Reading your work aloud—a refresher

When you search Google for “why you should read your writing aloud,” the line at the top of the first page says there are roughly 24.6 million results.

That number in itself seems like a pretty convincing reason for the value of vocalizing your work in progress.

Reading your writing aloud has been an element of every workshop in which the Fairfield Writer’s Blog has been a member. Each writer around the table brings in and distributes copies of her or his latest scene or chapter or essay, then reads the piece aloud as the others follow along on their copies. (The FWB has never participated in a workshop in which copy was distributed and expected to be reaReading-Aloud1d before a session.) Critiquing follows, ideally with the writer remaining silent as the others offer opinions on what did work and what didn’t work.

The reading-to-the-group system seems sensible, except for one thing: The piece was written to be read silently, in a book, in a magazine or on a screen. Sometimes sentences that seem unwieldy to your colleagues—because of your ineffective vocalizing or a length that requires you to take an extra breath or two—would be perfectly fine if those fellow writers weren’t listening to it as well as reading it.

Oh, and another thing: In the FWB’s experience, at least, the writing of fellow read-alouders with British accents always sounds better than that of us American speakers. Of course, sometimes it is better.

To encourage aspiring writers to share their work and to get comfortable reading it aloud, the Library holds an open-mike Writers Read night on the first Tuesday of every month. In addition to the usual benefits of reading work aloud, writers learn to enunciate better, speak more slowly (or, rarely, faster), and project their voices at an appropriate volume for the room. Unlike a workshop, Writers Read is critique free, although audience members are invited to ask questions of the author after her or his reading.

Whether you opt to read aloud in public or a classroom, do try it at home. For many writers, it is an essential step in the revising and proofing process. The FWB has a difficult time reading aloud when alone. It makes him self-conscious, which reading in a workshop or for an audience does not.

Whenever you read aloud—whether to yourself or to a group—have a pen or pencil in your hand. Then, every time you stumble while reading a passage, or recognize a repetition in sentence structure or length, or catch an overused word, or find a typo or another boo-boo, make a simple mark in the margin. Only when you finish, go back and find the faults and correct them. Do not pause to scrawl in a correction as you are vocalizing.

With so many other places that already have done so, the FWB purposely has avoided enumerating reasons to read your writing out loud. If you need specifics to be convinced of its value, click on these links to four of those places cited in the Google search (the artwork above comes from one of those sites, author Steven R. Southard’s Poseidon’s Scribe).

Alex McNab

Published in: on January 26, 2016 at 9:02 pm  Comments (3)  

Creating New Year’s Writing Resolutions

Do you make New Year’s Resolutions?2106

Do you keep your New Year’s Resolutions?

For many people, the beginning of a new year is a time for reviewing the past and looking forward to a new year. There are 366 days in 2016 – ample time for each of us to accomplish a goal or two or more. Have you considered your writing goals?

In an article from Writer’s Digest—“5 New Year’s Resolutions for Writers” (1-1-2013)—Rachel Scheller complied a list of resolutions to help “improve your writing, focus yourself, and achieve your publishing goals.” Her list:

  1. I resolve to . . . make time for writing.

  2. I resolve to . . . embrace my personal writing style.

  3. I resolve to . . . self edit as I write.

  4. I resolve to . . . step outside my comfort zone.

  5. I resolve to . . . call myself a writer.

I like the addition of  “I resolve to . . .” that Scheller added to each item on this list. The goals seem more active. The choice of the words “I resolve to” adds a bit of weight to each resolution.writing-tips-best

Of course, creating resolutions is a personal effort. I do make New Year’s resolutions. I create lists. Here are some of my writing resolutions:

• I resolve to . . . make my writing time as important as other events in my daily schedule.

I will write “WT” on my daily calendar.

• I resolve to . . . be consistent in my personal writing.

I can meet a daily word challenge; word by word toward a larger goal.

• I resolve to … be quiet, to look, and to listen.

I find inspiration when I pay attention to the most ordinary moments.

• I resolve to . . . expand my reading into genres that I neglect.

