Author: BLH

How to Make Writing Resolutions You Can Keep

Every year, articles and thinkpieces online inform us that our best efforts to make and keep resolutions are utterly doomed. We’re told that our pledges to lose weight, exercise more, eat better, and so on, are hubris at best, stupidity at worst. To some extent, the naysayers are right; the usual, vague resolutions, the ones that show little understanding of ourselves and our natures, are doomed to fail.

But that doesn’t mean we writers are stuck, or that it’s not helpful to make resolutions. In fact, i find it tremendously useful to look at my life with a macro lens once in a while and be ambitious and idealistic about what I really want to accomplish. The key, of course, is in making the right kind of resolutions.

1. Know thyself.

The first way to make a meaningful resolution is to actually understand your own habits, personality, and limitations. I don’t think I’m ever going to be the type of writer who wakes at dawn to write for two hours; I’m not sure I’ll even be the type of writer who writes every day. To set too ambitious a goal often comes from not understanding what we’re really capable of.

So I can’t write for two hours every day. But if I stretch myself a bit, I could write three days a week. I’m going to do my best to do that.

2. Be specific.

The other most common mistake resolvers make is that they make very broad, vague generalizations, hoping they’ll be able to quantify that success later. “Read more” is about the same as “Exercise more”; how am I measuring that? What level of “more” will I be satisfied with?

The resolution that is most likely to succeed is one that is truly concrete and measurable. Read a new literary magazine each week. Write two pages a day. Read more books than the number of books you read last year. These are things that you can measure and track; they’re goals that you can keep an eye on, and use to stay motivated. If you’re disappointed in your progress, it’s hard to get back on your feet; but if you have that concrete goal, those two pages to get done, you can keep improving.

3. Resist the “what the hell effect.”

In the dieting world, researchers have found that many diets are lost after one small violation. After violating the rules or failing in a small way, such as eating a dessert, people who wanted to lose weight then threw caution to the winds and overate. If we set too strict goals for ourselves, and then break them, that one disappointment can cause us to lose motivation entirely and backslide into old habits.

This applies to writing goals as well. Set a goal that challenges you, but forgive yourself if you fail to live up to it perfectly. Didn’t have the strength to write today? Then write a little tomorrow. Take good care of yourself, but push yourself too. Don’t allow any but the most emergent excuses from yourself; but if you do need to take a rain check, then roll out of bed the next day and do better.

What are your writing resolutions for 2016?

How to Use Dialogue Correctly: Part 2

One of my most popular posts has been a guide to how to use dialogue correctly. I’m glad this preliminary guide has been useful for students and writers alike as they quest after realistic dialogue in their fiction. I want to add to those original tips with some more discussion about what makes dialogue realistic, vivid, and story-based.

1. Punctuate your dialogue correctly.

I see my own students really struggling with the ins and outs of punctuation with dialogue, so let me try to clarify some of the conventions we use. First, dialogue is always punctuated. If someone is speaking, we never just leave the words hanging out there without any punctuation at all; it looks as unfinished and kind of purposeless as a text message without correct punctuation.

The wrong way:

“That’s a good idea” said John.
“I know” said Jane.

The right way:

“That’s a good idea,” said John.
“I know!” said Jane.

There are many ways to punctuate dialogue, depending on the mood and rhythm of speech you’re trying to capture, but no punctuation is never an option.

2. Avoid pointless back and forth.

Here’s a stylistic suggestion: even if you are rendering your dialogue correctly, it doesn’t mean it’s necessary or is moving the story forward. Beginning writers often use dialogue to repeat what has already been established in the exposition, or as a “reaction time” that doesn’t further the story. You might establish that one person is cheating on the other. Then we have a scene of real-time dialogue, in which everyone is reacting to the cheating. But that doesn’t actually move the story forward; it’s just a re-hashing of what we already know. A story that uses truly masterful dialogue lets story happen in the course of a conversation. We learn new betrayals or reveal more about character while the talk is going on.

The wrong way:

Jane discovers that John is cheating on her. She is surprised, hurt, upset, and devastated. She weeps.
When John comes home, she howls, “You cheated on me! I’m so surprised! I’m so hurt! I’m so devastated!”

The right way:

Jane discovers that John is cheating on her. She is surprised, hurt, upset, and devastated. She weeps.
When John comes home and she confronts him, John is silent at first. “But I only cheated because I thought you had cheated on me years ago,” he says finally.

