So, there’s a lot of writing advice available today. Just ask Google. We’ve mentioned various books and blogs on Write Despite, from time to time. But you know what they say about advice…
There is good stuff out there, plenty of it. Not all of it will speak to you, of course, and you’ve got to be careful who you listen to. But I came across this in my online travels and figured that candid tips from winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature can only shed light on the intricacies of the difficult process we all undertake when we write fiction. Whether you’re a newbie or the winner of many a hallowed award. Thanks to fine folks at nownovel.com
Okay, truth in advertising: My publisher sponsors the Possibilities Publishing Conference, held each year at the lovely historic Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia. So yeah, I’m not unbiased. I attended the kickoff conference last year and was super impressed with the sessions, the media room, the photographer and video offerings, and so much more.
This year I honestly went expecting it not to live up to the previous one. I mean, seriously, I felt like there was no way this little event—focused less on writing itself and more on getting your writing seen and read—could pack such power again.
I was SO wrong. Starting with the first session, Maggy Sterner, part branding maven, part life coach, part therapist, all business-savvy bulldog, handed participants a shovel (you know, metaphorically) and taught them to dig deep to find out what they and their writing are truly about. They dug, and unearthed what they didn’t even know they had, or needed, to build a distinct brand. There were tears, people. I mean it was that powerful and that effective.
Do you know the difference between an Instagram post, story, or highlight? Do you know how to best use Pinterest to promote your book—how to get the most from Facebook and Twitter, and how LinkedIn fits into it all? Children’s book author Lindsay Barry knows, and she has nearly 25,000 Instagram followers to prove it. Now Poss Pub’s biggest-selling author, Lindsay led attendees on an edge-of-their seats journey into all things social media. And man does she know how to sell. Her session ran long. Because questions. So many. And discussions, and aha moments, and all of it in breathless huffs because people were so fired up about this topic they couldn’t get enough. It could have gone on for days.
“The Truth Behind the Media” offered another deep dive into an author’s work and how it can be promoted through television, magazines, newspapers, and radio. Media booker Katie Riess took participants into the minds of journalists who can either choose to spotlight a writer’s work or not give it a second glance. What an author is thinking vs. what a media person is thinking are worlds apart, and she was able to map out the differences to help attendees pinpoint best practices for pitching their stories.
And more besides, including author Laura Di Franco, who led an inspiring workshop on building your author platform through blogging, and writer and publisher Keith Shovlin, who helped attendees learn to share their work with the world through podcasting.
The “Author Marketing Mastermind” session gave authors the chance to brainstorm marketing ideas with several of the above experts in a lively, yet intimate group setting. Participants received one-on-one attention and support to meet their goals, and were even provided with a second video meeting a month later to check in on their progress and receive additional feedback.
Between sessions, authors were encouraged to take selfies of themselves and their books in the Instagram Inspiration Room, which offered a lightbox and an abundance of props and decorations. And new this year was a podcast offering, where authors were interviewed about themselves and their work and walked away with professional podcasts for their own use.
Oh, and here are a couple of new resources I learned about while I was there. And you’re very welcome:
HARO, a.k.a., Help a Reporter Out, is a massive database that connects journalists with media sources and helps them pitch their stories.
Autocrit is an editing tool that helps you fine-tune your manuscript by analyzing your words and pointing out flaws, like poor dialogue, use of adverbs, repetitive words and phrases, and clichés. At only $10 for one month’s use, I can’t wait to try this one out.
At the day’s end, I heard so many people commenting on how much they’d gotten from this event, and every one of them said something to the effect of :
“You have GOT to tell more people about this.”
So—you’ve been told. Mark it down for next year (likely in early May), and tell your fellow writers. You won’t be disappointed!
Hannah Grieco is an education and disability advocate and writer in Arlington, Virginia. Her essays and short stories have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Motherwell, First for Women, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, Barren Magazine, Arlington Magazine, and others. She is the founder and director for ‘Readings on the Pike,’ a series that highlights a diverse array of local writers in the Washington, DC area. She can be found at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter @writesloud.
