A Writer’s Entrance Exam

by Bob Hostetler

Copyright Bob Hostetler (www.bobhostetler.com). Used with the permission of the author. 

Say you wanted to enroll in studies at a respected educational institution—let’s call it Wisenheimer Academy for Clever Kids. You might expect to take an entrance exam to determine your degree of fitness for WACK, right? Just as you would to begin training for ministry, law enforcement, or interplanetary space travel.

Oddly, though, there is no entrance exam for writers. Until now.

That’s right. Thanks to this website, you can, with a modest investment of time and effort, determine your fitness to pursue the writing life. The following questions may reinforce your confidence in writing for publication–or save you much time and trouble by steering you away and into an easier, more rewarding line of work, such as lumberjack or Alaskan crab fisherperson.

Simply answer yes or no to the following questions, and calculate the results when you’re done:

Simply answer yes or no to the following questions, and calculate the results when you’re done:

  1. Do you love words? Sentences? Paragraphs?
  2. Do you have a favorite punctuation mark?
  3. Do you drink too much coffee? Or tea? Or wine?
  4. Are you constantly feeling assaulted by spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors in magazines, newspapers, billboards, cereal boxes, and protest signs?
  5. Do you talk back to the television or movie screen to complain about poor characterization, unrealistic dialogue, and plot holes?
  6. Do you sometimes imagine story lines for strangers you see in stores, on the street, or on planes?
  7. Do you sometimes think, in the midst of a great or terrible experience, “I can use this?”
  8. Do you feel a rush when you enter a bookstore or office supply store?
  9. Do you critique birthday, Christmas, and anniversary cards you receive, thinking, I could’ve written a better greeting than that?
  10. Do you lose track of time when you’re on a writing tear?
  11. Does your Amazon delivery driver know your name?
  12. Does a word or idea often keep you awake—or wake you—at night?
  13. Have you cried because of something a character in your story did?
  14. Have you ever used toilet paper or a cash-register receipt as a bookmark?
  15. When you’re writing, do you alternate between “This is the best thing anyone’s ever written” and “This is the worst thing anyone’s ever written?”
  16. Have you ever named a pet after a character in literature?
  17. Have you ever named a child after a character in literature?
  18. Do family members refuse to play with you in Scrabble?
  19. Do you resent your parents for giving you a happy childhood?
  20. Have you ever used laundry, dirty dishes, or alphabetizing your canned goods as a distraction from writing?

Now, total your “yes” answers. How did you do?

5 or less = What kind of monster are you?

6-10 = You’re a writer.

11-15 = You should be in therapy.

16-20 = Forget therapy; it’s too late for you.

The post, A Writer’s Entrance Exam first appeared on:

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Thank you to Carol Buchanan for sharing this and getting Mr. Hostetler’s permission to pass it on.

Politics in Fiction

By Janice McCaffrey

I attended the Virtual National Historical Novel Society Conference in June 2021 and had an Ah-ha! moment in the workshop given by Samantha Rajaram and Carrie Callaghan which they called Identifying the Politics in Your Writing. I’ve added and in your reading.

What are the politics they refer to? The online Oxford Dictionary says: Politics are the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power. (I added the bold). With that in mind the presenters asked, Who has the power? How did they get the power? How do they keep the power? Do they share it with anyone? If so, who? How do the people with power feel?

And on the other side of the coin. Who doesn’t have the power? Why don’t they have it? What can they do to get it? Why do they want it? How do they feel about not having it? If you can’t identify the person or group with the power, pay attention to the important resource they jealously guard—money, control, love, magic—and you’ll find that whoever owns that holds the power.

Power and who has it can be looked at from a macro perspective, for example who rules a country, society, organization. As well as, from a micro perspective between fewer people, clubs, congregations, families, and couples.

These concepts show up in all areas of our lives in all societies and groups. When you’re in a group of two or more sit back and observe how they interact. See if you can identify the power struggle(s) going on. Do the same when reading or writing a novel. To quote Rajaram and Callaghan, “Acknowledge and utilize the power dynamics [we see or live, and subtlety include them] in our writing.”

