Wrangling the Beast

Wrangling the Beast: Playing with Structure in the First Novel

Moderator: Joy Baglio; Panelists: Emma Komlos Hrobsky, Raluca Albu, Swati Khurana

Writers are often trying to subdue this beast of structuring something so large as a novel. The five panelists at this virtual panel at this year’s AWP conference gave their best advice on structure, and provided suggested reading and other tools to help you through.

It’s hard to think of structure as separate from story—like living in a house without the actual frame of the house.

Joy: The way I think of structure has a lot to do with story and plot, but also how it unfolds. It’s hard to think of structure as separate from story—like living in a house without the actual frame of the house. We can experience everything about the inside of the house—the furniture, decorations, what’s on the floors—but we’re also always experiencing the actual shape of the rooms, the walls, the full structure of the house.

Please describe what you’re working on and how you arrived at your novel’s structure.

Emma: I’ve been working on a novel for the last three-and-a-half years set in the world of experimental physicists. I had a clear picture about what I wanted the book to convey about motherhood, family, and particle physics, but less of a clear sense of structure. I have hard time making myself sit down and write because I work as an editor and I’m reading and working with writing all day. So I gave myself permission to write any part of the book I wanted—whichever part was most important to me at the time—and I ended up with fragments. It got the work done, but it was horrible for structure. I ended up playing with different structures until I arrived at a more straightforward, linear structure than I had thought it would be.

Raluca: I agree that giving yourself room to play helps you break away from expectations and tricks the mind into doing something different. My novel is about a secret police file of an illegal abortion doctor in communist Romania. It began as an immigrant story about my family. I based the policeman on my father, but the mother character was vague. So I wrote her through first-person. And this sneaky, smart voice came out that sounded like she was talking to someone. One thing led to another and I realized she was talking to an interrogator. After that I was able to nail that structure down and disengage so that suddenly everything was a surprise and became a little more fun to write.

Swati: My novel started in earnest seven years ago. It was set in Lahore, India from 1945-47. That’s where all of my grandparents are from and where they all migrated from. It’s a religiously plural region. I grappled with the question of how do I give a female character more agency, knowing the constrictions that existed for my grandmother. I imagined her as an artist and how, in a patriarchal world, women able to seize power did so through a male accomplice, which was her father. I started a prologue from a granddaughter but didn’t know what it was, so I removed it. When I had like 60,000 words and it still wasn’t making sense, I realized that narrator I got rid of is the person telling the story of her grandparents. So over the past three years it’s taken a different form. I decided to write it as a fictional podcast that sounds like a true crime podcast. So it has that level of discovery. Following conventions of dramatic writing, like TV pilots, gave me so much more to play with than just a novel.

Joy: I love the idea of following sparks of what is fun and what interests us most. I started with a  short story that I wanted to adapt to a novel about two sisters dealing with the fallout after their mermaid mother returns to ocean, and navigating their half-mermaid identity. As I pushed it forward into their lives, it wasn’t flowing and I was stuck. So I tabled it for over a year. When I came back to it, I had a breakthrough thought that it wants to live most in these fragment moments, these vignettes. So I reconceived of the structure, and it took off so much pressure of what I felt wasn’t working. My other novel is a ghost story about a protagonist who inherits a house full of ghosts that are searching for something that relates to her in her failed marriage. I used a traditional three-act structure for this one, which helped me. Something about this one works in that more traditional way.

What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve come up against in your work and what shifted you out of it?

Raluca: Mine was how do I make it realistic, to sound like a real police file and fill in information for the reader that wouldn’t necessarily show up in that file. So I read about what these files are like. A woman who did this actual work said they read like novels and the files sometimes include postcards and letters. I didn’t want to make readers do so much work at connecting the dots, so I decided to lean into it and not make it so much of a realistic file. It should be a more engaging story instead of letting the form stop it from happening.

Swati: I felt so much pressure because of these perfect novels that existed about the Indian partition. Finding this form and discovering this idea that I could maybe write this as fake nonfiction, in auditory form, made the hurdle of the grand failure to write a novel about partition turn into an experiment of how can I write a literary novel rooted in realism for an audio-fictional landscape?

So many of the hurdles get jumped with playfulness and experimentation.

Emma: Again, so many of the hurdles get jumped with playfulness and experimentation. I decided to have a mother and daughter each take half the narrative. But I found that the stakes were so much higher for the mom character that it made sense for the daughter’s narrative to sort of fall away, and it released me from a structure that was boxing me in. The book got a lot wilder when I did that and brought me closer to the most emotional material. I’ve made more space for her life and her ideas by releasing some of my control over the structure.

