Want to Finish Your Book? Focus on Fascination.

Friends, I am in the process of trying to finish my second book, and let me tell you, it is a difficult task. When I first began my book, I loved it. Words flew from my fingertips. My characters were quirky, weird, and felt just so juicy. I could hardly wait to sit at my computer and write because I was completely immersed in the world I had created. The story held me by my tippy toes and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.

In my case, this fascination lasted about 80 pages, before I started to get overwhelmed with the mechanics of writing—were the characters well rounded? Where was the story arc? What were the internal and external conflicts? Was I telling too much? Not enough? Was the problem compelling? Were the characters annoying? Did this book even matter? At the end of the day, ugh! Writing is hard.

That’s when I stumbled across a podcast on The Unmistakable Creative. The guest was Sally Hogshead, a creative author, speaker and marketing expert. (Go check it out, yo.) She talks about the concept of fascination. Fascination is different than interest or just paying attention. Fascination is when you are at your creative best—or for lack of better words—when you are in a pure creative flow. You are in the zone, completely absorbed, and focused on whatever it is that you’re trying to do.

Neuroscientists say when the brain is in a state of fascination, it has the same brain pattern as being in love. This makes complete sense. I have been fascinated, or in love with, people, books, ideas, paintings, cookies, places, music, TV shows and friends. You all know that feeling. It is bliss. Whatever you are fascinated by, is completely engaging and intriguing.

That’s why a brand new idea is wonderful. We are essentially in love with our creation—it’s original, fresh, and intriguing. We can’t stop thinking about it. By the way, if you are a fascinated person, you communicate better, connect better, and love the world better. All cylinders firing—you are your best self. It’s like that movie with Bradley Cooper, LIMITLESS, where he takes the pill that makes him his best self by 1000%. (Man, I really wish there was a pill like that. Come on, Bradley, help a girl out.)

The attention span of the average human being is 9 seconds. And with instant everything, available 24 hours a day, it is getting harder and harder to stay fascinated. Want to hear something fascinating? Only 7% of workers think their bosses are fascinating. We are all walking around, bored out of our minds. There is also a direct correlation between income and fascination of work (not necessarily your job, but whatever you spend most of your time doing.) The more fascinated you are, the higher your income (according to studies), which makes sense. If you’re fascinated by your life/work, the easier it is to make a living.

That’s great, you say. But what if I’m just bored with my project? What if I’m stuck in the middle and can’t find my way out?

Here’s how you can return fascination to your creative writing project:

1. Muscle Memory: Muscles remember stuff, and so does your brain. For example, maybe you’re an excellent athlete. My husband is a great surfer. I hoped that he could teach me to surf so we could surf together. But here’s the thing, he paddles through the waves like butter. He can expertly eye the perfect wave, with just enough shape and force, to get him on his feet, within 0.7 seconds. He rides his surfboard like it’s attached to his body. He hardly has to think about it because he’s done it so many times. When I surf, its laborious. I have to think about every move I make and then my body doesn’t obey, because I haven’t practiced.

The same is true with writing. If you only write sporadically—let’s say every few days or every few weeks—it takes your mind so much longer to get back into the groove of writing. Writing requires muscle memory. People who spend 2-4 hours each day on a consistent project or endeavor are much more successful, than those who don’t.

2. Writing Rituals: Even with muscle memory practice, writing can still feel like dragging your fingernails across a chalk board. Writing rituals can help you harness the original fascination you had at the beginning of your project. Only you know what motivates you to finish your creative project, but many writers have specific rituals they follow to get them in the zone before they write. I listen to the same play list when I write. I also listen to a favorite book on audible, or a favorite inspiring podcast before I write.

Some people read poetry, some writers hand-write a page from an author they admire, before they begin to write their own project. Other authors go on a walk, run a mile, do the dishes, drink a specific cup of tea, or talk to a creative mentor. Whatever it is that inspires you to sit down and get to work, figure it out, and do that. Sometimes before writing, I tell myself that I only have to write 100 words. More often than not, it only takes me 100 clunky words to get in flow of my project.

3. Mechanics: When I become frustrated with a project, I know I need to change my perspective. It could be tweaks with my characters, plot, or tension, but when I’m bored, I know I need to change my view. Deconstruct what it was that drew you to your creative piece. That may mean further research—a field trip, a new hobby to understand a character better, or an interview with an expert.

Are your characters stagnating? Peel back each person piece by piece. What makes them fascinating? Are they their truest self, without a facade? Is your language helping your piece or is it filled with clunky phrases, words or cliches?  If the mechanics of your writing are on point, it can help improve it’s fascination level.

By tapping into what inspired your art, you and your writing will be more successful. Fascination is what inspired you to write in the first place, right?  So let’s finish that book!

I hope these suggestions help. Happy writing!

xo,
Jen

www.jewhitebooks.com

 

No Pain, No Gain: Are You Making Your Characters Suffer?

Think about all the things you don’t like in real life. Sharks. Spiders. Earthquakes. Bullies. Public speaking. Chances are, if you expose your characters to what you fear, your fiction will flourish because of it. Writers can’t afford to be nice. We’ve got to throw rocks at our characters, as Nabokov famously said. Get them into terrible trouble and hold them there, feet to the fire, until the very end of the story.

