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

Neverthless, 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  
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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  
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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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Sure Cure for Writer’s Block

Inspiration-light-bulbHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you about inspiration and lack thereof. Does your creative well ever run dry? Are you faced with deadlines and have nothing to write? I’m hesitant to call it writer’s block because that has negative connotations, but it’s a phrase we understand.

As a writer it’s helpful to know my own mind, body, and spirit. We all have an internal and very personal barometer guiding us. Mine is a spark, a sense of being fully alive, energized, when I feel that ignition I know I’m inspired and ready to take action.

I knew I was stalled this morning because:

  1. I didn’t have a bright idea
  2. My energy was depleted

When my creative juices are stagnant my brain feels like it’s filled with yesterday’s porridge. I knew staying  in that mood too long would be productively paralyzing. Feeling idea-less for less than a minute I Googled “inspiration for writing” and a plethora of links appeared. I briefly scrolled through them:

Finding Your Muse

Top 10 Sources of Inspiration for Creative Writing

9 Sources of Inspiration for Highly Successful People

Nothing grabbed me. Ho hum, I’d already heard it, read it, or written about it. Determined to keep pace with my deadline I opened my dog-eared quotes binder. I flipped through pages, scraps of paper, and jotted-down notes, nothing inspired me.

Continuing to roam through the Robin’s-egg blue binder my fingers lit upon a small , 5 x 4″ plain white envelope with a March 2012 postal stamp on it. It was from a letter a friend wrote while she was living in Hawaii. I wondered why I had an empty envelope in my quotes folder. Then I turned it over, on my way through the binder. Out of the corner of my eye I saw there was handwriting on the back. My friend had written a quote by William James.

“A new idea is first condemned as ridiculous and then dismissed as trivial, until finally, it becomes what everybody knows.”

This spoke to me! My blood flow perked up, my energy increased, I knew I’d found my own kind of inspiration! It wasn’t a how-to list, it wasn’t a walk in nature, it was a message dropped by the universe that spoke directly to my heart.

Let yourself get to know your own internal barometer. When you do, I’ll bet you never experience writer’s block again. Let us know your favorite cure in the Comments section below.

Until next time, keep on writing.

The Pulitzer Prize winner on POV

Point of view is a continual—and often confusing—focus of attention in storytelling critique groups. Had we been keeping track, it wouldn’t surprise us if POV issues have arisen at least every other session of our six-years-and-counting semi-monthly writers’ group meetings at the Library.

The other day Anthony Doerr doerr(right) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel All the Light We Cannot See. The Pulitzer committee describes the book as, “An imaginative and intricate novel inspired by the horrors of World War II and written in short, elegant chapters that explore human nature and the contradictory power of technology.”

The announcement led the FWB to look up some of the author interviews to which Doerr had posted links on his website. In an exchange between Doerr and author and columnist Courtney Maum at the National Book Foundation site (ATLWCS was a 2014 National Book Award, Fiction finalist), Doerr addresses the question of POV with intelligence and clarity. After reading this excerpt, please click through to the entire interview for more writing wisdom from Doerr.

CM: In reading through past interviews with you, I’ve been surprised to see All the Light We Cannot See described as a novel that oscillates between the viewpoints of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German orphan, because the truth is, although Marie-Laure and Werner are the book’s main protagonists, the novel is peopled with the voices of so many other characters: Etienne, Von Rumpel, Frau Elena, Dr. Hauptman—the evil Volkheimer is given an entire section near the end. To me, the degree to which you let tertiary characters come in to support the narrative felt almost experimental. Did you just follow your instincts as to who got passed the talking stick, or did you have a master plan? Did any other voices end up on the cutting room floor?

Anthony Doerr: Yes, lots of poor souls ended up on the floor.doerrbook The perfumer, for example, had several more chapters from his point of view in earlier versions, as did Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife. Did I have a master plan? Not really. Mostly I constructed and then cut lots of variations.

When I teach graduate writing workshops, I often see a severity regarding point of view—students like to point out sudden movements: “You broke POV here, you broke POV there.” Students are right, of course, to highlight moments when a narrator breaks into or out of another character’s thoughts, especially if the writer makes that shift unintentionally.

