Write Despite

The write-20-minutes-a-day-for-365-days-come-hell-or-high-water challenge

Archive for the tag “inspiration”

Okay, this was fun

Karen’s official book launch was this Saturday–a quiet signing at Breakwater Books in Guilford, Connecticut.

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And damn it, I just had to be there.

I decided not to tell her I was coming, for two reasons: 1) I thought it would be fun to surprise her, and 2) If I had to back out at the last minute, I didn’t want to screw up her plans.

God bless my crazy friend who offered to tag along and ended up driving nearly the whole six hours from DC (I get a tad nervous in that NYC snarl, but she drives like a machine).

Much zaniness along the way, including a stop at the Pez Visitor Center. Yes, that’s the candy that pops out of the heads. Did you ever wonder what the World’s Largest Pez dispenser would look like? Wonder no more.

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So anyway, we finally made it to Connecticut and headed for Breakwater Books. Now keep in mind that, although Karen and I talk via electronics frequently, we hadn’t seen each other in person in EIGHT years.

So I walked in, and this happened:

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IMG_7278    FullSizeRenderFun, right? I thought so.

Karen invited us back to her lovely home afterward, and we all had breakfast with her husband and son the next morning, then hit the road before the snow started. Here we are outside the cafe at Lyman’s Orchard (a way cool farmer’s market store):

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The whole trip was way cool, and I’m so glad I was able to do it. This Saturday Karen will be giving her first reading in Mystic, CT. If you’re local (or if you’re into crazy road trips), go get a book signed and hear her read from Homing Instincts. You won’t be disappointed.

Congratulations, Karen! Hope to see you again before another eight years passes!

-Cathy

 

Amazing (and FREE) Writing Opportunity!

MOOCHave you heard of MOOCs? The term stands for massive open online course, and the writing program at the University of Iowa is currently hosting one.

Iowa’s Writing University Open Courses website is offering a six-week FREE course, for beginners to experienced-level writers, called How Writers Write Fiction. Once you register for the class, you simply watch a weekly video or two and complete a writing assignment. Then you’re asked to read other people’s work and post your comments while they read and critique your pieces. Some big-name writers are running the show, including one of my personal faves, Mona Simpson, and I believe they will comment on a few assignments as well.

If you’re too busy to sign up, or aren’t sure about it yet, I’ll give you a recap of the first video I watched. This one featured author Michelle Huneven, who offered some great tips for fitting writing into your life:

  1. Turn your soul around. Make writing the priority in your life and everything else will fall into place.
  2. timerGet a good timer. Or use your phone. Decide how many minutes you can stand to write: 7 minutes, 12 minutes, 1 hour, 3 hours…and begin.
  3. Join a writing group. It just helps.
  4. Find a writer you deeply admire who’s maybe a little better than you are, and make a deal to swap writing on a regular basis. Saves you lots of time and makes writing a lot less lonely.
  5. Get plenty of exercise. Very important. No flabby mind, no flabby body, and they’re connected. Walk.
  6. Do something else creative. Cook, garden, play music, make pots, paint. Do something that’s not word-based. It gives the psyche time to range about, and it will sort things out for you that you can’t do with a direct assault.
  7. Bang out a really crappy rough draft of a story, chapter, scene, or article. Give the part of the mind that structures something the chance to organize.
  8. If you’re a novelist, write something short once in a while: an essay, a short story, an article. This is essential so you don’t forget how to finish something. A novel is a really long act of faith. Shorter pieces remind you of the pleasure of endings and keep you in practice to finish.
  9. Remember writing is a form of play. Get into flow. Remember you will get stuck, but you can’t force things. Solving difficult problems is the form of writing. It’s infinite. But remember to give yourself a little room. You have to work your way into flow. If you’re too stuck or going at it too hard, back off. Take a walk, cook a meal, play some music. If it’s still not working, try something else.

