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).

http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2010/10/03/7-reasons-why-you-should-read-your-book-out-loud/

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/general/why-take-the-time-to-read-your-work-out-loud

http://stevenrsouthard.com/read-your-story-aloud-10-reasons-why/

http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/reading-aloud/

Alex McNab

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

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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How to succeed as a 21st century writer, part 1

Are you familiar with Devilfish Review, which bills itself as Quarterly Literature, Speculative and Otherwise? Or Specklit: A world of wonder in 100 words? How about On the Premises? FLAPPERHOUSE? The Literary Hatchet? Abyss & Apex? Flash Fiction Online?

Alison-McBain-150x150They all are publications in which Alison McBain’s short stories and poems have appeared in the past year. McBain (right), a regular attendee at our monthly writers’ salons at the Library, is a quintessential 21st century writer. Her writing and publishing world—including her writers group—is predominately a digital one. And unlike a lot of storytellers whose creative writing appears online, she gets paid, albeit modestly, for hers.

Now a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother of two, McBain first published two pieces in a college literary journal in 2001. She didn’t submit them; her professor picked them out of class assignments and put them in the magazine. Three years later McBain published a single piece in an anthology. Then, after a nearly decade-long hiatus of work, marriage and motherhood, she wrote a young adult novel in 2013 and began querying agents, thus far without success. So at the start of 2014, she rebooted her creative writing approach, turning to short stories and poetry that she sent out into the world of digital publishing. Her writing covers a spectrum of categories: literary, flash fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy. Her goal that first year: 10 acceptances. By mid-October, she had met her target. She’s well into her second 10 acceptances two months into 2015. And, it bears repeating, she gets paid for her writing.

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB)—whose late-middle-aged comfort zone tends to gravitate toward authors, publications and the protocol of traditional legacy publishing—spoke at length with McBain recently about how to succeed as a 21st century writer. One point rang loud and clear: The digital domain has substantially increased the opportunities for writers to publish their work. Which is not necessarily the same thing as publishing it successfully, as McBain does. Her website features links to several of her published pieces, as well as a monthly blog (often about writing topics) and, debuting most recently, a section of thoughtful book reviews. Here is the first of a two-part post about what McBain had to say about writing, critiquing, submitting, persisting and more in today’s digital world.

HER BACKGROUND

Tech tools. “I grew up near the Silicon Valley, so all my friends my age were working for Google and Yahoo,” McBain says. “I was like the tech dummy, honestly. I would always get them to fix my computer. I guess I sort of grew up with digital technology. I’m used to it, even if I wasn’t very knowledgeable about it. I don’t have a tablet. I don’t have a smart phone. I always carry a notebook with me so if I get ideas, I write them down. I am a little bit old fashioned that way. Most of my work is done on my desktop computer at home. I need my space. I’m not really great at working on the laptop.”

The ease of online. Two simple benefits of being a digital writer/submitter, in McBain’s view: “You don’t have to print out your submissions. You don’t have to wait for the mail.”

A wakeup call. “I’ve always loved writing,” McBain says, but she admits that “I wasn’t really pursuing it very strongly. My grandmother had worked on a book, for 20 years, about her father, who had immigrated from Holland. She had translated all his letters, which were in Dutch. On her 90th birthday, she self-published her book and she had a big publishing party in Canada, where she lived. We all went up. She and I would always talk about writing. I said, ‘I guess I have 60 more years to get my first book out.’ She was like, ‘Don’t wait that long.’ Then a couple of years later she had a fall and she passed away. So that motivated me. At that moment, I said, I’m not going to wait anymore. I’m not going to put it off to ‘someday.’ I’m going to do it now.”

Longform to short. After finishing her YA novel in 2013, McBain spent six months editing it as she researched submitting it to agents. “In my query letter I had the couple of publication credits from years ago but I didn’t have anything recent to show,” she says. Agents “want to see recent experience, that you’re still relevant, I guess. So I started updating my resume, so to speak, with short stories and poems, because they’re so fun to write. They’re short. And you don’t have to spend a year or more.” Originally, her novel topped 100,000 words. The manuscript that is out there now “is shorter. I cut a lot. . . . I’ve had some agents request pages, chapters, the whole book. There still are a couple agents looking at it but at this point I don’t feel. . .I started submitting my novel at the end of 2013 and I’m still at it in 2015. I’m going to start my next one. You’ve got to be a rolling stone.” Translation: Don’t let any moss gather on your keyboard.

HER WRITING

Seeing a story. McBain’s productivity can make another writer envious. She says, “For stories, unlike poetry, I can pretty much sit down and write. It’s almost like reading a story. You have the story in your head and you just have to put it down. I feel like the strongest stories I’ve written are the ones where I can just see it happen. I’m a very visual type person. So I can see the characters.” While she begins a story knowing its full arc, she concedes that can preclude the fun of finding out what’s going to happen. But not always. “That’s the nerve-wracking part. It’ll go off in a direction you don’t think it’s going to.” One common element of good story, though, is “it’s about the internal journey, some growth in the character.”

