You Can’t Build a House Without the Bricks
An interview with Helene Stapinski, author of
Murder In Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy
By B. Lynn Goodwin
Helene Stapinski is a skilled writer and an outstanding researcher. You can learn a lot about her and about writing in this interview. When I read Murder in Matera I realized she had something special to share. Briefly, Murder in Matera is the story of her researching the heart of a story accusing an ancestor of murder in Italy generations earlier. This is a memoir of her unrelenting research as she digs for the truth and refuses to settle for less. This well-written and well-structured story twists and turns through the olden days, modern Italy, and contemporary America.
She gives a great deal of writing advice in the Q & A below.
BLG: Tell us how and why you became a writer.
HS: My mom was a clerk at the DMV in Jersey City, NJ. I would go to work with her some days and type on the typewriters there. I started crafting stories and poems at around 5 years old. I would be embarrassed to show them to anyone and would hide them in a small closet in our living room at home.
Eventually in high school some of my teachers noticed my talent and encouraged me to write. I became the editor of the school newspaper, won the poetry award at the literary magazine and then went on to NYU to study Journalism, since that seemed a way to make a living by writing. I had noticed that people like Hemingway and Plath had worked at newspapers and magazines early on in their careers.
My freshman Expository Writing teacher, Sue Mousehart, wrote at the bottom my first paper to meet her after class. I thought I was in trouble. But she told me I needed to become a writer, and asked me if I knew how to go about that. I admitted I had no idea, since my family was filled with factory workers, bus drivers and waitresses. So she drew me a road map.
BLG: I’m so glad she helped you out. How do the current members of your family feel about your sharing this history?
HS: I’ve been writing my family’s stories since 1999, so they’re pretty used to it. I also wrote a weekly column at the local newspaper where I sometimes talked about personal things.
My immediate family – my mom, brother and sister and most of my aunts, uncles and cousins – have always been very supportive of me. When I wrote Five-Finger Discount, I gave the galleys to everyone in the family who was in the book just in case they had complaints. I wanted them to see the writing before the rest of the world and give them a chance to change things, but they were stunned at how I captured the family stories and spirit and love.
I had one aunt and two nasty cousins – more distant relatives – who weren’t even in the book and gave me a hard time. But my mother and I fought them off. We told them to go and write their own book if they didn’t like it. This time around, the reaction has only been overwhelmingly positive. My sister was especially affected by the story and wrote me a long, emotional note when she finished about how I had redeemed the family.
BLG: That’s encouraging. You must have uncovered enormous amounts of family history in addition to the stories of the region. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
HS: Most of the family stories I heard over the years are in Five-Finger Discount. A few were left out because they were too hurtful to people I loved or maybe had some connection with sexual abuse. But most of them are in there. I really kept the stories this time limited to Southern Italy and didn’t leave much out at all. It’s all in there.
BLG: How did you plot out past and present and how did you weave them together?
HS: My approach was basically to tell you the story of me traveling in Italy in search of the legend of Vita and Francesco. Then, as I find something, I do a flash back. For instance, after I find Vita’s birth certificate, we flash back to what her birth would have been like in 1850s Bernalda. That’s the general pattern. Me looking, me finding, me telling. Or showing really. Not just telling. I do the same thing with her childhood, her marriage, the murder, and more.
BLG: You make it sound simple. You seem like you are part researcher, part journalist/reporter, and part memoir writer. What were your favorite aspects of writing this story? Why?
HS: I really get a thrill from every aspect of the process. Researching and digging stories up can sometimes be frustrating when you can’t find what you’re looking for, but I love the chase. And I am extremely stubborn and will not stop looking until I find what I’m looking for. And there is nothing to match the feeling when you finally do discover that hidden nugget. It was especially emotional and exciting this time around, since I had been searching for so long.
The writing – first draft – is my favorite part. I go into some zone and disappear and forget to eat or take a shower. The editing process is probably the hardest, because you have to get rid of sentences that you love or have grown attached to, but the older I get, the easier it gets.
Having a great editor helps. Julia Cheiffetz was wise and gave amazing feedback on how to shape the narrative, how to keep it moving.
BLG: Any tips for crafting a narrative from facts and memories? (Inquiring memoirists want to know.)
HS: You need to dig up as much information as possible, because you can’t build a house without the bricks. Then you really just need to tell the story as if you’re sitting down to coffee with a friend. Then keep moving the bricks around as you go along. Be willing to move things and try them in different places. Don’t be afraid to dig in there and mess it all up. God willing, you can put it back together again!
BLG: What is the best writing tip you ever got from an editor?
HS: Show, don’t tell. My editors and teachers have been telling me that since high school, to use the characters, details and description to bring a scene alive.
BLG: How much work are you putting into the publicity and how much are your publisher and your agent doing? (I know this changes all the time, so what’s it like right now?)
HS: Since the last time I published, Baby Plays Around in 2004, the landscape has completely changed. The first thing I had to do after signing my contract was to fill out an incredibly long media contact and information list. I think it took me two days. The media has been splintered since 2004. There used to be a few shows – Lopate, Today Show, the big papers across the country. But now there are countless blogs, youtube channels, and podcasts. Every day is another request for an interview.
It gets a bit exhausting, but this book is my baby and I’ll do anything to make sure it lands in the arms of as many loving people as possible. My agent, Lisa DiMona and my team at Harper – particularly Danielle Bartlett and Gena Lanzi -- have been incredible. I talk to them via email several times a day. Whenever I send them a publicity idea, they’ve already thought of it and have sent out a request or pitch. They work around the clock and on weekends, too. They amaze me.