Please welcome Hannah to Write Despite!
Can you tell us about your background? Where you went to school, your major, your early work experience?
My background is a bit of a wild ride. I was raised in the Washington, DC area. I went to the Oberlin Conservatory for clarinet, but switched to the college my second year. I tried out a series of majors, and ended up with a BA in Geology. It took slightly longer than four years to complete that journey. (Seven. It took seven years, with two year-long breaks in the middle.) But by the end, I realized I would not be able to rock climb for a living, which was depressing and triggered yet another life tangent. So I went to New York City to study acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse. (See? My poor mother!) I was overwhelmed by the reality of attempting to become a professional actress, and ran back to the DC area a year later, where I taught drama and dance to preschoolers. That sparked something new inside me, a focus (finally) outside of myself. I decided to get an M.Ed from Marymount University and became an elementary school teacher. But wait! We’re not done! After eight years, I got married and had kids. I decided to stay at home temporarily, which extended to “for the foreseeable future” when one of my children started to struggle with some pretty significant disabilities. As I dove into the very challenging world of advocacy, out of necessity, I began to share what I was learning with other parents. This led to more formal work in the area, and then writing as well.
Did you ever formally study writing? If not, how did you begin to write?
I wrote a ton of academic papers in undergrad and grad school, but I didn’t consider myself a writer. Then in early 2018, I really wanted to encourage my autistic son to read fiction. He was an advanced reader, but only wanted to read nonfiction. So I wrote a short story for him, hoping it would hook his interest, and it did! He wanted to know what happened next, and so I kept writing, then writing even more. It developed into a (very poorly-written) chunk of a middle-grade novel. An editor encouraged me to write an essay about *why* I was writing this novel, and so I did. That experience was profound, a totally different style of writing than I had ever done – and the piece sold! I got paid to write! So…I began writing more essays, which also sold, and decided to focus on the craft of writing. Both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve taken a couple of classes, but most of my learning has happened from working with amazing editors and sharing with peers in critique groups.
Your website says you’ve gone from teacher, to mother, to parenting advocate. How does writing fit into all these things?
I use my essays, and even some short stories, as a form of advocacy. Most of my published nonfiction is specifically focused on disability, education, and mental health in kids. Many of my stories are about families and relationships, and the role of disability and/or mental health issues within that context.
You’ve published fiction and non-fiction pieces in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and a number of magazines and journals. What are you most proud of?
My Washington Post piece was scary to share and seemed to have a big impact, based on the emails I received. But I am most proud of the piece about my son and his love for Eminem (in HuffPo), because autistic people are often so poorly and stereotypically represented in the media. My son is a human being, not the subject of inspiration porn, and he is one of my favorite people! I hope to elevate and inform in my work, to bring autism to the reader as something to learn about and respect, rather than perpetuate the more common narratives that usually accompany the subject.
Who are your favorite authors?
Oh this is so hard! It depends on the genre and my mood that day. For short stories, probably Meg Pillow Davis and Tyrese Coleman right now. David Sedaris and Flannery O’Connor, in terms of influence over time. I could give you a long list of brilliant authors I read and love, both in short-form and long-form, but I’m also crazy about Stephen King. I like to read about people and he is the master of that! For essays: I just read whatever is being published and try to soak it all up!
I wanted to read my work, to have an audience and learn from that experience. But I live in Arlington, and all the readings were always in DC. It can be hard to get to events regularly with three kids clinging to you! So I asked a few friends if they’d be willing to read with me if I planned a one-time event. They graciously agreed, and we ended up with a big crowd that night! Then more writers contacted me, wanting to read as well, and it took off from there, quickly becoming a monthly series. Writers want to share their words! And I love it, everything about it. I meet the most amazing, talented people and get to watch and listen as they offer us their beating hearts.
Hannah Grieco at Readings on the Pike
Do you have advice for new or struggling writers?
I think we’re all struggling, right? And I am certainly new myself! The key for me has been to connect with other writers, to find my community. I read their work, ask them questions, and save money to work with local editors. I regularly swap work with other writers and we critique each other, which is hard! It’s brutal to hear when your words don’t work! But that’s the only way to learn, to just dissolve the pride that prevents you from polishing your work into something really moving and impactful.
