Saturday, October 22, 2022

Can You See Me Now: Effective Description in Long-Form Fiction

Throughout the historical fiction novel workshop I’ve been teaching at Westport Writers’ Workshop we’ve been focusing on the seven elements that appear in all fiction but are hallmarks of historical fiction: character, conflict, dialogue, plot, setting, theme and world building.

About halfway through our fall workshop series, one of our writers realized that after weeks of reading her colleagues’ submissions she didn’t know what the characters in the various stories looked like. Nor was she sure that she had rendered her own main character thoroughly enough throughout the story so that her colleagues knew what her main character looked like. We knew what the character was feeling and thinking, but as to physical characteristics—oh, my!

The more we considered the notion of how to depict a character’s physical description, the more we realized how hard it can be to get a sense of how our characters look, not just at the start of the story when we may still be working those details out but also in the key moments of their lives and over the passing of time. So, character descriptions, what to do?

First, to be fair, it has been a busy season for all our novelists, with some lack of continuity in workshop participation and submissions. This isn’t unusual with busy writers who have, well, lives. But one very real downside to lack of continuity is that we sometimes forget how our colleagues’ characters look. Since readers rarely read a novel in one sitting, this is a problem for them, too.

Second, if you’re working in long-form fiction — novel, novella, novelette — at some point you’re in the process of generating pages. This usually means placing a priority on moving the story forward. While this makes sense, one causality of word count and trying to get the plot down is description. Scant descriptions are a reality not only for characters but settings, too.

One way to address description is to consider in the context of two craft elements: characterization and setting. Both of these — who people are (and how they look) and what the story world is (and how it looks) — need to be established from the start of the story. It’s also important to describe characters and settings as they evolve over the course of a story in general and how they appear in key moments in particular. This will draw readers further and further into the story as it unfolds, a key point of reader engagement.

Ongoing description also enables writers to better understand and depict their characters, settings and stories. So, what if we find ourselves with scant descriptions? If we’re working on a first or an early draft of a novel, we can keep in mind that detailed descriptions are often more easily developed in second and subsequent drafts. By then, we’ve made progress in page and word count, and we know the story, setting and people better.

Given the realities of life and rather than break momentum, it’s sometimes best to make notes to ourselves about the importance of characterization and setting as we’re writing. We can do this right in the text as we’re writing or keep a separate list. Then as we revise our work, we can find those places where we need to amplify descriptions of people and places, as appropriate for that point in the story.

Last, we can recall what Janet Burroway said in Writing Fiction: Details are the lifeblood of fiction. To use this craft element well, we must remember two things. Details must be concrete, and they must be germane to what the story is about, its theme. This is why details are often easier to fill in after the first draft.

When it comes to developing our description skills, we can thank our colleagues for their attention to detail and their powers of observation. We can also thank them for not ignoring what may seem obvious but often gets back-burnered for the sake of expediency. This may be the right thing for a first or an early draft. But physical descriptions, especially throughout a longer work of fiction, are critical because they show the passage of time and its effects and the effects of events of the story as well. This will keep readers — and writers – engaged and learning the whole way through.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

New Blog Focus: The Way Art Works — For Writers

For the past fourteen years, Word for Words blog has focused almost exclusively on writing from an editor’s perspective. The focus is now shifting from an editor’s perspective on writing to a writer’s perspective on writing. Here’s why.

First, you’ll notice that the title of the blog looks a bit different. It’s still called Word for Words, but the tag line is a quote from music critic, manager and record producer Jon Landau on the subject of imperfection and art. Here’s the full quote:

“Sometimes the things that are wrong with something are the same things that make that thing great. That’s the way it is in life, and that’s the way art works.”

The quote first appeared on Word for Words in the post “Second Thoughts and the Way Art Works” on March 4, 2018.

But the blog’s focus isn’t shifting to writers’ second thoughts about their work (though the concept will likely appear in a future post). Instead, the focus will be on the artistic side of writing, what that means and how we go from writing project to work of art. We’ll still cover craft. We have to, because “Craft enables art,” as noted by speculative fiction pioneer Ursula K. Le Guin in Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.