BLG: What are you working on now and where can we learn more about you?
HS: I write regularly for the New York Times, so those freelance stories are constantly being published. Just google me and New York Times and you will see the bounty. I also have a web site, helenestapinski.com, which highlights some stories and also tells about the documentary that was made this year based on Five-Finger Discount, which includes some great footage from Basilicata.
BLG: Visit her website at http://www.helenestapinski.com/.
10 Questions To Help You Distinguish Voices
By B. Lynn Goodwin
In the Independent Study class I teach for Story Circle Network, people ask all kinds of questions. This term one person was concerned that all her characters sounded the same. I had her find objectives, obstacles, and strategies to overcome those obstacles for each character.
It wasn’t enough. So I suggested she answer the following questions:
1. Who has more education?
2. Who has a stronger belief in God or a Divine Being?
3. Who is happier?
4. Who has more to be grateful for?
5. Who speaks more simply?
6. Who uses shorter sentences or fragments?
7. Who has trouble finishing a thought?
8. Who has the better vocabulary?
9. Who is more capable?
10. Who is more prone to melt downs?
She not only answered the questions, but she also gave details. That helped her distinguish who was who and it gave her more background. It also gave her style tips for each character.
Of course you may add additional questions. Use anything that will help you understand your characters more completely.
10 Tips on Writing from Joyce Carol Oates
Collected BY MARIA POPOVA for Brain Pickings,
In a recent tweeting spree, the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates offered ten tips on writing — a fine addition to this master-list of famous authors’ wisdom on the craft.
1. Write your heart out.
2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
3. You are writing for your contemporaries — not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (NOTE: This is Raymond Chandler’s advice. I would not try this.)
6. Unless you are experimenting with form — gnarled, snarled & obscure — be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.
9. Read, observe, listen intensely! — as if your life depended upon it.
10. Write your heart out.
How to Write a Great Story: A Roundup of Best Advice
Posted on November 23, 2016 by Jane Friedman at https://janefriedman.com/write-great-story-roundup-best-advice/
Jane Friedman is a skilled, wise advisor. You can read about her expertise at https://janefriedman.com/about/. This is taken from her web page, a site you should bookmark.
Over the last five years, I’ve had the good fortune and privilege to feature storytelling advice from many bestselling authors, as well as editors and agents. Here’s a round-up of the best and most popular advice on writing craft and technique I’ve featured since 2011.
Developing Strong Story Concepts
The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading by Paula Munier
How to Attract a Readership Based on Concept Alone by Matt Bird
Craft a Compelling Novel Concept by Larry Brooks
How to Build a Compelling Novel Concept—Something With a Kicker by C.S. Lakin
How to Tell If Your Story Idea Is Mediocre—and How to Improve It by Laurie Scheer
Internal Dialogue: The Greatest Tool for Gaining Reader Confidence by Elizabeth Sims
A Fatal Flaw in Weak Descriptions by Rachel Starr Thomson
Plot and Structure
How to Tell If Back Story Is Sabotaging Your Novel by Roz Morris
How to Effectively Handle Time Shifts in Your Story by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Building a Believable Chain of Events in Your Novel by Steven James
Writing Suspenseful Fiction: Reveal Answers Slowly by Jane K. Cleland
4 Big Pitfalls in Story Openings by K.M. Weiland
Point of View
The Basics of Point of View for Fiction Writers by Joseph Bates
Using Multiple Points of View: When and How Is It Most Effective? by Jordan Rosenfeld
The Fundamentals of Writing a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson
How to Write a Great (and Not Schmaltzy) Love Scene by Jessi Rita Hoffman
How Writers Can Craft an Effective Setting by Mary Buckham
What are your favorite writing craft & technique articles? Share in the comments.
Upcoming Online Classes
I found this wonderful article by Dana Kaye at www.publishingcrawl.com. Ms. Kaye is the owner of Kaye Publicity, http://kayepublicity.com, and her message, filled with practical examples, may be the only article you’ll ever need about author branding.
YOUR AUTHOR BRAND:
WHAT IT IS AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
By Dana Kaye
Almost every author I’ve met, whether they write literary fiction for a small press or category romances for Harlequin, has considered themselves an artist of some sort, and no one wants to equate selling their art to selling Kellogg’s or Coca-Cola. They don’t view their books as commercial products. But the purpose of branding is the same whether you’re selling books or breakfast cereal: to let customers know what they’re going to get before they buy. When you pick up a Coke, you know exactly what the soda is going to taste like. You know that the Lexus will have more luxury features than the Hyundai. When you pick up the latest Nora Roberts novel at the grocery store or a James Patterson book at the airport, you know what types of stories are within those pages. Known brands are comfortable, familiar, and comes with limited risk.
In an increasingly crowded marketplace, your greatest challenge is to eliminate risk for the reader. While some readers are willing to take a chance on a new author or a book they’ve never heard of, most want a guarantee that the next book they pick up is worth their time and money. If you establish an author brand that clearly conveys the types of books you write, readers will be more likely to take a chance on your book instead of the latest bestseller or award-winner.
Creating an author brand requires a seemingly straightforward formula:
You + Your Book = Your Author Brand
Your author brand is who you are and what you write. It’s fairly simple, but the tricky part is filling in those blanks in a way that’s meaningful and memorable. It has to be more than “I’m an ex-cop who writes mysteries.” There are a lot of authors out there with the exact same brand. You have to think beyond your genre and subgenre, beyond your day job or previous occupation. You have to identify the unique themes in your book and the aspects of your background that tie into those themes.