What are you writing or working on now?
I am constantly working on essays and short stories. I write every day in those two genres. But I am also working on a book related to special needs parenting and advocacy!
Novelist Michelle Richmond is living the expat dream in Paris, where she has temporarily relocated with her husband and son. It’s a long way from Northern California to Paris, France, and Michelle is candidly–and humorously–sharing her daily trials and triumphs. You can follow her exploits in a “beautiful but challenging city” on her new blog, The Reluctant Parisian.
Michelle’s indie press, Fiction Attic Press, published my debut novel in 2014, and she remains a source of support and inspiration. I’m loving her post-a-day on Instagram.
And yes, Michelle’s books have been translated in French!
Drum roll, please….. Our friend and contributor Vanessa Hua is celebrating a big one today: the publication of her debut novel, A River of Stars. Cathy and I offer our congratulations along with a super big high-five.
Vanessa took a break in her busy promotion schedule to share a little about the creative inspiration for her novel–turns out that pregnancy is a great time for literary ideas to incubate!
While living in Southern California and pregnant with my twin sons, I began hearing about maternity hotels getting busted. What’s a maternity hotel? There’s an underground industry to house Chinese women coming to the U.S. to give birth, so that their children will receive U.S. citizenship. Neighbors were asking why there were so many pregnant Chinese women coming and going into suburban homes. It sounded like a brothel in reverse! What was it like, I wondered, to be so far from home and family at one of the most vulnerable times in your life?
When I was pregnant, I found that people treated me very generously, very kindly—offering me a place at the front of the line, or giving up their seat. They asked me when I was due, if I was having a boy or girl, and shared stories about their families. But when you have a dozen pregnant women under one roof, who gets the most sympathy and good wishes, who is the Queen Bee? It seemed like a situation ripe for drama—and ripe for comedy.
As I enter the final days before Pub Day, my brain feels so tired it feels cross-eyed inside my head! But I’m grateful for all the support and encouragement from family and friends, my publisher, agents, and editor, and am looking forward to sharing my book with the world.
Cathy has been basking in glory lately, what with her new novel, all her cool readings and interviews, not to mention her latest score—a flash fiction honorable mention in the acclaimed Glimmertrain magazine.
I could be envious, if I had the time.
But slogging my way through the middle of a comprehensive novel manuscript rewrite—yes, line-by-line, adding new scenes, reworking a viewpoint, the whole shebang—has me just a tad too occupied.
I’m making steady, if slow, progress, but I’m not complaining. My mantra these days: one foot in front of the other—make each scene, and each bit of connective narrative glue, as compelling as possible.
Of course, I am taking some breaks. My family recently spent a weekend hiking in New Hampshire’s gorgeous White Mountains, where I stumbled (yes sometimes literally) upon a nifty rewrite metaphor: the steep, boulder-strewn trail we climbed.
Okay, it’s a little corny, but also kind of apt, and you can’t beat the scenery.
Our hiking route was the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which winds up the infamous and awesome Mount Washington. Here are a few milestone markers that—when you’re eyeball deep in a big rewrite—resonate both on and off the trail.
Chapter One, get moving. The Mountain—like the last page—won’t come to you.
Picking up speed, but pace yourself. One scene at a time.
Moments of early inspiration.
Look out for those rocky patches, and there are a lot of them.
This is called an uphill climb, dig deep and keep pushing.
Save your file, time for a coffee break. God bless the team that pitched these shelters along the mountain trail.
The end is in sight. Your feet are sore and your legs ache, but there’s no way you’re quitting now.
The end: A view worth climbing for. The manuscript’s ending? I’ll let you know when I get there.
I had a blast with the coolest group of ladies this week. They not only had me come to speak about my book A Hundred Weddings with three combined book groups in their neighborhood, but they put out a food and beverage spread you wouldn’t believe–one of them even brought a wedding cake with bride and groom on top!