But when we cover craft, it won’t be primarily from an editor’s perspective, since editors often focus on “fixing”. Instead, we’ll consider how a writer sees (or perhaps should see) writing and its varied components, especially those awkward moments and places in our work: as both art and opportunity for exploration and discovery.

The change of focus reflects a change in my own focus, from editing and teaching to writing. I still edit and teach, but with the debut novel What She Takes Away slated for publication by Bordighera Press in June/July 2023 and other novels in the works, I find that my focus is changing, too, because it has to. Here’s an example of an observation on the craft and art of writing.

Recently, a writing student was lamenting the fact that some days their novel-in-progress read like Proust and some days it read like poo. Who hasn’t felt that way? But rather than shut the conversation down with an offhand comment like that, I thought about what the writer said and why most, if not all, writers feel this way at times. (It’s the “why” questions that, difficult though they often are, usually yield the most fruit.)

One reason for the emotional swings we writers go through is that what many of us are actually aiming for is artistry, and we spend a lot of time, energy and budget on that goal. Whether we always articulate it or not, most of us want more than words on a page and a story—we want our words and stories to be memorable, and for the right reasons.

Apart from the fact that artistry comes at a price, not the least of which is the cost of all the opportunities we give up in order to put ourselves out there, some days we don’t recognize that the things that are “wrong” with our work are the things that can make that work great.

Take, for example, live performance. Live performance of any type isn’t perfect, despite our best efforts. But impromptu moments are precisely what make a live experience memorable, moments where an actor ad libs or a musician doesn’t stick to the sheet. It’s these moments, and what they’re made of, that we’ll explore here, including from the perspective of artists in fields besides writing. Because the more I see of other fields like music, the more I’m learning about the craft and art of writing, and other areas of the arts as well.

For the full interview with Bruce Springsteen on The New Yorker Radio Hour, click on Bruce Springsteen Talks with David Remnick.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Improvisation and Fiction From the Heart

“Improvisation is an important element in the construction of any novel. You are making up a good deal of the story and its environs. In this way novel writing is closer to jazz than it is to the mathematical precision of the modern interpretation of European classical music.” Elements of Fiction, Walter Mosley

In fiction, as in music, improvisation is a critical element, because if the writer isn’t surprised by what happens in the story, even one based on real events and people, the reader won’t be either.

One of the scariest things writers face is the blank page. So it’s usually a relief when the writer knows where a story is going and sets off down that path. So why, then, would the writer take a detour for parts unknown or a dead end?

Crime fiction novelist Walter Mosley, author of Elements of Fiction, says that one reason to take the risk is that “… the story we’re writing is a living thing and has opinions of its own. As the writer, we are part of these decisions, but that doesn’t give us, or our conscious minds, complete control.”

Fiction writers need both insight and inspiration. When we start a story, we may have a good sense of the plot and the characters. But it doesn’t usually take long to realize we don’t know everything. “Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn’t work,” per Bob Dylan in Chronicles Vol. 1. When the writer reaches a fork in the road or a roadblock, it’s the right time to ask, “Now what?”

It’s also a great time to ask, “What if?” In fiction, as in life, what-if questions can be vexing because they force us to face uncertainty, the unknown. In fiction writing, these moments offer the prospect of discovery. This means the writer can use what-if queries as catalysts to develop and deepen the work, even if it means exploring a trail that doesn’t follow the existing storyline.

So, what if the road less traveled leads to wasted time and energy? Mosely anticipates the question: “… a novel attempting to rise above the level of mere story does not get there because of our knowledge and certainty, our education and intelligence alone. The novel flourishes when its author begins to take risks.” So how do we take risks, and what sorts of risks can we take? Here are questions to ask, based on key elements of fiction:

  • Character: What if a character wants to do something apparently not in keeping with who that person is (or as we envisioned them)? Why not craft a scene and find out?
  • Conflict: In life and in fiction, conflicts abound. The question fiction writer may be what other problems, besides those we’ve anticipated, naturally arise from the story. As a reminder, the three main areas of conflict are: the character with other characters, the character with the character, and the character with nature.
  • Dialogue: What happens when someone says something unexpected? To explore this, write a scene without scripting it first, and see where it goes.
  • Plot: Instead of going in the expected direction with a particular plot point or event, what if the story took a left turn? While uncertainty is uncomfortable, where there is uncertainty there is opportunity. 
  • Setting: While you may already know where your story is set, setting includes everything from weather, location and geography, era, society—everything that makes up your story world. Even the slightest change can dramatically affect and layer the story and characters.
  • Theme: A story’s main theme forms the backbone of the story. But what secondary themes might there be that inform the main topic?