Let’s go back to the James Patterson example. Yes, he’s a former advertising exec, but that’s not the primary aspect of his brand. I would argue that more people know him for “Patterson Inc.” than his former career in advertising. They know him as the publishing powerhouse who comes up with dozens of story ideas a year and works with authors (in various capacities) to execute those ideas. His books are known for breakneck pacing and short chapters. And he keeps that brand consistent year to year, book to book.
A few other examples of successful author brands:
Mary Roach uses her interest in weird science and her sense of humor to create nonfiction books about little known aspects of our anatomy and physiology.
Marcia Clark was the prosecutor on the O.J. Simpson case who writes legal thrillers.
Dave Sedaris is a humorist and storyteller, known for his live performances and sardonic wit.
Your first step is to create a list of all the themes, characters, and types of stories you write. If you’re a debut author, it’s simple, but if you have a deep backlist and write in a wide range of genres, it can be a bit trickier.
Your goal is to find the common denominator. Your books may seem wildly different, but most authors I’ve met are drawn to certain types of stories and characters. Make a list for each book and highlight the common traits. Are your protagonists all women? Are they dealing with a haunted past? Are they all set in rural areas? Find the traits that run throughout your work and use that as a launching pad for your brand.
Now, it’s your turn! Make a list of all the aspects of your background. What’s your job? What type of area do you live in? What did you go to school for? What are your hobbies? Are you a parent? Animal-lover?
Once you have your list, highlight all the aspects of your background that relate to your book. For example, our author Margaret Mizushima writes mysteries set in Colorado that feature a working dog. The fact that she lives in Colorado and assists with her husband’s veterinary practice is a key aspect to her brand. That’s not ALL she does, of course, but the aspects of her background that don’t relate to her books have no place in her author brand, and she can keep those private.
Your author brand should inform all your promotional efforts. From your social media content to the types of events you attend, all should be a part of your branding message. This will reinforce the message of who you are and what you write. Soon, you’ll see more and more readers recognizing your brand and new readers taking a chance on your books.
I encourage you to do the exercises and share your author brand in the comments!
Dana Kaye is the owner of Kaye Publicity, Inc. and author of Your Book, Your Brand: The Step-By-Step Guide to Launching Your Book and Boosting Your Sales. Known for her innovative ideas and knowledge of current trends, she frequently speaks on the topics of social media, branding, and publishing trends, and teaches online courses at KayePublicity.teachable.com.
Questions and Tons of Advice
An interview with Meredith Maran by B. Lynn Goodwin
Meredith Maran is a prolific, lifelong writer. Recently she edited a collection called WHY WE WRITE ABOUT OURSELVES: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature. Anthologies appeal to those who seek diverse opinions in search of their own truths. This one is an amazing collection of philosophies and approaches that will inspire anyone with a story to tell. That’s almost all of us, whether we know it or not.
According to her website, Maran published her first poem in Highlights For Kids at age 6, her first national magazine article at age 15, and her first book at age 18. In the years that followed she built a house and raised goats outside Taos, installed brakes on the Ford assembly line in San Jose, and wrote an exposé of right-wing fundamentalism in Silicon Valley while working as a technical writer at National Semiconductor. Her career is varied and far-reaching. After serving as Editor of the Banana Republic Catalogue (when Banana Republic was still cool), she created award-winning marketing campaigns for socially responsible businesses including Ben & Jerry's, Working Assets, Stonyfield Farm, Smith & Hawken, and Odwalla.
She took time from her work on her current memoir to answer my questions, and I appreciate it. Here, she shares her opinions about writing successfully. I have supplemented the answers to some of the questions with quotations from the authors in the book.
BLG: Tell us a bit about yourself. When did yWHY WE WRITE ABOUT OURSELVES: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literatureou know you were a writer and where did you get your training?
MM: I knew I was a writer at birth, and I started writing the day I could hold a pencil. I’ve had zero formal training; I was expelled from high school for organizing anti-war protests and never went back. I did take a two-day novel-writing class when I decided to try that genre.
BLG: Clearly you have a natural talent for this. Why We Write About Ourselves definitely fills a need for memoir writers and others. What were you searching for as you selected memoirists, how did you contact them, and what did you say that persuaded them to write for the book?
MM: I wanted a balance of ethnicities, life stories, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and popular acclaim. Some of the writers are good friends, and the others I contacted them through their publicists. I was asking for a one-hour phone interview so the barrier to entry wasn’t too high.
BLG: What prompted you to collect and share this information? What message(s) do you hope readers will take away from it?
MM: I’ve published several memoirs myself and I’m writing another one as we speak. I asked the questions I was curious about as a reader, writer, and reviewer of memoirs.
BLG: I suspect you asked different questions of each writer. The results are wonderful. Here are a few of the gems.
Sue Monk Kidd: “Read at the level you want to write.”
Aylet Waldman: “If youMM: ’re afraid of whatever you’re writing, just tell yourself you can cut it later and keep on writing.”
Anne Lamott: “Everything that’s happened to you is all yours. Just write it. You can worry about the legal issues and the next bad holiday dinner later. Tell the story that’s in you to share.”
Meghan Daum: “Take most advice with a grain of salt, including mine. In literature, as in life, most advice says more about the giver than the receiver.”
David Sheff: “Whatever you write in a memoir, whatever effect it has, you’ve got to live with it forever. Don’t hurt people.”
A.M. Homes: “There’s a huge decision to make between writing a story and publishing it. Don't write with the assumption that you’ll publish it; that’s not why we write memoir. You’re writing it to document your life and your story. If anything else comes of it, make decisions accordingly.
