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

Write Despite Book Giveaway Winner

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The comments are all in, and Author Hardy Jones has chosen the winner who will receive a free, signed copy of his novel, Every Bitter Thing.

From Hardy:

All of the responses to the “Perseverance and the Writing Life” were strong, which made my selecting only one for the book giveaway difficult. In the end, I choose T.D. The comment was well written, thoughtful, and clearly expressed T.D.’s desire to persevere. For all who left comments, best of luck with your writing and your submitting!

Congratulations, T.D.
Now come out from behind those initials and claim your prize.
Hardy is popping your book in the mail today.

And thanks to everyone who participated.

Cats and Characters

I’m reading two books on writing right now, both of which were recommended to me by other writers, and both of which are technically geared toward…movies? Well, acting and scripts anyway.

They are:

Getting into CharacterGetting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors, by Brandilyn Collins

and


Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need
by Blake Snyder

The first one was suggested by one of the comments here on Write Despite (thank you, anonymous tipster), and it actually gave me a real breakthrough. Of course I realized all along, while working on my novel, that I need to know my character’s motivation. As Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” In my book, my character didn’t seem to want much. She wants to be happy. And kind of to be left alone. And sometimes water. Hey, just like me.

But that’s of course not enough to draw a reader in or sustain them through 300 pages. Getting into Character’s chapter on “Coloring Passsions” broke down the process into manageable bites—a character’s conscious motivation, subconscious motivation, etc. so I was able to see that what my character really wants is to figure out why she is the way she is. What happened in her life that brought her to this point? Luckily, she’s returning home to her family and now, knowing this is her motivation, I should be able to open up whole areas of discovery as she digs and prods and questions her past. Best of all, she should no longer passive. Stronger characters make stronger books.

Save the catSave the Cat!, is written by a true Hollywood insider, and this guy has lots of energy. He loves exclamation points! (See title.) And chapters like “Give Me the Same Thing, Only Different!” and “Let’s Beat it Out!” and he’s heavy into pitches and loglines. Know what a logline is? It’s one sentence—ONE—that sums up a whole movie. See if you can guess these famous ones:

“Adventuring archaeologist races about the globe to prevent Nazis from turning the greatest archeological relic of all time into a weapon of world conquest.”

Too easy, right? How about this one?

“When she falls in love with a sweet, but WASPy guy, Toula struggles to get her family to accept her fiancée, while she comes to terms with her own heritage.”

And this?

“A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.”

Snyder says if you have no logline, you have no script. Or in my case, no book. After some tinkering, I did come up with a logline for my novel and I think it suits it. And forcing myself to do so made me zoom in on the two or three BIG ideas of the book, which in turn made me think about whether those 300 pages that come after it can, or should, live up to it. Pretty good for one sentence.

If you’re looking for some guidance, I recommend both. If you have your own faves, tell us! What writing books do you turn to? Which ones have been duds?

–Cathy

A Matter of Perspective

So we’ve all got different tastes in fiction, but I want to share a new novel that I’ve just finished, The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. So many aspects of this story are moving, but I was particularly impressed with how skillfully and effectively Strout handles multiple perspectives through a third-person narrator. Take a look, if you’re struggling with the same.

— Karen

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Author Letitia Moffitt: “We want success in this thing we do” (And it just don’t come easy)

Letitia Moffitt knows a thing or two about endurance—the physical and the mental kind. Her first novel Sidewalk Dancing is scheduled for publication by Atticus Books in early November. After you read Letitia’s piece below, you’ll want to order a copy. Browse the other great Atticus titles while you’re at it. Small presses are publishing some of today’s best literary fiction, the stuff the big houses are afraid to take a chance on, for fear of angering their corporate overlords.

Right now, read on. Laugh, nod, and get over yourself. We ALL feel this way, at least sometimes. Community can be healing. So join ours and please welcome Letitia to Write Despite.