Great advice, right? I’m giving this course a try to see where it takes me. If you plan to sign up too, please drop us a line and let us know how it’s going. The second discussion is up now, and focuses on crafting beginning lines. I SO need help with this. I posted my assignment and within an hour had three comments on it. Fun, and hopefully very useful.

And hey, did I mention it’s Iowa for pete’s sake? And free???

To register, visit:

http://courses.writinguniversity.org/

Good luck, and write well, everyone!

—Cathy

Stubborn Streak

There is something to be said for that stubborn streak your parents always complained about. “Muleheaded” was, as I recall, my parents’ fave term. That trait has gotten me into more than a few fights and through plenty of standoffs with my kids, and into a fair amount of trouble.stubborn It’s also gotten me published a few times. Here’s the thing with stubbornness: You can fall back on it when you really, truly believe you’ve got a winner. I wrote a story I loved way back in 1993. Yes, I’m old, okay? Let’s move on. In its early days, it went through workshops, incarnations, edits, and reviews by trusted friends. It tentatively made its way into the world and got rejected plenty. Then it sat in a drawer for about a decade and a half until I rediscovered it one day and decided it was worth another try. Back to editing and begging friends to read it. And cutting! This story is still nearly 6,500 words, but it used to be a whopping 8,000, until a writer friend gently suggested “You have got to CUT some of this bullshit.” So I did. In the last four years I’ve sent it out pretty regularly to more than 50 different magazines and journals. This month…drumroll here… It worked! logoI’m a finalist in New Rives Press’s American Fiction series! (Yes, that’s my big ol’ face right there at the top—so embarrassing.) All the finalists get published in the latest issue, along with three top prize winners judged by…drumroll again… Elizabeth Strout. Elizabeth Strout! Pulitzer Prize winner! Olive Kitteridge creator! Reading MY story! I’m a wee bit excited about this one if you can’t tell. So my point is, stubbornness. And a real willingness to listen to what others have to say and make the hard changes you have to make. The American Fiction prize winners will be announced by late September. And I was thrilled to see the publication date is October…a mere three months away! Then I realized it is actually October…2015. Ah well. After 21 years, what’s one more? Write well everyone―keep submitting! ―Cathy

Rejections Revisited

C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor and longtime revered fiction editor at the Atlantic Monthly, published an essay called “Publishers and Publishing,” in On Writing Short Stories, a collection of essays, edited by Tom Bailey. It’s a pretty enlightening, amusing reflection on the fiction submissions he receives. Our fave part:

“Much of the writing that pours onto the desks of literary editors at both the serious-minded but commercial general magazines and the smallest, most fiercely independent quarterlies is inept, undeveloped, amateurish, crazed, obscene, unintelligible, or some combination of the above.”

Kinda makes you feel better about the stuff you submit, right?Syliva-Plath-on-Rejection

At least, that’s what we thought. I mean, we’ve received rejection letters with comments like “uninteresting” and “meandering” and “seems to have no larger point.”

But “crazed?” “Obscene?” Just what the hell are people doing out there?

Here are some other amusing rejections we ran across:

“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” (Written about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22—believed to have been given this title because it was the 22nd publisher, Simon and Schuster, who agreed to take it on.)

“The American public is not interested in China.” (Seriously, what could be interesting about Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth?)

“This will set publishing back 25 years.” (Wonder why? Anyone read Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park?)

“Good God, I can’t publish this.” (Said about William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.)

“An absurd story as romance, melodrama or record of New York high life.” (Gasp! Blasphemy uttered about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.)

“Stick to teaching.” (Louisa May Alcott was urged to keep her day job after submitting Little Women.)

“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (We get your point. But Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was still a masterpiece.)

“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” (Maybe depressing and gory and violent, but William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was dull?)

“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” (Wonder what this visionary thinks of The Hunger Games. He rejected Carrie, by Stephen King)

“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.” (Give it up, Garth Stein. Even George Orwell’s Animal Farm can’t cut it.)