BLG: Here are a few reasons why authors write memoir:
Pat Conroy: “In 2002 I published my first memoir, My Losing Season, about my year as captain of The Citadel basketball team. I wrote it because I wanted to tell the truth about the harsh culture of The Citadel and my relationship with the coach. That led to writing about the harsh reality of my family.
Nick Flynn: “I don’t know if there’s anything distinct about the urge to write memoir beyond the urge I have to write, period.”
Kelly Corrigan: “I didn’t stand back and survey the landscape of literary forms and choose memoir. I write The Middle Place because I was told my dad was dying and I wanted to put on paper what it had been like to be his daughter…Once I got the hang of writing, I felt that I had a few other things I’d like to put on paper.”
James McBride: “I didn’t know what a memoir was when I wrote Water.
I didn’t pay any attention to the label of memoir versus nonfiction versus fiction. I just thought it was a good story and I had to tell it.”
BLG: What advice would you give to aspiring creative non-fiction writers?
MM: Read, and write. Practice your craft.
BLG: These are basic, but sometimes writers lose sight of the basics as they dream about how their story might change the world. What are you working on now?
MM: I’m just finishing up promotion for Why We Write About Ourselves, while finishing up my next memoir, which will be published by Penguin in 2017. It’s about starting my life over at age 60 and it’s called (for now) The New Old Me.
BLG: Your subject fascinates me. I can’t wait to find out how you are starting over and what that means to you. I am working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62 to a 2-time widower seeking his third wife on … gulp … Craigslist.
Life leads us to some interesting places and writing about it helps us learn about ourselves. Sometimes it gives readers new strategies. Sometimes it helps them feel less alone. I wonder if anyone ever learns from someone else’s mistakes.
You can learn more about Meredith Maran by visiting her website, http://www.meredithmaran.com/index.htm. Discover more about memoir by reading WHY WE WRITE ABOUT OURSELVES: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature. There’s valuable information in there, and you don’t want to miss any of it.
Incredible Writing Retreats to Attend in 2016
This is excerpted from a piece by Susan Shain. It originally appeared on December 22, 2015 at The Write Life, http://thewritelife.com/writing-retreats/
Do you dream of getting away to write, but need some guidance on the next steps for your novel? Want to meet and work with other writers, but in a more intimate setting than a writing conference?
A writing retreat might be just the ticket. Whereas writer’s residencies are mostly about working in solitude, and conferences focus on networking and lectures, writing retreats fall somewhere in between.
Most of them are in beautiful locations (where, presumably, your creative juices will flow more easily), and offer a combination of tours, workshops and interaction with a small group of writers. They’re a great way to combine a vacation with inspiration, networking and of course, writing.
They’re often pricey, but some offer scholarships, or you could always create your own writing retreat with friends. And remember: A retreat is an investment in your career, as well as a vacation! If they’re out of your price range, then perhaps a writing residency would be a better fit. Or, check out this list of grants for writers.
We’ve compiled a list of 25 writing retreats taking place in 2016. They range in price, location and activities included, so hopefully you’ll be able to find one that fits your needs. We haven’t attended any of them, so it’s imperative you do your own research before signing up!
Unless otherwise noted, the prices include workshops, accommodation, activities and most meals — but not airfare to and from the destination.
We love the sound and attitude of Aimee Hansen’s women-only writing retreats in Guatemala — and we bet you’ll love the price, too. She has three dates on the calendar for 2016: January 30 to February 7, March 26 to April 3 and June 25 to July 3. You’ll stay at The Yoga Forest on Lake Atitlan and enjoy daily yoga, meditation and writing sessions.
Cost: $895 per person.
Want to drum up some courage to tell your story? Check out these women-only writing retreats, which will be held at a resort in Loreto Bay, Mexico from January 31 to February 6 or April 24-30, 2016. You could escape the daily grind, focus on yourself — and even go on a whale-watching tour!
Cost: $2,795 per person.
In case you haven’t heard of proprioceptive writing (PW), here’s an explanation: “Not formal writing, nor stream-of-consciousness writing but a regular, disciplined practice that can deepen attention and free us to think, write, and speak with strength and clarity.” In this creativity retreat April 16-23, 2016, you’ll practice PW while staying at a traditional Irish bed and breakfast. All your meals and use of the B and B’s five acres of gardens are included.
Cost: €900 per person (~$978 USD).
Want to get away, but not too far away? Try this women-only retreat in Taos, New Mexico, hosted by author Jennifer Loudon May 8-14, 2016. Your fee includes everything: “All lodging and all meals, daily writing seminars, daily yoga classes, on-the-spot writing coaching, plentiful snacks, and love love love.”
Cost: $2,030-$2,430 per person.
For over 25 years, this retreat has been providing an “Intensive learning experience for small groups of serious-minded writers who are committed to improving and completing their novels for submission.” On a private Texas ranch May 12-19, 2016, you’ll participate in workshops, intensive writing and one-on-one meetings with industry professionals.
Cost: $1,895 per person.
To any yogi who writes, or writer who yogis, this retreat might sound like a dream come true. Host and teacher Karen Kenney promises her “Positive, love-centered approach to writing” will help you quiet your inner critic and create fearlessly. It takes place May 22-27, 2016 at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.
Cost: $820-$1,695 per person.
Get away to the Greek island of Skyros to attend writing classes at the Writers’ Lab. They offer week-long courses on varying topics from June to September. You’ll start every morning with yoga, attend a three-hour writing class and then enjoy all the island has to offer. In this pristine environment, you’ll “Navigate beyond old boundaries and emerge with pieces of writing of which to feel proud.”
