Q & A—and a Book Giveaway! Welcome Author Tara Laskowski

Tara LaskowskiNeed help navigating the tricky rules of etiquette in some, shall we say, rather delicate circumstances? Tara Laskowski,  author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons (Matter Press 2012), has written a profoundly funny and touching guide for properly conducting yourself in situations of adultery, dementia, arson, homicide, and more.

Want a free copy of Tara’s book? Read on.

Tara is senior editor at the online flash fiction literary magazine SmokeLong Quarterly, and was their 2009 Kathy Fish Fellow and writer-in-residence. She earned a BA in English with a minor in writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her submission of short fiction won the 2010 literary awards series from the Santa Fe Writers Project, and she has work forthcoming or published in several anthologies. Her story, “Dendrochronology” won second prize and publication for the Press 53 Open Awards anthology in 2010. Her story, “Ode to the Double-Crossed Lackey in ‘Thunderball,’” was nominated for Dzanc’s Best of the Web series for 2009, and her short stories “They” and “Like Everyone Else” were recognized by storySouth as notable online stories in 2004 and 2009. Another story, “Hole to China,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A native of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Tara currently lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C. with her husband Art Taylor, her son Dashiell, and their two cats.

Tara, we’re honored to feature you here on Write Despite. Thanks for answering the following.

1) Best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve got a few, is that ok?

1. Have fun with it. My favorite stories are the ones that I had fun with—whether that was experimenting with form, or inserting some crazy detail or action that made me go somewhere fresh with the plot, or just enjoying my characters and what they say. My time is so limited these days that if I’m dreading returning to a story to work on it, then I should probably just drop it for a while and do something else. Now, all that said, I don’t really find writing very ‘fun’ all the time—it’s hard work, even when you are having fun. But I think just generally, doing something different, not being afraid to play, is good advice.

2. Play to your strengths. Note, this is not the same as, write what you know. By play to your strengths, I’ll give you an example from my writing challenges. For my MFA thesis at George Mason University, I attempted to write a 500-page novel that was a historical love story spanning over several decades. It’s a great story, but it didn’t work, and after more than five years of working on it I realized why—because that kind of story is not my strength. I don’t write long time periods very well. I write short. Short moments, tiny pieces of time. I would’ve done better, perhaps, working on a novel that spanned one day in the life of someone. Or maybe a month. Or a summer. But not 25 years. No, no.

3. This one speaks more to process: You don’t have to write every day. (Sorry, I know that’s the point of your whole blog). But for me, who doesn’t write every day, who cannot write every day, this was a freeing moment. Now, that said, I do try to check in every day, even if that’s just thinking about my characters before bed. I do think it’s extremely important to keep your head in the game, even if you aren’t physically sitting down every day and writing something. So maybe I would just expand that one a little: Write in the schedule that works for you. If it’s every day, amazing. If it’s all weekend, great. Write in the morning? Go for it. Late at night? Sweet. Point is, figure out a schedule that works for you, and to hell with the way everyone else does it. Artists work in different ways, and there is no one formula for success. Just find what works for you and write. Above all, just keep writing.

2) Favorite three authors?

In all of the world? Living or dead? How cruel are you?? I wish I was Jennifer Egan. Does that count? I probably wouldn’t be a writer without J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, or John Updike. I’m already past my three. I suck at following directions.

3) Briefly describe your journey to publication. (How were you first published and how has that led to where you are now?)
Laskowski-bookI used to write in high school and got a few things published in the literary magazine there. I honestly cannot remember the very first publication I got. I know in college and even grad school there were a few hard-earned publications. In 2009, I won a writing fellowship at SmokeLong Quarterly, and that for me was a huge turning point. I started publishing a lot online and meeting a lot of really amazing and talented people, and after my fellowship was over I became an editor there, and now the senior editor. Being a part of the community in this way has really improved my writing and editing skills, and I am forever grateful for it. Last October, I published my first collection of stories, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons.

4) Advice for those now on the road to publication?

The same ole, same ole: Read the publications that you are sending to. Please. Why would you want to be published somewhere that you don’t read? Also, every publication has a style, has a vibe about it, and once you start reading it, you kind of get it. It makes your acceptance rate go through the roof if you actually send editors the kind of stuff they like. Sounds crazy, but it’s true!

I think the same holds true for novelists. Researching agents, reading the books they place, is key. Otherwise you’ll never stand out from the slush pile.

5) Do you write every day?