When in doubt, consider Mosely’s advice: “… when the Voice of novel, asks Why not take this detour and see if we can get something out of it?—you should listen.”

Friday, April 8, 2022

Award-Winning Children's Book Author Talks Writing and the Writing Life

Valerie Bolling is the author of the 2021 SCBWI Crystal Kite award-winning and CT Book Award finalist Let’s Dance! (March 2020). A graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College, Valerie is an Instructional Coach for Greenwich Public Schools and is on faculty at Westport Writers’ Workshop. Valerie has been an educator for almost 30 years. When she taught elementary students, it was difficult to find diverse literature for them. Thus, she is passionate about creating stories in which all children can see themselves and feel seen and heard, valued and validated. Here Valerie answers questions about writing and the writing life as a children’s picture book author.

What current or past writing project presented you with a new writing challenge, and what was that challenge?
I set a challenge for myself with Together We Ride. I wanted to write a book that had fewer words than Let’s Dance! and used the same end rhyme throughout the text. I met both challenges. Together We Ride has only 30 words, half the number of Let’s Dance!, and all the words (except one) rhyme with “ride.”

What method(s) did you employ to work through the obstacle?
What helped me most with the challenge was my own determination. After all, I had set my own challenge, and I wanted to succeed. For inspiration, I consulted Cheryl Klein’s book Wings, which has only 12 words (wow!), and I used rhymezome.com, a helpful tool for those writing rhyme.

What was the outcome?
The outcome was that I met the challenge. Further evidence of my success was that when my agent went on submission, immediately after signing with him, with the manuscript for Together We Ride (at the time called Bike Ride) sold at auction. Ultimately, I ended up with two two-book deals from two different publishers! The best outcome is that Together We Ride will release on April 26, and you may preorder it now from RJ Julia.

What did you learn from the effort?
I learned that writing is like life. There are ups and downs, bumps in the road, and rollercoaster rides that can seem as if you’re about to fly off the track! So, be sure to celebrate your successes. Even the little ones … like a completed draft or half of a draft, revisions, or a rejection. Yes, a rejection. A rejection means it wasn’t the right time for you, but you’re that much closer to a “yes.” Celebrate everything – a class you took, a conference you attended, your critique group members, new followers on social media, winning a giveaway. These are all things that can bring joy when you’re feeling discouraged. The best way to experience success (whatever success means for you) is to set goals and work hard to achieve them. You will definitely have more successes to celebrate!

What one thing would you tell other writers that you hope they’ll really take to heart?
Besides what I’ve mentioned, I’d add to make sure they enjoy every moment — even the challenging parts because that’s how you grow — in writing and in life.

Besides writing picture books, Valerie Bolling has published articles The National Writing Project’s Quarterly. She is a member of SCBWI, the Authors Guild, and NCTE. Valerie and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading and going to the theater.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Picture Book Writer Addresses Diversity and Inclusion to Inspire and Empower Children to Success

Sherri T. Mercer is a writer and student of writing who is passionate about children's literature. Sherri also participates in the Black Creatives Mentorship Program and is a recipient of a BIPOC Scholarship Award to attend the 2022 SCBWI Winter Conference. Here, Sherri answers questions on her current writing projects and future goals and plans.

In what genre(s) do you write?
Currently, I am writing fictional picture books, both Christian and mainstream. I also enjoy writing Young Adult Sunday School curricula and devotionals for kids and adults.

Describe a current project.
I have several picture book manuscripts at varying levels of completion. Most of my manuscripts address diversity and inclusion, written with the underrepresented in mind, characters who are not represented, who are too small or unfairly judged. I hope children will feel empowered to overcome the barriers and distractions impeding their success. In addition, I have two manuscripts based on Christian principles—those in God's creation are enough to overcome what others perceive as hindrances.

