Sharing, Singing, Laughing, Writing

I returned from my first writer’s retreat filled with inspiration, motivation, a sense of accomplishment, and warm feelings. The retreat, which took place from Nov. 14-21, in historic Salem, MA, was intended as a reunion for those who attended the 2014 Writer Unboxed Un-Conference last November in Salem.

The John Edwards House, a rambling, three-story home built in 1846, was the site as 12 writers gathered for a week of writing, sharing, laughter, and cooking. My biggest takeaway was this: if you are going to attend a writer’s retreat, do it with people you already know. The comfort level  already established leads to deep conversations and uninhibited sharing.

Two common rooms became the headquarters for writing. Many of us arrived with specific goals, such as to write 10,000 words or to finish a work-in-progress. Most of us achieved our goals, but we got so much more out of this retreat.

The kitchen was the communal gathering place, where we shared our personal stories of life, love, loss, redemption, and pride in our achievements. There were heartwarming and heartwrenching moments. Fellow public policy junkie Gretchen Riddle and I even solved all the world’s problems over coffee each morning.

I had intended in this blog post to share with you some lessons and there were many. Among them were: set goals, take advantage of the opportunity to share with and learn from other writers, set aside specific times to check in with loved ones, and leave work behind. I didn’t do such a great job on the last one. 

More important than the lessons learned were the bonds of friendship, which were strengthened during the past seven days. We writers are a peculiar lot. Nobody really understands us except for other writers. The opportunity to engage in intense dialogue about our writer challenges with people who “get” us and to tap into deep emotions were the greatest benefits of the retreat.

One more lesson I learned, and it’s perhaps the greatest one, was not to miss the chance to have fun. We did readings one night, told stories, attended a reception at a colleague’s lovely home (thanks, Brunonia Barry), and even had a sing-along one evening capped by an epic renditon of Bohemian Rhapsody by Amy Rachiele and Theresa Guzman Stokes. Our voices may not have been ready for prime time, but the fine guitar work by Sean Walsh and Lancelot Schaubert made us sound passable.

 The point of a writer’s retreat is to get writing done, but you are missing out if you do not take full advantage of the opportunity to commune with other writers. 

I want to thank everyone who attended and especially Therese and Sean Walsh and Heather Webb for their organizational work. I can’t wait for the 2016 Writer Unboxed Un-Conference.


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What Does ‘Story’ Mean?

Speaking about the merits of a writer recently, I said to a colleague, “He understands story.” The colleague nodded, though he eyed me with an expression that made me believe he didn’t understand what I meant.

The exchange left me to ponder: what did I mean? When we discuss the term ‘story,’ we must make a distinction with the term ‘plot.’ Story and plot are not synonymous. Plot is the sequence and organization of the events that happen in a story. Plot can be linear (chronological) or non-linear (out of sequence). Plot devices can slow down or speed up the pacing of a story.  Think of plot as the ‘what’ of a novel. Story gets to the ‘why’ of the novel.

Story has the following elements: plot, structure, characters, setting, style, and theme. The elements of a story are clear enough, but I struggle to come up with a definition of story that gets to the heart of what it is. One of the best books on ‘story’ is Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.” Citing recent research that reveals our brain is hardwired to respond to story, Cron concludes people turn to story to teach them about the world. People can experience what it is like to be in a war or to navigate through a life and death conflict without having to go through it. Story is the framework that allows people to make sense out of life.

In a recent blog post on Writer Unboxed, Cron expanded on the meaning of story. “Story isn’t what happens externally; story is how we make sense of what happens internally.” Stories center on external events, but what they are really about are the internal struggles of the main character. The most satisfying stories are the ones in which the main character starts out with weaknesses or obstacles that prevent her from reaching her goals and  then faces mounting challenges. In the process of overcoming these challenges, she experiences transformative growth.

Using an example we all know, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is ostensibly a story about the struggle for justice and the fight against prejudice, as demonstrated through the trial of Tom Robinson. On the surface it is the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer of rare courage who stands up for justice in the face of contempt from his community. Beneath the surface, it is the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her loss of innocence as a child who witnesses the harsh realities of racial prejudice, poverty, and ignorance in Depression-era rural Alabama. It is about Scout’s internal struggle and her acute need to make sense of her world where her friends and neighbors  are decent people who are capable of doing terrible things.

As a story, To Kill a Mockingbord works on multiple levels. And perhaps that example embodies the true definition of story.  