Why? Because witnessing other people’s pain and observing how they deal with it keeps readers turning pages. Hopefully, it teaches us something too.

I don’t mean that we should create unrelenting misery; our characters need to experience both ups and downs. I’m no masochist, but since it’s January, I thought the topic of pain was appropriate. For many, this is a month of deprivation and dieting after the holiday excesses. Or a time to force ourselves (again) to start working out at the gym. Just attempting to carry out our new year’s resolutions—and the guilt we feel if we don’t—can cause angst.

Given that this past year has been a challenging one for my family, it helps me to remember that hardship can actually benefit us in the long run. Light can’t exist without darkness. We must experience sorrow to truly feel joy.  So in fiction, a dearth of pain can be a problem. When tension fades, so does reader interest. One of my students has a tendency to protect her protagonists, just as she’d do for the people she loves in real life.  Her instinct is to keep them happy and safe from harm. Boring. “Stop mothering your main characters,” I tell her, but she still finds it hard to hurt them. She’s not the only writer who struggles with this.

It may be helpful to think of it in exercise terms. Physical pain, the kind we feel when we push ourselves playing sports or working out, is a necessary part of getting stronger. Athletes can’t get to the next level without it. Tearing microscopic muscle fibers helps the fibers rebuild more densely into bigger muscles—scientific evidence that discomfort can be beneficial (as long as we don’t overdo it).  I’ve always found it ironic, of course, that in order to flood my system with those bliss-producing endorphins, I have to embrace pain first. But every time, the aches and agony lead me to the ecstasy.

Emotional pain can strengthen us in the same way. Writer Jeanne Weierheiser calls “embracing pain the gateway to growth.” How can you not gift your characters this kind of opportunity? I’m exploring what it means to be a hero in the book I’m writing.  To do this, I’m forcing my characters to make mistakes and endure some really bad things. That’s because their journey to transformation is not based on success. Winning isn’t always the best teacher. Setbacks are what make us stronger. Think about your own experiences. Isn’t positive change more likely to occur after periods of heartache and despair? In the end, my protagonist comes to see that she’s learned more from her missteps than her triumphs. It’s through struggle that she discovers who she is.

The hazards writers create don’t have to be huge and life-threatening. But there should be plenty of small stuff for characters to sweat. Even minor pain can cause emotional upheaval and growth. Things like—

  • Change. This is something people tend to be wary of. As Sol Stein writes in Stein on Writing, “Changes in life are fraught with peril. If the perils of major change happen within the covers of a book, the reader will be absorbed.”
  • Surprises. There are good and bad surprises. Bad ones in life bring “hurt, sadness, misfortune,” says Stein. “But in books readers thrill to the unexpected. A new obstacle, an unexpected confrontation by an enemy, or a sudden twist of circumstance all start adrenaline pumping and pages turning.”
  • Embarrassment. Even in humorous fiction, characters should experience some suffering. Embarrassing situations are a perfect vehicle for this, and they will almost always create interesting plot developments.

Failure is also a reliable source of pain. Most of us have experienced some incidents of failure in real life. When I think of all my unfinished stories and abandoned novels, for instance, I tend to start feeling bad… And yet, my advisors at VCFA taught me that nothing is wasted, every word we write (good or bad) prepares us for what comes next. So, I try to remember that perfection is the enemy of progress, and that Jane Fonda was right when she brought the phrase, “No pain, no gain,” into prominence to promote her exercise videos.

A protagonist in pain can help us answer the following key story questions: Does this person have a goal? What is the purpose of this scene? If your character isn’t suffering, trying to keep from suffering, or trying to make someone else suffer, scenes can start to drag. In fiction, too much happiness can become humdrum.

So, embrace the pain when it comes knocking at your door. Learn from your fiascos and flops. And do something nice for your characters—inflict some misery on them. One day, they’ll thank you for it.

 

 

How to Win (or Lose) Writing Contests: Tips from a Judge

img_0538Over the last ten years, I’ve judged a dozen or more writing contests. The writers have ranged from elementary school kids to published and not-yet-published adults, and the prizes have been as varied as a certificate with a gold star, a live reading by a professional actor, advice from a hot agent or mentoring by a published writer, but the winning submissions did the same things right.

I can’t guarantee that if you follow my advice you’ll snag the top prize, but you’ll probably make it through more rounds than if you don’t.

When judges get a pile of contest submissions, they do a first cut. They don’t want to spend a lot of time considering stories or poems that don’t have a chance of winning. Their goal is to eliminate the “losers” fast.

So how do you survive the first cut?

  1. Follow instructions. If there’s a writing prompt or a theme, submit a piece that fits it. Don’t send in your WIP thinking your brilliance will overcome the fact that it doesn’t conform to the rules. It won’t.
  2.  Proofread and spellcheck. Don’t give me an excuse to throw out your story because your grammar or spelling are atrocious, which I will— unless you’re a first grader whose inventive spelling makes me laugh so hard milk comes out of my nose.
  3. Match your synopsis to your submission. If your synopsis was amazing, but your story doesn’t fulfill the promise, I will be really disappointed.