But when I started to worry that my book was becoming too rigidly adherent to the Marie/Werner/Marie/Werner back-and-forth structure (my editor, Nan Graham, used the adjective “ping-pong-y”) I started looking at POV in books that I admire and found that my favorite moments in those books often involved some level of disruption in point of view. A narrator’s privilege gets established and then, later in the book, it expands or frays. Ishmael assumes Ahab’s thoughts in Moby-Dick, or Madame Bovary opens in first person, then promptly becomes a third-person novel.

In [The Great] Gatsby [F. Scott] Fitzgerald establishes what appears to be a strict POV rule: “This novel will be narrated by Nick [Carraway], who will have to guess at Gatsby’s thoughts.” Before long, though, Fitzgerald shatters that rule (“[Gatsby] knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath…”)

That kind of stuff would probably get picked on in workshops. So whenever I found All the Light getting too schematic, too rigidly obsessed with its own symmetry, I tried to remind myself that a novel can be a more organic, digressive, human thing, full of movement and departures and tertiary voices.

In short, there are rules about shifting points of view in fiction writing. But they can be broken—when an author as skillful as Doerr knows what he is doing.—Alex McNab

Published in: on April 29, 2015 at 12:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Listening to Richard Price talking about writing

At the top of the list of attributes contributing to his reputation as an author, RPriceRichard Price (right) is known for the way he makes his characters talk. Perhaps not surprisingly, Price himself is a unique talker, never more so than when he’s talking about fiction writing. For example:

“Writers have it the worst of all the creative artists. All you do is sit on your backside and rearrange the 26 letters of the alphabet. . . .”

That quote, a Fairfield Writer’s Blog favorite, comes from Chuck Leddy’s interview with Price in the November 2008 issue of The Writer. In his introduction to the Q & A, Leddy crystallized the appeal of Price’s fiction—beginning with his smash 1974 debut, The Wanderers, published when he was 24—with this sentence:

“Readers and critics alike immediately saw Price’s breathtaking ability to capture urban landscapes and craft dialogue that mixes grab-you-by-the-throat realism with streetwise humor and unspoken yearning.”

Price, now 65, grew up in a working-class housing project in the Bronx. He graduated from Cornell and earned an MFA in creative writing at Columbia, as well as spent time at Stanford on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing.Whites

Turn to almost any page in The Whites—Price’s latest bestselling novel, about the interwoven professional and personal lives of a group of New York City police detectives—and you’ll hear those distinct, idiomatic voices that reveal story, character and more. You hear them in his other eight novels, from his sophomore effort Bloodbrothers (1976) to Clockers (1992—a National Book Critics Circle best fiction finalist) to Lush Life (2008—a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist).

You hear them in his many screenplays, beginning with “first time out of the box” Oscar nominee for Best Screenplay “The Color of Money” (1986), as well as “Sea of Love,” “Night and the City,” “Mad Dog and Glory,” “Kiss of Death,” “Ransom” et al. And you hear them in his TV scripts for “The Wire,” winner of the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Series for Price’s work in the fifth season of the HBO show.

The February 2015 publication of The Whites—“by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt,” (while it is not the whole story, “there are contractual reasons why I needed to use the pen name to duck out of obligations I had to another publisher,” Price told Interview magazine)—was accompanied by a flood of new interviews with Price. The FWB Blog has mined those pieces as well as several classic Price Q&As (including Leddy’s) to compile this post of Price’s instructive thoughts about many elements of writing fiction, including, of course, dialogue.

Breaking through. “I wrote The Wanderers when I was still in [graduate] school. The book started out basically as assignments for my creative-writing classes at Columbia. Being published almost felt like the prize for handing in the best term paper. I didn’t even know I was working on a book. I was just writing: It’s time to write another one of these stories about these guys, the Wanderers. In class I read what turned out to be the first story of The Wanderers, and everybody hated it. Then Dan Halpern, who had started the literary magazine Antaeus and was a student in class with me, said, ‘Well, I like it. I’d like to publish it. Can I have it?’ I’d never been published. It took a year for it to come out. Meanwhile, I had gone off to Stanford on a fellowship in their creative-writing program. Out there in Palo Alto, I felt so isolated from my past life that a great need came over me to crystallize my memories of the Bronx, my adolescence, the textures of a life to which I knew I’d never return. So my need to write about these mooks kicked into high gear—it was all tied into homesickness and disorientation. I was writing in the same manner and for the same reason that someone would whistle a tune as they navigated a dark and creepy forest.