The best part was they brought pictures from their own weddings and challenged each other to see how many people could guess which bride was which. So very fun! They had great questions for me too, and I hope they all enjoyed the discussion.
On June 4 I’ll be having a reading/signing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Please come out if you’re in the area to meet with author Andrew Gifford and me.
On the progress of current work, I’m now 25 pages into the new book. Yeah, it’s not much, but it’s a start. Karen is on her second or third rewrite of the full manuscript, and it’s a good one, I promise.
Oh, and I now have this awesome little video about my book on Youtube:
How goes it with you? Hope you’re renewed by the spring weather and working away.
Write well, everyone!
A quick bit of book news:
An interview I gave on the Authors Show radio program will air tomorrow. Give a listen to this Q&A (about 10 minutes long), where I talk about my novel A Hundred Weddings and how it came to be! This will be up on their site for 24 hours. (No fair making fun of how lame I sound).
Also, I’ll be reading at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 4 at 2 p.m. with Andrew Gifford, author of We All Scream: The Fall of the Giffords Ice Cream Empire. Please come out to see me if you can!
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference happened a little over a month ago (February 8-11 in Washington, DC), and in addition to all the books, journals, and souvenirs I dragged home, I also took a ton of notes during the sessions and readings, and finally dug them out. Here are some of the best quotes, overheard remarks, and tips, most of them without attribution. Some are true gems, so please enjoy these takeaways from some great conversations about writing and publishing.
Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir (Panelists: Abigail Beckel, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Lex Williford, Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski)
“Prioritize clarity over adherence to the form.”
“Flash eliminates all the boring parts.”
Try writing flash stories and connecting them together for a novella or novel. This retains the strength of voice and character, and the overall tension of the book will join them and progress the story forward. (Voldemort is the big tension, little problems along the way are the smaller ones.) Tara Laskowski recommends The Desert Places as a great example of a hybrid text novel.
We All Have to Start Somewhere: How Bad Writing Gets Good (Some raw language in this one. Oh, those bawdy writers.) (Panelists: Melissa Stein, Richard Bausch, Tayari Jones, Natalie Diaz, Nick Flynn)
“Fifty Shades of Gray reads like somebody shat it out.”
“Give yourself the freedom to suck.”
“You cannot fuck it up. You can’t ruin it. You can only make it necessary to do it again.”
“Your writing isn’t bad, it’s just off. Like a sweater buttoned the wrong way. Unbutton it. Rebutton it. It’s a perfectly fine sweater.”
Distinguished Editors Panel, featuring Nan Graham, Daniel Halpern, Jonathan Galassi, and Erroll McDonald
“The author/editor relationship is like an arranged marriage.”
“Voice and territory, more than structure, are the criteria by which I judge a book. Structure can be fixed. But you can’t fix writing that’s not fresh, that’s been done before.”
You know a story is done when others you show it to disagree about what needs to be changed. If they’re all telling you a character isn’t strong enough or the pacing is slow, for example, believe them and fix the problems. But if they’re all telling you something different, it’s probably finished.
A Novelist’s Job: The Realities, Joys, and Challenges (Panelists: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Julia Fierro, Celeste Ng)
Being busy, working, having a job, makes you more productive in your writing.
Do not think about writing a successful book. Just “be true to the work.”
Do social media in an authentic way. Use it as a place of community. If you feed into that world, it will work for you too. Help other writers (with reviews, promotion, comments, etc.) and they’ll help you.
On creating more spaces/avenues for writing to exist: “We’re all fighting hard for a piece of pie, when actually there is no pie. Your job is not to get your piece, but to make more pie.” –Celeste Ng
Also try to post enough to stay connected with people, but don’t make it seem like a sales pitch. Tweet an overheard conversation. Do a daily task, like Ellis Avery who posts a haiku every day. Another writer posts dog pictures (often with a link to his book) every day.
Loose, Faithful, and Literal: Adaptation from Novel to Screen (Panelists: Christine Vachon, Neal Gabler, Magdalene Brandeis, Melissa Bank)
Screenplays make you focus on the narrative—how to bring character and plot into what can be seen and shown.
