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The Curious Cat Blog is all about writing, for writers, by a writer.

 

Story Stuck? Use This Writing Structure.

Carina Sitkus

The production for this conference was unreal.

The production for this conference was unreal.

I just got back from Story 2017, a storytelling conference in Nashville.

There were lots of takeaways I could share here, but I'm going to go with the practical and provide you with a simple tool/structure that was presented by Matthew Luhn, a writer and storyteller whose had a hand in making many of your favorite movies at Pixar.

I heard him talk on the first day at the conference, but he also gave a pre-conference workshop on storytelling, which I didn't have the opportunity to attend.

I happened to sit next to someone during a session who shared the materials with me, and now I'm going to share them with you. So forgive the lack of "story" around this, as I can't share any anecdotes or examples--I wouldn't dare think I could do Matthew's talk justice, anyway--but it's a pretty self explanatory tool that I think may help you if you're stuck.

It's a series of simple phrases that summarize the structure of any good story. 

Story Spine

Once upon a time...
and every day...
until one day...
and because of that...
and because of that...
and because of that...
until finally...
and since that day...
the moral of the story is...

I think this is applicable to any type of writing, including fiction and nonfiction. You can use these phrases to help you outline your story, but you can also use them when you're stuck in the middle and aren't sure what would help move your story along. 

And the best part is, it's simple. 

If you want more of the nitty gritty, here is what the phrases line up to in terms of story structure. 

Story Spine

EXPOSITION
//
Once upon a time...
and every day...
INCITING INCIDENT
until one day...
PROGRESSIVE COMPLICATIONS
///
and because of that...
and because of that...
and because of that...
CRISIS/CLIMAX
until finally...
RESOLUTION
and since that day...
THEME
the moral of the story is...
Photo credit: Kasey Varner

Photo credit: Kasey Varner

The most useful tools are annoyingly simple, right?? 


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My Top 7 Favorite Podcasts for Writers

Carina Sitkus

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

When I can't hold a book in my hands, like when I'm driving or getting ready for work, I like to listen to podcasts. Me and the rest of the world, right?

The list here has a mix of learning and inspiration-type podcasts sprinkled in. As you probably already know, I'm a huge fan of the first one, The New Yorker: Fiction podcast. Read the full list of my favorites below, and feel free to leave personal recommendations in the comments.

To listen, I don't use anything fancy, just the Podcasts app on my iPhone.

My 7 Favorite Podcasts for Writers: 

1. The New Yorker: Fiction- I just love this one. A famous author reads another famous author's short story, and then s/he talks about it with fiction editor Deborah Treisman. I think listening and reading good writing seeps into your brain, even if you don't feel like you're doing particularly hard work by listening to a story. The analysis by top writers/editor is just the icing on the cake.

2. The Writer's Market Podcast- Robert Lee Brewer and Brian A. Klems are a good team on this podcast. I think they balance each other out. Recent topics include things like juggling a freelancing career with writing a novel, New Year's resolutions, and copyrights/contracts explained by an attorney.

3. Design Matters with Debbie Millman- This isn't technically a writing podcast, but I think all the creative fields are connected in some way. Debbie interviews the biggest and brightest names (think Jonathan Adler, Seth Godin... I'm not picking a representative sample, but you get the idea). 

4. The Kenyon Review Podcast- You can't go wrong with listening to a podcast hosted by one of the best literary journals.

5. Dear Sugars- Again, this isn't really a podcast about writing, but it's co-hosted by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, and Steve Almond. They read letters from people seeking advice and interview other people for their thoughts in addition to sharing their own. Their latest interview was with writer Ashley C. Ford.

6. Longform- This one is probably no surprise to you if you already listen to podcasts, but I had to include it on my list. 

7. Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing- I actually prefer to read/search for things on this blog, but I've linked to the top 10 Grammar Girl podcasts. It's likely you'll be interested in at least one of these popular questions/topics on grammar. 


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Stephen King's Do-It-Yourself MFA: Books Writers Should Read

Carina Sitkus

Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

I was talking to a colleague recently about what books we were reading, and she reminded me that Stephen King put together a list of recommended reading in his book about craft, On Writing. 

