Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Got Stories? Consider Creating a Collection

Whether you write fact-based stories or whole-cloth fiction, crafting a collection gives you freedom to combine elements of your favorite writing forms to transport you and your readers to places both familiar and faraway.

What’s your favorite writing form — memoir, poetry, short stories, experimental? Maybe you like mysteries or family sagas. Or maybe for you, it’s less about genre or form and more about the individual story. If any of these is true, then compiling a collection might be just the ticket.

One great way to determine whether you have the makings for a compilation is to inventory your work. If you tend toward writing fiction, you may have a file of short stories that, with a bit of weaving, could work as a collection. Or maybe you started what you thought was a novel but now feels more like a series of different but interconnected stories than a continuous saga.

Taking inventory works for nonfiction, too. Start by perusing blog posts and postcards, journal entries, letters, a book you may have started writing —any written communication — for a common thread. Maybe you’ve traveled to distant lands, raised exotic pets, perfected a particular hobby or started a memoir about a turning point in your life. Any of these topics can serve as a framework for a montage of pieces with a larger point, such as people you discovered in your travels or lessons you learned along the way.

So how do you develop a story collection?

Think of it as creating a scrapbook, album or webpage. You can start by selecting pieces on similar or compatible subjects or themes. After that, you can arrange them in a particular order, for example, by most recent or farthest back, or by ascending or descending degree of importance. You might even try a patchwork approach, where the pieces are less about order and more about proximity: which pieces work best next to each other.

While these are good ways to begin a collection, you’ll need to strengthen the sense of connection among the pieces for them to truly work both as standalones and as integral parts of a whole. For this, two things are required. First, develop each piece to its greatest degree. Second, meld the pieces together for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sounds good, right? So how do we create links, and where do the various styles of writing come in?

One way to create links is by repetition, for example, through characters, people, or settings that show up in more than one story. You might even have recurring motifs and interconnecting storylines or plotlines. Once you discover where the connections naturally occur, you can further develop them by using elements of your favorite writing forms. For example, if you’re writing a series of family stories, perhaps based on the holidays, you might include short recollections and images of what people wore, served for meals, or talked about in the kitchen.

Don’t feel compelled to create a clear connection between the events and the images they may evoke. Instead, you might focus on theme, for example, that one particular family member or constant guest who somehow always managed to be the centerpiece of every gathering.

To further connect your stories, consider how stories are told in the oral tradition. Such tales aren’t always told linearly or chronological order. Instead, one memory sparks another and another. Don’t worry if there’s a bit of mystery in how the stories unfold. The understanding of linked stories often comes through sensory details and the emotions they stir up.

To decide which writing form — poetry, flash fiction, new article or other — would best enhance a piece, consider what would best showcase the scenes in the piece without overshadowing them.

Last, most collections usually feature a signature story that acts as a polestar for the compilation and is often the one that sparked the rest. It rarely appears at the beginning of the collection, though it might appear at the end, as a form of tie-in for all that has come before. More often, however, the pivotal piece occurs somewhere in the second third of the compilation, where it functions as the beating heart of the work as a whole.

Whether you enjoy creating fictional pieces or stories based on fact, crafting a story collection offers an opportunity to use your favorite writing styles and experiment with those you’d like to learn better.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

When Absence Makes the Writing Heart Grow Fonder

Let’s face it. We’re busy people, with lives, loves, problems, any or all of which can keep us from writing. So how does one get back into what iconic Southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor called the habit of writing? And might what we learned in the meantime even inspire us?

Whether you step away from writing for moments or decades, it can be tough to get your head back in the game. And the mind is where the proverbial rubber typically meets the road. In reality, it’s easier to leave off writing than stick with it. People do have lives, after all, families, pets, doctor appointments. We all get hungry, tired, bored, distracted. We have jobs, needs. And sometimes what we need is a break. Even when we don’t need one, we want one.

That said, I don’t necessarily believe in writer’s block, as people usually mean it: “I sat down to write and couldn’t.” If you sit down and grouse about why you can’t write, you’re cured. But you may not be cured of what many really mean by writer’s block: “I can’t write what I want, how I want.”