Mysteries are at the top of my list. Any suggestions?

• I resolve to . . . take a risk with my writing.

Good luck with your writing resolutions this year.

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Published in: on January 5, 2016 at 8:37 pm  Comments (1)  

Talking writing with musician & memoirist Steve Katz

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog has sought writing-craft advice from KatzBooknovelists, biographers, short-story writers and more. Until now, though, it has never spoken about writing with a “celebrity” author, despite the piles of titles—by the famous, the infamous, the accomplished and the not-so-much—weighting down tables and shelves at stores that still sell books.

One reader’s “celebrity” may be another’s “who’s he?” But for us seasoned music fans whose most influential listening began in the 1960s and carried on for two decades or so, guitarist/singer/songwriter Steve Katz deserves the description. In his memoir—Blood, Sweat and My Rock ’n’ Roll Years: Is Steve Katz a Rock Star?—he is a candid, thoughtful and humorous storyteller, an enlightening tour guide to a memorable period of popular music—and some of its notable personalities. Publishers Weekly’s prepublication review called the book “one of the few rock memoirs worth reading from beginning to end.” And, yes, Katz wrote the book—his first—himself.

Katz was a nice Jewish boy with a dry wit who grew up in Schenectady, Queens and Long Island, New York before selling “something like 29 millions records,” he writes. During the early-60s heyday of the Greenwich Village folk-music scene, while a teenager, he laid down roots as a finger-picking acoustic guitar student of legend Dave Von Ronk and country blues master Reverend Gary Davis before playing with the Even Dozen Jug Band. Moving to electric guitar, he recorded influential albums and played the Monterey Pop Festival with The Blues Project, then became a founding member of the famous rock/jazz ensemble Blood, Sweat & Tears. During Katz’s four-album tenure, that band earned platinum and gold records and Grammy awards, as well as played at Woodstock. Later, Katz recorded for the Beatles’ legendary producer George Martin as part of the group American Flyer, produced two albums by rocker Lou Reed (including a stealth appearance by pop singer John Denver’s live audience), worked as an executive for a record company, did a reunion stint with BS&T, and eventually returned to his acoustic roots as a solo performer/raconteur.

The FWB first saw Katz’s one-man show at our community’s Pequot Library in 2013, during which he mentioned the probability of writing a memoir. After the book’s publication by Lyons Press in summer 2015, he performed in our area again, at the Trumbull Library, with the FWB in attendance.

In October, Katz, now 70, KatzTodaywelcomed the FWB into the home he shares in northwest Connecticut with his wife, ceramic artist Alison Palmer, and a menagerie of friendly dogs and voluble African parrots. Our conversation centered on the decisions he made and the lessons he learned while writing about his life and career, a challenge for any author, not just a first-timer, celebrity or not. Here, then, is Steve Katz on writing a memoir:

Have a reason for writing. “I would tell stories to people, to friends, and they would say, you should write a book. . . .I had gone back with Blood, Sweat & Tears for three years [in the 2000s]. And when I left— I was 68 then—I said, well, what am I going to do now? I think I’ll write a book. I didn’t really think about it before. Then when I started writing, I realized it was interesting. The other reason for writing the book was that it gave me an index. So as I get older and I start forgetting things, I can always just look in my index. Fantastic.

“I never thought of myself as a real storyteller until I started writing. And then I started thinking, well, I wish I had told the stories like this, because when you are writing, you can take your time with them. Put them in better words, [add detail] and stuff like that. So now when people interview me about my career, I just say, why don’t you read the book?”

 You don’t need an MFA to write a memoir. [During his early days in the music business, Katz wrote] “record reviews. For Eye magazine, a spinoff of Cosmopolitan. I was an English major in college and I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always written poetry and lyrics and stuff like that. That’s not to say it came easy for me. Still, when you write a song, when you’re an artist, there’s that blank canvas that you have to fill up. One thing I knew about creative writing was that everything depends on the first sentence of every paragraph. And also you take that context to the next chapter.