Let’s assume you made it past the first cut. Between half and three quarters of the submissions have been placed in a “go no farther” pile. Sometimes, judges are given a rubric which tells us specific things to look for, like inventiveness, adherence to a theme, or compelling characters, and we use the rubric to winnow down the submissions to a handful that get serious consideration.

Sadly, only once have I been asked to write comments that would be returned to the writer explaining how they could improve their chances.

So here are some of the things I would say to writers whose pieces did not win.

4. Assume the bar is high and aim for it. Study published stories so you know what it takes to succeed.

5. Polish your story until it’s the best you can write it. Listen to your critique group’s concerns. It will only take a judge a page or so to determine if your story deserves another look.

6. Dump the cliches. The last girl in the universe who writes in a scavenged paper journal? Puh-lease.

7. It’s not you, it’s me. When you get down to the NCAA Final Four, any team can win. They are all that good. When judges gets to the final handful of contest submissions, any one of them could take the prize, so the final decision is entirely personal. The judges will choose what moves or intrigues them.

8. Don’t give up. (See 7.) If you’re honest with yourself, maybe your story needs more work. However, if you submitted a piece that your peers or advisors feel is compelling and perfectly written, then this wasn’t your turn, but you’ll hit it on the next try.

Author photo and book jacketCatherine Linka is the author of the series A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS. Find more advice from Catherine at her website: www.catherinelinka.com

Research That Rocks

What would a mountain lion do with human remains? Is it possible to murder someone with a proton beam? How fast can a knife wound across the chest bleed out? If your phone’s been hacked and someone’s spying on you, how would you know?

unknown-3These are just a few of the miscellaneous topics that writer colleagues and I have been researching. Interesting subject matter, yes, but time-consuming work to sift through the ocean of material out there to find the best answers. Which is why I’m trying to sharpen my search engine skills and get up to speed on things like cold calling experts. If you’ve ever wondered where to find information for your book, check out these tips from authors who’ve mastered the art of research. Effective techniques can boost writer productivity, add to story authenticity, and inspire the kind of arresting details that are, as John Gardner said, “the lifeblood of fiction.”

Research 101: Where does a writer begin?

Most writers begin with online research, because it’s convenient, free, and available 24/7. Sheryl Scarborough, whose YA mystery/thriller series debuts in February with the title, To Catch a Thief, uses the Internet to find “high quality, professional descriptions, images and videos for the settings and situations I’m writing about.” This includes everything from high school forensic classes to information on lifting and comparing fingerprints. The challenge is sorting through the surplus of data, so finding reliable websites is key. Here are five that Sheryl recommends:

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  • YouTube – If you want to learn how to do something, check YouTube. Most people don’t know that it’s actually the second largest online search engine, Google being the first. On YouTube, you can watch babies being born, surgery on almost everything, plumbing, dry wall installation, toy making, lock picking and cow milking. Seriously, there’s almost nothing you can’t find on the site.
  • Google Maps– You can customize a map to a particular area, put pins in multiple locations, compute distances, AND you can look at an actual corner or front of a building on Google Street View.
  • Zillow—This online real estate database is a great tool for writers who want to describe houses and neighborhoods in actual locations.
  • eBay—It’s not just for shopping. If you’re looking for the real McCoy, use it to browse for pictures of things from the past.
  • Central Intelligence Agency— https://www.cia.gov/library/publications. According to Sheryl, it’s a great tool for learning about a foreign country!

 Don’t forget about librarians; they are a tremendous resource.  “If you’ve got a good librarian,” Sheryl says, “you’ve struck GOLD!” 51vfdcq7jml-_sy412_bo1204203200_

It was research librarians who helped Meg Wiviott, author of the picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, and the YA novel, Paper Hearts, with one of her greatest challenges—finding a German map from 1938 that could provide her with the name of a street in Berlin in the vicinity of the Neue Synagogue. This was “not something that could be googled,” Meg explains, “because Berlin was heavily bombed and damaged at the end of [WWII] and modern day streets might not have existed back in [the year the story was set].”

Keith Raffel, best-selling author of five adult thrillers, says he does a lot of his research in libraries. In fact, he’s even traveled across the country to work at specialty libraries.

cover_temple_mount_medcover_fine_dangerous_season_med_02For his fourth book, A Fine and Dangerous Season, Raffel spent time at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where he “used a bunch of memoirs, a book of transcripts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a book showing what the White House looked like in the Kennedy years.” He also travels to foreign cities to do research first-hand as well.

In addition to working with libraries, Meg contacts universities, museums and historical societies to research her historical fiction. The artifact at the heart of Paper Hearts, for example, is held in permanent collection by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. After traveling to Montreal to see the heart and talk to filmmakers, Meg “read broadly on the Holocaust, the Final Solution, and the Nazi death camps,” before narrowing her focus “to Auschwitz, the work kommandos, the companies who contracted with the Nazis to use prisoners as slave laborers, and survivor stories…” Finally she interviewed the surviving daughter of her novel’s real life main character.

unknown-1 Her only problem was knowing when to stop. “Research,” Meg says, “is an addictive pit I can easily fall into.”

 How can a writer find the sources she needs? Are there interviewing do’s and don’ts?