Another view of writer’s block is the mental jam-up that occurs when your mind churns out reason after reason not to sit down and just do it, or to stop doing it because it’s too hard. You don’t have time. Your writing is bad. You haven’t had an original idea in recent history. Your work will never go anywhere; neither will you as a writer. Even if you do write, by the time you’re good at it, everyone will have beaten you to the publisher, possibly with your very own idea. With internal diatribe like this, who could turn out another word, let alone one anyone would read?

While we agree that the return to writing isn’t easy, it is straightforward: Write anyway. No time? Write anyway, even a few notes to start. Bad writing? Write anyway. The more you write, the better you’ll become. No originality? Write anyway and revise what you write. Tired, no prospects for your work? Write anyway. You’re likely to fall back in love with it and continue. For this, the French have a saying: “Eating builds appetite.” So, too, with writing, and once you finish a piece, you can seek a home for it. From blogs to podcasts, there are more venues now than ever, and they need content, thus writers.

Even as I say this, sometimes I’m still stuck for a way to start writing. At such times, I use two basic techniques. If I’ve already written something, I edit it. If I’m trying to write something new, I write down my ideas and plans. Then I revise what I’ve written until it’s as clear as I can get it at that time. With the first method, the result is a more polished piece. With the second, I have an outline, which I can divide into sections and revise until they sound more and more like the actual piece I want to write.

As an example, I had an idea for a novel that I thought might work as a political thriller. I love this genre in film because it’s engrossing, and I usually learn something. But writing a thriller requires an airtight plot. So I called on a former mentor, a plot guru, who first had me write a three-act story treatment. From that, I wrote a 12,000-word chapter outline. If you’ve heard the adage that even a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, that’s especially true in writing. My thriller plot outline is now becoming a novel. It’s no longer a political thriller—the genre is too tightly circumscribed to work with my original story idea—but had I not gone through the plotting exercises, there’s no way I could have written the current outline, for a work of historical fiction with magical realism elements.

But what about all that time away, did I learn nothing I can use now? Sometimes stepping away from writing can yield a project of its own. If you’ve seen a film, read a book, been to a concert or visited an interesting place, you might write of the experience. You might even find a venue to publish what you’ve written. If your time off from writing didn’t yield an experience you want to share, the break can still be beneficial by sheer dint of having been rest.

If getting back into the grove after all this still seems too much, remember the old Nike slogan: Just do it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

New "Jackie O." Poetry Chapbook by McEntee Explores "Compression" Writing

Writer, poet and teacher Jessica Noyes McEntee explores “compression” and other writing techniques in her new poetry chapbook, Jackie O. Suffers Two Husbands and Other Poems, from Finishing Line Press. Here she answers questions about the project.

What prompted you to put together the chapbook?
I put the chapbook together for the 2018 New Women's Voices contest held by Finishing Line Press. I didn't place, but they said they wanted to publish me. I found this really amusing and surprising (I wasn't good enough for the contest yet I was good enough to be published!), and then I figured I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. The poems represent a smattering of my work from a particular period, as opposed to a collection centered on a theme.

How does your approach to poetry differ from your approach to fiction?
I felt my prose was becoming too verbose and that I was straying from specificity. Then I read that one of my favorite authors, Jenny Offill, had studied poetry for ten years while writing Dept. of Speculation. I started out writing the poems to learn compression, the poetic device of saying exactly what you mean with high-energy words that pull their weight and other editorial techniques — I was like a parasite trying to suck my host dry so I could move back onto my larger prey of fiction. Soon, I found I quite liked poetry itself. In contrast to writing a novel, a multi-month if not multiyear endeavor, I could generate a poem and hone it within a few weeks. I fell into a pattern of writing poetry during the fallow periods in between writing novels. I don't typically write both at the same time.

