Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Intersection of Book PR and Writing Advice: A Round-Up

One task of a new author is to help generate positive online coverage/mentions of one's new book. Some are less within the author's control than others of course, and some are more fun than others.

Since spring (coinciding with the release of Starting with Goodbye from University of Nevada Press) I've been writing guest posts and answering interview questions from literary journals, bloggers, reporters and freelancers. Mostly, I've had a great time. I'm still having a good time.

While the goal is to keep the book in front of people's eyes, one of the more satisfying side benefits for me has been that many of the resulting pieces double as useful tips, advice, and information for other writers. 

The book launch, book tour, and general book promo craziness dominated my days for months, meaning I didn't have time to keep offering writing thoughts here at this blog, so whenever possible, I tried to tie in book publicity with literary citizenship. 

I've meant to share this sooner, but life piled on...Anyway, here's a round-up of some coverage from the last five months -- only the pieces that I think other writers might find useful. (If you want to see everything, check out the Media Mentions page.)

Guest posts and articles on writing issues:

How to Add Humor to a Sad Memoir  (at The Memoir Project/Marion Roach Smith)

My First (Disastrous) Writing Retreat  (at The Quivering Pen)

Interviews  (only those that cover writer advice, tips, insight, how-to's from my writing/publishing experience):

In Search of the Right Structure   (at Author Accelerator on Medium/Jennie Nash) 

Author's Notebook: Nine Tips on Writing Memoir (at The Whole Megillah)

Ruminations Interview (at Under the Sun, which published one of the original essays that became an important chapter in the book)

A Conversation with Lisa Romeo  (at Literary Mama)

An Interview (at Proximity's True blog)

Author Interview Q/A (at the blog of Caroline Leavitt)

Writers in the Trenches: Q/A on how everything before prepared me for the memoir  (at Fay Rapaport DesPres's blog)

A Conversation  (at the Sunlight Press)

Q/A  (at the blog of Christi Craig)

Podcasts (with in-depth dives into nonfiction writing craft):

The Creative Nonfiction podcast (w/Brendan O'Meara) - Episode # 98 - Lisa Romeo on the Power of Paper Habits

Write the Book podcast - # 508  (w/Kim MacQueen)

The Ish podcast (w/Cameron Dezen Hammon) - Episode # 8 - Grieving-ish Part II

And just for fun...

Spotlight (at Publishers Weekly)

How We Spend Our Days: Lisa Romeo  (at Catching Days blog)

Becoming a Published Memoirist at 58  (at Empowering Women in Midlife)

I hope some of these will prove useful for your own writing practice, writing life, writing challenges. As book mania settles down, I hope to be back here at the blog more regularly, with the spotlight once again trained on passing along good writing life advice and lessons learned from experience -- mine and others'. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Notes from the Third Row: Good Stuff from the Hippocamp Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, 2018

When this blog was an infant, I ran some posts summing up advice and insights I’d returned with after attending a writing conference, residency, or similar gathering. I thought I’d revive the tradition, because this past weekend, for the fourth year in a row, I was at Hippocamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, in Lancaster, PA.

Since its inception, I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Hippocamp, which is put on by Hippocampus Magazine, a rather nice and well-respected online literary journal. This smallish conference continues to be a particularly loved favorite of mine for so many reasons, checking the important boxes I tick off when deciding on attending a writers’ conference.

As usual, I tried to get to all the breakout sessions, panels, and special presentations that sounded of particular interest to me. And as usual, I failed, because with so many promising concurrent offerings, it’s just impossible. So, I’ll be watching, myself, as post-Hippocamp coverage begins to emerge, as it usually does on others attendees’ blogs and writerly websites. (Update: like this one I just found by Joanne Lozar Glenn, and this one from Kelly Kandra Hughes, and this from Anne Pinkerton.)

Meanwhile, here’s a peek into some of what made it into my notebook, though much more is rattling around my head, my heart.

I took a pre-conference workshop with writer and journalism professor Wendy Fontaine  on “Using Brain Science to Write Memoir.” I teach a memoir workshop on integrating memories into memoir, and how to transform elusive, uncooperative memories into nonfiction prose—but this was a terrific chance for me to learn how and why our brains actually handle memory. I know this will not only expand what I can share with students in the future, but that it also opened doors and windows to my own understanding of why humans do and don’t remember, and how that impacts writing.

