Monday, November 9, 2020

Speak, Memory: The Narrative Pull of Remembrance

One of my favorite book titles is that of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiographical memoir Speak, Memory. As both directive and decree, memory speaks, and it’s one of the most powerful muscles for narrative pull in all of literature.

In the same way that an olfactory experience evokes recollection, memory stimulates story. A turkey basting in the oven, coffee brewing over a campfire, an evergreen bough warmed by sunlight … These olfactory recollections may evoke the holidays or hiking in the woods or family gatherings or images of good times gone bad. No matter what remembrances they call to mind, the memories that accompany the sense recollections are powerful links to the past that open doors to discovery, and the journey of discovery can generate enough wattage to propel a story, whether real or imagined and perhaps a bit of both.

For me, November is a month filled with memories, not all of them pleasant. In this month, my father died, my mother and I moved from a home we shared for over 40 years, other family passed away … It’s a tough time of year, and although autumn is my favorite season, November is a prelude to winter, and I don’t relish the cold as much as I used to.

In writing, memory, even when unpleasant, can function in a variety of ways. It can spark a scene, provide a flashback, reveal a character or personality, propel the story, reinforce conflict, force clarity, reveal pain, provide pleasure or comfort, offer a moment of rest, create context by providing history, create a link to the past and to people who aren’t around anymore. Memory, whether manufactured on behalf of a fictional character or remembered from real life experience, can do all these things and more, long as we’re paying attention.

In real life, one interesting quality of memory is that the body often realizes before the mind that something is happening under the surface. Something is up, and that something often is a memory, a thing remembered or a thing that wants to be recalled, often so that it can be explored and dealt with. In writing as an aspect of healing, one reason to write is to explore the memory for precisely these reasons, but we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge the recollection or don’t allow our characters to do so. Once we do, we must spend time with these people, our characters, others and ourselves.

One caveat: Don’t be surprised if the deeper the memory, the more emotions arise, strong emotions that may yield other memories and other emotions, often of a painful experience. Yet, exploration yields discovery, and discovery can bring a sense of peace, closure, that aha moment that allows us to realize something we didn’t know before and enables us to move on from there.

The same is true for us as writers and for those we write about. The key is taking time to explore the memory and ask questions of it. What does it look like? Where is it happening and when? What is happening? Who is part of this memory, and why are they there? Why is it important? What might we learn from it? What does the memory want to tell us?

As a month of anniversaries, November is a difficult month. But it’s also a month of transition, of barren trees whose branches scrape the bright sky, of smoke curling from chimneys, and footprints on snow-dusted doorsteps. I may not always want to hear what my memory wants to tell me, but I generally find myself better off for having listened.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Mystery, Magic and Suspense of October

One of the things I most enjoy about October is its air of mystery. For the rustle of fallen leaves and jack-o'-lanterns, tricks and treats, and classic tales of magic and more, October has a natural draw, with mystery and suspense in the mix.

Some years back, I attended the Wesleyan Writers Conference at Wesleyan University here in Connecticut. One workshop I took was with Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising: A Novel of Haiti. At one point in the workshop, Bell asked this question: Do you think that a novel, even if it’s not genre work such as mystery or horror, should include suspense?

My answer, though I hadn’t the courage to say it aloud, was no. My biased reasoning was that only a lowbrow work aiming at mass appeal would include suspense because suspense panders to the reader’s basest instinct to turn the page. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

So what changed my mind?

First, it’s certainly true that writers can use suspense to pander to readers. But that could be said of any craft element in any craft. Yet, when used with integrity as a literary tool of the trade, suspense is not only useful; it’s essential.

How can this be?

We can start by considering two basic meanings of suspense: uncertainty and anticipation. What novel of any depth can you name where each element of plot and character development is sure the whole way through? Or what short story worth reading offers no sense of anticipation?

On the contrary, one basic writing discipline is the ability to avoid spelling out every plot element and character trait in favor of leaving some things unsaid. When I explain this to writers, I often use the example of Mark Knopfler, lead singer and guitarist of Dire Straits whose playing style has described as knowing when not to play. Not only does he play well but he also knows how to speak to the listener by offering moments of silence to contemplate the eloquence of what they hear.

Another writing skill is knowing how much of a story’s plot, character development, setting or other elements to give the reader and how much to withhold throughout the story. The skill of holding back generates anticipation, and anticipation is a form of and a catalyst for suspense.

