I’ve been a journalist and a fiction writer. But essays? Not since school, and that was more, well, academic in nature.
I don’t know exactly what possessed me when I learned the Collegeville Institute was looking to build up its stable of freelance essay writers. I love the Collegeville Institute and its mission, and I think my heart just leapt at the prospect of being a part of it.
I’m thrilled to have published my latest this month. Take a look. I think the photo they chose way overshadows my essay, but in a good way.
Essay writing has been such a gift. It’s an unexpected platform, one whose benefits and challenges I am just beginning to understand. I feel lucky, blessed, to have stumbled upon this opportunity to write—in a different way—about the things that move, and resonate with, me.
The “me” part is a big leap. Writing as yourself—for fiction writers—can be a bit unnerving. But it can also be liberating and empowering. One of the reasons we write in the first place, I think, is to have the sheer pleasure, to experience the power, of matching our thoughts with just the right words. The pleasure of saying what you mean.
Essays are challenging in different ways than fiction. But some of the benefits are similar. They help me think through issues and sharpen and organize my understanding. In a nutshell, they help me make sense of it all. Isn’t that what writing is for?
Anyone else out there dabbling in a new different genre? Let us know.
Cathy and I have had a busy fall, writing and…drumroll…publishing. Every author knows that digital self-promotion is just part of the process today, like it or not. We don’t especially like it, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
In that spirit, we share our latest triumphs. We love the triumphs, don’t get me wrong. We just feel a tad squirrelly, tooting our own horns. So this time, I’m tooting Cathy’s, and she’s tooting mine.
Please join us in celebrating. It’s always a gift to find your way into print!
Cathy’s had a few publishing ups and downs lately. Her first novel, A Hundred Weddings, went out of print when her publisher folded. But she’s had two stories published in the last couple of months, and has another coming out in the spring. Check out “The Hunt” in Appalachian Heritage magazine, and “Dreaming about the Bouviers” in Pithead Chapel’s online journal. Look for “Gently Used” to appear in Wordrunner eChapbook’s April 2020 anthology.
Cathy’s strategy these days: “I use mostly use Submittable to send in stories (don’t we all?) and currently my list includes: six stories that are “Active,” exactly two that are “Accepted,” and a whopping 50 “Declined.” I also keep a submission folder in my inbox full of emails from publications that don’t use Submittable. Nearly all are rejections, of course. Some people would find this discouraging. I don’t. I always see it like playing the lottery. There’s that initial moment of disappointment when I first find out, and then the shrug, and the self-reminder that it’s all a big crap shoot anyway, and then the self-nudge of ‘Hey, you need to get that piece out again.’ And on it goes. Bottom line: ABS: Always Be Submitting!”
Karen has been up to her eyeballs in her novel rewrite, but she is psyched to have just placed an essay with the Collegeville Institute’s awesome online magazine, Bearings Online.
Karen explains: “I’ve been a follower of the Collegeville Institute for a few years. I love the way they examine spiritual and literary issues, encouraging exploration that unites the two.
Last year, I was brainstorming ideas that I could pitch as essays for their Bearings Online magazine. The work is so eclectic and thoughtful. I love scrolling through. I had an idea about the spiritual implications of feeding wild bird that just seemed to fit.
Everyone who knows me knows I love wild birds. They seem to wing their way into all my work. But when I pushed the concept of feeding them a little deeper, asking why we do it today on such scale, I realized that scattering seed is not a small act, but a large and symbolic one that resonates deeply for the feeder, as well as for the fed.
I queried the Institute with a few essay ideas, and their lovely digital team member author Stina Kielsmeier-Cook liked this one. (It was also my favorite!) But it had to wait, while I finished a novel draft rewrite. After I delivered the rewrite to Cathy a few weeks back, I turned to the birds. The essay flowed naturally from there, with one section leading to the next, and the Bible quotes serving as lovely introductions.
I am thrilled to be published on the Collegeville Institute’s platforms. They do a terrific job sharing their authors’ works, and encouraging participation. And I am in very good (and talented) company. Every time I go to the site, I learn something new and come away just a little bit better for it. You can’t ask more than that.”
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!
Something I’m keeping in mind as I work on a rewrite that’s taking my novel to a new place. Very exciting!
“Let your scenes play out. Don’t cheat your readers by trying to wrap up every scene too quickly. Events in real life don’t often end neatly; chances are neither will events in your story. Instead, let the falling action of each scene sow the seeds of the following scene’s rising action. Propel your audience through to the next plot point—make them want to keep reading.”
Last week I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic workshop at the Writers in Progress studio in beautiful Florence, Massachusetts. Led by author Jacqueline Sheehan, the workshop was called “Getting Close to Your Characters.”
