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"Football, like writing, has a game plan, rises to a climax, and is performed with art and grace." These are the words of James N. Frey in his article "The Mother of All Attitudes" (Mettee, Stephen Blake, editor, The Portable Writer's Conference. Fresno, CA: Quill Drivers Books, 1997).

What does attitude have to do with writing? EVERYTHING!!! It is like the story, The Little Engine That Could that many of us were read as a child. Things just happen when you think you can.

"In both fiction writing and football what's being created is a contest of wills, a drama, played out for the pleasure of an audience. Tension is built and released. There's suspense, and character is being tested. Things are at stake" (Frey). You have to carry on, notwithstanding the rejection letter that ALL writers get. Many people in Writer's Workshops get too content with things. They get used to coming and reading their work, They are friendly and easy going, BUT none of them have an attitude! None are prepared to go the extra mile. As a writer (and in football) you are in brutal competition. We need to write not just to sell a story, but to create a masterpiece. You need to go the extra mile from "good enough" to "knocking the editor's (proverbial) socks off."

Fiction writers have to sell emotion. You have to feel what you put on the paper...which sometimes can be painful. Writers are often portrayed in movies as getting emotional about their own books. Hollywood knows this emotion. Many Hollywood stars and writers have had to work from the bottom up, before reaching the top. Had they given up, they would still be selling fast food.

Frey also says: "To increase your success have to increase your failure rate." His analogy is; "If you want to play in the Super Bowl, we're going to have to stand up to a lot of hurt and humiliation."

Teaching creative writing or conducting a workshop means you have to coach your team to success. In turn, the players must show up for practice, be open to try new things, and be ready to learn. To be a writer, you must be open to learn techniques, much like an artist learns how to paint or draw. You must learn how to make your characters come to life. You need to learn how to develop a plot. You need to show conflict. You need to teach a lesson.

AND you need to revise, revise, and revise!!! The secret is to take criticism as constructive, not destructive. Just because you get a few rejections, doesn't mean you quit.

Don't whine about re-writes, glory in them...because eventually your story will develop from an "ugly duckling" into a "swan."

The novel, turned musical, Mame, had 52 rejections before it was sold. Many best selling authors were rejected, rejected, and rejected again before they made it to the top. Think of our own guest speaker, Jim Burnstein, if you don't believe it.

The chances of making it to the New York Times bestseller list is great. There are over 300 best sellers a year. Out of all the books submitted for publishing only about 20% make it. And more books never even get submitted in the first place!!! They sit gathering dust in some drawer. As a writer you need to stay focused. You have to write, no excuses. Be creative in your writing, not your excuses! Writers who make it are hungry, they want to live as a writer, and they continue in their craft regardless of what is going on in their world.

Writers attend workshops, spend countless hours doing research, rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite until the final product is ready for publication. Most writers write something EVERY day...they find the time.

FEAR keeps writers going. Fear of failure. Fear begets attitude. If you are a serious writer you are like a football player, a boxer (Rocky) or whatever. When you finally do succeed you can pretty much make your own way from that point on.

No excuses, JUST DO IT!!!

The Short Story Versus the Novel

  • Find a reason for your story, what will it teach us?
    Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Somerset Maugham wrote short stories that had great effects, by choosing specific incidences.

  • Find a time frame
    Will it be one hour, one day, 1 month???
  • Find the events
    Like ingredients in a recipe, all must be there in harmony or the dish is a failure.

Novels show growth, change, and solutions.
Short stories show awareness.

All stories are driven by plot or characters.

Stories based on plot tend to have more appeal to the reader. An example would be "Gift of the Magi" about a poor couple who wants to give each other a special gift for Christmas. They both sacrifice for the other. The man sells his father's watch, in order to buy her tortoise shell combs for her hair. She sells her hair to buy him a watch chain. This story tells us of unselfish love, sacrifice, and a surprise ending, where their best intentions turn out different than expected.

Stories that are character-driven tend to have agendas, behavior, and interaction of the participants. These are usually between one or two individuals. These stories appear in journals that provide free copies, since they appeal only to those with a similar mind set to the characters. Their audience is more limited. For example, if you write an in-depth piece about a person getting into and eventually off drugs, that story would only appeal to other people who have a drug problem. People who have never done drugs will not indentify or even care to read the story. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was a best seller, but did not appeal to those who could not indentify.