Most of the books I’ve worked on have required some form of outside research. As a result, I’m always looking for professionals to interview. I’ve talked with surgeons, EMTs, firemen, plumbers, electricians, pharmacists, trainers, venture capitalists, hackers and cyber security sleuths for my writing projects. While there’s no one right way to find an expert, it’s a good idea to cast a wide net, because you never know who’s going to deliver.

Post what you’re looking for on Facebook.  “I needed a very specific genetic marker for To Catch a Killer,” Sheryl explains. “I didn’t even know if [what I wanted] was possible, but if I could find it, it would completely tie my story together. I put up a request on Facebook for a referral to a geneticist and within a short period of time, I heard from a VCFA friend with the name of her friend who was a student studying genetics AND she gave me the perfect [genetic] anomaly. It was amazing.”

Approach people with confidence. After all, you are a professional too. “You can just walk into a police station and ask to talk to someone on staff,” Keith explains. He did this while writing his first book, and immediately they “sent someone out who explained how the department was organized, where they hold prisoners, etc.” When Keith needed help on what a mountain lion would do with human remains, he cold-called “a state expert in Sacramento who, while initially skeptical, was in the end terrifically helpful.” And when he needed help figuring out how to commit murder with a proton beam, he “finagled an introduction to a Stanford physics professor who’d worked at SLAC back in the 60s,” and emailed the professor questions about how that might work.

Fortunately, people tend to get genuinely excited and want to be helpful when you tell them you’re writing a book. You can interview people by email, by phone or in-person—but research your topic beforehand so you’ll sound intelligent and prepared when you talk.

Writer research can require a thick skin and sometimes a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the strange looks an electrician and his crew gave me when I plied them with questions about death by electrocution. Or the day I was online researching hidden cameras, and a chat window popped up with a smarmy salesman who began detailing the different ways I could watch other people in secret. It was creepy, but I stuck with it and got some helpful information. (Of course, you may want to delete the digital cookies that some of these sites leave on your browser. You never know what kinds of ads may start popping up!)

How should a writer thank her sources? Is payment ever required?

Payment is usually not necessary. The best way to thank people is to mention them in the Acknowledgments Page and send them signed copies of your book.  “Of course, when I met people for a meal or drinks, I picked up the check,” Keith adds. “I always followed up with a thank you email or note… asked them how they wanted to be acknowledged… invited them to the publication party and called them out there if they came.”

Realize and accept that most of what you learn will never make it into your story. But in the process, you may discover the subject for your next book!

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EAT, PRAY…SCHOOL VISITS!

When my book first came out in June 2015 I knew I wanted to do school visits.  The only problem was, I had no idea how.  To be honest, I was a little scared of the idea.  On paper, it sounded great.  In real time, it sounded like a panic attack–me in an auditorium with 300 elementary school students?  The prospect sounded daunting.

Soon I received my first invite from a friend who taught 6th grade to come and do presentations for his students (four classes in total, around 120 kids).  Now I had a deadline and I had to deliver.  I needed to create content, craft a presentation, and make sure that I could speak in front of a crowd. I immediately scoured the internet to see what information could be found on school visits.  I don’t know if you know this, but there is very little on the internet regarding school visits for children’s authors.  I was surprised, and then worried, because I needed help, and fast.

Here are a few things I learned in my “Year of School Visits”.

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Jen and Bookseller, Alexandra Uhl—The Whale of a Tale Bookshoppe

Ask for Advice from a Seasoned School Presenter: After my internet search fail, I reached out to talented author, presenter, and friend, Julie Berry.  (Hi, Julie!)  She is amazing.  For the price of a delicious bowl of ramen she walked me through her awesome presentation, told me how to talk to schools about author and administration expectations, and opportunities for book sales.  Julie was a gem and helped me see in a very real fashion the logistics of creating a great school visit that would be beneficial to me, the students, and to the school.  From her example I was able to tailor a presentation fit to my needs.  At the end of our chat, she also gave me a great bit of advice: Do as many school visits as possible in my first year to gain experience.  So that is what I did.  I presented to whole schools, small classrooms, book fairs, book expos, book clubs, writing groups, elementary schools, middle schools, and to teachers.  It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

(Best advice, Julie!  Thank you again.)

Julie Berry

Jen and Julie Berry

Look-Act-Be Professional: Of course as authors, we want to look the part and like we know what we’re talking about.  So shower, wear clean clothes, perform basic hygiene, and don’t forget to smile.  Looking professional seems pretty straightforward. But something I hadn’t really thought of was if my presentation looked professional.  In my case, I created a PowerPoint presentation, with various pictures and videos, along with written content. Think of yourself as a logo or trademark.  What do you want to convey?  What kinds of books do you write?  What images or ideas do you gravitate towards?  Whatever it is, make it visual and place it throughout your PowerPoint so it looks cohesive.  In my opinion, a well-placed theme makes you, as the author, more professional.  Another important point is to create a document that outlines what you present and for how long, so the school can get an idea of what to expect.  You want to inspire the students, but that won’t happen until you get past the gate keepers (teachers and school administrators) and show the school how valuable you can be as an inspiration and a teaching tool.