If it isn’t obvious already, suffice it to say that McBain writes fast. “I think the most I did was 8,000 words in one night,” she says. “A couple of stories.” In fact, “Sometimes I’ll write something and submit it the same day. It usually gets rejected, but. . . .”

Meanwhile, her list of ideas is always growing: “I’ll picture some background and I’ll build a story around that. Or I’ll read an article and say, ‘There’s a story there somewhere.’ Eventually I’ll get the time and the mood to write it.”

Moving among genres works to her advantage. “I feel like it keeps my writing fresh,” McBain says. “I do write a lot, and sometimes subconsciously I’ll fall into these motifs where things will reappear. I’m trying not to do that, obviously. So in order to keep it fresh, you try to find something different.”

What makes a story “literary.” McBain believes “it’s where there’s something deeper going on besides the surface story. Mainstream is, you simply read the story and enjoy it. Literary is, something that shows something more about the human condition. You can have literary elements in genre fiction. That’s actually the way it’s going for a lot of science fiction and fantasy. They want deeper stories than just, I got shot with the ray gun.”

Strengths & weaknesses. “As a writer you are always trying to improve everything,” McBain says. “People in my writers group have mentioned that I do dialogue very well. And pacing. I guess the way I define pacing is when you are reading through the story there is no point where you have to stop and go back and re-read it. Your eye just naturally keeps on reading the story. You’re drawn in. There’s no point where something pulls you out. I feel a lot of writers struggle with that. I struggle with it, too. Sometimes I rush toward the ending because it’s like, ‘I know where this is going.’

“My weakness may be description.” As in, there’s not always enough. “There are two types of writers, ones who write too much and have to cut and ones who write too little and have to add. I’m the second type. I usually have to add more to my stories.” Her 100,000-word novel notwithstanding.

Cutting & saving. For McBain, the chore is “easy because I am doing short stories. You often feel like, ‘Oh this is such a great part.’ But it doesn’t really fit into the main narrative so I have to take it out. I never throw anything away. It’s all saved in a file. No, I have never rescued something that got cut from one piece and turned it into a successful story. But I’m optimistic. It’s not wasted time.”

Flash fiction & poetry. While there is no definitive word count for the former, the maximum is no more than 1,000 words. “I’m sort of in love with flash fiction,” McBain says, “because I feel like it’s so much harder to write a complete story in such a short space. It’s like poetry. You edit so much out that you’re just giving a glimpse into a story and allowing the reader to draw the rest of the story for themselves. I think that’s a lot of fun.” Such is not always the case with poetry for even as facile a writer as McBain: “Sometimes it’s hard. I have to be in the mindset to write poetry. Because it’s almost like another language.”

An inspiration. “In short stories, I think the only person who does the same breadth of writing [that I aspire to] is Margaret Atwood,” McBain says. “I’ve always read her. She does literary. She also does poetry. She is active, she judges contests, she’s doing tons of stuff. She’s Canadian, too. I’ve always really admired her.”

Forget fan fiction. While megasellers-turned-blockbuster movies such as Fifty Shades of Grey have been birthed online, the temptation to write material derived from someone else’s original characters and settings holds no appeal for McBain: “I know people are doing it but I feel there are enough stories out there. I don’t need to borrow.”

HER WRITERS GROUP

First reader. “Always my husband,” McBain says. “Often he puts his finger on exactly what’s wrong with a story, which is great. He helps pinpoint any problems, and I’ll rewrite another draft.” Interestingly, he’s not an editor or writer “He’s a chef. One day he said, ‘Why don’t you write about chefs?’ So I did.” The result: “On the Fly,” published at Flash Fiction Online.

Online options. McBain has found an online writers group home at Scribophile. “I tried out three other online writers groups before,” she said. “Some of them were great, but they just weren’t for me. Critters Workshop is great. The writers are really professional, really great writers, good critiquers. But it was too slow for what I was looking to do. You had to put your writing in a queue, so you might not get a critique for a month. I write a lot, so that didn’t work for me. WritersCafe.org I didn’t stay at for very long. It didn’t seem to have a lot of professional writers. They weren’t aiming to get published. They were just writing for fun, which is great, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Then Critical Writing Group, the Yahoo group, had a great moderator, but they weren’t very active; they were very active like maybe five years ago.”

At Scribophile, she joined a worldwide group of thousands of writers before finding a sub-group focusing on specific themes that has about 290 members. It is under the direction of Alexis A. Hunter, who is a slush reader [aka. Assistant Editor, First Reads] at Plasma Frequency magazine [a Magazine of Speculative Fiction] and has had more than 50 stories published at various sites. McBain says that between 30 and 50 of the sub-group’s writers “are actively writing and submitting their work every week. They submit to a lot of places. Not everyone critiques everything. You have your people who you exchange critiques with.” In a forum area, she also exchanges information about “other things like acceptances, submissions and target markets. If there are special calls [for material for a specific magazine or anthology], we’ll start a thread so people will know. I’d say about a quarter to a third of the submission deadlines or calls I find out about are through my writers group. And people can post their rejections and have a good sigh.”