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no other way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
— Stephen King

As working writers, I think it's possible to keep learning about your craft, even without getting your MFA (and Stephen King agrees). Reading is the best professional development out there. 

So anyway, I found this link to Stephen King's recommended reading list/books that influenced his writing. It's already in Goodreads, so if that's how you keep track of books you want to read, you can simply add the ones you're interested in! 

Here's the Goodreads list:
Stephen King's Booklist from "On Writing"

And here's the list in a different format from Aerogramme Writers' Studio.

Happy reading!


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Visiting the Emily Dickinson Exhibit at the Morgan Library Museum

Carina Sitkus

*I originally wrote about my visit in this email, and am reposting here for all you poets out there! This version has more pictures.

This past weekend we braved what was supposed to be a NYC monsoon, but was actually just a rainy day, to schlep to the Morgan Library Museum to see the Emily Dickinson exhibit.

I had done a little investigative work and watched some videos by the ModPo UPenn online class before going. (If you enroll in the class, you can access them. It's free to do so.) The videos talk about the meaning behind a couple of Dickinson's poems. Because many of the poems were published posthumously, her drafts show multiple options for word choice, so the editors (mainly her brother's mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd) used the words they think Dickinson most likely would have picked. 

The only authenticated picture of Dickinson shows her with dark hair. It was actually auburn. This pictures shows a lock of it that she had sent to a friend...

It was amazing to see her handwriting in person, on the paper she actually used to write the poems we know so well today. 

Her handwriting became more spaced out and blocky towards the end of her life. 

 

I'm nobody: Who are you?

This poem is displayed on a replica of the wallpaper that would have been in her room.

This poem is displayed on a replica of the wallpaper that would have been in her room.


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Should You Sell or Donate Your Old Books?

Carina Sitkus

It wasn’t easy, but I donated four boxes worth of books. If you’re also cleaning out your house before the holidays, you might be wondering whether or not it’s worth it to sell your books or donate them to a charity. I decided to donate to the Goodwill, but I did some research about how to sell books as well and thought these links might be useful for others. If you don’t have time to watch the full video, I posted the links below.

AMAZON TRADE-IN 

Better World Books: To donate

BookScouter: Type in the ISBN and it’ll figure out who might want to buy your books 

BookFinder.com: Same deal as BookScouter 

Powell’s Books, Inc.: Free shipping to send them your books once you hit their quota 


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How to Query an Agent and Other Resources from my Nonfiction Conference

Carina Sitkus

This was my second year attending Hippcamp in Lancaster, PA, and I was just as impressed as the first time. If you get the chance to go, do, especially if you are local--but there were attendees there as far away as Singapore! 

Last year, I shared a resource for submitting to literary magazines. This time, I thought I'd share little snippets from my notebook-- the best resources and tips and tricks learned from the conference. This isn't, of course, everything, but it's the stuff I decided to write down. 

Without further ado:

Tips on query letters/pitching (from a panel of agents):

  • Your query letter is a like a cover letter for a job, nothing more and nothing less. 
  • You want to include the hook, the book, and the cook: something to capture the agent's attention, brief info about your book, and info about you (social links, previous pubs) and how you are planning to market the book. 
  • The agent shouldn't need to scroll to read your query email. Keep it short. 
  • A "no" from an agent could mean a "no" from the agency, so you don't want to risk rejection just because you sent your query to the wrong agent. Wrote a memoir? Make sure it gets to the agent who represents memoir. Do your research. 
  • For fiction, no unfinished manuscripts! 
  • You can submit to some small presses without having an agent.
  • Good hashtags to follow are #claqueries (every Weds.) and #mswl (manuscript wish list) where agents post what they are looking for. 
  • Ways to fail: 
    • Ignorance- You don't know your comp titles, you don't know your audience, and you don't read other writers in your genre.
    • Ambition>Effort- By the time you pitch an agent, everything should already be in place, and you're simply giving the agent the opportunity to hop aboard a train that's already traveling full-speed ahead. 
    • Idea>Execution- Your execution should be simple and direct. Think of your pitch like a tweet, and give only the important stuff the agent needs to know. 

If you're struggling with writing good dialogue, read these books:

To learn from the magic of poets to make your own narrative better, read these:

Mary Karr on what you need/ need to do to be a memoirist:

  • Stories.