Does your sense of story reveal the structure—structural form vs. actual content of the story?

Swati: It seems like all of us kind of decided to commit more to a character or narrator. I spent about two to three years researching and mapping my favorite contemporary novels with omniscient narrators. But when I tried to do this, that’s when I realized the person I erased was actually the narrator. In terms of the form, the title of my book changed to My Grandmother Spoke to Tigers. With podcasts, there’s incredible writing happening for the ear. You hear someone’s voice for six to ten hours, like the length of a novel, and I’m absorbing this and thinking what would my character say? What would her voice sound like?

What’s influenced how you think of structure in your writing—authors, other works, symbols, visuals, structural models? What shape is your novel?

Emma: The biggest revelation I’ve had as a writer was the realization that form was another way to iterate content and to express what the heart of the book is. That’s not incidental, it’s a way to say what you want to say. I’ve used particle physics as a sort of metaphor for family and how elements stay together and break apart. There’s lots of fun language that physics lends itself to for structure.

Joy: Form is another way to iterate content. That’s pretty much the whole topic of this panel. It’s like solving a puzzle and when it comes together it’s a fabulous experience.

Swati: I looked at a book about writing by Mary Caroll Moore—Your Book Starts Here. She actually has a five-act structure: the triggering event, the first turning point, the conflict dilemma, the second turning point, and the resolution. She noted how, in films, things get really bad about 20 minutes before the end of the film: the house has burnt down, the child has run away, the marriage is cancelled, the car has blown up. That helped me think of how I can use that for either the arc of the entire project or the arc for certain characters. Shonda Rhimes has an amazing master class called “Writing for Television” that talks about coming up with characters. That helped me really think about things where I got away from the whole MFA idea of “this is all mysterious.” Actually, this is just okay. So you want to sell a TV show, here’s what you do.

What strategies have you tried and what tools do you recommend for structure?

Raluca: The book Meander, Spiral, Explode was really helpful because I was coming at this from a screenplay approach and it was making the writing very flat. Being able to write into surprise, noticing repetitions and recursions and letting them stay there, gives a deepening as you go. If you’re planning too much it’s harder to see what’s in the margins.

Emma: (Points to a wall of papers tacked up beside her desk.) My wall is my draft of my book. It’s probably the biggest single thing I’ve done to help myself craft this. Because I had all these fragments, I realized I needed a way to see them all together. I printed them all out and went to my friend’s house with big floors and I laid them out. It was the best moment. When I could see all these pieces together, I could see concretely that I’d written a lot that did add up to narrative. I could see scenes and forward motion and see the holes. I stacked the papers very carefully, then came home and taped them together up on my wall. I call it my “mind of the killer” wall. It’s a nice, tangible reminder of my progress and it feels so good to add to it as I go.

It was the best moment. When I could see all these pieces together, I could see concretely that I’d written a lot that did add up to narrative. I could see scenes and forward motion and see the holes.

Raluca: A professor had us read a short scene we’d written and then we had someone else act it out as improv. It was awesome. The book The Situation and the Story is about how to craft strong first-person narrators in nonfiction. That gave me a lot of ideas about what’s the difference between someone’s story and the actual situation they’re in? Take Gone Girl. The first part you’re with that person and getting the information you think you need and then in part two you realize that’s not the actual whole story. So watch lots of Netflix! It’s all research.

Joy: The way the three-act structure helped me is that I tried to abandon all the terminology behind it—plot point, pitch points, etc.—and came up with an exercise called story sketching. You free-write a page or so about everything you know about your book. Don’t worry too much about how it comes out. Then look in that free-write for three natural sections and write out separate paragraphs for each of those parts. Those are your three acts. Take paragraphs and condense them down to sentences that tell you the hearts of the three different acts. This allowed me to conceive of the whole book in one thought more or less. It allowed me to identify the heart of each act and the movement between them. I then did bullet lists of what happens in each part. I change it as I go to keep it current as things change. When the writing stalls, there’s something nice about having this other way to work on it. Let me go into this planner’s studio and mess around with plot and scene ideas to get me unstuck.

Raluca: I took a sense writing workshop. Where you go inside the body of a character, explain what it feels like to have their hands, what they were like as a child. This helps you go into unexpected places.

