Thursday, October 18, 2018

Adrianne Harun's Nine-Part Writing Advice

In the 23rd in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Adrianne Harun, author of Catch, Release (Johns Hopkins University Press), focuses on the practice of writing.


Not long ago, I noticed that any advice I had to offer about a writing practice had as much to do with mental and spiritual health as with putting words down on the page. I worried about that for a bit, not wanting to slip into proselytizing or, perhaps worse, unwanted mothering. But, apparently, the latter is my unabashed bailiwick, even when it comes to the writing process. So here goes:
  1. Be kind to yourself. Don't judge. Don’t shame. Don’t bully. Most of us wouldn’t be a fraction as unkind to others as we can be to our writer selves. Remember, writing is a choice, not a single route to self-definition.
  2. Truth matters. We sometimes circle difficult material, not quite wanting to expose ourselves. Or we want to be clever in ways that inadvertently obscure. Or we veer off into tangential investigations. Research quiets me, and not in a good way. When I feel the need to wander away from a story that is proving inadequate or troublesome with the excuse of “research,” all trembles to a stop. I have “work to do,” diving down one cyber rabbit hole after another, gathering notes and scraps along the way. “Useful?” I’ll scribble. “Correct? Really?” Fiction isn’t reality. It’s a form of truth-telling. Try not to drift down too many byroads, worrying about how smart your story will be or who you might offend. Just tell the truth.
  3. A scene or action won’t be fully inhabited unless it is emotionally resonant. Be equally honest emotionally. Your readers will appreciate and engage more readily.
  4. Honestly, anything taken in excess will make you sick. Limit/get the hell off social media. Go cold turkey for a couple of weeks, and you’ll feel as if you’ve taken up marathon running—light, strong, and a little sanctimonious (a little’s okay).
  5. Don’t let personal history rule your narrative, unless personal history is your narrative. In that case, give that personal history its own agency and clarity. (My agent is laughing right now.) But truly, backstory, like a too-long date with an acquaintance obsessed with his glorious or “interesting” past, can deaden and delay a promising story relationship.
  6. Add structure to your life. Working through revisions with story shape in mind is akin to suddenly having an architect beside you while you scrutinize your sagging DIY project. Considering structure and form and contemplating where and how light and air get into your story can illuminate for you where the holes lie, where the story flails and/or is supported.
  7. Move around purposefully. Give your characters more to do. One of my dear writer friends used to proclaim, “If you want action, go to the track.” But it’s not action a story demands as much as a sense of purpose, that seductive inner propulsion that comes from having something utterly necessary to do.
  8. Sing. The glories and rhythms of language define us and our characters and elevate even the most mundane exchanges. Really, can you imagine living without music? Pay attention to the resonance and accuracy of your prose, sentence by sentence, word by word.
  9. Finally, find humor wherever you can. Humor enlivens and quickens fiction. Wonderfully, a funny passage also makes a reader pay closer attention even when the subject itself (see #2 above) is uncomfortable.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Niles Reddick on the Business Side of Writing

In the 22nd in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Niles Reddick, author of Reading the Coffee Grounds (Aakenbaaken & Kent), discusses the nonwriting part of the job.



Many years ago, Inman Majors (author of several novels including his newest, Penelope Lemon), a good friend and former co-editor with me of “The Distillery” (now defunct), jokingly said to colleagues and students, “Don’t give up your day job,” referring to writing and working. As the years have passed, nothing could be truer. While I often joke that I couldn’t make one month’s mortgage payment with what I’ve earned in royalties from my fiction, I have been fortunate to work in higher education and write “on the side.”

Writers love ideas and are inspired by all sorts of things. For me, it’s family like my aunt who collected road kill and made what she called art with it, or her pouring peroxide in tea because she believed it gave her more oxygen; friends like Poet Laureate of Tennessee Maggie Vaughn and her eccentric behavior, like writing a poem about a moon pie; or just the random person in a drive-thru with a tattoo of a heart on an arm that has grown flabby and stretched over time and now looks like Mick Jagger’s lips. The creative writing is the best part of the process.
Inspiring?

The toughest part of the process is finding the time to take care of the business of writing: submitting, tracking submissions, getting rejections and resubmitting, promoting and marketing, networking, and keeping up with the business of it all when one has a full-time job, family, community obligations, and much more.

I don’t require a lot of sleep, so I am an early riser at 4:00 a.m., even on weekends and without an alarm clock, and I was like this as a child. Imagine what a nuisance I was to my parents and siblings. I enjoy some strong coffee, read, and edit, and then go to my university office two hours before the workday actually begins to write and do many of the ancillary tasks required of the postmodern writer. It has become a complicated process, a process that takes a substantial amount of time, and the older I get, the more I realize how valuable that time is.