What are your goals for your projects and in general?
I hope my stories are acquired by an agent/editor this year for traditional publication. And I plan to read 500 picture books by December 31.

Are you facing any obstacles with your projects? If so, how are you working through them?
I am not facing any obstacles, but I am working within the constraints of traditional publishing. It's a subjective process with many unwritten rules. Publishing traditionally takes patience, timing, and connecting with the right people. Through classes, webinars, and conferences, I am honing my skills. Once I complete the tasks I can control, I'll begin looking for an editor/agent who is receptive to my work and willing to position it rightly in the industry.

What are your writing goals overall?
My lifetime writing goals are: to publish children's books that foster hope and empower,  to publish devotionals to encourage the brokenhearted and discouraged to look beyond their daily struggles because DAY 41 IS COMING, and to write a novel based on childhood memories of my father—BIBLICAL TRUTHS FROM A DADDY'S GIRL.

What are your biggest challenges as a writer?
My biggest challenges as a writer are letting go of my work and remaining focused. It's easy to get caught up in honing your skills, lose focus, and not apply the skills you have learned. There will always be a great webinar, conference, or new way of breaking into the industry. But, it's essential to get what you need, then write—application results in an end product. I also struggle with "making my work perfect." I want to be sure I'm putting out fun and entertaining stories/materials that offer healing and help build (empowering) and rebuilding (offering hope) the lives of my readers.

What might you want other writers and/or writing students to know?
Writing is not easy. It carries with it responsibility. Even the most humorous and entertaining story should positively impact the reader's life. If you wish to publish traditionally, invest time learning the industry and becoming your best writer. Be patient and stay the course. Until your book publishes, do as our fore-parents did: Tell your story orally. It's more about the message than the platform.

What else might you want to add?
I am thankful to the writing community, especially the KidLit community. It's such a giving and supportive body of people. I am here answering questions on your blog because of your generosity. Return the generosity shown, reach back, and lift another—wait! Your day is coming.

Sherri T. Mercer is a retired educator (30+ years) passionate about children's literature. She is especially drawn to stories that inspire hope and give voice to what matters to children. She has a work-for-hire leveled reader that will publish with Benchmark Education and a young adult Sunday School curriculum in September 2022 with the Sunday School Publishing Board—National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. Sherri is also a wife, mother of adult children, a writer and caregiver who resides in South Fulton, TN. Sherri is grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Black Creatives Mentorship Program. She is honored to work with Natasha Tarpley as a 2022 mentee and to be a recipient of a BIPOC Scholarship Award to attend the SCBWI Winter Conference 2022.

Contact Sherri at sherritmercer@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter: @sherritmercer and Instagram: @sherritmercer_sincerelyyours.

Monday, March 7, 2022

How to Create Compelling Scenes in Fiction - Seminar

Scene by Scene: How to Create Compelling Scenes in Fiction
With Adele Annesi

Manhattanville College
March 12 
 Via Zoom
From 10:00 a.m. to 12 noon
Registration $45

Scene by Scene: How to Create Compelling Scenes in Fiction with Adele Annesi 

Scenes are the building blocks of fiction, but what makes a scene strong, fully realized and effective, and why do some scenes fall short? This Manhattanville College seminar-workshop via Zoom explores all these aspects and more. We’ll consider such key elements as backstory, interior and exterior dialogue, the role of setting, and how to develop character and advance plot at the same time. We also examine how to structure scenes in a section or chapter to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The workshop is suitable for short and long-form fiction of all genres. We’ll also explore aspects of scene revision so writers should bring their current projects to share and for Q&A, examples and discussion.

The registration fee is $45. 

Scene by Scene: How to Create Compelling Scenes in Fiction with Adele Annesi 

Monday, February 7, 2022

UK-Based Author and Publisher Dawn Bauling Chats on Submissions and the Writing Journey

Author Dawn Bauling is editor of The Dawntreader quarterly, the highest circulation magazine of Indigo Dreams Publishing (IDP), based in the UK and formed by Dawn and her and her partner, Ronnie Goodyer, in 2009. Here, Dawn answers questions about what she looks for in submissions to The Dawntreader and about her own journey as a poet, writer, author and publisher.