“When it was published in Antaeus, an editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote me a letter saying, I’d like to see more stuff like this if you have it. By the time I got that letter I had ten stories, about two-hundred pages. Houghton Mifflin bought the book for like four thousand bucks. My editor straightened out the grammar. I didn’t even know I was doing what I was doing. I was twenty-four when it was published.”—The Paris Review “Richard Price, The Art of Fiction No. 144” Spring 1996. Interviewer=James Linville

Attitude adjustment. While an undergrad. . .and a grad student. . .“I had been coming on with twice as heavy a Bronx accent as I ever had back home, I acted twice as streety.. . .I was a middle-class Jewish kid who went to three colleges. . . .In the end, it took a middle-aged construction worker to straighten me out. After hearing me do a reading [of The Wanderers] and field questions for an hour at the New School one evening, the guy waited for everybody to leave, stepped up and started to talk. He was a World War II vet, lived in the Bronx all his life, had three grown kids, and at the age of 50 was proud to be in his first year of college. . . .He shook his head in amused sadness and tilted his chin at me. ‘You really went to Cornell and Columbia and wrote a goddamn novel? Yeah? Cause that’s amazing. My daughter went to Bronx Community, and she speaks better English than you.’ ” —“The Fonzie of Literature,” The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1981. Bylined article

Autobiographical fiction. “Whatever you write is autobiography, because every kind of character hits a crossroads and has to make a choice in life, and that choice is informed by your sensibilities and you sensibilities evolved out of your life. So it’s sort of writing about yourself without the self-consciousness.”—The Believer May 2008. Interviewer=Alec Michod

“After the fourth book, I ran out of me.”—Conversation on stage at New York’s 92nd Street Y with David Simon, creator of “The Wire” February 23, 2015

“Part of the jam that I was in as a novelist [after his fourth novel, The Breaks], was that I kept going back to my autobiography for material. . . .Life is hard enough without it having to be perpetual material, too. I felt like a cannibal eating his own foot. Once I became a hired pen out there [in Hollywood], for the first time in my life I was forced to leave my own autobiography to research my characters’ lives, and I learned, with great gratification, that talent travels. If you have enough imagination and empathy, you can write about anybody. That was probably the only good thing, tangible good thing, that came to my writing through screenwriting; knowing that I could go anywhere and learn and bring it back home and turn it into art.”“An Angle of Special Vision: An Interview with Richard Price by Neal Gabler” in 3 Screenplays: The Color of Money; Sea of Love; Night and the City by Richard Price, 1993

“The scripts forced me to write about things that were not my life, which is the opposite of what I had been doing as a novelist.”—Cineaste April 1996. Interviewers=Albert Auster and Leonard Quart

Research. Price has become celebrated for his research methods, going on ride-alongs with police and hanging out in the urban locales where he sets his stories. Unlike a reporter who asks a list of specific questions, Price says he gathers information by “osmosis,” which he records in notebooks. “You come back and you have stenographers’ notebooks and they’re piled as high as your chin. That’s just a bunch of notebooks. The challenge is to take all that material and to forge a shapely allegory for what you saw. That was Clockers.”— 92nd Street Y

“Just because you saw something doesn’t automatically make it art. You have to do something with that. And it has to be in harmony with all the billion other things you saw. These are the little building blocks. It goes back to that giant jumble of stenographers’ notebooks. What are you going to do with all this stuff?”— 92nd Street Y

“I just want to know the parameters of plausibility, and then I want to lie responsibly. All the notebooks? I don’t know that I ever opened any of them once I got home.”—The Washington Post March 2, 2015. Interviewer=Neely Tucker

“Whatever was important to me, I don’t need to look up in my notes.”—PBS NewsHour March 2, 2015. Interviewer=Jeffrey Brown

[And for The Whites?] “I did zero research for that book.”—The Washington Post

“I have so much in my head from going out since the ’80s and having absorbed things from people on both sides of the law. . . .It is fiction, so you’re supposed to use your imagination. But I had such a reservoir of incident.”— New York Magazine, February 13, 2015. Interviewer=Boris Kachka

