“Cut the boring parts. Fix the crap.” And other advice from author Kristan Higgins

images-1Beginning in 2006 with Fools Rush In, Connecticut author Kristan Higgins—a two-time winner of the Romance Writers of America RITA Award—has published 14 novels, and No. 15 (the fifth in her Blue Heron series) is scheduled to hit bookstores before year’s end.

Romance is the best-selling genre in publishing, and Higgins is one of its stars. Yet her IfYouOnlyKnew-smsummer 2015 title, If You Only Knew (released in August from HQN Books), marks a shift toward what is known these days as “commercial women’s fiction” in the label-obsessed book business.

The affable and amusing Higgins has shared her writing wisdom with aspiring Fairfield writers more than once. She was a featured panelist in a lively group discussion the Library presented on romance fiction in February 2010. Then, this past September, she made the final stop on her book tour for If You Only Knew just down the street, at the Fairfield University Bookstore. It was there that the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) asked if she would be willing to answer some emailed questions about writing, a request to which she graciously assented.

Changing from romance to women’s fiction. FWB: You said the changes with your new book were not big ones. But what did they entail? Should aspiring writers try to check off genre conventions from the get-go, or just write the best story they can write?

Kristan Higgins: I’ve always straddled the line between women’s fiction and romance in that my books have never been solely focused on romance—my characters have issues with job, family, friends, the past. But for If You Only Knew, the biggest change was having two female narrators. In the past, my books have had only one first-person narrator, or the hero and heroine as point-of-view characters. This was the first time I focused on two women.

I don’t think there are any rules or conventions to follow other than exactly what you said: Write the best story you can. Understand what makes a good story, however. To do that, you have to read great authors.

Revising & editing. Your admission on what you do when you get stuck is, “I write crap! You can quote me on that.” You also said that you were a very good reviser. Can you describe how your revision process works. How extensive are your editor-suggested changes, and are those revisions easier or harder to make than the ones you make between the first draft and the manuscript you submit?

KH: It’s funny; I’m teaching an online class on revising right now. My process consists of being a stone-cold darling-killer. I think I have a very good eye for what works and what doesn’t, and I’m not sentimental about my work, as some authors are. The process isn’t that formulaic; it’s more like, “Cut the boring parts. Fix the crap.”

As for my editor’s suggestions, they’re rather general; she mentions an area or character that gave her pause, and she lets me decide how to fix it. Every once in a while, we disagree, and though those occasions are rare, she defers to my gut instinct. We have a lot of respect for each other. And affection, too, which doesn’t hurt the relationship.

Productivity. You said that keys to writing two 115,000-120,000-word books a year are your separate office space, your dedicated 9 a.m.-4 p.m. writing schedule and ignoring the internet. Should aspiring writers try to employ some sort of daily quota system to get words down, or just make it a habit of writing every day? Is the love of writing an often-unrecognized secret to writing productivity in an age of so many distractions?

KH: I do shut down my internet for chunks of time when I’m writing, because it’s just so easy to be distracted, especially when the book isn’t going well. I think setting goals is a must, though I’m more vague with mine. Rather than trying to hit a daily word count, I shoot for a weekly or monthly count. And yes, writing every day is helpful. Otherwise, the pressure builds up and an author can feel a little sweaty and panicked.

Humor & sex in the story. You employ easy humor so well in incident, word choices, dialogue, etc. Should a writer consciously strive for humor, or employ it only if it part of her natural writer’s voice?

KH: I think humor comes naturally. Your writing voice has it, or it doesn’t. Personally, my books get funnier as I revise, when I can home in on the humor and cut the dreck. I don’t think anyone should chase after any element of writing because it’s popular, whether it’s humor or, uh, spanking, for example. Honesty is probably the most important element in a writer’s voice.

At the romance panel that you said you didn’t include detailed sex scenes in your romance novels . . . .If You Only Knew has an inciting incident that involves “sexting.” Are you writing more, or more involved, sex scenes than before? Would you care to comment on what you feel makes a sex scene work?

KH: I’ve gotten a little more comfortable writing love scenes, but I still don’t write graphic details. As a reader, I find those really detailed scenes less appealing. Honestly, they can be about as explicit as a lesson from a gynecologist, and. . .well, that’s just not for me. And honestly, it’s a rare author who can write an explicit love scene without just regurgitating the same phrases that have been used for centuries. An audio book narrator told me if she had to read the world “shattered” one more time, she would punch herself in the face, for example. Lordy, that made me laugh!

I think the challenge in writing a love scene is to capture both the emotional and physical elements in a new way without getting ridiculous. We all know what happens (one hopes). What’s really original is the emotional component. That’s what I try to focus on, while still giving a strong sense of sexy time.

What makes a love scene work is just that—love. Why is this time is different and meaningful? How do you convey that? What’s the subtext? Otherwise, you just have Tab A going into Slot B, and Ikea seems to have that kind of description covered.