A few tidbits:

. I already knew that smell is the strongest and most powerful memory trigger (yes, more than music), but now I know why. It’s because the olfactory center is located in close proximity to the hippocampus, the place in the brain that files, retrieves and makes connections between memories.
. Some things that occurred are never recorded in memory, so even if we know we were present when X happened, it’s possible our brain never encoded X. All the trying-to-remember gymnastics just won’t work. Some would-be memories really are “lost”.
. What my husband calls “revisionist” history is a thing. A thing called “memory source confusion” – when we substitute what makes sense for what we can’t recall.

The opening conference speaker, Beth Kephart (whose work I’ve admired since reading A Slant of Sun as a newish mother), delivered a beautiful talk on the job and art of the memoirist—and its limits—and I snatched these juicy morsels:

. The memoir writer’s job is to tell facts and to confess when we don’t.  “As memoirists, we are most trusted when we acknowledge what we don’t know.”
. When James Baldwin wrote, “I realized I didn’t know my father very well,” he then re-imagined him, but used language to cue the reader:  “…he was, I think…” “I gather this from…”
. On the art of knowing what to leave out, and how memoir thrives on what’s not there: “Truth is messy. Carve your truth from the mess, but leave most of it off the page.”
. Finally, this beauty: “Grace Paley once said, ‘If you find only yourself interesting, you’re boring.’ Write past yourself and you won’t be bored.”

From Elane Johnson’s session on “Dialogue that Doesn’t Suck,” –
. Dialogue must be true, meaning it must match the character, personality, education, of the person speaking.
. Remember to show how a (real) character may talk differently when in conversation with different people.
. Don’t try to score revenge by placing words in someone’s mouth they wouldn’t have said. “Even if Mom is dead and no one will protest, it makes her look bad and it will be WRONG for your story and that will show.”

Kelly Caldwell  presented a useful session on “The Art of the Catastrophe Narrative” (and the best ever, whopping 40-page handout packet!):
. Keep in mind, the (real life) protagonist(s) has a goal to reach both during and after the catastrophe.
. When writing, remember “Four phases of disaster recovery: Hero phases; Disillusionment phase; Honeymoon phase; Recovery phase.”

During a freelancing panel, Estelle Erasmus offered this deceptively simple checklist for a pitch: “Why this? Why now? Why me?” and added that the “Why now” should include some data, stats, trends or other information that’s brand new.

Steph Auteri, in a flash talk titled, “How to Pump out an Epic Number of Ideas in One Sitting,” offered writers looking to publish in mainstream media key article/essay idea prompts:
. What have I experienced that others might want to know about?
. What do I want to know about?
. What’s in the news that I can comment on?
. What national news/trend can I make local? (and vice versa)
. What new stats or studies can I say something about?
. What in popular culture—movies, TV, books, etc.—am I excited about and can comment on?
. What else are people talking about (what’s in the zeitgeist?)

From “The Art of Interviewing” session with Diane McCormick: Have a conversation, not an interrogation. Make a statement, putting yourself in your subject’s shoes, and see what they say in response: “If that had happened to me, I think I would have…”

From “The Long and Winding Road: Publishing an Essay Collection,” with Randon Billings Noble: Sometimes, you get the dream…and also lose it. I admired Randon’s candor in telling how she landed a hot New York agent (who wooed her over a pricy meal in a famous Manhattan restaurant), only to part ways when she wasn’t willing to mold her work to the agent’s vision. (I just pre-ordered her debut collection, Be With Me Always, from University of Nebraska Press. You might want to also!)

Keynoter Abigail Thomas shared many truth nuggets which I couldn’t record because I was either laughing or nodding furiously in agreement, and also I had committed to staying absorbed in the moment. She’s a literary hero of mine: when I want to try something on the page that’s a little off, I bolster myself with, “Well if Abigail Thomas could do X in (insert one of her books here), then I can…”

One thing that really stuck with me (and I’m paraphrasing her first sentence): We worry when writing memoir that others will say, who cares?

Thomas continues: “Who cares who cares? YOU care.”

That’s it in a nutshell, no?

[I was fortunate to be involved in Hippocamp 2018 as a reader and panelist (Debut Authors Night), and presented a breakout session, “Reconstruction: Transforming (Related) Essays into a Narrative Memoir.” More on the latter in a future post.]

Meanwhile, what have you been inspired by, intrigued by, captivated by recently at a writer gathering?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

What's Next: An Excerpt from Starting with Goodbye, a Jersey Shore Visit Tonight (6/14)

Today I'm celebrating a little, as the terrific website Next Avenue (a PBS venture), has published an excerpt from Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love after Loss. 

