Creative Writing: The Power of Limits

Once-we-accept-our-limitsHello to all you writers out there. This is Adair Heitmann writing to you about constraint.

I’ve just finished reading Biz Stone’s, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind. Stone is the co-founder of Twitter. As a writer, you probably either love or hate the social media giant, but we’ll leave that conversation for another time.

Stone’s book encouraged me to examine how my own mind works and I’ve come away inspired. In his chapter, “A Short Lesson in Constraint,” Stone tells a few real-life stories to illustrate his point.  One is a story about his mother’s answer to his continuous query when he was a child, “What should I draw?” When she finally said, “Draw a dump truck,” limiting the options gave him a place to start.

Writers can take away a writing tip from this kind of thinking.  Instead of your character asking, “How was your day?”  Which is almost always answered with, “Fine.” Put restraints on the question, such as “How was your lunch with Steve?” This will yield a far more interesting answer.

One story tells about a Silicon Valley billionaire who invented the perfect microchip for mobile devices by accident. He gave his team no money, no time, and no resources. They came up with the technology that powers the chips that are in practically all cell phones.

Each story talks about the power of limitations. How many of you are writers who have full-time jobs outside the sphere of your personal writing? Welcome to my world. While my life is filled with what others may view as constrictions, I’ve learned to accept them. It’s exhilarating to be drafting this blog, sandwiched between work and picking up my son at cross country practice. The limits force me to think clearly about what I want to say, focus on that and that alone, then type fast. I’ll publish this blog later tonight after washing the dinner dishes.

Biz Stone says, “Embrace your constraints, whether they are creative, physical, economic, or self-imposed. They are provocative. They are challenging. They wake you up. They make you more creative. They make you better.”

Until next time, keep on writing.

Maddie Dawson goes to writing class

MDThe Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased to welcome back novelist Maddie Dawson—author most recently of The Opposite of Maybe, published by Broadway Books in April 2014—as a guest poster. She tells us what lessons a veteran author can learned in a highly regarded writing course:

Here are my usual steps when I’m writing a novel.

1. An idea shows up, usually when I’m driving 65 mph on the highway, or in the shower dripping wet, or falling asleep after a long, hard day.
2. I pull over, dry off, or get out of bed (whichever action is required) and seek a pen and paper and start to write the idea down.
3. Over the next few weeks, with the help of a main character, I write 50 pages, with no idea where I’m headed with this story.
4. Then I rewrite them. Again and again. Months pass.
5. I have a house full of little scrawled notes to myself, sometimes written in the middle of the night. Some say things like: “his mother’s banana bread, the full moon, frog statuary.” Believe me, I don’t know what any of this means.
6. I write 150 more pages. This takes months. (Every few days I rewrite page 1 again.)
7. I take long walks with friends and try to think of what comes next in the plot. I write out a haphazard outline. I change it 24 times.
8. One day, months (sometimes years later) and usually at 4:10 a.m., I finish the book.

OppSee? Eight easy breezy steps to novel-writing. “Pantsers” (that is, people who write by the seat of their pants) can relate. I actually wrote (and published) five novels this way. After each one, I vowed that I wasn’t cut out for this business, that I should check out schools that teach welding. Or car repair.

Meanwhile, my agent was telling me I should learn to write faster and faster. Publishers were interested in authors who could come up with a book a year–at least, she said. Chop! Chop! Some of my writer friends were actually writing two a year, and I knew for a fact these were people with children and cars and houses and dental appointments and a normal need for sleep.

Clearly, I wasn’t cut out for that kind of schedule for myself. But wouldn’t it possible, I wondered, to maybe find a shortcut through some of my steps—like step #4, “rewrite them, again and again”? Or maybe I could even take a closer look at step #3—specifically that phrase “with no idea where I’m headed with this story.”

And then I heard about John Truby and his amazing book, The Anatomy of Story. Truby, who is an internationally renowned screenwriting guru and who has enough Hollywood and New York credentials to take up theAnatofStory entire rest of this blog post, believes that writers can save themselves a whole lot of headaches by following some simple steps before ever putting pen to paper, or pixel to computer screen.

I read the book and then I went to New York and took his weekend course last May—three glorious days of listening and learning about structure and why it’s not such a bad thing to know what you’re doing before you set out…and how, once you do even the simple step of coming up with a premise before you begin, you can save yourself months of rewriting while your characters run amok through your story, taking over with insignificant plot points, ordering you around like you’re their servant, and generally making projects take waaaay longer than they ever should.

A premise, says Truby, is simply a one-sentence statement that tells what the story is about and includes what action is going to take place to get from the beginning to the end. It gives a sense of the beginning, the main character, and then the outcome. That’s it.

You want an example? Of course you do. Here’s one from Truby himself, for The Godfather: “The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather.”

Simple, yes? But, he says, 90 percent of stories fail because the writer hasn’t thought this out in advance. (I am raising my hand here.)

Your premise is your inspiration; it’s the reason you wanted to write the book in the first place. Often it includes the “twist” that makes your story unique. And once you have that premise, Truby says, you can sit down and explore all the scenes that are going to go into your story—making sure, of course, to leave out the ones that don’t contribute one bit to your original premise.

He suggests taking weeks and even months to come up with precisely the right premise, because your ability to write this book depends upon it. Once you’ve nailed the premise, then you’re going to be able to move forward, figuring out who your characters are, what they desire and what they need, what the central conflict is, what the story challenges and problems are, how the character is going to change, and what difficult choices your main character is going to have to make.