How would you define story? Give an example of a story that works on an external and internal level?


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Book Review: “Housebreaking,” by Dan Pope

The disorder that lurks beneath the idyllic surface of Amercan suburbia is a familiar theme in fiction. Dan Pope updates this theme for the 21st Century in his well-crafted second novel, Housebreaking.

Set in the tony Connecticut suburb of Wintonbury (based on the author’s hometown of West Hartford), the novel opens with one family torn apart and another about to be. Benjamin Mandelbaum has moved back to his childhood home with his 84-year-old widower father, Leonard, after his wife has kicked him out of their house.  Suffering in the lonely fog of his pending divorce, Ben discovers that a high school crush, Audrey Martin-Murray, has moved with her family to his neighborhood. Ben is even more unmoored when Leonard suffers a stroke and is hospitalized.

Trapped in a loveless marriage and grieving over the death of her son, Audrey is ripe for an affair. Ben concocts a clever ruse to lure Audrey and they begin an affair at his father’s home.

Audrey’s husband, Andrew, a type A lawyer who logs long hours at a large, prestigiuos law firm in Hartford, barely notices Audrey’s absences. Andrew is consumed by his own dalliance, an implausible attraction to a precocious young male associate at the firm. Neither Andrew nor Audrey pay much attention to their daughter, Emily. In the throes of despair over the loss of her brother, Emly hooks up with a neighborhood hood, who takes her along on burglaries and supplies her with pills to medicate her pain. 

Over the course of a Thanksgiving holiday weekend that seems on the surface a normal, if tension filled time, everything comes to a head. 

Pope’s message seems to focus on how families deal with pain and loss and how the random, unexpected events of life can shatter the calm equillibrium of the suburban dream. Leonard, easily the most likeable character, lives by the old school moral code. He is an honorable person with traditional values. Ben, though he’s been unfaithful to his wife, shows remorse and clings to the hope his wife will take him back. He still values his family. The Martin-Murrays are a different story. They deal with their problems by running away from them–finding solace in doomed affairs or, in the case of Emily, self-medicating.

Housebreaking is a well-paced story about the illusions of surbubia and the fairy-tale, storybook homes and neighbohoods that hide the pain of coping with real-life challenges.  


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Whipsawed by Advice

Inexperienced writers hunger for sound advice on the craft of fiction writing. They don’t need to search for long. The internet is rife with fiction writing blogs, many of excellent quality. It is a gluttonous feast, not just for beginners, but for writers of all levels. But how does the novice writer evaluate the advice given? What is useful and what is not?

Academic training, knowledge and experience provide a solid basis for evaluating advice in any field. Lacking those things, the novice writer must ask: is the advice based on sound reasoning? It is supported by concrete examples? Does the person giving the advice have credibility?

What got me thinking about these questions was a blog post I came across recently. I don’t recall the author and, even if I did, I wouldn’t reveal it here. My purpose is not to call out another writer. The post centered on writing myths and the author claimed one of the biggest ones was to always begin a story “in scene.” That is, the story should always start within a scene. The main character is doing something that reveals information about her as well as story questions. The scene must grab the reader. This author claimed a writer could achieve the same objectives through a well-crafted narrative and he gave a couple of examples (one by James Joyce) that worked well. 

I can’t say starting a story with a narrative doesn’t work or can’t work. I can say it doesn’t work for me. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from author Dan Pope (whose second novel, Housebreaking, released recently, is very good). During a three-part workshop at our local library in 2005, Pope was discussing short stories. He said, “Always begin a short story ‘in scene.'” A lightbulb blazed in my head. Until then I’d struggled with how to begin my stories. How much narrative? Is it ever acceptable to begin with a quote? With the main character’s inner thoughts? His advice made so much sense. For me. But it may not work for everyone.

This brings me full circle to the question I posed: How does one evaluate writing advice. Let me share a few things that have worked for me:Create a solid foundation for evaluating writing advice by learning as much as possible about the cract of fiction. If an MFA is not in the cards, there are hundreds of books out there. A writer can’t go wrong by reading Stephen King’s On Writing, anything by Donald Maass (but start with Writing the Breakout Novel), James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters,  John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, or Elizabeth George’s Write Away, to name just a few.