I don't know if I'm more thrilled about the excerpt or the photo of me and Dad, taken on the morning of my wedding. You can't quite see it, but he's joking around by handing me a wad of cash. How I miss that sense of humor!

The excerpt is from an early chapter in the book, and I'm so happy that Next Avenue -- whose tagline is where grown-ups keep growing --  wanted to share this with their readers in the days just before Father's Day, a time when memories of gone fathers might be both comforting as well as painful.  

                                                                          * * * 

Meanwhile, it's time for me to hit the road (again), heading down the shore to an event tonight at BookTowne in lovely Manasquan, NJ -- the place I was when I got the call about my father's stroke (that's in Chapter 2 of the book). There, I'll be in conversation with another NJ author I've recently come to know, Laurel Davis Huber. Her book, The Velveteen Daughter, is a work of historical fiction about the artist prodigy daughter of the women who penned The Velveteen Rabbit. I read it last weekend when I needed to relax not only from the busy book promo schedule but because my wonky knee insisted on it. I couldn't have asked for a more absorbing, unusual story to have for company.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Guest Blogger Ele Pawelski on the Value of the Ubiquitous Writing Group

Ele Pawelski’s novella, The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, was published by Quattro Books in December 2017. Her short stories have appeared in the Nashwaak Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. A ten-year Toronto resident, this avid adventurer has also lived and managed human rights projects in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo. Ele teaches International Development Law and is writing her next book, a novel featuring parallel stories about a German mother and son trying to find each other after becoming separated during World War II.

Please welcome Ele Pawelski.

I found Moosemeat Writing Group long before I became a fiction author. Thankfully. Otherwise I’d probably still be a struggling memoirist.

In 2010, when I joined Moosemeat, I sought to expand my circle of friends and find a group of like-minded artists willing to help shape my ideas into something readable. The year before, I’d moved to Toronto after working overseas on development projects for twelve years and was still trying to find my footing back at “home.” I liked writing and a few friends suggested I put my experiences of life in post-conflict environments like Afghanistan and Bosnia into a book. I knew how to write academically, but creative writing was a different beast.

So I did what everyone with a problem does: searched online. Moosemeat’s website called out for writers of any ilk. I was in!

Moosemeat’s history goes back to circa 1995, when a group of committed writers wanted to continue meeting up after having taken a writing course together. The name was provoked by an animated debate over a story in which the main character has 10 pounds of moosemeat in a freezer. At least that’s what I’ve heard; Moosemeat membership has completely turned and the originators are long gone. Certainly the moniker gets a laugh, especially when we call ourselves meese or the herd

Eventually, Moosemeat would become the foundation of my writing accomplishments. But first, I had to get up the confidence to submit a story! I remember that meeting very well. I’d submitted a satirical narrative entitled, “Where Taxis Go To Die,” which poked fun at the poor quality of taxis in war-ravaged countries.

Moosemeat’s format is straightforward: in advance of every meeting, two writers submit pieces of less than 6,000 words, either a stand-alone short story or part of something longer. Generally, attendance is between four and fifteen individuals who provide feedback one by one. The writer also has a chance to speak at the end. In addition to regular meetings, once a year, the group collaborates on a chapbook of flash fiction stories and hosts a public reading for contributors. 

I could feel sweat gathering under my armpits. The critiques came fast and furious – it was overly funny, not enough of a story line, too little information about my work colleagues, not enough depth…I got sweatier. When it was my turn to talk, I barely said anything, crushed that my story didn’t seem to work for most members. Upon reflection, the earnestness of the reviewers was obvious; they wanted to help. And a lot of their comments were useful, if only to point me in new directions.

It got easier. Two more similar stories later, I was far less sweaty, and had determined that writing a funny memoir in the style of Bill Bryson was not going to work as I had envisioned. In the process, I read and critiqued a lot of short stories, and listened to the critiques of others. I started to see what worked and what didn’t work on the page. Notably, there isn’t always agreement amongst the meese, which confirms the absolute subjectivity as to how much and why a reader enjoys a certain story.

For example, during a recent critique, half of us thought a short story that ended with no character development was fine as it indicated the protagonist stuck to his guns, while the other half wanted to see some learnings. This kind of diversity signals it is crucial to write to a target audience. But more importantly, it hooked me on the value of other people’s opinions and how those could enrich my own writing.