Anyone who’s struggled with bringing characters and their motivations (real and hidden) to life knows what we’re talking about. It ain’t easy.
The studio described the challenge this way:
One of the main reasons why readers read is to slip inside the skin of another person. The most memorable characters are those we feel closest to: the ones whose feelings we feel and whose lives we experience…. But how do writers accomplish this intimacy while thinking about so many other things, like plot and pacing and character development?
Jacqueline keeps her workshops grounded in exercises and techniques that writers can immediately put to use. In fact, I went home and did exactly that in my novel draft.
We delved into point-of-view, motivation, physical setting, and verb tense as conduits to create intimacy between character and reader. I can’t put down all the good stuff I soaked up, but here are a few gems that REALLY struck me.
Characters need STRONG and CLEAR motivations in order to engage readers. Ratchet up the intensity of their desire. One common complaint among literary agents, Jacqueline says, is characters that are too PASSIVE.
So, the question becomes how we skillfully develop characters to SHOW the intensity of their motivation, and by extension, who they really are. Some techniques to get you there:
Engage the senses, make reading experiential. Sight, sound, and touch are of course important, but don’t forget the other sense. Smelling what a character smells, or tasting, gets the reader up personal and inside what the character is experiencing. Scent especially is a very primal sense, evoking memories and states of mind in an instant.
Let characters be vulnerable to pain. “Being stoic is not going to work,” as Jacqueline puts it. Show the reader how they react to fear, betrayal, abandonment, loss. “It’s very revealing how we respond to those hard things,” says Jacqueline, who, by the way, is also a psychologist. “Your core is revealed.” Help readers feel what your characters feel and they’ll go along for the ride.
Use powerful verbs! Brain imaging has shown that when you watch someone doing active things, the same part of your brain lights up as the person doing the action. So, if they leap, you take a mental leap. The same holds true for readers. So, don’t breathe heavily, pant or gasp or instead.
Use actions, not thoughts, to bring readers into a character’s mind. Watching someone throw a punch or flip the finger in traffic is a more telling display of their emotional state than saying their angry, even if they’re “quaking with angry.”
A good tip—use verbs that are associated with sex; they’re already sensual and evocative!
As we head into glorious autumn–my favorite season–there’s no shortage of great fiction to read. Cathy and I have been focusing on a couple of contemporary authors lately.
Cathy just finished these two by Elizabeth Strout, both of which she loved…
…while I just finished Lydia Millet’s “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” (blew me away) and I’m now enjoying the stories in “Fight No More.” She’s just amazing.
Share the titles that you’re enjoying this fall? We always love to hear what our friends are reading.
And if you’re in the Fairfax, Virginia, area Oct. 10 to 13, check out the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University. There’s a great lineup of speakers, including Elizabeth Strout, and lots workshops and discussion panels. Keep an eye out for Cathy!
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
Sweet Corn: A spring contest for short fiction and poetry, celebrates work that surprises, shocks, moves, or affects the reader while exploring human and natural environments. Submit up to three poems or a single short story of 5,000 words or less. First-place winners receive $500, publication in Flyway, and a box of organic Iowa sweet corn. Runners-up receive $50 and publication.
Sequestrum is accepting submissions for its second annual Editor’s Reprint Award. Open to reprints of fiction and nonfiction in any original format (electronic or print). Length and subject are open. One $200 prize plus publication. Minimum one runner-up prize including publication and payment.
Finding Mr. Right, an upcoming anthology, is seeking true story essay submissions from female writers worldwide. In addition to paperback publication, cash prizes of $200, $100 and $75 will be awarded to the top three authors that win our judges’ hearts in the categories of “Love At First Sight,” “Near Mrs.,” “Stupid Stuff I Did For Love,” “Were You There Along?” and “Table For One.”
Prizes: $1,500 first, $500 second, $250 third, and two $125 (Editor’s Choice). Winning stories will be read by three literary agencies. Honorable mentions and semi-finalists will be listed online for up to six months. No genre fiction (romance, horror, sci-fi); literary fiction only. Limit 6,000 words.
For an upcoming issue, Creative Nonfiction is seeking new essays about JOY. Creative Nonfiction editors will award $1,000 for Best Essay and $500 for runner-up. All essays will be considered for publication in a special “Joy” issue of the magazine to be published in winter 2017.
First prize $300. Second prize $150. Third prize $30. Poems can be rhyming or non-rhyming, although we find that non-rhyming poetry reads better. We suggest that you write about real emotions and feelings and that you have some special person or occasion in mind as you write.