What do you look for in submissions to The Dawntreader?
It’s quite an alchemy of things, really. Initially, I like the courtesy of someone emailing and contacting me by name, and getting it right! I’m enraged by being called Sir, Balding and/or Dennis! A brief covering letter is always good, too. You can tell a lot from that, even before you open the submission – arrogance is not winsome, and poems as attachments with no introduction makes a publisher think there’s no thought; overly long and detailed isn’t helpful to a busy publisher either. I need to know that the person sending knows what the magazine is all about and wants to be part of it.

The Dawntreader is themed to the spiritual, nature, myth and legend, love and the environment, so work must meet that [criterion] first and foremost. This all happens before I even read the work. I do read every submission, however, as I know how much effort and nerve may be needed to send work out. That’s important to us as IDP. I do, therefore, read a lot of poetry! When I read, I want to be surprised. I want fresh language, new insights, space to contemplate and walk with the writer. I need to know that the writer has taken care with their craft, spent time selecting words, like a painter chooses color. I want to be challenged, too, not to sit too comfortably. It’s disappointing to be led into a piece of writing and then to finish with a feeling of, “So what!” Equally, I don’t want to be berated, or given a lecture.

And … as a cheeky tip … I’m a pushover for a good title! It’s like an irresistible “come hither” to me. All that said, lots of people do get it absolutely right. I have so much good work on file, waiting to appear in The Dawntreader – prose and poetry – a lot have real fire attached, simmering, ready for publication. Who can refuse work like that!

What writing projects are you working on at the moment?
At IDP, we are taking a more bespoke approach to 2022, with mostly competitions and commissioned projects ahead: collaborations with Leeds Trinity University, an anthology aimed at supporting the work of The League Against Cruel Sports (my partner, Ronnie Goodyer, is their Poet in Residence), and those authors whose work we love and want to showcase. I won’t name them, as I’m bound to miss one off. Please visit Indigo Dreams Publishing to have a look.

2022 is the first year we haven’t had an open window for collection publications, so we are seeing where that leads us. We also wanted to make time for our own writing, which has been put on something of backburner over the last two years. Personally, as a poet, I have a several embryonic writing projects on the go. I have been asked by my Twitter followers to pull together some of my Twitter posts (@wavelace) into a pamphlet. Ronnie and I are joining forces again, after the success of our collaboration in Forest moor or less. We love France and Corfu, and have quite a few scribblings from our times there. We are told that our poetry voices make quite a nice harmony, so it’ll be nice to sing again along together. We’ve still not settled on a title so, or finished 50% of the work so, more on that story later.

What are some writing challenges you've worked through, and how have you addressed them?
My main writing challenge is time. As well as being a publisher, I work part-time for the NHS [National Health Service], in our local surgeries. You can only begin to imagine what the last two years have been like, so juggling shifts and poetry, publishing and vaccination clinics has been a real challenge. I love both but knew that I had to make a change last year, to get a bit of balance back.

I broke my leg at Christmas 2020 and spent the first part of 2021 recovering and learning to walk again. It gave me time and perspective. So, thanks to my incredible NHS managers and colleagues, I am now only working two days a week as the local Primary Care Network media officer. I have more time, less stress and am just beginning to feel like a writer again, picking up my own pen, rather than helping everyone else sharpen theirs.

What one thing would you want writers to know that could make a difference in their writing and/or writing life?
I went on an Arvon Course about 20 years ago when I first started taking my writing seriously. My tutor was David Hart, who sadly has just passed away. He told me to take my work and cut it by 50%, read it again and then cut another 25%, if possible. That way you get parfum and not eau de toilette! He told me to dare to be dangerous that way. It’s not always easy, as I’m a naturally shy kind of person, but as a quiet person, he also gave me the confidence to dare to shout. I try to pass that on to lots of people – in my NHS work as well. It has certainly helped me. Don’t give the reader everything, let them walk with you, give them space to wander in your words and don’t ever be afraid.