About a year after being in Moosemeat, I sent out the first chapter of The Finest Supermarket in Kabul. I received an immediate, and very encouraging response via email: “Let me just say “wow!” The verbal feedback at the meeting was also quite positive, but in addition, the previous twelve months had prepped me to take all comments constructively. Over the following three years, I presented the middle and last chapters. Again, the critiques were affirming and helpful, and motivated me to dig deep in terms of a generous re-write when I put the story all together. While I could have submitted the rewritten chapters for further critique – no problems in doing this if a writer chooses – at this point, I felt the story was ready for more directed suggestions.

In exchange for wine, two meese agreed to look over the entire draft novella before I submitted to my publisher and give structural and big picture comments. After I signed on with Quattro Books and incorporated my editor’s suggestions, I convinced one more moose to give me line edits, and check for typos and verb agreement as the story had changed from past tense to present. Without this roster of beta readers, I would have been severely limited as to who I felt comfortable and confident in asking for this kind of help.

Moosemeat has no fees, and membership is fluid, ranging from authors with more than one book under their belt to aspiring novelists to writers who enjoy putting pen to paper but are not looking to publish. The only criteria are the willingness to give honest feedback and periodically submit a story.

Being part of a writing group has spurred my writing to evolve in ways I could not have imagined eight years ago: I’m confident writing in the third person and have tried out the second; I can fashion a decent story arc; I get that a twist at the end doesn’t always make for good reading; and finally, I treat writing more like a job than a hobby. The fact that meese are also excellent cheerleaders means I’m unlikely to drop out anytime soon. We each email the group with any good writing news, attend each other’s writing events, and go out for beers from time to time. What’s more to want from a bunch of random creatives!

Connect with Ele via her website, Twitter, or Facebook. Find Moosemeat here.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- June 1, 2018 Edition

> How much can you imagine winning in a writing contest? A New Jersey writing professor won the Sunday (London) Times EFG short story contest -- a cool £ 30,000 (around $40K).

> Have a hankering to transform your prose to a play? Nancy Davidoff Kelton, whose memoir Finding Mr. Rightstein, is heading to the stage, explains "five ways playwriting is similar to essay writing."

> In the category of hey-why-didn't-I-think-of-that, Andrea Askowitz has challenged herself to write 50 essays in 50 weeks

> Oh, the things I'm learning as a new author...Did you know there's a website where you can see a list of libraries around the world where your book is in circulation? Check out WorldCat.  

> At The Millions, novelist Tom McAllister asks, "Who Will Buy Your Book?" The answers are sobering (and sometimes, a little comical).

> I haven't looked into it deeply yet, but the new-to-me online reader/book social site GoRead, seems promising. And they promise to donate a book for every one bought there.

> A few weeks ago, The Quivering Pen (David Abrams' blog) ran my post, "My First (Disastrous) Writing Retreat)" as part of their My First Time column. The same day, Brevity's blog featured a post by Laura Rink, about her failed writing retreat. Both of us wrote about what we learned about ourselves as writers via the experience...which means, I suppose, they were a kind of success. (Great minds and all that, I guess.)

> Finally, feast your eyes and find out why "Finland is Home to the World's Most Radical Libraries"!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Guest Blogger Debra Borden on Switching from Fiction to Fact

When I began featuring guest bloggers, Debra Borden was one of the first I invited, after meeting at an event for writers in northern New Jersey. In addition to writing, Debra works as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New York and New Jersey, helping clients in a variety of settings, including as a “Sous Therapist” in their homes. Cook YourMarriage Happy, the first in her planned Cook Yourself Happy® series, is her third book, following the novels A Little Bit Married and Lucky Me.

Please welcome Debra Borden.

The ultimate moment of joy and validation in my life came on a morning in January 2006. I know this is where I’m supposed to say that was the day I gave birth to my first or second child.  Of course, those were momentous events, but I never felt as validated giving birth as I did getting published. I’m sorry but it’s true.

When the doctor said, ‘you have a little girl’ and three years later, ‘a boy’, I held those babies close and then asked my husband to get me a cheese Danish. When the call came from my agent announcing that my first novel had sold, I sank to my knees and cried. And cried some more. For about an hour.

When the second novel was published, I finally began to believe that I was a writer. And I was sure that fiction was my game. But with the confidence came not more fiction, but instead light-hearted essays --spilling out as if I was born to write humorous truths. In retrospect, the essays weren’t all that different from my novels, which were both told in first person and made liberal use of my personal history—events and feelings, miscues and fantasies. A type of faction.