Setting. The last question comes from our Library writing colleague Alison McBain, who has read all of your books. “[Kristan’s] books are written in a similar version to how she presents herself—funny, quirky, down-to-earth. She also does an amazing job of incorporating local areas into her novels. How does she research/choose a location/incorporate the places in which she sets her books into the narrative? Her towns feel so real—I’ve rarely read an author who does as good a job in making the locations really come to life. She is a master at that. Does she have pages and pages of research, or are these places where she’s spent a significant amount of time herself?”

KH: That’s one of the nicest comments I’ve ever read, so thank you, Alison! I do visit the locations I’m researching. All of my settings are in the Northeast, and I’m a Connecticut Yankee, so I already have that sensibility. It would be tough for me to write a fifth-generation Texan, for example, because culture is so ingrained.

When I visit a location, I wander a lot and try to soak everything in. I take pictures of ordinary things. . .the pavement, the lamppost, a regular house, the grocery store. I also try to find a townie bar and eavesdrop. I ask questions once in a while; I’m always interested in what people want me to hear about, and what they don’t bring up. As with most things, the unspoken stuff is the most interesting.

Growing up, I was a little bit of a fringe character in my family and in school, which allowed me to watch and listen more than participate (save your tears. . .I wouldn’t have it any other way!). It’s translated into a really excellent skill as a writer. I think it’s true for most writers—we’d rather listen than talk.

—Alex McNab

Published in: on November 15, 2015 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

What Is In Your Pile?

What is in your pile?

The pile of books perched at the edge of your nightstand. The pile of books stacked near your favorite reading chair or in a special section of a bookcase. Yes—the pile of books waiting to be read. The pile of books, that despite your best efforts, doesn’t seem to get any smaller but joyously, remains the same. Or, perhaps continues to grow, recommendation by recommendation.

I ask friends, “What are you reading,” and find that readers are happy to share details of the books they’ve recently read. If an NPR author interview catches my attention, that book may join my pile. The librarians at the Fairfield Public Library willingly share their favorite current reads. Just ask! I also receive recommendations from Goodreads and Amazon books.

Novelist Ann Patchett owns a bookstoreAPatch, Parnassus Books, in Nashville, Tenn (photo). In an opinion piece for The Washington Post—“Owning a bookstore means you always get to tell people what to read” (April 22, 2015)—Patchett writes:

“Reading is a solitary act, but the transmission of books contains an aspect of joyful solidarity. At Parnassus, there is a constant river of people flowing past the new fiction releases, past U.S. history and down toward the children’s section and many have no idea what they want to read. They’ll walk right up to me and say, ‘I’m looking for a book.’ I wait for a minute, thinking surely there’s going to be more to that sentence—‘I’m looking for a book I heard about on the radio’ or ‘I’m looking for a book like The Goldfinch’ but often there is nothing else. They just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar. I ask them to tell me the last couple of books they’ve liked, just so I have some idea of whom I’m talking to. Then I lead them over to the shelves and get to work.”

Writers are most often strong readers. Some read a single book cover-to-cover. Others read several books at a time. “What are you reading” is a common-asked question during an interview with a writer. In a 2010 NPR interview, Jennifer Ludden asked author and 2005 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing Julia Keller what she was reading. Keller responded, “And, indeed, I have the pile—I have this pile, several piles . . . of the most amazing array of books. And I couldn’t tell you specifically why each one was chosen except they just happen to garner my interest at the moment.” Her pile included Prodigal Summer (Barbara Kingsolver), Wolf Among Wolves (Hans Fallada) and an old collection of Doris Lessing short stories.

The expression “too many books, not enough time” is so true for me. I’ve finished The Pacific and Other Stories (Mark Helprin) and I’m currently reading A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety (Jimmy Carter). I pulled A Full Life from my pile, which includes, among other books, O Tomodachi (Dick Jorgensen), The Lost Landscape: A Writers Coming of Age (Joyce Carol Oates) and Pure Act:The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax (Michael N. McGregor). Pure Act joined my pile after hearing the author read from his work at the Fairfield University bookstore.

What are you reading? Please share your current read. Perhaps your recommendation will end up in someone’s pile.

Meanwhile, keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Published in: on October 31, 2015 at 6:34 pm  Comments (2)  

Lessons on pacing from author Wallace Stroby

As a storyteller, here are a couple of reactions you like to hear from readers:

“What happens next?”


“I want to keep reading.”

One of the elements of writing that generates such responses is expert pacing.370009

For some thoughts on how to keep your story moving, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) reached out to New Jersey novelist Wallace Stroby (right), a newer voice you should know in the field of crime fiction. Stroby is a native and resident of the Jersey Shore area that also produced, in a different form of the arts, another fine storyteller, Bruce Springsteen. A former award-winning newspaper reporter and editor, Stroby reports on his website that he’s seen the Boss in concert more than 100 times. He’s also written seven crime novels, six of which are in our Library’s collection, beginning with 2003’s The Barbed-Wire Kiss, set in the heart of Stroby/Springsteen country down the shore.*

Stroby’s newest book, The Devil’s Share (Minotaur, July 2015), devilssharelargeis the fourth to feature professional thief Crissa Stone. While the Crissa novels might remind you of the Parker novels by Richard Stark (a pen name of the late, great Donald E. Westlake), that is a bit unfair to Stroby. He has created a fresh character in his criminal, and not only because she is female. Crissa has a humanity that the compelling but cold Parker rarely if ever displayed. The jobs she takes quickly transcend mere capers as inevitable complications arise.

