Category Archives: novels

Coffee with Authors: Lessons from the WNBA panel at the Southern Festival of Books

These words of wisdom come from the Women’s National Book Association’s Coffee with Authors Panel in the Southern Festival of Books, October 13, 2012

Image

Courtesy of Humanities Tennessee, 2012

The Women’s National Book Association is insanely fabulous. And it isn’t just the free swag talking (though their swagbags are the best I’ve ever had- several free trade copies of novels I’ve been desperate to read and anxiously waiting on!). These women do a lot of great literacy-based stuff in their communities and always pick the most challenging and multi-faceted books to recommend. So when I had a chance to get in on their early morning panel at the Southern Festival of Books, I didn’t think twice before signing up.

Moderated by Nina Cardona, of Nashville’s “All Things Considered” on NPR, the panel of questions and answers was a whirlwind of fantastic writing insight. She grilled Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ecco/HarperCollins; 2012 National Book Award Finalist), Christopher Tilghman (The Right-Hand Shore, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2012 Great Group Reads selection), Gail Tsukiyama (A Hundred Flowers, St. Martin’s Press), and Karen Thompson Walker (The Age of Miracles, Random House) who were happy to give away their secrets.

Though these four authors write wildly different types of fiction, Nina Cardona’s questions revealed that they shared three main themes which shaped their decisions as writers: desire, research, and failure.

Ben Fountain was first to speak about desire. His insights into his character, Billy Lynn, are fueled by motivation and the young man’s desires:

“Billy is 19 years old, and I was 19 once,” Fountain said as the audience laughed.  Fountain asked himself,  “what do they want?” and found  “They want what all the rest of us want – to love and be loved. Even the most callow 19 year old boy/man wants that in his own way…Everyone wonders “who am i? what will become of me? What will I do with my life? What constitutes a decent life? How will I construct it?” These profound questions are at work in 19 year olds who are being whipsawed between the extremes of human nature and human experience. Billy has to act as a symbol of patriotism when he doesn’t know who he is. “As the story developed he became a kind of everyman. Maybe the kind of man I’d like to be.”  Fountain says he figured it out sentence by sentence.

 Everyone wonders “who am i? what will become of me? What will I do with my life? What constitutes a decent life? How will I construct it?”

Desire also played a large role in Gail Tsukiyama’s writing process. Tsukiyama said that in life, “what I can’t do I want to do…I was never smart enough to be a doctor, so I practice in the books.”  Your own desires find their way into your characters.

Research was also a central theme in the discussion.

Nina Cardona called Tsukiyama’s book “intense yet gentle” because of how the China’s revolution took a background to the familial fallout which was center stage. Tsukiyama said that so many books set in the Revolution were written by people who lived through it, so she wanted to write about people who were marginal. “This is a book about the one who isn’t in prison, but the one who stays at home.” She wanted to get the POV of those left behind in these vast historic moments, which required a combined approach of research and imagination.

Christopher Tilghman’s research all came down to place:  “My work has always started with a place… Placedness and landscape are important to me.”

Ben Fountain agreed that research is a tricky thing. “There’s a risk that when doing research you’ll over-determine the story… It will be so present and front that you’ll lose some other elements. So basically I do the research first, then give it time to marinade.”

Karen Thompson Walker’s research was challenging, as her novel is a what-if novel, set in a future world. That gave her some wiggle-room. In addition to the what-if science, a lot of the research for Walker’s book was for the young-adult protagonist. Walker had to remember how she was at that age, filled with curiosity. This curiosity translates over to the writing process: “Writing feels like reading. I have to feel the curiosity I would as a reader when I’m writing… The times I get nervous is when I don’t feel that curiosity. Then I have to stop writing and go back.”

 “I have to feel the curiosity I would as a reader when I’m writing.”

Nina Cardona pointed out that so much great writing often comes out of great failure. The authors agreed:

Tsukiyama: “I wrote 100 pages of wartimes in this book and could not get it right.”

Tilghman: “I’ve tried a couple of times and failed badly,” he said.  “All my novels have come from failed short stories…they couldn’t be done in 30 pages; they needed 300. It just grows.”

The Moral of the story?  Think about what your characters want more than anything and let that drive the plot. Do the background research but don’t let the research dictate the story. And fail a lot, and be comfortable with failing that much. Once you know how to not do it, how to do it becomes more obvious. All four of these authors pushed through the failure to land publishing contracts with big houses and win big prizes and the freedom to work on their next projects. It’s worth it.

Many thanks to Cardona and the authors, the WNBA, the Southern Festival of Books, the Nashville Public Library, the city of Nashville, and all of their sponsors.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

October 21, 2012 · 13:19

The Brussels Sprouts of Science Fiction

New on Zolder Writers: my post about the Brussels sprouts of science fiction. Don’t worry – sci-fi Brussels sprouts are nothing like Killer Tomatoes, I promise! Highlights include discussion of Robert Heinlein and the historical trajectory of the science fiction genre.