The help she gets. “The group basically does a critique [on the copy] going line by line. They’ll go, ‘This section is awkward’ or ‘This needs better pacing.’ So when I print it out I can see for myself what I did wrong and then rewrite it.’ ” If that sounds similar to Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature, McBain concedes that in many ways it is, indeed, “just like that.”

But the comments also address big-picture issues: “The stories I usually run by my critique group are the ones that I’m not happy with in some way. You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s something missing. Usually they’re really great at saying things like, ‘This character doesn’t go on a long enough journey.’ Or, ‘The ending comes too fast.’ ”

Color-coded critiquing. McBain called up a story of hers on Scribophile that a critique colleague had annotated by highlighting different passages in colors. Green signified comments he’d made, yellow flagged repetitions and other loose places, and red indicated writing he would cut. “It’s a great system,” she said. “It’s all online. Some people, every time they get a critique, they edit their piece [right there on Scribophile]. I don’t. I let people go nuts, and then at the end [I revise]. You also do feedback on the critiques, so people can get better at it, too. I think that’s the main point of critique groups, to learn how to self-edit. I used to run every single one of my pieces through critiquing. But now I can self-edit enough after being on here almost two years. I’ve never learned so much as I have being on here, because you’re seeing all types of writing.”

Giving and receiving. To make sure each writer gets equitable time in the online critique group, McBain says, “Scribophile uses a system called karma points, [which you earn] every time you do a critique of another writer’s work.” You spend your karma points to keep your own work active for others’ critiques.  After a certain period of time or a certain number of critiques, your piece is moved out of the critique spotlight and you must spend more points to reactivate it. “The system. . .keeps writers constantly critiquing others’ work in order to receive critiques of their own,” McBain says.

“Scribophile really is one of the most efficient and organized writers group sites I’ve run across on-line. I’d definitely recommend it for any writers who, like me, don’t necessarily have the ability to get to an in-person writing group on a regular basis.”—Alex McNab

Next: Researching and executing online submissions.

Calling all Writers: Volunteer!

j0439384-600x564Hello writers, this is Adair Heitmann penning my post to you. Let’s talk today about a topic we rarely discuss. The forbidden word is volunteer.

“Oh no,” you exclaim, “not that, I don’t have time. Don’t make me!” Well, I won’t make you, but I’ll share a story with you.

Back in 2008 during the economy downturn, I wanted to increase my writer’s platform. I also wanted to become a member of a writer’s critique group. My name was on the wait list of Fairfield Public Library’s Writing Critique Groups. They were full. One year passes. I inquire again, the groups are still full, but I was asked if I’d like to volunteer to start and lead a new group. “Oh no, ” said I, “I am too busy!”

Time passes, I inquire again, and am extended the same invitation, basically, “If you start it they will come.” Wanting to join a local group so badly, I succumbed. Fast forward to 2014, I’m still leading a fabulous writing group and I’m co-authoring this blog. I’ve gone on to lead creative writing workshops, how to build an author’s platform, and social media programs at other libraries. I’ve even landed a full-time job at a library . . . and it all started by volunteering.

But enough about me. I know other writers who volunteer on Fairfield’s One Book One Town committee, and others who chair author talk committees. What better way to learn how to improve as a writer than to attend author talks and hear first-hand other writer’s successes and challenges? How else can you learn about publicity departments at publishing houses than to be in contact with them on behalf of your volunteer position for a local library? You aren’t tooting your own horn, you’re doing a good service.

Other writers I know volunteer every few years at big book festivals. It’s a win-win situation. Writers give back to the community, expand their professional networks, are seen in the marketplace, and build their author platforms, all while doing something they love and for a cause they believe in.

“Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain loving one another. ” ~Erma Bombeck

During this season of gratitude we are grateful for all the volunteers who help make literary connections happen, and for you, who spend time with us here online. Happy Thanksgiving.

Until next time, keep on writing.

A local guru’s writing tips for 2014

A lot of us in this Connecticut town got our start as creative writers in one of Carol Dannhauser’s Writers’ Workshop of Fairfield groups. Carol is an award-winning magazine writer and TV producer, author of three books, a former big-city newspaper reporter, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University, a dedicated foodieCarolD (that’s a persimmon gelato cone she’s eating in the photo on the right, incidentally) and a determined if fledgling fencer. She also is an indefatigable, effervescent writing coach of groups and individuals of all ages and levels of experience.

So when she appeared as guest facilitator at the Library’s first monthly writers’ salon of 2014, the turnout overwhelmed the capacity of the lovely writers’ room and the group had to move upstairs to a much larger space. Carol’s topic was “tips, tools and techniques for actually writing the pieces you need/want to write this year.” In her inimitable idiom, here are highlights of what Carol told us:

“Have a deadline.” Read on to learn why.