The Devil’s Share, in the FWB’s view, is an object lesson in good pacing. Stroby has been kind enough to respond in detail to the FWB’s not-so-swiftly-paced email questions about how to do it.

FWB: How do you define a novel’s pacing? Is it important for your storytelling, the reader’s reading or both—or are they really the same thing? Do you think pacing is approached differently in a so-called “literary” novel that might include more description, internal monologues, etc., than a so-called “crime” or “genre” novel?

Wallace Stroby: I think the pacing is decided by the story you want to tell, as well as your own style, how you see it. Certain stories are going to require certain approaches. If you’re writing a thriller, you want it to move as fast as possible, because that’s one of the pleasures of the thriller and what draws people to it—the  “ticking clock” concept. If it’s more of a character piece—even in a crime novel—you’re going to want to go deeper and take the time to flesh out your characters, whether by giving them interior monologues or having them do things that are not necessarily related to the plot. That grounds them, and helps us invest in their story, because we feel like we know the characters and can identify with them.

What is your approach to handling exposition and giving the reader enough backstory, setting, etc? In an interview, you said you try to avoid more than two pages of exposition at a time, and that you watch out for overly-long information dumps.

WS: Backstory and exposition vs. narrative drive is one the greatest challenges in writing fiction. Even the most experienced novelists have issues with it. It’s something that has to be finessed, and it’s very easy to go wrong in one direction or the other. The trick is to weave in just enough that the reader has the information they need, but not so much that it stops the narrative cold. Sometimes the writer needs to know the backstory, but doesn’t have to share it all with the reader. It’s like a scaffolding—you have to build it to paint a wall, but once the wall is done, you don’t need the scaffolding anymore. In other words, all that backstory may not still be there on the surface, but it will be part of your understanding about the characters and the stories and will emerge in other ways.

It’s the same with dialogue. Nothing makes dialogue clunkier than trying to frontload backstory or excess information into it. At the same time, dialogue does often need to communicate things central to the story. So it’s a fine line, and practice is the only thing that helps.

Any advice on pacing dialogue?

WS: If you want to know how to write—and pace—dialogue, read the masters: Richard Price and Elmore Leonard.

Another technique you use so effectively is the “jump cut” between chapters and sometimes within chapters. For example, in Chapter 4 of The Devil’s Share Crissa is meeting others in Los Angeles, then Chapter 5 begins at a Texas prison. And when Crissa is back onstage in Chapter 7, she’s on the road out of Las Vegas. In the later stages of the story, her movement between New Jersey, Boston, Ohio and Kansas are similarly telegraphic. Yet only at the start of Chapter 11, when you write “Three days later. . .” is there a specific reference to time or distance. Is using the jump cut technique part of what you’ve said about letting readers fill in the blanks themselves? 

WS: Yes, exactly. As far as time and distance, you put it in when it’s necessary, you leave it out when it’s not. In the passage you cite, knowing how long it takes Crissa to get back to New Jersey is important because there are parallel stories being told—hers and [the character named] Hicks’—and the timelines have to match up because they will eventually intersect. Certain events have to happen for that confrontation to occur, and they need sufficient time to happen. Also, when you’re dealing with a story that takes place in various locales across the country, the characters need time—and means—to get there.

Is part of ineffective pacing related to not giving the reader enough credit to use his or her imagination to fill in between the lines? You’ve said that, as far as Crissa’s appearance, we only know her as “Red” and have no other description, and you want the reader to fill it in. Has a reader ever told you that you hold too much back?

WS: Yes, sometimes a reviewer or reader will complain that I don’t describe Crissa enough, but that train left the station a long time ago. What happens much more often is readers telling me what they think she looks like—sometimes referencing a certain actress. That’s what I love to hear, because it means they’ve created a version of her in their head, and they’ve become a partner in the storytelling process.

A risk for the writer, of course, is if you describe someone too much the reader might not like that person the way they’re described, or it might remind them of someone they hate —you never know.

But as far as how much information to impart, I always go back to one of Billy Wilder’s screenwriting tips, quoting director Ernst Lubitsch:  “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you for it.”

Do you have a goal in mind on the overall pacing of a story? . .  .Are you conscious of having certain events and turning points in specific places? And do you want the last third to move faster than the first third or the middle?

WS: Again, it depends on the story you want to tell. To quote another director, Sam Peckinpah, the story process is always the same—introduce, develop, resolve. Where those beats end up is going to be decided by the story. But by the last third of the book, I think readers want a clear run to the end. You don’t want to introduce new major characters or a deus ex-machina at the last moment. It feels like a cheat.

How much of your pacing comes while writing the first draft of the novel? How much in revising? Are you always cutting from your first draft? Or are you so oriented toward the forward action that you have to add some missing information so the story makes better sense?

WS: It’s all in revising. To use another Peckinpah quote, shooting the film—or writing the first draft—is mining the coal. It’s refined in the editing room. Polish, polish, polish. If something doesn’t belong, get rid of it.

