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Archive for the category “Writing Inspiration”

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.

 

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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!

From Limbo to Publication

From Karen:

We’re giving our heartiest congratulations to first-time novelist Magdalena Waz whose novel, Return on Investment, won the Fiction Attic Press Debut Novel Contest this year. Fiction Attic, headed by founder Michelle Richmond, is publishing some of the most interesting new fiction out there today.

Magdalena’s smart new novel is a great example. Magdalena’s work has also appeared in Threadcount, The Collagist, and Rabbit Catastrophe Review. She is currently the Features Editor at Bushwick Daily.

Here, she discussed the uncertain journey to publication and the stuff you learn along the way.

Please welcome Magdalena to Write Despite.

return-on-investment-red-coverEvery manuscript has a different path to publication, and every writer has a slightly different battle to fight when it comes to choosing one or choosing to take any at all. Writing Return on Investment was far easier than coming to terms with the fact that it was getting published. This was the first novel attempt I had actually completed and the first time I had committed to some kind of story arc for more than 20 pages.

Some of these chapters are three and a half years old; some are two years old. Some of them have been edited four to five times and drastically; others have been tweaked in small ways that likely only matter to me. I could have lived in that limbo-y “it’s not quite done yet” stage for years.

But I was done with grad school, working odd jobs, having trouble focusing on new and old projects alike. The only logical solution at the time was to submit any writing and fill those free hours with something that felt like action.

Of course, anyone who has submitted stories, poems, or manuscripts to contests or journals knows how little action there really is. I was addicted to those short moments of exhilaration: the moment when I hit submit, and the moment when I saw an email notification from Submittable.

I had sent in my manuscript to Fiction Attic’s contest on a whim one summer soon after signing up for a weekly newsletter called “Sapling” which curates a short selection of submission opportunities, contests, and interviews with editors and publishers (I highly recommend it).

I found out over Thanksgiving weekend. I was admiring my mom’s new dining room table when I got the notification, and I read the email multiple times before I shared it. And then for months I did not believe it was real. There were whole days where the limbo voice woke up somewhere in me and insisted I was rushing, that I hadn’t sat on the manuscript for long enough, that I hadn’t written the whole story.

But this process has been very informative. This particular manuscript’s path to publication taught me that I am happiest when I am sharing what I write. Giving my writing a public life is what motivates me to write more. Without feedback in a workshop, I would have never finished the manuscript in the first place, and without taking the plunge and submitting, I would have never figured out what I need to do in order to keep writing.

profileforwebsite

 

 

Q & A with Author P.J. Devlin

pag–From Cathy

P. J. Devlin tells stories about relationships. Whether writing of a witch, a dwarf, an elderly woman, teenagers, or indentured servants, her characters exist in the Philadelphia of her birth and share her love of the Wissahickon Creek. She is currently working on her third book with Possibilities Publishing Company.

wissahickon coverWissahickon Souls is Devlin’s historical novel set in the early 19th century, which follows the life of a free black woman born to free black parents in Philadelphia. 

Becoming Jonika is her coming-of-age novel set during the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s.

Please welcome P.J. Devlin to Write Despite!

jonika cover

 

 

What is your writing process like?

The genesis of each of my stories, including my novels, comes from an image. Most of these images have bounced around my mind for years before they emerge and announce themselves as ready to write. For example, the short story titled “Original Sins” (which will appear in my short story collection to be published summer 2016), developed from a visit I made as a teenager to a house where statues of saints appeared in every nook and cranny. That image stayed with me for more than 40 years before becoming a story (unrelated to that household except for the statues).

Once I have a story idea, I need to visualize the last scene. I think of my writing process as being a journey and I want to know where I’m going before I start. I’ve come to realize my best work results from thinking through the entire story by way of structure—especially the three-act structure.

When I know the story ending, I go to my white board and note the story’s theme, characters, plot, and initiating incident. Then I make three columns and label them: Act I, Act II, Act III. In Act I and Act II columns, I list scenes and turning points. In Act III I list the final complication scene and the resolution. For a novel, I make a list of chapter titles as points of reference to help with the forward momentum of the story. Then I start to write. While my initial thoughts about story scenes change as the story progresses (the value of the white board is that it’s easy to erase), I find the time I spend before I get going to be my most valuable investment in the finished product.

Do you write every day?