“In a movie, action is always character.”
One panelist says she tells her students not to call themselves “filmmakers” but “storytellers.” Because there are so many different forms (like streaming services) today to bring stories to life.
A movie is a “jolt,” whereas a TV show is a life. Characters grow incrementally, and that’s a “novelistic sense of life in real time.”
NO screenplay should be more than 110 pages!
By the time the Q&A rolled around, it was apparent everyone listening to this panel was there to ask the same question: How do you get your screenplay seen? Sadly, the answers were pretty vague.
“If you’ve written ‘trash’ like The Godfather, you may be lucky enough that someone will turn it into gold.” —Neal Gabler
Write a two-page summary of why this should be made into a film. Send it to a producer you think would be interested. A 20-something intern will likely read it, and will pass it along (or not) to the producer. Melissa Bank, author of Girls Guide to Hunting & Fishing, sent a story to Zoetrope. They put her in touch with Coppola.
Ask yourself who’s your dream director? Actress? Work on those connections. “I wrote this for you and here’s why.”
“Great works rise to the top. Books come to our attention through coverage, reviews, agencies, recommendations. It just happens.”
Um, yeah. But how do you get your screenplay seen?
“It’s difficult to get things read, and to work with and without an agent. The only sure way to do it is to make the film yourself.”
Kirkus Reviews was recommended as the primary route for movie companies to see synopses of stories that might intrigue them.
Foremothers: Southern Women Writers (Panelists: Charlotte Holmes, Cary Holladay, Lisa Parker, Lisa Roney, Adrienne Su)
A panelist talked about her mother, whose family moved from the south when she was young. The kids in her school couldn’t understand her because of her southern accent, so she stopped talking—for a year. She read books out loud, practicing in her bedroom, until she lost her accent.
One panelist recalled how Lee Smith studied at the Sorbonne and loved to let people there hear her talk. She could see them taking her IQ down about 20 or 30 points as she spoke. Then she would say something that would “take them out at the knees.”
Live outside the world of your past, but find your background. You have to get away from it to look back and find your voice.
The Ten-Year Novel: On why some novels take so long to write, and what writers can do to sustain themselves. (Panelists: Tova Mirvis, Rachel Cantor, Rachel Kadish, Joanna Rakoff, Sari Wilson)
“It’s the persistence that makes you a writer.”
“My sense is that publishing has changed to the point that, a few years ago, an agent might say this book isn’t quite where I want it to be, but I’ll work with the author a year or so and get it there. No more. Books today need to be as finished and polished as possible before they’re ever sent out.”
Such Mean Stories: Women Writers Get Gritty: Women writers of the south talk about “grit lit.” (Panelists: Luanne Smith, Jayne Anne Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Stephanie Powell Watts, Jill McCorkle)
“If we think about the reader as we’re writing, we’re putting blinders on ourselves as writers.” –Jayne Anne Phillips
“There is true fear about the power of women.” –Watts
“In fiction, I love to have that alter ego character who rises up and defends herself.” –Jill McCorkle
“I’ve probably learned more from my characters than they’ve ever gotten from me.” –Jill McCorkle
On unlikeable characters:
By giving readers the history of unlikeable characters early on, they reveal a life, and it makes the characters human. So even if it doesn’t excuse their actions, it helps readers understand why they are the way they are.
Recommended story: “Lechery” by Jayne Anne Phillips
So I’m neck-deep in the third rewrite of my new novel. How’s it going? Slowly, occasionally painfully, and all I want is to be done with it. I’m fighting my usual impulse to speed ahead, and instead slow down and stay in the scene. I’m winning the battle—some of the time.
Ever been there? It’s not that I don’t like the story. I do, very much., I’m just not convinced that my skills aren’t doing it justice. And then there’s the old “Just because I like it, doesn’t mean anyone else will.”
At times like this, I like to hop onto the Facebook feed of my old MFA writing professor Richard Bausch. A master himself, Dick is also honest about how hard this is, and he doesn’t mince words. He sets you straight, in the best possible way. All these years later, I want to say, “Thank you, Dick. Your influence is still resonating and more important than ever.”