What main challenge did you encounter in creating and/or completing the poetry and chapbook, and how did you overcome it?
As someone who's really quite new to the genre — I had studied a bit of poetry in college and beyond, mostly Elizabeth Bishop and Gwendolyn Brooks – I'm still refining my ear. I don't totally trust my instincts yet so I remind myself to embrace this sense of uncertainty. I'm not really tied to the idea of myself as a poet, but I think this frees me to experiment. I'm grateful for my poetry teacher, Charles Rafferty, who leads a fantastic class out of Westport Writers' Workshop, and for my classmates, who are all wonderfully encouraging of each other. The workshop is hardly a staid atmosphere; we laugh a lot and goof around with language.

What primary writing lesson did you learn while creating the project?
In my experience, a lot of playfulness goes into writing the initial drafts of a poem so I try not to get too tied to an idea of what the poem “has” to be. As my writing process evolves, I have to become more and more definite about what I'm trying to say, giving great attention to my selection of each individual word. Unlike prose, a poem demands a lean precision. I have to root out anything that doesn't pull its weight. I suppose all of this happens with generating prose, too, although with poetry you're working on a more granular level. 

What would you like to add that you feel is important for other writers to know?
Because the genre of poetry is so distilled, I think great poets demonstrate the power of consistent voice and style. A short list of contemporary poets I'd recommend for total newbies are Ada Limon, Jenny Xie, Meghan O'Rourke, Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn.

For the chapbook by Jessica McEntee visit, Jackie O. Suffers Two Husbands and Other Poems.

A graduate of from Amherst College, Jessica Noyes McEntee worked as an editor at John Wiley & Sons and taught at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, NY. She currently teaches fiction at the Westport Writers’ Workshop in Connecticut, and her work has appeared in Ragazine. Her poetry chapbook, Jackie O. Suffers Two Husbands and Other Poems will be published in June 2019 by Finishing Line Press, and she won an honorable mention in the 2019 Third Wednesday poetry contest judged by Robert Fanning. For more on McEntee, visit her at Jessica McEntee.

For more on the workshops, go to Westport Writers’ Workshop.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Gail Ingis Writes Historical Romance With a Twist of Mystery in the Gilded Age

Gail Ingis writes historical romance with a twist of mystery set in the Gilded Age. Her latest book, The Unforgettable Miss Baldwin: The Gilded Age Heiresses (Sept. 2019) is available for preorder on Amazon and through other retailers. Here, Gail talks about writing this latest novel.

What was your biggest challenge in writing the novel, and how did you overcome it?

What comes first, the outline, the theme? What will my focus be? Who are my characters? Where to begin the book—in a situation, at home, in the office, with friends, and what era? So many questions. Every author asks herself these and more when starting a book. My challenge wasn’t fear, it wasn’t lack of desire, and it wasn’t lack of time. The most difficult part of writing is plotting the story. For Miss Baldwin’s story, I created a timeline as I wrote, rather than an outline, before I wrote. The outline is the skeleton—the bones of the book. However, as you write, the characters often change the direction of the story, and the original plan gets lost. Then we’re left with a few cracks in the bones of the plot! After writing two books, and once I have an idea of the plot or the theme, I decided it would be productive to work from an outline—it helps create the scenes. I built the scenes with the main thrust, which in this case was women’s suffrage, fuelled by the common thread of intrigue and romance to carry both the love story and the mystery. Some backstory: I had the opportunity to teach the history of architecture and interior design for many years—I have always been fascinated by the Victorian era, the overabundance and exaggeration in design. The style of the period is known for its eclecticism and oddities in dress, homes, and architecture. There was an undercurrent of higher moral standards—this era was not quite like the Age of Enlightenment, but it was a period of change. As women, we continue to fight for equality so [I thought] why not write about the women’s struggle of the 19th century that led up to the nineteenth amendment giving women the vote? That’s how I found my theme—women’s suffrage. I’m Brooklyn born and bred, so it was easy to choose New York City as my setting, in particular, where my heroine and her family lived across the street from Central Park.

What was the most enjoyable part of the writing process?