“Figure out your motivation.” Writing, Carol says, “is fun. And it’s hard. It’s fun and hard at the same time. What is it about this project of yours that will help you derive satisfaction? What makes you do it, on top of whatever else you do, when your kids are still sleeping, when you get up an hour before everybody else gets up, when it’s Wednesday night and everybody else is watching ‘Modern Family.’ Something has to be nudging you along to pick up the pen. The fact that maybe you should do it isn’t the right answer. I make my living as a writer of nonfiction. I dabble in fiction. . .[but] I am determined to finish a draft of a novel this year.” Why? “I want to see if I can do it. And it’s a great story. It’s a great story and I think I can do it, but maybe I can’t.” Of course, that thought process gets in the way of every writer, she says. So…

“Get rid of the judgment.” Carol admits she’s a terrible fencer. “But every single week I devote a certain amount of time to becoming a better fencer. I get my ass kicked, by children, including my own. I will leave and go, ‘I’m terrible.’ Then, in a couple of more days, I’ll try it again.” Many of us don’t approach writing that way. “There’s all this judgment that comes with writing,” most of it from yourself. “You write it and, ‘Oh, it’s terrible.’ It’s terrible now. Every single thing I write is terrible—until it’s not.” That’s why. . . .

“You have to have the faith that it will get better.” Writing takes practice. “If you do it long enough, sooner or later it will get better. Yes, you go on a wing and a prayer sometimes. Try really, really hard to tell your inner critic, ‘I know it sucks. Give me some time, and it will suck less,’ and less and less. And then maybe it won’t be so bad. Then maybe pretty good, then good, then maybe it’ll be great. But you can’t give up. How many people have half-finished projects? A third finished? That’s my big one. You just can’t give up.” Eventually, though. . .

“You need to be done.” Why? “Because if you wait for you to be done, you might not ever be done.” So refer back to her command about a deadline.  “I would suggest making a deal with yourself: ‘Self, I’m going to finish this piece of something by March first. Maybe it’s not going to be perfect. But it’s going to be finished. And then I’m going to do something with it by April first.’ If you are a perfectionist, you will never finish it.”

“Give your writing respect.” That means writing something every single day. It “needs to get the same little bit of respect as your other projects in life. It doesn’t have to be a whole production. But it has to be a commitment to writing in some way on a regular basis.” One way to do that is to keep a log of every time you write. “Not that you read about writing, or read someone’s blog. That’s all great. [But] you’re not writing.”

“Make your goal smaller.” Carol says, “Yeah, I want to write a novel. But my goal yesterday wasn’t to write a novel. My concrete goal was to figure out how time was going to elapse in this little novel of mine, and how to split it up.” Over the course of a two-day writers’ retreat, she did just that, as well as figure out how to amp up the conflict and reach a resolution in the last quarter of her story. Again, your goal “doesn’t have to be, ‘I’m going to write my whole memoir.’ Like Legos, you don’t have to build the whole thing in a day.”

“If you’re stuck, skip over that part.” As she says, “What do you do in traffic? Detour. You can sit there all day, and it’s not happening. Go around. Skip it. [If you want to], put some piece of crap on the page. The beauty is, you can go back and fix it. I think of poor Michelangelo when he was sculpting. ‘Oh my God! You wrecked the nose. You’re screwed.’ And I just cut and paste.” Once again. . .

“You have to stick with it.” Mixing her artistic metaphors a little, Carol says, “In creative writing, you have to understand that it’s going to be a piece of clay for a long time. Maybe you don’t get the nose right 15 times. You try it again. How many guitars did Picasso paint? Again and again and again. How many horses? Again and again and again. Till he got it right? He never got it right. And every one was a masterpiece. People will spend a million dollars on one of his sketches. So try, try, to let the judge go.”

Deal with procrastination. “The first thing I’d do was play Scrabble against my computer,” Carol confesses. “I would not begin writing until I had won. Sometimes 25 minutes would pass and I’d think, ‘Well, this is good. It’s words. It’s priming my brain. Like warming up at the track.’ No, it’s not. It’s playing Scrabble. I have quelled my Scrabble habit. Not like going cold turkey. Since January 1, now I play after writing 500 words.” If procrastination is your problem, Carol told us, Hillary Rettig’s website may help. It offers an online newsletter with tips and tools for overcoming procrastination. Carol took a two-hour writers’ workshop with Rettig at Hartford’s Mark Twain House (a very writer-friendly locale with a calendar of events worth considering) and says, “Go check her out. And if you ever contact her, tell her I said hello.”

“Get a partner.” Before we left the room, Carol asked us to introduce ourselves to a person we didn’t know and exchange email addresses.  “Tell them what you’re going to write, then check in later,” she advised. The focus should be on what you plan to do next. As for what you accomplished between check-ins, a simple, “Did it,” will suffice. “Because I have promised my partner that I will be writing, that’s what I do,” she said. “Or you can meet up. But the commitment is what’s important. It’s so helpful. Writing is so solitary. That commitment to somebody, it’s magical.”—Alex McNab

Some final thoughts on writing, 2013

On December 28, 2013, our Library writers’ group completed its fifth calendar year of twice-a-month workshops. That’s a lot of reading, listening and critiquing. At each meeting, I distribute a handout of writing advice culled from myriad blogs, websites, books, newspapers, magazines, author appearances and more. All told, I have passed out 106 such digests during those five years. Extracted from the 2013 handouts, on this last day of the year, I’d like to share a few of the thoughts on writing that I came across in books I read—not all of them books about writing—during the past 365 days.