This is an awesome essay of Curtis’s by the way, and you can check it out here:

http://www.public.iastate.edu/~yikes/mag_editors_and_fiction.html

If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, let us recap a bit. He gives a great rundown of what editors are, and aren’t, looking for in submissions, including cover letters. He says only two things included in your letter might cause an editor to be more interested in your story than the average one:

  1. Citations of stories published elsewhere, particularly in periodicals of comparable size and reputation; and
  2. Mention of the fact that you’ve been enrolled in a reputable MFA program (or residence at Bread Loaf or Sewanee, etc.).

Other take-aways? Same as you’ve always heard:

  • Don’t recap your story—let it speak for itself.
  • Don’t talk about other magazines that have rejected it already.
  • Don’t single space.
  • Don’t send anything with typos or grammatical errors.
  • Don’t try to dazzle them with your wit or sound hostile or desperate.

In short, just make your writing as fab as possible, keep your cover letter simple and direct, and send it out.

Everywhere.submit button

Spray and pray, people. Spray and pray.

The Long and Short of It

Taking a break from the book for a while because … well, because I’m stuck. Discouraged. Not feeling it . But you don’t want to hear my problems. Neither does Karen. She told me to shut up and quit whining and go write a short story. Okay, she was much nicer than that, but I got the message.

A short story!!??

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This may seem like no big deal to you, but I haven’t written a story in years. How sad is that? I’ve been so caught up in the novel thing that the idea of shorter fiction hasn’t even been on my radar. If you want to switch gears and get a new outlook and rev up the energy again, though, I guess you really should consider going back to the basics.

I plan to start by reading stories, of course. I used to read short fiction all the time. Best American Short Stories is always on my Christmas list (thank you in-laws for making sure this is under the tree each year), but I confess I haven’t read a whole one in years. I’ll look through them now, though, since I’m one of those people who pulls inspiration from others (okay steals, if you like—I’m not too proud to admit it).

Best American Cover

Any other suggestions for where to find great stories? Do you read literary journals? The New Yorker? Alice Munro anthologies?

Anyone want to write along with me?

When we’re done, here’s a GREAT listing of pubs to submit to:

http://www.newpages.com/literary-magazines/complete.htm

So switch it up, hunker down, carry on, write it short–or long. Whatever moves you. As always, just write.

Oh, and I saw an amazing quote the other day. I’m not much for such things, but this one stuck with me:

“Imagine what you would do if you knew you could not fail.”

I know, right?

—Cathy

Author Vanessa Hua’s breakthrough publication

Most writers remember their first publication: the magical acceptance letter (usually after a raft of rejections,) reading the galleys, seeing the finished thing alive in the world. We thought it would be fun to launch an occasional series featuring authors talking about their breakthroughs. Sometimes the story behind the story is the best part.

Please join us in welcoming Vanessa Hua to Write Despite.

Vanessa is a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing. An award-winning writer and journalist, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, ZYZZVA, Crab Orchard Review, New York Times, New Yorker, Salon, and elsewhere. A former staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, she has reported from China, South Korea, and Panama.  She blogs at threeunderone.blogspot.com and can be found at www.vanessahua.com

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Late in 2005, I won the Cream City Review fiction contest – my first short story in print.  When I received the e-mail, I stood up in the newsroom and shouted with joy and excitement, struck by the heady, dangerous feeling of affirmation.  I’d been judged worthy!   By then, I’d also reported from China, launched an award-winning campaign finance investigation, and had married.  When I won the contest, it felt all parts of my life were coming together – professionally, personally, and creatively.

I’d been writing fiction since I was a child, won writing contests in high school, and had studied creative writing at Stanford University. After graduation, I focused on my journalism career.  In my spare time, I wrote scenes, sketches, starts of stories that went nowhere.  When I re-read pieces I’d written in college, I felt conflicted: proud that the stories had merit, yet it felt like a stranger had penned them.  I didn’t remember how to write a story.