He suggests that after you have all that figured out, you write a list of scenes that are going to take place to lead to the resolution of your premise.

And all this is before you begin writing in earnest. In other words, by the time you are starting to write your book, you have thought through all the little hang-ups in the plot, all the places that would otherwise be knocking you to the ground with despair, keeping you up in the middle of the night trying to wriggle your way out of plot details you’ve created but can’t figure out how to solve.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re imagining that all the joy and surprise of writing will be drained away if you know these things in advance, that the whole reason you love writing is for those hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments when your character shocks you with some revelation you didn’t see coming.

But I’m here to tell you, as a former “pantser,” this is not true. There are still surprises as you write your scenes. There are still moments that undo you, as they will undo your readers. There are twists and turns and changes that take place that will take your breath away. But they are all contained in your premise. They are all part of your vision for this book.

A plot is a character experiencing a desire which changes and morphs as the book goes on. You will constantly be readjusting the desire that your character feels as he or she moves through the story. The desire changes as you go, you know. You will find yourself still changing around scenes and thinking about what works better, but you will know where you are going, and that is a wonderful, liberating feeling.

But there was one more thing I learned from the Truby workshop, something that I hadn’t really ever thought about before, and that I think is perhaps the most important element of his workshop.

He tells writers to “write the book that will change your life.”

This is no small thing. But the book you write tells the world something of who you are, how you think the world operates, how you think human beings should behave. It is nothing short of your vision and your prescription for living.

Think about it.

And when you write that book, Truby says—and when you get to the end of it, it chances are it will speak to other readers as well.

And if, for some reason, it doesn’t sell? Well, then at least you’ve changed your life—and that’s no small thing.

Now that Maddie Dawson, author of  The Opposite of Maybe (2014) and The Stuff That Never Happened (2010), is no longer a pantser, she is hoping her new novel-in-progress, Until You Called Me, will be on a much faster schedule.

Published in: on August 18, 2014 at 2:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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Lessons via ebook from Lawrence Block

One evening six years ago the master crime novelist Lawrence Block LBlock(right) made an author appearance at the Westport (Conn.) Library next door to Fairfield. At that point, among the more than  100 books Block had published were four about writing. During the question-and-answer session, I asked him if he planned to write any more of those.

“God, I hope not,” he said, or words to that effect.

Two of Block’s then-existing books—Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (my favorite) and Spider, Spin Me a Web—were collections of columns he wrote for Writer’s Digest. Block contributed a monthly column on fiction writing to the magazine for more than 14 years, beginning in 1976. Not long after Block came to Westport, a fan and collector named Terry Zobeck turned over copies of 77 WD articles to him that had not been published in book form, and in 2011, Open Road Integrated Media, a leading digital publisher, issued two new Block books on writing: The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion. So, while technically he hasn’t written any more writing books, he has published two more. (The other two that fill out his shelf of six are Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print and Write for Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers.)

The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion were among the first titles I downloaded when I got a Kindle two-and-a-half years ago. I got around to doing my Bible study perhaps a year later. Now I’ve finished The Liar’s Companion.LiarsComp

While I read a lot of crime writers, Block has never been a favorite. At most, I’ve read 10 of his novels and story collections. Yet I delight in reading his writing about writing. In addition to the practical advice he imparts about storytelling and other craft elements, he offers snippets of autobiography, travelogue, anecdotage about other authors and more, all told with a sense of humor and a sense of fun that I find very appealing. Almost all of these facets come together in the fifth chapter, in which Block tells the story of the conception and writing of his 1988 novel Random Walk, including a 30-day residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (perhaps the most idyllic-sounding artist retreat I’ve read about, both in Block’s book and in the Fairfield University MFA program’s guide, Now What?). You come away from reading The Liar’s Companion and the other column collections with a fly-on-the-shoulder portrait of a working writer, one who makes a compelling case that the writer’s life is an ideal one indeed.

By the way, just this past week, NPR’s “Morning Edition” aired a feature on Block, who is 76. He may never publish another writing book, but his existing ones are worth revisiting, and I urge you to do so. For a taste of what you’ll find, here are some excerpted words of wisdom from The Liar’s Companion.

On writer’s block: “Does an out-of-work steelworker call it Steelworker’s Block? The hell he does. He calls it unemployment.”

On story ideas: “For all the books and columns I’ve written and for all the seminars I’ve conducted, I certainly spend an unseemly amount of time trying to think of something to write, and start a disheartening number of books that I never trouble to finish.”

On fiction’s essence: “One morning, struggling to get a scene right on the page, I thought to myself something along these lines: ‘Dammit, I know what happened. Why can’t I just tell it?’ And I looked up, struck by a thought.

“Because what I wanted to get on paper was not something that had happened. It was something I was attempting to fabricate out of whole cloth. . . .The whole book, along with the scene I was agonizing over, were solely the products of my admittedly overactive imagination. . . .

“I took up a pen and wrote down the following: ‘The superior fiction writer is the superior liar. When I write a novel, I am trying to report honestly and accurately about an event that did not happen in the lives of people who do not exist.’ ”

On beginnings: “First, of course, you have to attract [the reader’s] attention and draw him in. . . .

“At the same time, you want to let him know what kind of story he’s reading. . . .

“A further chore of the beginning is to make [your reader] care about the story, to convince [him] that [he] ought to give a damn how it turns out.”