  • Research the best writers websites. Writer’s Digest annually publishes the 101 Best Websites for Writers. This is an excellent resource for all writers.
  • Read the best websites for writers on a regular basis. Some of my favorites are Writer Unboxed, Jane Friedman, Helping Writers Become Authors (KM Weiland), The Creative Penn (Joanna Penn), Nathan Bransford, and Nail Your Novel (Roz Morris). 
  • Pay attention to “consensus” advice. If every blogger offers the same advice, take it seriously.
  • Incorporate  sound advice into your writing and your writing habits.
  • Recognize there are subjects in fiction writing where there is no conensus (pantser vs. plotter) and do what works for you.

There’s a lot of advice out there. Some of it is bad, but most of it is good. It’s up to the individual writer to evaluate the advice and get the most out of it.

Your turn: how do you know when you are getting good avice about writing?


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Confessions of a Veteran Blogger

WordPress informed me that I recently marked my 4th anniversary as a blogger. To celebrate this momentous occasion, let me share with you some stats and insights.

First the stats:

  • 247 posts and 42,001 views.
  • 25,689 visitors from 11 countries, including the United States (4,128), the United Kingdom (664), Canada (372), Australia (260), India (196), and the Philippines (133).
  • 137 views on my best day, which was Nov. 9, 2014, when I was blogging and tweeting about the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference. 
  • Top three posts: Linear vs. Non-linear Narrative (1,262 views), Why Introverts Make Good Writers (868), and The Story Behind the Story: Memoirs of a Geisha (514).
  • Referring sites: Google (4,639), Bing (128).

So, what have I learned from four years of blogging? Here are some insights:

  • Be prepared to make a long-term commitment. I’ve followed countless blogs that showed great promise, but the blogger either lost interest or ran out of steam. When I started my blog, I vowed it would not become one of those ‘take off like a rocket and burn out quickly’ sites. Blogging is hard work. It requires, at a minimium, 3-5 hours of research and writing per post. It requires perseverance and dedication. Though my output has fallen off during the past year due to family and health issues, I still strive to blog several times per month.
  • Select timeless topics. This is the gift that keeps on giving. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was in a post (forgive me, I cant recall the author) on blogging tips. The advice was this: choose evergreen topics. In other words, write about topics that don’t go stale in a year or two. Any fiction writing topic that begins with “how to” will draw a lot of readers: how to write winning scenes, how to craft compelling characters, etc. I still get hits on posts I wrote three years ago on craft of fiction topics.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity to go deeper. I started out with a long list of topics. After I exhausted this list, I thought, Now what? I’d covered everything. I had nothing more to say. So I looked for opportuntiters to take a deeper perspective on fiction wrting. I started to read more about the creative process and to write about it and reflect on it.  I wrote about authors and books I loved. This got me into the mindset of writing from the perspective of a reader. 
  • Fight burnout through inspiration and engagement.  Some early adopters in the blogosphere have checked out. That’s too bad, but it is perfectly understandable. Burnout is my biggest challenge. I fight it through engagement and immersion. Engaging with other writers and online communities provides a continual source of ideas and inspiration. Immersing myself in the craft by writing, as well as by reading others’ work, keeps me wanting to learn, grow, and share.
  • Take a break. Step away from the blog, but not for too long. Give yourself a one-month vacation. You may come back refereshed and renewed.

Your turn. Veteran bloggers, how do you deal with blog burnout? What strategies have worked for you?


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Book Review: “Purity,” by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s fifth novel, Purity, is a sprawling, ambitious work that revolves around the quest for truth and love. Or is it about secrets and lies? As with all of Franzen’s novels, there are several layers to this hefty, complex story.

Eschewing a linear narrative, Franzen takes the reader backwards and forward in time on a journey that spans six decades and covers three continents. He introduces seemingly random characters whom he skilfully ties to the main plot. The story is organized into seven linked sections that transport the reader to such locales as modern-day Berkeley, Cold War-era East Germany, Bolivia, Texas, and Denver, just to name a few locations.

The main story centers on Pip Tyler, a recent college graduate saddled with a $130,000 student loan debt, a mentally unstable and manipulative mother, a dreary, dead-end job, and a burning desire to learn the identity of her father. Pip, whose birth name is Purity, has a love-hate relationship with her mother, who refuses to divulge any information about Pip’s dad. She lives in a squatter’s house in Berkeley with a bunch of oddball radicals and anarchists. This is where she meets Annagret, an attractive German woman who makes an irresistible offer: a paid internship at The Sunlight Project (TSP), a Wiki-leaks-type operation that uses web technology to expose the secrets of governments and corrupt corporations. She is also told she can use TSP’s technical savvy to help her find her father.

