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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The Hiatus: Taking a Break from Writing

 

“Write every day.” We writers have heard this mantra from nearly every teacher, writing coach, agent, and editor we’ve encountered. We’ve heard it from other authors who’ve had it drilled into their heads so often they have no choice but parrot it when asked about their writing habits.

I call bullshit.

First, I believe that all writers can—and should—have different processes for creating new work, and that a particular process can—and should—change to fit the creation. If forcing yourself to sit each morning in front of a blank screen until beads of words form on your brow is a technique that works for you, that’s great. Goody for you. And if waking from a deep sleep with a scene in your head rouses you from bed at 2:00 a.m. to pound on your keyboard, that’s equally as wonderful. Or, if staring out the window for an hour, or sitting on the beach for three days, or walking your neighborhood each morning for two weeks is what causes (or allows) a story to jell in your mind before you type the first word, then that’s fabulous, too.

If your particular way of writing works for you, then it’s the perfect way for you to write. One size does not fit all.

There’s nothing like a deadline to encourage your words to appear on a page. When you were in school, your teachers gave you a due date for every assignment, because if they didn’t, you wouldn’t do the research that resulted in ideas that formed the thoughts you typed onto the page. Now that you’re out of school, it may be up to you to set imaginary deadlines, if that’s what it takes to keep you focused. Or maybe you work with a writing group, and you set deadlines for each other to meet. If deadlines are what you need, then set them.

Whether your deadline is real or imaginary, sometimes life gets in the way, and you simply must take a break from writing. Recently, that’s happened to me.

I work multiple jobs (adjunct professor, Realtor, ghostwriter, editor) and have myriad “unpaid” responsibilities (mother, wife, homemaker, book reviewer, blogger). It’s no surprise that these tasks often come with their own deadlines, and sometimes those deadlines bottleneck into the same week or same day. My personal writing simply has to take a back seat for a while.

I’m not advocating putting your writing aside for other duties: no! Writing—if you take your writing seriously at all—must be a priority. However, if you’re sitting in front of your computer in an attempt to get into the mind of your main character while ignoring more pressing responsibilities, your brain often won’t let you slide into the creative mode required to write well. The muse—if you believe in muses—will tell you to get your butt up and do what must be done.

When, then, will you get back to writing?

Here’s what I believe: writers are always writing. Just because we’re not sitting in front of our computers or holding a pad and pen in hand doesn’t mean we’re not creating stories.

During my low-residency MFA days, we were tasked with keeping a writing log that detailed the hours we spent reading and writing. I always struggled with how to approach this log, because it seemed to me then—and now—that rare are the hours when I’m not reading or writing. When I’m driving, I’m plotting. When I’m drifting off to sleep at night, I place my characters in a scene (one that may or may not be appropriate for my story), and I see what they’ll do. When I’m doing housework, I imagine a setting and how I’d describe it from my main character’s point of view. When I’m in the shower, I consider what obstacles I can put in the way of my characters’ goals and dreams. When I’m walking, I figure out how in the world my character can get around those obstacles I’ve created. This is writing.

Sometimes I make notes when a great idea pops into my head. My desk, my purse, and the inside covers of books I’m reading are littered with scribbles; scrawled ideas, scenes, sentences, or even sparse phrases that I know I’ll use when I next sit down to write.

And when time has passed and that precious, quiet hour arrives when I finally sit down in front of my screen, the ideas are all there. The sticky notes and index cards are placed in front of me, the books are stacked within reach, their pages flagged with points of inspiration. My fingers fly over the keys.

It’s then I realize that my time away from the keyboard is not and never has been a hiatus from writing: it is my impetus to create.

 

 

Six Things You Need to Know about Your Writer

writer girl

So your friend—or, God help you, your spouse—is a writer. Chances are, the more you get to know your writer, the more confused you’ll feel. Writers are odd ducks. We’re fun. We’re irritating. We’re enigmas and amoebas. How are you supposed to make sense of someone who flip-flops more than cheap rubber shower thongs? It’ll help you to know a few things about us that might make us a little easier to understand. Or not. No one says we are easy.

1. We are extroverted introverts. Writers realize the importance of socialization; in fact, we’re often pushed to network, self-promote, and mingle in order to make the necessary connections to publish our work, or sell it once it is published, so that we can publish again. We can juggle Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, all while texting and providing riotous dinner-party banter. Sometimes we are wildly gregarious, prone to spontaneous road trips or bar-hopping. We can be the life of the party, cracking witty jokes you can’t wait to tell your friends at the water cooler, and boogying to every song the band plays. Don’t count on our amusing behavior to last, however, because . . .

2. We are introverted extroverts.  You know that party we looked forward to all week? The one we chattered about incessantly, the one for which we bought a sparkly dress and fabulous shoes? We might arrive and sit quietly in a corner. Yes, last weekend we sang karaoke at midnight and break-danced as an encore, but this weekend we’re happy to play the wallflower, soaking up all that energy we expended the last time we were out. We’re having fun—don’t think we aren’t, even if we’re not smiling—because we’re watching, we’re processing, and we’re thinking. And it’s likely that something we see, hear, smell, feel, or taste will show up later in the story we’re writing.