A writer whose name I don’t remember was asked that question in an interview I happened to hear. He said his practice was to write 5 hours a day 5 days a week. That’s the model I try to follow, although many weeks I write every day, especially when I’m working on a deadline – self imposed or for publication. I work best in the morning, but those mornings when something interferes—a doctor’s appointment, a household repair, it doesn’t take much—I know I won’t be able to focus later on. Those days I read instead of writing. I read craft books as well as fiction and nonfiction.

Favorite five authors or books?

I love Stephen King, especially 11-22-63, The Stand, and It.

I’ve read most of Jodi Picoult’s novels. She’s a great storyteller.

Donna Leon writes wonderful, rich mystery novels set in Venice, Italy.

Octavia Butler, the first black woman to write sci-fi novels, is one of my favorite authors. Kindred is an important novel, in my opinion.

And George Mason University’s Susan Shreve is a brilliant writer—Daughters of the New World, A Student of Living Things, Warm Springs, and A Country of Strangers are my favorites.

It seems you came to be a writer later in life. Why, and how did you accomplish it?

I’ve been a writer from the moment I learned the alphabet and put pencil to paper. My mother saved a little notebook in which I wrote stories in a baby scrawl when I was five years old. I’ve always known my destiny is to write stories. I wrote stories throughout grade school, high school, and college. But I’m a practical person and before I started my junior year in college, I decided what was most important was to be independent with the ability to support myself and my family whether or not I was married. I changed my major to economics then and studied to earn a BA, MA, and PhD. While my husband and I raised our four children, I worked for Fairfax (Virginia) County Government as a financial analyst and for five of those years, also taught Economics at Northern Virginia Community College. But I never lost sight of my goal to write fiction. As soon as I put in enough years to earn my pension, in 2008, I retired from Fairfax County and entered the George Mason University Creative Writing Program. I knew I had some talent but I was well aware I lacked skill and craft. To the extent I’m now a published author, the Mason faculty and the writers I attended classes with have been instrumental in helping me find my path.

In many ways my ability to live the writing life now results from my youthful decision to live the earning life. I’m awed and impressed by my young colleagues who manage to write while raising their families and paying the bills.

Why did you choose to go the nontraditional publishing route and not through an agent?

At writers’ conferences, I always attended sessions with agent panels and those about finding an agent. (I casually spoke to a few agents and found them to be lovely people). I also attended sessions with newly published writers who’d found agents and who spoke about their experiences. Each of these authors told of years-long (eight years or more from novel completion to publication) struggles to find an agent, for the agent to sell their book, and for the publishing company to include the book on its publication list for an upcoming year. A Caldecott Award-winning author reported that for a number of years (five perhaps?), the publishing house that owned the rights to her book dropped it from annual lists until she despaired of it ever being published. It eventually was published and won awards. I’ve spoken with other authors and learned of similar time-consuming and soul-stealing experiences with traditional publishing.

With my background in economics and lifetime of financial analysis, I spent some time considering the benefits and costs of pursuing the traditional publishing model versus self-publishing versus small press publishing and decided the small press publishing model offered the optimal solution for me. Time was and is my most precious resource and traditional publishing, even in the best-case scenario, requires more time from book completion to publication than I’m willing to accept. Furthermore, all publishing models, including traditional, require the author to engage significantly in the advertising and marketing of her book. For me, the reward-risk ratio excluded the traditional publishing model.

Fortunately, I met my publisher, Meredith Maslich, CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company (PPC), at the 2013 Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University. I liked her business model and I respected her vision. Furthermore, PPC is a local publisher. PPC is hands-on and author-centric. Within one year of signing a contract, my first novel, Wissahickon Souls, was published. A little over a year later, my second novel, Becoming Jonika, was published. In July 2016, a collection of short stories, Wishes, Sins and the Wissahickon Creek, is scheduled for publication. It’s inconceivable that my work would be published so expeditiously following a traditional model.

What have been the best and worst parts of your publishing journey?

The best part of my journey is the respect, integrity, and commitment of Meredith Maslich, my publisher. In addition, Kirsten Clodfelter, a Mason MFA grad, has edited my novels and is a joy to work with.

I don’t know that I’d call it the worst, but certainly the hardest part of this journey is advertising and marketing. I’m no good at it. And since my publisher, PPC, is a young company, we’re struggling together to figure out how to get my work and other PPC authors’ work noticed by a wide audience. I admit that I don’t have the knowledge, skill, or even inclination to utilize social media as a means of reaching a wider audience.