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Lone Peak Elementary

Think Like a Kid: As authors for children and young adults, this probably isn’t very hard. But it goes without saying, that whatever your younger self would find interesting, would now interest your younger audience.  In my case, I wanted to show videos of various animals in their natural habitats and talk with my listeners about how to survive. (After all, my book is SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE.)  The videos were a huge hit and a favorite of both teachers and students.  I loved talking with the students about survival strategies, Darwin, how humans have their own survival skills.  I also talked about the writing process, creativity, reading, my book, and my journey as an author.  Which brings me to my next thought….  think like a kid

 

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Jen with her sisters when she was young. Grand Canyon.

Get Personal…But Not Too Much: Of course you want to tell the audience about yourself.  They are interested in you as an author— what you were like as a kid, what books you liked then, what you like now, and maybe an embarrassing author photo or two, but don’t make the mistake of top loading your presentation with ME, ME, ME.   The students want to relate to you, but they also want to learn something about reading, writing, and your book.  If you’re too busy telling stories about yourself, you can’t convey the rest…which is really important, too.

 

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Indian Hills Middle School

Expect the Unexpected: In my “Year of School Visits” I learned that what can go wrong, probably will.  Sometimes you plan, prepare, check and double check, and things still go wrong.  All you can do in these circumstances is smile and work through it.   To help with any technology glitches, makes sure you carry whatever you need on an extra thumb drive.  Also, I always brought my own computer and ran my presentation through it.  This was helpful because the software I needed to run my presentation was already there.  One time the presentation on my computer wasn’t translating well into the school’s media and speakers, so I did the presentation without sound, but we rolled with it.  Be prepared for your media not to work.  What will you do then?  Do you need handouts?  An activity where the kids can get up and help you?  A game?  A writing prompt? Are you going to read from your book(s)?  I always suggest doing a short reading, it makes everyone in the room your instant fan.

 

Over Prepare: Sometimes you think you have your presentation planned out perfectly and then you end twenty minutes early.  Now what?  I always over prepare.  Before your visit ask the teachers to read a chapter of your book to the kids, or have your books on hand in the classroom and the library.  Kids and teachers who have read your work, are generally more excited to have you there.  Place your first chapter on your website so everyone has an opportunity to sample your work.  Also, plan extra content.  In my PowerPoint presentation I have extra quotes, writing activities, a game, and sections of my presentation that mostly go unused, unless, SURPRISE, I have more time than needed.  After presenting at a middle school and an elementary school, I now have two PowerPoint presentations:  one for elementary, and one for 7th, 8th, and 9th  You can tailor the same content for different ages.  You must have a bag of tricks to pull out when things don’t go as expected.  Consider it your SURVIVAL BAG.Felix

 

If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Have fun! If you don’t look like you’re having fun, the audience will feel it. Act like you’re speaking to some of your closest friends—they like you, you like them, and it is fun to be together.  A school visit should be the same kind of experience.  If you hate getting up in front of an audience, but love to talk about writing, maybe a smaller group is your best choice.  Figure out what works for you and then do that.

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Rancho Canada Elementary

 

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Vista Verde Elementary

I have to say, after I got over my initial nervousness, and built a great presentation with fab content, doing school visits is one of my most favorite things.  The kids are awesome!  How often can you interact with kids who have read your book, or who want to read your book, or who are just plain happy to see you?  I have made great friends– especially lovely librarians and booksellers who have, and still continue, to give me their best help and advice.  So get out there, people!  Share your genius.  School visits are a very good thing.

Notes From VCFA

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Someone is playing piano in the lounge next to my dorm room at VCFA. It’s raining and a great rush of water pours off the roof and sends cooling air in on the breeze, and the sounds weave through the open window until you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. The mingling is very like the alchemy which happens every Vermont College writing residency, since faculty lectures, no matter how disparate their titles and content, invariably evoke similar themes, and touch on the questions you have already been asking yourself.

Questions such as, how does our personal and cultural “truth”—that ever shifting truth—really inform our fiction? Where is the intersection of the personal story and art, where does one stop and the other begin? And how do you get to this crossroads and best tap in, to uncover the patterns you want to paint in fiction?

In last week’s post, Helen Pyne touched on the idea of writing with “mindfulness, honesty and play” as laid out by amazing authors Amanda Jenkins and Marcelo Sandoval. In the way of things, these themes have suggested themselves in the current VCFA residency lectures as well, so let’s visit them from a couple of new perspectives.

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Liz Garton Scanlon, author of the Caldecott-honored picture book All the World, and middle grade The Great Good Summer, says that as writers we face a dearth of daunting, complex choices. So much so that sometimes it’s easier not to choose. Where do we show, where do we tell, where create poetry, where create prose, where inform, where entertain? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But no matter how hard to choose, it’s in answering such questions, Scanlon says, that writers find their power. Her advice for the next time you’re faced with this dilemma, is to play around with the intersection where two such opposites meet, because here you’ll find the sweet spot which holds a new way forward.

For example, bestselling author of the Raven Cycle and other novels, Maggie Stiefvater found her sweet spot while creating the Scorpio Races, in the meeting of myth and personal story. For her, a story comes alive when she uncovers its mood and emotional weight. _StiefvaterSo even though she was writing about a fantastical world where dangerous, mythological sea creatures rose up to be ridden, she needed to connect it to her own childhood memories of what it felt like to face danger and challenge. And then her novel was born.