The most enjoyable part of the process was creating scenes, entwining them, and watching how the characters came alive and helped build the story.

Are/were you part of any writing communities that supported your goal of completing the novel? If so, how were they helpful?

I can’t say enough about the importance of getting involved with a local writing group—taking mini-courses and talking to other writers. I highly valued your workshop, Adele. The writer’s group varied in experience, but I still valued the input, with your leadership.

What would you like to add about writing—or writing a novel—that you feel is important for writers to know?

Learn the craft. Every word and every sentence has meaning and importance. Understand the hook, show don’t tell, always keep the point of view in mind, write active scenes, and remember there is a rhythm to writing—cadence, as well as a rhythm to the chapters. Read your work aloud—the words, the beat, and the rhythm will be apparent, more evident than when you read quietly to yourself.

And remember to have fun!

More About Gail Ingis
Gail Ingis writes historical romance with a twist of mystery set in the Gilded Age. Her latest book, The Unforgettable Miss Baldwin: The Gilded Age Heiresses (Sept. 2019) is available for preorder on Amazon and through other retailers.

Her first novel, Indigo Sky, is also available on Amazon and through other retailers (2015 Soul Mate Publishing). The love story behind Albert Bierstadt’s Domes of Yosemite was Gail’s inspiration to write Indigo Sky. The painting, now in St. Johnsbury Atheneum in Vermont once hung in Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, Norwalk, Connecticut, where she serves as a trustee and curator of art.

Before her debut as an author, Gail illustrated the book Seeking Paradise by Deborah Galiley (2009, OakTara Publishers). Gail’s career in interior design and architecture culminated in her founding a school of interior design, Interior Design Institute, now part of Berkeley College. Her professorship extended to colleges across NJ, CT, and NY.

Gail has memberships in several interior design and art organizations, and membership in the Romance Writers of America. She resides in Connecticut with her scientist-writer husband, Tom, who is supportive of her work and her writing.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Human Touch: The Benefits of Writing Longhand

In the era of cell phones, tablets and microcomputers, writing longhand may not come naturally or easily, but there are benefits to mind, body and story.

One benefit of writing by hand is a closer mind-body connection. Using a favorite pen and journal to record ideas, to expand later or just for yourself in the moment, slows the thought process and gives the mind an outlet for those thoughts through tactile sensation. The benefits of list writing, for example, include more than just creating reminders; they also include a sense of release, from the moment the first item appears on the page.

Writing longhand also helps minimize and even eliminate distractions. Not only are you not online (at least not directly), you’re also focusing more directly on the page and the written word. This degree of concentration slows the writing process to enable your imagination to more fully envision and record images, which can lead to better-developed concepts, scenes, characters and stories.

When writers concentrate more fully on their work, they also become better writers, because they’re more aware in real time of their word choices and the effects of those choices. This is called “listening to the work” and trains the writer’s ear to hear the differences between, for example, active and passive voice, and to notice the betterments of using fewer and more precise words to tighten and strengthen stories, whether fictional or real life.

When writers take time to “hear” to their work, they also focus less on fixing it, which yields greater freedom to explore a theme or topic in organic way. When we’re not continually in editing mode, we give ourselves a chance to discover what works in our writing, what doesn’t and why. As a result, we gain mastery over our work and confidence. This helps us learn faster. So if you like to learn by doing and by trial and error, as I often do, longhand is a great way to gain, use and increase your knowledge.

Of course, there are also clear benefits to using a device for writing. First, the process produces text faster and easier than writing longhand. Most programs even correct you as you write, and you can use the program’s spellcheck, grammar check and thesaurus without stepping away from your work. Once you create a piece, it’s a lot easier to save and upload it to work on later, virtually anywhere (pun intended). Of course, you can carry a pen and paper nearly anywhere, too, but it’s hard to beat the convenience of a device to create, edit, save and rework a writing project. These advantages make devices more than convenient for creating first drafts and meeting deadlines.