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I write novels and run marathons, and it’s not hard to see the similarities in these endeavors. Both take persistence, both can be agonizing, both will drive you to drink. Gatorade martini anyone? At this point I’m supposed to give you a bit of earnest, heart-felt, inspirational advice: to keep trying, to keep going, never to give up on your dreams or lose sight of your goal because you’ll get there, you’ll succeed, and it will all be worth it, all the frustration, all the setbacks, all the failure.

But I’m not going to tell you that. That’s what Facebook is for. Sooner or later somebody you’ve friended is going to post some motivational aphorism with a pretty picture in the background. A sunrise, perhaps, or some flowy water. Here’s the thing, though: writing and running are the things you do because you don’t need motivation. Success or failure is beside the point. You’re going to keep running until your toenails fall off and your forehead is crusted with salt. You’re going to keep writing until your brain is mush and your liver rots. You do it because, well, you got to do something right? It might as well be this. This is what we do, regardless of the outcome.

But who am I kidding. We still dream. We dream of a big book contract, of qualifying for Boston. We can’t really say success doesn’t matter, because that’s crap. Yes, there are some people who just run around their neighborhoods and never enter a race, writers who just create stories for the fun of it and never bother to check out the litmag scene to see where those stories might go. We don’t want to be like that. We think—we certainly hope—we must aspire to greater things.

I like to think I’ve had moderate success with each of these endeavors. On the running side, nine marathons, two ultramarathons, and any number of halfs, 10Ks, 5Ks, and miscellaneous distances. As for writing, a couple dozen short stories and essays in literary magazines and a novel, appearing next month, from a terrific indie publisher. None of this came easy. I was not a runner in high school—I wasn’t much of any anything in high school, come to think of it—so all this marathonning has only occurred in the most recent years of my life. In those years I’ve managed to injure myself in about sixteen different ways while training for races, and that includes some places you have to scratch your head and wonder how did that happen. When you say running, you usually mean, like, on your legs. How do forearms and teeth fit into that? Trust me, they do. I have the scars and the dental work to prove it.

As for writing, well, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer, and I don’t need to tell you about how success in writing doesn’t come easy. Remember the days when rejection came in the form of little slips of paper and not little slips of email, and everyone used to make jokes about wallpapering their room with them? I kind of miss those days.

A running friend of mine told her mother the first time she planned to run a marathon. Her mother’s response: “Why are you doing that? You’re not going to win.” Ouch, Mom. When I was a kid and told my own mother I wanted to be a writer, she said, “Technical writing is very good.” No, Ma, a writer. “They always need people to do technical writing.” Decades, publications, a PhD in English and a book contract later, she still asks me if I’m doing any technical writing. I don’t even think she knows what that means; I suppose she thinks of “technical” as “lucrative” or “practical.” Or maybe just “not a waste of time unless you produce a bestseller that gets turned into a miniseries.”

Oh, I know: the fault lies not in our mothers but in ourselves. We want success in this thing we do, because nobody ever doesn’t want to succeed, and during those times when the effort may kill you, when the setbacks and failures threaten to break you, you have to believe you’re doing it for a reason. It’s too hard otherwise.

Besides, we see those people who really do run just for fun, the bucket-listers, beaming about how they finished their one-and-only marathon in just under 2 days, and we have to fight the urge to get away from them as quickly as possible so other people won’t see you with this loser and think you’re one too. We hear about friends who have “published” a “novel,” and we’re afraid to ask how much they paid the “publisher” to “print” it. Surely we’re the genuine article, not poseurs like those people. Aren’t we?

We run, we write. Sometimes we go into it with our eyes fixed on the prize. The Pulitzer, the National Book, maybe someday the Nobel. Sometimes we go into it absolutely dead certain we will never publish so much as a haiku ever again but we do it anyway, just to keep sane. Sometimes we just go into it. As with running, we just go. We keep on going.

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Author Hardy Jones: Writing is Like Exercise

Hi everyone!

Many thanks to all who commented on Gigi Amateau’s post last week. She has picked a winner for her book giveaway. Congratulations to Kipley Herr!