• From The Liar’s Bible: A New Collection of Essays on Writing by Lawrence Block (via Kindle from Open Road Media):

Block“Sometimes I think it takes guts to write fiction. And other times I think what it really takes is arrogance. Consider the effrontery of the fictioneer. He sits down at his desk and makes up a story, assuming that the product of his own imagination will keep other people, total strangers to him, interested and enthralled. He invents characters and trusts that these strangers will care mightily about what happens to these made-up people. The flip side of all this arrogance is anxiety and insecurity. Why should anyone waste his time reading my made-up stories? Why should people care what happens to my characters? And where do I get off deciding what happens next? How do I know what my characters think/feel/believe? What entitles me to decide how their fabricated lives will turn out? It helps if I can learn to operate less on arrogance and more on humility.”Burke

• From Light of the World: A Dave Robicheaux Novel by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

“At a certain age, you realize the greatest loss you can experience is a theft you perpetrate upon yourself—the waste of days given us. Is there any more piercing remorse than the realization that a person has thrown away the potential that resides in every sunrise?”

• From Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (Warner Books):Goldman

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”

• From Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (Random House):Kidder

“That you can learn to write better is one of our fundamental assumptions. No sensible person would deny the mystery of talent, or for that matter the mystery of inspiration. But if it is vain to deny these mysteries, it is useless to depend on them. No other art form is so infinitely mutable. Writing is revision. All prose responds to work.”

• From The Double by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown & Co.):

Pelecanos“[Spero Lucas] had too many books in his apartment and he liked to pass them on to the wounded soldiers and marines who had little to do beyond their rehab. Some of the books were biography and history, and some were considered literary fiction, whatever that was. But like most people, the recovering veterans enjoyed a good story told with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to.”

• From Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo (Alfred A. Knopf)

Russo“It didn’t take me long to learn that novel writing was a line of work that suited my temperament and played to my strengths, such as they were. Because—and don’t let anybody tell you different—novel writing is mostly triage (this now, that later) and obstinacy. Feeling your way around in the dark, trying to anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences. Living with and welcoming uncertainty. Trying something, and when that doesn’t work, trying something else. Welcoming clutter. Surrendering a good idea for a better one. Knowing you won’t find the finish line for a year or two, or five, or maybe never, without caring much. Putting one foot in front of the other. Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly. Grinding it out. Knowing that when you’ve finally settled everything that can be, you’ll immediately seek out more chaos. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, without ever intending to, I’d discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness—character traits that had dogged both my parents, causing them no end of difficulty—to my advantage.”

[Thanks to my wife, Diane Melish, for reading the book and sharing the quote with me.—AM] 

• From Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press)17465707

“Sit around a scarred wooden table in a writing workshop for enough hours and you’ll hear write what you know, along with show don’t tell, never use adverbs, and other guidelines. And know that every rule you’ll hear in a writing workshop is meant to be broken. You can do absolutely anything—tell, not show, make excellent use of an adverb—as long as you can pull it off. Get out there on the high wire, unafraid to fail.”

“. . .If beginnings are leaps of faith, and middles are vexing, absorbing, full of trap doors and wrong turns and dead ends, sensing an ending is your reward. It’s better than selling your book. It’s better than a good review. . . .There will be a moment—today, tomorrow, three weeks or two months from now—when you’ll write a sentence and then stare at it, dumbfounded. It has caught you unawares. You can’t be on the lookout for it. You can’t will it, or force it, and you don’t have to, because it will feel inevitable. Everything has led to this.”

• From The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P: A Novel by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt & Co.)Waldman

“Sure, writing his book hadn’t been entirely easy.. . .[S]omething that existed only as a Microsoft Word document, a sprawling tale of a young immigrant family grappling with life in the American suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, [it was] a work he’d been revising and rewriting since he was in his midtwenties without ever having earned a penny from it. But writing his book—at least after a certain point, years in, when, by shifting its focus from the son to the parents, he’d finally seemed to find the thing’s pulse and the novel began to take shape almost of its own accord—had also been the greatest pleasure of his life. That a publisher was willing to pay him for it, pay him generously, was nothing to complain about. He’d do it again for free, in a minute. Many of those late nights, when he’d paced his apartment, his mind roaming the world he’d painstakingly created and could finally inhabit—moving within it from character to character, feverishly distilling into words thoughts not his own but theirs—had been ecstasies of absorption and self-forgetfulness.”

“. . .It could be difficult to stay motivated sometimes—he knew that—especially when you were unhappy. But he also knew that you had to push through. He had. He had written his book even on days when it was the last thing he felt like doing.”