In reality, you don’t have to make a once-for-all choice of longhand or device for your writing. Each style or project tends to create its own parameters, such as time constraints, energy level, type or style of writing, personal preference and mood.

When I was growing up, for example, I preferred writing longhand for journal entries and poetry. I still do. There’s something inherently pleasing about opening a journal, especially a new one, taking out a favorite pen and sitting down to write on a pristine page, like first footsteps in snow. For me, it’s a way to uncover and explore my thoughts and emotions, especially when something is happening in my life that I want to examine. Those instances deserve the human touch, through sufficient time and close attention.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

What Pain Can Teach: Writing of and Through the Tough Times

Whether we write fact, fiction or both, pain informs and can enhance our work. To make the most of what we’ve endured, however, we must be mindful of what and how we write.

Many artists create their best pieces from the pyre of suffering. Beethoven went deaf at 45; Georgia O'Keeffe struggled with depression. Author David Foster Wallace struggled with depression and addiction. Artists work through their pain, around it, with it, from it. To make the most of what we’ve endured, we might consider the advice of author Dorothy Sayers in her essay “Why Work?”, and allow our experience to “serve the work”.

Born in Oxford, England, Sayers is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but in all endeavors Sayers believed that while many feel that work, in whatever form, ought to serve the community, there is a “catch” in this line of thinking. Her reasoning as a person of faith was that there is a “paradox about working to serve the community”, and there are three reasons why this is true. First, a person can’t “do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it.” Second, “the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community.” Third, if you aim to serve the community, “you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand—and you may not even do that.”

In her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner made a similar observation about checking the community pulse on what to write. “People who try to figure out what’s hot and re-create it are as close to delusional as you can get. Once a trend is actually identified it is usually too late; your work will be regarded as opportunistic, as jumping on the bandwagon…” While some writers may be altruistic enough not to consider the potential return on their investment before they start writing, once a thing is written and received, or not—for the community is not awaiting with baited breath the words of the writer’s imagination—that is the moment when the writer realizes just how much of what he or she has written was not for the work—meaning the integrity of the project—but for the sake of a response. Even where there is a legitimate public demand for treatment of a particular topic, where is the artistry in putting the cart before the horse?

So what about us? Should we write of our painful experiences? If so, how? Moreover, why? If we do decide to explore a difficult experience, should there be parameters or guidelines to enable our writing to benefit us and others without bringing harm?

I know a writer with a chronic health condition who eventually decided to record the experience via an essay on a national website. What made this person write of the condition and share it that way? First, in researching the topic, the writer learned of alternative medicine options whose treatments were helpful. This made the writer think, if these helped me, they could help others. Since the information wasn’t yet mainstream, efforts to surface it did help others. Just as important, maybe more so, by that time the writer was talking about the topic with friends and family. In other words, the time was right, not just for the topic but for the writer.

I also know a writer who wrote about sexual assault and found that writing about the incident helped her and others. So what made her take this big step? First, she was inspired by the bravery of one of her students to write of a similar instance. Second, she tested the story on friends before sharing it widely. Surprised at how many people echoed her experience and encouraged her, she gained confidence that sharing it widely could help still more people: those who have endured sexual assault and close to them. In this example, the steps she took were both incremental and affirming.

These two examples, both about writing nonfiction, share several commonalities:

  • The writer wrote not only for personal gain but also for others.
  • The writer selected a trustworthy medium related to the topic.
  • The writer wrote the story when the time was right, and first put the writing aside to consider what to do with it before sharing it.
  • The writer had a trusted friend, someone with firsthand experience, read the work before the piece was sent and shared.
  • The writer tested the experience on a smaller local audience before going global. Once on the web, it’s forever, or at least it feels that way.

If you don’t want to write about a painful experience directly as nonfiction, you might consider fictionalizing it. One way to do this is to consider the emotional truth of what happened. In other words, what was the lesson learned, and how might it become the theme of a poem, flash fiction, a short story or a novel? If you write fiction and have been through a difficult experience, and the further one goes along in life, the more one goes through, you might allow your experience to inform, not dictate, the work or its direction. The points above regarding nonfiction writing also apply to fiction.