On middles: “In [a] novel. . .most of the book is middle. . . .The most self-assured of writers is apt to suffer a crisis of confidence during a book’s lengthy midsection. His nightmare tends to be two-fold. First, there’s the mounting concern that the book will never be done, that the middle will extend forever, that each new page he writes will bring him farther from the beginning but not a whit closer to the end. . . .

“Also the writer is typically concerned that what he’s shouting is going to fall on deaf ears, or on no ears at all. The reader, cunningly hooked by the book’s beginning, will dislodge that hook and swim off into the sunset. . . .

“The first thing to remember is that [the reader] wants to keep on reading. . . .Once hooked by your opening, he has an investment of time along with his investment of money in your book. Every additional page he reads increases his investment and commits him more deeply to finish what he has started. . . .The reader would prefer to stay with you, to see the book through to the end. . . .

“All you have to do is keep him. . . .And how do you do that?

“• Have interesting things happen. . . .

“• Keep the story moving. . . .In the broadest sense, fiction is about the solution (successful or not) of a problem. If the reader loses sight of that problem during the book’s vast middle, he ceases to care. . . .Even if he does keep reading, you may lose your hold on his emotions. . . .

“• Pile on the miseries. . . .making the problem a headache [and] by making the problem’s solution more difficult.

“• Enjoy the trip. . . .If writing a book is driving across America, the book’s middle is an endless highway across Kansas, and there are days when every sentence is as flat as the unvarying landscape.

“There are, to be sure, a lot of interesting things in Kansas. But you won’t enjoy them much if you spend every moment telling yourself you can’t wait to get to California. . . .Forget all that. Stay in the now. . . .”

On endings: “The end of the story is the payoff. It’s the promised destination that drew [the reader in]. . .in the first place. . . .If the ending doesn’t deliver, the reader feels cheated by the entire experience. . . .

“What makes an ending work?

“Maybe the best way to answer that is to listen to a Beethoven symphony. By the time the last note of the coda has sounded at the end of the fourth movement, you damn well know it’s over. When that last ringing chord hits you, every musical question has been answered, every emotional issue has been resolved. . . .”

On enjoyment: “Why not sit up and enjoy [writing]?

“In other arts, such an argument would probably not be necessary. Painters love to paint. Musicians love to make music. Why should scribbling or tapping a keyboard be more agonizing and less pleasurable than rinsing out a brush or blowing through a reed?

“I think the answer, or a good part of it, lies in our propensity to get fixated upon the ultimate result of our work and to regard the actual process of writing as a means to an end, an arduous and time-consuming business that must be endured if we are to wind up with a finished book in our hands. With our eyes so firmly fixed upon the far horizon, how can we possibly take delight in the journey itself?”

On tenses: “The present tense distances both the reader and the writer from the events. It takes away both engagement and certainty.

“The past tense in fiction states unequivocally that a given thing happened, that it happened in a certain way. The present tense calls upon us to believe that the thing is happening now, as we read about it, that it is unfolding in some alternate universe. . . .[T]he past tense. . .carries more conviction.”

On bad news: “What takes the sting out of rejection?

“Experience, first of all. The experience of rejection, and the experience of living through it. Only by sending things out, time and time again, and by getting them back, time and time again, can we truly learn what rejection does and doesn’t mean. It means that a particular publisher [or agent or editor] has declined to buy a particular story on a particular occasion. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the story’s bad. . . .With time you begin to understand that all any rejection means is what it says on the rejection slip—the manuscript does not fit the publisher’s current needs.

“Another big help is acceptance. . . .Why? Because the acceptance is proof of a tangible sort that your work has merit, and the worst thing about rejection is its capacity to make you believe that your work is worthless and so are you. If one editor supplies validation with an acceptance, it’s a lot easier to shrug off the next batch of rejections. . . .”

So there’s a good takeaway. Keep submitting your stories.
—Alex McNab

Published in: on August 12, 2014 at 3:04 pm  Comments (4)  

The Hot Tub Book Club

bookclub009-thumb-465x348-17081Happy summer to all you writers out there, this is Adair Heitmann penning (or more aptly typing) today’s blog. On May 9th I wrote to you about taking three easy steps into the powerful realm of book clubs. Before that, on April 2nd, I spoke about the attraction of many people reading the same book, then discussing it. You’ll be surprised how this can improve your writing.

Isn’t that what every writer dreams of? People buying their books, checking them out of libraries, reading them on eReaders, listening to them while commuting, and then sharing strong opinions about the books in the world? This is heady stuff.

When our son was five we joined a “Family Book Club Reading the Classics” at a local library. The power of the connections made and the friendships forged in that club have lasted over a decade. In fact the book club seceded from the union of that library when it’s former director asked us to be less excited about it in public. What? Tone down our enthusiasm for reading and healthy debate? Quiet the healthy pounding in our hearts when a fellow book clubber prompted an impassioned response? Cool our fervor over heated literary discussions? No! Not this book club, we disaffiliated ourselves and became a sovereign state! We now meet on our own, in our own homes, we rotate locations and leaders.

This brings me to “The Hot Tub Book Club.” Sorry to disappoint you but swimsuits are required and it is rated PG. It’s a book club that grew organically out of two families going to watch a Young Adult movie adaptation of a YA book, then casually chatting about it over a pizza dinner followed by a soak in a hot tub. Ahhhhhh, the fellowship of book clubs.

Friendship, wholesome debate, and connections are part of the power of book clubs. For writers, we want to build our author platforms. What better way to get out and about in the community than by joining a book club? You’ll become better known in literary circles, you’ll hear what really makes a good book tick, and who knows you may meet your next agent while discussing a good book.