What are you working on now?

I’m completing the final requirements for the upcoming short story collection—Wishes, Sins and the Wissahickon Creek. As soon as I can, I’m returning to the magical realism novel I’ve been working on. I can’t wait to get back to it.

What advice do you have for others (publishing, writing tips, inspiration, etc.)?

Writing is work. It’s often joyful, fulfilling, and gratifying. But it’s work. Some days each sentence is a struggle. But if writing is the work you love and the life you desire, then you have to go for it. I advise writers to study the craft—through books, conferences, and other writers. My breakthrough came after I studied story structure. One craft book I often refer to is Oakley Hall’s How Fiction Works. I believe a writer has to find her or his own inspiration. Mine is the little memo book with stories I wrote at age five, which my mother saved all her life.

My advice on publishing is that I don’t have any advice. My decision to go with a small publisher was based on a concept I learned in economics—optimizing my personal objective function. If you can stomach considering that concept, then figure out what’s your most important objective for your finished work and what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to reach that objective. Then go forth.

 

Writerly New Years Resolutions You Ought to Try

Bystanders_SM

As we gear up for a new year, Tara Laskowski, author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons (Matter Press 2012) and the forthcoming Bystanders (Santa Fe Writers Project 2016) is kindly sharing some suggestions that will benefit your craft, as well as your karma.

Happy Writing in the New Year. Make 2016 your most productive—and more importantly, most fulfilling—yet.

Please welcome Tara to Write Despite.

***

Yep, it’s that time—to commit to something (or several somethings) that you’ll accomplish over the next year. To change the ways that you’re less proud of. To start over, reset, renew.

Only 8 percent of people are successful in achieving New Years resolutions. Perhaps this is because we dream too big and set ourselves up for failure? Whatever the case, I’m presenting to you some resolutions that I’ve tried in the past or would like to try this year. Some are bigger, and some are tiny—and achievable—I swear! I hope they spark some ideas for you and make your 2016 full of happy reading and successful writing.

Re-read a book you love. If you’re at all like me, you’ve got a stack of books somewhere that you want to get to, but can’t ever seem to. You can’t really imagine taking the time to go back and read something you’ve already read, even if you love it.

Well, give yourself permission to do it. For every two or three new books you read, re-read something you love. I have started re-reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis again, and it is giving me such pleasure to revisit these characters. Also on my list—Mrs. Dalloway, the Harry Potter series, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Secret History.

Subscribe to a literary journal. Lit magazines are struggling. They get more submitters than subscribers in many cases. Find one that you love, and buy an annual subscription. Then read it. If you find a story you really love, email the writer and let him or her know.

Swap favorite books with a writer friend. Ask your friend to name two books that changed her life (that you haven’t read yet.) Then give her two books that you adore that she hasn’t read. Read them. Discuss over drinks and sweets. Consider your life changed and enriched.

Write something outside your genre, just for fun. Normally write novels? Try flash fiction. Are you a poet, always a poet? Why not write a crime fiction story? Instead of science fiction, ground yourself in reality for a time. Pulling out of your comfort zone can get your brain thinking in different ways. A bonus: it also takes the pressure off and gives you the freedom to just explore for a while.

Several of the stories in my new collection exist only because of this experimentation. The story “The Monitor” was my attempt to write something with supernatural elements in it—a woman who starts to see a ghost in her baby monitor. The story ended up getting taken by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Another story, “Every Now and Then,” was the result of me messing around with writing modular stories—a form I’ve grown to love. If I hadn’t tried to break out of my writing comfort zone, these stories wouldn’t exist.

Review books on Amazon. This is a really easy and cheap way to show love to the writers you know and adore. There are many articles out there about why and how Amazon reviews are good for the writer. Take five minutes and write a thoughtful, honest review of a recent book you read and post it on Amazon—and Goodreads, too! I promise you that you will make that writer’s day.

Finish that one project that’s lurking behind you. Maybe it’s the novel you’ve been writing for seven years, or the story where the concept is great but you can’t get the ending right. Or the collection of short stories that needs three or four more to flesh it out. Whatever the writing project, make 2016 the year to tackle it. And then go for it. You can do it. I’m cheering you on!