There’s no rule that says a writer has to write about a painful experience and share it with others. We can write about what happened and decide not to share it. Either way, what we write, how we write it and who we are because of what we’ve been through can be enhanced by what we’ve experienced.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Sharpen Your Prose by Imitation and Innovation

The sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and it’s a great way to learn how to write better, too, long as you bring originality to the process.

Once upon a time, there was an annual writing contest called the International Imitation Hemingway Competition, also known as the Bad Hemingway Contest, where writers could submit a “really good page of really bad Hemingway” in the clipped, minimalist style of the Nobel laureate. There were only two rules for the competition: Entrants had to mention Harry's Bar & Grill, one of Hemingway's favorite haunts, and their stories had to be funny.

Whether for competition or practice, the savvy writer might go a step further and try out Hemingway’s iceberg theory, which he learned in journalism and retained in writing fiction, where a story’s meaning has greater impact when buried under the surface of the work, with just enough significance visible above the waterline to point to more beneath. Practicing this approach helps writers sharpen and condense their prose toward a subtler and stronger overall impression on the reader. The next step then is for writers to discover and use their unique voice in conveying the stories and topics that excite them most.

Several years ago, I attended a Connecticut Authors & Publisher’s Association Writers Conference and had lunch with four longtime literary agents who represented both fiction and nonfiction. As they began talking among themselves, I became a fly on the wall, listening as they described the challenges of sifting through hundreds of queries a day. Yet, what the agents lamented most was less the work of responding to email and more the dearth of fresh ideas—for novels and nonfiction. No one bemoaned writers using classic themes for their stories or popular nonfiction topics for their books but that comparatively few writers took the time to develop these ideas using fresh perspectives.

One classic novella employed innovatively for film was Joseph Conrad's 1899 Heart of Darkness as inspiration for the 1979 epic film Apocalypse Now, on the Vietnam War. Even with a different setting and era than the original work, Apocalypse presented both a familiar archetype and an original story, on the complexities and human cost of war. While there’s nothing new under the sun, you can bring your original take to an old favorite.

As an exercise in originality and intentionality, you might choose a favorite story, song or film and craft a paragraph describing how you would “remake” the work in your style, from your viewpoint. You can use the ideas of others by imitation; just make sure to give them your unique spin.

Happy writing!

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Keep That Day Job and Keep Writing, Too

Many writers, aspiring and established, believe the ideal job is to write—all day, every day. But there are advantages to not having writing as a day job.

It sounds counterintuitive, but having a job as a writer isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Hemingway said journalism was a great way to learn the craft of writing, long as you got out in time. What did he mean? If you work as a writer, especially in a demanding career like reporting, you could burn out sooner than later.

Having a job other than writing also lets you use a different mental skill set, meet new people, get a change of scenery and pace, and receive an income. And having the stability that comes from a regular paycheck and benefits can give you a sense of a security that helps make writing less stressful.

Another positive is that your work may enable you to develop a specialty that even if it doesn’t relate directly to your writing now could do so later, in surprising ways. Acclaimed poet-author Cortney Davis was a nurse before becoming a poet, and her work in healthcare not only informed her poetry but gave her a unique perspective and topic to write about.

Whether or not your work includes writing or leads to it, you’re gaining transferable soft skills, for example, sticking to a project from start to finish or tackling thankless and challenging tasks. You might also learn to solve problems by creating outside-the-box solutions that stimulate your creativity. Then there’s the skill of showing up, which isn’t glamorous but is far more valuable than people realize.

But what do you do if you work at a dead-end job that doesn’t offer many advantages? Or what if you have a job that has advantages but does little to inspire you? In cases like these, a little initiative goes a long way.

First, make time — to read, write and collaborate. One way to read well and widely is to join a book club, online or in-person. Also, stay in touch with those who enjoy reading and writing. And do write. You might start by journaling about your day and jotting down story ideas. Keep a running list, and set aside time to develop your ideas. And look for ways to collaborate with other writers. You might meet at a local café, bookstore or library for dedicated writing time. You might also join—or start—a writing group, in person or online.