Eventually, I signed up for a fiction workshop where I produced the story that won the Cream City Review contest.  I’d learned about the journal after reading the publishing bio of another student in the class whose work I admired.  That success helped keep me going as I started writing more fiction, submitting to journals, taking workshops, joining writer’s groups, and going to writing conferences.  Of course, if you spend too much time chasing validation, you might succumb to the despair of rejection – and I’ve been rejected many times since then.  And you have to spend more hours writing than talking about writing.

In 2007, I decided I wanted to learn how to write a novel, and I headed to UC Riverside, where I earned my MFA.  Five years later, I had the pleasure of being asked to judge the Cream City Review fiction contest.  I hope that the prize helped encourage the winner in her career, too.

In deciding where to submit, I continue sending to places that publish writing I admire.  I also seek out paying journals, those with interesting business models, such as DailyLit, and strongly promote the work of their authors, such as At Length.  I also enter contests, such as The Atlantic’s student fiction prize, which I won in 2008.  Your chances might be slim, but if you don’t enter, you have no chance at all.

To buy Vanessa’s stories, go to

https://dailylit.com/book/262-line-please or

http://www.amazon.com/Deal-short-story-Atlantic-Archives-ebook/dp/B008873WK2/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1391965062&sr=1-2

Structure: The Lost Art?

I started college as an art major. I lived in a small town and began a long educational stint at a small college, which had exactly two art professors. One was the 3D instructor—pottery and sculpture, which I was not so into. I wanted to draw and paint. So I spent most of my time with the 2D art teacher—a gruff, critical guy who seemed to never be able to explain exactly what was wrong with a piece, just that you hadn’t put enough of your “soul” into it, or you needed to “color outside the lines” more. He was also into trash. “Found objects” were his medium, and he could often be spotted rooting through the bins outside the art building scavenging treasures to incorporate into his “art.”Found Art

I say “art” in quotes, yes, because I could not tell exactly what his art was. One creation he displayed proudly in his office was a board nailed on the wall holding a tangle of red wires, some prickly stuff that looked like steel wool, and clumps of brown feathers. His students dubbed it (behind his back) “Road Kill in Mixed Media.”


One day, when we were reading about Picasso and how he’d progressed from realism to abstraction during his career, I came across a line that went something like, “Realism provides the foundation for mastery which then allows artists to expand in whatever direction they choose.”

There. That’s what I’d been sensing all along. I pointed this out to my professor and said, “I feel like I need to know how to paint something realistic first, before I try to weird it up.”

He was, to put it mildly, offended. More like defensive. Actually horrified. He blurted out that this was a bourgeoisie concept that had been around for centuries and it was, essentially, crap. Learning the basics, he said, would only enable you to produce cookie-cutter, formulaic art. Then he fell back on his favorite dada-ist phrase: “Anything the artist spits is art.”

Okay, really? Not only is this gross, but come on. Whatever you throw out into the world is golden just because you proclaim yourself gifted? That’s crap.

I ended up changing towns and colleges and majors until I finally got a degree in creative writing. I took countless workshops, all of which were eye-opening and useful. Yet in all the talk of novel writing (and there wasn’t much—we concentrated mainly on short stories) there was still very little teaching of structure.

I still feel kind of bitter—okay, plenty bitter—about that. Because to this day I’m still struggling with it. I get that people don’t want to teach something considered too conventional. But I’ll take formula over floundering any day. Like Picasso said, I’d rather come to learn something so well that I can then break apart its underlying foundation and have it still support all the crazy cube-like heads and feet above.

The book I’m reading now (Save the Cat!, which I’ve mentioned previously) gives such strict guidance on structure it tells you on what page a key element in your story should take place.

Actually, your script—this is a screenwriting book. I wish this guy would write a how-to on novel structure and tell me on exactly what page my main character should make a life-altering decision, or bottom out, or find enlightenment.
No spitting

My old art professor would spit his artistic saliva at me for that one. But I’d rather have the tools to create what will stand upright and endure, not what’s become a mass of wires and feathers that I have to now go back and try to pry up from the roadside.

It’s so much easier if you build the foundation from the start. Structure, I’m starting to think, is EVERYTHING.