If you want to start your own book club, set out your intentions:
1. Will it have a leader or rotate amongst the group?
2. Will it be online (Goodreads is a place to start) or in person?
3. Will a genre rule? Fiction, new fiction, memoir, romance, recipes, self-help, gender, non-fiction, Young Adult, classics, mystery, female authors . . . the list is endless.
4. Set clear ground rules and boundaries – no personal criticisms of opinions, polite behavior instills trust, start on time and end on time.

Until next time, keep on writing!

Published in: on July 11, 2014 at 4:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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Lessons from a novelist-in-progress

Shortly after you retire from your government job in Washington, D.C.—writing congressional testimony about economics and finance for a federal agency—you make your initial foray into fiction. You enter the first 50 pages of your debut novel, The Last Monument, in the 2011 Maryland Writers’ Association Novel Contest, subtitled “Great Beginnings,” in the mainstream/literary category. You win! (And collect $200.)

You query agents. After sending out requested pages you establish a dialogue with one of them (though you do not become an official client). From that rep and others, you hear the same thing; they cannot sell a novel that has an unlikeable protagonist. When the book indeed doesn’t sell, you realize that the naysayers are most likely talking specifically about unlikeable female protagonists in commercial fiction. It is, you conclude, an easy thing to say.

Now what? If you are Valentine “Missy” Craig (below)IMG_0256 from Bethesda, Md., you go right back to work on novel number two. And to make sure it works, after you finish a first draft you hire a freelance editor in Westport, Conn., who spent his career at many prominent publishing houses. After he’s read a couple of revisions of your Book Two, you travel to Westport to meet him in person. And you stay overnight with a longtime friend and her nosy husband, who happens to be a regular contributor to the Fairfield Writer’s Blog.

The blogger won’t let you leave for your writer-editor lunch until he’s picked your brain for the lessons you’ve learned that other aspiring novelists might apply to their own creative writing.

Book One, by the way, tells the story of a woman who is contacted by a daughter who she gave up for adoption many years ago and how things develop. Book Two is about a woman who is dealing with the loss of her husband and child in a house fire, and incorporates the historical topic of burking, or murdering someone for medical use of their body parts.

So here they are, 10 lessons from award-winning, though yet unpublished, novelist Missy Craig:

Lesson 1. It’s all practice. “Book Two is much better written,” Missy says. “Even the second part of my first book is better written than the first half. You don’t believe it, but it is practice. Writing dialogue. Doing things subtly. It’s all practice.”

Lesson 2. Summarize your contents. “The organization [of a novel] can be tremendous, and nobody tells you that. Keeping track of all the plot lines and personalities, keeping the tone consistent. I’m now a better person at keeping track of stuff. I don’t really outline. But I have a table of contents. Each chapter is [summarized] in one or two sentences. It helps me decide where something has to be done, or expanded, or where it shouldn’t be, maybe where something is really out of order. So it’s a great organizational tool for me.”

Lesson 3. Join a group. Being part of a writers’ group “makes you sit down and write.” And try to write well, Missy adds. “You don’t want to write something really crappy and have everyone think that’s the best you can do.”

Lesson 4. Take a class. “So many people say they’d like to write a novel and they just never do anything. I’d tell them to take a course.” Missy applied for and was accepted into a dialogue class at the Washington Writers’ Center. “It was absolutely wonderful. How many times in new writers’ work do you read, ‘Pass the salt.’ ‘Here’s the salt.’ They feel like they have to describe everything that happens. First off, my teacher said, ‘I never want to hear any character say, “Pass the salt.” ’ He said, ‘Cut that out. Dialogue should be either for character development or to move the story along.’ ”

Lesson 5. Make your characters human. “What I like about novels is the character identification and caring about the character,” Missy says. “It’s very important to me for people to understand why people are the way they are, that they’re not as they appear. If I can do that, and do it subtly, that’s what I’m looking for.” In Book One, Missy held back on taking the reader inside her protagonist’s head: “I wanted the woman to be someone hard to figure out, so I didn’t want to show much interior.” There’s more inner processing with the main character in Book Two, and “it does make for greater depth,” she says. On the other hand, her independent editor “thinks the man I have in Book Two is too good to be true. Which is very interesting, because every woman who’s read it has said, ‘Oh, where are they?’ ” The editor has suggested that her male lead needs some faults, that the protagonist and the male lead are too harmonious and that the characters do too much thinking and talking and too little engaging in action scenes.

Lesson 6. Finish like you mean it. “My father wrote plays when he was young, and he never finished anything,” Missy recalls. “And he wrote novels, and he never finished them. Working for the government, people think that you don’t complete things. Believe it or not, you have to do it—on time. If I were writing a 40-page thing for the head of the agency to present before the banking subcommittee, all hell would break loose if it was not on the Hill in 40 copies Saturday at midnight. So that was very good discipline for finishing” a work of fiction. “I have to finish things. . . .It’s like a compulsion.”

But that compulsion can manifest itself as a weakness, she learned. Her independent editor said that in the final third of Book Two, “I was shortcutting a lot of stuff. He said the writing was variable. . . .It was like an outline.” And the story itself was “too pat. He said, ‘You just crossed everything off. Closed that, closed that, closed that. Everything’s been closed down. Finished. That’s not how things are.’ After awhile, you start realizing, yeah, this could be longer. Needs more explanation. More context. . . .I may need to explain some things a little more.”

