Do Your Homework

How do you make a character convincing? You give them realistic dreams, hopes, fears, and failings. You need to know their history, their present, and their future. If you fail to give a character a back story that feels true or a fear with no backing readers will know. If there are holes in your characters, your readers will find them. So what can you do? Flesh out your characters. Your protagonist may only take up twenty pages in a short story, but you need to have more information. Even if it doesn’t make it to the final draft, or even the second draft, you should know the details of your character’s life.

One way I like to go about filling out characters is to interview real people. If your character is a teacher, interview a local teacher. If you are writing about a bartender, go to a pub (during off hours), tip well, and ask for their story. Not everyone wants to be interviewed, but enough will that you can find someone.  Ask them about their daily routine. Why do they prepare in the ways they do? What are the problems that are obvious to someone in that profession that aren’t clear to an outsider? You can get some great background information for your characters this way.

Your goal should be to create a character who is believable in their profession to both laypeople and experts. You want the computer programmer in your crime story to feel authentic to your grandmother and to the software engineers at Google. However, one pitfall of this engorgement of character information is putting too much of it into your story. It’s useful to know how the waiter in your story serves their customers and the shorthand they use for taking orders. But does that level of detail need to be visible in every story? No. Much of the information you come up with on your characters will serve to bring them into focus in your mind, and as a result they will be clearer to the reader. Think of all those small details as being marked ‘for your eyes only’. Your reader won’t know what they are, but they’ll know if those details are absent.

Running the Novel Marathon

by Kim Triedman My gym misses me. I haven’t exactly been pulling my weight lately. Or blasting my abs or busting my butt, either. In fact I can honestly say that from the moment I started writing my second novel this past September, I have gone through the gym …

via Running the Novel Marathon.

Revision? Try Renovation.

By Robin Black This post first appeared October 11, 2011   What can renovating and reclaiming your home after years of neglecting it teach you about revising fiction?  A lot more than I imagined, it turns out. My husband and I have lived in our house for sixteen …

via Revision? Try Renovation..

When is a Polka Like a Ship Deck? On Suzanne Cleary’s Poem “Polka”

I’ll admit it. I’m biased. I love Suzanne Cleary’s poetry. I first heard her read in my second semester in the Converse College Low-residency MFA back in June of 2011. Although it probably didn’t happen exactly this way, in my mind, Suzanne walked up to the miked podium at the front of the crowd in the high ceilinged, many windowed Zimmerli Common Room, smiled, and said, “Sausage Candle.” I just about fell out of my very uncomfortable folding chair. It was the first time I realized that poetry could be damn funny and damn good at the same time. So it was with great anticipation that I went a few weeks ago to hear Suzanne read from her new book Beauty Mark, the winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry published by BkMk Press.

While there is plenty of Suzanne’s distinctive, subtle brand of humor in this collection, it was the poem “Polka” that caught my ear that rainy January night. “Dancing the polka is like walking / on a ship’s deck / during a storm, water flying into the air, / sliding in sheets across the gray / wood” (43). Now, you don’t have to be a polka aficionado to get this. If you’ve heard even one polka played or seen one performed, you understand the image: “Each time the ship / tilts, you take two hop-like / steps in one direction” (43). The poem is accessible, a quality which I admire and for which Suzanne makes no apologies. But this poem also takes risks, something Suzanne encourages in her craft lectures and her critiques of her students’ work, and something that she practices in each and every poem.

The humorous image of people dancing as though trying to regain their balance on the deck of a listing ship becomes something more when “There is someone in your arms, and this is what / makes it a polka, although she or he / does not look into your eyes, and you / do not look either, at your partner,” (43). And more when “to dance the polka is definitely / to think of death, your partner’s shoulder / surprisingly small in your hand” (43). Then there really are two people, not simply dancing, but barely hanging on to some small human contact; two people with a tenuous hold on life but still moving, still keeping in step.

The risk is taken here in “hop-skips.” Once the reader accepts the idea of the polka as keeping balance on a deck at sea, the poem skips to the idea of one’s fleeting connection with other human beings, and the reader must balance. The next skip is to a part of US immigrant history, to learning the polka “from grandparents, whose grandparents / learned it from their grandparents, who left / Petrovavest for Bratislava, Bratislava / for Prague, for ships that took six days / and five nights to cross the ocean. / They never spoke of the crossing, / not even to each other” (43). The reader must again catch her balance.

There is another risk, another hop-skip and rebalance when Suzanne describes the polka this way: “You might as well call the dance / Walking the Ship Deck During a Storm / that Partly –Holy Mother, Forgive Me –/ I Did Not Want to Survive” and then “this dance / that could more succinctly be known as / Long Marriage” (44). This poem that starts off so simply, this poem that hop-skips across the page with its lines alternating between left-justified and tabbed over, maintains its own balance though the “deck” leans more and more until the final line which stops the poem, the reader, and the dance.

“God. You’re beautiful when your hair is wet” (44).

Cleary, Suzanne. Beauty Mark. Kansas-City, MO: BkMk Press, 2013.

Lessons and Locutions

By Liat Faver

Books that are written to instruct can be dull and repetitive. Becky Bradway and Doug Hesse are aware of this, and they have written a book about writing that piques creativity. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology contains well-structured lessons followed by an anthology that houses a wealthy store of contemporary authors and interviews that keep the reader enthralled and amazed.

