to understand my place, I have to experience it without judgement. When a car cuts me off or speeds rudely by, I remember a writing teacher telling me, Always imagine they’re rushing their sick child to the hospital. I conjure the image, and I feel a little warmer; I’m able to see a story, not just a depressing blankness. In that way, the process of writing and imagining is a fundamentally life-affirming act. It affirms that we all have stories, we all have sympathies and concerns, and we all have dignity, all the ones crossing in and out of the trash-ringed city, hurrying home or onward, with feverish children in the back seat.

Sep 16 14

It’s Supposed to Be Hard: why anything worth doing feels awful while you’re doing it

by BLH


 Image by Christian Ferrari

In the never-ending quest for self-improvement, I started a modest exercise regimen this summer, of running increasing distances three times a week. Readers, I am not a runner. When I run, my entire body seems to protest. I wheeze and my arms flap, my heart pounds and my ribs heave. Particularly in the beginning, every workout felt miserable. The first few times I ran, I found myself stopping after a little while, gasping for breath. “Is it supposed to feel like this?” I kept asking my running partner. Patiently, he told me, it is, it’s supposed to feel like this. Somehow I thought I could magically get fit without actually trying hard. Just a few light jogs around the block, I thought. It will feel invigorating, and before you know it, I’ll be running marathons. Not so, readers. I learned a lesson this summer that is deceptively simple: when you’re improving yourself, or when you’re getting better at anything, it’s supposed to be hard.

I think this lesson could be eye-opening for a lot of us, and it can apply to our creative work as well. We write and write and write, and just don’t seem to get any better. It just seems so darn difficult to make every part of a story great. We always seem to be falling just short. The words just keep on disappointing us once they are fixed on the page. And because it’s hard, because it can feel downright miserable, so many of us give up. We stop, thinking that we just aren’t meant to be writers. We just don’t have the talent, the aptitude, for it.

But the secret is, it’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to feel tremendously difficult, shoving those words around until they’re in just the right order. It’s supposed to feel like we’re straining the muscles in our brains as we search for the right image or metaphor. And most definitely, it’s supposed to feel emotionally hard. It should feel like we’re tapping into the parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. We should feel dismay at how honest we’re being. We should feel shame that we’ve ever been quite so selfish. We should feel afraid of what people will think. We should feel our hearts pounding.

It’s such a simple lesson, yet somehow I’d forgotten it this summer. I’d forgotten that great artists and writers make it look easy, but that’s only because of the hours and agonies they’ve put in. With my running, I somehow thought I’d be gliding along the riverbank the way all those dedicated runners seemed to do. As I improved, things did get easier; suddenly I realized I was finding a rhythm, sinking into the work of running. But that’s when I knew I had to run longer, push myself harder. It was time to keep making things difficult for myself.

So much of our lives are based on ease, convenience, and instant gratification these days, that I think we forget this lesson. My students get frustrated so easily if a story is hard to understand. They think reading is supposed to be easy. But plenty of stories that are worth reading are not meant to be read with ease. They’re meant to be labored over. With reading, writing, and running, we have to remember how essential difficulty and strife and struggle are to the process of growth.

Sep 1 14

Hold Your Breath Before You Begin

by BLH

As regular readers of Writerly Life know, fall is my absolute favorite season. It’s all the cliched things that get me excited, from the special clarity to the air, to the violent richness of fall colors, to the various New England traditions that I love (Halloween, apple-picking). More than anything, though, the first week after Labor Day has always meant the start of a new year for me, full of opportunity, full of good hard work. I’m planning a large revision of my novel this season, as well as some new short stories that I’m very excited about. As a season of change, fall always has a measure of melancholy to it as well, though, and perhaps its that complex emotional mix that makes fall special.

Forget summer, with its straightforward luxuries and lazinesses. I end up hating the days where there’s nothing to do, because I end up wasting those days. It’s always better to have joyful work ahead of you, and fall can give me that. It’s also about the melancholy of the summer’s end, though, and all the changes and transitions that come with the new year. I’ve moved out of my beloved Cambridge apartment now, and I’m writing amid a sea of boxes, struggling to get organized in some temporary housing before I plan a larger move at the very end of the year. The entire fall will be a tricky transitional time for me this year; I’ll be between everything, from jobs to houses to cities. It can be hard to always be in the state of becoming and not of being, to bastardize a Fitzgerald quotation.

So fall has that extra complexity of melancholy, as I’ve said. Auden said, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” I think that captures the way I feel about fall, and why I think the season is special. Being in a state of change necessitates being in a state of loss; it’s also a time of opportunities. It’s up to us as writers to capture the ambivalence of this state.

Are you in a state of flux this fall? What new beginnings and opportunities will you make for yourself? And what will all this mean for your writing?

Aug 21 14

On the Move

by BLH

Readers, I’m moving. It’s been three years here at my sunny, friendly, definitely quirky Cambridge apartment. I’d stay for three more, I think, but I’m also ready to move on as life circumstances change. I’ll be dealing with a very transitional housing situation this fall, and then I’m on to the big city of Chicago. I’m excited!

There’s plenty of time to think about the city of Chicago and all it means in the future; as I navigate a narrow goat path of boxes in my apartment now, I’m feeling nostalgic in these last few weeks. I’ll still be in Boston for the next several months, but most of my things will be in storage and I’ll be preparing for yet another move. I’m looking out the windows at my quiet street, at the restaurants and shops and hard-to-nab parking spaces, and I’m missing Boston already.

Several out-of-town friends have happened to visit lately, and it has given me the chance to do all the touristy things Boston has to offer again. I’ve visited Faneuil Hall and toured the campuses of MIT and Harvard; I’ve strolled over the Mass Ave bridge and seen the Smoots (locals will know this) and passed by Paul Revere’s house and Old North Church. I’ve walked through the Boston Public Garden this past weekend, loving the orderly chaos of green, how every tree is a different species, the unexpected rat-a-tat of a revolutionary-era parade band going by. I feel like I’m living inside the pages of Make Way for Ducklings these days, sweeping benevolently through Boston’s prettiest, oldest places, looking with the eyes of a friend.

It’s an exciting time to be a writer in transition. My family is still here and I imagine I’ll be returning regularly to Boston; but I’ll be trying my hardest to carve out a new home in a strange new city, one that doesn’t hold my childhood in its hand. Walking through Boston on a sunny summer day, I can feel embraced by this place, the sights and smells so familiar (and superior to New York’s summer smell of hot garbage!). I’ll probably be in a state of perpetual nostalgia for this place in the months to come; each time I visit the Boston Public Library or walk through Copley square, I’ll feel the pang that this might be my last time for a while.

I hope I’ve made the most of the time here; but I’m also ready to go. Many famous writers known for their evocation of place only truly captured that place once they left it. Nabokov, forever haunted by the Russia he lost, continued to write about it; under house arrest, Milton wrote of the woods and fields of England in his pastoral poetry. I think the best example of this is Joyce, who only so brilliantly captured Dublin in his novels once he had left it. I think this mournfulness, or nostalgia, is just the complication of emotion we need to capture a place. As I leave Boston, I imagine myself writing about it all the more; and my description will have that extra sharpness of feeling that comes from loss.