Another interesting workshop was called Sharpening the Blade with Julianne Douglas, Mariah Fredricks, and Karen Odden. Their handout asks, “What are the big events that all the characters will have in their collective consciousness that could cause widespread anxiety or excitement?” A couple examples would be a world war or New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Readers will be able to identify the emotions of the characters because we’ve all been introduced to wars and the big party. I recently read a novel that took place in 1941 Europe that had one Jewish character in it. As soon as I understood those three facts, I automatically became anxious and worried about the character, fearing, from my knowledge of that time and place, what the future might be for that person. It kept me reading.

These authors also asked us to perceive what political, economic, legal, educational, and social conditions would create or limit possibilities for our characters. As we write, but again, also as readers, look for these influences. And remember good writers don’t spell it out, they leave it for us readers to figure out. Which we’ll usually do through our emotional reactions that mirror those of the characters.

Both workshops gave me insight to put into action as a reader and a writer. To all five of you presenters, Thank you!

A Thanksgiving Wake-up Call

by Mary Frances Erler

In our modern world, we take so many things for granted.  A couple of weeks ago, the pump on our well stopped working.  All of a sudden, there was no water when I turned on the faucet.

A call to the well-driller brought the suggestion to shut it all down for an hour and then try to restart it.  So we did.  It worked, but then the same thing happened the next day!  Another attempt was made to reboot it with the hour-long shut off.

I realize our house is past ten years old, and nowadays that means things are going to break down.  Some of our appliances have already had to be replaced.  Not complaining.  It’s just life.

But this whole experience has made me realize how many things we do take for granted.  Like the water coming on every time we turn the faucet handle.  Or the lights coming on whenever I hit the switch.  Even my phone and my computer making it so much easier to do research and to write.

Many of us are old enough to remember the days of typewriters and rotary-dial phones.  (My first two books were originally typed on a manual typewriter!)  But I fear our numbers are dwindling.  What kind of things will our children and grandchildren never experience?  Kind of like how we (and often our parents) never experienced travel in a horse-drawn covered wagon, homes without indoor plumbing or electricity, and travel from Kalispell to Eureka taking days rather than under two hours.

Right now our well is working again, after the second reboot.  But I don’t take that water in my sink or shower for granted anymore.  I realize it could disappear any day now.

I think the timing of this wake-up call event was good, with Thanksgiving just around the corner.  I have a lot more things to be thankful for than I realized, and I hope to stop taking them for granted.

Speak Up to Get Read!

by Barbara Schiffman

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has been quoted as saying, “According to some studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death… This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”

If speaking in public feels worse than dying, it’s no wonder most writers hate to talk about their work or themselves. Writers prefer sharing their thoughts and stories on paper or electronic devices, over pitching to agents, editors, or producers, and being interviewed at book signings or conferences.

This used to be true for me, until I learned how essential it is to speak up to get read.

As a screenwriter and creative producer in Hollywood, I often needed to “pitch” one-liners or brief story synopses to agents, directors, or producers. I was also a panelist at writers conferences and was interviewed on podcasts about my personal development books.

To learn to Speak Up without a pounding heart and hoarse voice, I found support:

In the mid-1990s, I attended the entertainment career accelerator program Flash Forward. It included activities and tools for achieving a big career leap in only 4 weeks that would normally take a year. For me, this was getting my scripts optioned, which required getting them read by as many people as possible, a terror-provoking task. FYI, I produced a staged reading of one script and got a new agent who got it optioned!

In 2004, I joined the popular speaking education organization Toastmasters International. In 2006, I co-founded the first Toastmasters club specifically for creative writers; it’s still going strong and now open to non-LA writers via Zoom. I also recently found a new Zoom-only global Toastmasters club for writers (for info on either, email me at MontanaScreenwriting@gmail.com).

Toastmasters is slanted towards business presentations but also offers support for storytellers. My favorite Toastmasters tool is their impromptu speaking exercise Table Topics. Designed to practice thinking and speaking on the spot, you get 2 minutes to speak about an unexpected topic without preparation. I find this fun and invigorating, and am now comfortable “making it up” as I speak.