Check out some of Richard Bausch’s rewrite advice:
“In revision, try not to think of the long outcome much. Just concentrate on this morning’s work. Just be faithful to that. Try to be as good as you can be without straining it: “This morning, I’m just going to mess with this scene. See if I can get it right, or clearer, or sharper. I’m only going to think about that. And when I’ve put in my two hours, I’m going to forget about it and enjoy things without reference to the work. The work’s done for the day. And tomorrow, I’ll come at it fresh. I don’t have to write the whole thing in one morning, so I won’t think about the whole thing. Just this. This here, this morning’s work.”
“About the heavy doubt: it’s normal; it’s the territory, the province, the wallpaper in what Jim Dickey called the cave of making. It is your talent itself that produces it. So write through it. Do the work. If you let it stop you, if you let it make you hesitate, you’re making the first and most elemental mistake, and you’re acting like a dabbler, an amateur. This day’s work. Each day.”
“Be patient, yes, and how hard that is, especially when it’s yourself with whom you have to be patient. It’s very hard, of course. But nobody ever said it would be easy. And one of the traps we fall into is thinking too much about the result–whatever we imagine or hope that might be. The real thing happening is that you are using your time in a way that answers you deep, no matter what fits it gives you, and it always feels better to have worked in a given day, no matter how badly the work seemed to go or how hard it was. To engage in the activity at all is to do something sustaining; and in fact it gives meaning to everything else. That’s why I keep repeating the mantra: this day’s work. Just this day’s work. Did I work today. If the answer’s yes, no other questions. It’s enough. Try to forget about it and go have fun–enjoy that most delicious feeling of wasting time when you have used it well earlier.”
“Someone told you somewhere, or inadvertently communicated to you sometime, that it would get easier? It gets harder, because you know more. Instead of putting down the first or second line that occurs to you IN REVISION, you think of fifty-five others that each have their advantages and disadvantages, and you start really getting down into the deeps of it, including what it is you are seeking in terms that have nothing to do with the STORY: you want others to know how deeply sympathetic you are to human troubles; you want others to have a sense of the sorrows you carry around like everyone else; you want others to know how much you know; you want others–even this–to see what you can do with a sentence, with your extensive vocabulary and your gift for metaphorical speech–and all of that has to be subordinated to the demands of the STORY that you are not even, quite yet, sure of. No, it will not get easier–its complications will change away from the ones you had when you were new; but these complications multiply, and exacerbate themselves as you grow. What you can do, simply, is accept this, and do the work. Even when it seems completely closed to you. Accept it as your destiny as an artist and go on with it. You’re not experiencing anything that everyone else hasn’t also experienced. Remember Joseph Conrad, having his wife lock him in a room and then shouting “Let me out. I’m a fraud. I never could do this.” And he was working on his twelfth novel.”
“I think that no matter how hard it is and no matter how difficult the subject, and no matter how dark your vision, writing a novel is always an act of optimism, even of faith–a generous expansion of one’s being toward something outside the self, and by definition, then, a giving forth for others of your kind. Inherently beautiful and valuable as an occupation, even if it takes years, and, yes, even if no one ever sees it. And, too, even if it is destined to be forgotten, to disappear. Wright Morris: two National Book Awards, one as a photographer, sixteen novels. Gone. Vance Bourjaily, Thomas Williams, William Goyen, George Garrett–one can’t find the books. And they were such wonderful writers. So, do the work for itself. And fuck all else. Make the record, and stop worrying about your place in the scheme of things literary.”
“I used to have terrible anxiety before I’d start a session of work–this was after Iowa, and I was thirty and should have known better. I’d pace and sigh and get a stomach ache, afraid it wouldn’t go well. Such a waste of energy, and what a lot of hell I put myself through, like some atavist cowering at a shape in the clouds. I should’ve been saying prayers of gratitude for the chance to fail my way toward something beyond me. Just for the happy fact that I had this work to do, and a place to pursue it, the need to try. I should’ve been celebrating that.”