3. Avoid exposition in dialogue.

This is one of the most common dialogue mistakes I see beginning writers making — and it’s also one of the clumsiest, instantly revealing your work as unpolished. Readers can spot this a mile away and it makes your entire authorial voice seem fake and contrived. In dialogue, characters can only say what they realistically would say to each other — that is, they can only share information that one of them doesn’t know yet. It’s tremendously artificial to try to give background information in dialogue that both characters would have known already.

The wrong way:

“Lisa, you’re eighteen now, and I’m your older brother,” said John. “So when Mom and Dad died last year, I felt responsible for you.”

The right way:

“When Mom and Dad died, I felt like I was responsible for you,” said John. He was her older brother.

So what do you think are the most egregious errors being made in dialogue these days? Is dialogue knowledge getting better or worse among writers? And do you have any tips to share for realistic dialogue in the comments?

My Favorite Reads of 2015

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It’s that time of year, readers — when I sift back through the books I read and figure out what my top ten absolute favorite reads were. This year’s books were taut and suspenseful; sensitive, dreamy, and philosophical; freewheeling and experimental; and always riveting. They vary widely in their subject matter, their setting, and their central conflicts, but they all have tremendous writing and wildly fascinating characters at their heart. They weren’t all published in this year, but many are surprisingly contemporary. So if you’re looking for what to read next, don’t miss my complete list. In no particular order, here they are:

In rural 1970’s Montana, a beleaguered social worker discovers a nearly feral boy living in the woods with his father. They’re right-wing political extremists living on the edge of civilization; the father, fearful and paranoid, obsessed with the gold standard, could be very dangerous. But his devotion to his son is absolute.

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Five Great Gifts for Writers

The holidays are on their way, or are already flying by, and it’s time to give and receive gifts! If you’re looking for gifts for the writer in your life, or want some cool writing tools yourself that you’d like to drop hints about, then read on for a writerly gift guide.


This series of notebooks from Nomad Journals is waterproof and ready for action, coming with a handy traveling case. Perfect for the outdoorsy writer who wants to capture notes on a rainy day or while rafting down a river.

These adorable bookmarks are re-usable and give your books a nice touch of flair. They’re sticky but can peel on and off books without damaging the pages. Check them out at Better Living Through Design.

More gifts after the jump!

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The Two Cities Review Podcast

tcpodcastlogoReaders, I must share with you an exciting new project that I’ve been working on along with my co-editor at Two Cities Review. We couldn’t be more excited about our newest venture, the Two Cities Review Podcast.

From the beginning of our little magazine’s inception, we always knew we wanted to create a magazine that captured the complexity of modern urban life. That meant seeking out stories about bridging the gaps between dreams and reality, between geography and localness, between technology and human connection. We always wanted our magazine to be a media-rich publication, a digital experience that actually took advantage of its digital format. So a podcast was pretty much inevitable. The podcast as a form is experiencing a golden age these days; we’re surrounded by a great richness of story, delivered in a way that lets you listen at all hours of the day. And Two Cities Review, we knew, should be participating in that great urban flow of anytime, anywhere story.

Our podcast will be a mixture of us and you. That is, you’ll hear from us each episode, talking about what it takes to create the issue; you’ll get insights from us into our editorial process, what makes us accept or reject a story, and why we do or don’t love a piece. We’ll answer your questions about being editors and writers and what we’re looking for. But the podcast will also be a dialogue with our magazine. We’ll share our authors, reading their poems and stories, and we’ll interview authors too, getting their special insight into the process of creating their wonderful work. We will be cheerleaders, enthusiasts, and discriminators. We will try to give you a little window into what it’s like to be a gatekeeper in the literary world, but we’ll also let your words sing.

We plan to have a new episode appear on the website and iTunes (coming soon) every two weeks. It will give you a whole new dimension of the current issue, and a whole new dimension of understanding into the editorial process.

Listen to the podcast

The First Fifty Pages

It’s time for another overhaul of the novel, readers.