No way. I wish I did. But I do think about writing every day, and I’ve become much more skilled at writing in my head. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/the-art-of-being-still/

6) What are you writing now? (If nothing, what are you reading now?)

I’m working on another collection of short stories, tentatively called BYSTANDERS, which is slow going. I’m reading The Magus by John Fowles, which I just started so I can’t tell you if I love it yet. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

YOU COULD SNAG A FREE COPY OF TARA’S BOOK, MODERN MANNERS FOR YOUR INNER DEMONS. JUST TELL US WHY YOU’D LIKE TO OWN THIS AMAZING COLLECTION OF STORIES BY POSTING YOUR COMMENT HERE. WE’LL PICK A WINNER BY AUGUST 1!

Welcome Author Leanne Dyck

LeanneJPGLeanne Dyck’s stories are about strong women and the challenges they face. Leanne’s writing has appeared in the Island Writer, Kaleidoscope and Canadian Stories literary journals. In 2011 Decadent Publishing released her dark thriller The Sweater Curse as an ebook. Follow Leanne’s author journey by visiting her blog: http://sweatercursed.blogspot.com

Leanne, welcome to Write Despite and thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

 1)    What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

‘If you keep writing you’ll be published’ –Julia Cameron, The Right to Write
I’ve also benefited from advice gleamed from Steven King’s On Writing and Nancy Lamb’s The Art and Craft of Storytelling.

 2)    Please tell us your favorite three authors.

I have so many. Let’s see, today I’ll choose Will Ferguson, Jane Urquhart and Mary Sharratt.

 3)    Briefly describe your journey to publication.

I’ve always written. When I was in elementary school one of my poems was published in my school’s newspaper. In middle school one of my short stories was published in the community newspaper. All through school and after graduation, I continued to write but mainly for my own enjoyment. After opening a knitwear design business in 2002, I began to write articles for craft magazines. I enjoyed working with editors and was thrilled to see my writing published. Desiring to learn more about the publishing business I decided to self-publish. From 2006 to 2009, I self-published paperbacks, ebooks and an audio book. Self-publishing was fun but I’m a team player so I decided to submit my writing to publishing houses. In 2011, Decadent Publishing released my novella-length thriller—The Sweater Curse—as an ebook.

TheSweaterCurse-BONOReaders wrote:
Stitch by colorful stitch, Leanne Dyck knits a tale of intrigue’ –Laurie Buchanan
‘Leanne Dyck has crafted a tale of exotic and existential as Danish author Isak Dinesen’s’ –Lou Allin

After reading those reviews, I closed my design business and began to write full-time. I’m now seeking a publisher for five manuscripts—this includes The Sweater Curse (which is now novel-length).

4)    Advice for those now on the road to publication?

Believe in the power of your words.
Read, write and submit.
Keep writing fun.

 5)    Do you write every day?

Yes. Some days I work on a new project; other days I work on revisions and some days I just write for fun.

6)    What are you writing now?

As a rule I usually work on at least two projects at a time. Right now I’m working on two book-length manuscripts:  a non-fiction and a general fiction.

 7)    What are you reading now?

In Calamity’s Wake, by Natalee Caple.

Halfway There!

We’re halfway there! A joint post from both of us today. Thanks to all of you who have stuck with us so far. If you’ve written every day for six months (or even more than you would have for six months), congratulations! Raise a glass (or four) to yourself tonight, and imagine us toasting you.

toast

Clink!

And if you’ve just joined us, it’s a great time to commit to the next six months–or whatever amount you can manage. Pick a date, follow along, and write every day! Good luck!

From Cathy:

How, in the name of all that is holy, did we arrive here?

cicadaSix months in! Six months that flew by like one of those creepy little cicadas that we were supposed to be all plagued-out by here in the east but that apparently decided that no, thank you, we’ll just stay holed up in the ground a few more years. (And with this whole Paula Deen scandal raging, who can blame them?)

Six months, and we have written our little arses off, and created fan-effing-tabulous works of literary genius, and gleaned a whole truckload of useful advice, and learned that this writing thing is a big jacked-up piece of cake with half-inch buttercream icing on top.

Haven’t we?