3. We are usually right. Writers are sometimes perceived as know-it-alls. It isn’t that we believe we know everything, though we surely wish we did. We’re avid researchers, constant readers, and we’re always questioning how this works and why that doesn’t. We study the ingredients on cereal boxes. Our dictionaries actually wear out from overuse. Our Google search history could easily get us arrested. We’re smart, because we thirst for knowledge like a sponge in the Sahara Desert, and we’ll track down an expert for answers as doggedly as if he were the Aquafina man. When we offer unsolicited advice, consider it a gift (this is one we hope you’ll return!), because we give it in the spirit of helpfulness, not haughtiness.

4. But we are often wrong. And it breaks our hearts. It embarrasses us. Mortifies us. Many times, we know the answer, but our always-in-overdrive brains sometimes can’t shift gears quickly enough to turn a tight corner. So when you ask us the difference between a simile and a metaphor, and we answer incorrectly—though we’ve known the answer at a cellular level since third grade—it isn’t because we’re dumb. It’s because our minds are absorbing new information, or we are creating a new character in our minds, or writing a scene for a work in progress—or all of this is happening simultaneously in our heads while we’re attempting to answer your question. Besides, if we truly don’t know the answer, you can bet we’ll look it up.

5. We are not ignoring you. Yes, you’ve said our name three times, and when we finally respond, we ask you to repeat yourself twice. It’s sometimes difficult for us to come back to this planet when we are in a world of our own making. We are often visiting universes that we’ve created inside of our heads. We have to go there. Have you ever read a story and envisioned the scene as if it were playing out in front of you? That’s because a writer became so intensely involved in the creation of that setting that she pictured it in vivid detail—scents, sounds, surfaces, and more—so much so that she temporarily blocked out this world in order to create that one. It’s a necessary part of the job, and it’s what makes us good at what we do. It’s hard to hear you when we’re intently listening to the monologue or dialogue inside of our heads. Be patient. Repeat yourself. We’ll catch up to you.

6. Except when we’re ignoring you. Writing is a solitary profession driven by creativity that requires deep internal thought. The busyness and business of everyday life must be shut out both mentally and physically for us to work at peak capacity and get in touch with our highest creative selves. We’re okay with shutting the door—and locking it. We’re fine going all week without television, and we may equally be fine letting it play all day on the same unwatched channel. We don’t feel guilty letting your call go to voice mail. (In fact, when we’re writing, a ringing phone can be the equivalent of a pipe bomb exploding in our laps.) We can exist for days on coffee and candy corn or wine and Doritos. Don’t worry. We’ll come around soon enough, and we’ll again be ready to jabber until your ears wear out or spin you around the dance floor until your legs grow numb.

We know we’re different. We’re okay with that. And we hope with every breath that you’re okay with it, because we need you. When we come back to this earth, this country, this room, we want to find you there. After all, it’s you we’re writing for.

Tip for Writers:  Be sure to email the link to this article to your your friend or significant other, or print it out and strategically place it where they will see it. Then get back to writing!

Writing Time: How Much Do You Want It?

juggling books

You know those writers. Yes, those writers. The ones who teach five English courses each semester, post witty blogs three times a week, and Tweet at nine, noon, and five. They check their bank accounts daily, mail thank-you cards, and submit short stories and articles to the best mags each week. They prepare scrumptious family dinners each evening, and on the rare nights they order take-out, they have to look up the number. They’ve published two novels this year . . . and it’s only January.

The rest of us? Well, we struggle.

It’s sometimes difficult to carve out time to write. Fortunately, it’s not impossible. If it were impossible, the libraries would be empty, and Kindle would bite the dust. I believe that, first, we have to stop thinking about finding time to write, and begin making time to write. There is something, however minor, that you can cut from your daily to-do list and replace it with writing time. You can delegate dog-walking one afternoon a week to a relative or the kid next door. You can forgo Seinfeld or Friends reruns every evening to spend thirty minutes putting pen to paper. You can close your Facebook page, and open a Word document, instead. You can toss vegetables, chicken or beef, and a can of soup or broth in the CrockPot before work, so you can write for an hour, instead of preparing dinner tonight.

In other words, time is available. You have the same twenty-four hours as every other successful writer. And rare is the bestselling author who quit their day job, hired a nanny, a chauffeur, and a housekeeper in order to start a writing career. Sure, a few may relish those luxuries now, but they started at a humbler place, and chances are good that at least one started where you are right now.

Stop. Making. Excuses.

Even good excuses. If you want this, you will make it happen. You will make time to read great novels and study books on writing craft, even if that time comes while you’re sitting in the bank drive-thru or on the sidelines during little-league practice. You will make time to write. You won’t wait for an angel to sing, for the sky to open up and beam down a ray of sunshine onto your laptop. You will make time.

Now is good. Right now.

Write now.

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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