Category Archives: On Writing

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

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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.

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October 21, 2012 · 13:19

I get interviewed for Upper Rubber Boot Books’ Intermittent Visitors Blog Tour!

My interview with Joanne Merriam for the Upper Rubber Boot Books Intermittent Visitors Blog Tour is now live! Joanne  asked some great questions about my writing process and the best writing advice I’ve ever received.

Fans of my short story “For the Love of Ciderpunk,” (finalist for the 2012 Eric Hoffer Award for Short Prose Prize and published in Best New Writing 2012) will be happy to know she got me to spill all about how I came up with the grotesque events and unforgetably colorful characters who really made that story. It has everything to do with  the things I learned and the people I met while communally squatting various places in the UK in my early 20s.  You can read all about it on her blog.

 

This interview was part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

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Coming Soon: a Literary Fantasy Short Story “The Bridge of Organic Mortar” in Fantastique Unfettered

Fantastique Unfettered is a beautiful thing. They publish some of the best character-driven fantasy in all of its glorious sub-genres. They’ve got New Weird, Old Weird, Magic Realism, Slipstream, Alt Western, Planetary Romance, Surrealism, Mystery, Urban Fantasy, Literary Horror, Post Lovecraft, Aether Age, Interstitial, Steampunk and more. When I picked up my first issue from Barnes & Noble (Issue #2, bursting with short stories behind a cloud-shrouded Mayan temple on the cover), I knew I wanted more than anything for a story of mine to be good enough to be read alongside those the editors chose for FU.

Fantastique Unfettered Issue 2 (short stories, writing,readers)

Now that’s what I call a Mayan Temple! Fantastique Unfettered, Issue 2, bursting at the seams with fantastical short stories and other gems for writers and readers.

It took me a while before I had anything I could send off. I write all kinds of stories and can’t really choose what I write when. Like many writers, I sit down somewhere and I write, and what comes out is what comes out. I’m not sure it’s possible for me to determine something like “Today I am going to write a steampunk short story.” I’ve tried, and very rarely does the story come out steampunk, or whatever it was I intended to write. So with Fantastique Unfettered on the brain, I spent nearly a year writing very realistic short stories. Short stories about bad-ass protesters, train-pirates and West Africa  and murderous hobos, young tumultuous love, losing and re-gaining faith, eating disorders, and going through the fire, but realistic nonetheless.

Then when I finally wrote a bit of magical realism, I sent it off with fingers crossed. But it didn’t fit with what the editors of FU wanted to do with their next issue, and so it got rejected. (I won’t tell you which story it was, as it is now happily sitting in a journal collecting wonderful emails from fans who enjoyed it. It just goes to show that rejections are every bit as much about fit as they are about the quality of the story).

The second time was the charm, however, and my latest bit of fantasy, “The Bridge of Organic Mortar,” will make an appearance in Fantastique Unfettered, issue 5.

I’m not going to lie- I did a little dance. I may do a little  more dancing before this issue makes it to my hands. Making it into FU means that a few people who know a lot about writing think what I write is as good as what the people who get published in FU write. And these people who know a lot and who select some of the stories I love best think my short story is so good that I should be paid to put it there.  Anyone can tell you your story is good, but someone who gives you something valuable in exchange for your story really means it.

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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.

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In West Africa, I Learn Stories Belong to Everyone

Beauty and Poverty go hand in hand in West Africa (Copyleft Avery Oslo)

By the date, you can tell I haven’t written in a while. This is because I’ve been trekking through West Africa doing field research for my book (for my non-fiction writing job).

I can say one thing: it’s humbling as hell to see so much natural beauty juxtaposed with evidence of such an incredible level of poverty.  It makes the fiction I write seem like a load of self-indulgent wank. How could anyone care about stories when there are toddlers without clothes drinking untreated water from the river everyone bathes in?

Unfortunately, when I feel bad I write to cheer myself up. Amid a few bouts of self-loathing I’ve been doing a lot of scribbling. The words come easy while I’m  sitting on dusty bricks and writing next to burning trash heaps with the village’s young children crowded around me, fascinated by my foreign appearance and daring one another to poke me or pull out a hair.

