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


Filtering by Category: writing

Don't Quit Your Day Job: Ways to Make Your Work "Work" for Your Writing

Carina Sitkus

Below are the resources mentioned during our talk at Hippocampus Magazine's 2018 Hippocamp conference for creative nonfiction writers.

Session description-

The stereotype that you MUST quit your day job to hone your craft and follow your passion for writing quite simply isn’t true. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with devoting your career to writing, but there’s also nothing wrong with complementing your creative work with a—gasp!—day job.

Carina Sitkus will share how her career in marketing and as the editor of a college magazine has sparked creativity and renewed focus in her writing; Amy Young Evrard, an anthropology professor, will share how her academic research turned into an idea for a memoir.

You will leave the session with ideas and practical tips about how to make your own day job work for your creative writing—perhaps even fuel it.

Resources from our talk:

<<< The presentation slides >>>

The Hidden Formula Behind Almost Every Joke on Late Night (video) Slate

Does Having a Day Job Mean Making Better Art? New York Times

Books mentioned-

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann

Another I didn't mention, but would recommend reading, is Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process edited by Joe Fassler

Mentioned by session attendees-

Hudson Valley Writers Guild // Programs with structured writing time

*Someone mentioned a resource that I wrote down as "Write number for a day," and I can't find what it references, so if you are the recommender, please comment and I'll add it!


Info about the CONFAB conference

People offer me thousands of excuses about why they can’t write…It doesn’t really matter what the excuse is. I can hear you saying, ‘Well, but isn’t it true? What if they do have six children and they need to feed them and they need a job?’ Absolutely. But if they burn to write, they also have to find time to write, even if it’s one-half hour a week. They can’t put it off till they’re sixty. They might die at fifty-nine. You have to somehow address your whole life. You can’t put things off…This is our life. Step forward. Maybe it’s only for ten minutes. That’s okay. To write feels better than all the excuses.
— Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
In ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929), her famous, passionate argument about the material conditions necessary for writing, Virginia Woolf compared fiction to a ‘spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.’ It is a lovely vision of art hanging from the beams of reality, only people are not spiders — they don’t generate just one thing. The trope of the secluded creator has echoes of imprisonment and stasis…Sometimes the artist needs to turn off, to get out in the fray, to stop worrying over when her imagination’s pot will boil — because, of course, it won’t if she’s watching.”
— Katy Waldman “Does Having a Day Job Mean Making Better Art?”, New York Times

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

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...
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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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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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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An Interview With Paul Cantor, Music Producer and Writer

Carina Sitkus

Like some of the CCP's other interviewees, I came across Paul Cantor's writing on Medium. Cantor, a former editor at AOL Music, is now a music producer and writer whose work has appeared in places like Rolling Stone, Billboard, MTV News, and many, many other places. In addition to being a prolific writer, Cantor is also a tweet machine, with over 114K tweets and 11.2K followers. 

Below, I ask him more about his work, advice for pitching and getting writing assignments, about interviewing technique, and his philosophy on social media. 

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How I Stay Organized in my Writing and Work

Carina Sitkus

A year or so ago, I wrote about how I make time to write, even if it's just jotting down disjointed thoughts as they come to me,  but I’ve never shared the ins and outs of how I stay organized. Organization is important for anyone, but I think it's especially important for writers who freelance for multiple clients and/or work full-time on top of having a writing career. 

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Publish Your Work

Carina Sitkus

Curiosity Never Killed the Writer is quickly becoming my favorite passion project by far. It looks like readers and writers love it, too; we're now up to 3.8K followers! Wowza!

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