Swati: There’s a value in figuring out a structure for your writing life too. You can find online zoom writing communities. The Writer’s Hour is a global writing session. Find a writing buddy. Take online classes. An MFA is not necessary to write a novel. Sometimes the time and investment may make it come faster, but maybe not. Meeting other writers can help you find your first readers. Otter.ai is a transcription service that records your voice. Sometimes I narrate things because I can’t get to a computer and type it fast enough. If you have a full life, finding ways to re-engage with a long-term project really can help.

Joy: I’ll lay a notebook on my laptop or a note to myself so the next time I sit down I have to pay attention to that first. I run the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop. It’s free to all on the first Friday of the month. Come join us and write with us.

Any final words?

Emma: Keep the momentum going by staying connected to the joy and the surprises of the process. Access that energy rather than feeling like you have to focus on control. Also keep pitching your book to yourself—coming back to what is it and why you want to write about it.

Joy: Amy Bender said, “Go where the energy is in whatever you’re working on.” Find what makes you excited to do it. Also find what takes off the pressure. If it feels too large, too formidable, how can you lessen it? Like Emma’s fragments, finding the way in through whatever crack you can gets easier the more you look for those opportunities.

AWP Panels on Short Story Collections

—From Cathy

Hello all!

Here’s another post from the sessions Karen and I attended at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) last month in Philadelphia. Sorry for the delay, but as you can see, this post is massive and took a while to assemble. It combines two sessions we attended on short story collections—writing them, organizing them, submitting them.

Enjoy!

The stories I connected to the most emotionally were the ones I put in my collection. They had to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Session: Publishing Your First Story Collection

Panelists: Jen Fawkes, Caroline Kim, Matthew Lansburgh, Rachel Swearingen; Moderator: Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry

Panelists started by talking about their own collections (titles listed at the end of this post). Swearingen said she wrote her collection over a 10-year period. Kim wrote hers over 20 years, sent it directly to about 30 book contests, and got 17 straight rejections. An agent took Gorcheva-Newberry’s novel but wouldn’t take her collection, so she sent it out herself to contests.

Below are random quotes from throughout the session.

On creating and organizing collections:

  • Linked collections and “novel-in-stories” are all the rage right now.
  • Collections need to be a cohesive whole, there should be an arc, a through-line, in the collection.
  • There are different types of linked stories: reappearing characters, stories that are thematically linked, stories that share the same setting. Or you can get to know a single character better over the course of the stories.
  • You can start with the youngest protagonist and have them get older. Or have a theme. The stories I connected to the most emotionally were the ones I put in my collection. They had to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
  • Have a belief in your stories rather than an idea of publication. Mine is a mix of a novella, average stories, and “quick bites.” I put the most emotional stories up front, the more cerebral ones later. Half is flash fiction, half is full length. I placed them in order of one long, then one short, then one long.

On publishing a collection:

  • To sell a short story collection, it is critical that you also have a novel in progress or a really strong idea for one (the panel of agents emphasized this as well).
  • Do not fabricate some kind of forced link between stories in your query letter, The links have to be organic and real.
  • Stop thinking of stories as being so precious—don’t hold on and keep working on a story forever. Send it out and put that energy into the next one.
  • If you get advice on how to do a revision, take it. Don’t give up!
  • Remember what excited you about writing in the first place. Keep that excitement up while you’re in the midst of trying to publish.
  • To get over a rejection, get yourself excited about a new work in progress.

On the writing process:

  • I’ve just been playing lately. The world is so heavy right now that I had to get back to reinvention. When I’m stuck, I print out old stories, cut them up, put the pieces in a sack, and throw them on the floor. When I put the pieces back together randomly it usually helps me make something new emerge.
  • I don’t sit and make myself write. Something in life happens and then I write about it. I work on multiple pieces simultaneously, so if I get stuck I can move on with something else.
  • I always have three to four stories I want to write, so I keep going back to those. But I love writing new stories. I’ll take a month and write 500-1,000 words of a new story each day. Then I put that story aside for 3-6 months. When I look at it again, I can see where it was leading, where it was supposed to go.
  • I start a project and doggedly cling to it like a pit bull! I often begin a story with a headline from the news. No plan. I just write and let it take me where it goes.
  • Writing a novel is like a marriage—long and slow. A short story is like a kiss, a peck—hot and passionate.

On writing in general:

  • Lean into who you are. As Toni Morrison said, “Write the book that you want to read.”
  • Remember that a novel is like math, where you’re told to show your work—you have to fill in all the steps. But “a short story is a fury of small punches,” as Raymond Carver said.