What do you think?

–Cathy

Scary Spaces

Happy Halloween, everyone! I was wondering what would be the scariest picture I could post today—maybe a spider or a blood-covered vampire or Miley Cyrus’ tongue (okay, I can’t help posting that one):

miley cyrus

Yee-ikes. I’ve seen this thing more times lately than I’ve seen my own tongue, and yet it never fails to make me gag.

Anyway, here’s the actual scariest picture I could find:

Messy Office

Yep. That’s my office. That’s where I write, think, research, edit, blog, dream. And I think it’s why I’m having such trouble organizing my thoughts lately.

You think????

Can you say Professional Organizer? Life Coach? Get your shit together?

Just looking at this photo makes me want to weep. You too? Hey, try actually sitting here and working in this garbage heap. What kinds of spaces do real writers work in, I wondered. Hmm. Here’s a sampling.

Stephen King’s office:

Stephen King Office

E.B. White’s office:

EB White's Office

(I guess when you have that view you don’t need much else?)

Virginia Woolf’s office:

Virginia Woolf's Office

None of these, though, exactly evoke the kind of space I have in mind. I’ve decided I need only about four things: a desk, a window, a chair, and some walls where I can tack up ideas and inspirational posters, like that cat hanging on a tree branch (Hang in There, Baby—Friday’s Coming!). No, not that one.

Here’s more what I have in mind:

Writing Desk Photo

Sweet, right? I feel this would be very do-able.

Tomorrow is November 1, which means we have only two months left of the Write Despite challenge. I am vowing to not only keep writing for the next two months, but to have an AFTER picture of my office by then too.

Where do you work? Describe, or post a pic for us! I’d love to know, and to get some ideas.

Write well, everyone!

—Cathy

Welcome Author Gigi Amateau–And Win a Copy of Her New Book!

gigi-amateauGigi Amateau’s first book for young adults, Claiming Georgia Tate, was published by Candlewick Press in 2005. That title was selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age and hailed by author Judy Blume: “It’s rare and exciting to discover a talented new writer like Gigi Amateau.” The Wall Street Journal called the book “an ambitious push into the young adult market.”

She is also the author of A Certain Strain of Peculiar, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year, and Chancey of the Maury River, A William Allen White Masters list title for grades 3-5. Come August, Come Freedom, her first work of historical fiction, was selected by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance as a Fall 2012 Okra Pick, chosen by Bank Street College as a Best Children’s Book of the Year, and by the Virginia Library Association as a Jefferson Cup Honor book. In 2012, Gigi received a Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts from Richmond magazine.

Her fifth novel, Macadoo of the Maury River, macadoo-coverwas released by Candlewick Press in August 2013. A copy of it can be yours by posting a comment here on Write Despite.

Gigi was raised in Mechanicsville, Virginia, and lives with her husband and daughter in Richmond. Here is a brief Q&A.

1. Best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Judy Blume gave me two great pieces of advice:

1. Read your work aloud when revising.

2. Banish the thought that you will run out of ideas.

2. Favorite three authors?

Issa. And, right now, I’m catching up on all of my Edward P. Jones and am also fairly obsessed with Susann Cokal’s new YA novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds. I’ve loved everything ever written by Silas House. And, Jacqueline Woodson, Edwidge Danticat, Belle Boggs, Meg Medina. And, see above, I’ve loved Judy Blume for about forty years. Oh, and Eudora Welty. Can’t forget her.

3. Journey to publication? (How were you first published and how has that led to where you are now?)

When I “finished” (or so I thought!) my YA novel, Claiming Georgia Tate, (it was actually called something different) I was pretty content that I had a beginning, middle, and an end and characters that I enjoyed writing. I didn’t really have the constitution to send the manuscript out, but I did share with a close friend. I had ZERO publishing contacts but it turns out my friend did. So, folks started sharing the manuscript, which eventually led to representation by Leigh Feldman and publication by Candlewick Press. Since then, I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot. Best of all, I’ve met many kind and generous people along the way and made some great, lifelong friends!