  • Carnal memories, memories that are physical and that come back to you via your senses. Sometimes this takes work.

  • Information and data about your topic. 

  • Self discipline and faith.

  • Judge yourself more harshly.

  • The ability to move back and forth through time.

  • The ability to think and figure and guess and scheme.

  • Let the reader know what your standards of truth are.

  • Set emotional stakes.

  • Don't share how you suffer, share how you survive.

This list really doesn't do her keynote justice, but of course it doesn't. Another glimmer that I loved: She talked about the truth being like the hand on the banister in the middle of the night, a solid surface for the sleepwalker to grasp. 

There was also a keynote session from David Cameron on productivity and also several takeaways for science writers--let me know if either of these topics interests you and I'd be happy to share my notes. 


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Book Review: The More of Less

Carina Sitkus

I've blogged several times before about why I think practicing minimalism is good for writers. There's a new book by Joshua Becker out called, The More of Less. Last summer, I read the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, so I was interested to see how they compared.

What I disliked about Tidying Up I liked about this book. Kondo had a somewhat extreme approach to tidying--I wasn't sold on the talking-to-your-objects stuff. (If you read my review of her book, you'll know what I mean.) Becker was more practical and gave good tips for becoming minimalist while recognizing that everyone has a different lifestyle and, therefore, different needs. And his reason for pursuing minimalism was more purposeful.

Critics say only privileged people can practice minimalism, and they have a point. The idea is that only people of means have the ability to get rid of their objects because if they should ever need to, repurchasing them wouldn't be a problem. Poor people need to hang on to whatever they accumulate because it's more burdensome to repurchase an item should they get rid of it and need it again down the road...or so the argument goes. However, Becker flips this on its head by saying that minimalism is great if it can help you live a more purposeful life, but that the true benefits and meaning come from what you are then able to do for others:

"Still, I do want to make a special plea: Not only is your life too valuable to waste chasing material possessions, but it is also too valuable to waste pursuing only selfish interests with the freedom you have gained. Instead of pursuing only objectives that benefit you, make sure you are also doing good for others. I suppose, after minimizing your possessions, you could move to a beachfront cottage and spend every day fishing. Or you could show up at the golf course day after day. And if something like that appeals to you, it’s up to you. But I think you have a better choice available to you: improving the life of someone else.
How about mentoring new business owners for free with the knowledge you gained during your career?
Or starting a program to connect the homeless in your community with the public services that are available to them?
Or setting up a scholarship at your alma mater?
Or taking charge of a ministry team at your church?
Or organizing a group of doctors and dentists to provide free services in a region of the world that lacks medical and dental care?
Or letting your mom stay with you instead of living in the nursing home that makes her miserable?"

Becker is religious, so parts of the book may teeter on that edge for those who are not expecting it. Because religion is such a big reason why Becker and his family are minimalists, I thought it only made sense that he would write about it. But most of the book is focused on the practical advice you would need to become minimalist.

I really enjoyed this section on maintaining minimalism (skim if you must, but I just had to include the whole thing!)