Think of a collection as a constellation. Each story is a point of light and each is its own thing, but together they create something larger.

Session: Building a Bridge: The Linked Story Collection & The Novel

Panelists: Jonathan Escoffery, Asako Serizawa, Sidik Fofana; Moderator: Cara Blue Adams

  • Serizawa: The ways to build continuity in a collection are untapped. My book spans 100 years and uncovers intergenerational elements that wouldn’t work in a novel. It is more of a mosaic of independent pieces that, put together, make a big picture.
  • Escoffery: I wrote a story for my MFA thesis that introduced me to characters that would be in my collection. I set out to write a novel with standalone chapters that were stories, but that became more of a headache. So I eventually wrote some linked stories and then it became one family with different stories. There is a house that’s sinking in this book, and all the characters wonder in each story, will that house sink? I actually first wrote a query that explained what the book was about, and then wrote my book to fit that query!
  • Adams: I unknowingly collected stories about art—painters, visual artists—and stories about violence and landscapes. When I put these together and shared them with readers, two said some of the female characters were similar and maybe they should be the same character. Some stories were short, some long, some realistic, some fabulous.. It was too incohesive. I cut and rearranged and, ultimately, the book came to be about loss—one woman who lost different things throughout her life.
  • Lorrie Moore said a short story is an end-based form. The ending should startle, surprise, something should click into pace. A novel is the opposite—something to keep us reading, and the ending need not be spectacular. A linked novel needs to do both.
  • A novel has plot parts, narrative arc, character development, etc. A collection can rebel against these parts and still create a larger shape.
  • Think of a collection as a constellation. Each story is a point of light and each is its own thing, but together they create something larger. It has a shape. What is your container? What belongs within it?
  • A story collection is like a record album with each story a song. Or a TV series with central themes and characters but all different stories.
  • Authors get hung up on point of view and other factors when determining the order of stories. But the main things readers want to know are Who is the main character? and Where is the story set?

On reading for inspiration:

Read lots of collections! Especially ones that are both loosely and tightly connected to see how you want to approach yours.

Below is a list (dang, it’s big!) of specific collections these writers noted (and I’ve included their own collections as well):

  • Outside is the Ocean by Matthew Lansburgh—Iowa Short Fiction Award (linked story collection)
  • The Prince of Mournful Thoughts by Caroline Kim—2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner (exploring humanity through the Korean diaspora)
  • Mannequin and Wife (magical realism) and Tales the Devil Told Me (reimagined villains) by Jen Fawkes—2020 Press 53 Fiction Award
  • How to Walk on Water by Rachel Swearingen—2018 New American Press Prize
  • What Isn’t Remembered by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry—2020 Prairie Schooner Book Prize
  • You Never Get it Back by Cara Blue Adams—John Simmons Short Fiction Award (same character who moves around the world)
  • Inheritors by Asako Serizawa—2021 PEN/Open Book Award and Story Prize Spotlight Award (stories span over 100 years of a Japanese family’s history, beginning in 1868 and emerging into a future set in the 2030s)
  • Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana (tight-knit group of characters who all live in the same Harlem high-rise)
  • If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery (linked stories about a Jamaican family that moves to Miami)
  • Citizen by Claudia Rankine—LA Times Book Prize (mixed genre book—poetry, essay, fiction)
  • The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (novel-in-stories)
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (novel-in-stories)
  • We the Animals by Justin Torres (novel-in-stories)
  • “Only Collect” by Peter Ho Davies (essay on writing a story collection)
  • Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones (lives of African Americans in Washington, DC)
  • Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy (linked stories of two brothers named after demigods)
  • The Heartsick Diaspora by Elaine Chiew
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card
  • There There by Tommy Orange
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
  • Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
  • 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Ward
  • Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka

We’re Heading to AWP!

–From Cathy

It has been a looong time since Karen and I have seen each other, and we couldn’t be more excited to be meeting up tomorrow in Philadelphia to attend the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s (AWP) Conference! This conference promises a host of panels, readings, and events, and a HUGE bookfair exhibition where so many of our favorite writers, journals, and presses will be present. Best of all, it allows us four glorious days of immersing ourselves in writing and writers and agents and publishers and books and…okay, I’m a bit excited. You get the idea.

If you’ve never been to AWP, we urge you to consider attending. Take a look at this year’s lineup of sessions and see for yourself how much there is to learn and experience at this wonderful venue. You can even attend virtually! (Next year’s conference is in Seattle.)