Starting. “The most difficult thing is making the transition between hanging out and writing the first sentence of the novel.”—The Believer

After continuing to regale his editor with anecdotes from his lengthy research for Clockers, finally the editor asked Price, “ ‘What’s the first sentence of the book?’ It was like being talked off a ledge. I did so not want to hear that.”— 92nd Street Y

“I was simply afraid.”—The Paris Review

“I’ll do anything not to write. It’s so hard to get to the place of writing, because when you start writing, it’s like you leave your own body and have to inhabit these characters. . . .It’s worse than jogging. It feels so excruciating before you do it. You’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it. And all of a sudden you start doing it. You go, ‘Oh.’ I’ve always use the example of people who jog and hate to jog, so they’ll mess around for four hours getting new sneaker laces, saying, ‘Wait, I want to watch this thing on ESPN,’ then you go out and jog for half an hour and then you’re done. You spend four hours getting to the half hour of the jog. If I could just eliminate [that] factor. But after a number of years you just accept that’s who you are, that’s how I roll. And once I get started, I’m in.”—92nd Street Y

Process. Once he’s at his desk, Price said he is writing “about half of the time. Typically, what I’ll do is write a page, reread it, edit it, write half a page more, and then I’ll go back to the very first thing I wrote that morning. It’s like the nursery rhyme ‘The House That Jack Built,’ where you go back to the first line of the poem and go all the way through, adding a line each time, and then back to the first. So, I don’t know whether I’m editing, reediting, or writing something new, but it’s kind of a creeping, incremental style of writing. I always sort of half-know where I’m going.”—The Paris Review

Structure. “ ‘He just gets so engrossed in the mental mystical algebra of what writing a novel is,’ ” said his wife, novelist Lorraine Adams. “The process involves months of making lists, taking notes, writing character sketches and possible scenes, and mapping out the story on pieces of paper that he shifts around the dining room table, as if trying to put together a puzzle.”—The New York Times February 11, 2015. Interviewer/reporter=Alexandra Alter

“I’m terrible at structure. I know what I want to write about. I know my characters. . . .The most difficult part for me is, ‘What’s the story and how does the story get laid out?’ I’m so much more interested in my characters and situation, but I’m not so hot on, ‘This happens and then this happens.’ That’s why I gravitate toward police investigation. . . .If you follow the orderly procedure of a police investigation, you get a spine to your story. I’ve been leaning to the procedural thing to help me lay a skeleton that I can lay muscles and veins and a skin on.”—Interview, February 17, 2015. Interviewer=Jeff Vasishta

“[Narrative structure] grows from incident. . . .[A] particular incident pulls everything together out of this complex landscape. . . .Before I start writing anything, I have to be able to sit down and verbally tell someone the story in a couple of minutes. I start out with the crudest of outlines, but there are big gaps between particular incidents. I start filling in this outline as I go on. But it seems that the minute you think you know where you’re going, the physical act of writing complicates everything. . . .All these nuances and surprises begin coming up that you’d not anticipated.”—The Writer November 2008. Interviewer=Chuck Leddy

“[My] sections might be tight but I’m a bit of a windbag. If you had Lush Life in one hand and Clockers in the other, and were you on a bench press, you could build up your chest with those doorstops. There’s no sin in writing a long book. The sin is if it reads long. The short scenes provide a rhythm that helps sustain a longer length.”—The Daily Beast February 19, 2015. Interviewer=Dan Slater

“What I’ve been doing in the last several books is alternating perspective. . . .Each alternating perspective is slightly ahead of the other. . . .There’s always something going on that the other person doesn’t know, and this advances the story.”—The Daily Beast

Dialogue. “I love the art of yackety-yak. I love that because what keeps me fresh as a writer is improvisation. . . .— 3 Screenplays

“My affection for and fascination with how people speak started out really early. Before I was a writer I was a mimic. . . .Some kids were into athletics. For me it was always the ability to imitate and mimic. And as I got older, I acquired writing skills, and all of a sudden I could do that on paper. . . .— 3 Screenplays

