Tag Archives: MFA

Reading as a Writer

I stopped enjoying reading in grad school. Why? I used to read as a reader, getting sucked into the world of the book and enjoying every minute. Total relaxation. Then, I spent two years studying my craft. I quit reading the authors I used to read. I no longer enjoyed their books. I couldn’t have put my finger on it; I just didn’t. I read differently now. Every book is a lesson in craft.

I still have authors I enjoy, and I will read all their books. But now they teach me. One of my favorites has a new book out, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Have you ever picked up the wrong drink? You have an iced tea and you pick up hubby’s Coke by mistake? That OMG reaction your mouth has to that unexpected taste is what I am getting from this book. This is a good writer, but this book is driving me nuts. I want to tell my inner writer to shut up and let the reader just enjoy but…

We’ve all been told there are rules for a reason, BUT breaking them is also done for a reason. I’ve seen accomplished writers break rules and paid close attention in the hope that I could replicate that success. (still waiting) I’m a child of the sixties so I’m all about rule breaking but trying to break as many as possible in one book is too much for even a talented writer.

Some lessons a writer learns in reading are more painful than others. Such as, even our favorite writers, even those gifted in craft, make missteps. Has a favorite author ever let your inner reader down? (No names, please)

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Hooking Your Reader

Free Contest

In conjunction with this ongoing interview – and in celebration of Hooked, Les’ book on openings – I’m hosting a FREE contest here at Write On.  See below for details and submission guidelines.

Interview with Les Edgerton Part II

Write On asks: One of the interesting things about Hooked for me was the reminder that it’s not just about “hooking” them at the beginning but keeping them hooked and the difficulty inherent in that. Can you address your ideas on writers continuing to hook beyond the beginning?

Les answers: This is a great question! Every single page should “hook” the reader. How? By being interesting. By practicing what author Harry Crews does in his own writing. Crews says he “tries to leave out the parts people skip.” This is the best advice I’ve ever seen on writing. If you leave out those “parts people skip,” you’ll probably end up deep-sixing most of that insipid and boring backstory, most of the lengthy window-pane description, and almost all of the character’s wandering about in their skulls revealing their sophomoric, mind-numbing thoughts. By doing so, you’ll end up with a really cool book. One that gets sold and read.

Is there a trick to this?

You bet. The trick is know what your story’s about. Every quality story is about one thing only. Trouble. “Trouble” in novel terms, is the story problem you’ve created for your protagonist. It isn’t trouble in the lay term. It’s the story-worthy problem you’ve created and the surface problem that’s symptomatic of that problem.

A contemporary novel begins with that trouble. It begins with the inciting incident which creates and/or reveals that problem to the protagonist. The rest of the novel is about the protagonist’s struggle to resolve that problem. That means that the problem has to be present on every single page once it’s introduced. Every single page. No exceptions. It’s tightly focused, what Flannery O’Connor referred to when she described good writing as being of a “single unified effect.” To paraphrase former President Bush the Elder: “It’s about the story problem, stupid.” Everything in a good novel is directly tied to the spine of the story which is always about the story problem the protagonist is struggling to resolve. Anything that doesn’t adhere to this spine needs to be ruthlessly cut.

Got a great character who just “appeared” out of your imagination and has found herself in your story? Does she contribute to the protagonist’s struggle to resolve his or her problem? If so, great. Keep her in. If she doesn’t, then create a file for her for another novel. Delete her butt in this story. Unless, of course, you only plan to write one novel in your lifetime.

Got this terrific subplot idea? Great! Great, that is, if the subplot contributes to the main struggle and is subservient to it. If not, delete it. Use it for another story.

This is what Faulkner refers to (in part) when he advises writers to “kill their darlings.”

 A novel has to have a single, undivided, adhesive focus. To be, as O’Connor advises, “all of a piece.” That’s how you hook readers on every single page. Give your protagonist a problem that’s compelling to most readers and keep her on the journey to resolve that problem. The more compelling the problem and the harder her struggle becomes, the more you hook the reader every time they turn the next page. It’s really that simple. Cut away the stuff that doesn’t contribute to this.

Les Edgerton is a full-time writer with nine books in print and teaches creative writing on the university level, through private coaching of writers, and on various on-line venues. He graduated from Indiana University with a B.A. in General Studies (Honors of Distinction) and obtained an MFA in Writing from Vermont College.

 

Contest Information

Enter your first page of a WIP (any genre) by January 29. The winner will be announced by February 12. The writer of the best first page will win a copy of Hooked from me and a signed copy of Finding Your Voice. A big THANKS to Les for his donation of a signed book. Now polish up those first pages and be ready to submit.

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The Writer’s Life

The image of the writer – historically speaking – is of a guy and a typewriter in a room, isolated, alone, slaving away at his craft. Writers lived lives that kept them introverted in the social sense and often at odds with other writers. Read biographies of great writers ,and you’ll read stories of the often great feuds between them.

Fast forward to today and the image of the writer is quite different. We live in a global world where the writer – even when alone at a computer in her attic room – is by no means isolated. She may be talking with someone in England or Canada or Australia or Africa or…well, you get the idea.