Not that the deeper reasons you’re writing a novel are always easy to determine. Tim Wynne-Jones, who knows how to get things accomplished given his long list of award winning novels, just spent four years creating his new release The Emperor of Any Place.  Emperor-of-Anyplace

The work began as a series of vignettes he wrote in college—enter the element of play—and grew as he put it, from a “greedy curiosity” to write about so many characters, settings and situations that one book couldn’t hold them. To actually make this “morass” into a novel, he had to return to why he was writing it. To let go of “the stories that might have been” and find the pattern in his writing that revealed the one true story thread.

_KarlinsThat’s ultimately why we write, says Mark Karlins, author of the acclaimed picture book Music Over Manhattan, to discover a description of ourselves in the world, a pattern for our lives and an identity, a sense of who we are in relation to others. Story allows us to ask, as the muddy creature from Jenny Wagner’s The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek does, Who am I? And story, Karlins says, is a place to explore, deeply and honestly, the answers to this question.

In addition, Karlins believes we write best when we write for our own amazement, right down to the smallest details. For example, instead of calling a day sunny, call it bright as the back of a spoon. The very strangeness of the metaphor can lead your reader in, and make your fictional world come alive.

Daniel José Older, author of the YA Shadowshaper and other bestsellers, says there’s yet another way to make your fictional world live on the page. Proximity. As a former paramedic on the streets of New York, Older experienced firsthand that participating in events is very different than simply watching them. To paraphrase the author, you can’t really walk in another person’s shoes (or another character’s), unless you’re proximate. And when you are no longer a passive witness to events, but an active participant, you become the protagonist in your own story, too.  _Older

Enter crisis, growth and change, which Older believes is the heart of any novel. But he cautions not to stop here, because none of us live in a vacuum. “Context (setting) is time, place and power,” Older says. (You only have to consider the events of 9-11 to see how crisis reshaped a nation’s mythology.) So if you want to create authentic worlds for your characters, their lives need to reflect the social, cultural and historical factors that make us who we are.

–Zu Vincent

 

How to Finish a Novel

       I was stuck. I’d been trying for months to finish my novel, but my output had dwindled from a torrent to a trickle. Even though I knew what happened in the end, I couldn’t find the words to write the last few chapters. Other writers complain about the muddle in the middle. Not me. My challenge was figuring out how to bring the story to a close. So last month, I attended the VCFA alumni mini residency in an effort to seek wisdom from the source. While all the lectures and workshops were outstanding, talks by two inspirational writers in particular, Francisco X. Stork, and VCFA faculty member, Amanda Jenkins, sparked an epiphany for me.

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Finishing a novel, I learned, has less to do with forcing yourself to work than it does with easing up and listening to your intuition. If the muse stops speaking to you, the solution isn’t to grip your pencil more tightly and push down even harder. That only results in sore fingers and a broken lead. Instead, try what Jenkins suggests: “Notice your heart and trust it more than your head.”

When writers lose sight of the emotional story, that’s when things can get off track. “I’m not feeling it,” Jenkins would say again and again when commenting on manuscripts in our workshop. No matter what we thought we’d written, if readers weren’t feeling the emotion, then the truth was, it didn’t exist. And you can’t create a satisfying conclusion if you’re not “writing deeply… from the heart.”

imagesStork’s message was fortuitously similar. “You must learn to trust your intuition if you want to write characters with heart and soul who live forever in the minds of readers.”  Stork defined intuition as “a way of seeing a truth that is not dependent on words.” As the creator of one of my favorite fictional characters, Marcelo Sandoval from Marcelo in the Real World, the author clearly practices what he preaches. The truth of Marcelo, his “soul,” came to Stork in a flash of intuition. Later he tweaked and revised his protagonist, but because he trusted his gut instinct and embraced the “sudden illumination,” an extraordinary character was revealed to him.Unknown-2

While writers cannot force this kind of insight, Stork claimed that “we can create circumstances that are favorable for its arising.” He cited three writerly disciplines—mindfulness, a sense of play, and honesty—that make it “more likely for the lightning of intuition to strike.”

Mindfulness, “awareness without judgment,” is important, because it trains writers to keenly observe both the external and internal worlds. It’s hard, however, to watch thoughts go by in the conveyor belt of your mind if you can’t let go of judgment and self-censoring. I’d never finish my novel, I realized, if all I did was revise what I wrote the day before.  But I’ll choose revising over drafting every time, because once the words (however bad) are written, I have a roadmap to follow. If I have something to tinker with and fix, the analytical part of my brain kicks in, and I can enter my flow state.

We all need our inner editor when polishing and perfecting our work. But if you allow her voice to take over too soon, she can derail your writing. “Leave that editor mindset behind, especially when you’re drafting,” Jenkins said. “Listen to your gut more than your head.” In other words, embrace the ambiguity of drafting. Don’t get so mired in micro-level scrutiny that you miss out on the big picture.

Just a few of my many craft books

Just a few of my many craft books

Swapping out head logic for heart logic isn’t easy. I like to refer to checklists, tip sheets, craft books and the work of other authors when I write. I want so badly for my work to be perfect that I’m hyper aware of the pitfalls. Does my setting feel real, did I show more than tell, did I remember to use the five senses?   As manuscripts grow longer and more complex, the pressure writers can feel to tie up loose ends, bring character arcs to a close, and resolve the themes they’ve been exploring can kill creativity. The antidote? Stop trying so hard. Be willing to experiment and play.