If you’re wondering how to use suspense in your work, consider the opportunities available this month to visit or revisit classic films that use suspense as their story’s narrative thread. Some of my favorites are The Innocents, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Altered States, from the book of the same name by Paddy Chayefsky, and the gothic supernatural psychological horror film The Others. Each work has its eerie qualities, enhanced to a razor’s edge by the ability to withhold elements from the viewer while continuing to parcel out plot and character along the way.

For falling leaves and cool crisp nights, bright blue and yellow days, pattering rain and endless stories of mystery and suspense, autumn is my favorite season, even in such a time as this.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Study the Craft and Art of Writing and Find Your Voice This Fall

The Westport Writers’ Workshop, based in Westport, CT, and in operation since 2003, offers workshops, lectures, and editing and coaching services for emerging to established writers in a wide variety of genres.

We’re all writers in one way or another, but there comes a time when writers decide they want more—inspiration, discipline, knowledge, community, support, structure and skill. Westport Writers’ Workshop, now on Zoom, offers all of these elements and more.

If you’re relatively new to writing or are looking to return in a more dedicated way, consider:

Introduction to Creative Writing: Beginner to Intermediate
Instructor: Adele Annesi
This interactive workshop explores the key creative concepts of poetry, personal narrative, creative nonfiction, drama and playwriting, short fiction and longer fiction to inspire writers to develop their individual voice, style, interests and focus. We also study the art of critique and revision, and each week writers can bring pages of their work to share. The workshop includes handouts, prompts and personalized critiques from the instructor. Participants can work on existing projects and/or create new pieces to cultivate and develop the writer within. This seven-session workshop meets Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, from August 31 through October 26. The cost is $375, and the workshop is limited to seven students.

For more information or for registration, visit Introduction to Creative Writing: Beginner to Intermediate.

If you’re further along in your writing and your focus is fiction, consider:

Advanced Fiction Writing Plus Manuscript
Instructor: Adele Annesi
This advanced workshop aims to inspire writers to create their best short and long-form fiction through instruction, analysis, critique and practice. We explore all craft elements in depth, from audience, backstory and structure to theme, tone and voice. Our critique and revision methods emphasize thorough analysis of each writer’s work to discover which elements achieve the writer’s purpose or not and why. Writers also share their goals and aspirations, with personalized input from the instructor. The workshop is suitable for writers of literary and genre fiction for publication and personal exploration.

A completed manuscript is not required, but writers new to the workshop must submit a 250-word writing sample in advance for entrance. Besides presenting five pages of writing weekly aloud for discussion, each writer also sends the group one submission of 15 pages of new or revised work once during the season. The group will read the work in advance, write constructive comments on the pages and provide feedback in workshop. This seven-session workshop meets Mondays, from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., from September 14 through November 2. The cost is $535, and the workshop is limited to seven students.

For more information or to register for this workshop, visit Advanced Fiction Writing Plus Manuscript.

If neither of these workshops meets your needs, Westport Writers’ Workshop offers over 75 workshops in the morning, afternoon and evening, as well as on Saturday. Westport also offers lectures and short-term writing intensives throughout the year in a supportive community atmosphere.

For more information, visit Westport Writers’ Workshop. You can also email Westport at or call 203.227.3250.

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Paradox of Voice, Plot and Prose in Fiction

Writers may have a unique voice, an imaginative storyline and distinctive prose and still find that the sum of the parts doesn’t equal a cohesive whole. Why? One reason is the writing.

The writer who aims to present a well-developed voice and story is a writer who aims high. Aiming high is good. The paradox is that unless the prose, the actual writing, effectively conveys these and all the other elements needed for quality fiction, the individual elements won’t matter much.

So how does a writer skillfully create prose robust enough to convey all the elements of craft? By starting with a right perspective and a critical eye.

Perspective in art is the ability to draw something on a two-dimensional surface in a way that accurately depicts the object’s proportions and position. To achieve perspective, the artist must step back and ask questions of the work. Does it look like the intended object? Does it occupy the proper space in the overall drawing? Does it tell the viewer something more than just the object's identity? In short, the artist—and the writer—must view a work with a critical eye.

The last thing we may want in life these days is criticism. But this isn’t criticism in the pejorative sense. It’s critique in the analytical sense. And it’s a skill that finds its most effective use after a first or an early draft. In a first draft, the writer is still telling himself what he thinks is the story. In later drafts, the writer is discovering the story. And attentive writing—intentional writing—actually helps this process.