The section on craft discusses form, description, dialogue, style, and revision. We learn that we may separate creative nonfiction “into two rough piles: ‘information’ and ‘idea.’” And we may toy with these two piles in degrees of nuance and revelation to whatever effect we wish because “what writers do with an incident or memory is generally more important than the subject matter itself” (38). I placed markers in the chapter on form to highlight several paragraphs with suggestions for generating ideas, questions to address the specifics of what one is writing and why. I found myself feeling like I had entered a familiar classroom with a favorite professor. Bradway and Hesse’s direction is detailed and intricate, but gentle and encouraging in its delivery. I was inspired to return to stories of my own to apply what I was learning, to manipulate structures and time, and experiment with dialogue.

Bradway and Hesse find new ways to shed light on standard information. It is heartening to see oneself in missives about falling “in love with words . . . putting them together in unique ways . . . forced to define what had previously been overlooked” (78). It is liberating to note that “unconventional punctuation shows that we’ve moved from the realm of the conventional to the literary” (83). The authors don’t encourage us to blatantly ignore rules. They present examples and show us how best to choose our own unique styles without losing our readers in the process.

I am fond of the revision process. This does not mean that I don’t find it tedious and dull sometimes. Creating handles this subject meticulously, emphasizing the fact that while “the act of writing can seduce and beguile, causing us to love our worst lines” (98), we must realize the fatality of the flawed phrase, sentence, paragraph, or even chapter. How many times have I forced myself to remove something I thought enchanting? And how much information has been jettisoned because it was useless? How often have I noticed, after reading something more than ten times, that I’ve left out vital data, or punctuation, or that I’ve misspelled a word, or missed the boat entirely? It serves us as writers to be reminded that details must “develop the larger narrative pull and thematic concerns” (113).

Creating concludes its lessons with chapters on research, interviewing, and writing ideas. Although I tend to resist research, it is usually necessary to good writing. And I often find myself enjoying the process, despite my aversions, and Bradway and Hesse take me to task, calling writers detectives who don’t consider research “an odious, dreaded task but an adventure in finding an answer and getting a fuller picture” (120).

As a book on the craft of writing, Creating Nonfiction is one of the best I’ve read, and its anthology is wonderful, with numerous variations on style and form, and topics ranging from the operations of a candy factory, to the squalid conditions of abject poverty. As one who yearns to improve, I will continue to use this book. If I were teaching, it would be indispensable.  I have touched on a fraction of what makes this book a must-have for aspiring writers. To wit, it is a gold mine.

Bradway, Becky and Doug Hesse. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2009. Print.

What writers have on their bedside tables

A fun project from author Shannon Huffman Polson, author of North of Hope. It’s called The Bedside Table Project. Below is the description from Shannon’s site:

Part voyeur, part inspiration, every Monday you get a glimpse into the lives of authors and other thinkers who share a picture of their bedside table, a view into what matters to them right now, the things that inspire them, that occupy their minds.


Connect with Shannon on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

 

Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work”

Kleon’s Show Your Work

Photo provided by Austin Kleon. showyrwork.com

Photo provided by Austin Kleon. showyrwork.com

Show Your Work 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered is the follow-up (in my mind) to Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist. You’ve created and now want to share with the world your work–what’s the best way to do that?

Not by becoming “human spam. They’re everywhere, and they exist in every profession. They don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right here, right now. They don’t want to listen to your ideas; they want to tell you theirs…At some point, they didn’t get the memo that the world owes none of us anything.” (124). You draw attention to your work by “sharing like an artist:”

https://www.flickr.com/photos/deathtogutenberg/12548712844/in/set-72157641021360663/

Back cover provided by Austin Kleon.
showyrwork.com

As with Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work is packed with wise advice and clever artwork.

The writing is witty and concise, but also though-provoking. Kleon writes “The trouble with imaginative people is that we’re good at picturing the worst that could happen to us. Fear is often just imagination taking a wrong turn. Bad criticism is not the end of the world” (150-151). That resonated with me when I first read it, and still resonates reading it again. This is one of the reasons why the writing works in this book–Kleon writes it as it is. This book sits on my desk by Steal Like An Artist, easy to get to whenever I need it.

 

Kleon, Austin. Show Your Work. New York:Workman Publishing. 2014. Print.

So you think you’re too busy to write…

not according to this blog post by Leslie Pietrzyk, on the South85 blog. She writes:

“I know, I know. We’re all too busy to write. And yet…we’re writers. Write we must. But how? Here are some ideas for ways to try to keep your creative juices flowing when real life is getting in the way. Maybe you’ll feel like you’ve discovered that 25th hour of the day:”

Read the rest of this post–full of great suggestions on stealing writing time–at the South85 blog.

Fifth week roundup

This post is a collection of all the blogs posts since our last roundup.

Starter House–A Ghost Story

Author Interview-Sonja Condit, author of Starter House

The Spice of Backstory in Condit’s Starter House

Cheesecloth Removal: The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

You Live Where? Strange Settings in Judy Budnitz’s Nice Big American Baby

Lit Mag Roundup

Just Right Love Poem

Slaughter House Five–Not Just Another War Story

All That was Faked Turned Bad: Hemingway and the Gift of Unruly Prose

North of Hope–A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

The Gift of Focused Power in the First Person Point of View

Marking Time

Punctuate Bodies in Rebecca Thrill’s “Punctuation”

Literary Citizen and Why You Should Be One #litcitizen

What Led Zepplin Teaches Me About Writing

The Night Circus