Ethnic stories, self-help stories, stories of struggle have less mass appeal, since only a small percentage of the population can react to what is written. Many times these are required readings in school, so that students can identify with others. However, many would not read them, were they not required.

Editors seem to prefer a one-person approach to storyline. Characters need not be likeable or redemmable, but they must be interesting. How to make your characters interesting?

  • Show your character's weaknesses.
  • Give them flaws, defects, and difficulties to work against
  • Show the struggles they must go through to maintain their santity or control of their life.

Silence of the Lanbs would be a good example. Hannibal Lector is a brilliant psychiatrist, turned serial killer. He is cunning, ruthless, and untrustworthy. He interacts with Clarisse, who is a hick turned FBI agent. She is determined to get into the mind of Hannibal, and he gets into hers. The interplay between these two individuals is never boring. The sequel Hannibal shows him winning her (Clarice) over to his ways. We trace these character from their first meeting to their final ending. This is powerful stuff, but it gruesome.

  • Let your characters define themselves and their goals
  • Withhold vital information for as long as suspense.

Since short stories are briefer, they are less forgiving of excess. Don't tell the reader what they already know (such as sunrises, sunsets, handsome men, etc.) Let the reader do this.

  • Look for the essential character traits of the person or place...tell only what is important to the story line.
  • Describe familiar objects and places only when this detail has something to do with the plot coming together.
USE DIALOGUE. Dialogue is how your characters speak. Dialogue is a way of showing the personality of your character. Use it to the best advantage. Avoid: "OH?" "Oh Really?" "OK" "I guess so." AND ALWAYS begin a new paragraph with each new speaker:

"John, why are you still in bed?" Monica nagged. "You know you have to be at work in 10 minutes." Monica was tired of always having to nag, but John forced the issue.

"What! Why didn't you wake me up sooner?" John blamed. "I thought you knew I had an important meeting today?"

"Right! It is always my duty to get you up! What about setting your own alarm for a change?" Monica could feel her face getting red. She had a chance to sleep in today and didn't think he would expect her to be his mommy. Afterall, they just moved in together recently, and already she is expected to be his wife, housekeeper, mommy, and his concience. Boy, how she hated that attitude.

"DAMN!!! I knew I shouldn't have left things up to you," John shouted.

These are just a few tips that we will discuss at the meeting. Hope to se you all there!!!

Bring your writing! Bring copies! Bring your friends!

Material presented here is copyrighted to Matthew Rhys Sypniewski, May 2000.

Common Mistakes


    Making a proper manuscript is akin to wearing a suit to a job interview. The presentation can make or break you. You MUST be seen as a pro. Mistakes in formatting your manuscript will result in the editor throwing your work into the round file (wastebasket) unread.

    The first thing they will look for is a manuscript, a returned envelope addressed to you with proper return postage attached (enough to return your manuscript plus their commentary sheets). Without thing, you will not see the editor's comments. You can just send a #10 envelope for a reply, but add extra postage for their rules lists, etc.

    Of course, some publishers may not contact you even after you do this, but at least you might get past stage one.

  2. Do NOT single space your manuscript!!!
    Editors love to write above and below with their comments. If a single-spaced manuscript is sent, it will be returned to you for re-formatting, providing you have sent a SASE.

  3. Have a cover letter!
    The cover letter should include your full name and address, the EXACT title of your story, which publication you are submitting to, and a summary of your previous publication credits.

    DO NOT INCLUDE: Compliments to the editor's work, a personal biography or plea, a list of every poem you've ever published in local newspapers, how lucky the editor will be to showcase your story.

  4. Follow the publisher guidelines!!! This is the most important.
  5. Watch your punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, and used the correct vocabulary.
    Most frequent mistakes:
    Access = availability Excess = extra I've given you access to the room full of excess furniture.
    Adverse = unfavorable Averse = disinclined I'm not averse to making a million, but I wonder if it would cause adverse reveiws for my underground film.
    Advise = noun Advise = verb In addition to Paul's advice, I'd advise reading ther manual.
    Affect = assume, cultivate, feign Effect = essence, cause and ---, perform He affects disinterest and a French accent. The Queen knew she could effect a cure for the plague. One possible effect of the disease was blindness.

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