Occasionally my editor will ask me to add some backstory or an interior monologue to give a deeper sense of the character’s thoughts and emotions. That’s usually easy to do, because I already know them—I’ve just left them out for pacing’s sake. What becomes an issue is when the editor asks about something that I haven’t thought sufficiently about, because that means I have more work to do.

Aside from looking for big blocks of gray type, are there other things a writer should look for while reviewing his or her work that might indicate the pacing could be better?

WS: Things should get faster as they move along—shorter scenes, higher stakes. You can always get into a scene later and out of it earlier.

At the very elemental level, can a case by made that pacing begins with word choices—strong nouns and verbs, essential adjectives, no adverbs? 

WS: Yes. When in doubt, go back to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, one of the essential books about writing—“Omit needless words.”

What about the length of scenes and chapters? Some writers. . .turn each scene into a chapter. How do you decide on chapter length for pacing, and what role does it play?

WS: Again, it’s a function of the story. With each scene being its own chapter—regardless of how short the actual scene is— it may move the story along faster and prompt readers to keep turning pages. But if it feels like a construct or an artificial break in the narrative, it can be frustrating. If you feel like you’re being manipulated, the magic doesn’t work as well.

Last question: Any thoughts about pacing you care to add?

WS: Elmore Leonard had the final word on it in his 10 Rules of Writing: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

—Alex McNab

*Stroby’s short story “Lovers in the Cold,” originally published in the 2005 anthology Meeting Across the River: Stories Inspired by the Haunting Bruce Springsteen Song, is now a Kindle single at Amazon.

Published in: on October 15, 2015 at 4:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A sampling of smart thoughts about writing

It’s a good month for cherry-picking some wise thoughts about writing and storytelling from some of the Fairfield Writer’s Blog’s favorite authors who are in the news and in the craft journals. As always, the FWB recommends turning to the full-length pieces after reading these samples.

The writers include:

Larry McMurtry, storyteller extraordinaire, who will be presented with the National Humanities Medal by President Obama on September 10.

Mary Karr, memoirist extraordinaire, who has a new book—The Art of Memoir—entering stores on September 15.bookcovers_artofmemoir

John McPhee, “creative nonfiction” magazine writer extraordinaire, who just published the latest installment in his series about writing, in the September 14 issue of The New Yorker.

John Steinbeck, 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature winner extraordinaire, whose thoughts about writing are so timeless that one is in the current issue of The Writer.

And Dennis Lehane, crime novelist extraordinaire, who is the cover subject of the latest issue of Writer’s Digest.

Here is the sampling:

McMurtry, to a 2013 writer’s workshop Larry_McMurtry_in his hometown of Archer City, Texas:

“I don’t start [a story] until I have an ending in mind. It’s much easier to write toward an ending than it is to write away from the beginning.”

Karr, in a BN-KC442_wolfe_12S_20150901130705feature with journalist Alexandra Wolfe in The Wall Street Journal:

“[Writing memoir is] cathartic, but the purpose of it is not your catharsis. You’re publishing it to create an emotional experience in another human being, and for me, unless another human being reads it and has that feeling, there’s no point.”

McPhee, in his piece titled “Omission”:images

“Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. . . .Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.”


“Ernest Hemingway’s Theory of Omission seems to me to be saying to writers, ‘Back off. Let the reader do the creating.’ To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.”

Steinbeck, as quoted in the steinbeck_140-02fc70eb1271941fc85afacb5aec29da6919148c-s400-c85October 2015 issue of The Writer:

“If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”

Lehane, in an interview with Steve Boisson in the October 2015 1185044_556522077717966_13123148_nissue of Writer’s Digest:

“. . .It’s really important to write every day. You have to do an hour a day minimum or the muscles get atrophied.”


“. . .Sometimes the reason to write something is because it’s cool. Because you enjoy it. Because you’re having fun. Because you just think, Hey, why not? Those are reasons that sometimes get lost in the more schematic ways we approach writing. Sometimes if you get excited, guess what? The reader’s going to get excited, too.”

—Alex McNab

Published in: on September 8, 2015 at 7:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mastering the art of fine writing

Writing-craft manuals never cease to impress the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) with their penchant for coining new names for timeless elements of storytelling, and for enumerating those elements.

Consider these colorful, random vocabulary lists, compiled from three favorites: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story and the newest addition to the FWB’s collection, Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid.

Snyder: “Break Into Two,” “Fun and Games,” “All Is Lost,” “Dead Night of the Soul,” “Break Into Three,” “Final Image.”

Truby: “First Revelation and Decision,” “Second Revelation and Decision,” “Scene Weave,” “Gate, Gauntlet, Visit to Death,” “New Equilibrium.”

Coyne: “Beginning Hook,” “Middle Build,” “Ending Payoff,” “The Best Bad Choice,” “Value Shift,” “Polarity Shift,” “Resolution.”