“[As a reader, I love] anything by Philip Roth. He used to be in town [in northwestern Connecticut] all the time, sitting in the chocolate place reading the newspaper. About 10 years ago he was turning onto a street off Main Street and I was crossing the road. He was in his Volvo station wagon. I started moving back, and he stopped and went like this, [waving] for me to go. I came home and emailed all my friends, ‘I was almost killed by Philip Roth today. I’m so excited.’ ”

Even a rock star has to write query letters: “I went to a website that had a list of literary agents. I just went in alphabetical order. When I got to D, I got a deal [with Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management]. She repped Barack Obama and Dreams from My Father.”

 Seek—and welcome—professional help. “When I sent in my proposal, the first one, to Dystel & Goderich, Jane called me and said, ‘We love the idea, we want to represent you, but you are going to have to rewrite the proposal, and we’re going to set you up with somebody. You’re going to need help with the proposal. It’s got to have more oomph to sell it.’ So they told me about Mike Edison. I went and looked him up. He was editor of High Times magazine for a while. He wrote for Penthouse, and he wrote something like a hundred pornographic novels. I called Jane and said, ‘Wait a second, who are you putting me together with?’ Then I read a book he wrote called Dirty, Dirty, Dirty. It was the funniest thing I’d ever read. I said, ‘This guy is perfect. He gets my sense of humor.’ The proposal he worked on with me is essentially the forward to the book. That was mainly Mike. He added other certain things, too, but I’d say 95 percent of the book is mine. Mike helped me through the process.

“Bruno Ceriotti lives in Italy and is a rock and roll lunatic. He was a fan. I would write a paragraph and send it to him for dates and stuff like that. I would say, ‘The Murray the K Show started at 10 o’clock every morning. . .’ and he would write back and say, ‘No. It was 10:15.’ I don’t know how he got all these things but he was really, really helpful. I never met Bruno.

“Forgetting about Mike, the biggest contributor to my book was [Katz’s editor and now Interim Editorial Director] Keith Wallman of Lyons Press. He didn’t write anything, but he was so helpful in editing. For example, [take] the opening lines of Chapter 3, ‘Mimi.’ I wrote, ‘I came home from the concert late at night’ or something like that. ‘I opened my door and I could see that Mimi was gone.’ Keith would say, ‘Put this in a time context.’ OK. ‘It was November of 1966. Ronald Reagan had just been elected governor of California, and the Beatles had just begun recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I tiptoed into my apartment, not wanting to wake Mimi, but the moment I opened the door, I knew instantly that she was gone.’ It makes total sense. It is such a little simple thing. Keith was incredibly helpful with that. It was a real education for me to see what an editor really does.”

Use your natural voice. “It’s basically my sense of humor. Most rock ’n’ roll memoirs are, ‘My dad used to beat me so I took drugs.’ I never had that. The worst thing that ever happened to me was that my mother spilled chicken soup on me. . . . I look at the book as being funny, and not just a memoir. I think some of the reviews have caught on to that.”

Enjoy the writing process. “I woke up every morning and sat at my computer. I loved it. But it was difficult with the dogs, and helping my wife lift her sculptures and stuff like that. There was always something happening, except for the three months we spend in Mexico in winter. My wife’s a workaholic. It sort of rubbed off on me. I’m not a workaholic, but some of it rubbed off. Especially when she’s at work in the next building.”

Don’t just write. Rewrite. “I’d constantly go back. And that’s why going through the proofreading thing was. . .how many periods and commas and semicolons did I get wrong? But they kept finding things. And they were right.”

Use the music to frame the story. “I was able to do that in the context of the set that The Blues Project played at Antioch College in late 1966. I don’t remember the concert that well. I remember all the [stoned, dancing] kids in the audience. But I was able to tell stories through the songs.”

Use the words to convey the music. (Katz writes of the debut rehearsal of Tim Buckley’s song, “Morning Glory,” with the BS&T horn section: “When the horns entered on the second verse for the first time, I almost couldn’t sing. . . .The sound, the feel of the building verse into the chorus, it was at that moment that I said to myself, So this is why I wanted to be a musician. It was an ethereal moment. . . .That’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life.”) “I put that in later, because I thought about that afternoon we rehearsed it, and how wonderful that feeling was. You sort of keep going back and going back and adding things. Yeah, that was an amazing afternoon.”