1 Comment

Filed under books, novels, writers

New on Zolder Writers: Gone, But Not Forgotten: Vintage Books For Hipsters and The Rest Of Us

Read Bride of Pendorich, a Victoria Holt Classic Gothic ThrillerThe good authors over at Zolder Writers, my former Critique Group in Amsterdam have allowed me to rant and rave about books near and dear to my heart: those old cheap vintage paperback Gothic romance/mystery/thriller/horror books from the mid-to-late 20th century you can get for under a dollar at most used book stores.

These books with their perfect endings, poetic justice, and supernatural insanity tell us so much about gender, colonialism, and how people my grandparents’ age viewed the world and their place within it.

Read the post here, for book recommendations and the wannabe-punchy hyperbole with which I deliver them, and some musings and links on antagonists/villains and how to write the perfect ending.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, fiction, novels, writers, writing

2011 Southern Festival of Books

Thirsty Tree in Nashville's Centennial Park. Copyleft Avery Oslo, 2011

This year’s Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, TN promises to be the most action-packed one yet. In previous years, I divvied up my time attending FREE writing/publishing/media workshops, supporting the small Southern independent presses by snatching up riveting titles for myself, friends and family, and chatting with agents and their fledgling writers. It is one of the most egalitarian settings for this type of networking, and you’ll never know who you’ll bump into.

This year in addition to doing all of the above, I’ll also be manning one of the booths in order to help sell advance copies of Soundtrack Not Included, the 2012 Nashville Writer Meetup anthology. My story, “Komenda’s Children”, is somewhere within the volume, and I’m excited to help do my part. Come by and make some small talk, buy some presents, and enjoy the ambiance!

Leave a comment

Filed under agents, books, fiction, marketing, novels, pubishing, writers

Kieron Connolly’s Newspaper Novel-Plotting Game

Kieron Connolly is a typical Dublin writer: self-effacing and soft-spoken with a warm small-town quality about him that rivals the size of his dreams. Enlisted to teach a noveling workshop at the American Book Center in The Hague, he confesses that he’s worried that he won’t have anything relevant to tell a group of writers. We chit-chat about the football, and the Nobel prize winner until the dutiful Dutch workers at the ABC put out carafes of coffee and tea and call our workshop to order.

 

 

Kieron Connolly with the October 9 edition of the NRC Handelsblad Newspaper (Copyleft Avery Oslo)

 

And just like that, Kieron Connolly stands and his slight frame commands the attention of everyone in the room. His books are about staring into the abyss and what happens when the abyss stares back—they deal with addiction, spirituality, religion, and love.

His advice is startlingly straightforward. In addition to the “write every day” and “create a routine” stuff by which so many other writers swear, Connolly stresses the need for flexibility. “There are many ways to get from start to finish,” he says. The key is to allow each project to be its own thing and deal with it in the way it ought to be dealt instead of tackling a uniform approach.

Connolly uses his book, Harold as an example. While his other books took roughly one year to write, Harold took three. Connolly set himself the goal of writing about universal humanity. After two years of dead ends and frustration, it occurred to him that it was a futile task. “I’d be in a home for the bewildered if I did that,” he says with a laugh. He had to compromise on Harold, and graft humanity onto people in a limited situation. Rather than explore all of humanity, Connolly went deeply into one aspect and created a book he feels is stronger than his others.

On editing, Connolly says the most important thing is to let everything sit. Never edit right away, but edit before you begin writing the next few pages of your novel. “70% of the finished product is in the first draft,” he says. “I do write the first draft as if it’s the final draft. I give it my all in the first, but knowing that there will be a second.”

Connolly’s biggest edits usually concern his characters. He finds his characters need a bit of personality/humanity added on because you know them better at the end of the novel than you did when you started writing it.

In order to give everyone in the room a chance to plot a novel together with others (this really takes the pressure off), Connolly shows us an idea-generating game:

The Newspaper Novel-Plotting Game

 

To play, Pick a newspaper, any newspaper.  (Even one in Dutch, as long as you have someone to translate it for you! ) Pick out an article at random and read. When you are done, ask some more questions of it. Who are the characters? What is not being said? What are the motivations of everyone involved? Where would you start a novel if you had to write a novel based on this article?

 


De Posthoorn, a local newspaper of The Hague (Copyleft Avery Oslo)

 

The group read an article about John Lennon’s fingerprints.  According to the paper, John Lennon applied for a green card to America ages ago, and the FBI started a file on him. This file included a letter that contained the musician’s fingerprints. This file was stolen, and 20 years later it showed up in an auction house. It never made it to the hands of collectors,  however:  as it was being auctioned off the FBI confiscated it to put it back into their files.