Twenty or so years ago, writers sent submissions in the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope and waited some time before finally receiving a rejection and beginning the process over again. In fact, one didn’t need a spreadsheet to track all of the submissions. Now, while there are a few publications out there that still take snail mail submissions, most don’t and a writer can send several submissions per email, even simultaneous submissions to several editors and publications, and responses from editors don’t seem to take as long as they once did. It some ways, the business of writing is much easier and increases a writer’s chances of becoming published.

Currently, I’m juggling seventeen unpublished stories that are each submitted to approximately five literary magazines and journals all over the world. There are several stories in progress, several stories that were never published that I go back to from time to time to revise, and several pieces that were never finished and probably shouldn’t be. I recently discovered a box of writing from my undergraduate days, and it’s a miracle I was ever published given how bad that writing was. In addition, I am pushing information out to an unknown audience on Twitter, pushing information out to multiple Facebook groups, and updating a website I pay for from my main job’s salary. Even though there are tax deduction advantages from website costs, free review copies, speaking engagements for which I do not charge, and advice I offer to others who contact me, the business side of the creative process can be taxing.

When I leave this world, I hope to leave something behind. Sure, I’ll appear among the weekly birthday lists on Facebook, and I imagine there will be “friends” who will wish me a happy birthday, not knowing I’m gone, until my Facebook account is turned off. At some point, my Twitter account may be gobbled up by a hacker who sends out porn or political messages even though it’s tough to tell the difference sometimes. Once my family forgets to pay the hosting service for my website, it will be quickly removed within twenty-four hours. The business side of the creative writing process won’t survive without me working it, but I hope some of my writing will.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Kimberly Lojewski Writes A Letter to Her Young Self: On the Dangers of Magic Portals, Nyquil, and Renaissance Faire Carnies

In the 21st in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Kimberly Lojewski, author of Worm Fiddling Nocturne in the Key of a Broken Heart (Burrow Press), learns from her own experience.


Dear Young Aspiring Writer Kimberly,

I’m writing to let you know that we’ve finally published our first book! You always believed that it would happen. You persevered and it did. Your very first story collection.

You are not twenty-three like you planned. But forty years is not so old. You’re still in the game. You are only, like, twenty-two years behind Mary Shelley.

Things to keep in mind over the next few decades… no, whiskey does not make you write better. No, obsessively visiting the haunts of dead writers will not imbue you with some magical writing powers. Nope. Crystals won’t work either. Nor will spiritual pilgrimages, or hot air balloons, or playing guitar in the moonlight. You’re going to have to actually write. I know, I know. It’s not what you were imagining.

You will have to make your peace with the editing process, young buck. There is literally no way around that part. Believe me, you’ve tried. They just won’t publish your stuff without it.

MFAs are a good time, full of well-learned folk and lots of talking about writing, but you will have to pay back all of those student loans one day. You really will. I’m serious. Can you please find an adult to explain the risk v. reward system to you? And maybe not buy that eleventh pair of boots, like you’re just spending monopoly money?

On the subject of every boyfriend you’re going to have, they will never “love you the way dry roots love rain.” Stop. Just stop reading so much Carl Sandburg and ee cummings. Put the Wuthering Heights down. And when you get to college, don’t start reading Bukowski. He’ll only give you a predilection for snarky drunks who cheat on you.

Eesh. And the bad news is that even though I’ve kept pretty much all of your juvenile writings and journals… they aren’t quite as deep or probing as we once believed. Just a lot of obsessing over boys really. I hate to break it to you, but they will probably never be published posthumously.

Things that are not going to work:

Medieval fare: Crossing swords: 
Your novel about a girl named Dew Rain who runs away to join the medieval festival. You will never finish it, but you will run away to join the medieval festival and be rudely awakened to the fact that those people are carnies with fake British accents.

You’re thinly veiled copycat series of Sweet Valley High called Sweetwater Valley featuring brunette twins named April and Delilah. I know it seems like a foolproof plan, but the original wasn’t very good to begin with. Besides, Sweet Valley High fizzles out sometime in the nineties.

Also, the one about the teenager who falls through a portal into Ireland? That never takes off either. Yah, I know you really want to write some leprechaun dialogue, but it turns out magic portals aren’t considered a legitimate plot device. I know. I can hardly believe it either.