At the time, I didn’t realize that the essays might also be transitional. But as an LCSW I know something about the word compulsion. I’ve used it to describe clinical features as well as what writing is to me; with a nod to Descartes, I write, therefore I am.

So, it’s not so surprising that I transitioned from fiction to memoir and self-help. I often say that my work as a former school social worker informed my fiction. After all, when doing an evaluation or assessment, I was exploring family dynamics, human development, cultural norms, and home situations: essentially, a job that’s an inadvertent master class in character development and plot. Later, when working with challenging adult clients and I stumbled upon an amazing experiential therapy through cooking, naturally I was compelled to write about it, this time in article, essay, and self-help forms

But when writing novels, I was used to writing in stream-of-consciousness, a method I encourage. My mandate is to get the story down while it’s coming. If I stop too long to edit or correct I fall into the black hole of perfecting the language and I end up with five sentences, all with perfect grammar but no music at all. It seems to me a story or essay is a little word symphony with cadence and melody that needs to be played first. Create now, edit later. 

Except, this often didn’t work for me with nonfiction. Yes, I still wanted it to have a snappy beat and the right key, but for me, nonfiction is more linear, more formatted and defined (sometimes even governed by AP Style). I needed to attend to research, too. And when I began to shape what I had in mind into a book idea, I realized I could best present my material in forms that repeat in some chapters, with similar instructions.

My publisher also was lobbying for some visual and organizational ideas that rankled: boxes and bullet points. Yikes, bullet points? What fresh hell is this?  In keeping with the music metaphor, I was discovering that the kind of book I was attempting was not a medley of hits, but a series of singles. Which is not to say it can’t be entertaining, anecdotal, or creative. I learned to ‘write within the lines’, and I certainly hope every page, chapter, and even bullet point is still delightful.

When I write fiction, I do outline, but it’s loose. I scope out the general arc of the story before I begin with several blank spaces for my characters to weigh in or solutions to unfold. Much of my outline happens in my head when I’m doing other things, like chopping vegetables or not sleeping. But when I tried to write a self-help book in my usual way, I lost structure and forward motion and it caused everyone fits, including me. No sooner would I finish one section and start another that I realized I had to go back and insert or delete from the first.

I was also finding it difficult to bring the uniformity to the chapters that my original publisher envisioned.   While the steps to treating The Stale Marriage and The Sexually-Out-Of-Sync Marriage may be similar, the behaviors they mirror, the recipes I choose, and the reflective processes differ. I’m also a bit creative with fonts and indentations and spacing. And by creative I of course mean incompetent. Six copy editors later (one a famous and expensive New York Times bestselling author) I’ve learned my lesson. And maybe how to write nonfiction in a way that doesn’t require my team to need a sabbatical on a remote island to destress. Yes, I exaggerate.

 Writing Cook Your Marriage Happy, the first in my planned Cook Yourself Happy series was at times frustrating, annoying, daunting and of course, immensely gratifying. I’m so grateful to be able to write and to my readers. But also, to learn. I often say I wrote fictional characters I’d like to emulate, characters that grow and evolve. Going from fiction to fact has also been an evolution for me, although a year ago ‘evolution’ was not the word I would have used. This is why the next volume in the series is called, Cook Your Stressed-Out Self Happy.

Connect with Debra at her website, or email her.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Book Birthday! Starting with Goodbye makes its official debut. Hello World!

I'm almost always awake past midnight anyway. But I'm not usually watching the clock to tick into the new day. Maybe it is a bit silly, wanting to drink in the first moments of the first day when my first book is birthed. That's okay. I'll take silly. 

When the FedEx delivery guy pulled up late yesterday afternoon, I met him at the bottom of the front steps with outstretched arms. "This is a pretty heavy box. You sure you want to carry it?" he asked. I was sure!

Tucked inside along with my author copies was a beautiful card signed by everyone on the editorial, production, and marketing team at University of Nevada Press, all those I've come to know over the last 14 months, everyone who brought the book to life with such passion. (Everyone who put up with me and my constant questions!)

They're the folks who made this gorgeous video trailer. Please take a (36 second) look!

For those who would like to read the book, you can order online from many retailers, small or large, indie or the big guys. I've gathered all the options, linked for you here. And of course, I'd love nothing more than if you wandered into your own nearby independent bookstore and asked them to stock it (or at least order you one!).

