Creative Writing: The Power of Limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep on writing.

The Hot Tub Book Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep on writing!

Published in: on July 11, 2014 at 4:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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Reading the Same Book Goes Beyond the Same Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday John Steinbeck

john_steinbeckHello, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Steinbeck would be 112 today. Steinbeck (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American writer widely known for the The Grapes of Wrath (1939), East of Eden (1952) and the novella Of Mice and Men (1937). As the author of twenty-seven books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

What do you think his secret is for writing works with such staying power?

A few hints may lie here . . .
quote

and here . . .
john steinbeck story quote

Until next time, keep on writing.

Laura Lippman’s four little words

You’ve read them here before.

They are my favorite four words of writing advice.

They also haunt me.

“Finish the damn book.”

Go to the website of author Laura Lippman. lauralippman The words are right there in bold type, in the “Self Help” and “Son of Self Help: The Sequel” areas, under the “Letters” menu heading. Lippman (right) is the Baltimore-based, Edgar Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling crime novelist who writes a series about private eye Tess Monaghan as well as acclaimed stand-alone titles including, most recently, And When She Was Good. On February 14, 2014, After I’m Gone, another stand-alone, will be published by William Morrow. aftergoneUS-199x300It is Lippman’s 20th book, the first of which was published in 1997.

I’ve been trying to meet Lippman’s charge for a long time.

At this point, I have written a long first draft of what I call a literary tough-guy novel. I have read most of the chapters in critique workshops over the years, and I’ve revised much of what I’ve written. That, however, isn’t the same as reimagining and rewriting the parts that need it. I still wrestle with the plot and the characters’ motivations. Also, I need to strengthen existing scenes and add missing ones in the domestic subplot, which I find hard to do. (Who would have guessed? I’m a guy, after all.) And at one point or another, I’ve fallen victim to almost every one of the following 10 reasons I’ve come up with for why aspiring fiction writers don’t finish the damn book.

1. Laziness;

2. Fear—of the book being too lousy; too self-revealing; too offensive to family, friends or an interest group; etc.;

3. Paralysis by analysis because the novice novelist studies too many craft books and feels his/her story misses too many beats of the prescribed story-structure formula;

4. Failure of imagination in coming up with an ending that meets the ideal, that it be both surprising and inevitable;

5. Losing one’s way in the story;

6. Perfectionism;

7. Inability to stop doing research;

8. Self-inflicted internet interruptions;

9. Lack of compelling need or desire to finish;

10. “Not enough time.”

At this point, while I can see a path toward the finish line, I seem to lack the confidence that I can invent what it will take to get there.

There seemed to be one thing left to do to try to overcome the dilemma: Reach out to Laura Lippman for her insight behind those four words.

When an initial email to Lippman came back as undeliverable, I contacted Joe Meyers, the Ellery Queen Award-winning book critique at the Connecticut Post, who had just seen Lippman at the Bouchercon mystery writing conference in Albany, N.Y., where the above photo of the author was shot. He suggested I contact Sharyn Rosenblum, the ace publicist at HarperCollins, of which William Morrow, Lippman’s publisher, is an imprint. Rosenblum forwarded my general query to Lippman, which I planned to follow up with a more detailed message. Before I could do that, Lippman wrote me back with answers that anticipated everything I planned ask her. Here is what she said:

“People don’t finish for a lot of reasons. Some don’t finish because a book is like a marriage or a new relationship. There’s a lot of giddy excitement in the early going, but then it requires work and patience and good habits and showing up—if not every day, pretty regularly. You can’t neglect it. Some people just don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s not hard, relative to a lot of jobs, but it’s harder than it looks.

“People also don’t finish because of fear. What if it’s not good? What if I don’t get published? What if I get published and people say it’s not good. A lot of perfectionism—the tendency to rework the same pages over and over—is a way of masking those fears. There’s a line in the musical ‘Company,’ about marriage/relationships: ‘Don’t be afraid that it won’t be perfect. Be afraid that it won’t be.’

“Every external dream we have about publishing has the nutritional value of cotton candy. I’ve been lucky enough to see some big dreams come true—prizes, making The New York Times list, having one of my books adapted for film. And that’s nice and that’s lovely and I tried to enjoy those moments, but they were moments and they didn’t really feed me.

“The work is what feeds us. So when you’re down in the dumps and trying to finish, imagining money or red carpets or even the Nobel Prize ceremony isn’t going to take you there. Because none of those things can nourish you.

“You try to make the book better. The book tries to make you better. Together, you struggle toward the finish line. Sometimes, the book will be urging you on, pacing itself. Sometimes it will be the other way around. The book wants to quit and you have to do whatever you can to keep it going. There are lots and lots of tricks. Have a character write you a letter. If you know the end of the book, start writing it and work backward, see if you can make it connect to what’s already written. Rewrite what you have until your characters do what you need them to do. (I had to rewrite a book three times or so before I could get the characters to go to Delaware for the climax.)

“The reward for finishing is finishing.”