Lastly, there may come a time when you have a psychotic reaction to Nyquil and decide to write your entire memoirs in a three-day stretch and then send them out to everyone you know. Scrap that idea. Totally scrap it. Stay away from the Nyquil completely. If you get bronchitis, go straight to the hospital. And throw your laptop out the window.

Aside from that, buckle up and love and hate the next twenty odd years. You’ve got lots of living to do. For now, just know that you’ll get around to the writing one day.

Love,

Mature (you’ll definitely come to dislike that word though)
Published Author Kimberly

Saturday, September 15, 2018

All Wendell Mayo's Lonely Ones

In the 20th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Wendell Mayo, author of Survival House (Stephen F. Austin University Press), writes about a common thread running through his stories.


Most of what I know about how I ought to write short stories I discover after I’ve written them, sometimes years later. One such discovery is loneliness. I started writing in the early 1980s in San Francisco on BART trains going from Contra Costa County into the city to work. It was a long, lonely ride; rails clicked softly; most people slept; a few spoke in murmurs to a singular companion. A journey. Darkness to light. By the time the sun rose, lavender hills revealed themselves in sharp maroon shadows. It was there my lonely ones first came to me, unmediated, not muzzled by the ilk of CNN and Silicon Valley: the dawn of personal computers, email, and later the Internet.

I didn’t discover Frank O’Connor’s landmark book, The Lonely Voice, until the 1990s, his contention that story writers have “all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’” with “an intense awareness of human loneliness” and “an attitude of mind that is attracted to submerged population groups." I told myself, “Hey, I’ve been doing that, too!”
Waiting for BART

One of my first lonely ones is a young man, let’s call him “Wendell the Younger,” who discovers that his mother, after the passing of her husband, is bouncing bank checks because she signs them with a different name, inserting the word “Soledad” in the signature. He tells her to quit it, but she refuses and laughs one of those solitary laughs that rises briefly from a secret well of wisdom. He knows her Mexican-American roots, his roots, are in Eagle Pass, Texas, by way of Piedras Negras and Veracruz, Mexico, and that Soledad’s moved to—and lived over a decade—in mainly Anglo suburban Cleveland.

Another lonely one I meet in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I teach at Indiana-Purdue University. One afternoon, a poet, a friend comes to my office to say he’s troubled by a student’s poem implying she’s being physically abused by her husband. We agree he’ll email the student for a meeting. A few days later, my friend tells me that, before she can reply to his email, she’s been beaten to death by her husband. I’ll never forget the horror and helplessness that surfaced in my friend’s eyes. A few months later, I create my lonely teenage boy who dresses as a scream queen of 1950s horror films to perform at upper-crust social gatherings—only to see the domestic violence he finds there far more terrifying.

By the early 1990s, the Berlin Wall is down and I find myself teaching collaborative methods to teachers in former-Soviet Lithuania. Jet-lagged, I arrive early to my classroom. I circle desks into small groups (Americans know the drill, right?) and this little hunched man in a brown shirt and gray slacks comes in and drags desks back into Cartesian rows and columns. I can’t communicate with him and learn later from my interpreter that he is a former-Communist holdover assigned to spy on me for the Administration. He smiles all commie-spy-like and says, “You will need permission from the Director to move these desks. Good luck with that.” When later my spy reads the letter from the Director giving me permission, I expect him to get hopping mad and go all Rumpelstiltskin on me. But to my surprise, quite another thing emerges from fifty years of Soviet occupation and ideology—a man looking abandoned, alone, profoundly confused.

So, these are a few of my lonely ones. Times I wonder where I am among them. In a sense, I am the child of Soledad, of loneliness. I am the scream queen of Fort Wayne. I am the lost and lonely Communist classroom spy. I am the writer, hoping that one of my lonely characters will cry out from my silent page. So, my advice to story writers: Listen to your lonely ones. Talk to them nights late, preferably in whispers so no one else on Earth can hear. Find out who they are and what churns beneath their façades of everyday pleasantries. Listen… believe…work hard…find their stories. You may even come to love them as only writers can love their characters.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Chad V. Broughman on Being a Writer and a Parent

In the 19th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Chad V. Broughman, author of The Forsaken... (Etchings Press), takes on work-life balance.


My first inclination was to write about the dangers of purple prose, be pithy, throw in a couple of puns and a clever metaphor. But then, my youngest son opened the door to my office as he usually does when I tell him I need some private writing time. He said, “Hey, Dad!” in his soft, child voice and began rubbing his tiny hands together then vigorously brushing them on his pants. See, Hudson is extraordinarily excitable but doesn’t have the vocabulary to express his enthusiasm. So he performs this strange, one-of-a-kind samba, thrashing his limbs about like he’s two-parts duck, one-part piston.