If you'd like a signed copy of Starting with Goodbye, you can do so via Watchung Booksellers, my nearest local independent book store. Simply note, "signed please" in the Order Comments box on their Checkout page. (Also specify if you want it personalized or not.) 

On our way out to a little celebratory dinner tonight, we may stop off at Watchung, where a friend spotted this: 

One day soon, I'll head over to WORDS Bookstore, a little bit further away, where a friend, out for her morning walk, reports that we're already window dressing! 

Readers who are writers, I've learned one thing well. Books take time. They take as long as they take. This one took a long time. But now that its time has come, the time merely seems right.

Thank you, blog readers, for allowing me to share my excitement with you! For staying interested in what I was doing and had to say over these past 11 years since I started this blog, way before there was any book in sight. You're the best.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Taking the Book on the Road (or: Good Thing I Like to Drive)

Before the craziness of publication arrives (Starting with Goodbye says hello to the world on Tuesday, May 1), I wanted to let my blog readers know that the first two months of my book tour schedule have been posted (with time, location, links, and other details)  at my website.

Except for a handful of locations -- Rockville Centre, NY (5/3), Amherst, MA (5/10), Millbrook, NY (5/19), and Kingston, NY (6/3) -- I'm be sticking close to my New Jersey roots for much of May and June. After that, who knows where I may pop up this much is still *in the works*, so stay tuned. 

Meanwhile, here's a quick peek. If you come to an event, please do say hello and let me know that we're connected through the blog!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- April 20, 2018 Edition

> In case you missed it, the 2018 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this week. Of note: the novel prize went to Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, which addresses love and growing older in the same breath and with humor. And in general nonfiction, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser, the first complete and intricately researched biography of the beloved author.

> At a workshop I led recently, many memoir writers were working through stories of trauma and grief (as is usual), but at one point we explored why readers also need to experience some happy moments amid the sadness. Then I came across Laura Gilkey's post in the Brevity blog, and she said it so well.

> At The Writers Circle blog, Michelle Cameron's post, "Lack of Control" probably speaks for every writer with a manuscript their agent has sent out on submission to publishers. 

> Funds for Writers has advice for authors on how to connect with book clubs.

> At the Front Porch Journal blog, a look at a failed novel and the (fixable) problem of writing what you don't know. 

> Finally, two items for fun. In the maybe-I'm-not-so-odd category: "20 Quirks and Strange Habits: The Weird Side of Famous Writers." Someone opens to a random dictionary page when faced with writing description, then uses word he finds there to complete the task. And, always dependable for a laugh with his reports on humans (not writers) acting strangely, there's Dr. Grumpy in the House.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Guest Blogger Rebecca Entel on the Tricks that Helped Her Finish Writing a Full Novel

Rebecca Entel’s first novel is Fingerprints of Previous Owners (Unnamed Press, 2017). Her short stories and essays have appeared in Guernica, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Cleaver Magazine, The Madison Review, and elsewhere. Rebecca is an Associate Professor at Cornell College, where she teaches multicultural American literature, Caribbean literature, creative writing, and the literature of social justice. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin and a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Rebecca grew up in Cleveland and currently lives in Iowa City.

Please welcome Rebecca Entel.

Maybe it’s part of my process to imagine having better writing days than I actually have. In my mind’s eye, there I am at my desk or on the couch or at a table in the library, fingers flying as I produce and produce and produce. It’s much harder to be inside that body I’m imagining watching from afar – to be the one staring at the screen, resisting the click-away temptation of the internet, believing in what could come next.

I had been writing and teaching writing for many years before publishing Fingerprints of Previous Owners. Part of my process in writing that first novel was seeing if I could, in fact, even finish one. I got to travel many times for this project, which takes place at a Caribbean resort built over the ruins of a slave plantation. I even learned how to use a machete to reach those ruins for my research. But most of my time was spent staring at the screen, feeling frustrated. I’d spend too much time trying to get the conditions right for becoming the writer that existed in my mind, and then when I actually sat down to write, I’d feel fundamentally not up to the task. Those images of watching myself writing prolifically had become one more weight getting in my way.

The only way I seemed to get anything done was when I tricked myself into writing, by using all the tricks I’d counseled my students to use when they were feeling stuck. Two of these tricks had a major impact on the development of the book.

What’s something you know about that your readers may not?