When we become too obsessed with getting it right, we can lose sight of other things. Have you ever written something that didn’t sound quite right? But when you set it aside and came back to it later, the solution was suddenly clear? “Recognize the value of sometimes not doing anything,” Stork said, “the need to wait for the missing spark of life to appear, or for the insight that will untie the knot where you’re stuck.” Instead of forcing the story to go where you think it should, listen to your “wordless inner guide.”

Inspiration...So after the AMR, I went home and tried something new. Instead of tightening, I loosened. Instead of focusing on craft techniques, I thought about spiritual truths—and emotions. And I thought about why I started writing this novel in the first place. In my fiction and in my life, I tend to ask difficult questions. But I don’t need the answers to all those questions to write the end of my book. All I need is to keep asking the questions. That’s how the story will emerge. That’s how the ending of my novel will find me.

So, go deeper and stay there, as Jenkins says. Find your writing heart and hold onto it!

 

 

 

 

5 Tips for No Fail Author Visits

Young people at music festival

This week, I spoke to three very different audiences: college students in a creative writing class, public high school students in LA, and elementary and middle school kids and their parents at a Barnes & Noble book fair. I slammed it out of the park with two of those talks and bunted with the other.

Why the fail? Because I didn’t follow my own advice for author visits. It’s a short list, five points, but addresses the biggest reasons a visit falls flat.

1.Size up the audience.

I usually contact my host before my visit, and ask questions about the audience. The more I know, the better I can tailor my talk to them. College students who choose to take a creative writing class are nothing like high school students herded into a library by their English teacher.

2.  Size up my host.

Often I’m invited to speak by teachers, librarians, school administrators or bookstore staff. Sometimes my hosts want me to inspire kids to read, or to understand the importance of revision. One asked me to talk about how I write scenes in longhand first to let my creativity flow, because she wanted parents to hear that cursive is still important. And bookstore staff always want me to remind listeners that they can buy my books here.

3. Get my host’s support.

Just as I want to support my host, I want the host to support me. If I’m working with a library or a bookstore, I want to know they have copies of my books on the shelf. If my host is a teacher, I encourage him or her to assign students to read the free sample chapters from my book before I arrive.

4. Determine what will interest THIS audience.

Unhappy boy in art class

I can talk about writing my books in many ways, but I need to find the one that connects with the audience in front of me. I’ve spoken in prep schools about girl’s rights around the globe, talked to foster kids about surviving publishing rejection, and talked to writers about writing and the realities of publishing. While I always talk about my books, I try to imagine what these listeners care about.

My fail this week? I didn’t sex it up. These teens needed more drama,  and I didn’t make my book intriguing enough. Looking back, I should have read a high action scene, and talked about firing an M-4 semi-automatic during my research. That would have caught their attention.

5. Partner with my partner.

This week, I partnered with other writers for two of the events. Fortunately, I knew both writers, and we laid out in advance what we wanted to cover. But advance planning can’t eliminate all the differences in speaking styles or personal agendas.

While I’m fine with letting another person take the lead, I was reminded that I am responsible to myself for making sure I get to talk about what is important to me and my book. And that might mean politely and assertively redirecting the discussion. It’s not my partner’s fault if I don’t get to cover all my points, it’s mine.

Now I’m getting ready for the next round of visits and you can bet, I’m looking for the heart-pounding scene that will get a teenage boy’s attention.

Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can read her novella, Sparrow’s Story: A Girl Defiant for free on wattpad.com.  https://www.wattpad.com/story/28382310-sparrow%27s-story-a-girl-defiant

What The #$&@ Does My Character Want Anyway?

questioning girl

When I showed up for my first MFA residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was surprised at how many discussions centered around “what does the main character want?”

Why is that so important, I wondered. What if the character doesn’t know what she wants at the beginning? She’s a teenager. How is she supposed to know? And even if she does know, that doesn’t mean that what she wants now won’t change.

My first epiphany came during a lecture about how a writer can get to the essence of their story by summarizing it this way:

My character (insert name)

wants (person/place/thing)

but when (event) happens

he/she must choose between (option one) and (option two).

My protagonist will struggle to get what he/she wants, because of his/her (character flaw or weakness.)

Suddenly, I saw that want was the driver that sent the character on their journey. Every choice, every decision the character made had to tie back to getting what the character wanted.

Identifying what my character wanted was easy when it involved goals like winning the race or getting the guy, but I struggled when faced with a character who didn’t have a conscious desire or goal.

day dreaming girl

I floundered about until I discovered FROM WHERE YOU DREAM by Robert Olen Butler. In his chapter called “Yearning,” I experienced my second epiphany.

“We are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something.”

Yearning or hungering for something–even if the character wasn’t capable of verbalizing  their feelings–now that made sense. All those unspoken, perhaps even unacknowledged dreams–the feelings we are only half-conscious of, the flutters we try to ignore–they can change the course of our lives even if we don’t fully understand them.

And Butler crystalized the power of yearning when he said “plot represents the dynamics of desire.” Plot is how the character satisfies their desires.

