Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Writing Nonfiction: Creativity in the Off-Hours

Award-winning journalist Jack Sheedy takes some downtime to refuel his creative juices. Jack's wife is the poet Jean Sands.

AA: As a full-time working writer who also freelances, how do you work writing into your nonworking time, if we can call it that?

JS: I had a golden opportunity this week to get caught up on my writing. My wife took a few days away to visit our grandson in Maine , and, since I couldn't get the time off from my work as news editor at The Catholic Transcript, I had to stay. So, I had some quiet time – ideal writing time. Did I take advantage of it?

AA: Did you?

JS: Well, you know how it is. My wife usually takes care of our cat, Farino, making sure he has fresh water and food and that he has several opportunities to go outside, come back in, go back out, and so on. She wasn’t here. It became my job.

My wife usually prepares the evening meal, or else we surrender and get take-out. Well, I was determined to take advantage of my kitchen privileges to prepare a few dishes I’ve been aching to try but didn’t dare embarrass myself with in front of my wife. One day, for breakfast, I prepared pancake batter from scratch, using a recipe from a copy of The Joy of Cooking I inherited from my mother. I hadn’t done that in years. The pancakes came out just fine. Next time, I’ll make sure I have pure maple syrup, not a two-year-old bottle of corn syrup that was stuck to the refrigerator shelf.

To see more of Jack's work, visit Jack Sheedy. To see Jean, visit Jean Sands.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Writing Nonfiction: Creativity Without Compromise

Society of Professional Journalists award-winning journalist Jack Sheedy tackles tough subjects with a clear, creative touch.

AA: What was the award, and how did the idea for the winning story come about?

JS: Last year, I received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Connecticut Chapter, for a story in The Catholic Transcript (May 2008) about a Jewish rabbi whose 1993 book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus captured the imagination of Pope Benedict XVI. Because Rabbi Jacob Neusner was originally from the Hartford area, and since the Transcript serves the Hartford archdiocese, I saw a story there. I drove to Rhinebeck, N.Y., to interview [Neusner].

AA: How can nonfiction writer — a journalist, for example — be creative in a case like this without compromising good reporting or the facts?

JS: The interview was filled with theological terms, both Jewish and Catholic, and I was worried that my readers — for the most part, everyday pew-sitting Catholics — would be bored. I needed a strong headline and lead that would establish a local tie-in and stir curiosity. I wrote the headline, "Native-son rabbi 'talks' with Jesus." The story began: "Rabbi Jacob Neusner grew up in West Hartford, corresponded with the Pope and spoke with Jesus after the Sermon on the Mount. That last feat got everyone's attention. Especially the Pope's."

I could have begun the story another way. I could have written: "Is Jesus a fulfillment of the Torah, the Jewish law? Or is the Torah the final word? That's what Rabbi Jacob Neusner wanted to know when he set out to write about an imaginary conversation with Jesus." I'm bored already. Aren't you?

Visit Jack at Jack Sheedy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Getting the Words Right: Revising Your Story With Award-Winning Writer Connie Keller

Short-story writer and Tassy Walden Award winner Connie Keller works to make every word count, especially in descriptions.

AA: What is it about descriptions of settings that makes it tough for them to rise above the mundane?

CK: It's hard to use descriptions of place to build tension (without sounding like a cliché—"it was a dark and stormy night"), characterization or advance the plot. But when it's done right—it's masterful.

AA: How do you edit a scene that's bogging down the story?

CK: I was thinking about the editing process, and it occurred to me that even action can get in the way of plot. Today, I was editing and realized that in the midst of an important plot point, I needed to get my characters from point A to point B. And I did so in the space of two or three sentences. Then I realized the action was really just "stage directions," and that the sentences needed to be combined and cut in order to get my readers back to the plot. The action had gotten in the way.

Also visit Connie at A Merry Heart.

Friday, June 11, 2010

First Things: Don't Forget the Writing

After returning from Italy, I did some housecleaning — mental and otherwise — and eliminated a few pretty large, but nonessential, tasks. No sooner did those things get dumped than a bunch more came in to take their place. Amid this daily shuffle — the changes and the work — it's easy for the writing to get lost.

If you're like me, this happens to you, too. But let's not forget that writing is the thing, why we do the other stuff, the editing practice, the classes, the workshops. Not the other way around. Let's make sure we don't lose the forest for the trees. As editor and literary agent Betsy Lerner reminds in her book The Forest for the Trees, "… you will never finish any piece of writing if you don't understand what motivates you to write in the first place and if you don't honor that impulse."

Let's honor the impulse and nurture it, not suffocate it with a thousand things that have little or nothing to do with our calling. Make the time to write, pull it out of the air, wrest it away from the other tasks that swallow whole these short, wheeling days and arm wrestle the time to the ground — and write.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Saving of a Vacation: 179 Ways and More

Most people would kill for a trip to Italy, but with family and other concerns, this year's visit was less than stellar for us. Still, there were bright spots, most notably revising my novel from my cousin's architecture studio overlooking ripening grain fields of the March region and the Adriatic, and reading 179 Ways to Save a Novel, by Peter Selgin.

The pastoral setting between the sea and the foothills of the Apennines was perfect for seeing problems with the text of the novel that I probably wouldn't have caught in more familiar surroundings. But even if you're not on vacation, check out this helpful book at Amazon.

It's a great help, whether you're working on a novel, short fiction or even nonfiction. Also check out Peter's new blog, Your First Page. Billed as a place to submit for free the first 350 words of your novel, it can be beneficial for other works, too, since many of the same principles apply.

Ciao, e a presto!