As for enumeration, Snyder prescribes that you follow a 15-step beat sheet. Truby’s book is subtitled 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, and one of its chapters is “The Seven Steps of Story Structure.” Coyne’s chapters include “Genre’s Five-Leaf Clover” and “An Editor’s Six Core Questions,” and Part 5 of the book defines six “Units of Story.”

Admittedly, the FWB’s copies of these three guides abound with dog-earred pages, underlined passages and scribbled annotations in the margins. They all offer hopeful advice, at least to this still-aspiring novelist.UKLbyMarianWoodKolisch

Nevertheless, it was refreshing indeed to come across a jargon-free, common-sense blog post by renowned fantasy and science fiction author and poet Ursula K. Le Guin (right, photo Copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch) at the website Book View Café, via a link on the U.K. newspaper The Guardian’s Books homepage. Le Guin’s post was in answer to a question from one Nancy Jane Moore: “How do you make something good?”

Not by following a step-by-step, “check-that-off-the-list” progression, Le Guin writes.

Here are some short excerpts. After reading them, the FWB strongly recommends clicking through to read Le Guin’s entire text.

“Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

“Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time. . . .

“Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it. . . .”

—Alex McNab

Why Do I Write?

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased to welcome our new monthly contributor, Donna Woods Orazio. Donna earned both an MA (American Studies) and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University. She facilitates a writing group at the Fairfield (Connecticut) Public Library with a focus on new writers. Donna co-hosts the Library’s First Friday Writer’s Salon, which provides an informal opportunity for writers to discuss their work. Past President of the Friends of Fairfield Public Library, Donna currently serves on the Board, is involved with the One Book, One Town committee and the Home Bound program. For the past eight years, Donna has volunteered at Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport tutoring women in the ESL program. An avid genealogist, Donna is a collector of pages and photos from the past, understands the power of words, and values writing that tell a story. As her three adult children spread their wings, Donna and her husband, Jimmy, remain anchored in Fairfield.

How many times have you asked yourself, why do I write? How many times have you been asked by others, who don’t quite understand your need to put words on the page, why do you write?

There are as many different and valid answers to this question as there are writers. A search on Goggle reveals dozens of references to books, articles and sites in which authors, famous and not so famous, answer this question.

Joan Didion (top) said, “I write entirely to Didionfind out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

Toni Morrison (bottom) said, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Ernest Hemingway said, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

toni-morrisonI asked myself, why do I write? For many reasons, was my quick answer. I write in many forms. I copy quotations, ones that make me pause, into a small blue journal.   I keep a gratitude journal. I am a letter writer. In particular, I write essays to capture a memory, to figure out my response, to tell my story. Writing, in all forms, is a way to more fully participate in my life. I write for me.

Take a few minutes and answer the question: why do I write? Does your current writing relate to your answers?

Ultimately, every writer has something unique to say. This is worthy of putting words on the page.

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio


Published in: on July 27, 2015 at 1:12 pm  Comments (1)  

Writing wisdom from E. L. Doctorow

The great American writer E. L. Doctorow has died at age 84.

His books included the novels imagesRagtime (1975), World’s Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989) and The March (2005). Among them, those four books won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. During his life, Doctorow also worked as an editor at the New American Library and the Dial Press, and taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University.

Doctorow’s words of wisdom about the art and craft of writing are timeless. Here are three examples:

  • “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
  • “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

—Alex McNab

Published in: on July 22, 2015 at 1:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Five stages of editing

You have finished your best draft of your first novel—at last. What next? Start e-mailing queries to agents? Make contact with CreateSpace or some other self-publishing vehicle?

Before you begin querying agents, your writers’ group colleagues warn, you should have your book edited. shakespeare-green-eyeshadeThat recommendation was reinforced in the May/June 2015 issue of Poets & Writers, in the “Agent Advice” column. Danielle Svetcov of Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency answered the following question from Richard in Wichita: “How strongly do you believe in paying to have a manuscript edited?”

Svetcov’s condensed reply: “One way or another you need to have your manuscript edited before you send it to an agent.” She went on to say that you can have a writing group colleague or a talented writing friend do the work for free, or pay an expert, “ideally one who’s worked as a professional book editor for a long time. . . .The thing about the last option is: You usually get what you pay for.” Svetcov then enumerated the many elements of your copy that an editor will consider, before concluding. “If you have a burning desire to get your book published by a big press, and you have the money to pay an editor, spend it.” [Svetcov’s article is not accessible online.]

Even if you decide from the start that you want to self-publish, proper editing matters. One of the FWB’s writing colleagues told of the great disappointment generated by another colleague’s newly self-published novel. It was not because of the content or the story but because of the errors in composition, grammar, spelling, punctuation and the like. You want your work honed to a professional sheen, whether you are submitting to an agent or publishing it yourself.

Nowhere in Svetcov’s P&W answer did she use the terms “manuscript assessment,” “developmental editor,” “line editor,” “copy editor,” or “proofreader.” When you embark on the editing process, though, those are labels that you encounter at each stage of your manuscript’s path toward publication.

In an attempt to clarify those five different stages of editing, the FWB has assembled definitions from a host of online sources:

The editing stages are presented in the sequential order in which they would be executed on the path to publication.