DSC_0606And now please welcome novelist and teacher Hardy Jones to Write Despite. Hardy joins us today to share his thoughts on the persuasive powers of T. Coraghessan Boyle, the litmus test of revision and the importance of answering the phone when opportunity calls.

If you haven’t read Hardy’s novel “Every Bitter Thing,” please check it out. The writing is powerfully observant, and the story will stay with you long after you finish the last page. Also an essayist and short story writer, Hardy is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Cameron University. He also serves as Executive Editor of Cybersoleil Literary Journal.

Please welcome Hardy Jones to Write Despite

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

I have had many great teachers and mentors, so it is difficult to single out the best writing advice I received. But I want to highlight advice I received from Moira Crone, Thomas Russell, and Randall Kenan. Crone, with whom I studied fiction writing as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, explained short story form to me and enabled me to write with more control and understanding of the components of fiction—hooks, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement.  While the Aristotelian structure is not the only way to organize a story, learning it was a great help to me as a beginning writer.

My first graduate workshop was with Thomas Russell. It was a Fiction workshop and in it he said: “Many authors write the same story over and over.” We were reading D.H Lawrence, and Thomas Russell explained how Lawrence primarily wrote about the sexual tension between men and women. As a student, Russell’s comment did not make sense, and I did not want to write the same story over and over. As I have matured as a writer, I now understand what he meant. One does not literally write the same story over and over, but an author explores the same themes and tropes in one’s work. For example, I often write about dysfunctional families with an only child and about father/son relationships.

In a Creative Nonfiction workshop at the University of Memphis, Kenan said: “I’ve come to believe that there is enough time to write everything.” This comment stuck with me because I have a bad habit of pressuring myself and often feeling rushed.

2. Please tell us your favorite three authors

Picking only three is difficult. Some authors are my favorites for specific lessons I have learned from reading them. Others are my favorites for that reason plus sheer enjoyment. The Brazilian fiction writer Jorge Amado fits both of those criteria. The first work I read by him was the novel Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I am in awe of how his prose blends erudition with humor and bawdiness. Next is the nonfiction author Joseph Mitchell. I appreciate his ability to write about marginalized peoples and not make them into caricature. Third is the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her writing possesses an emotional intensity that I admire. A fourth author I want to mention is T. Coraghessan Boyle. In a sophomore literature course, I read his story “Greasy Lake,” which I enjoyed and then sought out more of his work. I read his story collections If The River was Whiskey, The Descent of Man, Without a Hero and his novel World’s End.  He is the writer who convinced me to be a writer. His subjects of teen angst and rock-n-roll, writing infused with a few curse words, and the comedic approaches to history and storytelling grabbed me.  By the time I finished World’s End, I had decided to major in English and fling myself into writing.

3. Briefly describe your journey to publication

My first publication was a short story titled “Moving Day,” and it appeared in the LSU undergraduate journal The Delta. I wrote it for an undergraduate fiction workshop I was taking with Moira Crone. She had given us the assignment to begin a story with the words “I remember.” When I sat down to start the story I didn’t know what I was going to write. I sat in front of the computer for a few minutes repeating “I remember” and in what seemed like an unconscious act, I placed my fingers on the keyboard and typed: “I remember when Mama told us we were moving out of the trailer park.” With that sentence, a young boy’s voice took over and led me to write eight pages.

For my novel Every Bitter Thing, I wrote the initial draft between August 2000 and May 2001. The opening scene came out in one sitting. I had been kicking around the opening line, “Dad was always friends with butchers,” in my head for about three years, and one afternoon, frustrated with something else that I was writing, I started a new file and typed out the sentence. The rest of the scene came out in about forty-five minutes in one of the moments that writers live for: the characters, the setting, the actions, even the dialogue simply flowed out. After such an auspicious start, I was unable to write for several weeks, and when I did return to the manuscript, I fluctuated between continuing with it as fiction or making it into a father/son memoir. Once I had written fifty pages, I decided to go the route of fiction. By releasing myself and the characters from what I perceived as the constraint of memoir, I was able, ironically, to be more truthful about the father’s bigotry and the protagonist’s sexual abuse by an older boy.