"Tara Laskowski"

Tara Laskowski grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania and now navigates traffic in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. She is the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons (Matter Press 2012) and the forthcoming Bystanders (Santa Fe Writers Project 2016). Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Since 2010, she has been the editor of SmokeLong QuarterlyShe and her husband, writer Art Taylor, write the column Long Story Short at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Tara earned a BA in English with a minor in writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University.

Writing Conference Takeaways

conferenceFrom Cathy

I recently attended a great writing conference in Washington, DC and swore I’d go straight home and compile all the information for Write Despite and post it ASAP.

That was in April.

But hey, I’ve finally done it.

At the Conversations and Connections: Practical Advice on Writing conference, I took pages of notes, and I highly recommend you do this too if you attend a conference yourself. I can’t believe what great little gems were included in my notebook and in the handouts from the sessions, all of which I would have forgotten about if I hadn’t re-read them, and then re-keyed them for all of you. So thank you. And you’re welcome.

From the panel Cross Genre: Tricks Fiction Can Steal from Nonfiction (And Vice-Versa)

This was a panel discussion with writers Roy Kesey, Tom Bligh, Kathleen Wheaton, and Eric Boyd. I took down some cool, inspiring quotes. Sorry I didn’t also take down who said them.

  • “Use truth in your story, and something will happen.”
  • “Pretend you’re in a bar, and write like you’re talking to the person next to you.”
  • “Believe that you’re writing the news of the world. Whatever you’re writing is universally shared. Believe it, and your writing will be richer.”Just Believe
  • “You can’t spell authority without ‘author.’ The reader must believe what’s happening. Do your best; let life do the rest.”

From Publishing: The Editor’s Panel

Editors included Rae Bryant, TJ Eckleberg Review, Sarah Boyle, The Fourth River and Pank, Mark Drew, Gettsyburg Review, Nate Brown, American Short Fiction, and J.W. Wang, Juked and Potomac Review

The panel was asked to tell us a bit about the nuts and bolts of submissions.

Brown: American Short Fiction gets about 8,500 submissions a year, 250 a month. Three editors decide on the stories, and all must agree on what they choose to publish.

Boyle: Pank reads July 1 to September 1 and in December. If a story gets two likes from our student editors, it goes to the genre editors, and they decide.

Drew: At Gettysburg Review, two editors make all the decisions, but interns pass them along first.

Wang: Initial readers look at stories, but I choose all of them, and therefore the editorial focus is very tight and distinctive.

What exactly are you looking for?

Drew: Openings are important, but the writing must be sustained. Language is the most important thing. It can’t be clichéd, and no grammatical errors. Interesting characters and compelling motivation are also big factors.

Brown: The sentence matters most. String enough good ones together, and the story will be published. I can’t care more about the piece than the writer does.

Wang: Voice. Must be confident and assured, so I can trust it to take me somewhere.

All agreed they want authority of narrative.

What if things in a story put you off, say an unlikable character or upsetting event?

WarningDrew: If it’s authoritative, I’ll stay with it. But it must be earned. Things like animals being killed in stories has been way overused.

Wang: Like it or not, every story is political.

Brown: The higher the moral stake, the better the writer must be.

Boyle: I won’t publish certain stories, such as those that contain violence against women, animals, or children. But it’s selectivity, not censorship.

From Scene-by-Scene: Writing the Irresistible Story

Panel discussion with writers Laura Ellen Scott, Jen Michalski, Lauren Foss Goodman, and Catherine Belle

The most important person to have in a scene is the reader. Bring them there. You want them to experience it, not just read about it, by:

  • Using their physical senses
  • Giving them a position, a point of view
  • Giving them some attitude
  • Not telling them everything; leaving something out, and leaving it up to them, so they have to make an investment

Quick notes on scene building:

Consider the large structure and the relationship of the scenes within it. Use the “Scene plus Sequel” pattern, which is:

  • Each scene includes a goal, conflict, and disaster.
  • Each sequel includes reaction, dilemma, and decision.

The job of a scene is to:

  • Advance the story
  • Show conflict
  • Introduce or develop a character
  • Create suspense
  • Create atmosphere
  • Provide information
  • Develop theme

Remember that:

A scene should start with action. Use it to differentiate your characters. They should each move and speak differently.

If you’ve set a scene somewhere unusual, really describe what it’s like. But if you’re at McDonald’s, leave out lots of description, because it’s unnecessary.