Finally, all best wishes on writing well and with success in the New Year.—Alex McNab

The making of a memoir

Fairfield’s Randi Oster (right) has written a Randi-Oster-214x300105,000-word memoir, Questioning Protocol. It tells the story of her experience acting as her teenage son Gary’s patient advocate during a difficult period of his battle with Crohn’s disease, a stretch in which he was hospitalized twice. In addition, it offers readers tools to deal more effectively with their own and their loved ones’ critical health-care issues.

A former workshop colleague of mine, Randi was highly energetic and organized, and a natural storyteller. She also was, as our Writers’ Workshop of Fairfield leader Carol Dannhauser liked to put it, a rocket scientist. Literally. What Randi was not in those early workshops, by either natural-born gift or education or profession, was a writer.

The story of the making of Randi’s memoir is also the story of the making of a writer.

Parroting Carol’s oft-repeated verbal reminder to her from our workshop days, Randi says with a laugh, “ ‘It’s comma, quote.’ I never learned this in school. I am a product of the ’70s Bronx school system. To escape a mediocre education, I went to the Bronx High School of Science, where I avoided writing and focused on math and science.  Then in college, I studied electrical engineering. I barely wrote papers, much less anything with dialogue.”

Randi went to work at General Electric, rising to key roles in leading teams that designed such technological marvels as sensors for the Stealth fighter. Eventually, she joined the executive ranks, where she received leadership training in GE’s legendary Six Sigma quality control program. After she left GE, she joined Carol’s exercise-based workshop, then moved on to another that focused on memoir.

Despite her late start in writing, Randi has always done something even longtime writers often cannot bring themselves to do: She submits her work for possible publication. One successful example was a local contest. In 2011, her piece “Countdown to Chili” was accepted for and included in the Writers’ Room of the Fairfield Public Library’s anthology Around the Table: Food Memories of Fairfield. An excerpt from her new memoir recently was published in a health-industry magazine, another is being reviewed for possible publication in one of the country’s most prestigious medical journals, and the manuscript has attracted serious attention from literary agents.

Here are some of the writing lessons Randi learned in the making of her memoir:

Composing: Get editing help. After taking Carol’s memoir workshop, Randi decided to devote herself to writing the book, making it a fulltime job with a goal of producing 10 pages a week. To help her, she hired Carol to spend one hour a week editing her newest copy. Randi is not the only member of our former workshop who recommends an editing approach. Gabi Coatsworth, a Fairfield-based award-winning essayist and short story writer, rarely submits a piece of writing before having a professional editor critique it. [See “Why hire an editor? Here’s why”; FWB, March 1, 2011]

Early on, both the writing and the editing went slowly. “One time I wrote a sentence that took me 45 minutes,” Randi said. “Carol, reading along, said, ‘Oh, this is good.’ Then she just went on to the next sentence. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? That was 45 minutes.’ ”

Nevertheless, instead of 10 pages, or the more realistic seven that Carol had set as a standard, the first week they struggled to review two. At the end of their 60 minutes, Randi would go home with Carol’s red-penciled pages and “input the changes. Every single week. I didn’t let them pile up. I didn’t say, Oh, I’ll do that in three weeks.

“A lot of it wasn’t copy-editing,” Randi continues. “It was thought editing. She would have a note: Need to add more about Blah. That takes time, to add more about Blah. That wasn’t edited. That was material missing. I would probably spend Monday and Tuesday just updating what needed to get done. And then I would spend the last three days of the week trying to come up with the new stuff. I was making the same mistakes over and over.”

Such as? “I learned to stop ‘realizing’ for the reader.  Now, in the past I would have written, ‘I learned pretty quickly to stop “realizing” for the reader.’ ” And to eliminate those –ly adverbs.

Voice: Be true to yourself. Randi fell into the trap that ensnares many writers who read stories similar to their own between writing sessions. “I would like the style of someone else’s voice,” she says. “Then I would write my story with that other voice. Carol would look at my copy and go, ‘It’s crap.’ I’d say, ‘What do you mean? I’m being literary.’ I learned that when I was authentic and real, the pages flew so much faster.”

But being authentic and real has its drawbacks for the memoirist. “It meant being brutally honest,” Randi says. “So I don’t always come out looking good. Sometimes I’m a bitch. When you’re writing, it’s hard to make yourself look bad. But the truth is, that’s what I needed to do. It was easy to find fault in everyone else. But the reader sees through that. You must not be afraid of showing the skeletons in your own closet. That’s hard. I got used to writing the truth, but now I realize that people are going to read it. Now the game isn’t fair. Someone else will know so much more about me than I’ll ever know about them.”

There’s an ultimate payoff, though: “People can relate, because now I’m not some figment of perfection. I’m a real person.”

Language: Think of your reader. Despite years as an electrical engineer and a GE employee schooled in the argot and acronyms of Six Sigma, Randi’s language in the book is a reader’s language. “Technical. Detailed. Boring,” she says in a singsong voice, “is what I avoided.” Yet her Six Sigma training plays an important role in the book, especially in the climax, where she shows how a focus on quality can make a difference and she gives readers tools they can use themselves in a real-life setting.