The additional paradox is that it's usually when writers create beauty, lovely writing, that they most often have trouble figuring out how to sculpt the prosethe actual writing. But lovely can easily get in the way of clarity and character development, and that can’t be allowed.

So what steps can a writer take to avoid this trap? Here is a list of steps writers can use to strengthen their prose:

  • First, put the first or early draft aside for at least a week, and work on other things.
  • When you return to the work, enter a mindset that is aware of and expects the need for changes.
  • Read a small section of the work, just the first paragraph, and look for ways to tinker.
  • Remove every unnecessary word.
  • Remove all unclear words and phrases, and replace them all with precise words. Use a thesaurus or Word's synonym feature.
  • Restructure what’s left for the greatest impact.
  • Reorder paragraphs for the order in which events happen.

The key to this process is to take each step individually. This means going through a paragraph or section once per step. This will enable you to see the "before and after" of a sentence, paragraph, scene or section. Then the better you get at editing, the more steps you can combine at the same time. For particularly natty sections or chapters, revert to the one-step-per-read approach.

For added help, trying printing the section and reading the hardcopy, preferably somewhere you don't usually read it. Or imagine having to present the work to someone else for review. You might select a beta reader to do just that. Additionally, you can read the work aloud, for example, over Zoom, to a trusted audience of one—yourself. You can even record the reading and play it back.

Admittedly, this is a process that requires determination. But remember the caveat of Noah Lukeman in the classic The First Five Pages: The art of writing can’t be taught, but the craft of writing can.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Apex and Nadir: The Peak and Valley of Story

All fictional stories have a high point and a low point. To make sure that enough happens within the story from beginning to end, writers should assess these points in the story to determine whether they’re different enough from each other.

Whether a writer uses a chapter outline, a three-act outline or just notes, most writers find a way to plot their stories. One reason for writers to do this is to assess the story’s pacing — the speed at which the moves forward — and its progression — the degree to which the plot unfolds along the way. But it’s also important to compare the story’s apex and nadir.

Apex, in this context, could be the story’s climax. But a more interesting and deeper way to consider the apex is to find the story’s most complex and interesting point. That means the nadir is the story’s lowest point — the point at which all seems or is lost.

Here is a list of what to consider when assessing whether there is enough differentiation between and development of these two points.

For the apex:
  • Describe what is happening in the story at its most complex and interesting point.
  • List the major theme and subtheme present at this moment.
  • Briefly outline how the reader might expect the story to unfold afterward.
  • Also briefly outline how the story does unfold.
For the nadir:
  • Describe what is happening at the story’s darkest moment.
  • Consider whether the main theme is adequately addressed.
  • Briefly outline how the reader might expect the story to unfold afterward.
  • Also briefly outline how the story does unfold.
Once you’ve followed these steps, compare the apex and nadir to see whether there is sufficient differentiation between the two points. There should be enough emotional and actual distance between the highest point in the story and its lowest point to make the story a real journey, not a just plot that makes readers feel they’re running in place. Then look over the story’s individual plot points to see if there are other possible outcomes at any or all of these points. And make sure to include the setting in your consideration.

Since this approach also works for characters, the writer can follow the same approach for the primary and key secondary roles to see if there is enough development in each of the characters. Writing students can use this approach for literary analysis and criticism to understand how writers bring stories and characters from the start of a work to its completion.

What are the highs and lows of your story?

Friday, April 10, 2020

How to Fall Back in Love — With Writing

If you’ve fallen out of love with writing — and everyone does at some point — here are some ways to rekindle the fire.

Whether or not you’ve been published, or been published recently, there’s a sense in which all writers should retain an amateur standing. The word amateur can mean anything from one who has a taste for something to a lover of something. It can also mean a dabbler, as opposed to a professional. Regardless of a writer’s status or list of writing credits, all writers ought to remain continual amateurs, as it frees us to always keep learning from others and ourselves.

Rekindle the joy of writing. With the many challenges facing us these days, it’s easy to lose the joy of living let alone writing. But the French have a saying: Eating builds appetite. So, too, writing can stimulate a taste for more. Forget (for now) the deadlines, the self-imposed restrictions and goals. Sit down to the page and begin. If you’re in doubt or stuck for a way to get back into writing, write a journal entry about writing. Ask yourself what first drew you to write, what prompted you to write that first poem or journal entry. Once you begin, you’re writing again, and as you reread what you’ve written, you’ll find that you’ve validated your perspective by putting it into words.