The best-known elements of your story don’t necessarily make the most compelling writing or reading. “It was much more interesting for me to write about The Blues Project or even the jug band and the beginnings there than about Blood Sweat & Tears. I think I make it clear in the book that BS&T was more of a corporate type thing. So I don’t spend that much time on it. If I was a rock star during those days, what I remember is getting up a 5 a.m. to get a plane to a city and hopefully having time for a nap before the sound check. Then after the concert, schmoozing with radio people and stuff like that, and then you’re in bed by midnight and have to get up at 4 o’clock to catch the next 5 a.m. plane. Or you’re taking buses. The arenas and stadiums all looked the same. So it was always hard work. The most fun part was when you were onstage playing music.”

Remember your reader. “My whole career, because of the nature of being a musician who plays publicly, you want to entertain people. If you are writing a book, if you are making a movie, if you are making a record, I always think about entertaining people. I’m certainly not Proust. I’m not that heavy or intelligent. [Laughter.] I wanted the book to be entertaining. I wrote it for people to have a good time reading it.”

Be open about writing about old intimacies. “I love my wife more than anything. But [folksinger] Mimi [Farina] was my first love. And a first love is different. I approached writing about it by first going to my wife and asking her, do you mind if I write about some old girlfriends? This is not an easy thing. She gave me a green light and it made it a lot easier.”

Your story may not agree with the way others remember things. . .“I didn’t really rely on other people’s memories that much. I didn’t get in touch with former band members. If I did, nobody could remember anything anyway. I’d say I only spoke to [drummer] Roy [Blumenfeld] from The Blues Project. It was the only time. I didn’t speak to any of the people in BS&T. I spoke to Roy because I wanted the story about [our lead guitarist] Danny Kalb and his suicide attempt. I wasn’t speaking to Danny at the time, and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten the correct answer anyway. Roy knew the whole story.”

. . .Especially if the others are people with whom you have had feuds. “There are four of them. With my brother, he was my brother, so I had to mention it. Basically I skipped over it and gave a description about his greed, and then I went on later about how that affected me and Lou Reed [with whom Katz also had issues].

“As far as [Blues Project organist and singer and BS&T co-founder] Al Kooper, he wrote a book where he didn’t say nice things about me, but I loved the book. I actually used Al’s book for research. He enlightened me with some memories. Al’s always been very funny, and even though that book was a pure collaboration with Ben Edmonds, I think his humor comes through. Kooper and I have worked together since then. Everything I write about is true. We don’t get along anymore. But we were a family. We did get along great. We had a background of growing up in Queens, our Jewishness; we had things in common. I think we agree on what happened a lot, but not why they happened. Al’s whole story about why he left BS&T is different from the way I see it. I do respect the fact that he sees it differently. This is my truth, that kind of thing. Even though mine is right.

“Whereas David Clayton-Thomas [the singer who replaced Kooper in BS&T], you know, might as well have been an alien. David wrote a book, and I didn’t even want to read it. Finally somebody said to me, you have to read his book. So I got a yellow highlighter just to mark all the misperceptions and lies. I went through five highlighters by the time I’d finished the book. He makes up these things and he actually believes them. I have to say, though, that when Lew Soloff died in February, the only person who got in touch with me from the band was David. On Facebook. He said let’s put aside our petty differences and pay tribute to Lew. Which I thought was really gentlemanly, especially, you know, because I rip him to shreds in the book. I thought it was very nice of him to do.”