One method she used to make the complex simple was to draw analogies. For example, when she describes the tribal divisions of the medical personnel in the hospital cafeteria, she equates them to the different-colored flamingoes and other birds she had seen standing apart from one another at the San Diego Zoo. And to convey the personalities of the members of her family and other key players, she compares them to the characteristics of the Hundred Acre Wood storybook residents in Benjamin Hoff’s 1982 bestseller, The Tao of Pooh, derived from the A. A. Milne classic.

Structure: Tell a story. To be successful, Randi knew, her memoir needed to include the key elements of narrative storytelling that one would find in fiction.

An inciting incident that defined Randi’s personal conflict—and triggered her thorough note-taking that she referred to while writing the book—arose when a doctor prescribed Gary a medication without first telling Randi, which she had previously told the physician she wanted him to do. Three weeks after that incident, Gary was back in the hospital.

“If we’re talking about story arc,” she says, “I was blessed, in a weird way, that my son had a disease and that we got him through [a crisis] in a positive way. I knew there would have to be some growth in the main character, who is me, and that there should be an ‘aha’ moment.”

That came at the end of a darkest-hour turning point, a harrowing high-speed, 3 a.m. ambulance ride between two hospitals during a thunder-and-lightning downpour, complete with a demonic-looking EMT at the wheel and an eerie, heavy-metal soundtrack blasting from the dashboard radio. When the man changed the station and Mariah Carey’s “Hero” came on—the song was No. 1 on the charts the day Gary was born—Randi found peace in its message, which she defines as: “You’ll find the strength from within.”

She says that, “In memoir, unlike fiction, you have to hope that these moments happen, because you can’t make it up. But those are real things that happened.” What she leaves unsaid is that, as a writer, you also have to be able to recognize such moments and their proper places in your story structure.

Message: Incorporate a broader theme. Randi views her book as more than just a personal story of “how I navigated the health-care system.” It is, she says, a toolkit for “the 141 million people with chronic diseases who are constantly going in and out of the system.” Rather than blaming doctors and other medical personnel, she uses her quality-control training to suggest ways to “improve the performance and the process, so everyone does better. There were very clear tools that I used. . . .There were techniques that enabled my son to end up not needing medication and take a nutritional approach. All those tricks are in the book. And those skills and tips are easily learned and transferred. My goal, for every page and a half, was for readers to have learned something they can use.”

Reviewing & Revising: You are not done yet. Upon finally finishing her memoir, Randi hauled her edited stack of pages north to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Every day, she’d go to a different tourist landmark—Norman Rockwell’s veranda, Edith Wharton’s garden, Mt. Greylock—and sit down, pencil in hand, to read the book from start to finish. At night in her B&B room, she would type in the changes on her computer.

Some of those alterations involved cutting. “There were times when I would take four sentences to make one thought,” she says. “To go from four sentences to one sentence makes it powerful. It gets faster and smarter.” At least 25,000 words ended up on the floor.

More illuminating to Randi than finding places to cut “was how I was able to tie things at the end back to the beginning. Because I could see it all, I could see where I could build up a more of the story. So now it has more of a flow.”

When she returned home, she went through every single page of the book a final time.

Even now, though, Randi may have more to do. After reading the final manuscript, a friend asked her, “What happened at the end? I feel like your pen ran out of ink. I wanted about 15 more pages.”

Randi expects that the book’s eventual publisher may say the same. But after all her hard work, she says she told her friend, “I couldn’t take it any more.” Yes, even she had run out of writing energy.

Final Lessons: Write and enjoy. Randi concedes, of course, that not every aspiring author can afford to hire an editor. Nevertheless, she says, “A person with a story should not limit themselves because they feel inadequate. Write. Read. Write. Then write more. If you can afford to, take a workshop and learn. I couldn’t have done it without the writing workshops. In my case, specifically, the memoir workshop taught me to be honest on the page. Eventually, you will find that you have completed a work, and then you will be able to figure out the next best step. But, there is no next step if you don’t start!”

In the end, to write a book, be it a memoir, a novel, or anything else, something inside is more important than one’s inspiration, education or professional skill. “I think it’s passion,” Randi says, “and a determination to give yourself the gift of saying, I did it. It doesn’t matter what happens to your book. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a bestseller. But allow yourself to be able to say, I finished. The book is ancillary to the passion. Enjoy the process.”

Publishing: Build a platform. Having finished the manuscript and embarked on the agent search, Randi has been “building her platform.” She has her own website and she’s established a presence on social media. She has attended conferences where she’s met authors of bestselling books on her general subject but approached from other angles (with the hope of getting one of those authors to write a foreword). She has become a screener for the prestigious Malcolm Baldridge Awards. She has submitted excerpts, and seen one get published. And she has done interviews like this one, with broadcast outlets as well as print.

Thus, when the next interested agent calls and asks the inevitable “Do you have a platform?” question, Randi will be able to answer with a resounding, “Yes!”