Cost: £595- £1245 (~$899-$1,880 USD) per person.
This retreat is hosted by writer and teacher Cary Tennis, who worked for Salon.com for 14 years. Join him in June 2016 in Italy, where you’ll attend writing workshops and explore the medieval hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino.
Cost: $1,799-$2,199 per person.
Female travelers, rejoice! This women’s writing retreat is hosted by the Nomadic Chick herself, Jeannie Mark, and The Future Is Red’s Leigh Shulman. It will take place at a beach resort in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua July 9-16, 2016, and includes daily yoga, meditation and writing workshops — and of course, abundant opportunities to relax on the beach.
Cost: $1,899-$2,299 per person.
This writing experience will take place from July 28 to August 5, 2016, in the university town of Dundee. It’s hosted by award-winning poet Peter E. Murphy, but is open to nonfiction and fiction writers as well. You’ll enjoy a week of writing and “Get to know the real Scotland.”
Cost: $1,995 per person.
If you’re one of the many writers who love to run, you might enjoy this retreat, which takes place August 3-7, 2016 in rural North Carolina. After a two-mile trall run each morning, you’ll participate in workshops, critique groups and social events. The culminating event is a 10K race through the woods!
Cost: $950 per person.
This Tuscany retreat will take place September 10-17, 2016 at a villa a few miles from the historical city of Florence. Though it doesn’t include lunch or most dinners, it does feature one-on-one sessions with both a life coach and a literary agent.
Cost: $2,137-$2,350 per person.
Learn to tell your story while escaping to the mythical Irish island of Inis Mór September 4-11, 2016. In addition to writing workshops with host Irene Graham, you’ll enjoy guided walks and tours of the remote island — and even a pony trap ride!
Cost: €1,195 (~$1,300 USD) per person.
Which one of these looks most exciting to you? Write back and let us know which ones interest you the most.
WRITING ADVICE FROM FLASH PROSE EXPERTS
Last year I asked our finalists what tips they’d give to those who wanted to improve their flash fiction. Here’s a collection of what they said:
From Corrie Adams, author of our winner, “Iceburg Season”
Waste no words. Everything should do double duty. For example, dialogue should written so as to advance the plot and reveal character, all at the same time. Don't spend too much time establishing the back story. Drop the reader right into the action and go from there. Keep characters to a minimum. Two or three work best in flash. There isn't enough room to develop a large cast of characters; introduce too many people in a short piece, and you're likely to confuse the reader.
From Catherine Arras, author of “In All That Brown”
Compress the story line to a specific event or scene.
Start in the middle of things.
Avoid flashbacks and exposition.
Make the most out of action and dialogue: use these as you would figurative language in poetry.
Show don't tell.
Use figurative language to pack descriptive detail. Say it once and move on.
If setting detail is important to the story, include it but be economical with words.
Flash is fiction wearing a corset, cinched down to the bone.
From Gina Grandi, Author of “Waiting for Sam”
I think one of the most important things you can do for yourself as a writer is to find someone (or several someones) you trust to read your work and give you honest and critical feedback. A good friend of mine - whose writing I admire immensely - is the most wonderful reader: she tells me what she likes and, while always kind, doesn't pull punches. I trust that when she tells me something is working, it is, and that I need to seriously rethink anything she's skeptical of.
Submit. Submit. Submit. I subscribe to several newsletters that post submission opportunities, and keep track of journals or contests that feel like a good fit for something I've written. Along with that, there's no use being discouraged by rejections (the green 'accepted' highlights on my submission spreadsheet are pretty much buried under the red 'declined' lines). Retweak and resend.
I highly recommend the NYCMidnight Flash Fiction contest (http://nycmidnight.com) (which was open for registration in June.) (The first draft of "Waiting for Sam" was written for this contest last year - the prompts were 'drama, funeral procession, dog whistle'.) For those of us who struggle with actually sitting down and writing, the deadlines are a nice nudge, and working with genre and location prompts are a fun challenge. Better and better, there's an active forum where you can both get and give feedback on your work.
One of the reasons I like flash is the challenge of creating a whole world in a tightly condensed space. I feel as though what works for me is to choose one moment to live in, and to let that moment describe or imply the before and after.
From Paul Lamar, author of “NO Strings Attached”
I recently signed up for a magazine's service of providing a daily prompt for a month. That external stimulation has proven to be extremely valuable because I sit down every day and produce something. Look for prompts on-line. Given the fact that flash fiction usually implies a strict word count (though there seems to be a sliding scale), I find myself liking the (editing) challenge of saying more with less. Enjoy searching for the right word--and cutting.
SUGGESTION FROM AN EXPERIENCED JUDGE:
Keep whatever is useful in the information above and in your own writing; disregard the rest.
Be true to your characters, but don’t believe that your way is the only way. Let every choice serve the story.
Tell the story you want to read.
No one can tell your story but you.
You don’t lose until you quit trying, and if you do that, no one will ever get to hear your story.
Strategies for Being Noticed
What does it take to win a writing contest?
First of all you have to enter. Enter your best work. Sounds obvious, but sometimes writers get tired and send something that isn’t quite ready. To be sure, try reading your piece aloud or have a trusted friend read it to you. Do you hear any holes or glitches? Fix them, but don’t wait forever if you haven’t found the perfect solution. Enter as soon as you are ready. Remember, most contests come around every year.
Here are some tips that will make a novel or memoir opening into a Scintillating Start:
Start with something that will pique the reader’s interest.
Start with high stakes.