A grad professor of mine once recommended we think about this question, finding something unique to describe that might inject some energy. Posing it to myself, I thought back to learning how to use that machete. I’d been taught it was a tool of gravity, not of force. No matter how strong you were, hacking away wouldn’t do much good. You need a sharp blade and the right angle, then let gravity do its job. I began free-writing about this and discovered a voice that belonged to Myrna, the book’s main character, who was secretly excavating the ruins. The machete became thematically important, too, since Myrna didn’t have much power, physical or otherwise; she had to be sharp and find the right angle to get where she wanted to go.

What will you learn if you free-write from a minor character’s perspective?

I advise my students to find multiple ways to jump away from the main thrust of their stories. This particular exercise isn’t necessarily about writing material to be included in the text; it’s about the writer discovering new information.

On the days I felt most stuck, I let myself write short narratives from the perspectives of minor characters in my protagonist’s community. I learned a ton about the island’s history, more than my narrator could know, and much of it allowed me to add texture to the fictional island I was creating, where what does not get talked about fuels Myrna’s machete adventures. That secretive aspect of the book hedged me in because I couldn’t reveal anything beyond Myrna’s perspective, which, combined with the typical limitation of the first-person narrator, and her intense focus on her excavations, isolated her character from friends and family.

Some of these free-writing exercises eventually became parts of the book in which I let other characters speak. These characters never would have come to life if I hadn’t let myself experiment with their voices. In talking to readers, I’ve learned how important these side stories were to their reading experience. They needed these breaks from Myrna’s perspective. So perhaps my feelings of being mired in the writing was actually a clue into what my readers might feel, too.

I wouldn’t have finished Fingerprints if I hadn’t relied on these tricks to help me stop thinking about the to-be-finished Fingerprints. I hadn’t thought of the various exercises I offer students as necessarily related before, but I came to see that many of them focused on relieving writers of the pressure of writing a book –  distracting writers from that larger aim so they could write something.

In speaking with other writers, particularly students, I’ve also been reminded how helpful it is to hear writers speak honestly and practically about what their processes were before their books were ever books.

Connect with Rebecca at her website, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

She is teaching an online novel writing workshop for Catapult beginning in June.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Come Write, or Talk Writing with Me in April -- in Southern New Jersey or Central Massachusetts

I have two opportunities coming up in mid-April that will let me work with writers directly -- one in Southern New Jersey, another in Central Massachusetts. I thought I'd let you know about them in case you live in those areas and might like a day to gather with other writers. Both are open to the general public (and are paid events with advance registration).

On Saturday, April 14, you'll find me at Writing in the Pines, leading a full-day memoir writing workshop in Galloway, NJ (on the campus of Stockton University, not far from Atlantic City). 

"The Gift of Incomplete Memory" is meant to help those who are writing memoir (or personal essay, family history, or other creative nonfiction works), and must excavate memories that are often hazy, incomplete, and full of question marks. We'll alternate between exercises and prompts that will help generate new work, discussions, published examples, and helpful feedback. (Not a memoir writer? The same day, offerings include full-day workshops in poetry writing and the craft of revision.)

Writing in the Pines is organized by Peter Murphy Writing, which runs successful writing retreats at the Jersey Shore and in upstate New York, New Hampshire, Wales, Scotland, and Spain. While I haven't taught in this part of my home state before, I've heard such wonderful reports about any of the writer events they run, both from teachers and participating writers, I am excited to be part of their team for this one.

You can learn more about Writing in the Pines here.  

The next day, Sunday, April 15, I'll be at Writers Day, on the campus of Bay Path University in East Longmeadow, MA, which lies just outside Springfield, MA, a few miles over the border from Connecticut. 

My presentation, titled "Publishing: The Long and Short of It," will focus on writers' making decisions about what how, when, and why to publish their work, from personal blogs to major websites, literary journals, anthologies, chapbooks, newspaper/magazines, and books. Print or online? Short pieces or full manuscripts? Publish as you go, or wait until completing a full book manuscript? We'll tackle these questions and more, as we discuss how writers can manage the publication side of their writing lives with satisfaction (and as little frustration as possible!), while continuing to work toward long range goals, and produce new work.

The rest of the line-up for Writers' Day includes authors Suzanne Strempek Shea, Jonathan Green, Karol Jackowski, and Sophfronia Scott. One terrific aspect of this event is that you don't need to choose, as presentations are run consecutively, not concurrently, and you can sign up for one, some, or all.

I'm excited about this event because it will bring me to the BPU campus one extra time. (I teach in this university's all-online MFA program, and so typically only get to spend time on the beautiful campus at graduation in May.) I've already heard from some New England writer friends who are planning to attend, making it a sweeter proposition to drive from the bottom of the Garden State up to the Bay State in one swoop! 