At this point, you can ask yourself where the real story begins. Of course there are many answers:

*Start with the disgruntled FBI agent that stole the file 20 years ago to get a nest egg

*Or write about the current FBI agents whose job it was to travel to the auction, shut it down, and safely bring back the letter despite the many people determined to get their hands on it

*Start with upset auctioneer with ties to the memorabilia black market in Moscow who lost out on a lot of money after the letter was confiscated and the auction withdrawn

*Start with the die-hard fan named Lennon who inherited the love of this Beatle from his dead father and mortgaged everything to travel to the auction house and bid on the  letter with the  fingerprints

*Start with the independently wealthy yet slightly unhinged scientist with a lab in Cambodia who dreams of cloning Lennon from the possible DNA remains on the fingerprints

Which one you pick will influence the type of novel you will write. If you choose to tell the story of the FBI agent, you may likely end up with a thriller, while if you write from the POV of the fan, it lends itself more to a literary story about obsession and redemption. Writing about the scientist could bring your novel into the realm of sci-fi, while a focus on the auctioneer could turn out to be a fascinating crime novel or mystery.

From there, start fleshing out your characters.  What do each of the other characters want? How will the desires of the main character you’ve chosen interact with the motivators of the other characters? Imagine how the encounters would play out, for example, as the unhinged scientist brushes shoulders with the FBI agents. Allow the newspaper story to guide you, but don’t feel constrained by it. And don’t be afraid to imagine as many scenarios as you can before deciding on the one you want to write.

Last and most importantly of all, Connolly doesn’t want you to take yourself too seriously. But don’t get him wrong: “it’s bloody serious business; we’re putting our hearts and souls into it.”

 

 

Check out this awesome sky I snapped from the balcony of my apartment when I got home this evening. If that's not noveling inspiration, I don't know what is! (Copyleft Avery Oslo)

 

I wrote the above from notes taken at Kieron Connolly’s novel-writing workshop at the  American Book Center in The Hague, October 9, 2010. He is the author of the play Tuesday and the novels  Water Sign, There is A House, and his latest (published this year), Harold.

4 Comments

Filed under novels, On Writing, story, writing, writing exercise

The Writing Genius and the Fool

The Fool, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

How can you be both a genius and a fool? How can your manuscript be both the best and the worst thing ever written? Ever?

All writers know exactly how.

Because we all have those days, don’t we? Those days where you are energized and excited about your writing. You are in love with both your characters (very good) as well as with your story (very bad). Words of inspired brilliance turn into paragraphs and then pages of pure awesomesauce that appear on the monitor in rapid fire. You hardly register that your fingers are making it happen.

This is the best thing you have ever written! You are a literary genius!

But then the next day… every word hurts. Every keyboard stroke is directly hooked into your pain receptors so you can not only know, but *feel* how each word you type is absolutely the most wrong word ever. Then you make the mistake of looking up at yesterday’s writing, and you notice that you used three adverbs in one sentence.

 

“Nooooooooooooooooooo,” you’ll scream, like Darth Vader when he discovered what happened to Padme. And you *will* scream it—your head will even tilt back as your hands claw in anguish at the air around you, grasping for answers. But epic fail is all you will touch.

This is the worst thing you have ever written! You are a literary fool!

(yes, yes, get to the point…)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that as with my manuscript, the truth of your manuscript is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Ride out the highs—really enjoy them for all you can. Hell, even picture the book signings and legions of adoring fans if you want. But know too on those dark and drably days that it’s okay. Everything will be okay. Keep writing or put it down, but do come back to it.

Because everything (umm, except killing Padme) can be fixed. Bad writing can be shorn of its devil-horns. The idea is salvageable, because the idea came from inside of you. And you are not a genius, but nor are you a fool.

This blog post was inspired by a writerly conversation with Kirsty Logan. She’s far closer to genius than fool.

Please share your genius/fool stories in the comments below!

2 Comments

Filed under books, fiction, novels, On Writing, writing

A Quick, Writerly Question

Scroll down for an explanation.

Barn near Travellers Rest Plantation, Nashville TN (Copyleft Avery Oslo, 2010)

Thanks for taking the poll! A lariat is a stiff type of rope with a loop at the end of it — a lasso, like the ones used by cowboys and grungy rodeo types to capture rogue horses and cattle (and women in order to tie them to railroad tracks). I’m trying to gauge how well-known this word is. I grew up thinking it was common knowledge, until a friend of mine from the UK pointed out that not everyone would know. If enough of you know, I’ll keep it in my latest novel (which is not about rogue horses or cattle or women. Well, maybe rogue women, but I promise none of them will be lassoed).

6 Comments

Filed under books, fiction, novels, WIP, writing