Part of the unsatisfactory finish was because Missy had to deal with a health issue. But there was also her method of re-reading her drafts: “I start doing editing as I go. I have to limit myself to marking problem passages with stickies or check marks and just go back to them later. Instead of taking care of them then. But I just keep on taking care of business again and again. I can’t stop myself. That’s why my ending is not that great, because I don’t get there as often.”

Lesson 7. Be alert to boredom. This tip concerns to that familiar cliché about balancing scene and exposition. In Missy’s words, “Typically I know I’m doing too much telling, and not enough showing, if it gets boring. Telling can be boring. Often you don’t become aware of it until reading [your copy] two or three or four times later.”

Lesson 8. Read your chapters by theme. Book Two has three major themes, and, “I’ve got them separated like that” for reviewing, Missy says. “I pull out those chapters and print them—because I think it’s important to read the manuscript on paper. I review and revise the one that’s worst, the least developed, first. If it’s the mystery theme, let’s say, 10 chapters, I have them all in a row, even though they’re not in the book all in a row, so I can follow the theme through and see if it’s developing properly, see where I perhaps repeat myself. Of course, then when you put the entire book back together, sometimes you have to change other stuff.”

Lesson 9. Hire an editor. When Missy sent Book Two to the agent she had been in contact with, “She liked it, she said. But she said, ‘I don’t think I can sell it.’ It was complete, but pretty much a first draft. No doubt, I sent it too early. So she gave me the names of three editors,” and Missy hired the man from Westport. “He’s read two drafts so far. I think he really gets it. And he’s nice, too.”

In addition to telling her she needed to improve the last third of the story, the editor has helped her with characterization, such as flagging a character’s behavior with a note asking, “Where did that come from? That’s just too out of the blue. You have to expand it.” He’s also advised her to kill her darlings: “I wrote a good scene with a coyote that comes out and surprises the protagonist and her dog. The editor said, ‘That’s very nice, but what is it all about?’ It was a very nice five pages of prose, and it set mood, I thought. He wants me to throw it out.”

In case you were wondering, the editor also read Book One. In answer to agents’ objections that they could not sell a book with an unlikeable protagonist, he told Missy, “I don’t think that’s so. I’ve bought books that had unpleasant people in them.” One of the issues he had with Book One was its point of view, specifically that it sometimes had a secondary POV although it was written in third-person limited. “He told me he liked the first one,” Missy says, “but to go do something else. Which means, he gave me an answer” about its ultimate viability as a publishable work.

Lesson 10. Approach agents at conferences. “I have gone to several writers conferences,” Missy says. “I go only when I’ve completed a novel, and the only reason I go is because agents are there and they are actually looking [for writers with good books]. If you go talk to them, I find that about 80 percent of them will say, ‘Give me 50 pages.’ I think it’s very efficient. Whereas if you send a cold query, 95 percent you never even hear back from. I have sent cold queries out that moved forward, though.”

So, what was the outcome of Missy’s lunch with her editor? He asked to see one more draft of Book Two, with the idea that after that it will be ready for line editing. And then, presumably, successfully querying and signing on with an agent, followed by submissions to publishers and the next stage of its successful journey to a bookstore near you.—Alex McNab

Published in: on July 7, 2014 at 3:53 pm  Comments (2)  
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Balancing drama with levity

On May 28, the Library and Fairfield University sponsored a joint author appearance with thriller writers Terry Hayes and Andrew Gross. Hayes, a veteran screenwriter (“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” “Dead Calm,” “Payback,” et al.), is a first-time novelist whose I Am Pilgrim, just published in the U.S., is already a bestseller overseas. Gross, whose new title is Everything to Lose, is a veteran on American bestseller lists. One attendee was JoAnn Kienzle, a longtime member of our twice-monthly Saturday writers’ group, who writes novels and short stories and has worked as a credited scriptwriter on TV series. Here she elaborates on a storytelling point Hayes made during the discussion.

In “Regarding Happiness,” one of his many essays on writing, Charles Baxter wrote, “We all understand intuitively that reading about the happiness of others is often boring.” Baxter wrote the essay in response to readers, including his own mother, who said they wanted to read happy pieces. Why would readers seek storiesTHayesPilgrim about happiness if it is, by nature, boring?

Because, though happiness itself is boring, drama is taxing. Reading something sad, or frightening, or thought-provoking, can exhaust the reader. While creating happy stories isn’t the answer, creating levity is. Last week, when Terry Hayes (above) spoke about his new thriller, I Am Pilgrim, he explained that, while drama is critical to interesting storytelling, lightness is also an important element in writing. He pointed out you occasionally need to use something—a heart-warming moment, a funny scene—to give your reader a break from the heaviness.

When I worked in television, my agent told me something similar. He also said a key distinction between dramas is how they handle comedy. If you think about the television dramas that you enjoy—Mad Men and Breaking Bad are great examples—you’ll realize how many of the moments you remember are funny, though the shows are anchored with very dramatic scenes.

And it’s the same for novels. Writers don’t need to be able to create jokes or one-liners to create relief, they just need to be able to let their characters have moments of levity. As you are writing your next piece, pay attention to the emotion you are trying to elicit from your reader in each of your scenes and make sure there’s a balance. It will both help your reader stay engaged and make your writing more interesting.—JoAnn Kienzle

Published in: on June 3, 2014 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Three Easy Ways to Get Started in Book Clubs

bookclubs_custom-1ec58e61bccbffba94a3c846786b5fc6af15cce1-s6-c30Hello writers! This is Adair Heitmann writing about reading, discussing what you’ve read, and the impact that can have on your writing.

