Writing Advice from the Masters: Writing in Paradise

WIP Magnuson

I recently spent eight fabulous days at the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference: Writers in Paradise, under the tutelage of some of America’s finest authors. Set on Eckerd’s idyllic waterfront campus (some of us took a boat ride into Boca Bay as the sun set late one afternoon), we attended readings, social events, lectures, panel discussions, and intensive workshops over the course of the program. I was privileged to be awarded the Sterling Watson MFA Fellowship to attend this exciting conference, and doubly privileged to have a chapter of my novel workshopped by eleven brilliant authors, including multi-award-winning author and conference co-director Les Standiford.

As you might imagine, in a conference of this lauded measure, one receives a plethora of great advice and inspiration. It’s a serious writer’s job, then, to apply that advice to her manuscript and to carry that inspiration into her work. (Check out my brief essay on how to do that here.)

If you have the opportunity to attend a conference of this high caliber, I strongly recommend it. Until then, here’s a tiny taste of some of the advice and inspiration shared by the masters at Writers in Paradise. I hope you’ll support these generous spirits by attending their readings, buying and sharing their books, and reviewing their outstanding work.

 

On the craft of writing:

“Every good story is personal.” –Les Standiford

“Let suspense hook the reader, but don’t show them the hook.” –Dennis Lehane

“We can’t know who you are, until we know what you’ve lost.” –Andre Dubus III

“Don’t shroud the opening in secrecy. Tell the whole story in the first sentence.” –Les Standiford

 

On the writing habit:

“The ones who make it are the ones who stick with it. They’re the grinders.” –Stewart O’Nan

“Sculpt your entire life around getting your writing done. Don’t waste time. Write. Write. Write.” –Ann Hood

“We need special language to commemorate our lives: weddings, love, death, inaugurations. We need poetry.” –Aimee Nezhukumatathil

“Writing is an act of humility, and it takes its own time.” –Ann Hood

 

On researching story details:

“Go where the story takes you.” –Gilbert King

“Writing is problem solving.” –Sterling Watson

“Start from ignorance. Admit you know nothing.” –Stewart O’Nan

“Always be particular. Writers will do anything to weasel out of being specific.” –Les Standiford

 

What success means to you as a writer:

“Success means being able to continue writing. I don’t want to be publishing, marketing, or finishing a book. I want to be writing. That’s where the reward is.” –Stewart O’Nan

“Writing a poem is devastatingly difficult; it’s also a privilege. Writing is a privilege.” –Aimee Nezhukumatathil

 

Do any of these words of wisdom speak to you or your process as a writer? What is the best writing advice you have to give?

 

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How to Feast on Your Summer Reading List

Today is the day serious book nerds like you and I look forward to for days, weeks, even months: it’s the day summer reading begins! You probably have a tall stack (or, if you’re like me, stacks) of books that you’ve anticipated reading for far too long. Some of these books may be mindless entertainment; stories you won’t take too seriously, and ones you’ll probably forget a few weeks from now. Some may be literary fiction; stories that will cause introspection, play with your emotions, leave you forever remembering characters who touched you. Some may be nonfiction; memoir, how-to, or self-help texts that will teach you something new. If you’re lucky, one will be a poetry collection; poems to inspire your day, lift your spirit, and encourage new ways of seeing the unique in everyday moments.

The best way to devour your summer reading list is to relax, and get started. Begin your day with a cup of coffee and a couple of great poems. Once you’ve been sufficiently inspired, crack open a non-fiction text and learn something new about a topic that interests you. In the afternoon, visit the beach with umbrella drink in hand, or grab an iced tea and sit outside on your porch, and lose track of time with a riveting novel that will transport you to a different world. Then, for a bedtime snack, pull out a collection of short stories or a fine literary magazine. Short stories couch brief flashes of light, of insight, of understanding; they’re perfect morsels of fiction that can nourish dreams and visions during your sleeping hours.

Now, what should you read? Feast your eyes upon whatever stories interest you! There’s a smorgasbord of summer reading lists online, and most any supermarket-checkout magazine will include someone’s recommended list of summer must-reads. If you don’t already have a stack you’ve been waiting to devour, check out the reviews at NewPages.com, or search Goodreads.com for suggestions. Or, check out the titles (some new, some a few years older) on my personal summer reading list, below:

My Summer 2015 Reading List
My Summer 2015 Reading List

American Sycamore by Kathleen Nalley – Poetry collection – I’ve had the privilege of not only reading Kathleen’s poetry before, but of hearing her read it aloud at the Converse Low-Residency MFA Program in Spartanburg, SC. Kathleen’s writing is sharp, precise, and easy to understand, yet it never fails to leave me breathless with newfound revelations.  

Pasture Art by Marlin Barton – Short-story collection – Another collection of work by a friend whose Southern voice I hear in my head every time I read his stunning stories. This collection, set in Alabama, has been in my “save for dessert” stack. Why? Because I know from reading Barton’s prior work that this collection will indeed be a treat to be savored, full of stories I won’t want to rush through (even though they are brief), stories I’ll want to ponder and re-read, letting them melt into me, like ice cream on the tongue.

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron – Writing craft text – Every good writer must regularly read more about the craft of writing, but this text is touted as more than another how-to-write-well manual: it’s a blueprint of how the brain understands and processes stories, offering “cognitive secrets” and neuroscientific breakthroughs on how we respond to the stories we read (and write). Yes, this one should be worth biting into!