Manuscript Assessment or Critique: “A broad overall assessment. . .[it] pinpoint[s] strengths and weaknesses” and makes “general suggestions for improvement.” (SFWA). “A [c]ritique will lead you to revise sections, make cuts, restructure material.” (NYBE)

Developmental Editing: “[R]efers to storytelling, both the art and the craft.” (Mixon). Evaluates a story’s coherence, clarity and completeness, as well as its cast of characters. “Flags specific problems—structural difficulties, poor pacing, plot or thematic inconsistencies, stiff dialogue, undeveloped characters. . .flabby writing.” (SFWA)

Line Editing: “[R]efers to prose.” (Mixon) “A line edit addresses the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level. But the purpose of a line edit is not to comb your manuscript for errors—rather, a line edit focuses on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader.” (NYBE) “Line editing improves the quality of the prose, red-flags story implausibilities and inconsistencies, removes unnecessary repetition, checks the subtleties of word usage, and restructures sentences and paragraphs so that they flow more smoothly together.” (Jane/Thomsen)

Copyediting: “[R]efers to grammar and punctuation. . . .It’s just following the rules [of accepted style]. . . .Very little of it is judgmental.” (Mixon) “[M]ake[s] sure the writing that appears on the page is in accordance with industry standards” for elements such as “spelling, hyphenation, numerals. . .and capitalization. . . . [S]hould always come after line edit. . .The page-by-page, sentence-by-sentence content of your manuscript should be completely finalized before being fine-tuned on the level of a copyedit.” (NYBE)

Proofreading: “The final stage before printing or uploading. In the old days of publishing, proofreading literally meant reading the galley proofs—always after typesetting. Today. . .the proofs come as a PDF.” (Prunkl). Besides reading the text for typos and bad word breaks, the proofreader checks such design elements as page numbers, display typography, margins and alignment.

So there they are, the stages your story should—or ought we say must—undergo prior to its publication.—Alex McNab

Published in: on July 16, 2015 at 2:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Writer’s Choice: My Seven Steps to Saying Goodbye to Something I Love

fwblog_wwcg_ CollageHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you today. I’ve written many blogs about finding balance in life as a writer. On this note, I’m letting you know I’m continuing to seek mine. I’ve decided to stop both being a regular contributor to the Fairfield Writer’s Blog, and to leading the Wednesday Writing Critique Group at Fairfield Public Library.

I’ve loved writing for this blog. Penning my prose on your behalf for the last seven years has been fulfilling, you’ve let me know it has helped, and we’ve even won an award for it. Thank you for letting me into your writing lives and your social media networks. In my writing critique group it’s been seven glorious years of vigorous writing, support, constructive feedback, improvement, plenty of belly laughs, and gentle tears. There has been a constant Wait List for my group and it’s been filled to capacity with dedicated authors sharing their stories in all genres. It’s been an amazing opportunity and journey with other writers. I will miss you all.

Many writers, like myself, carve writing time out of already full lives. Some writers retreat to their computers while the baby naps or like Toni Morrison, write by hand early in the morning. I usually forge  time before I go to work or on a weekend. When I do make time to write, it’s usually meant I’ve  given up something else, like exercising or filling in my child’s camp medical form.

Now to the theme of today’s blog. Maybe I should title it, “Seven Ways to Leave Your Lover.” My back-story is that our son is a senior in high school. For all you parents out there you’re probably nodding your heads and saying to yourselves, “Oh, now I know why she’s stepping down!” During our son’s next year of looking at colleges and then the applying for college process, I want to create a supportive atmosphere for him. With my full-time day job as a communications director for a nonprofit and my careers as a writer and artist, maintaining that was a challenge. Add to the mix leading an on-going writing critique group, writing for this blog plus a creativity and wellness blog, and volunteering in our hometown, school, and church, I’ve realized I need to stop all volunteer work for the next year, even though I love what I’m doing.

These are the steps I told myself to follow. They worked for me and I hope they inspire you to create balance in your writer’s life as well.
1. Deliberate your decision for a long time.
I considered it while I tracked my life and commitments for one year.
2. Know your unconscious signals.
I was beginning to operate more like a robot and less as an authentic, spirited, creative person. This is my personal signal. Though no one mentioned it, my writing was becoming predictable. My heart wasn’t in it because I had too few hours in the day to do everything I wanted. Like a pinball, I bounced from one responsibility to the next.
3. Be honest about your reasons.
The demands and responsibilities of my job increased last year and haven’t shown any signs of slowing down. With my desire to be fully present and helpful as needed for our son, some thing(s) had to go.
4. Co-create a plan for the future.
My marvelous writing critique group and I co-created an idea to keep the group going without a leader, as a peer-led group, until a new leader is found.
5. Cherish the memories.
I remember everyone who has been members of my group. In my mind’s eye I see where you sat, hear what you wrote, and how you laughed, or tried to hold back tears, or how graciously you accepted criticism. We’ve celebrated the publishing of your books, essays, and we’ve cheered you on after literary submission rejections.
6. Say a clean goodbye.
I’m doing that here, letting you know, and wishing you well. I believe that the energy within which I let something go is the energy that will carry me forward. My fond memories and good vibes will carry me into my next writing adventure.
7. Have patience and allow space for possibilities.
Even though my writing routine will change over the next year, it will allow an open-mindedness for new writing ideas to percolate. I have some long-range writing projects I’d like to ponder.