While the novel’s initial draft took nine months to complete, it took seven years of revising and submitting the manuscript before it was accepted for publication in April 2008 by Black Lawrence Press.  At that time, my wife and I were in the process of buying a house and I was tired of the numerous phone calls from banks and finance companies. I was on the phone with a colleague when a beep let me know I had another call.  Assuming it was probably another loan officer trying to pressure us, I decided I wasn’t going to click over. Luckily my colleague was more level-headed and said I should take it; the call, he said, may be important. He was correct. It was Black Lawrence Press’ then Executive Editor Colleen Ryor saying that they had decided to accept Every Bitter Thing. After all those years of work on the manuscript, I almost did not answer when opportunity called.

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

Never submit something that has not been revised numerous times and start small. Don’t start at the top with a prestigious journal that primarily publishes established authors. Doing so sets one up for disappointment, and the writing and publishing life is full of that. Normally, young authors are working in short genres: poetry, short stories, and personal essays. Therefore, journals are a perfect match. With an established track record, an author then has the “credentials” to submit to larger journals, agents, and presses.

5. Do you write every day?

I wish I did. When I was composing Every Bitter Thing, I did write every day for those nine months it took to complete the initial draft. With my teaching schedule, I try to work in a few minutes when I can between classes and meeting with students. In that way, I follow the advice you give on the blog: twenty minutes a day. That is good advice, because writing is like physical exercise: your muscles become stronger as you work regularly, and eventually one is maximizing those twenty minutes. When I feel as if there is not enough time to write, I like to use the image of the poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote in between seeing patients in his medical office. That writing schedule worked out well for him.

 6. What are you writing now?

Currently I am revising a memoir, People of the Good God, which is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press. I have a short story collection, Grandmother’s Coconut Tree, for which I am seeking a publisher. The stories are set in Southeast Asia and the American South. The ones set in Southeast Asia are flash fiction and are more experimental. I am also working on a personal essay collection, Resurrection of the Unholy, which is about my childhood and growing up in the South during the 1970s and 1980s with a bigoted sexagenarian father. My father was born in 1917 in east Texas and he never let go of the racist ways he was taught and witnessed growing up. As a child, however, I felt that something was not right with his attitude towards African-Americans, and as I grew I knew that his attitude and words were wrong.

Welcome Author Patricia Henley

The diverse and accomplished Patricia Henley joins us today to share her thoughts on lucky breaks, practice-practice-practice, and how starting a novel feels like falling in love.

Patricia is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, four short story collections, two novels, a stage play, and numerous essays. Her first book of stories, Friday Night at Silver Star (Graywolf, 1986) was the winner of the Montana First Book Award. Her first novel, Hummingbird House (MacMurray & Beck, 1999) was a finalist for the National Book Award and the New Yorker Fiction Prize. Pantheon published her second novel, In the River Sweet, and it was widely praised in newspapers and magazines. In the River Sweet was a Border’s Original Voices selection and was translated into Polish and published in Poland in 2004. Engine Books published Patricia’s fourth collection of stories – Other Heartbreaks – in 2011.

Here’s what Oprah magazine had to say about Other Heartbreaks:

O Magazine Review

Learn more about Patricia and her work at www.patriciahenley.org or at www.enginebooks.org

Please welcome Patricia to Write Despite.

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

Here are two bits of advice. Pay yourself first — that is, write first thing in the morning. After that, everything feels easy. Pursue wordless recreation. This is even more important now than it was when I first read it thirty years ago because we are bombarded with so many more words now than ever.