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane – Crime fiction– I’ve always loved to wolf down a riveting thriller, and when I first discovered Lehane’s work through his Gone, Baby, Gone series starring detectives Kenzie and Gennaro, I was hooked on his writing, as it’s the perfect blend of entertaining genre and literary fiction. Live by Night is the story of the rise and fall of a Prohibition-Era gangster, soon to be made into a major motion picture directed by Ben Affleck.

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – Literary fiction – Yes, this “Oprah’s Book Club” bestselling novel was published in 1997, but it’s never too late to catch up on classic fiction that you missed the first time around. This family saga of heartbreak, healing, and hope has been recommended to me at least a dozen times, and this summer is the perfect time for me to sink my teeth into it.

Lost Mountain by Erik Reece – Environmental non-fiction – Another text that’s a few years old (2006), but one that I’m anxious to read. Reviews of this work collectively state that it’s more than a nature book, more than ecocriticism, more than a documentary; it’s evocative writing in truthful terms about a subject that is often buried, and when it is unearthed is sometimes pushed aside as mere righteous indignation. The unpalatable, radical destruction of Appalachia through mountaintop-removal mining is something every American needs to know more about, and this is the text I’ll be reading to further my education on this devastating reality.

Bellevue Literary Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 – Literary magazine – If you aren’t regularly reading literary magazines, you are really missing out. Not only is it the best way to be the first among your friends to discover great new writers, it’s the best way to support those new writers as they’re starting out. In addition, you’ll find smashingly good work by your personal favorites. Bellevue Literary Review, with its focus on short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction stories about medicine, nursing, philosophy, ethics, psychology, and sociology, has long been one of my favorite literary journals. These little literary bites are perfect for mental noshing while waiting for an appointment, lounging by the pool, or just before bedtime. I’m looking forward to whetting my story appetite on this quarter’s issue.

Now you know what I’ll be reading this summer. What are some of the titles on your summer reading list? Share them in the comments section below, and let’s exchange recommendations and reviews!

Throwback Thursday

You may be thinking that it’s difficult to throw back on a brand new blog site, but there are ways to pass or rush around just about any obstacle. I’m going to tackle it today (another football metaphor—did you catch it?) by posting a list of throwback novels or story collections that had a direct and positive impact on my writing. I call them throwbacks, not only because I read them some time ago, but because each was published over ten years ago. I’m leaving out the classics—it goes without saying that most any writer or reader has been shaped in some way by Hawthorne, Austen, Poe, and Hemingway—focusing instead on works by contemporary authors, a few of whom you may not have read.

Some of these novels influenced my use of language or dialect, some taught me how to develop characters or add tension, some inspired me to prioritize study of the craft, while still others simply left me breathlessly wondering how on earth did they do that? All of these fulfilled the ultimate goal of any work of fiction; they entertained me.

If you’re a writer or an avid reader who loves a great story, I hope you’ll crack the spines of a few of these fabulous fictions. And while you’re browsing the list below, perhaps you’ll recall titles of a few works of fiction that inspired or influenced you in some way, as well. If so, please share them the comment section below, so we can add them to our “to read” lists in 2015.

Here’s to a great novel and a cup of hot tea to warm your spirit on this cold winter’s day!

 

Storming Heaven: A Novel, by Denise Giardina – I credit this novel (and author) for helping me realize it’s okay to tell my own story, my “Where I’m From”, in a voice and dialect that sound natural and authentic to my upbringing. (It’s okay to write y’all, y’all.)

Open Secrets: Stories, by Alice Munro – These intriguing, multi-layered stories hide as much as they reveal, and I love reading them again and again, each time uncovering some new truth, gaining a new perspective on the world in which I live and write.

A Drink Before the War, by Dennis LeHane – This first in a series of six private-eye novels taught me that genre fiction and literary fiction don’t have to be separate entities, as there’s some damn fine writing here. It’s the first time I’ve ever read straight through an entire series of novels, one after the other, in less than a week. Captivating and harrowing!

Burning Bright, by Ron Rash – It’s no secret among my bookish friends that I’m a huge fan of Ron Rash’s writing. It’s—wow—it’s just, WOW! (Okay, okay, I’m breathing normally again.) Though I’d read everything Rash had written up to that point, when I read this collection of amazing stories, something clicked in my head, and I began writing at a deeper, more intuitive level. I can honestly say that my MFA creative thesis would not have been the same without the heady influence of these stories.

Waiting, by Ha Jin – I’ll never again try on a pair of too-tight shoes without remembering the compelling characters in this story. With amazing narrative structure, the right touch of humor, fascinating cultural details, and poignant allegories, this is one love story you’ll never forget.

The Complete Stories, by Flannery O’Connor – Yes, yes, I know I said that I wasn’t talking about the classics, but O’Connor’s collection transcends description like classic and canonical—though it’s certainly that! Her stories are as relevant today as they were when she penned them half a century ago. I turn to them often, particularly when I need inspiration to write, when I’m struggling to make every word purposeful, or when I simply want to enjoy an entertaining read.

 

This list could potential go on for several more pages, as every novel I read perhaps holds some sort of lesson for me as a writer. These I’ve mentioned, however, are a few that gave me courage and confidence and motivation to pick up a pen and write.

Now it’s your turn. What works of fiction have influenced you?

Reading on a cold day

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