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Archive for the category “Writing Inspiration”

A little advice from Nobel laureates

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

Enjoy. Take your inspiration where you find it.

Peace,

Karen

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Staying in the Scene

Hey Friends,

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.”

 

–Karen

Getting Close to Your Characters

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.

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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.”

Character-motivation-quote-Kazuo-Ishiguro

  • A good tip—use verbs that are associated with sex; they’re already sensual and evocative!

–Karen

 

What are you reading this fall?

Hi All,

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…

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…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.

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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!

–Karen

From Paris with love, kinda

Friends —

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.

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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!

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Check back often and share Michelle’s journey!

–Karen

 

Happy Pub Day, Vanessa Hua!

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.

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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!

From Vanessa:

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.

 

Anthology Seeks Tales of Triumph

A new season brings a new lineup of writing contests. We’d like to bring one to the attention of aspiring, and established, writers, because it’s being judged by none other than my Write Despite co-host Cathy Cruise.

Possibilities Publishing Company’s 2018 Anthology Contest is looking for stories–both fiction and nonfiction–that deal with the theme of triumph.In the publisher’s words, they’re seeking “those moments of triumph, of victory, of doing the things that seemed un-doable. It can be the types of triumphs that everyone relates to, or something that only mattered to one person. Victories that are earth shattering or just day brightening. We want them all.”

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Possibilities is the press that published Cathy’s book, and we all saw what a super nice job they did. They really crank the publicity machine for their authors. Just last week, Cathy found out her book has been named a finalist in the 2018 Indie Book Awards.

Cathy, and her co-judge Jennifer Crawford, will do a bang-up job, and they’re actively seeking submissions! So, get yours in pronto. Submission deadline is July 15.

Now, if you’re not fortunate enough at the moment to be telling stories of victory, there are plenty of other, diverse contests out there. Here’s just a small sample. Good luck!

–Karen

Midway Journal’s 1,000-Below Flash Prose and Poetry Contest
Entry fee: $10
Deadline: May 31, 2018
$500 + publication first prize, and other lesser prizes
Submit up to 1,000 words of flash, 40 words or poetry.
http://midwayjournal.com/contest/

American Fiction AwardsPost-Publication awards for full-length fiction book
Deadline: May 31, 2018
Entry fee: $69.00 per title/per category
Open to all books published between 2016 and 2018.
http://americanbookfest.com/americanfictionawards.html

Golden Walkman Magazine Contest
Entry fee: $10
Deadline: July 31, 2018
Winning manuscript published solely as an audiobook, and awarded a sum of money (to be determined by the success of the contest).
Submit no more than 30 pages of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or hybrid.
https://www.goldwalkmag.com/audiochapbook-contest.html

Sequestrum New Writer Awards
Entry fee: $15
Deadline: October 15, 2018
$200 first prize, and other lesser prizes
Open to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from new and emerging writers.
http://www.sequestrum.org/contests

 

 

 

 

 

Step-by-Step

–From Karen:

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.

 

gotta start

Chapter One, get moving. The Mountain—like the last page—won’t come to you.

 

2 keep going

Picking up speed, but pace yourself. One scene at a time.

 

3. early moments of inspiration

Moments of early inspiration.

 

4. gaining altitude

Look out for those rocky patches, and there are a lot of them.

 

5. uphill climb

This is called an uphill climb, dig deep and keep pushing.

 

6. a rest

Save your file, time for a coffee break. God bless the team that pitched these shelters along the mountain trail.

 

7. the end in sight

The end is in sight. Your feet are sore and your legs ache, but there’s no way you’re quitting now.

 

the end

The end: A view worth climbing for. The manuscript’s ending? I’ll let you know when I get there.

 

Book Group Fun

From Cathy:

I just want to say: Book groups rock!

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!photo (4) (1)

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.

photo (6)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!

–Cathy

Takeaways from AWP 2017

—From Cathy

AWP17Thumbnail (1)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.”flashfiction

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.”

Always read your work aloud.”

Recommended book: The Artist’s Way  by Julia Cameron

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.61399611

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.

images“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.

Read Katherine Stripling Beyer, a writer similar to Lee Smith.

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.

Recommended books:

The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow

Killers of the Dream and Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith

Trampoline, Robert Gipe, on duality of Appalachia

Panel: Conversation with Ann Patchett and Emma Straub

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Emma Straub, Ann Patchett

“Don’t think, what type of book should I write? Writing is most successful when it sounds the most like you. When the voice is right, it feels alive.” –Straub

“Fiction is a way we can play out an alternate universe. Like in It’s a Wonderful Life. If I’d taken a left instead of a right 20 years ago…” –Patchett

Book lovers want something smart and funny. Where’d  You Go, Bernadette?, Cold Comfort Farm, The Vacationers…things they feel proud for having read. Makes them feel great. –Patchett

Ann Patchett talked about her bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville. Her upcoming picks for best reads:

Lincoln at the Bardo, George Saunders

Chemistry, Weike Wang

Do Not Become Alarmed, Maile Meloy

Sing, Unburied, Sing —“a Beloved for this generation,” by Jesmyn Ward

The Leavers, “depressing but great,” by Lisa Ko

Patchett was asked about the new administration and one thing she’d advise writers and book lovers to do to resist and to make a difference:

“Open a bookstore. People don’t want to be alone. You can’t go to J Crew and come together. At a bookstore, everybody is welcome. And it feels wonderful to have community right now.”

 To the Finish Line: Completing and Promoting the Novel
(Panelists: Melissa X. Golebiowski , Cynthia Bond, J. Ryan Stradal , Katie Freeman, Carmiel Banasky)

“My goal is to get 50 rejections a year.”

Check out the Hot Dish reading series in LA. Maybe start something similar in your town?

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.”

cropped-gritlit-logo1Such 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

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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

Recommended book: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts, E-Weekly Most Anticipated Book.

Next year’s AWP Conference is in Tampa. Go if you possibly can. You won’t regret it!

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