If you’re going this year, please let us know! Drop a note in the comments and maybe we can meet up!

Afterward, we’ll share our notes from the events with you all. Until then, happy spring, and hope you’re all achieving success with your writing, even if that means you wrote a mere paragraph today or a great line of a poem (or even a really cool text).

Write well, everyone!

A debut novel dream comes true

Friends, please welcome Lynn Griffin to Write Despite. Lynn’s debut novel comes out this month, courtesy of The Wild Rose Press. Lynn’s journey to publication has been long, but her dedication and passion—and the courage to finally take the submission plunge—have paid off.

And don’t you love her cover?

Take it away, Lynn:

Thank you for allowing me to share a little bit of me. A granny of five who retired expecting to go trekking across the world, only to find herself with a whole new career. This is the Life of Lynn, a project in the making, which by the way is not the title of my debut novel, which is: Secrets, Shame, and a Shoebox. A romance with bite and intrigue.

If you don’t mind, I’m going to start out by taking you back to January 2020, when the new terrible, invisible, big bad wolf began to emerge. (COVID-19.)

I was in Spain and about to come home to the U.K. I’d finished my novel, which certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was complete. I’d already decided it would stay in a dark, dusty corner and cogitate its fate. Just like everything else I’ve ever written. My poor, long suffering but supportive husband couldn’t understand why I not only took my laptop away with me, but also had no intentions of sending my work to a publisher. He said, throwing his hands up to the heavens, “What, after all that effort?”

Well, he hadn’t read it for starters. So, what did he know? Plus, who likes rejection? My response was: “It’s a hobby, a passion, I don’t know. What I do know is that I am a compulsive writer.”

I have always written around my full-time paid jobs. Help pay the bills, bring up the family, but I need to write to give the little devils doing a dance in my head the chance to get out and tell their story. 

The other truth behind this mask is that I’ve never had enough confidence to get going. I guess, for fear of a professional reading it and then dying laughing. I didn’t want to be sued for manslaughter! Plus, who likes rejection?

Anyhow, when I came home from Spain, a friend said something that stuck. Please know this is not a direct quote, but in my head it was pretty much: “Get it out there before you pop your clogs, mate!”

I thought about that for a quite a while and wondered, did I want my epitaph to read: “woulda coulda shoulda?”   

Now here’s the thing. I never believed anything would come of it. But I got my ancient Writers Year handbook and began to research appropriate publishers, then checked that they accepted submissions. Here’s a real tip: There is nothing worse than doing a whole heap of work trying to promote your gorgeous baby, when the publishers are not accepting submissions. Even if you think you are the next JK Rowling or Stephen King, they won’t change their minds. It wastes your time and theirs.

Back to the dreadful process, I had to write the smartest, shiniest interview on earth. That’s what submission are. Interviews. I hate them. And none of the requirements are the same! Plus, they prevent you from writing the stuff you really want to write. It’s also important to note that publishers generally tell you not to send your work anywhere else or let them know if you do!

Anyway. Months passed, and rejection loomed. Then something stirred in my gut, and I decided to nudge this one particular publisher again. I was polite and to the point, especially as they didn’t state, like some do: “If you don’t hear back within three months, clear off.” That’s so harsh. Not taking the time to let you know. Leave you in limbo. Oh, and yes, I know they’re busy. 

Anyhow my email went something like this: 

“Did they receive my enquiry. If they were not interested, could they please let me know so I could move on. Thank you.”

Yup, as simple as that.

I couldn’t believe it when an email bounced back, almost instantly, bearing in mind the time difference, Eastern Standard Time, New York, with something like: “No, didn’t receive, can’t find it, can you resend? President/Editor-in-Chief” 

Can you imagine! Seriously? I didn’t send it? What a plonker. Was it still floating around in the ether? All this time wasted, wondering! And YES, I know my IT skills are rubbish! Hey ho. Of course, I’ll resend. I wasn’t about to argue now, was I?

Another email arrived shortly after – again from the President/Editor-in-Chief : 

“…will pass on to Editor!” Surely that couldn’t be right? I thought it must be a scam. I had to check them out again. But here I am almost twelve months later, contract in hand and a July 21, 2021, release date for my debut novel.

So, that’s part of my story. But there is so much more. I’ve started a blog. Just a little hints and tips along the way, with the aim of supporting and encouraging budding writers. If you are published, you know how hard the journey is. If you don’t already, I encourage you to support other budding writers. If you are new to all of this, please know that I had a dream that before I died, I would get a book out there. If I can do it, then so can you. Have faith in yourself, you can do it, and thank you for reading.