Do you want to add spice to your life? Join a book club. Today’s book clubs range from one-time casual book chats to long-running serious literary encounters. Welcome in the new era!

Three easy ways to get started:
1. Sign up for library eNewsletters
Libraries have book clubs, and most have eNewsletters. Go to the library’s website and sign up for the eNewsletter for all the libraries within your driving range. Book clubs will be announced via the library’s eNewsletter.

2. Dive into social media
“Like” on Facebook and follow on Twitter the above said libraries. They’ll announce their books clubs on social media.

3. Start your own book club
“If you build it, they will come.”  If you can’t find a book club that works for you, start one.* Be sure to do it with joy. Maybe create a Beach Bum Book Club so you can deepen your tan while discussing the newest fiction. Or start an After Work Wine’d Down Club, the possibilities are endless.

Synergy is important. My favorites are the intergenerational book clubs. They are lively, fast-paced, and intense.  This passion for the written word then overflows into your own writing. You can observe what people like or don’t like about a book and apply that insider information to your own writing.

When your favorite books become movies, that ignites a whole new level of interest and intrigue. Did they choose the right actors? Was the scenery what you imagined?  You can gain even more fertilizer for your own crop of books by discussing and listening to what really matters to people when a book becomes a movie. Then apply this to your own writing.

Until next time, keep on writing.

* I’ll write more about this in later blogs.

Published in: on May 9, 2014 at 1:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Is that all there is? The aspiring novelist’s to-do list

So you want to make a full commitment to your effort to become a successful, engaged writer of long narrative fiction? Consider the following elements of the job description.

Story Organization

• Determine your story’s three-act structure.

• Chart your plot points/story beats, including but not limited to:

Inciting Incident

Establishment of the Stakes

Attacks on the Hero


Reversals and Revelations

Recalibrating the Stakes

All is Lost Moment

Hero’s Pause for Dark Reflection

Final Battle



• Review the hero’s journey, desire, agenda, quest, path of change.

• Ditto the antagonist’s.

• Go through and outline your entire first draft before beginning revisions.


• Make daily stops at the best online story aggregators and discussion boards about your subject.

• Check relevant topics on Wikipedia.

• Take whatever field trips are necessary to get the “real feel” of your story world.

• Tune into TV shows about that world on the NatGeo, History, Biography or Spike TV channels, even if you’ve seen the shows several times before.

• Keep checking for any new books about your subject, then try to read them when your purchase arrives.


• Download and take a class in Scrivener, even though you have already written thousands of words in Microsoft Word.

Social Media

• Post regularly on two blogs of your own: a personal one and a writerly one, where you might even consider posting excerpts from your work-in-progress.

• Comment regularly on Twitter, post and share on Facebook, and keep your profile updated on LinkedIn—the minimum in terms of social networking.

• Establish a presence on GoodReads.

Publishing Planning

• Learn the difference among an Elevator Pitch, a Log Line and a Premise.

• Research the surefire three-paragraph query letter and file away some examples thereof.

• Seek out, similarly, the ultimate guide to crafting a winning synopsis. Be sure you can write it in 1-page, 3-page and longer versions.

• Collect the names of reputable freelance editors who can review your manuscript, if and when you finish it.

• Begin compiling a list of agents you’ll approach about your completed manuscript, with a reminder about each one as to why she or he is receiving your letter.

• Bring yourself up to date about the burgeoning world of self-publishing, in case you opt for or must go that route.

Writing Advice

• Read the three writers’ magazines (Writer’s Digest, The Writer and Poets & Writers) when the new issues hit the mailbox or newsstand.

• Surf the websites of writing gurus and agents (i.e.,,,,, Janet Reid (, etc.

• Explore going away to a multi-day writers’ conference or writer’s retreat, or both.

Local Writing Community

• Attend the semi-monthly writers’ group and the monthly Writers’ Salon and Writers Read sessions at your public library.

• Read the library’s Writer’s Blog, and contribute a post if invited.

• Take part in your own or a neighboring community’s One Book One Town celebration, depending on which town has selected a book that interests you and that you want to or have read.

• Join a fee-based ongoing weekly workshop/critique group with a veteran college professor or published novelist.

• Collate the suggested edits/questions/areas-needing-improvement-or-cutting that you agree with from all of the reading copies of your work that you handed out in the library and fee-based workshops/critique groups.

• Attend local appearances by touring novelists. Strongly consider buying a copy of their new book and getting it signed, perhaps after telling the author that you’re working on your own novel, so she or he will write a pep-talk inscription for you along with her or his autograph.


• Heed the words of Stephen King: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

• Read fiction while writing fiction to keep your creative pump primed.

• Don’t read fiction while writing fiction so you don’t subconsciously fall into the style of the authors you are reading.

• Read the latest Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner.

• Read the widely acclaimed first novel by a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

• Read the just-published second novel of another graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because you so enjoyed her first novel.

Updike• Read the widely acclaimed new biography of a great American writer, John Updike, even if the only works by him that you have read are some of his essays about golf.

Current Events

• Stay abreast of key writerly issues, such as the latest developments in the MFA-vs.-NYC and unlikeable-vs.-likeable-main-characters debates.


• Keep sending out the two or three short stories that have been collecting rejection slips.