Now I could identify what was underneath my character’s skin and what my protagonist knew they wanted, as well as what they might not admit they wanted, but which drove them nonetheless.

But I still felt uneasy when my character’s desire changed.

My most recent epiphany came when I was struggling to write the sequel to A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, because my character was no longer the girl she was when the story began. Avie wasn’t innocent or naive anymore. On the run from a planned marriage, and hoping for freedom in Canada, Avie’s future was now complicated with an important, but unwanted mission that might kill her.

At a retreat with Martha Alderson, the “Plot Whisperer”, Martha emphasized the parallel between the character’s emotional development and the plot’s story action, and I realized that even though my protagonist still longed for love and freedom, she would struggle in the sequel with a growing sense that she needed to serve a greater purpose.

It was now clear to me that our characters evolve through their stories, and so what they want must also evolve. As writers we have to allow our characters to abandon what they first thought they wanted and let them hunger for something even greater.

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Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can connect with her on twitter @cblinka or www.catherinelinka.com.

 

Poetry Invites Prose by zu vincent

balloon jpeg
Last summer a friend and I began exchanging a poem a week. She’s a visual artist and I’m a writer, but neither of us consider ourselves poets. We just love poems and wanted to grow a few between us. At first, we used the works of established poets to plant the seeds, poems we liked that made us feel we had something of our own to say on the subject. But we soon found we didn’t need the prompt and began writing simply from the stuff of life. We wrote narrative poems, three line poems, silly poems, serious poems, poems that tackled the biggies such as joy, love and grief, and poems that seemed to bubble up from the unconscious with no warning at all. For me, the resulting harvest is rich with story ideas and language I might not have tilled any other way.

Poetry, as Newbery author Karen Hesse says, is addicting. “It’s like chocolate, once you start eating it you can’t stop” It’s also a great way to see more deeply into your prose, which is why poetry is at the heart of the VCFAWC residency this summer. For starters, each faculty lecture includes a poem or poetic reference. Visiting author Karen Hesse http://us.macmillan.com/author/karenhesse wowed folks with her twelve inch thick (at least!) binder of her poetry output for a year. And a faculty panel discussion featuring Tom Birdseye, Amanda Jenkins, Louise Hawes and Sharon Darrow dissected what poetry means to each of the panelists on a personal and professional level.


paracheute jpegWhile some of these distinguished writers don’t mind calling themselves poets, others shy away from the term. But they all read, respect and love poetry. That’s the beauty of what they had to say, which is that poetry is not scary or inaccessible or meant only for the erudite few. Poetry is for everyone. And poetic language is everywhere, as familiar as our heartbeat. From ads, to nursery rhymes, to popular songs, to prose lines to daily free poems on Writer’s Almanac.  http://writersalmanac.org/ And for writers, reading and practicing poetry can enhance your prose and narrative non-fiction in several ways.

 

Here are a few suggestions:

Try rewording your paragraphs sentence by sentence with an eye to word choice and poetic line breaks, this can be a revelation when it comes to cutting unnecessary words and phrases, and in general sharpens your voice.

Write a poem from each of your character’s points of view to help you discover motivation and voice.

colorful balloon jpegAnd as Louise Hawes suggests, write a poem for each scene or chapter of your novel as a way to uncover the main emotion you need to convey in that scene or chapter. When seen in poetic form, you can more easily note any gaps in your narrative arc, or missing elements from your beginning, middle or end. (Lou as she’s affectionately known, holds word play workshops she calls Play Shops around the globe).  http://www.louisehawes.com/bio.html

In his lecture on metaphor, VCFA faculty and author Mark Karlins notes that metaphor “can’t be translated.” Rather, you must intuit your way in. Because metaphor goes “deeper than thought, and is rooted in the human soul. That place where the inner self and the world merge.” That place is the stuff of poetry. Poetry distills. Poetry re-sees. Poetry provides a metaphorical lens that isn’t about thinking, but about intuiting. And it does this most often by capturing a moment that speaks to what is larger than that moment, and larger than ourselves. The world in a grain of sand.

Often these grains of sand can add up to larger works. You might find your next book in your poetry, as Karen Hesse did. Or that, like author Pam Houston (whom I spoke with last spring and whose process seems to me so like poetry writing that I wanted to mention her here), you are developing your own poetic form. Houston’s novel, Contents May Have Shifted, while not written in verse, is a series of short chapters that hover between genres and flash off the page in a form she calls “glimmer writing.” Glimmer writing, Houston explains, http://lehab.org/2015/04/09/pam-houston-glimmers/ is about opening yourself to the world each day, and recording what sticks, what sparks insight and holds richness, much like the contents of a poem.  What says, in her words, “Hey writer, over here, pay attention.”  In encouraging writers to capture their own glimmers, Houston believes that what sticks, what coalesces on the page, will provide the themes and storylines you’re meant to tell.

Reach for the poetic in your writing. Find those glimmers and keep them as a poem or a paragraph, because in the very act of giving a moment attention, it becomes a habit of deep listening, both to the outer world and your own inner experience of it. That’s were words resonate. In that space beneath and beyond the self that lives for the reader. That space between the marks on the page and the life created as one reads them.