From Secrets, Shame, and a Shoebox:

“Harriet felt the tell-tale gust of wind from the ink-black cave. The train was coming. A strand of hair came loose from her plait, flicking her face as debris skittered along the dais. The train was imminent. People throw themselves in front of trains all the time…

Also available through Barnes and Noble.

Follow Lynn on her blog, on Instagram, and on Twitter.

A little blog fun, and a release date coming soon…

Hey!

Author DV Stone was kind enough to feature “Arborview” and me on her blog, in a fun feature, today. Take a peek. Looks like I’m going to have a September release! I’m waiting on the date…
Cheers,
Karen

Take a Peek Through the Window with Karen Guzman


A good, good sound

Friends,

A belated sharing of my recent Collegeville essay. I hope everyone is staying smart and staying safe. As we move towards a holiday season that promises to be like no other, remember: different doesn’t have to be less than. Unexpected blessings may unfold….and soon…

–Karen

Summer Reading

summer-reading-006Summertime and the reading is good this year. We’ve selected our seasonal picks, and will surely be spotted toting them on vacation and to neighborhood parks. Here’s what we’ve chosen:

 From Karen:

My extremely well read sister has shamed me into reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Okay, there are a few holes in my education. This is one I’m going to fill.

Then I’m onto two new novels that I can’t want to get my hands on. They’re from two of my favorite contemporary authors.

caninstrout

 

From Cathy:

My book group never fails to steer me toward books I certainly wouldn’t choose for myself, and usually end up glad to have read. The one I’m reading now is no exception. Even though I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, Missing Man, about a spy who disappeared in Iran, grabbed me from the start. I’ll pass it along to the hubby too.

man

After that somber read, I’ll need a pick-me-up. And my all-time favorite, Anne Tyler, is just the ticket with her latest–a modern-day version of Taming of the Shrew, coming out on June 21:

vinegar girl

 

 

 

 

 

What are YOU reading on the deck, at the pool, by the ocean? We need more ideas. Please leave us a comment and share your summer reading picks! (By the way, no need to insert your name or email address when you comment. Just type and hit Post.)

 

 

 

Spring Writing Contests

Going through some recent contest announcements and thought we’d share. Here are some writing contests coming up (some very soon), so get those fingers flying, and best of luck!and the winner

Writing Contest: Flyway

flyway.submittable.com/submit

Entry fee: $12

Deadline extended until April 27

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.

Editor’s Reprint Award 

www.sequestrum.org/contests

Entry fee: $15

Deadline: April 30

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.

Not previously published? No Problem! They always accept general submissions: www.sequestrum.org/submissions.

Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition

http://www.writersdigest.com/writers-digest-competitions/annual-writing-competition

Entry fee: Varies

Deadline: May 6, 2016

Big money prizes for this one, up to $5,000. Categories are:

  • Inspirational Writing (Spiritual/Religious)
  • Memoirs/Personal Essay
  • Magazine Feature Article
  • Genre Short Story (Mystery, Romance, etc.)
  • Mainstream/Literary Short Story
  • Rhyming Poetry
  • Non-rhyming Poetry
  • Stage Play
  • Television/Movie Script
  • Children’s/Young Adult Fiction

New Anthology Competition: Finding Mr. Right

findingmrrightsite.wordpress.com

Entry Fee: $5

Deadline: May 15, 2016

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.”

Raymond Carver Short Story Contest
www.carvezine.com/raymond-carver-contest/#.U1ec2_mSwSa
Entry Fee: $17
Deadline May 15, 2016

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.

Creative Nonfiction Prize
www.creativenonfiction.org/submissions/joy
Entry fee:$20
Deadline: May 16, 2016

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.

Blue Mountain Poetry Card Contest

www.sps.com/poetry/index.html

No Entry Fee

Deadline June 30, 2016

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.

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.

 

Five Secrets of Highly Successful Writers

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If you have five minutes, sit back, close your eyes and listen to some audio advice from novelist Michelle Richmond. Her topic: simple tips on how to become a more effective writer!

Need some of those. Thank you.

Michelle is the New York Times best-selling author of The Year of Fog, and of Golden State, No One You Know, Hum, Dream of the Blue Room and The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress.

She’s also my publisher at Fiction Attic Press.

Now press play and close your eyes.

— Karen