Turns out, he simply wanted to tell me he’d gone potty. Again. Though both of my children interrupt Dad’s “special writing time” on a regular basis, it’s the runt of my brood who does so with flair and urgency. Each message is delivered with great passion as if our lots in life could be altered forevermore. But little does Hudson know that because of his most recent declaration about his triumph on the commode, I changed topics.

It struck me that neither of my children are aware that they complicate my writing process, nor do they understand how profoundly they shape what I write about as well as the manner in which I write it.

You see, I started a family and a writing career much later in life. No regrets. I would have it no other way. Yet, I struggle with the guilt of eking out pen time in our already hectic lives. The balance was tricky enough as my wife and I teach full time (a combined 40 years in the public education system). However, not long ago, I was working on a manuscript for a bucket list contest. I hadn’t made enough progress to submit the piece on time and missed our family beach day. When my beloved tribe returned home, the boys prattled on about sandcastles and seagulls, and I expressed the shame I felt for not being there. My wife’s response was a game changer (and I paraphrase):

“We owe it to our children to go after our dreams. That’s the legacy we want to leave.”

Her words are a primary source of strength as I strive to become a better writer and, more importantly, a father.

Would we be more prolific if we weren’t parents? Perhaps. But our families are our hearts and souls, right? They’re the reason we get up in the morning. Our human ports in turbulent waters. My point is this: As mothers and fathers, we have an obligation to wholly chase our ambitions so that future generations can see endurance and devotion first hand.

Sure, the constant burden of explaining why my door is sometimes closed can get old, but the truth is, I couldn’t persist without the intrusions. Believe it or not, an imperative announcement about my son’s bathroom feats is grounding, reminds me why I’m creating stories in the first place. If I must pause in the midst of an artistic breakthrough to deter an argument over a random Lego piece, a coveted Star Wars figure, or a wad of lint (yes, that was a real altercation), perhaps the authorial path that follows will prove more bounteous.

I say, whenever your kids ask, take that break. Regard it as an opportunity, though. Go ahead, help them build a trail of towels and blankets through the hot lava pooling on your living room floor then, after they’re tucked in tight, draw from their giggles and fervor to enrich your work. Children are not a hindrance to an author’s success but a most beautiful distraction.

Hopefully, my familial tale doesn’t exclude those without wee ones but entreats all pen flickers to shift their mindsets if there are perceived obstacles in the path. You don’t have to be someone’s guardian to gambol in an imagined world of crocheted quilts and molten magma. Simply calling up your childhood flights of fancy could spark new plotlines or unearth unexpected flaws in a protagonist, if you listen hard enough.

I envy Hudson’s visceral expression as he’s not yet confined by perfect word choices and other craft-type things. So I say, all writers, now and then, must stand at their desks and dance a frenetic dance, flap their arms like drunken fruit bats. And if you happen to be a parent, too, why please, by all means, shut your door, just maybe not all the way…

Friday, September 7, 2018

K.D. Miller Shows Up

In the 18th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, K.D. Miller, author of Late Breaking (Biblioasis), discusses her work habits and finding inspiration for her collection in an art exhibit.


Describe your writing practice
I am an early-morning writer and have been ever since I started to write seriously – almost 40 years ago. For 35 of those years, when I was working at a full-time day job, it was a matter of getting some writing in before I had to rush out the door. Now that I’m retired, I still wake early and carry my first cup of coffee to my desk. It’s about priorities, I guess—paying attention to what’s truly important before all the little banalities of the day start to intrude. My only rule is to show up, every morning without fail, and to be open to whatever happens. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes pages and pages of stuff. In some circles, this is called putting oneself in the way of grace. So I try to be there, just in case grace drops by.

Describe a breakthrough you’ve experienced
Late Breaking began with what I can only call an epiphany. In 2014, I attended the Alex Colville exhibit at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario). It was a rich, layered exhibition, linking the painter’s work with that of artists as disparate as Alice Munro and the Coen brothers.
Pictures at an exhibition: Colville at AGO

Why had I not seen the Alice Munro connection before this? Both creators pay meticulous attention to everyday detail—a dog’s raised paw; the seams of a summer dress. Colville’s invisible brushwork has its counterpart in Munro’s transparent prose. And of course, there is that ever-present sense of menace. No matter how tiny their focus, both artists capture something that looms. That impends.