Well, it’s been real anyway. Real hard. Real work. Real enlightening. Real annoying. And from it, I’ve been through some real transitions. Here are some of them:

1. In January, I started the new novel. I was all like:

excited vintage woman

2. By April, I was so bogged down by the whole thing, I was all like:

Crying Kim Kardashian

3. So I started rewriting novel #1 and that perked me up and I’m still at it, but I kept feeling like a failure for giving up on novel #2. So then I went back and reread it, and guess what? Not so crappy. So I was all like:

girl thinking

Because, hmmm. Maybe I can do it after all. After I get this damned rewrite done. Which I’m not even halfway through with yet. But it feels kind of do-able now, not because I’ve figured out what was bothering me about it, but because, after six months, I’ve actually kind of gotten into the habit of producing stuff, no matter what.

Wow!

And even better, it’s half over and I’m feeling like, hell yeah I can do this another six months. Because that will be gone too before you can bat a cicada away. All we need to do is hang in there, my friends.

How’s it going so far for you? Progress to report? Stories to share? Failures? Suggestions? We’d so love to hear.

From Karen:

Six months into the Write Despite challenge. Who has managed it every day? Please let us know who you are, so we may commend you.

I have written a whole lot and thought about writing a whole lot and made substantial progress. The glass is totally half-full, halfway in. And what’s more important, I’ve embraced a more refined understanding of the writing process: It’s hard, maybe harder than I realized. This is because I’m applying a new level of scrutiny to my work.rigor cup

My day job is at a very fine university, one of the finest in the world. One of the terms I hear batted around a lot here is rigor. Rigorous standards for academic performance. Rigorous curricula and an overall rigorous approach to tackling problems and producing work. There are no short cuts on the road to excellence.

That is the approach I’m now taking. I’m digging deeper and trying harder. I’m undertaking that additional edit. I’m rewriting and rewriting and taking one last look to be sure I haven’t missed anything. When you’re tapping into everything you have, drawing on all your abilities and feeling challenged to the utmost, you’re doing it right.

Share your progress reports from the last six months. How have you grown as a writer since January 1?

Workshop Wisdom

I’m attending a writers workshop program on June 1. Check out the host studio tucked away in the lovely hills of western Massachusetts, http://doriostermiller.com/writers_in_progress.cfm

If you’re ever in this neck of the woods (and you’re a writer), check out Dori’s studio. Great writers (who are also super nice people) come together here to help each other. I took a workshop a couple of years back and loved it. Here’s the course I’m taking this time around:

The Psychology of Strong Characters, with Jacqueline Sheehan
The most memorable characters are driven by powerful forces of fear and desire. Jacqueline Sheehan is a New York Times bestselling author and psychologist who applies basic psychology to all her characters.  In this One-day workshop, you’ll learn to challenge your characters to take the necessary actions that reveal the white-hot core of your story. It’s a tall order, but that’s what all good stories are essentially about.

This couldn’t come at a better time for me.  As I write my way further into the new book, issues of how compelling and sympathetic the main character is have taken center stage. It’s been a while since I sat in a roomful of strangers and discussed my (and their) work. And while not all the points discussed will apply to me, I always leave these things with at least a few priceless nuggets of insight that help me look at my writing in a new way. I’ll post my best takeaways to share with you all next week.

Until then, write well.

–Karen

Our First Guest Blog! Meet Writer Adrienne Kerman

I’m a writer. Like most writers, I’ve never actually written a book and I probably never will. I jokingly say I’m too ADHD to write an entire book … and that might actually be true. I think and write in bits and pieces … an article painting a piece of my day in vibrant swipes of color, or a blog entry detailing a bit of a harrowing experience in the harshest black and white.

As the mother of teenaged twin sons, I often write about parenting issues … the joys, the toys, the very smelly boys. For almost two years now I’ve been writing a parenting column for Boston area Patch sites.

You know what that means?

It means that for two years I completely chronicled the ridiculousness that is this parent’s life, and the pure beauty that is this parent’s life.

It means that I’ve produced a very tall stack of descriptively documented chapters in my children’s lives.

Why, some people might even call that a … book.

Take THAT, ADHD!

But I’m executively dysfunctional, which means I work best if someone else provides the structure. It’s why I have a day job in a professional environment that comes complete with detailed policies and procedures already outlined in neat little handbooks with convenient tables of contents; Microsoft Outlook Calendar already installed on my computer; and assistance with the administrative organization.

Write Despite provides that same structure for my writing. Twenty minutes a day is not overwhelming or overflowing. I can commit to that. I did commit to that, and it helps me consistently produce and honor deadlines.

Note From Write Despite: We’re so glad to have helped bring about some amazing writing, like this piece from Adrienne’s Moms Talk column, posted on Massachusetts area Patch sites. (Grab a tissue.)