4. How and why did you decide to write YA books–what do you love about it?

I didn’t know a lot about YA when I started writing Claiming Georgia Tate in 1996. I just wrote the story that was swirling around in there, which is still how I write. I have a bunch of stories that may or may not be for children. I don’t really worry about an age group or market until revision is well underway, and until after I’ve gotten a handle on what I’m trying to say. Of my published books, I’d say two are YA and three are middle grade. What I enjoy about writing for young readers is placing a kid at the center of the story and giving those characters power and voice in their own lives.

5. What’s up with the horses, and how did they make their way into your writing?

I just love horses, that’s all. Everything about them. Their big eyes that reflect a better you. How fuzzy they get in the winter time. The way the smell. How brave they are. How aware they are of every motion and emotion. I don’t know. How does the sky or my grammy or a kiss make it into my writing? How do birds and trees and mountains? Just. Well, there they all are making me feel alive and not alone.

6. Advice for those on the road to publication (i.e., tips on snagging an agent)? 

The advice that I try to follow for myself regarding craft is to give myself intentional periods of pause and reflection to look around inside my mind and my body (yes!) because there are LOTS of stories that remain hidden when I’m so distracted with running around doing things.

My advice for becoming published is to identify one or two writing communities or professional associations that feel welcoming toward you and resonant with your work. Join up. Learn. Meet people. Take advantage of opportunities to connect with publishing professionals. For example, I belong to the Authors Guild, AWP, James River Writers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and WriterHouse.

7.  Do you write every day?

I do. I don’t always work on the same manuscript every day. I hop around to different projects.

8. What are you working on now?

Lots of fun stuff! I just released an app for iPad based on my book, Chancey of the Maury River – a totally a fun project with a brand new horse story and a barn dress-up game. I’m finishing up the third installment of the Horses of the Maury River middle grade series (the second, Macadoo of the Maury River is just out). I’m about seventy pages in to a historical novel. I’m researching two other books and writing little pieces of those. Revising a retelling of a colonial folk tale. And, working on an essay about Atlantic Sturgeons and Milwaukee Bucks’ star Larry Sanders.  I know, right? I don’t quite get that one yet myself. Just going with it for now.

YOU COULD WIN A FREE COPY OF GIGI’S BOOK, MACADOO OF THE MAURY RIVER. JUST TELL  HER WHY YOU’D LIKE TO OWN IT BY POSTING YOUR COMMENT HERE. GIGI WILL PICK A WINNER BY OCTOBER 1!

Welcome Journalist Jane E. Dee

Please welcome Connecticut-based journalist Jane E. Dee to Write Despite. Non-fiction, done well, has a special power all its own, which Jane’s writing attests to. Read her latest essay, a touching account of her beloved father’s decline.

More from Jane:

In college I considered myself a “creative writer.” Being a reporter didn’t appeal to me. Then I began writing for a community newspaper in Hartford. My editor at the time was covering local politics. I thought “Good for him,” because I had no interest in writing about politics. Then he sent me to a mayoral nominating convention. I covered politics and local communities for the rest of my career, which was at the Hartford Courant. I’m still with the Courant, where I’ve held a number of positions. And I still consider myself a creative writer, although I approach writing with a journalist’s curiosity, focus and succinctness. Or at least I try.

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

It doesn’t matter how well you write. What matters is what’s inside of you.

2. Please tell us your favorite three authors.

I just finished Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye” and it moved me as a reader, and taught me things as a writer. Ann Patchett and John Updike.

3. Briefly describe your journey to publication.

After writing for a about a year for the community newspaper, Courant editors noticed my work and I began working for them.

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

Write and submit. Rewrite and submit. Be professional and responsible in your dealings with editors. It’s a lot like applying for a job.

5.  Do you write every day?

No, but I do make time to write. Deadlines are a great motivator.

6. What are you writing now?

I’m writing a magazine article about a soldier who fought in World War 1.

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