I was between projects when I visited the AGO. As I tend to do when I’m at loose ends, I was toying with the idea of writing a murder mystery. (Deep down, I still want to be P.D. James when I grow up.) Of course, what I found at that exhibit, in spades, was mystery. Every Alex Colville painting, like every Alice Munro story, is an endless corridor lined with doors just slightly ajar. As I roamed the rooms of the gallery, the phrase The Colville Stories formed in my mind. It became a mantra. The Colville Stories. The Colville Stories. I felt as if I could spend the rest of my life gazing into those paintings. Pulling stories out of them.

Each of the ten stories in Late Breaking has a particular painting as its jumping-off place. I am delighted with the way Biblioasis has incorporated the visual works into the finished book.

What are the most difficult conditions you’ve successfully written under?
Years ago, when I was working, I had to attend a conference in Rochester, New York. I shared a hotel room with a colleague who, it turned out, snored like a buzz saw. Plus, she liked to sleep in. So there I was, creeping out of bed before dawn, tiptoeing past my roomie to the hotel room desk and somehow blocking out the noise in order to start my day the way I wanted to. I think that’s when I realized I was a writing junkie.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
Recently I heard myself telling a group of writers that at some point, I fall in love with whatever I’m writing, and at some point, the writing breaks my heart. The heartbreak can come of a sudden blockage or the sickening feeling that a character or subplot that you’ve tended to lovingly for ages simply has to go. I’ve found that the best thing to do is take a step back. Work on something else. Or just read. (Reading author autobiographies—especially the parts where they describe their own failures, is particularly helpful.) The point is to leave the beloved alone. Let it come back to you, if it will.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Elena Georgiou's Letter to a Not-So-Young Writer

In the 17th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Elena Georgiou, author of The Immigrant's Refrigerator (GenPop Books), offers advice to those who might feel like they're late to the party.


Dearest Not-So-Young Writer,

Perhaps you’ve had children to raise, or parents to take care of, or some other of life’s many obstacles has stood in your way, so it is only now in your late 30s or your 40s or 50s, that you have the space/time to write. Don’t worry; you’re not “behind.” What you might have missed in writing years, you will have certainly gained in lived experience. The most difficult adjustment will be putting yourself first, after so long of not doing so. My advice to you is to use every trick in the book. For me, the most effective trick has been lying to myself—specifically, by telling myself that I was not writing for myself but doing it for others. (Okay, well, this is not a total lie; it’s 50% for myself, 50% for others.) So if it helps, tell yourself that you are not doing it for you, but doing it for X (fill in the blank).

Once you’ve done that, then you might want to try the following:

  1. Divide your day into sections and find one two- to three-hour section that belongs to your writing and reading.
  2. Do this six days per week. (Give yourself a day of rest.)
  3. Don’t worry if you don’t write all six days, but make sure you do at least five. (Okay four. But not less.)
  4. If you don’t have a Room of Your Own, again, don’t worry. (Who has?) There are libraries. In a pinch, or if you prefer to be surrounded by noise, you can buy a coffee/tea and write in fast-food establishments or 24-hour convenience stores with places to sit. (I am currently doing a combo of library/convenience store and it is working well for me.)
  5. Or you can ignore everything that I’ve said so far and find your own way to work.
  6. The most important thing is to snatch any part of your day, for any amount of time, at any location that works for you. 

I know that writers who have come before me have offered eloquent advice about the need to “see the world” before you can write. But I prefer to call on William Blake’s version of seeing the world—that is, to see it in a grain of sand. You don’t need to travel far: Sand can be found at a construction site near you. 

I also know that writing advice is divided over “writing what you know” versus “writing what you don’t know.” Why this split? Why not both? How do I feel about these ideas? Honestly? Whatever. I just know that you should write about what you must write about. Writing is obsessive. Writing is mysterious. Embrace your obsession. Embrace the mystery.
Toni Morrison: What She Said

I’ve also found it useful to study the life of a writer I admire. My inspiration has been the life and work of Toni Morrison (who published her first book at age 40). She has said, “The work is in the work itself. If you write a lot, that's good. If you revise a lot, that's even better. You should not only write about what you know but about what you don't know. It extends the imagination.” My experience has taught me that this extension of the imagination is contagious. It can link you to your readers. It can open minds, hearts, and form a oneness (community). Which means that writing can also make magic happen.

So, my dear Not-So-Young Writer, there is only one thing that you need to do: Take the urgent words out of your body and put them on paper (or in a computer). And then treat these words carefully: Love them like offspring, tend to them like a nest, feed them like baby birds, dress them in their best feathers, then release them into the air.

Yours with faith in writing,

Elena