Writing a novel takes patience. I’m learning that, slowly and steadily; and every time I get frustrated at the novel’s current state, I have to remind myself that it simply does take time for something as large, as ambitious, as intense as a novel to take the shape it needs. I also have to remind myself that as a writer, my weak point is structure. I have to re-adjust and change the novel’s shape. I have to work and re-work and re-work plot. More than anything, it’s amazing to me how if I just give myself a little distance from the novel, I’m able to see things that I simply couldn’t see before.

That change in sight is particularly evident in the first fifty pages, probably the most important part of any book. Because I know all the big events that will happen a hundred pages down the road, I now see that I’ve been coasting for the first fifty. I’m banking on a reader who will be patient and who will wait for something to happen; but the reader doesn’t have the foresight that I do. I can’t blame the reader, either — would I want to read a book in which nothing happens for fifty pages?

It’s astonishing to me, after all the careful work I’ve done on those fifty pages, to look back and be able to realize that nothing has really gotten off the ground yet. But it’s also galvanizing. I’m able to say to myself that I have the courage to make bold changes. I can do this, I’m telling myself. I have the freedom to shift and shuffle and re-think what’s going on. Why not begin in the middle of the crucial choice she must make, instead of waiting for that choice to show up at page 65? Why not just begin?

I think this is a tremendously common obstacle that writers encounter, and I see it in my students and colleagues’ work all the time. There’s this trepidatious opening, this timid little tap of the water to see how the temperature is. Are you liking this mood? We’re asking the reader. How about this character, do you like her? What if I change her in about forty pages? Would you prefer her fiestier, quietier, more insane? The first fifty pages of any draft are a nervous affair.

The funny thing is that those fifty pages endure into third, fourth, and fifth drafts. We’re still holding on to those fifty pages even as we boldly change what comes next, because they were the first foothold into that novel. Maybe it’s nostalgia that makes us cling, or deeply held affection for the way that things began, the first fruition of that little blooming bud of a story. Maybe it’s sentimentality. Or maybe it’s fear; in my case, I got positive feedback for those first fifty pages that encouraged me to write the rest of the manuscript. But now that I’ve completed the thing, I can’t cling to that first fifty just because I got a pat on the head for them. Now I can do better. And now I must.

This week, try looking back at the first fifty pages of your novel manuscript. If you’re brutally honest with yourself, does anything of import happen in that space? And if not, why not change it?

How to Cut Your Story In Half

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All too often, I’m reading stories as editor of Two Cities Review, or I’m reading stories as a teacher of creative writing, or I’m reading the stories of my dear writer friends, and I’m thinking one singular thought. I’m thinking, “This story would be fantastic — if it were cut in half.

I think this so often when I’m reading stories; and surprise surprise, when I actually get around to noticing it in my work, I think the same thing. This story of mine would be so much better, I realize, if it were half as long.

We often hear this from literary magazines and from teachers. But when we actually face the small mountain of hard won words that are our stories, we don’t have the first clue about how to make it half as big. And sadly, there’s no short cut available; even with my newfound knowledge, I can’t write a shorter story in the first draft. I think I still have to write a story that’s too long, and then cut it down. But now that I have a better understanding of the shapes of stories, I’m a lot better at learning how to cut a story in half. Here’s how. Read more

Writerly Life: How to Say No

The Blairzone - 13It’s been too long, readers. And I’ve got no one to blame but myself.

The fall is always the busiest time of year for me; not only am I in the full swing of teaching, but I’m also juggling multiple plates with my writing career. This is the time that many literary magazines open their doors to submissions, so the pieces I’ve refined over the summer are heading out my door, and I’m spending free moments prepping them and sending them. At the same time, I’m writing and editing for our fledgling literary magazine, Two Cities Review, and planning some exciting new projects for the magazine, such as a new podcast (Stay tuned for more info on this exciting venture). There’s personal life and family life. Writing new things and editing old things. Sending out novel manuscripts and sending out stories. In the mess of all this, what’s a writer to do to stay sane? Read more

Countdown: My FAVORITE Read This Year Is…

I’ve been counting down my top ten read of 2013 as our Kickstarter project counts down. We now have just a few days left and we need your help! Consider donating, and in the meantime, take a look at my FAVORITE read of 2013.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

I just can’t get over Rachel Kushner’s The Flame Throwers. It is so wildly exciting as a story for so many reasons. It’s dark and dangerous; it’s cold and clear and beautiful; it’s got some kick-ass female characters; it’s sensitive and sad; it enlightened me about what a few corners of the world looked like in the 1970’s that I knew virtually nothing about. It does all these things, and is also just a rip-roaring good read.