Let your vulnerable moments come through on the page. (Toward the end of the book, Katz recounts his discomfort before a one-night 1993 reunion concert at the Bottom Line in New York featuring many of the early members in BS&T, including the great jazz and session trumpet players Randy Brecker and the late Lew Soloff) “Here I am, a guy who started out playing Travis picking [a variation of finger-picking named after country-western musician Merle Travis] on acoustic guitar . I wind up on stage with these incredible players. These are great players. I hadn’t played for a while, especially electric guitar. And Randy Brecker, who’s just the sweetest guy in the world—when I said at one rehearsal that I was nervous—told me, ‘What you did works. It has more to do with heart.’ And that’s why Randy has always been one of my favorite people. I could hardly read music. It was difficult. That’s why I had to leave BS&T at some point. [Later, jazz tenor saxophone player] Joe Henderson was in the band. Sitting next to Joe, I’m saying, what the hell am I doing here? The guy is a genius, pretty much.

“I’ve sort of been in limbo like that. I come from the folk crowd, who never have accepted me because of Blood, Sweat and Tears. And of course some of the great musicians of the Blood, Sweat & Tears jazz thing don’t accept me because I’m a folk musician.”

Build your story around a theme. “The theme is that I always felt I was always on the outside looking in. As I write in the book, ‘Lorraine Alterman, a writer. . .had done an article about me for a short-lived magazine called Scenes. . . .The subtitle [of the article], which was put on the cover, asked the musical question, “Is Steve Katz a Rock Star?” With descriptions of me taking leftovers from my mom’s house, the answer was inconclusive at best.’ ”

You can make it through the hardest part of the story. “I think it was my first marriage. My wife’s mental illness, which also ties into our house burning down. When I started writing it, I figured, oh boy, this is going to be difficult. But you sort of move aside, you become objective about the whole thing. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. You can add subjectivity later. But first you want to put the facts down. The great thing about writing is it’s like clay, you know. You can mold it anyway you want. Edit. Thicken things. That’s one of things I loved about writing the book.

Relax, it’s OK to feel embarrassed. “When you look back at some of the stupid things you did, and you’re writing it, and then proofreading it on paper, they make you say, I don’t want to think about that. Oh God! There’s a whole paragraph about my sideburns. How one was longer than the other. I was really very self-conscious about the whole thing. It’s totally ridiculous, but it’s true. Now, looking back on it, it’s hilarious. I wanted [the reader to think back to] . . .when you’re a kid, and make it into a funny story. That’s one of my favorite parts of the book.”

What small crises of confidence as a writer? “This is one of the few great things about getting older—there are certain things that get better. And one of them is you have the self-confidence to say, basically, I don’t give a damn what people think. This is my life and I’m going to put it out there. I couldn’t have done it 10 years ago or 20 years ago because I would have been afraid of what people thought. I don’t care anymore. I did the best job I could.”

Look for unique ways to promote your work. “Lyons Press got me to talk at the Jewish Book Council convention. There are all these Jewish centers from across the country. You have to do a two-minute talk. I was sitting next to Joe Klein. Tess Gerritsen was there. I was a nervous wreck because I had to convince these people to bring me in. So I said, ‘I have something to offer you that not many do. There are not that many Jewish ex-rock stars out there. And not only that, but I can give you a [musical] performance. But I have to charge you.’ So I’m getting my fee. Starting in a week and a half, I’m on the road for two months. Kind of like one-nighters, almost, all over the country at Jewish community centers. I get mobbed at the meet-and-greet afterward.”

Appreciate how your written memoir triggers your readers’ memories. “No, I don’t consider myself a celebrity. Some people do; people who are fans do. A celebrity is like [someone in] People magazine. I have to amend what I just said, if you don’t mind. I’ve been working in the craft world a lot [with Alison], and every now and then somebody will say, ‘Oh God, you’re Steve Katz.’ But lately I’ve been feeling like a celebrity. Now, with my concerts and because of the book, because I’m going out and performing, people are thrilled to meet me. Which is, like, really weird. This is why I enjoy playing. People say, ‘Do you get any young people?’ I don’t care about young people coming to my shows. It would be nice if they did. Maybe they’ll enjoy my finger-picking and stuff like that. But the fact is that, for people of my age. . . .all of a sudden, you’re part of a memory that happened years ago, and that remains part of their lives.” —Alex McNab


Published in: on December 20, 2015 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

“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  

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