Indeed.

Those six words are my new second-favorite piece of writing advice.

My thanks to Laura Lippman.—Alex McNab  

Published in: on November 17, 2013 at 10:55 pm  Comments (2)  
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Stephen King: We Lie for a Living

stephen_king_david_williamson_vip_reception_collageHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing about meeting Stephen King on July 18, 2013. How does it feel to meet an author worth over $400 million? Pretty damn good. How did it feel, even though I’m not a voracious King fan? Pretty damn good. Thank goodness I’ve liked some of his movies. I attempted to hold my own among his thousands of fans.

I met King at a VIP reception at the Mark Twain House and Museum, in Hartford. His devotees were then bused to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts for a sold-out author interview. The Twain House was a fundraiser, with all proceeds benefiting the continuing educational and preservation activities of The Mark Twain House. My friend, David Williamson, owner of Betts Books, LLC, got VIP tickets.  He was kind to include me in his family for the night.

Oh, it’s good to know a book-rock star. Not King, Williamson. David was besieged with Stephen King groupies at the VIP reception. While King was protected by his body guard and posed for pictures, the rest of us enjoyed an open bar and ate gourmet finger foods. It was the fans, however, of David’s, who flocked and buzzed around him. For you King lovers, David is the model for the character “Father Callahan” in King’s The Dark Tower series.

King, as you know, is an American author of contemporary horror, suspense, science fiction and fantasy. His books have sold more than 350 million copies and have been adapted into a number of feature films, television movies and comic books. King has published 50 novels, and five non-fiction books. He has written nearly two hundred short stories, most of which have been collected in nine collections of short fiction. He wears his fame well. King was authentic and surprisingly funny.

I’ve been to a lot of author talks, yet this was the first time I’ve witnessed an author receive a standing O just by walking on stage. The audience roared to their feet, clapping and whooping, before King even sat down. Interviewed, at the Bushnell, by WNPR radio personality Colin McEnroe. King said, “All fiction writers are liars, We lie for a living.” King went on to encourage writers to “. . . find a sweet spot in what you are doing. When you get it right, no matter what it is you are doing, you get the buzz, you know you are in the sweet spot.”

King praised Charles Dickens as one of the best published authors to provoke emotions in his readers.  King commented that he, himself, was a sensitive and imaginative boy. Now when he starts writing a book, he “starts with an image.” Once he has the image, the story flows from there.

When an audience member asked King what his favorite book-adapted-into-a-movie was, he answered, “Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Misery. In that order.” Gasping, I leaned over to David, and whispered, “That’s my list too!” In an instant I added my name to the Stephen King fan club.

McEnroe and King discussed many topics. The one that tattooed itself in my brain, was hearing that 36 years after first publishing it, King is writing the sequel to The Shining. As a writer myself, I think that is worth a standing O.

Hiding in Your Own Ink

john_rayHello writers! This is Adair Heitmann scribing a short post today. How can a 385 year-old English Naturalist help you with your writing? Read on . . .

“He that uses many words for the explaining any subject doth, like the cuttlefish, hide himself for the most part in his own ink.” – John Ray

Until next time, keep on writing.

Published in: on March 4, 2013 at 12:34 am  Comments (2)  
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Humor and Mystery = Fun

It’s my turn for the blog. This is Adair Heitmann writing to you about the Author Talk I recently attended at the Fairfield Public Library. Susan Santangelo, who is the author of the humorous Baby Boomer Mysteries: Retirement Can Be Murder, Moving Can be Murder and Marriage Can Be Murder spoke to a crowd of writers and non-writers alike. The photo I took of her (l) and a happy reader (r) shows the connections this author makes with her fans.

The author’s writing process starts each book with a dead body, but it sometimes takes her six months or more than five chapters later, to figure out who it is. “The characters tell you what they want you to do,” she says. Santangelo added that for a mystery to be good, “it’s very important for it to be logical.”

She wrote book one and was rejected by three major literary agencies. Two agencies told her that they loved the book but there wasn’t a market for it. The third wanted such a major re-write that Santangelo gave it a try for a month then realized as a reader, she wouldn’t read the book the agency wanted her to write. So, she and her husband started their own publishing company on Cape Cod, Baby Boomer Mysteries.

After self-publishing her first book (and including her email address in the back), she heard, via emails from around the world, “You are writing about my life.” This encouraged her to write more books. Santangelo’s writing and public speaking style are like sitting down with her over a cup of coffee in her kitchen. Her quick wit comes across in speaking, and her real life experiences inspire her fictional works.

She noted “inspiration is everywhere, especially among the clothing aisles of stores when women are talking on their cell phones.” This author writes what she knows and her fans gobble it up. She is working on book four, a mystery about a high school reunion. Santangelo ended the lecture by saying, “Once the book hits Kindle, the sales skyrocket.”

Susan Santangelo is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Cape Cod Writers Center, and also reviews mysteries for Suspense magazine. As Santangelo stated in the comment section of this blog last month, she is obsessed with writing murder mysteries. From the look on her fans’ faces, they are thrilled with her obsession too.