2. Please tell us your favorite three authors

Hilary Mantel
Alice Munro
William Trevor

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

I first published poetry in journals around Baltimore in the 1970’s. I started writing fiction in 1979 when I was living in the Pacific Northwest. I submitted a short story manuscript to a contest – the Montana First Book Award. I won, and, as a result, Graywolf Press published my first book of stories in 1986. They made sure it was reviewed nationally and that was my lucky break.

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

Don’t stop writing. There are plenty of gifted or talented writers who can’t stick with it. They allow themselves to get distracted when it’s not easy. Getting published is about practice, practice, practice.

5. Do you write every day?

When I’m working on a project, yes, I write every day. Once in a while I take some time off. But a week or two without writing and I begin to feel as if I’m living in a black and white movie. I have to write.

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

I recently finished a memoir – You Will Be Taught To Fly — I do not have a publisher for it yet. I’m writing a YA novel with Elizabeth Stuckey-French. It’s titled Where Wicked Starts. Engine Books will publish it in 2014. I recently started what I hope will be a novel set in Cincinnati. I haven’t made a firm commitment to it yet, but it’s fun. The first 100 pages of a novel feel like falling in love.

Oxford, 2012

Author Angela Belcher Epps: Telling Your Truth

Author Angela Belcher Epps explores what happens when a mother walks out on her children in her compelling novella, Salt in the Sugar Bowl. (Main Street Rag, $10) Epps, an English teacher at an alternative high school, explores the complexities of life— including love, family relationships, loss and abandonment in her work. See her website and her blog to learn more about her writing adventures http://www.thewritingclinic.com/

Please welcome Angela to Write Despite.

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

I took workshops with Zelda Lockhart who said I have to be willing to work as hard for my writing job as I do for my supervised job. This was a milestone in my writing life because a part of me was always waiting for some break to happen to give me more time. So I started to push myself harder to have a complete writing career while juggling the job and life I had.

2) Please tell me your favorite three authors.

J. California Cooper, Amy Bloom, and (at this moment) Junot Diaz. But Raymond Carver always comes to mind whenever I’m asked.

3) Briefly describe your journey to publication.

I have written since I was in third grade and wrote for school papers and such. Then I majored in creative writing in undergrad, but I cared nothing about publishing. I only wanted to write. I finally started submitting stories to small literary journals when I attended NYU’s graduate creative writing program and became a more disciplined writer. E. L. Doctorow was my thesis advisor, and he told me he laughed out loud when he read one of my stories, so I gained confidence and submitted to NYU’s literary journal. That was my first real publication. Since then, I generally take a long time writing and revising until a piece feels complete. Salt in the Sugar Bowl, my new novella, features many fictional characters that I have been in relationship with for a long while. An editor heard me read an excerpt about one of these characters at an open mic and invited me to submit my novella; they accepted it. Also from time to time I am inspired to write a nonfiction article, and it usually comes from a deep place that is rather emotional. I usually have successes with such pieces.

4)  Advice for those on the road to publication?

Don’t be self-conscious. That was always my personal demon because it caused me to rethink and censor myself. Write for yourself, and forget about the people who could be looking over your shoulders and chastising you for telling your truth. Get lost in your own voice, and forget about being safe. Your readers aren’t your family, so grow all the way up and be yourself. Then be diligent about rereading and revising your work. Be ruthless in self-editing. Be honest.

5) Do you write every day?

I don’t work on my projects every day, but writing grounds me, so I journal or write something every day—even if it’s a log of what I did, an elaborate “To Do” list, or goals I plan to meet. Tonight I was talking to my husband in a restaurant, and I’d had a glass of wine and was feeling pretty self-righteous and gloating about my sense of integrity. I said that public figures that fall from grace should have to “figure it out or get the fuck out.” I fell in love with the line as it slid through my lips, and I wrote it down when he went to the toilet. Trust me; some character will be expressing that sentiment very soon. Writing is always going on in my head.

6) What are you writing now?

I’m writing a sequel to my Salt in the Sugar Bowl novella because whenever someone has read it, they ALWAYS say, “I need to know what happened to …….” And that is extremely motivating. It is tentatively called Out for a Ride. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, and sometimes that’s a good thing.