Regardless of your day or night, with a bit of effort you can stay inspired. Even if your job doesn’t relate to writing now and won’t ever, having work that keeps you from flexing your writing muscles or expressing your ideas can stimulate your longing to write.

The very absence of writing opportunities can draw your heart in that direction.

To help you on your journey, these websites offer free databases of writing opportunities: Association of Writers & Writing Programs, NewPages, Poets & Writers, The Writer, The Writer’s Chronicle and Writer’s Digest. You might even try a writer’s residency by researching ResArtis.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Making the Most of a Writing Event

Attending a writers’ conference requires time and energy. These tips for before, during and after attending a conference or other writing-related event, especially those that include workshops, can help you make the most of the time and create a foundation for what comes after.

Before the conference:
  • Faculty: Research your faculty workshop leaders, and prepare a list of questions about your work and the craft of writing in advance. Also research other faculty, in case you want to talk with them.
  • Panels and keynote: Research the panelists and keynote speaker, and bring your questions to the Q&A sessions. If time runs out, you may be able ask questions afterward.
  • Website: Study the conference website, especially the resources sections, for helpful information. Keep checking the site for updates.
  • Workshops: Carefully review all the information from your workshop leader, to learn as much as possible about the art and craft of your chosen genre.
  • Registration: Arrive early to get a feel for the event and to meet your fellow writers, the faculty and the coordinators. Also carefully review the information in your registration packet.

During the conference:
  • Networking: Get to know your fellow writers, the workshop faculty and conference coordinators. Exchange business cards, promotional materials and contact information with others so that you can keep in touch. Compare notes with other writers about what you’re learning.
  • Book and resource tables: Visit the faculty and other book tables for examples of work by the experienced writers at the event. Also visit the resource table to collect as much information as you can.
  • Readings: Attend the readings of other writers. You'll be surprised at what you learn. And if the conference offers an applicant open-mic session, consider signing up to read your work. This will give you practice reading before what is, hopefully, a mostly friendly audience.
  • Panels and keynote: Meet the panelists and keynote speaker, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Workshops: Keep any reading lists your workshop leader provides. Read and retain all the workshop handouts. Where you need clarity about feedback or other workshop information, be sure to ask questions. Before you leave the conference, aim to have some idea of the next steps to take in your writing life.

After the conference:
  • Collaboration: Consider collaborating with a trusted fellow writer. Also consider working with a faculty workshop leader (yours or someone else) after the conference.
  • Networking: Keep in touch with your fellow writers and others you meet during the conference.
  • Feedback: Give the workshop feedback you receive from your faculty leader and fellow writers time to gel. Your workshop leader provides a worthwhile overview and details on how to improve your work, as do your compatriots, especially if a particular critique arises more than once. You fellow writers also bring another key perspective to the table — that of your prospective audience.
  • Next steps: Consider making a list of next steps for after the conference, and ask your faculty workshop leader for guidance on this. Ask the conference coordinators about the best resources to meet your writing needs. Considering creating your own writing community, and seek opportunities to stay involved and active in your writing life. Check the conference website for final information.

If making the most of a writers’ conference sounds like it involves more than just inspiration, it does. But consider this: “Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn’t work.” Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One

Happy writing!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Reveal Your Characters Through Their Dilemmas

A great way to capture reader interest is to give the main characters of your short story or novel a dilemma that forces them to discover who they really are.

To make the most of this technique, consider these key elements:
  • Creating effective scenes
  • Depicting characters who are unaware of something critical 
  • Developing a character who has died
It has been said that first we make our choices then our choices make us. This is no less true of fictional characters. There’s nothing like being faced with a problem with far-reaching consequences to find out what you’re made of. When you give the people in your stories a life-altering problem to solve, you give them an opportunity to explore and discover who they are, warts and all.

To do this effectively, consider which major problem your main character must solve. Which problem will best drive plot, affect the other characters and serve the story?