Until next time, keep on writing!

The Power of Book Clubs

Hello to all you writers out there, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you today about the importance of book clubs. When you think of a book club, what do you picture? Blue-haired women with rolled down stockings conferring over coffee about the latest romance novel? Or do you shrivel in imagined pain, remembering an assigned book club from middle school? Or, are you a member of one now, a book club that defies stereotypes?

I’ve been a member of a family book club for several years. We read the classics (and would-be classics) as a family and now one of our members is a Freshman in college. She was in elementary school when we started.  We also have a new family book club member . . . in utero. Our book club is eclectic, opinionated, and passionate about books and reading. My advice to you is to find a book club that works for you. Or better yet, create one of your own. Hearing how others analyze the pros and cons of a book makes you a better writer.

Check list for finding the right book club:

1. Level of book club –  Is everyone a PhD in literature or barely out of high school? Consider your own strengths and weaknesses.

2. Genre – What does the book club read? Don’t join a best-sellers book club, if you only read esoteric memoirs, you won’t have fun.

3. Places to look – Ask everyone you know, and while you are at it check out the flyers and websites of libraries, churches, synagogues, book stores. You can even do an Internet search on book clubs in your area.

4. Consider the fit – While time and location are obvious considerations, a more important one is fit. Do you come home energized or drained? Psyched and talkative or wishing you never joined? You wouldn’t want to walk all day in NYC in uncomfortable shoes, why stay in a book club that’s too tight in the toes?

At the end of the day, after you’ve found or invented a book club that suits you, you’ll be the envy of your friends, co-workers and neighbors. But more importantly, you’ll be a better writer.

If anyone has helpful book club information to share here, in this blog, feel free to use the “Comment” section below.

Until next time, keep on writing.

Published in: on September 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Versatile Blogger Award Winner: Thank You!

Hello to all you writers out there, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you on this steamy summer day. Did you hear the bells and whistles? The Fairfield Writer’s Blog just received The Versatile Blogger Award! This is awarded to blogs that are considered helpful and excellent. Aw shucks. Both my colleague and fellow writing workshop leader, Alex McNab, and I currently keep The Fairfield Writer’s Blog going (along with our invited guest authors). We strive to be informative and always bring the blog back to its core mission of “literary connections.”

As writers we constantly hear about building our writing platforms. Part of building your platform includes creating and maintaining an online presence. Blogs are a great way to do that, and commenting on other people’s blogs can be invaluable. (See more about this in the list below.)

The Versatile Blogger Award was a connection that came put of the blue, thanks to blog reader Brooke Ryter.  Part of being nominated for the award is to select and share 15 blogs/bloggers that have been recently discovered or that we follow regularly. Here’s Alex and my edited and combined list, sorry we couldn’t put every blogger we know on it. The list is in no particular order, but we attempted to include blogs that are good resources for writers. Please check them out.

http://howtoplanwriteanddevelopabook.blogspot.com/
Mary Carroll Moore writes all about the book writing and creative writing process.

http://janefriedman.com/
Jane Friedman – Being human at electric speed: Exploring what it means to be a writer in the digital age.

http://ollinmorales.wordpress.com/
Ollin Morales Courage 2 Create inspires writers to do just that . . . write!

http://artistsroad.wordpress.com/
Patrick Ross: Travels of a MFA student and prolific writer.

http://writeconnexion.wordpress.com/
Gabi Coatsworth: writing about a writer’s life in Fairfield County, CT.

http://kimscraftblog.blogspot.com/
Kim Craft Fiction, Memoir, Creative Writing (from Top Ten Blogs for Writers list)

http://christinakatz.com/
Christina Katz: The Prosperous Writer. Her handle sums up her niche.

http://anneksmith.wordpress.com/blog/
Anne Kathryn Smith, writer at large. She recently commented on The Fairfield Writer’s Blog and I was drawn to a helpful link to her blog.

storyfix.com
Larry Brooks is one of many storytelling gurus online. He revisits the basics of structure from time to time in helpful ways.

the millions.com
Publishing news, author Q&As, plus a lot of links to pieces of interest on other sites.

mediabistro.com/galleycat/
Galleycat is a publishing news place. On the parent media bistro site, there are periodic interviews with authors and editors, under the heading What Do You Do?

plotwhisperer
The focus here is on plotting your story.

bloodredpencil.blogspot.com
A rotating group of book editors has something new up every weekday. There are a lot of helpful gems back in the archives.

dystel.com
Dystel & Goderich Literary Management posts essays and links from its agents. Again, lots of good stuff in the archives.

jenniferweiner.blogspot.com
She spoke at the Library a few years ago, and is currently doing the mega media circuit.

Thank you again to The Versatile Blogger Award for helping us here at The Fairfield Writer’s Blog continue to be a valuable resource to writers everywhere.

Until next time, stay cool, and keep on writing!