Preparing speeches in advance and delivering them without notes is harder for me. But I’m in good company; Mark Twain, who sold his books via public speaking tours, said, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

Prepping a pitch is easier with a template for structuring what you might say. I’ve taught multiple pitch formulas at writing workshops that can be customized. A good pitch, aka “logline,” is basically your story in 30 words or less. It’s best to tailor your pitch depending on whom you’re talking to, what type of script or book they seek, and how many minutes you have to interest them in reading yours.

The shortest pitch template is What if…”What if a boy discovers an extra-terrestrial whose spaceship crashed and can’t get home (the film “E.T.”)? What if a slick-talking lawyer vows to his son he’ll tell the truth for 24 hours to prove he can be trusted (the film “Liar Liar”)? What if your narcissistic wife mysteriously disappears on your anniversary and you’re suspected of killing her (the novel and film “Gone Girl”)?

Some pitch tips: Elaborate on your basic premise if more details are requested. Be prepared to share the beginning or “inciting incident,” how the stakes escalate as things go increasingly wrong, and how it all ends. Don’t make your listener guess the conclusion — this is annoying and implies you haven’t worked out the story’s trajectory.

Writers of all genres should also get comfortable speaking about themselves to agents, managers, book reviewers, and book signing audiences. One tool I learned in Flash Forward was having 3 “memorable things” about me ready to share. This helps you stand out from all other writers. It’s even better if your memorable things relate to what you’re writing or pitching (but not required).

One example: my husband Glenn is a specialist in Native American ceremonies; when we lived in Burbank CA we had a ceremonial tipi in our backyard. We also co-developed a feature film concept about a multi-cultural romantic triangle set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation during the 1890 Ghost Dance movement. (Sharing this personalizes our story-pitch and makes us memorable writers.)

So what’s your story — in 30 words or less? And what’s something memorable about you?

Ultimately, if you’ve prepared and practiced your brief story-pitch plus some memorable things about you, opportunities to Speak Up will arise and you’ll be ready to enjoy them!

**On Friday 10/8/21, get more templates and practice your pitch at my 90-minute workshop for writers and filmmakers at the Bigfork (MT) Independent Film Festival. For workshop or private logline and pitch coaching info, email me at MontanaScreenwriting@gmail.com.

On the Shoulders of Giants

The first and last time I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, I was in college, in the early 1970s.  I loved it then, and now that I’ve just re-read it almost 50 years later, I still love and admire it.  

This science fiction classic is older than I am, but it still holds a wealth of truth and meaning, even though many outward things have changed in my lifetime.  When I was born, man hadn’t been beyond our planet’s atmosphere, there were no cordless phones, let alone cell phones.  Scientists were just beginning to understand the mysteries of the atom.  The stars were fuzzy shapes seen through earth’s atmosphere.  Computers were rooms full of reels, tubes, and wires.  The whole control room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center hadn’t been developed yet, and when it was, it carried the same capacity that we can fit in our pockets now, or on our wrists.

So how can it be that books written before 1950 still have something to say to our modern age?  Because I believe Asimov in this series has dealt with the fundamentals of human thought and behavior.  And he’s done it the way only a very skillful and well-educated scientist/author can.

For me it boils down to the truth that human nature doesn’t really change.  We can be in a setting far in the past, such as The Clan of the Cave Bear, the less-distant past of the European Middle Ages, in books by Sharon K. Penman, the more contemporary settings of most modern fiction set in the twentieth century, or the far distant future that most sci-fi writers use.  Human beings, no matter when they are living, all have the same mental processes, emotions, foibles, faults, and all.

As an author of fiction (mostly science fiction, I confess), I am seeking in my own small way to emulate great thinkers and writers like Asimov.  Perhaps I’m hoping to catch a better glimpse of some far-off truth by attempting to stand on the shoulders of these giants who came before me.  (I know there’s a quote to that effect somewhere, but I can’t remember who said it.)  And I’ll keep on looking for this “Great Beyond” until my dying day, I suppose.