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!

Thematic Elements

Karen and I have both been working on submitting some things for publication lately. ‘Cause what’s the point of writing if no one sees it but your Aunt Audrey who, let’s face it, just doesn’t get your humor?

I’ve been checking out some places to submit a short story I’ve been working on for, uh, about a decade now. What I’ve discovered, or rediscovered since it’s been so long since I’ve done this, is that the right theme can get you everywhere. Case in point, my last published story had been shopped around for about, uh, a decade, when I finally ran across a themed issue that fit it to a sweet little “T.” I sent it there and, what do you know? Print at last!

So I thought I’d share some of the calls for submissions I’ve seen that ask for specific themes from writers. These run the gamut of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—some are journals, some are contests. And most have deadlines right around the corner. Pick and choose as you like. And please, let us know if your work finds a home in one of them.

Write well, everyone! And give Audrey my love.

—Cathy

COOL THEMED SUBMISSIONS

Sexy story? Macho story?

http://www.hungermtn.org/submit/

Family Matters:

http://www.glimmertrain.com/familymatters.html

shark

Sharks, printers, and other fun stuff:

http://themaliterarysociety.com/submissions.html

The Journey:

http://www.hauntedwaterspress.com/Submissions.html

Women and Nature:

http://fourthriver.chatham.edu/index.php/submit

Memory:

http://www.halfwaydownthestairs.net/index.php?action=submissions

For you radical deviants:

http://zymbolmag.com/submission-guidelines/

For you mermaid poets (no, I’m not kidding–click on “submit”):mermaid

http://www.sundresspublications.com/

Adirondacks:

bluelinemagadk.com

Southern:

steeltoereview.com/submissions/

Tales from the cubicle:

http://www.workerswritejournal.com/

Spiritual lit:

http://www.lalitamba.com/

Phobia/Philia:

http://fictioninternational.sdsu.edu/submit.html

Race:

http://ravenchronicles.org/raven/rvsubm.html

Progress:

http://www.umt.edu/camas/

Dark & Dirty:

http://www.dirtychaimag.com/2013/08/call-for-submissions.html

Procession, Tandem Bicycle, Ache:tandem bike

http://www.3elementsreview.com/

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?

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.)

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.)

Soul, Sister

So, I’m thinking a lot about “voice” these days. With the first draft of the two opening chapters of my new tome almost finished, I’m paying a lot of attention to what the writing sounds like, to what kind of world I’m inviting a reader to enter.

For me, voice—that sustainable tone and mood set by the subtle interplay of language and observation—is what makes a story. I’m a pretty charitable reader of other people’s work. I forgive the occasional narrative line bumbles and rough spots, if I feel like I’m reading something that is compelling and authentic, and it’s showing me something new about the world.

Errors and bumbles can always be fixed, and, hey, nothing’s perfect. But voice is different. I think of voice as the “soul” of a story. And without a soul, what have you got? Just a lot of noise.

Let me give a shout-out here to novelist and super-blogger Amy Sue Nathan whose forthcoming debut novel, The Glass Wives, will be published by St. Martin’s Griffin in May 2013. Amy kindly allowed us to post as guest bloggers on her terrific site, Women’s Fiction Writers. We’ve connected with a whole new bunch of cool writers as a result.

So please check out Women’s Fiction Writers and pick up The Glass Wives this spring. Keep the good vibes going round.

— Karen

Glass-Wives_final-cover_high-res

Day One…

Happy 2013 everyone! A new year, a fresh start, a blank piece of paper–it’s all exhilarating and terrifying. And, oh, the possibilities.

Day One of Write Despite opened for me with sad goodbyes to relatives we don’t get to see nearly enough. And then a sluggish, sleepwalking day that required much caffeine, TV staring, leftover cookies and cake, and finally a nap (yes, I did do New Year’s Eve up right last night). Then it was dinner out using those Christmas gift cards my lovely MIL gave us, a last-minute dash to help my daughter complete a Lakota teepee project (because of course we’ve only had two weeks off to do it), and a still ongoing search of the house to find her lost iPod. Finally, at 9:35, I sat down to write. I stopped exactly 20 minutes later. Because I not only have to find that damned iPod, but I also have to get my head on straight with this new book. Who are these characters, what dramas are happening with them right now, and is that really the best place to begin their stories? Am I really doing first person? Alternating voices? Should I choose past tense or present?

It can all be worked out. Tomorrow awaits. And another 20 minutes, at least. This should be a piece of cake, right? (Mmmm. Cake.)

Thanks for visiting. Write well, everyone!

–Cathy