If you’re writing a novel or a memoir, the following exercise might be helpful. It came up recently while I was working with a Fresh Pond writer on his memoir. This writer was really trying to nail the opening chapter, and so I suggested that he select five of his favorite memoirs (published by others) and analyze the first 15 pages.
For writers who never did well in math, you might be surprised to learn that literature contains fractals.
Fractals are geometric figures made of small components that have statistical characteristics identical to the whole. If you zoom in on a fractal, you see the same shapes again and again no matter how far you zoom in.
In the world of math, fractals are used to analyze and describe snowflakes, crystal growth, galaxies and coastlines.
It seems they can describe language as well. Continue reading
I’ve started writing my drafts in longhand. If you’ve taken one of my workshops, you’ve probably heard me advocate for putting pen to paper. You may have even argued with me about how ridiculous it sounds in this day and age of computers. Pfft! Writing by hand (eye roll). It takes too long.
I was skeptical and resisted the advice for a long time. And then one summer, I decided to create a mini writing retreat for myself. I rented a place in Gloucester for the weekend and when I awoke that first morning to the light coming in so gentle and the birds chirping, I didn’t want to disrupt the ambience with the garish glow of an electronic machine, so I decided to sit with my coffee and pen and notebook. To my amazement, I wrote nonstop for three hours. Not only that, I didn’t hate it.
It takes months, and then suddenly I have a finished short story that I want to submit for publication. Many journals ask for a cover letter and I’ve spent some time perfecting my own, which I want to share with you here. I continue to find ways to improve it, but here it is with brief explanations embedded.
The writer writes.
As an on-and-off again fiction writer, that very obvious notion eluded me for years. I put writing aside, put it off, did something else, cleaned, cooked, watched television, worked out or just about any other activity that didn’t involve writing, all the while wondering why I couldn’t finish a story. Continue reading
“You should know more than what you put on the page. The reader can sense that.” — Susan Orlean
Credit: Tim Green / Flickr Creative Commons
There’s an important essay going around that, if you haven’t read it yet, you should read now before finishing this post. It’s called On Pandering by Claire Vaye Watkins, who is known to me by her fantastic 2013 debut collection of short stories, Battleborn, which won five literary awards.
The essay is actually a speech Watkins gave as a lecture during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. Either way, the content rattled me.
A year ago, I began volunteering at a retirement community teaching a memoir writing class to a handful of dedicated writers. I refer to these writers collectively as “my ladies,” because except for the occasional man who pops in now and then, the regulars are all women (above).
Most of them — perhaps all— have never undertaken a creative writing class before. But they show up each week, notebook in hand, and after I give them the writing prompt I’ve prepared, they turn to their notebooks uninhibited by the constraints of craft, and write away. I’ve yet to witness any signs of writer’s block. In the 30 minutes or so they have to write before we share, most of them fill several pages.
As we come down the home stretch of 2015, I have much to be thankful for. In September, I officially launched workshops for Fresh Pond Writers and a month later received my first acceptance for a short story.
That story, “Williams,” which imagines a future where Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams is awoken from his cryogenic sleep was inspired two years ago by an essay from the brilliant David Rakoff about cryonics. I’m not a big fan of baseball and didn’t know that Ted Williams had been put into cryogenic suspension until I read that essay.
More recently I wrote a story called White Bear, which was directly inspired by this poignant video by Rosanna Wan, “A Tale of a Sickly Whale.” There is also a song by Neko Case, This Tornado Loves You, that keeps working its way into my writing, though I’ve yet to figure out the narrative. It’s a work in progress.
I’m struck by how these pieces have touched me and inspired me to produce stories. I’m grateful for the art that has fed my own art and it makes me wonder if any specific piece of art has ever inspired you to craft a piece of writing.
Last night in workshop, we briefly discussed the idea of outlining a novel, especially after the first draft had been written. I’ve never written a novel before and much of what I’ve read about craft discourages outlines. But I think it’s important to stay open to methods that could potentially improve a story’s structure or plot. So the question for me lately is, Should I outline a story or not?