Start with something unexpected.
Start in a voice that will make readers take notice.
Start with a puzzle, a predicament, or a day gone horribly wrong.
Start by having your character in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Start with a physical explosion.
Start with an emotional explosion.
Build the stakes.
Add sensory details.
Let reader’s care.
If you look at http://review.gawker.com/the-50-best-first-sentences-in-fiction-1665532271, you’ll find 50 excellent sentence starts. Some of them may surprise you. The title tells you that these are the 50 Best First Sentences, but “best” is in the eye of the beholder. If you read them all, you’ll get a sense of how some authors have hooked in large groups of readers.
Renowned agent Michael Larsen included this list of techniques in an article for the San Francisco Writer’s Conference:
A great opening line does one or more of the following:
Begins right in the middle of the story, putting the reader immediately into the dramatic action
Takes us immediately into another world that we feel we must know more about
Immediately gives us the opportunity to escape from our own thoughts, obsessions and concerns
Let’s us know instantly that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller
Presents us with something unusual, quirky, amazing, shocking or emotionally gripping
Introduces us to a fascinating, funny or idiosyncratic character
Introduces us to an adventure, dilemma or person we simply must know more about
Establishes a mystery that we want to solve
Sets a compelling emotional mood or tone
Builds suspense and tension that makes us want to know more.
If you think there is overlap in the two lists, you are right. Wise advisors will tell you to stay true to your story and your characters, keep the stakes high, and compel us to keep reading. That should mean something a little different to each of you, depending on your interests, your background, and the story you’re burning to tell.
We want to read your Scintillating Start. Go to the Home Page, www.writeradvice.com, to read more about the contest.
50 Writing Tools In Clear,
Use this quick list of 50 Writing Tools, which were e-mailed to me by IndieWritersSupport.com as a handy reference. Their site is the subject of this month’s Website Review.
Some of these ideas will work better for you than others. Keep what’s useful and save the rest for another day. You may change your mind about what is useful as you progress.
I. Nuts and Bolts
1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs.
Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right.
2. Order words for emphasis.
Place strong words at the beginning and at the end.
3. Activate your verbs.
Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.
4. Be passive-aggressive.
Use passive verbs to showcase the “victim” of action.
5. Watch those adverbs.
Use them to change the meaning of the verb.
6. Take it easy on the -ings.
Prefer the simple present or past.
7. Fear not the long sentence.
Take the reader on a journey of language and meaning.
8. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.
Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.
9. Let punctuation control pace and space.
Learn the rules, but realize you have more options than you think.
10. Cut big, then small.
Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves.
II. Special Effects
11. Prefer the simple over the technical.
Use shorter words, sentences and paragraphs at points of complexity.
12. Give key words their space.
Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.
13. Play with words, even in serious stories.
Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.
14. Get the name of the dog.
Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.
15. Pay attention to names.
Interesting names attract the writer and the reader.
16. Seek original images.
Reject cliche and first-level creativity.
17. Riff on the creative language of others.
Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
18. Set the pace with sentence length.
Vary sentences to influence the reader’s speed.
19. Vary the lengths of paragraphs.
Go short or long - or make a “turn”- to match your intent.
20. Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.
One, two, three, or four: Each sends a secret message to the reader.
21. Know when to back off and when to show off.
When the topic is most serious, understate; when least serious, exaggerate.
22. Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction.
Learn when to show, when to tell, and when to do both.
23. Tune your voice.
Read drafts aloud.
24. Work from a plan.
Index the big parts of your work.
25. Learn the difference between reports and stories.
Use one to render information, the other to render experience.
26. Use dialogue as a form of action.
Dialogue advances narrative; quotes delay it.
27. Reveal traits of character.
Show characteristics through scenes, details, and dialogue.
28. Put odd and interesting things next to each other.
Help the reader learn from contrast.
29. Foreshadow dramatic events or powerful conclusions.
Plant important clues early.
30. To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers.
To propel readers, make them wait.
31. Build your work around a key question.
Good stories need an engine, a question the action answers for the reader.
32. Place gold coins along the path.
Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle.
33. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Purposeful repetition links the parts.
34. Write from different cinematic angles.
Turn your notebook into a “camera.”
35. Report and write for scenes.
Then align them in a meaningful sequence.
36. Mix narrative modes.
Combine story forms using the “broken line.”
37. In short pieces of writing, don’t waste a syllable.
Shape shorter works with wit and polish.
38. Prefer archetypes to stereotypes.
Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.
39. Write toward an ending.
Help readers close the circle of meaning.
IV. Useful Habits
40. Draft a mission statement for your work.
To sharpen your learning, write about your writing.
41. Turn procrastination into rehearsal.
Plan and write it first in your head.
42. Do your homework well in advance.
Prepare for the expected - and unexpected.
43. Read for both form and content.
Examine the machinery beneath the text.
44. Save string.
For big projects, save scraps others would toss.
45. Break long projects into parts.
Then assemble the pieces into something whole.
46. Take interest in all crafts that support your work.
To do your best, help others do their best.
47. Recruit your own support group.
Create a corps of helpers for feedback.
48. Limit self-criticism in early drafts.
Turn it loose during revision.
49. Learn from your critics.
Tolerate even unreasonable criticism.
50. Own the tools of your craft.
Build a writing workbench to store your tools.
Love the Act of Writing
An interview with Marian Calabro by B. Lynn Goodwin
LG: Tell us about your writing history. How did you get started as a writer?