To make this technique effective, each scene in your story must reveal more about the characters and advance the plot. In short, what do readers know after having read a scene that they didn’t know before? If the scene doesn’t build on the one before, to expand the reader’s knowledge, then it isn’t a real scene but needless repetition.

Another consideration is the paradox of depicting a character who's unaware of something crucial, for example, a wife and mother who’s always on the road for work and is unaware that her marriage and family are in shambles. The paradox for the writer is that although the character is unaware, the writer must be intimately familiar with these realities and depict them in a way that deepens the characters and propels the story with each new portrayal. In short, the character can be clueless in certain situations but she’s clueless for a reason, and it’s the writer’s job to artfully show why that is.

One major problem a character may face is one we face, too. What happens when someone important to us dies? One way to depict a key character who has died is through self-expression, for example, though letters or journals the person has left behind. In the tech age, cellphones can act as sound and/or video recording devices. However, in each of these techniques, the character is doing the telling or showing. And they may or may not be a reliable source.

A more powerful method is the recollections of others who knew the person. How do they remember her? What do they think of her now that she’s gone? What kind of legacy has she left behind? What were her secrets? Why did she keep them? What feelings does her memory evoke in others? To learn a masterful treatment of these questions, read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, either again or for the first time, to study how the author used other people’s memories, which varied from lionization to loathing, to reveal who Rebecca was.

Like a series of witnesses called to testify to the person’s true character and motives, this treatment allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Of course, the selective memories of others and their responses to those say as much or more about them as about the character, but that’s the point. The testimony of others is an effective way to depict a character who has left this mortal coil, with the added benefit that the portrayal is even stronger because the character is a haunting presence perpetually waiting in the wings.

Whether you’re writing flash or family saga, your characters aren’t who they are based solely how they grew up or where they live. They’re also who they are based on their choices, and that’s usually how they’ll be remembered.

For questions on depicting characters and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Rearview: How and When to Use Backstory Effectively

Ah, backstory, that bane and blessing of the writer's existence. The questions writers in all genres often ask are what details about the past to include, how much to include and where to include them.

One definition of backstory is events that aren’t happening now but had a part in creating them. According to award-winning author Peter Selgin, “Whatever beginning we choose, there’s always another behind it, and another behind that.”

To use the backstory craft element effectively, writers of fiction and nonfiction can consider these three guidelines: Avoid putting it at the beginning of a piece. Use the right medium for the message. Aim for balance.

Backstory doesn't usually work at the start of a story because it slows the reader. Imagine a rail station master who announces a schedule delay then delivers detailed reasons why. While the information may explain long service will be out, especially in an emergency, what's usually first in importance is when you'll reach your destination.

Another consideration in effective use of backstory is the right medium for the message. Common fiction options include flashbacks, current scenes and dialogue. In nonfiction, you can include paragraphs explaining the history that led to a current event, for example, memories from an interviewee. But how can you tell which option is best for your project?

The answer depends on how much information you need to convey and how important it is. It’s generally best to convey only what's relevant to the piece and to present the information succinctly. This way you won’t slow the momentum of the work or bog readers down in a sudden influx of past events.

To decide which medium is best, consider where you are in the overall narrative. Do you need to slow the pace? Consider a flashback or informative paragraph. Do you want to build suspense? A smattering of dialogue or mini scene could be effective. As an analogy, take the ellipsis, which conveys words said but not recorded. In using backstory, pare down what you put into your medium to the essentials.

Another guideline is not revealing too much too soon. Instead, sprinkle bits and pieces of prior events throughout the narrative, to advance the story and reveal more about the people in it. And keep in mind that backstory can include elements as subtle as a scar on a woman's hand to a scene between a dying father and his daughter.

So, what's the perspective on backstory in a nutshell? Put it in the right place at the right time using the right amount of detail. Select the container as you'd select a gift box; pick the one that best fits what you're giving. Use only the information you need most at that point in your piece.

For questions on backstory and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.