Finally, the eldest of the children worked up the courage to ask me what I was writing. As I was explaining the characters and their main conflicts, the crowd of children drew closer, elder ones shushing the young. I slowed down and used smaller words, explaining the conflicts with body language so that the children whose English wasn’t so good could still understand.

When I had finished, the children shrieked with delight and asked for another story. Instead of telling them another one of mine, I asked for one of their stories. The children spoke among themselves and I caught a few stray words, and they took my hand and pulled me toward the center of the village. “Come, come. We show you.”

They took me to what looked like a swimming pool that had seen better days. Along its rim, three women were doing laundry, agitating big basins of soapy water with hands hardened through a lifetime of washing. They laughed when they saw me sheepishly pulled through a herd of goats to the pool’s edge by a group of exuberant children.

“One day there was dragon here,” one of the barefooted girls began.

“This big!” said a smaller girl with her hair in many neat Nigerian-style braids, holding her hands apart as far as they would go.

“That sounds scary!” I said.

And so the children told me the story of the twin villages, separated by a creek, and how the men of one village were very cowardly and would not slay the dragon, while the men of their village were brave and smart and figured out a way to best it.

The misty pool where the dragon was defeated (copyleft Avery Oslo)

It grew dark soon after, and despite the protests of the children I had to go. When I got back to my room at the guesthouse and the electricity was down, I sat in the dark and realized that while I hadn’t got any work done,  I had just had one of the best days since embarking on this trip. And I think the children enjoyed it a lot, as well.

That’s when it dawned on me that exactly here, exactly now while poverty is epidemic, do people need stories. Stories provide hope, and a way to process experiences, feelings, and thoughts. They are a vital outlet, and they are free. Stories belong to everyone, rich or poor, in Africa or in the US.

I am still devastated about the poverty in West Africa, but am incredibly humbled that among the poorest of the poor I learned to not be ashamed of my writing. Not every story can be deep, and not every story can get to the heart of universal truths; but every story can get me closer. Time spent writing is never time wasted.

I write now more than I ever have, and I thank West Africa for this.

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Finding Titles: The Good, The Bad, and the Downright Ridiculous

Finding  titles for your fiction is hard, right?

I mean, finding crap titles isn’t hard. I have a huge long list of crap titles I once considered, and not all of them are jokes.

But finding the perfect one for my work is another matter entirely.

A.G. Pasquella's "The Strange Saga of Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?"

A.G. Pasquella's "The Strange Saga of Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?" where Pasquella illustrates, literally, the difficulties of finding the perfect title for his book. (Click on the pic to find out more about the talking chimpanzee with televangelist aspirations. You know you want to.)

Teresa Coltrin discusses the process of creating the perfect title. It’s a great post that links to the latest blog entries by writers and agents alike about what goes into a great title, and how you can find yours.

Before I clicked through all of the links, however, I tried to figure out why my titles can sometimes be downright ridiculous. After all, avoiding the downright ridiculous has to be one of the first steps towards finding the perfect title.

For me, a bad title occurs when I’m desperate to slap a name on my current WIP. I used to not even be able to contemplate a good title; I would just name my pieces “The Southern One,” or “The Moroccan One With The Whores.” It’s okay though. They were working titles that nobody had to ever see aside from close friends and my crit group.

While I am no expert in the good title, most of my best have come once I’ve spent a lot of time really getting to know my WIP. And I mean getting to know the work itself, and not what I thought the work was going to be when I started writing it. There’s a big difference there, and the two are never ever the same. Bad titles come from my wanting to name the works while I’m still thinking about how I want them to be, and the best titles come from naming the works once I’ve figured out (and accepted) how they turned out.

So I guess the moral is to trust yourself. I’ve found many times that my crit group and editors enjoy a piece much more the way it turns out in the end rather than the way I had planned for it to go. It’s more fulfilling for me when I allow my subconscious to take over and for my writing to deviate from the plan. Usually, as long as I can let go of what I wanted it to be and accept it as is, the result is a stronger piece. And with a stronger piece comes a stronger title.

And once I had several stronger titles, I went back to the links on Teresa’s page and used the tips she collated to really help them shine. In particular, I found Rachelle Gardner’s how-to a lifesaver.