Don’t be afraid to dabble. You don’t have to be a professional writer to enjoy writing. Many writers say they enjoyed writing a lot more before their work moved into the public eye. Sometimes a writer’s underlying fear is that their work won’t measure up—either to what they expect of themselves or what others expect of them. Forget the haters, no matter who they are. Get out your favorite pen or stylus or whatever, and go back to doodling. One way to begin is to go to a window and describe the scene beyond the glass. This is especially helpful now, when a view through glass is the closest many of us can come with the outside world. Writing like this offers a way to get back in touch with that world.

Rediscover the joy of learning. Regardless of your writing status or list of writing credits, all writers are continual amateurs, because we’re always learning from other writers and ourselves. Think back to the first time you felt your pulse race when you read your favorite poet’s or writer’s work, and go back to that piece. See it with fresh eyes. What is it about the work that captivates you? What technique(s) did the writer use to create that effect? How might you emulate the writer’s method(s)? Not only do we learn from other writers, but we also learn from ourselves. Go back and reread something you wrote a while ago. What still moves you about the piece? In what ways have you grown in your writing since then? As a next step, go to something you wrote recently. Where does the piece engage you? Where are the opportunities for development? Either way, you’ve reminded yourself, “Yes, Virginia, I am a writer.”

One way to squeeze the love out of a relationship is to make it more about obligation than enjoyment. This is as true of our relationship with writing as it is of our relationships with other people. After all, one way to define writing is the relationship of the writer to words. And while there are nearly as many reasons to stop loving the craft and art of writing as there are writers, most reasons relate to disappointment or failed expectations (reasonable and otherwise), whether with self, others or the process. Regardless of why the love of writing has ebbed or been lost, one way to rekindle it is to take the pressure off. When in doubt, open a page and lament. At least the words will be there. Regardless of the words, reawaken the pleasure of writing by writing, even in a grousing journal entry well-written.

What’s keeping you from your love of writing?

Friday, March 6, 2020

Micro-Revision in a Macro-World

It’s no secret that a great way to become a better writer is through revision. But in a world where we’re constantly bombarded by information that requires a response, it might be less obvious that slowing our writing down to do concentrated revision can be an even bigger help.

Whether you write fiction, nonfiction or hybrids, if you’re on deadline for a story, you may not have time right then to focus on the details of your writing. But taking time to self-consciously tinker with your prose can yield more progress than hours at the keypad. Why? Because you’re not just paying attention to the before of your writing; you’re also paying attention to the after.

If you’re like me, you enjoy watching makeovers. Whether it’s a living space, a person or a business, it’s encouraging to see change for the better. It gives us hope. But when we watch a makeover, we rarely see the details of each individual step in the process. As writers in charge or our own work, we can learn how to improve our writing style and structure simply by paying attention.

For example, taking time to add sensory details to a descriptive paragraph can make the difference between a lifeless picture and one that rises from the page. If we pay attention to the effects of our changes as we go, we can learn what works and what doesn’t and do it in real time. More importantly, we can learn why the changes work. Once we learn this, we’ve learned technique, and what we learn becomes part of our experience. When this happens, we’ve gained a repeatable skill that can remain in our writing toolkit.

Here’s an example of the tinkering approach:
  • Before: The highway to the beach was bathed in sunlight, and the temperature in the car was getting hotter and hotter. Carlo wiped his forehead and rolled the window partway down. He couldn’t see the shore from here, but he could feel it.
  • After: The road to the shore shimmered in the sun as the temperature in the Fiat rose like a kiln. Carlo wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and rolled down the window. He couldn’t see the sea from this flat strip of asphalt, but he could feel its heat and the pull of it like an outgoing tide.
Tip: To tinker with your prose, select a descriptive paragraph, and revise it slowly, word by word, sentence by sentence. Then do the same with a short scene. An added benefit of this technique is that it helps settle the mind for improved focus.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Ridgefield Library and First Annual Muse & Music Evening Cabaret

Thank you to writers from the Westport Writers' Workshop, Gerry O'Hara and Austin Scelzo of the Angry O'Haras bluegrass band, author and singer-songwriter Chris Belden, the Ridgefield Library, and you - our wonderful audience - for a wonderful first annual Muse & Music Evening Cabaret.

Readers, clockwise, included: Gillian Grant Lavoie, Chris Friden, Carolyn Toner, and Connie Briones.