MC: I can’t remember not writing, even though the nuns at my grade school in the 1960s certainly didn’t teach or encourage creative writing. They gave me a great foundation in grammar, though! On my own, I wrote a newsletter for my Girl Scout troop and another for my family. The latter was one of the few things that made my mother helpless with laughter. (She was a serious working mom, a secretary. Dad was a musician. We weren’t rich.) I was published in American Girl, the national Girl Scout magazine, at age 11. Got into poetry, music, and theater as a teen. Majored in English at Rutgers. Went
into book publishing in Manhattan, writing catalogs and promotional copy. Segued to freelance corporate communications writing and book writing in my early 30s. For the latter, I focused on nonfiction history for young adults (YAs).
LG: What is your niche? Can you tell us how you got into this kind of writing?
MC: As a working writer, my niche is company histories. I’ve written anniversary books commissioned by The Clorox Company, The Pep Boys, Annin Flagmakers, and more than a dozen other clients. This work, which I began in my 40s, draws on all skills I developed to that point. I enjoy all the interviewing, research, and creativity involved in their structure. It’s a great fit for me, since I’m hugely interested in people on the job-think Studs Terkel’s Working.
This niche blossomed to the point where I founded a corporate history publishing company in 2004. We’re small but surprisingly busy. My husband and I write about half of our books. We subcontract others to professional authors, and call on freelance art directors and editors as needed. Our business has branched out to websites and consulting. We wear a lot of hats.
I liked writing young adult books, too, but I simply couldn’t make a living at it. Very few YA nonfiction authors can. My best-known YA is The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party, published by Clarion Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin. It recently went out of print after 15 years, a honorable run.
So my day job involves corporate histories. At nights and on weekends, I lead two creative writing groups using the Amherst Writers & Artists method. I also use the AWA method in community education workshops. (I became certified as a leader in 2004 and was fortunately to train directly with AWA founder Pat Schneider.) In my groups I write poetry and nonfiction, and play around with a novel. I also cycle in and out of playwriting. I love that the most, but it’s also the toughest genre. The creative writing has loosened up my business writing and made it more colorful and readable-at least I think and hope so.
LG: If you could write any book you wanted, what would it be about and who would be your ideal publisher?
MC: Interesting question. I’d love to write a book about the children of the Donner Party, but this time with a creative nonfiction approach. Maybe each chapter would be written from the point of view of a different adolescent. Ideal publisher would be Clarion again, or Random House, or one of the mainstream houses. I’ve also grappled with a full-length play for years that I should probably just rewrite as a novel.
LG: What’s most difficult about working with other writers? That’s not an issue in my workshops, because the Amherst Method respects and welcomes all voices.
MC: On the corporate history side, I’ve been the editor and publisher on a project or two where I had some differences with the authors I hired. They couldn’t let go of what I call “journo-tude.” Corporate histories fall into the public relations category. To write them, you have to be 100% comfortable with that fact. By instinct and training, dyed-in-the-wool journalists are uncomfortable writing anything that approaches PR.
LG: What do you consider your biggest success?
MC: First, that I’ve earned a decent living as a writer. Second, my Donner Party book. It reads like a novel, yet everything in it is factual. Not one word of dialogue or observation is fabricated; the quotes come from the writings of the survivors. The book is in thousands of public and school libraries. Third, the fact that my workshops have launched many other writers, especially adults who have always wanted to write.
LG: What advice would you give to writers who want to get published?
MC: Buy a thick suit of armor. Love the act of writing, because the publishing process has gotten brutal. If writing itself doesn’t provide deep satisfaction, publishing won’t. Also, take agents with a grain of salt. They’re not a silver bullet. Ultimately they work for publishers, not for authors. Understand the different types of editing. Respect editors. A good editor can do more you than almost any other publishing professional. Authors who resist editing usually do so at their peril.
LG: What principles guide your writing?
MC: Go deeper. Write clearly. I adore clean, clear sentences. My hero is E. B. White - he wrote essays, letters, children’s books, and poetry, and he wrote them all well.
LG: Excellent principles! Where/how can readers learn more about you?
MC: The best starting point is http://www.mariancalabro.com. From there you can hop over to my blog, where I post a writing exercise every week and also review plays, books, and the occasional movie. That site also has a link to http://corporatehistory.net. As a corporate historian, I’m on Instagram and Twitter. The handle in both those places is @corphistory.
Obviously Marian Calabro is an accomplished, skilled writer, editor, and teacher. She has an extensive resume. She offers a variety of services. Read about them on her website.
Thank you so much for introducing yourself to Writer Advice readers and sharing your experience and knowledge with us, Marian.
Ten Tips from Veteran Authors
If you had a chance to share a dozen tips from veteran authors, whom would you select and what would you hope they might say? I went to the Aerogramme Writer’s Studio, which I found through a Google search. This advice comes from experienced writers with a message to share.
How did I pick the dozen whose work I’m sharing? I like the author, the message, or both. This is highly subjective. As I tell my writing clients, keep what’s useful and disregard the rest.
Want to let me know whose advice you liked best and why? Please e-mail Lgood67334 AT Comcast DOT net. I’d love to hear from you.
“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that - but you are the only you.” ― Neil Gaiman
“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour - write, write, write.”
-- Madeleine L’Engle
“I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they “don’t have time to read.” This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.” ― Stephen King
“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.”
― Anne Lamott
“Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about a man.” ― E.B. White
Joyce Carol Oates
“Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.”
― Joyce Carol Oates
“You either have to write or you shouldn’t be writing. That’s all.” ― Joss Whedon
“Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust our own judgment, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad - including your own bad.”