I’ll add an optional step here, one that I learned only by following 1 – 7:
•    Accept emotions that bubble up after your decision.
Over the weeks since I’ve been in the process of closure and in writing the draft for this blog, sadness has crept in. Grief has surfaced in unexpected ways. During my days,  I’ve had to stop mid-stream, in whatever I was doing, and let my eyes well up and seeping tears fall. The first time this happened at work, I had an answer ready if anyone asked, “I just let go of my writing critique group.” By being gentle with my vulnerable self I made room for my feelings as they passed through.

At the beginning of every new year, for the last seven years, our writing critique group has written our writing goals for the upcoming year. I looked back at my 2015 goals. Gazing at my handwritten notes, I read, “Allow inner space for my next writing juice to come forward.” Hmmmm, that surprised me! I loved the idea of “my next writing juice.” That signifies something new, exhilaration, pep, engagement. Still surprised at the word “juice” I looked closer at my penmanship. Ahhh, I see I actually wrote, “Allow inner space for my next writing voice to come forward.” Ha! I like that too.

Here’s to new writing juice and new writing voices for us all. Until next time, keep on writing.

Maggie Shipstead talks short stories

Southern California native Maggie Shipstead’s shipstead2012 debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was a New York Times bestseller, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and earned her the £30,000 Dylan Thomas Prize for authors under 30 (Shipstead was 28 at the time) from Swansea University in the U.K. Two years later, she published her second novel, Astonish Me.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Shipstead studied fiction in a workshop with acclaimed writer Zadie Smith. She went on to earn her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

So when Shipstead scheduled a spring 2015 author appearance on behalf of Astonish Me at our neighboring Westport (Connecticut) Library, the FWB requested a short private interview with her, and she and the library graciously consented. The twist was that the FWB did not want to talk with Shipstead about writing novels, but about writing short stories.

Here is what Shipstead said in a June 2013 interview with Marisa Atkinson at the website bookriot.com:

When I was in workshop—in college, at Iowa, and at Stanford—stories seemed like the best way for me to take advantage of the feedback and deadlines. Every time I turned one in, I had to be responsible for a beginning, middle, and end, and stories were a useful way to experiment with different voices and structures without making a huge commitment. My two novels both started as short stories, but neither worked. They felt sort of pointless or something. I find stories very difficult to write; that form doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I wouldn’t have written nearly as many as I have (i.e., a not-staggering fifteen or so) except I was in workshops for so long. I want to keep writing them—I think they help me learn and improve—but I find the novel to be a much more forgiving form, like living in a big house with a yard versus on a boat, where everything has to be in the right place.

The FWB would never want to contradict as accomplished, accommodating and amiable a writer as she. Would it be unfair, however, to suggest that the lady doth protest too much?

Shipstead may find stories difficult to write, but she writes them very well indeed. Consider:

  • Six of her short stories were cited as notable in the annual anthologies of The Best American Short Stories between 2010 and 2013, and the full text of one of them, “The Cowboy Tango,” was included in the 2010 edition by that year’s editor, Richard Russo.
  • La Moretta,” a story published in the Fall 2011 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) was one of five finalists for the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction.
  • “Via Serenidad,” the first story Shipstead ever submitted, to Glimmer Train, placed second in the respected journal’s 2008 September Fiction Open contest, earning its author $2,000 and eventual publication in the Summer 2010 issue.

So here, from our interview—and, in a few places, from other sources—are thoughts about writing short stories from author Maggie Shipstead.

Length. “I don’t think I’ve ever written a short story that’s on the short side,” Shipstead told the FWB. “They tend to be around 25 to 30 pages.” Both of our printouts from the VQR, “The Cowboy Tango” and “La Moretta,” in fact, were precisely 25 pages. “It would be better if they were shorter. I think they’d be a lot more publishable.” Her hope is that, whatever the length, the reader will finish a story of hers in one sitting.

Ideas. On the website biographile.com in January of this year Shipstead wrote:

Usually my stories come from the intersection of at least two ideas. At any given time I have a handful of vague notions floating around about settings I’d like to use or characters or inciting incidents. One element isn’t enough to go on, and so I wait until I see a way to combine one or two (or more) of those ingredients with a concept for structure or voice.

In an interview with Emma Bushnell at full-stop.net in 2013, she said:

For me, it’s tricky figuring out what might power a novel and what should be folded up and put in a short story. Sometimes very disparate ideas occur to me that eventually find their way into a single story. Like I might think about writing a story set on an airplane and about writing a story about a Hollywood cult, and at some point I end up fitting those two ideas together into one story. (“You Have a Friend in 10A,” Tin House Winter 2011). I like the magpie aspect of gathering material — little shiny incongruous bits and pieces can sometimes all be twisted together. The puzzle-solving aspect of constructing fiction is really satisfying for me.