A character wants something to happen. Your job is to never allow this to happen until the end. The story is the struggle to get there.

Go paragraph by paragraph through your work and ask, What work is this paragraph doing for the story? If nothing, toss it. If something, refine it or maybe move it, based on the task it’s completing.

Tips for organization:index cards

  • Write and write a shitty first draft, then go back and craft it into something. Get organized by using index cards. Not only do they force you to be succinct, but you can color code them by theme, time, and character. Use them for a “reverse outline” (where you start from something instead of nothing). Then turn them around and shuffle them up to mix up the plot.
  • Use a word processing program like Scrivener. This solves organization problems. It gives you a binder, chapters, bulletin board of notecards, pictures that inspire your work, an archive for your research, tutorials, a note taking tool, etc., all for $40. Or you can try WriteWay Pro, WriteItNow, or yWriter5 (which is free!).
  • Try flow charts: Draw the structure to re-see your work off the screen and think about it differently. Use Google drawings, or mind mapping apps like Scapple and Scrivener.
  • Use a spreadsheet to create a scene list, or a “God’s eye view” of a story. Color code it.
  • Get project management apps like Workflowy and Trello.
  • Or use content curation apps like Pinterest, Scoop It!, Flipboard, etc., and social bookmarking apps.
  • Google Apps Suite is cloud-based and free, and lets you work from anywhere.
  • Try the snowflake method for designing a novel.
  • Stuck? Bored? Come up with new ways of seeing your story: Print it. Draw it out. Change the font. Read it out loud. Record it. Carry it around and touch it. And don’t forget to share it when you’re ready.

The Camera Doesn’t Lie

From Karen:

Okay, so these aren’t the most flattering photos, but they are pretty darn funny.

They were shot during my reading and signing at Tolland Public Library in Connecticut last week.  Many thanks to Kate Farrish for organizing.

It was a lovely event, lots of nice readers (phew) and a lively discussion. Those of you contemplating your first reading/signing events should know this: People are really nice at these things. No kidding. They’re there because they’re interested in writing and stories…and in your work! Many know how difficult the process is and admire your persistence and dedication.

The audience also seems to know when you’re bluffing and when you’re speaking from the heart. I received a few comments afterwards on how much audience members appreciated my warm and candid comments. THAT was nice to hear.

Questions I received touched on my writing process, how I got the idea for this book, what I’m working on now (a new novel) and how tough it is to break into publishing today. I answered as best I could, no whitewashing, just telling it like is. And that was the most fun of all.

I’ve added captions to these photos, illustrating a little—just a little—of what was running through my mind…

Will anyone show up?

Will anyone show up?

Hope the hands make me look like I know what I'm talking about.

Hope the hands make me look like I know what I’m talking about.

They're nodding and smiling. Maybe I should say that again.

They’re nodding and smiling. Maybe I should say that again.

You're going to give me money?

You’re going to give me money?

Guest Blog: Writing Tips from Author Kirsten Lopresti

Transparent_Christmas_Mistletoe_ClipartKirsten Lopresti, having just released her fab-tastic debut novel, Bright Coin Moon, offers up some tips for fitting writing into your holiday craziness. Please check out her website, and order a copy of Bright Coin Moon for yourself or any YA readers on your gift list. It’s a smart, funny, moving tale of a teenager caught up in her mother’s fake fortunetelling business, and her plan to become a Hollywood “Psychic to the Stars.”

Happy holidays, everyone!

How to Find Time to Write This Holiday Season

Kirsten Lopresti

Kirsten Lopresti

The holiday season is upon us, and if you are like me, your to-do list is sky high. So how do you find time to write? Here are five suggestions that might help you squeeze in a little more time.