You can learn more about Bay Path Writers' Day here.  

And of course, I'm happy to answer questions about either event (or find the answer for you) if you contact me directly.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Conference Wrap-Up or, What I Learned and Did (and didn't do) at #AWP18

Everything I do lately seems to have multiple purposes. I read for pleasure, to observe what other authors do on the page, to learn, to find fine examples to share with my students. When I cruise social media, I'm cheering on other authors with books about to publish, looking for great short essays to read and share, keeping up to date about the writing world (and the world!), having a bit of social fun, working here and there on some presence for my upcoming book. And when I'm at a writers conference? The motherlode of multi-tasking! All of the above!

For the mammoth annual AWP Conference two weeks ago in Tampa, I headed down with at least four (not exactly competing) items on my to-accomplish list: Talk to folks about my forthcoming book, Starting with Goodbye, and hand out/sign advance reading copies. Meet in person the literary folks I only know online, but really like. Read from, and meet follow contributors to the anthology, Flash Nonfiction Funny. Attend break-out sessions and other formal activities that piqued my interest, to continue learning.

I did all that, and more. 

Having ARC's of Starting with Goodbye was thrilling. To be in the AWP bookfair with those in my hand...well, I can hardly describe the feeling as far-flung writing world friends stopped by to have a look, take a book, and sincerely wish me well. I wanted to hug them all. Come to think of it, I did hug them all!

AWP's bookfair is a sprawling, two-football-field sized maze and can often feel like a bit of a cold place, filled with pressure to accomplish something, to meet someone, to have the right conversations. Last year though I seemed to crack through my own personal shoulds, relax and look at it differently: as a place to find, meet, and talk with writer friends I interact with online, editors who have published my work, former students, and my own fellow MFA alums, and also a place to explore, meet new folks, and not worry one whit about what may come out of those interactions.

While I did attend a few stellar break-out sessions this year, I spent fewer hours than usual in those, opting instead to continue meaningful conversations rather than dashing off to make it to a chilly meeting room exactly on time. Those in-person meet-ups now feel like a more urgent part of any conference experience than before.

One session I especially found interesting was focused on creative nonfiction chapbooks, which I reported on here for Assay Journal; there you'll also find reports on many more AWP 2018 panels. I picked sessions to attend mostly based on what I'm curious about now, including: an excellent panel on narrative medicine (coinciding nicely with an upcoming community teaching gig I have to help those recovering from injuries to write their health stories); one on how authors can collectively help one another on myriad levels; another on effective online teaching methods; and one more on mastering digital book promotion.

Because I had family in the area to visit, and my knees can only take so many hours of hard floors, I missed what I'm told was a masterful keynote by George Saunders, and some other evening events. Time was, I would have been upset about that. Now, I'm taking the long view. There will be other big conferences (AWP in Portland, OR next year?), and other gatherings nearer and smaller.

At my first job, a mentor once advised that if you can leave any professional conference having made at least three satisfying new connections, learned a couple of key strategies you can put into practice, and not come home sick or injured, that will have been a successful outing.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- March 16, 2018 Edition

> Assay Journal asked many writers attending the AWP conference last week to each report on one specific break-out session. I was happy to contribute this piece covering a panel presentation on chapbooks as a viable publishing option for (not poets, but) creative nonfiction writers. And if you want more on CNF chapbook publishers/ contests/opportunities, see Chelsea Biondolillo's post and generous list at Brevity's blog

> What would it be like to get news only from print for two months? This guy found out.

> Poet Stephanie McCarley Dugger, on what it's like to win a book publication contest, ordering poems in her manuscript, and the ups and downs of submissions, at the Prairie Schooner blog.

> Gayle Greene, at Women Writers, Women's Books, on how she shaped her grief memoir, Missing Persons.

> Creative nonfiction writers have to make their characters come alive on the page, too. Shuly Cawood has some good advice for this. For novel writers, here's Jessica Morrell with tips on "Creating Vivid Minor Characters."

> Feeling lucky? You can win a bookstore. Yep, an entire store, to own and operate. Deadline to enter is this Sunday, 3/18.

> Finally, if you are one of my local northern NJ readers, come work with me on Sunday morning, 3/18. As part of the Montclair Literary Festival, I'm leading a 90-minute workshop, "Writing from Memory," geared to helping memoir, personal essay, and family history writers pry prose from partial memories.

Have a great weekend!