That’s exclamation point, close quote, Randi.—Alex McNab

Getting published

IanThree short stories by Ian Peterkin (right), a member of our semi-monthly Saturday afternoon writers’ group at the Library, recently have been published. “Inyo,” “Situation on the Tracks,” and “No One Tells You” appear, respectively, in three separate literary journals: Rio Grand Review, of the University of Texas at El Paso, Helix Magazine, of Central Connecticut State University, and Independent Ink Magazine. Ian also is soon to be awarded his MFA in creative writing from Western Connecticut State University. The Fairfield Writer’s Blog asked Ian for his thoughts about pursuing the path to publication:

Finding the right home for your short stories can be a difficult task. Between June 2011 and November 2012, I must have received hundreds of rejection letters. Over that eighteen-month period, three things happened: I was encouraged to submit more, I honed my craft, and I looked up better ways to make submissions.

There are hundreds of places looking for stories—literary journals, magazines, web sites. IndinkRGRKeeping track of them all is dizzying. Enter Duotrope, a site recommended to me by a woman who recently got an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. Duotrope keeps track of all the different places that accept fiction and poetry, providing users with tools to track their submissions. I owe much of my success to that site. When I submitted through it, it did not have a paywall. Fortunately, its new model isn’t expensive at all.

If I could offer three pieces of advice to would-be writers of short fiction or poetry, it would be this: 1) Don’t submit to big names like The New Yorker. The odds of them accepting a submission from an unknown are infinitesimal. 2) Make sure the publication is a good fit for you. 3) Don’t, I repeat, don’t pay over $5 for a submission. There are some pretty unscrupulous places out there just looking to make money off of fees. I would not waste time or money on any contests.

Your goal is—and always should be—to get published. You should start small. If you think of any university, chances are you’ll find a literary journal attached to its English or writing department. They’re always looking for exciting work. That’s what worked for me.—Ian A. Peterkin Jr.

Published in: on April 30, 2013 at 6:39 pm  Comments (2)  
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A writer’s to-do list for the New Year

As the calendar flips over to January, here’s a quick rundown of goals you might consider in the new year. At least one writer affiliated with the Fairfield Writers’ Blog (FWB) has already adopted them for 2013.

• Put your work-in-progress (WIP) into Scrivener and become competent in that writer’s program. Joanne Hus of our Saturday writers’ group was the first person who passed along a rave about Scrivener; that was several years ago. The program does cost money to download, and there may be other applications you can find for free that are useful. Plus, there’s always the ubiquitous Microsoft Word. As 2013 dawns, though, Scrivener is a key application in many writers’ toolboxes. For example, friends of our Saturday group and the FWB, including Gabi Coatsworth and Linda Howard Urbach, have written about it online (Linda, as usual, with tongue firmly in cheek). If you need any more convincing, in the Acknowledgments at the end of his big 2012 book Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon lets us know that, “This novel was written using Scrivener on Macintosh computers.” That’s a good enough endorsement for us.

• Sit down and read the first draft of your WIP from beginning to end, then revise same all the way through. Often you have no legitimate excuse for not finishing your revisions. But not always. Remember a couple of months ago when we blogged about local author A. J. O’Connell’s revision efforts on her novel? Like us, she’s still at it, she reports at her site “The Garret.” But she has a good excuse for not finishing in 2012. In the final few months of the year, she also wrote—and signed a publishing contract for—The Eagle and the Arrow, a sequel to her novella Beware the Hawk. Bravo!

• Submit your short stories, creative nonfiction and/or journalism for publication on a regular basis. Use such helpful sites as duotrope.com, with its search feature of outlets for your work (available to paid subscribers as of January 1, 2013), and submittable.com, the popular submissions management site for many literary journals. “Regular basis” means monthly at minimum. One of the writers in our Saturday workshop followed this formula, through many discouraging rejections. Then three acceptances arrived within weeks of one other. Superstition precludes the FWB from offering any further details, though, until the stories are in print.

• Watch the documentary “Tom Wolfe Goes Back to Blood.” WolfeMovieDespite the mixed-at-best verdict of the reviews of the author’s latest novel Back to Blood, how often do you get to follow a master writer, over a four-year period, doing the work of creating a book? A great opportunity to see Oscar Corral’s film in a local auditorium came and went this past fall at the refurbished Bijou Theatre in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut. You should be able to watch it via the bigstar.tv website, which requires that you log in.

• Read Virginia Wolff’s To the Lighthouse for its lessons in shifting points of view and communicating characters’ interior thoughts. Too many mentors and fellow writers have recommended this classic to ignore it any longer, despite the fear that it may be difficult.

• Write some fresh articles of journalism and a fresh pieces of fiction. You may not be there yet as you keep refining your WIP, but the time may come to heed a few words of wisdom from novelist Elinor Lipman, who writes delightful domestic comedies (The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, et al.). She heard this once from her writing mentor: “Sometimes the best form of revision is to start something new.”

Happy New Year and good writing in 2013!—Alex McNab