The Writer's Den

UCLA's creative writing student group


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Research

Yesterday, I dragged a couple of friends along to do some writing research with me. I got everyone up super early, jammed them all into my tiny car and drove all the way up to the Peak District (a National Park in England).

Why? A couple years back, when I was doing the final expedition for my silver D of E award (for you Americans, that’s this strange hiking/community service/skill/sport award given out by Prince Philip), we were taken to the Peak District in Derbyshire. On one of our last days of hiking, we climbed to the top of ‘Thor’s Cave’ and I was absolutely captivated by it. We passed by it too fast, though, so I never really got any good pictures of the place.

Stupid as it sounds, I’ve never been able to get Thor’s Cave out of my head and, ever since, I’ve really wanted to use it as a setting for this one novel of mine. But whenever I’ve tried to write any scenes there, they’ve been dry and I’ve just felt uninspired. So, yesterday, I decided to visit.

To be honest, the trip was kind of more of an excuse to get out of my delightfully boring home town than for the sake of writing, but it actually turned out to be super useful.

I documented the whole experience with pictures and voice recordings, noting down all the things I missed last time or just didn’t remember about the place. Here are a couple of things I learned about my setting:

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How much do you read?

Part of being a writer is reading other people’s works. And before you claim the beta reading you do as a favor to your friends is enough, I’m going to tell you that it isn’t.

Here’s why you should read lots and lots of books:

  • You learn more about writing than anyone can ever teach you. By reading good books and, therefore, good writing, you absorb different styles and internalize what it means to write well. For example, I learned the art of writing long, drawn-out third-person thought processes from Robin McKinley, while Bram Stoker’s Dracula taught me how to write in the epistolary format without being corny. I could list all of the authors that have influenced me, but then this blog post would be way too long.
  • You can reference other works to enhance the meaning of your story. Allusions and intertextuality make a story more engaging, encouraging readers to think critically about multiple, similar-themed books all at once. A body of works by different authors can meld together to convey a message much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s pretty cool. Reading as much as possible increases the store of knowledge upon which you can draw to add those allusions and intertextuality to your writing.
  • You learn about the market. Whether you’re writing mystery, romance, fantasy, literary, or any genre, it’s important to know what other people have written so that you don’t accidentally try to publish a story too similar to one that’s already out there. You also learn what the market might be missing and then can try to fill that niche.
  • You’re contributing to the community. It’s a little hypocritical to publish and then expect people to buy/read your stories when you don’t do much reading yourself, isn’t it?
  •  It’s generally a good thing to do. Reading rocks. Enough said.

If that’s not enough to persuade you, here’s another convincing article.

“But I don’t have enough time to read!”

Yes, you do. Carry a book with you and read between classes—especially when you have that awkward hour between classes where you don’t have enough time to go eat or study in the library. Aim for 20 minutes a day at the very least. 20 minutes isn’t that much time, but it adds up. You might only read one or two books per quarter that way, but those are one or two books that you wouldn’t have read otherwise.

You can also read these tips for reading faster.

Here’s another article about reading by the same person, but this time it’s about reading slowly and absorbing a book into your bloodstream.

Now, shoo!  Go read!


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Batman says Stay Away from Cliches…Like the Dead Parents Plot Point

So we might be teaching the kids about cliches this year. I’m glad to say we don’t hear a lot of cliched phrases or plot points in the Den meeting room, but in case you get tempted, here’s 10 tips to avoid cliches from Writer’s Digest. I’ve cut it down to the important points, but you can find the link to the full article at the bottom. Continue reading


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“Men are not prisoners of fate, but prisoners of their own minds.” – FDR

When I was browsing Tumblr, I stumbled upon this 2007 publication of poetry written by prisoners.

So I did some minor digging (AKA, I typed in Urbana Champaign Books to Prisoners on Google) and I found this website that tries to provide books to inmates in Illinois. And then I clicked on their blog to find amazing works of art.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorites so far that I’ve come across in their publication.

At times I get beside myself

These times are more than rare

Of knowledge on life, I have a wealth;

But still my heart is bare.

I just can’t seem to locate- With precision- where I strayed.

Could it be due to “my fate” That my visions disarrayed?

-Larry Alverson, excerpt from “Beside myself”

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On Forgetfulness

HAPPY THURSDAY!!!

So, I forgot to write my blog post yesterday. I was too busy watching the Lorax (don’t bother with it) and losing miserably at the local pub quiz (“What does the ‘para’ stand for in the ‘paralympics’” Not. A. Clue.).

Ok, I wasn’t overly busy at all. The point is, I forgot. And forgetting is bad. ESPECIALLY when it comes to writing.

So, just a quick tip for today: when you’re writing your story, NOTE EVERY SINGLE DETAIL ABOUT YOUR WORLD DOWN in a separate document. Write everything down about your characters (eye color, likes, dislikes, important things they’ve said, background, family). Write everything down about your settings (especially important if you’re writing in a different world to Earth). Most importantly, write any important incidents down (deaths, births, break ups, etc). If you’re not the sort of person who plans everything out before they start to write, compile your lists and documents as you go along.

Trust me, this’ll save SO MUCH TIME when you’re editing your piece. Without your handy info at the ready, you’re bound to forget something important about your story. I know I have. Once, I had a character at the beginning of one of my novels mourning over the death of her father. Then, at the end of the book, the same character decides to go visit her father for some advice. Hmmm. Yeah, mine’s a pretty extreme case, but it can happen!


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How writing is like running

This summer I’ve been coaching the freshman on my old high school’s cross country team, which has resulted in two things: 1. I’m running regularly for the first time in almost two years, and 2. I’ve been thinking a lot more about running. And with the revival of this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot more about writing. There are a lot of parallels between the two. The metaphorical potential excites me.

At first I was going to compare the pyramid training method to writing, but I didn’t want to bore anyone with the details, so…here’s a table.

Running

Writing

You’re not very fast when you start

You’re not that great when you start

You build up to longer runs, like 5k and 10k races before marathons

You write shorter works before you write novels

You figure out a training schedule in advance

You develop at least some part of an idea in advance

You run your guts out for hundreds of miles before you start training for races

You write your guts out for hundreds of thousands of words before writing for publication

You watch other people race and apply what you observe to your own running

You read what other people write and apply what you observe to your own writing

You do time trials and review courses in advance in order to run your fastest on race day

You write and rewrite several drafts to make sure your manuscript is at its full potential when you submit for publication

There are also some exact similarities:

  • Everyone has different abilities
  • You have to take care of yourself physically and mentally in order to do well
  • You don’t always want to do it, but you always feel awesome afterwards
  • At the end of the day, talent doesn’t matter—the people who stretch boundaries, put in the time, and give it their best effort will be successful

TL;DR: Running and writing are eerily similar.


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5 ways into a story

Dear fellow Denmates, I was working on my original scheduled blog post today for almost an hour, and then I accidentally exited my browser, so I lost all of my work and I’m too tired to start over again, sorry.  Lesson learned, do your stuff in a word doc first. 

Basically I was going to talk about the article linked below, which provides 5 ways to jumpstart you into a story idea.  Take the time to read it, it’s worth it. 

http://www.writermag.com/Articles/2012/04/5%20ways%20into%20a%20story.aspx