“[I]t just hit me that you can make the ear work for you on the page. Good dialogue is not somebody’s ability to write authentic speech as heard in real life. If that was all there was to it you could just push a button on a tape recorder, go get a sandwich and when the guy’s finished speaking, push Off, and then go collect an Oscar or a book award. Good dialogue on the page is the illusion of reality. It is the essentialization of how people talk. You’ve got to know how to edit what people say without losing any of the spirit.”— 3 Screenplays

“Street people, cops, urban people, I know how to make them crackle.”—Interview

“The plan [to use only the Harry Brandt pseudonym] failed once the words came out of anybody’s mouth. Once I’m writing, I’m writing. I can’t be Richard Price Lite.”— New York Magazine

Details. “I’m always looking for details. It’s like you’re watching an orchestra, and all of a sudden you’re drawn to the fact that the French horn player is blowing spit out of the valve. That’s life. The spit coming out. I look for these small, small things that resonate into bigger things. I don’t write about social ills as much as I write about the details.” —The Daily Beast

“I’m constantly over-stuffing. . . .You do get emotionally attached to everything you see. My first instinct is to overstuff because I can’t bear throwing anything away. And that’s when an editor comes in and says, ‘You know, one or two observations like this one here are probably more potent than twelve. I think you made your point.’ And then you say, ‘No, no, no. But what happened here, on the twelfth time, is different!’ So you need someone to [say], ‘Enough!’ ”—The Daily Beast

Fiction. “I’m allowed [to make it up.] It’s a novel. It’s not a documentary.”— 92nd Street Y

“I think it was Norman Mailer who said that the fact that something really happened is the defense of the bad novelist. At some point I got so hooked on research that after a while it seemed out of the question to make things up. Ultimately, everything in Clockers was pure fiction, but in the beginning I had to learn enough about the texture of truth out there in order to have the confidence to make up lies, responsible lies.”—The Paris Review

Readers. “I want to present people and let you decide what it’s about.”— 92nd Street Y

Reading. “I’m very protective of myself. I once made the mistake of reading Sophie’s Choice while I was trying to write The Breaks. It was like trying to sing while somebody else is singing another song in the background. I just got completely off course, not that I had much of a course to begin with.”—The Paris Review

Writers workshops. “I’d rather kill myself than subject myself to a [writers’] workshop. I used to teach in MFA programs. I have an MFA. You just never know what people are going to say and why they’re going to say it.”—Interview

Editors. “I work closely with my editor [John Sterling, Editor-at-Large at Macmillan]. . . .The most important thing is not who’s publishing you, but who is your editor. If you have a great editor at a lesser house it’s better than being at a high prestige house but with an editor you’re not clicking with. To me it’s all about the editor.”—Interview

“This [The Whites with the Harry Brandt co-byline] isn’t 100 percent Price,” editor John Sterling said. “It’s maybe 90 percent.”—The Washington Post

Revision. Asked how much revising he did on Clockers, Price answered: “About a year and a half’s worth. I had an endless, interminable draft, well over one thousand pages, with no ending in sight. I gave it to John Sterling, my editor, and with him I went back and started on page one and attacked the manuscript for a number of things: consistency of tone, a narrowed point of view, filling in all the holes in the plot. I tried to weed out excessive writing and cut down on the personality of the narrative voice. We wound up going back to page one three times and working our way through to page one thousand-plus—eighteen months of rewriting. Sterling would say, You have too many speakers, too many points of view, and your narrative voice is too florid. There are still some big-time problems with consistency of tone. Let’s start on page one again. It was like wrestling a zeppelin.”—The Paris Review

“When I revise, I look at my story’s structure and my sentences. Sometimes I shuffle my structure, move my scenes around. I want my sentences to be taut and rhythmic. But the hardest words for me, or any writer, to put down are “The End.”—The Writer

Finishing. “With this book [Lush Life], I saved the editor for the end, but when I had to turn it in, it wasn’t a submission, it was an intervention. He had to come to the house and it was there on my computer and he had to sit next to me and talk very softly, like, ‘Come on, just push the Send button,’ and I’m like, ‘But I don’t understand the transition between the cop and the synagogue. . . .’ ‘Oh, that’s OK, we’ll work on it, come on, just push the Send button.’ ” —The Believer

Final words. “[A]t a writers conference in Tampa. . .I gave the keynote speech. . . .I told them three things: First, you have to keep writing. Don’t talk about it. Just write. Second, you need to figure out what your story is. If you haven’t figured out what you story is, the writing will never amount to much of anything. Third, you have to be really patient and also be kind to yourself. Because nobody really cares if you haven’t been published yet. . . .You have to become your own support group.”—The Writer

“Whatever I’m doing, I’d rather be writing a novel.”— Grantland February 17, 2015. Interviewer=Amos Barshad

—Alex McNab

 

 

Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 1:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Remembering Colleen McCullough

Our colleague Margaret Rumford (top right) MRshared the following remembrance of a best-selling author at the Library’s monthly Writers Read open mike night in March. The Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased to present it here.