 And, Oh Yeah, Don’t Forget

• Set and adhere to a daily writing schedule—using an elapsed-time, word-count or page-count quota—so you can, once and for all, finish composing and revising your book.—Alex McNab

Reading the Same Book Goes Beyond the Same Town

fwblog_a_house_in_the_skyHello Fairfield writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you about the power of reading books and then talking about them. Recently Fairfield held its month-long One Book One Town (OBOT) experience. After months of research the OBOT committee selected A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett. It is a dramatic and redemptive memoir of a woman whose curiosity led her to the world’s most beautiful and remote places, its most imperiled and perilous countries, and then into fifteen months of harrowing captivity—an exquisitely written story of courage, resilience, and grace.

The authors spoke to over 750 residents and non-residents on March 27 at Fairfield University’s Quick Center. Before their formal talk, yours truly had the opportunity to meet them at a small reception. Yes, shaking their hands was inspiring, yes, having my picture taken with them was an ego-boost, but the amazing part was who I met standing in line for the book signing and photo op.

As a way to start a conversation with the woman behind me, I used my tried and true ice-breaker, “So, what brings you here?” The flood gates opened. Ingrid and her friend Andonia drove from New Jersey just for the event. Turns out they started a book club at work, and A House in the Sky was their first pick. From reading Amanda Lindout’s website, Ingrid found out that both she and her co-author Sara Corbett would be in Fairfield, CT speaking at the One Book One Town premiere event. In a heartbeat, both Ingrid and Andonia took 1/2 day off from work and went for a little field trip to Connecticut.

What amazed me about Ingrid, Andonia, and my spontaneous discussions was that we were perfect strangers. We came from diverse backgrounds, ages, and stages in life, yet I felt our conversations were authentic, lively,  and interesting. The veneer that usually stands between genuine conversation was gone. It was as if we were in our own intimate book club, standing amongst scores of other people.

This leads me to the power of books and the magic of book clubs. Clearly the depth of the book A House in the Sky had a lot to do with the level of connections. The One Book One Town program is really one big book club. When the entire town reads the same book, people talk about it in grocery stores, online, at church, at libraries, and in living rooms.

I’d say I’m in three book clubs, one being OBOT. Then there is my Family Book Club which has stood the tests of time for over 10 years and morphed into a four times a year book, pizza, dessert and chat extravaganza. The ages now go from one-year old, through high school, into college up to 65 years old, plus there is a new baby on the way! We started out reading the classics, now we’ve moved onto, “Does this book have what it takes to become a classic?”

My third book club is a movie/book club. It started organically around the movie Catching Fire. Another family and mine wanted to see the movie, we had all read the book. We decided to see the movie together, then have pizza at my house and talk about it afterwards. The mother of the other family recently told me that our fun, impromptu,  you-don’t-have-to-talk-about-the-book-the-whole-time book club has ruined her middle school age daughter for “same-age book clubs!” After finishing Divergent so we could see the movie, and then talk about the book vs. the movie, we are now reading Maze Runner and The Fault of Our Stars.

As you can see, I’m hot on book clubs. If you aren’t in one now, find one. Libraries have book clubs, churches have them, start one at your job or in your neighborhood. I’ll offer  hints and tips about finding the right book club or starting your own, next month when I write again for this blog.

Until next time, keep on writing! Your book may become a book club winner.

An informal writer’s guide to editing & editors

“If you turn in something you think is perfect, an editor will go, ‘I know you think it’s great, but it’s not. You need to do this and move this and change this.’ You may think that person’s an idiot, which they might be, but they’re probably not because they’re still in business after everybody else has been fired.”

That warning to all of us who aspire to be published came from our local writing guru Carol Dannhauser, who prefaced her remark by pointing out that there are a lot fewer editors working at magazines and book publishers than there used to be, and that those survivors are overwhelmed with submissions.

So the question arises: proofreading_symbolsCan we increase our chances of having our writing accepted for publication if we have a better understanding of the editors’ perspective? Perhaps. It certainly cannot hurt.

Here, then, is a random survey of sources where you can increase that understanding.

Self-editing: In “A Short Course in Line Editing” from, author and journalist Michelle Seaton presents a paragraph from a 1940s pulp romance story and uses it to illustrate how you can make your writing tighter and clearer as you line edit. A key point is this:

Double-check the clauses. When something goes horribly wrong in a sentence a dependent clause is usually at fault. . . .Many times our problematic clauses just need to move out of the sentence, and get their own place.”

Copyediting: “Style Sheet: A Conversation with My Copyeditor,” at, is by Edan Lepuki, novelist (California), short story writer and founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Lepuki conducts a Q&A with copyeditor Susan Bradanini Betz. Betz defines the copyeditor’s role this way:

“When I copyedit, I get closer to the manuscript than I was ever able to as an acquisitions editor. I read every single word, looking at each word and tracking the syntax, not skimming over sentences. It’s not my job as a copyeditor to suggest big-picture changes or comment on quality, so I am focused on the story and the language at the word and sentence level. I keep the reader in mind and try to anticipate what might be confusing or problematic; I check facts and dates, track characters and events for consistency; and I do the most thorough read I possibly can, coming away with an in-depth understanding of the work that wasn’t possible for me in acquisitions. . . .”