The story follows “Reno” as she’s known, a young female motorcycle enthusiast who somehow ends up in the landspeed motorcycle racing time trials across the barren salt flats of the western United States. Reno loves racing for the speed, but somehow she becomes caught up in the 70’s intellectual art scene of New York. In this crowd, every act is a statement, every event a creation of art. So her focus on motorcycle racing becomes something of an artistic statement, and it grants her entry into a very exclusive club.

As we’ll see, the world of the 70’s art scene is cruel; even as it claims to espouse liberation of every kind, it actually polices its members. Gender and sexuality are explored here with a stunning eye for detail and nuance of meaning. And that’s only the beginning. The Flame Throwers captures the world of a youthful, transgressive, and misguided, or self-deluded, culture. It captures revolutions in Italy and slave labor in South America. Its reach is truly global, even as its story is inherently personal. I can’t recommend this stunning, original book highly enough.

Thats my top ten! What are YOUR favorite reads of 2013? What are you looking forward to in 2014? And can you help get our magazine launched? Donate to our Kickstarter project today!

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Countdown: My Second Favorite Read This Year Is…

We’re counting down the days left until we run out of time for our Kickstarter project, and we desperately need your support to launch. I’m also counting down my ten favorite reads this year, and we’re almost at the end!. My second favorite read is the oldest book on the list; it’s a classic I only got around to reading recently. Read on to find out that my second favorite read this year was…

Middlemarch, George Eliot

I’m not the biggest Victorian lit fan. Jane Austen has some good moments, but overall I’m usually bored; the writing can be very dry, and the reflections of people and their doings too outdated to apply to people today. I therefore avoided George Eliot and her Middlemarch, thinking it would be typical nineteenth century British literature. How wrong I was!

It’s hard to describe what is so profoundly moving in the large, leisurely story of Middlemarch. Here’s what I wrote in an earlier review:

Middlemarch succeeded in utterly beguiling me. It’s less like Austen to me, and more like Henry James; it is passionate, realistic, and willing to gaze upon the lives of unhappy individuals with great clarity and compassion. Unlike the stories of Austen, which generally bear toward a marriage, several marriages happen in Middlemarch right at the outset. The drama will stem not from who will marry whom, but what life will truly be like after these matches, for better or for worse, have been made. One storyline follows Dorothea, an enlightened, modern women with great wisdom, ambition, and intelligence. She is a wonderful character to follow, full of identifiable emotion, passion, and loyalty. She marries an older man who is a respected scholar because she believes she wants to support him in his great work; but to Dorothea’s dismay, and the reader’s as well, we discover that his work is useless and backward, the scholarship that he has been devoting his life to an utter waste of time. Through Eliot’s graceful writing, we can see a marriage, having lost its foundation, crumbling from within.

There are other married-life dramas within this story, including another marriage that seems to begin on the best of terms, but begins to fall apart as husband and wife discover how little they know about each other and how unwilling they are to understand each other. Eliot’s descriptions of the small bitternesses of relationships, and how wounds can fester, or how chasms can open between people who once loved each other, are sensitive and real. They feel as relevant to relationships today as they must have been about marriages of a previous century. Frequently I felt myself associating guiltily with the character of Rosamond, whose utter self-absorption causes rifts to open in her marriage. She firmly believes each new hardship is done deliberately to spite her or marr her happiness; it’s these sorts of perspectives that I feel I take when I’m at my worst. And it’s these sorts of perspectives that can make relationships fall apart.

Of course, in the time and place of Middlemarch, divorce or breakups are not an option; so the members of these unhappy unions must struggle along the best they can, facing a lifetime of dischord. They realize that unhappy marriages can mean a lifetime of smothering their true selves, or subjugating their wills to others; but a chance for freedom, even at the risk of social disapproval, might just be worth taking.

Middlemarch is a small-town gossip novel; it’s a gripping portrait of troubled family life; it’s a coming-of-age novel; it’s even a murder mystery. I found it riveting, honest, subtle, and true. It’s the first book in a long while that I’ve felt a real, personal connection to. Finally, I get what all the hype was about.

Stay tuned for my FAVORITE read of 2013, and Donate to our Kickstarter project today!

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