It’s Not You, It’s Me—And Other Forms of Rejection

Springtime, and I’ve been going through old papers here at my house, trying to decide what to toss and keep. One file drawer holds nothing but fiction—my stories, ideas for stories, friends’ stories, handouts of stories from past teachers…and one big, fat manila envelope marked Rejections.

Why did I keep them? Hey, in college, I knew someone who actually papered a wall with rejections, and I’ve taken the same sort of pride in mine. Most of them are standard form letters, but some editors wrote personal notes, and I have to give them credit for scribbling a few thoughts down for me. Especially the ones from high-brow pubs, like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Esquire, and a whole slew of literary journals: Crescent Review, Story, Grand Street, Crazyhorse, Glimmer Train (I would still commit a misdemeanor to get into Glimmer Train). And then more obscure ones like Bottomfish, Common Touch, and Dodobobo (?). Yes, I spelled it right.

The editor of that last one sent me a very lengthy, handwritten rejection, which ended with, “Your story is too long. Do you have anything shorter?”

It took you nearly two pages to call me long-winded?

Another said, “We were very interested in your story and had hoped to use it—but found we couldn’t schedule it in a reasonable time.”

Schedule it? Hey, no rush. I would wait for, um, ever.

A third said my story was “Impressive. It came CLOSE. I especially liked the ending. I’m sure you will publish this story, as I nearly did.”

Okay, that one was just cruel.

My favorite was the one pictured here.

rejection envelope 001

This is the original envelope I mailed a story in. Back in those days, I would send printed pages with enough return postage for the story’s return, along with any comments. And I would turn down the corners of a couple of pages in the middle, and near the end (oh, so tiny folds, as not to be noticed). That way, if the story came back, I could see if it the “seal” had been broken, and verify whether it had actually been read. (Anyone else do this?)

Anyway, there was apparently a team of editors at this particular journal, and they all read my story, then passed around my envelope and wrote their “votes” on it—each stating why it was good or bad. Some additional votes were written on scraps of paper that fluttered out when I pulled the pages from the envelope. Now that is a memorable rejection.

Only a few of my stories actually got published—one after getting rejected 63 times. My Rejections folder contains 117 letters—my Acceptance folder six. But I can’t allow myself to part with any of them, since they are evidence of the fact that I actually did do some writing, and spent a fair amount of time working to send that writing out into the world. When I look back some day, maybe I’ll at least be able to say I tried.

Most of my rejections these days are from agents. A few are standard form letters, and some actually give me the equivalent of what I’d guess a handwritten note would be these days—a personal apology and best of luck with some other agent (read: sucker) who might have lower standards.

But I’ll keep trying, keep writing, and no doubt keep getting rejected. It’s all part of the life we’ve chosen, right? And if I ever get my office clean, I may just start putting up that wallpaper.

–Cathy

Do you Shift F5?

keyboard

If you use Word to write your documents, like most of the free world, Shift F5 is the best little trick ever.

I used to put symbol markers in my long writing projects. At the end of each session, I’d slip in an asterisk so I could search for it when I revisited the piece to find where I left off. But when I started to use asterisks to denote breaks in time, that got confusing. I finally settled on a percent sign, which I would never use in regular text and was easy to find. This worked great, except I’d forget to delete it, and have a sentence like, “She turned off the light and shut the door.%”

Uh. No.

So I may be the last person on the planet to discover Shift F5, but I’ll relate this news just in case you also live in a cave. Hold down these two little keys when you first open your Word document, and you will be magically spirited to the exact spot you were working on when you left off. No hidden symbols! No searching for your last entry (and invariably getting caught up reading old stuff when you should be WRITING).

Shift F5 has made this book just a little bit easier for me to work on. And it’s got me to thinking about all the things–large and small–that we struggle against as we try to squeeze in some kind of writing every day. To be able to effortlessly skim past what’s been done before and start fresh where we left off is not only convenient, it’s kinda’ breathtaking.

Because, Jay Gatsby aside, it really may not be such a hot idea to relive the past, getting lost along the way.

Gatsby

Better to look ahead to the next great thing. That won’t happen if you can’t get past your beginning pages.

So I’m going to do my 20 minutes (or more!) now. And see if I can Shift F5 my way to accomplishing something.

What keeps your writing moving forward?

–Cathy

(P.S. So psyched to have a shot of Robert Redford in a post! Didn’t see that one coming.)