  1. Make a plan. If you leave it up to chance that you will find some time to write each day, you probably won’t. Take a close look at your schedule. Can you write after dinner? During your lunch break? At your daughter’s dance class while you are waiting for her to come out? How do mornings work for you? Evenings? How do you realistically function with less sleep? Decide how much time you can give to your writing and exactly when you will do it. Try to stick to the same time each day if you can. If you make it a habit, it will become easier to sit down and begin.
  2. Give yourself permission to cut some corners with your holiday preparations. Shop online. Buy some cookies from the grocery store and attempt to pass them off as homemade. Splurge for a house cleaner if you have company coming. Do whatever it takes. You deserve some time to enjoy the season, too.
  3. Cut corners with your writing, too. It’s not an all or nothing thing. If you usually have an hour to devote to writing, during the holiday season you may only have half an hour. Accept this and go on.
  4. writing_letter_1207Don’t compete with others. This goes for your writing as well as for your holiday preparations. If your neighbor’s Elf on the Shelf gives surprise presents and bakes cookies and yours can’t manage to hang upside down from a new place each morning, try not to think too much about it. There are no set rules for holiday preparations. Make a priority list and write at the top, “Priority number 1: keeping my sanity.” All other priorities from two on down should bow to that one.
  5. If you’ve made a plan and a priority list and you still can’t find time to write right now, don’t beat yourself up. If you’ve seen the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you may remember the scene where Walter meets the photographer. He’s sitting on the hill, waiting for his opportunity to film the snow leopard, but when it finally appears, he doesn’t take the shot. When Walter asks him why, he replies, “Sometimes I don’t.” He then goes on to explain that he’d rather be in the moment sometimes, even if it means missing a really great picture. So if you need a few weeks off, take it. It could be that enjoying the holiday season is exactly what you need to be doing right now.

A Novel November

October has a mere three days left, and you fiction writers all know what that means…

Yes, it’s NaNoWriMo time!

Nanowrimo logoNaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—invites you … no, encourages … actually  it sort of demands that you write a whole novel in one month. It’s how I wrote a book, many years ago, and it’s one of the best things I ever did. And no, I haven’t sold the book. It’s still sitting in a drawer, grumbling  whenever I walk by, reminding me it exists and it still needs work and I need to dust it off and get over myself already …

But I digress.

My point is, I wrote a book thanks to this challenge. So did Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus) and Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), among others. And so can you.

For me, the best thing about NaNoWriMo was that it forced me to forge ahead with what the nano people call the “craptastic” first draft, and silence my internal editor. My first draft switched back and forth from first to third person, past and present tense, and included breaks in the story that simply said “Needs more dialogue here,” and “Set the scene!” and “Fill in with some back story.” I did go back and work on all these things later, but in the heated frenzy of creation, I didn’t want the deliberation they required to slow me down. I couldn’t, because the whole point of the challenge is to write a 50,000-word novel (a very short novel by industry standards) in the month of November.

tipsIf you’re thinking of doing NaNoWriMo, the Internet offers no shortage of advice. Here are a few tips of my own:

  • First, sign up on the NaNoWriMo site. You could do the challenge without signing up, of course, but why would you? The site lets you record your daily word count, rewards you with badges along the way, and offers up advice via newsletters and forums. It also lets you find a community of writers so you can…write-in
  • Team up with someone. Find groups in your area hosting events and write-ins and offering general support. Or just have write-ins with friends, live or via skype.
  • Set yourself up with a Dropbox account if you haven’t done so already. That way you can write from any computer, anywhere, and not have five different versions of your masterpiece floating around.
  • Get apps, if you’re into that, to help you along. Some of them are described here.
  • Do the math: 50,000 words in 30 days equals 1,666 words a day. (This little blog post is nearly half that already.) But if you’re the take-the-weekend-off type, that’s 2,500 words a day. If you’re the take-the-weekdays off type, that’s 5,000 words every Saturday and Sunday (November has five weekends this year). And if you write long on some days and short on others, just figure out what suits your work style best and stick with it.clock
  • Sneak in writing wherever you can—during lunch breaks and football practices, at the dinner table and in bed. Keep a notebook on every level of your house in case inspiration, or a commercial, strikes.
  • Give yourself permission to drop off the radar for a while. That might mean fewer social gatherings, school events, kitchen cleanings, TV viewings, or bedtime stories. Ditch the guilt. It’s only for a month, and then you’ll be back in your old routine—but, with any luck, still working away on your book when you can.
  • And most importantly, prepare to get blown away by this. Creativity, when a word count hovers and a deadline looms, can freeze you right into writer’s block. But if you’re open to it, it can surge through you—free up your inner artist and push you to imagine new worlds and take risks on the page. Let it. If you’re stuck, make notes, and move on. Because this challenge ends at 11:59, November 30, 2014. And you want to be typing THE END by then.the end

Are you up for NaNoWriMo? Let us know! We’d love to hear all about your progress.

You can get all the details here.

Write well, everyone—and write a lot!

―Cathy

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