Over the years the impulse to write to Colleen McCullough (lower right), the renowned author, to congratulate her on her success came and went. When she died on January 29 this year, aged seventy-seven, her obituary upset me more than I would have imagined. When we met, The Thorn Birds, that blockbuster novel which sold more than thirty million copies, had yet to be written. OneCMcM learned over the years that she, an Australian maverick, shunned publicity and eventually moved to the remote Norfolk Island, a subtropical paradise lost in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Australia and New Zealand. The island had once been a penal colony. There she married a local man, a descendant of the survivors of the mutineers on the Bounty. To get in touch after she became rich and famous seemed self-serving. Besides, I respected her privacy and felt sure she would not remember me—our time together had been brief.

We met in 1972 at a summer party in Stratford, Connecticut, and, finding we both hailed from the Antipodes—she, Australia and me, New Zealand—there was a lot to talk about.

I remember her as a tall, well-built young woman, with thick brown hair, a broad rosy face and an infectiously raucous laugh. She had a way of listening intently, which invited confidences, and although she was three years younger, I thought her very wise. Despite that, my impression of her then was that she had a fairly run-of-the-mill lab job at a hospital in nearby New Haven—Yale.

What I didn’t know was that at the time McCullough was writing her first novel, Tim, later made into a movThornBirdsie starring Mel Gibson and Piper Laurie. While at Yale, the success of Erich Segal’s novel, Love Story, inspired her to write The Thorn Birds. When I read The Thorn Birds, I thought the first quarter of the book, when she writes about New Zealand and Australia, could become a classic. Once she gets to Rome, I wasn’t so impressed. But what did I know? She went on to write seven 1,000–page novels about the life and times of Julius Caesar.

Our hostess at the summer party was my friend Christine. After she had danced on the table to Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Night,” wearing a mini-skirt, cowboy hat and boots and cracking a whip, the evening broke up. What could possibly follow that?

Before Colleen left she handed me her card. I was impressed to discover she was a neuroscience researcher at the Yale Medical School. Earlier on, I had told about my hyper-active daughter, Hilary. The child, then nearly three, was a handful and driving me to distraction. “Get in touch,” Colleen said, enveloping me a hug, “I think I may be able to help you.”

A week later, Colleen met Hilary and me on the steps of the Yale Children’s Hospital. She had arranged appointments for Hilary to meet with a battery of specialists. Hilary, taking to Colleen immediately, clutched her hand and skipped off alongside her, while I was told to amuse myself and meet Colleen in the cafeteria at noon.

The result of the tests was that Hilary maybe should take Ritalin. In those days, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) was something I’d never heard mentioned. After some discussion, I decided to keep her off medication and change her diet. The doctors agreed that could be a sensible first step. The most important memory I came away with at the time, however, was everyone agreed I was a wonderful mother and that Hilary was a delight—if a handful! The boost to my morale was life changing, for which I am eternally grateful to Colleen McCullough.

Some years later, after the movie and television series of The Thorn Birds, came out, Christine said, “Isn’t it great about Colleen’s success. Who would have guessed?”

I must have looked blank, for she followed up with, “Remember, you met her at our house?”

“I did?” not connecting the Yale Colleen with the famous author.

“Yes, she helped you with Hilary.”

If that wasn’t a mind-blowing moment, I don’t know what is.

Sadly, I forfeited the opportunity to thank Colleen McCullough for her compassionate intervention, which made all the difference to our lives, and also to congratulate her. I really do regret it.—Margaret Rumford

(Editor’s note: Margaret is a member of the Library’s Wednesday writing critique group.)

Published in: on April 7, 2015 at 12:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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