Acquisitions editing: Christine Kopprasch, associate editor at the Crown Trade Publishing Group, a division of Random House, answers questions from a staffer and the Facebook community of in “Interview with a Big Five Editor.” Among the works Kopprasch has acquired is Fairfield Writer’s Blog friend and contributor Maddie Dawson’s latest novel, The Opposite of Maybe, which will hit bookstores in April. Kopprasch gives a behind-the-scenes rundown of an editor’s  responsibilities, as well as pointers for writers. Such as:

“I establish a relationship with the author, talking often over the phone or by email, and start editing. Usually I do multiple rounds of editing: a few in-depth rounds with lots of comments and structural suggestions, and then as much line editing and refining as is needed. . . .”

What specifically is it that attracts you to a story, a writing style, or a cast of characters, that eases your mind over taking a chance on an unknown author?

“The voice, foremost, and the I-can’t-put-this-book-down feeling that’s so personal and hard to explicate. . . .”

What is the one thing that will turn you away from a book every time? 

“A flat voice. ‘Information dumps,’ too. . . .”

Name [two] things we writers can do to our manuscripts to make your job easier. 

“Make your first chapters amazing, both to hook us and help us hook our team. Be sure it’s really ready to submit, which usually means putting it away for a while and coming back to it with fresh eyes somewhere in an author’s editing process.”

Editor-author relationships. The standard for Q&A explorations of this critical aspect of writing was established in the Fall 1994 issue of The Paris Review with “The Art of Editing No. 1.” Robert Gottlieb’s stellar editing career has included stints at Simon & Schuster, Knopf and The New Yorker. Rather than go one-on-one with interviewer Larissa MacFarquhar, Gottlieb shared the stage with many of the notable writers with whom he worked, among them John le Carré, Robert Caro and Toni Morrison. Here is Morrison on Gottlieb’s art:

“I was an editor myself for a long while. . . .If it has your fingerprints on it, it’s no good.”

In today’s online environment, sets the bar high with its occasional author-editor interviews in “The Slate Book Review.” Recent pairings have included author Claire Messud (The Woman Upstairs) and editor Robin Desser (Knopf), short-story master George Saunders (Tenth of December) and Andy Ward (Random House), and novelist Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch) and Michael Pietsch (Hachette). Here is a sample from the last:

Tartt: Do you work with all writers the way you work with me? (Which is to say, not really commenting until you have the whole manuscript in hand.) Or is it different with different writers?

Pietsch: . . .Every edit is different. Some writers like to show a chapter at a time or even individual scenes, as they go, for comment; I’ve worked with writers who wanted to read a passage over the phone just after they completed it. Others want to write in total privacy, not revealing a single thing until it’s finished. Sometimes editing consists primarily of a letter asking questions about plot elements, or about pacing, or character, and sometimes it’s entirely line-by-line comments on language. . . .Editing is only useful if the writer finds it to be. And some writers really don’t want an editor’s help at all. Martin Amis told me once that he’d rather have his own mistakes than an editor’s fixes—an opinion that any writer is entitled to!

Tartt: I’m with Martin Amis on that. I’d always rather stand or fall on my own mistakes. There’s nothing worse than looking back, in a published book, at a line edit or a copy edit that you felt queasy about and didn’t want to take, but took anyway.

Editor biography & memoirs. Want to read more about editing and editors? Begin with Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg’s monumental 1978 biography of the remarkable shepherd of many great 20th century writers at Charles Scribner’s Sons. Perkins guided F. Scott Fitzgerald through The Great Gatsby, cleared the way against in-house objections to profane language in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, convinced Thomas Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel, helped pave the way for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize winner The Yearling and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved County, and steered first-time novelist James Jones away from one work-in-progress to the beginnings of From Here to Eternity, which won the National Book Award after Perkins had died.

Michael Korda—a successful author of a diverse collection of nonfiction books including, most recently, a biography of Lawrence of Arabia—told the story of his many years as editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (1999). Korda edited as diverse a list of authors as you can imagine, from Larry McMurtry to David McCullough to Jacqueline Susann to Ronald Reagan. Another Life is entertaining as well as informative about editing and publishing.

Finally, check out Daniel Menaker’s coverfinal_mymistake_hirecent memoir My Mistake (2013). Menaker was an editor at The New Yorker, principally but not exclusively working on fiction, before moving into book editing at Random House. His book weaves the story of his career with his moving personal story about him and his brother. On pages 110 and 111 of My Mistake, he reprints the first two sentences of the original manuscript of a New Yorker book review by the renowned psychoanalyst Robert Coles, followed by the version that appeared in the magazine. The excerpts are an object lesson in the editor’s role in the clarification of prose. Menaker allows that it is “an example of the heavy work that editors sometimes had to do.” You get the sense that he wishes he did not have to wield so detailed a blue pencil.

In an online interview he did with the “Barnes and Noble Review” in December 2013, Menaker spoke of how his own memoir benefitted from being edited by others:

“What they did—what a good editor does—is make your text the way you really would have wanted it to be if you had been doing it on your most disciplined, best day.”

We should all be so lucky to work with editors who do that to our writing.—Alex McNab

March 26 Update: At the, Edan Lepuki at has just posted a new interview with her acquiring editor at Little, Brown, Allie Sommer. Check it out. It’s a fine bookend to the conversation with Lepuki’s  copyeditor cited above. Here’s an excerpt of Sommer’s words—AMcN:

“My job is to make suggestions on how the author can take what he or she is already doing and make it even better. Mostly, I try to think about how the reader will react to the text. . . .It all leads to the same goal of making it the best possible experience for the reader.”



Published in: on March 20, 2014 at 3:23 pm  Comments (2)  

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