Todays writer cannot afford to live in isolation. Ours is a job fraught with rejection, criticism, and constant uphill battles. No one wants to take that journey alone. The writers of yesterday would be quite surprised to find how much todays writers rely on each other and the community of writers. We have local groups that keep us afloat such as critique groups and beta readers, and we have regional groups such as writer’s guilds and unions that provide us with much-needed support. We have national organizations that allow us to widen our circle of influence and to help us learn from a diverse group of people.

We have online groups which allow us to interact with people we might never meet otherwise and establish friendships that would not have been possible thirty years ago. In this regard, there’s never been a better time for writers.

As I drove to the college this morning, it occurred to me that I rarely talk to others about this. I’m blessed by this circle of friends, their insights, words of criticism and support, and sometimes, just the shared laughter and tears.

Novel Clique is my critique group. A sisterhood of writers who close down Border’s once a week and laugh and cry with abandon. I’d be lost without them.We began as a group of unpublished writers and have stayed together and grown together. We’ve now celebrated as each has published.

First Tuesdays is Novel Clique’s pay it forward. We began it as a way to help new writer’s starting down that path. It’s a gentle hand of guidance from people who have been in the trenches and felt the slinging of mud and the harsh lash of criticism handled incorrectly. Once a month it’s an opportunity for laughter and shared experiences. We all learn from it.

Professional writers are generous beyond belief. It amazes me every day at the number of writers who continue to reach out to writers every where – published or not – to offer insights and support. For me, that list includes Nancy Pickard, Richard Thomas, Harlan Coben, and Les Edgerton. Successful writers are busy people; and when they take the time to reach out with a kind word or suggestions for a WIP or just  a smile at a conference, it’s important to say thank you. Thank you!

MFA’ers – you know who you are – are definitely special people to me. We shared an experience that bonded us in ways that are almost familial. Our continued contact is important to me and always will be.

Online writing friends consist of people I’ve met on blogs, Facebook, and even face to face at conferences and then, continue to communicate with online. These friendships are unique. I might never have met these people if not for technology. I enjoy the banter and exchanging of ideas and support across the miles that separate us.

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Hooked:The Story-Worthy Goal

   

By Les Edgerton

In chapter 3 Les said something that caught my attention in one of those stop, reread, feel the lightbulb go on over your forehead, and think how amazing this revelation is ways. The ongoing dialogue of this chapter is the protagonist’s story-worthy goal. The line that stopped me is, “Your protagonist’s story-worthy goal is probably very close to a goal you want to achieve for yourself”(65-66). My first thought was about my YA protagonist, Ginny, and how she is searching for her identity. Who is she really? Where does she fit in? Her parents told her she’s adopted, but she discovers she’s genetically engineered. Think puberty is rough, try that one on for size.

    My second thought was the one that turned the pause into a full on stop. One of the purposes of my excursion into an MFA program was to find my “identity” as a writer. I’d begun writing as a playwright and director. I’d branched from that to novel-writing which, in hind sight, was a horrid leap. The MFA program sent me back to the short story genre which was good for me in a host of ways.

  Still, who was I? When I sat down to write adult novels, they were nearly always mysteries or thrillers. The books I’ve always loved to read. However, every time I sat down to write for young people, this weirdo came out. I have no idea where she came from, but she was all over the place. A paranormal here, a sci/fi there, a horror story on the side, a sweet coming of age story as a chaser. What the heck was that about?

    Here’s where what Les said caused the hair on my arms to raise. The first YA thing I wrote was the sci/fi novel with Ginny which is at its heart the story of a girl who has lost her center. Through no fault of her own, she no longer knows who she is. I relate. Now I know why this book means so much to me. I understand why no matter how much rejection I face, I can’t let go of this story. I’m not Ginny, but her story touches at the heart of all of us who at some point in our lives question who we are. Sometimes it’s in puberty, sometimes it’s in midlife, sometimes it’s in the golden years, sometimes it’s as we exit life; but questioning who we are is as human as we are.

    As you write your WIP, do you think about your character’s story-worthy goal? Have you ever thought of how it might reflect your own goal? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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My Writer’s Bookshelf (Part II)

The second half of my bookshelf list is below. These books offer wide-ranging craft lessons and insights.

6. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose: I read this while in the MFA program and it helped me to understand why I had begun to struggle with my reading. I couldn’t read the same kind of books I’d read before, and when I read I no longer read for story. Suddenly, I was reading books with a writer’s eye and it was making my reading miserable. Until I read this book and realized that it was a good thing and began to understand why and what I could gain from the new way I approached reading.

7. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: I’m a longtime fan of Bradbury’s so I picked this gem up for that reason alone but the book wound up being a delightful read.

8. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: Vogler’s book is a study in the psychology behind character types and why we are drawn to them as humans who have encountered them time and again. While it is a fine line to make sure that we aren’t writing stereotyped characters and plots, knowing these common types allows us to develop characters that the reader will relate to. This book is important to ensure writers are familiar with the common archetypes.

9. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott: What is there to say about this book that hasn’t been said before? It’s a book every beginning writer should read and every writer should reread throughout their career.

10. A CURRENT MARKET BOOK APPROPRIATE FOR WHAT YOU WRITE: If you want to submit your writing, it’s imperative that you have a current market book. Stay on top of the latest information on markets before you submit.

Do you have writer friends? Set up a system where you can exchange books. Share with each other what you’re learning from a particular book. Recommend books to each other. What’s in your top ten list?

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My Writer’s Bookshelf

Writers have extensive libraries. It’s a part of who we are. We have books in the genres in which we write, books outside of the genre in which we write, research books, and we have how to books. We LOVE our how to books. Even when we should put them down and just write, we can’t pull ourselves from learning our craft from experts.

Every writer has a list. Books that touched them and sent them down a path of no return in terms of their growth as a writer. I’m no different. Les Edgerton quotes some of my favorites in his book, Hooked, so it made me think about my list, my top ten, as it were. Here are the first five:

On Writing by Stephen King: Brevity is probably the surprising aspect of this part autobiography/part book on writing King penned after a horrific crash nearly took his life. When you look at the average length  of  his works, this book’s length is a picture book next to an unabridged dictionary. Still, he is classic King throughout offering tongue in cheek humor and dead serious professionalism about the craft. He offers up his own work in draft form as examples of the editing process. If you’re not afraid of climbing into the dark mind of genius, this is a must read.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway: This is perhaps the most comprehensive how to book I’ve ever read. I read it my first semester of grad school, and she blew me away with her insights. It’s like a mini writing class. I especially love the organization of the book. She takes an aspect of the craft; for instance, characterization, and she talks about it. Then at the end of that section, she has several pieces which best exemplify what she’s tried to teach you. I never put this one away because I am always referring back to it. It’s doggy eared, highlighted, scribbled in and my most used book.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas: This guy is the guru of agents. Not only is he a well-respected agent, a hot ticket on the conference scene, and a great writer, he appears to have unending energy. This book offers signposts for those seeking to find a way to make their novel break free of the pack and find success.  

The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great by Donald Maas: This is another great book to use for revision. I’ve used the exercises in it for my writer’s group as we do rewrites of our WIP. Some of my best writing has come from these pieces. If you want to find your way down to the core of your writing, this book is a great way to start.

Hooked by Les Edgerton: If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’m reading this book. I’m moving slowly – school year and I’m teaching six days a week – but I’m experiencing high levels of excitement from what I’m learning. Honestly, given the ADD nature of people today, you need to have everything on your side when it comes to your book. Getting the reader hooked isn’t just a good idea, it’s imperative. Read this book!

Next time I’ll provide the bottom half of my top ten. Tell me, what books are on your writer’s bookshelf?

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To Outline or Not to Outline, Is that a Question?

Writers talk about it incessantly. Outlining. “Do you outline?” One of the most frequent questions asked of writers, I imagine. Probably among nonfiction folks, the percentage of positive responses to this is high. However, in fiction this becomes murky. Newbie writers probably find that for every fiction writer who outlines there is one who doesn’t. In MFA programs, writers are also divided down lines of those who do and those who don’t. So, what’s with this outlining question?

Much of it has to do with the brain. Some people think in a linear fashion so an outline is imperative for them. They see the story in a chronological pattern from beginning to end. Other people are more random/chaotic and for this thinker, outlines are a curse.

Anyone who knows me, will tell you I’ve always been a random/chaotic. I’ve tried every six step program out there, but I’ve just learned to accept my brain and deal with it. And frankly, it works for me. I tried in my early days of writing to write from an outline. All my years in school had trained me well. I outlined my first novel from beginning to end. I thought with everything laid out for me that nothing could go wrong. I started diligently to work. I made it to the end of the first chapter. I pulled out the outline, changed it to reflect what my recalcitrant characters were doing, without my permission I might add. This went on for half the book before I realized that I can’t do it. Once my characters were fully evolved they took over. The main character was suddenly a minor character. A police detective had totally taken over her story. A character who wasn’t supposed to die, did. The list goes on and on. In the end, I spent so much time going back and revising the outline, I was not getting the novel finished.

Yes, I know I should have left the outline alone, but that’s another of my six step failures; if I have an outline, it has to match. I know. I need help. That first novel is in a file drawer along with the pain filled outline. I refuse to look at either even though I still like the characters.

In grad school, I met a lot of talented writers. Some of them used outlines. Some of them didn’t. And in the end, it didn’t make any difference in whose writing was better. It is all a matter of preference for the writer. It’s not really a question. It’s a bit like asking a left-handed person why they write with their left hand. A linear thinker will write in a linear mode and for most of them that will mean outlining. A random/chaotic will throw words on the page with the carefree abandon of a water balloon fight. All that matters is getting to that end point. How you get there won’t matter to your reader. When they’re soaking in that mystery or paranormal or whatever it is that you’ve written – and that’s keeping them up nights reading – I guarantee you they won’t be thinking, “I wonder if she wrote from an outline?”

What’s your preference? Do you prefer to write from an outline or do you let your characters go and hope you can keep up?

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