― Doris Lessing
“Whenever I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you’re being told.” ― John Green
“Write. Start writing today. Start writing right now. Don’t write it right, just write it -and then make it right later. Give yourself the mental freedom to enjoy the process, because the process of writing is a long one. Be wary of “writing rules” and advice. Do it your way.” ― Tara Moss
Tell me which one you like best and why. I’d be interested in your opinion. Thanks for considering it.
Can You Write a Memoir in 30 Days?
An Interview with Robert Temes, PhD by B. Lynn Goodwin
I’ve been thinking about writing a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62. Most days I don’t make it a priority, though, so when I received a copy of How to Write A Memoir in 30 Days, written by Roberta Temes, PhD and published by Reader’s Digest, I was eager to try the exercises before I reviewed it. For the first nineteen days I thoroughly enjoyed the writing exercises and prompts. They helped me look at old issues and brought new energy to the project. But I wondered how my childhood memories would help me with a memoir about a current relationship that had only begun three
years earlier. The exercises brought up the past and my prospective memoir focuses on the present.
When I got to Day 20, I read, “Today is the day you will gather all you have written and organize your writing to create what is called a narrative arc…. Please print out everything you have written since Day 1 and then add any blog or personal journal entries you may have written that are relevant to the memoir.” I could not imagine doing this in one day. I wanted to ask the author several things, and I’m sharing her answers in the Q & A below.
LG: I like that you approach memoir as a tool for helping writers resolve issues. How did you develop your interest in memoir?
RT: For many decades I wrote during evenings and weekends while on weekdays I put my Ph.D. in Psychology to use by treating psychotherapy clients. Those years taught me that you can make sense of your life, and improve your mental health, by talking/writing about memories. I’m comfortable with strong feelings and know how to help folks access those feelings.
LG: How do you suggest writers deal with concerns about sharing stories of living people and/or private matters?
RT: Please deal with those matters very carefully. As you know, it’s the private matters and dramatic details that make your memoir a best-seller. Nobody wants to read about a perfect family and perfect life. It’s conflict that keeps the reader turning the pages of your book. High drama makes a best-seller.
So, what to do about secrets? First, talk to the people whom you think may object and tell them your intention. I’ve worked with several writers who, upon speaking to their relatives, learned that those folks were relieved to know that they could finally come clean. They were okay with letting the truth be known. Next, if your family is not ready for full revelation ask if they might agree to simply changing some names and some identifying characteristics. If that doesn’t work go ahead and write your book anyway. Don’t let that hold you up. In the time it takes you to finish your manuscript they may reconsider. People like to read about themselves even if it’s not always flattering and sometimes they just need more time to get accustomed to the idea.
If even that fails you can wait until you outlive everyone involved; you can work with your editor to change your memoir to a novel; or you can go ahead and publish anyway and prepare to take the repercussions.
LG: If someone wants to write about a recent event, how would you suggest they use the exercises that take them into the past?
RT: All present day choices and decisions you make, and all present day actions you take, reflect your past experiences. Your behavior is based upon the sum of all the events of your life and your reactions to those events. Exploring your past, through the exercises in my book, How to Write Your Memoir in 30 Days, helps you figure out how past incidents influence you today.
LG: This is probably true, yet many of my responses didn’t have any clear relationship to my marriage. You’ve given me a lot to think about, though, and I enjoyed the exercises. Do you really think a person can write a memoir in 30 days or will the final 11 chapters of your book take longer?
RT: Yes, you can complete your memoir in 30 days. Or, more specifically, by following 30 writing tasks. Some writers prefer to do their writing every other day, others may work only on weekends. If you write each day you will be finished at 30 days. At that point your book will be a coherent story that exemplifies your life. If you wish to publish that book you might need to engage editorial help and you would be wise to attend writing workshops where other memoirists could critique your writing and offer suggestions.
LG: I’m relieved to hear that you get a draft in 30 days rather than a finished product. What are some of your favorite memoirs?
RT: Baker, Russell Growing Up this is a coming of age story Didion, Joan The Year of Magical Thinking this is a bereavement reflection Gornick, Vivian Fierce Attachments a mother and daughter drama
McBride, James The Color of Water race and identity defined within a family Walls, Jeanette The Glass Castle growing up in a most dysfunctional family These are just a few of the many memoirs that I heartily endorse. It is always a privilege to read someone’s story. I enjoy romantic memoirs, often about couples who dated when they were young but spent decades married to other people and then
reconnect and fall in love again. I like tell-all memoirs, where secrets are revealed and I applaud authors who write illness memoirs which permit the reader to accompany the author through diagnosis, treatment and then either triumph or tragedy.
LG: You listed excellent choices. Thanks. How did you find your publisher?
RT: I went through the usual steps that every published writer must follow. I outlined my book and then wrote a thorough book proposal. When the proposal was satisfactory I sent it to Janet Rosen, my literary agent who is at Sheree Bykofsky’s agency. Janet shopped it around and Reader’s Digest was the first publisher to be interested in acquiring it. And they did a great job, so I’m glad I went with them.
LG: What are you working on now and how can people learn more about your services?
RT: I am editing several memoirs - one is written by a woman who was a child in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, another is by a recently retired attorney who is writing about his most interesting cases and what he has learned from them, and another is by a woman who wants the world to know about her recovery from a rare illness.
And, I still devote one day each week to my psychotherapy practice where I use alternative mental health treatments, usually hypnosis and/or tapping.
You can access all the books I’ve written on my Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/author/robertatemes
Thanks for sharing your approach to memoir. The ones you’re editing right now sound interesting. I agree that as a therapist, you bring an important perspective to the memory. I wish you all the best as you help people tell their stories.