What’s your relationship with your titles?

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The Bell Witch: A Writer’s BFF

Have you ever heard of the Bell Witch? The Bell Witch Haunting came out in 2004, Bell Witch: The Movie came out in 2005, and An American Haunting was released in May of 2006.  It is  “based on the true events of the only case in US History where a spirit caused the death of a man.” All just an hour from my house!

Ghostliness @ The Bell Witch Cave? (Copyleft Avery Oslo 2010)

How could I *not* go and check it out for myself? A friend and I gabbed over her Beach Boys CD (Shut it. They’re good) on the ride out to the country, hoping that we’d take pictures and find scary two-headed snakes wrapped around our torsos when we later examined them on our computer screens.

For those that don’t know the story, here’s a brief recap:

In 1817, John Bell of Adams, TN, shot at a dog-like creature with a rabbit’s head sitting in his corn field. This marked the beginning of his family’s torment- they heard rats gnawing at their beds, had covers snatched off of them, and were disturbed by disembodied voices, among a load of other poltergeisty goodness. The draw of a story like this is irresistible to a writer, and apparently to a president, too.

Legend has it that the haunting persisted and news of it spread to then-General Andrew Jackson who went to visit the farm. On the way, the witch lashed out at General Jackson’s self-proclaimed “witch tamer.” It was his own fault for being all blustery, if you ask me. Who waves a gun with a silver bullet at a witch-like ghost and claims that all witches were scared of it? It’s like you are begging for a ghostly ass-kicking. So, an ass-kicking ensued.

Then of course the Bell witch kept plaguing the family. Betsy, the little Bell girl grew up and wanted to marry, but alas, the witch wasn’t supportive of her choice in men. The beatings, torment, etc. continued until Betsy Bell broke off the engagement, and the witch returned to haunting the young woman’s father full-force.

To make a long story short, everyone dies (especially Mr. Bell–his death was grisly), and the witch lives on. She even comes back every now and then to make predictions, and the cave and cabin are supposedly haunted to high heaven.

Troy Taylor, one of the Bell Witch historians said that he has “received a number of accounts from people who claim to have taken away stones from the Bell Witch Cave, only to then experience not only bad luck, but strange happenings in their previous un-haunted homes! Chris Kirby has assured me that she has received a number of packages in the mail over the years that have contained rocks and stones that were removed from the cave.”

The Bell Witch Pebble (Copyleft Avery Oslo 2010)

The Bell Witch Pebble (Copyleft Avery Oslo 2010)

So naturally I had to make myself a part of the story. The minute the tour guide told me that the witch can haunt many places at once and will haunt those that take away “souvenirs” from the cave, I had to take the first pebble I could reach. Had to. Heritage preservation be damned.

I didn’t take it because I don’t believe. I took it because I do, I truly do.

I figure that the witch is angry at having to haunt a place like Adams for so long. Don’t get me wrong—Adams is lovely—very green and peaceful with the smell of clover in the air—but for centuries? The poor witch is bound to be bored out of her ectoplasmic skull.

So I took the pebble in order to take the witch on my travels across the Atlantic. Currently, I’m still in Nashville, preparing to leave at the end of the month. She’s settling into my house nicely. It’s been two days, and so far, she has not seen fit to beat me, stick pins into me, rip my covers off, or sing horrible songs at me. I’ve introduced the pebble to the cat, and she sniffed it. I put it on her head and she balanced it for a second before shaking it off and darting after one of the hundreds of lizards in our backyard. No hissing, nothing.

Kitty's not impressed by the Bell Witch (Copyleft AveryOslo 2010)

Kitty's not impressed by the Bell Witch (Copyleft AveryOslo 2010)

I think the witch is excited. She wants to go to Scotland, to West Africa, to the Netherlands, and to Germany with me. She’ll have so many people and places to haunt that she may never want to come back to Adams! I love the idea of a portable witch-ghost and can’t wait to show her my own favorite haunts in Scotland.

Let’s hope the Bell Witch has a few hidden talents. I will certainly find out if she’s any good at inspiring the traveling writer to keep my ass firmly glued to the chair. Stay tuned for ghostly news!

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