Located deep in the jungle of Bolivia, TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic and troubled former East German dissident. Wolf has a fascinating and creepy back story. The son of a high ranking East German official and an unhinged college professor, Wolf throws away his chance at a comfortable life in Communist East Germany by publishing a scandalous poem. Due to his father’s intervention, Wolf escapes a harsh prison term, but he is banished from the family. He ends up as a counselor to troubled youth at a church, a lowly job that he parlays into sexual conquests of teen-age girls. Until he falls for Annagret.

Like all of the book’s characters, Wolf carries a dark secret from his past. He shared his secret with Tom Aberrant (I love these character names), an American journalist who was in Berlin to cover the collapse of Communism in 1989. Tom is the most decent and likeable character in the story, but he has secrets of his own. His volatile marriage to Anabel Laird, the unstable heiress to a fortune, is a toxic train wreck. It ends in divorce, but Tom finds himself drawn to her and begins a doomed post-divorce affair with Anabel. 

As in his other works, Franzen raises knotty questions about the way we live and he incorporates the great issues of the day into this story. In this case, the internet is the centerpiece around which much of the modern-day part of the story pivots. The internet is portrayed here as both a “disinfectant,” exposing the dark secrets and lies of  the powerful to sunlight, and a pervasive intruder on the privacy of individuals.  

At its core, though, “Purity” is less about ideas and more about the dysfunction of families and the individual’s search for identity. The characters are defined and constrained by their family relationships. Pip’s mother conceives her as an act of self-validation. She wants someone she can love and call her own, but she can never let go. Wolf’s mother sees him almost as an extension of herself, and he ultimately rebels against her. Tom’s mother projects her own values onto him, but his early attempts to be his own person have disastrous consequences. It is to Pip’s credit that she is able to wriggle free of the bonds of her mother’s oppressive love. In this story, as in life, nobody is truly pure.


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Book Review: “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr

This is one of those rare books that the reader knows is a classic while reading it. Anthony Doerr’s brilliant 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel centers on the parallel plights of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and a young German soldier, Werner Pfennig, during World War II. Marie-Laure’s devoted father is a locksmith who is in charge of the locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. There, he is involved in an elaborate scheme to hide a precious rare blue diamond from the Nazis at the outset of the war.

Marie-Laure’s father is consumed with protecting her. To ensure she can navigate her surroundings, he builds a scale model of the Paris neighborhood where they live. When the war forces the family to move to the Breton coastal town of Saint-Malo, her father builds a scale model of Marie-Laure’s new surroundings.

Doerr’s vivid writing appeals to all the senses, especially the scenes written from Marie-Laure’s point-of-view. While Marie-Laure’s upbringing in Paris and the coastal town during the early year of the war is comfortable, Pfennig’s childhood is bleak. After his father dies in a coal mining accident, Werner and his sister, Jutta, grow up in an orphanage. He faces a bleak future working in the coal mines until a Nazi officer discovers he has a talent for fixing radios. He is assigned to an elite military training academy where he witnesses first hand the cruelty of the Nazi regime. He watches helplessly as a shy friend who refuses to take part in a ritual of torture is tormented. Later, Werner finds out his friend was beaten senseless. 

After relocating to Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure’s father disappears after boarding a train to carry out a mission for the museum. As the war rages on, living in Nazi-occupied Saint-Malo becomes increasingly dangerous, yet Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne, enlists her in a plan to send messages to the resistance over a short wave radio hidden in the attic of their six story home.  

Werner’s talents find him in a Nazi unit that traverses the countryside looking for radios used by the enemies to transmit vital information. In one scene in Austria, Werner’s fellow soliders, searching for a hidden radio, execute a young mother and her seven year old daughter, who was hiding in a closet, an act that haunts Werner. 

When the allies bomb Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure makes a discovery about where the blue diamond is hidden. Not far away, Werner and two fellow soldiers are trapped under the rubble of a grand hotel where they have been encamped.

The story’s strength lies in the choices the characters make and the impossible moral dilemmas they encounter in desperate situations. The light in the title is manifested by the irrepressible spirit and determination of characters like Marie-Laure, her uncle, and even Werner, to carry on in the face of the darkness of war and destruction.  There are supreme sacrifices and astounding acts of love that take place within a brutal setting. Doerr’s skill at bringing a fresh perspective to a period of history that has been written about perhaps more than any other is a testimony to his vast talent. 


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