Singers and musicians
(left to right):
Adele Annesi
Austin Scelzo
Gerry O'Hara
Chris Belden

Muse & Music Evening Cabaret
Come in from the cold Friday, February 7, for a festive evening of songs, stories, and more at the Ridgefield Library's first annual Muse and Music Evening Cabaret, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The Muse & Music Evening Cabaret will spotlight a variety of new works from area writers affiliated with the Westport Writers’ Workshop, plus a blend of original music from Austin Scelzo and Gerry O'Hara, of the Angry O'Haras bluegrass band, and singer-songwriter and author Chris Belden. Hosted by the Ridgefield Library and sponsored by Word for Words, the cabaret-style evening includes a wine and cheese reception.

The event is free and open to the public, and registration is on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information and to register, go to Muse & Music Evening Cabaret.

A preliminary program is below, along with the performers' bios.

Set I:
Duet by Chris Belden and Adele Annesi: "Marion Ettlinger"
Jillian Grant Lavoie: Excerpt from "The New Build"
Michele Dawson: “A (Brief) Parody of Pride and Prejudice”
Connie Briones: Excerpt from Isabella-A Poet’s Journey
Chris Friden: Excerpt from his YA novel, The Student Code
Set II:
Music by Austin Scelzo and Gerry O’Hara of the Angry O'Haras
Gwen Mitrano: Excerpt from her novel
Marc Heller: Excerpt from his novel, Redemption
Maxine Paul: The true story of afterlife communication
Music by Austin Scelzo and Gerry O’Hara of the Angry O'Haras
Set III:
Carolyn Toner: Short story, "They Go To Die in Palm Beach"
Jackie Kamenstein: Short story "Potted Plants"
Music by Chris Belden and friends

  • Connie Briones is a middle school teacher with a master's in history. The idea for her novel developed during her thesis on the English Protestant Reformation and its impact on the literacy of women.
  • Michele Dawson is an English teacher and writer living in Sherman, CT.
  • Chris Friden is a lifetime storyteller whose career highlights include directing for television; producing and hosting a sports-comedy program; playwriting; and board game publishing. He is currently revising his young adult manuscripts, and both teaching and learning at the Westport Writers Workshop.
  • Marc Heller studies novel writing at the Westport Writers’ Workshop and is at work on two novels.
  • Jackie Kamenstein is a short story writer who studies advanced fiction at the Westport Writers' Workshop and has studied short fiction at Sarah Lawrence College.
  • Jillian Grant Lavoie holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently working on a collection of short stories. She lives in Fairfield, CT, with her two young children, who occasionally go to sleep and allow her an hour of writing.
  • Gwen Mitrano is the mother of two high school age daughters and a pampered pup named Penny. Her career as an event producer for a wide range of clients, and twenty years as a Darien resident, provide regular inspiration for her satirical writing.
  • Maxine Paul is a retired lawyer, who is: an expert in Foreign Medical School Education by day, a theater producer and story teller by night, and a Helicopter Mom 24/7.
  • Carolyn Toner is a Trinity College graduate, with a creative writing minor, as well as an actress, children’s theater instructor, and short story writer.

Chris Belden is a musician, singer-songwriter and author of Shriver and Carry-on, and the award-winning short story collection The Floating Lady of Lake Tawaba. He teaches at the Westport Writers' Workshop.

Gerry O’Hara is a founder of the Angry O'Haras bluegrass band and part of the Worship Band at the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield.

Austin Scelzo plays fiddle for the Angry O'Haras and On the Trail bluegrass bands. He also teaches bluegrass for all ages and abilities. His monthly music series is the FCC Bluegrass Coffeehouse.

Adele Annesi is event coordinator for Word for Words, LLC, and an award-winning editor, writer, and teacher. She is co-author of Now What? The Creative Writer's Guide to Success After the MFA and a founder of the Ridgefield Writers Conference. Also a development editor, Adele teaches at the Westport Writers' Workshop.

Westport Writers’ Workshop is a premier writing studio based in Westport, CT, with workshops for all levels and interests conducted in a friendly, supportive atmosphere to encourage, inspire, and spark the imagination. Since 2003, and now with over 75 workshops for all schedules, including Zoom distance learning, Westport helps writers discover and develop their unique talent and voice to achieve each writer’s individual goals. For information, see Westport Writers' Workshop.

Word for Words, LLC, is a boutique editing, writing, and event coordination services firm that offers evaluation, development, and editing services for partial and completed projects for emerging and established writers of fiction, nonfiction, and hybrids. For more information, visit Word for Words, LLC.