What else would you like to add?
Without a shadow of a doubt, I have “met” some of the most wonderful people in my poetry life. I found Ronnie through poetry, by reading one of his collections and word-wooing him until he said yes! I have also found some of the closest kindred spirits through being an editor. It feels less of a job and more of a lifestyle, as necessary as a limb. We live in a beautiful forest in Devon, but when I open my laptop I find the world and its people and all the reasons I need!

Author Dawn Bauling and her partner, Ronnie Goodyer, formed Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2009. They offer a breadth of knowledge and understanding about what it means to be a published author today and how to enjoy it to the max. They live in a wooden house in the middle of Cookworthy Forest, Devon, with their rescue blue merle collie, Mist. The Dawntreader quarterly is IDP’s highest-circulation magazine, with an international readership that offers writers and readers a chance to let the imagination run free.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Award-Winning Author, Poet, Instructor Kalafus Talks of the Downs and Ups of Writing, Life and the Writing Life

Award-winning author, poet and Westport Writers’ Workshop instructor Christine Kalafus talks about the downs and ups of writing, life and the writing life, from an honest insider’s perspective.

What current or past writing project presented you with a new writing challenge, and what was the challenge?
I think every writing project is a writing challenge; it’s the challenge that draws me to it. In my previous career as a seamstress, I got to the point where I could look at anything sewn and mentally deconstruct it: window valances, wedding gowns—everything. When this happened, I knew the end was near. I wasn’t learning anything new, and I couldn’t imagine a work life without a bit of a razor’s edge.

With writing, I got my wish! Although I couldn’t have avoided writing if I tried. It was like a magnet. I closed my business, earned an MFA, wrote a memoir, and by a miracle of happenstance, landed an agent. I’d published a few essays and a poem and felt confident (too confident), that the memoir would be published. Beware easy success! I was, and still am, an unknown writer — I don’t have millions, or even a thousand, followers on any social platform, and I wasn’t an archetypal underdog, rising from the ashes. I was a forty-six-year-old woman who’d survived some bad shit and wrote about it. Even if the memoir was well-written, it soon became obvious that not one of the Big Five was interested.

What method(s) did you employ to work through the obstacle?
I am not too proud to say that I cried. More than once. But, really, who did I think I was? I’d been living in a bubble. As a seamstress, I was a big fish in a small pond. Now I was a minnow in the ocean. A few months later, I was in Manhattan and made an appointment to see my agent. I was raised to send thank-you notes. But even a note on vellum, hand-written in calligraphy and sealed with wax wouldn’t have been personal enough. No. I had to see her, shake her hand, and say something like, “It’s been nice knowing you.”

The poem I’d had published had also won an award. I figured I’d focus on poetry and never make another dollar again. But then, I sat there, in [the agent's] bright white, cramped high-rise office, books and manuscripts everywhere, sweating through my lucky blouse, and told a lie as white as the room: I said I was working on a novel. From the dregs of memory, I pulled a paragraph of fiction I’d written years earlier in a Westport workshop and stretched it into a pitch as if I hadn’t published essays or won a poetry contest, but like I was auditioning to be a writer. I don’t know if she believed me, but she said to send some pages after New Year’s. I wrote like my life depended on it. I just sent the finished draft this year, a few days before Halloween, three years after that meeting.

What was the outcome?
I’ll find out this month!

What did you learn from the effort?
I learned I could write a novel. Whether it’s any good or not, remains to be seen. But I had a kick-ass time doing it.

If you could tell other writers one thing that you hope they'll pay attention to, what would it be?
Writing is an art. Publishing is a business.

Blueprint for Daylight, Christine’s award-winning manuscript, a memoir of infidelity, cancer, colicky twins, and the flood in her basement, was excerpted in Connecticut’s Emerging Writers. Essays have appeared in Longreads, PAGE, and the Woven Tale Press, among others. Her poem “Horses” was the recipient of The Knightville Poetry Award, featured in The New Guard, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “I Hear You Make Cakes,” recorded before a live audience at Laugh Boston, was chosen for The Moth. “Look Inside a Woman for the World” appeared in The Connecticut Literary Anthology, Vol. II in October 2021 Christine is also facilitator of the Quiet Corner chapter of the Connecticut Poetry Society.

For more about Christine, visit ChristineKalafus.com.