First sentence. From Shipstead’s essay at biographile.com:

These little moments of unlocking, of finding the key to the puzzle, often manifest as first sentences. The first sentence establishes so much as far as tone, verb tense, point of view, even rhythm. Ethan Canin, one of my teachers in grad school, said that the whole story should be in the first sentence, and I think that’s true, although for me it’s more that the whole story unravels from the first sentence. The first sentence is what I return to when I need to be reoriented while writing.

Traditional vs. modern. In our writers’ critique group at the Library, there have been occasional discussions about whether a story’s protagonist has undergone a sufficient change or whether there is enough of a payoff by the end of the piece.

When the FWB asked her about this, Shipstead said: “I think the epiphany story has gone out of style a little bit. I do like stories where there’s sort of a surprise or gut punch at the end. But it can be pretty subtle. Alice Munro is the master of the subtle change at the end.

“It’s interesting. MFAs get such a bad rap for creating cookie cutter writers. That just hasn’t been my experience at all. People wrote all kinds of weird stuff, experimental fiction. I never saw anyone kind of get the weirdness beaten out of them.

“One thing workshops responded to negatively but maybe never quite expressively is, people don’t like to read things that are boring. I think sometimes the traditional and the boring can be difficult to extricate from each other. Like if someone’s writing a story—and I’ve done this too—and is sort of modeling it on another story, [sometimes] there’s no fresh insight or the characters don’t come alive.

“I don’t think change has to occur within the protagonist. For me, I would like something to change, but it could be the way the reader sees the protagonist, it could be within the protagonist, it could be just a plot change. I like a story that’s really a story.”

Submitting. The process, Shipstead conceded, “for anyone, can be so discouraging. It’s worth sending your stories out. Keep doing it. Just make a routine out of sending them out. Try not to think too hard about the rejections. It really is such a human process. And it doesn’t stop no matter how high up you go in the food chain. Picking the Pulitzer Prize is a human process for the people doing it. Every little magazine, every big magazine, has an idea of itself and of the fiction it publishes. They might think your fiction is great, but it might not fit with their vision of themselves. There’s sort of nothing you can do about that. I also think dealing with sending out and having it not always work out is a good way to get a thicker skin. A thicker skin is really important for a writer, you know.”

First acceptance. “Via Serenidad is a real street in the neighborhood where I grew up [in Orange County],” Shipstead said of the title of the story. “The women who run Glimmer Train [sisters Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda Swanson-Davies] do it all themselves and are really passionate about it and publish a lot of people. It was a long time between when they took the story and when they ran it. Close to two years. I think it’s a really good place to submit. Those contests are a good way to go.”

“The Cowboy Tango.” Of all the characters in the half dozen or so Shipstead stories the FWB read in preparing this post, the most memorable is Sammy Boone, a skinny 16-year-old who is wise well beyond her years as the story of a love triangle on a Montana dude ranch opens. “ ‘The Cowboy Tango’ was actually my first story to be published,” Shipstead said. “That was VQR. I was 24. My agent—who I met at Iowa when I had written like two finished short stories—had sent it to The New Yorker. And they started to edit it. And then they decided it was too long and they couldn’t make it short enough. On the one hand it was heartbreaking, and on the other hand I was 24 and so I was like, ‘Oh, they’ll take the next one. No big deal. Just keep trying.’ They still haven’t published me.”

Going from short to long. In our conversation, SAShipstead addressed the growth of her novels: “To me what signaled that those stories could be novels was I had a list of possibilities and I felt like a lot of doors kind of opened. Seating Arrangements, especially, I felt like I had good chemistry with the character. I understood him and I knew more events I wanted to inflict on him.”

Shipstead told full-stop.com’s Bushnell:

My second year at Iowa, Ethan Canin suggested that the Seating Arrangements short story (which was about fifteen pages long and completely flimsy) could be expanded into a novella, and I remember feeling almost liberated. I’d been trying to jam something into the confines of a short story and by letting go of that restriction suddenly all these possibilities were open to me.AM

With Astonish Me, I’d written about a hundred pages of a different second novel. . . and took a break to revise a short story I’d written at Stanford about a ballet dancer. The revision spiraled out of control, and I ended up with 90 pages that turned into maybe 170 on the next go-through and then eventually more than 200 on the last revision before my publisher took it. . . .

With my short stories that stay short stories, when I’m done I feel like I couldn’t possibly come up with another scene to save my life.

Current stories. With her focus on novels, “I didn’t write a story for two years, and I’ve recently finished maybe three, with a couple more kind of going,” Shipstead told the FWB. “I love short stories. I really admire the masters. It’s such a really difficult, exacting craft. I think it’s really worthwhile for me to do. And it’s, of course, so much less of a commitment. But it’s also a distraction. It can take a really long time to write a short story. It can take potentially a couple of months away from working on a book. And books pay the bills a lot better than stories do.”

A final thought. “I wish I knew the secret and could pass it on. I had a teacher at Stanford who said, ‘When you’re not sure what should happen next, just think about what the most interesting thing that could happen is.’ I think interest can be underrated, as far as something to strive for.”—Alex McNab


Published in: on June 14, 2015 at 3:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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