1. Make your bed each morning. Mess attracts mess. One of the easiest places to see this is the bedroom. Your bed is the centerpiece of the room, and if it is left unmade, clutter begins to accumulate around it. The first, best step when cleaning a bedroom, then, is to make the bed. And the first, best step for everyday clutter-free living is to make the bed first thing in the morning.
2. Wash dishes right away. Hand washing some dishes takes less time than putting them in the dishwasher. This applies to cups, breakfast bowls, dinner plates, and silverware. If you hand-wash right after eating, it will take hardly any time at all. If, however, hand washing is not an option, be sure to put used dishes in the dishwasher right away. Nobody likes walking into a kitchen with dishes piled up in the sink or on the counter, and it’s even less fun eating in there.
3. Fill your recycling containers and garbage containers. Use every trash pick-up day as an excuse to fill your recycling receptacle and garbage can. Grab a box of junk from the attic, broken toys from the playroom, spoiled food from the pantry, outdated paperwork from the office — whatever has built up. Then put it where the trash person will pick it up. You’ll quickly get the hang of this. You may even begin to look forward to trash day. (Okay, maybe I shouldn’t go that far.)
4. Always leave room in your coat closet. There’s a good reason why coats, boots, and outerwear end up scattered throughout your home. It’s because your coat closet is so full that it’s a hassle to put things away and retrieve them quickly. So leave room on the coat-closet floor, on the hangers, and on the shelves for members of your family to quickly put away or retrieve items.
5. Keep flat surfaces clear. Kitchen counters, bathroom counters, bedroom dressers, tabletops, desktops — these are areas that just naturally collect clutter. Put small kitchen appliances away. Scoop up coins. File receipts. Stick toiletries in a medicine cabinet. Keep an eye on your flat surfaces and dive in as needed to keep them clean.
6. Complete one-to two-minute jobs immediately. Clutter is often a result of procrastination — decisions put off or small jobs left unfinished. Counteract this procrastination in your home with a simple rule: if a job can be completed in less than two minutes, do it now. Take the garbage out, scrub the pot, return the remote control, or place your dirty clothes in the hamper. Every time you see a task all the way through to completion, you’ve forestalled the development of clutter.
7. When you finish a magazine or newspaper, process it immediately. Good recipe in there? Put it in your recipe box and recycle the rest. An article that your husband will enjoy? Clip it and recycle. Coupon too good to pass up? Cut it out and recycle. Stacks of magazines and newspapers serve little purpose but to clutter a room.
8. Place junk mail immediately into a recycling bin. Take note of the natural flow of mail in your home. Placing a recycling container near your mail drop-off zone can catch most of that junk mail so it won’t even reach your counter. And as an added bonus, you’ll begin to look through less of it and therefore be less enticed by the advertisements to buy what you don’t need.
9. Take care of clothes immediately. When it came to clothes, I used to be a throw-them-on-the-floor guy. Now I handle each item right when I take it off. Dirty clothes down the laundry chute. Clean clothes back to the hanger or drawer. That’s it.
10. Nightly, return items where they belong. Tell your kids to put their toys away at the end of every day. You need to do the same with the items you’re responsible for. Just make a sweep of the house, grab whatever misplaced items you see, and stash them in their places. Do this every night without fail, and it will allow you to begin each morning in a house that’s fresh, clean, and clutter-free.

Some of the advice contradicts what you may have learned from Tidying Up, but that may be a good thing for those of you who thought the KonMari method, as Kondo called it, was a little crazy. For example, Becker advocates for a leveling method where you put items into a box in a storage room and see if you miss them. If not, you get rid of them the next time you stumble across them. Konmari would only let you hold an object once before making a decision.

What I didn't like about the book is that I already read a lot of minimalist blogs and listen to The Minimalists podcast, so I didn't feel like any of Becker's advice was particularly new or earth shattering for me. But if you don't know much about minimalism and want to or are even just interested in simplifying your life, I think you'll benefit from picking up a copy.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


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30 Days of Reading Challenge

Carina Sitkus

At work, we hold creative coffee meetings once a month where we get together and discuss design, writing, and other projects related to —  you guessed it —  creativity! (At this meeting we also eat bagels.) 

This month, we’re doing the 30 day challenge as a team. Well, we’re picking our own 30 day challenge and reporting back what happens. Habits are built by doing something repeatedly over time, so the idea is to just jump right in and start doing, and eventually 30 days becomes 60 days and then before you know it you are closer to a goal…or at least a better, more productive person than before you started. 

I already read a lot — if I had to give up everything but one thing, reading would be my one thing — but I’m not great at forcing myself to read things I wouldn’t ordinarily read. One of my goals for 2016 also happens to be to get published in a literary journal, so I’ve decided to make a conscious commitment to read more literary journals. 

Here’s my 30-day challenge to myself:

Read one short story/poem/piece — preferably from a literary magazine — per day, for 30 days.

 

I recently received a free copy of Flash in the Attic, so that’s on my list. I will also be reading the spring issue of The Gettysburg Review and possibly some short stories from the 2011 edition of The Best American Short Stories. Hippocampus Magazine and Ploughshares are also on my list. Any other recommendations?

I'll be sure to follow-up and let you know how it's going. If you'd like to join, let me know. Maybe we can set up a Facebook group or something. 


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