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Welcome Author Marjorie Hudson

First, a big thanks to everyone who chimed in on last week’s blog, and congratulations to author Gigi Amateau, winner of our first-ever Write Despite book giveaway! Gigi was randomly selected to win a free copy of Tara Laskowski’s Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons. Gigi has quite a body of work of her own, and has graciously agreed to do an interview and book giveaway on Write Despite as well. Look for her post in the coming weeks.

- by Brent Clark (3)
(Photo courtesy of Brent Clark)

Now please welcome author Marjorie Hudson to Write Despite. Marjorie’s fiction and creative nonfiction explore the worlds of outsiders and newcomers, misfits and strangers, in the contemporary and historical South. See her website and her blog about her writing adventures: http://www.marjoriehudson.com

Thanks, Marjorie, for taking the time to chat with us.

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

“Do it your way.” – Emily Herring Wilson.  Emily was my editor and mentor for my first book, Searching for Virginia Dare, which was a strange amalgam of history, interview, road trip, memoir, and fiction scene. When I wondered if that kind of strange combination was even allowed, she encouraged me to play. It’s been the best advice, and used it when compiling my story collection too, which includes both contemporary stories and historical fiction.

 2)    Please tell us your favorite three authors.

I read everybody I can get my hands on, and my favorites change from time to time. But some standbys: Henry James, Alice Munro, and Anne Lamott. I know it’s a strange list.

 3)    Briefly describe your journey to publication.

I was a shy writer for many years, hiding behind my job as an editor at National Parks Magazine. One day I got up my courage to ask for an assignment, and after that started writing features. When I moved to North Carolina, it was with the goal of doing more creative writing—it was cheaper to live here and I knew I could experiment more while freelancing. I worked at Algonquin books as a copyeditor for a number of years, soaking in the lessons of fiction writing, then started writing my own stories and sending them out. My first story won a small award. I was overly encouraged by that and started sending everywhere. A lucky break got me my first book contract—Emily Wilson called me out of the blue and asked me to write for her, and it turned into a book, Searching for Virginia Dare, now out in a new edition. Meanwhile, I was writing and publishing short stories. I finally collected some stories on the theme of outsiders in the South, that became Accidental Birds of the Carolinas. It took 20 years for me to refine those stories till they were ready, but it was worth the wait, because the collection got national recognition as a Pen Hemingway Honorable Mention.

SFVD Cover - 2013 (3) Just this summer my first book came out in a new edition,  Searching for Virginia Dare: On the Trail of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, and I got to have a dream come true—keeping a book in print for more than ten years, and adding some exciting new material from my continued adventures. I remain obsessed with the mystery of the Lost Colony, and the legends and stories that continue to emerge from that moment in history, and have sought out new clues while traveling to Rome, London, and the Outer Banks in search of deeper understanding of the story of America’s first English child, part of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.

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

Find a writing community, a great teacher, a mentor. Keep the faith. You are the only one who can tell the story your way. You’ll need that writing community while you struggle, and creative work is a struggle, and you’ll want them around too to celebrate with when you publish! No one understands the sweetness of publishing better than another writer.

 5)    Do you write every day?

I schedule writing in. Some weeks I do other things. My favorite method is to take a month or more and write the same time every day. For longer projects, you must fit them around your life, and your job, to sustain them.

6)    What are you writing now?

I’m working on a novel draft. It continues the stories of some of the characters in Accidental Birds.

 7)    What are you reading now?

I read several books at a time. I’m reading Little Raw Souls, a new story collection by my old writing teacher Steven Schwartz. I’m re-reading The Disobedience of Water, by Sena Jeter Naslund, also a story collection. I just finished In the Garden of Beasts, about the American ambassador in Berlin during Hitler’s rise, by Erik Larson. And I’m reading three incredible novel manuscripts by friends, for my writing group.

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!