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

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

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!

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

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

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

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

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

1) Best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve got a few, is that ok?

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

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

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

2) Favorite three authors?

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

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

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

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

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

5) Do you write every day?

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

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

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

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

Welcome Author Leanne Dyck

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

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

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

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

 2)    Please tell us your favorite three authors.

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

 3)    Briefly describe your journey to publication.

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

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

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

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

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

 5)    Do you write every day?

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

6)    What are you writing now?

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

 7)    What are you reading now?

In Calamity’s Wake, by Natalee Caple.

Welcome Author Susan Schoenberger

watershedyear-200x300Connecticut author Susan Schoenberger’s first novel, A Watershed Year, was published in March 2011 following, as she puts it, “many years of writing and editing and many rounds of publisher submissions.” On her website, Susan says the novelat its heart, is a love story, and a story about all the ways that we interconnect in this world of both too much and too little communication.”

Hard at work on her second novel, The Virtues of Oxygen, Susan took a few minutes to share her thoughts on writing and the reality of the publishing business. Susan has been a writer, editor and copy editor at various newspapers, including The News and Observer, The Baltimore Sun and The Hartford Courant. She’s done all this while raising three kids, a feat we at Write Despite (with three kids between us) truly admire.

Please welcome Susan Schoenberger to Write Despite.

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

I’ve received no shortage of writing advice, but the best nugget was something Richard Ford said about his own work. He described his process of re-reading his entire manuscript with an eye toward strengthening the verbs in each and every sentence. Now I do the same thing.

2. Please tell us your favorite three authors

Richard Ford (obviously), Don Delillo, and Ann Patchett

3. Briefly describe your journey to publication.

I wrote a novel that didn’t go anywhere, then attended the Wesleyan Writers Conference in 2001 and began focusing on craft. I had several short stories published over the next few years, then attempted a novel again. This one — now called A Watershed Year — won the William Faulkner-William Wisdom prize in 2006, which helped me get an agent in 2007. My agent finally sold the book to a small publisher and it was published in 2011. Luckily, the same editor who bought the book moved to Amazon Publishing and convinced them to re-release it and buy my next book. A Watershed Year will be re-released on Nov. 26, 2013, and my next novel, The Virtues of Oxygen, is due out in the summer of 2014.

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

We all want to believe that the “ready for publication” standard for submitting to agents means that the book is actually ready for publication. In my case, anyway, I needed to do major rewriting and editing before the book sold and then more rewriting after it sold. It was painful, but in the end, the book was better for it.

5.  Do you write every day?

With a full-time job (and two kids in college plus one in high school), I don’t get to write every day. But I think about my story and my characters every day.

6. What are you writing now?

I’m working on the manuscript for The Virtues of Oxygen, which is due to Amazon in October. Having a deadline is a big motivator.

SusanSchoenbergerbirches1-300x199

A Watershed Year will be re-released in November by Amazon. You can pre-order a copy here: http://www.amazon.com/A-Watershed-Year-Susan-Schoenberger/dp/1477848010/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1371477953&sr=8-4&keywords=a+watershed+year