Monthly Archives: December 2011

2012 Goals

Goals provide benchmarks for writers to measure their progress. A new year is an ideal time for the writer to sit down and set some realistic and achievable goals. Writers should set goals that are appropriate for their skill level and experience. For a novice writer, starting a novel and writing 50,000 words in a year is an achievable goal. I’ve been writing fiction since 1997, which means my goals must be more ambitious.

Here are my goals:

  • Publish my first novel, Small Change, through the Kindle Direct Publishing program.
  • Implement my marketing plan for my first novel.
  • Finish and publish my current work-in-progress, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music, and Social Media.
  • Revise the first draft of my second novel, Color Him Father.
  • Write a 100,000 word novel.
  • Attend a writer’s conference.
  • Read at least 25 books, including at least two books on the craft of fiction writing.
  • Maintain my blog and post new essays at least twice a year.
  • Engage regularly with other writers.

Here’s wishing everybody a happy and productive new year.

What are your goals for 2012?

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My Favorite 2011 Book: “Faith,” by Jennifer Haigh

There were a lot of great books published in 2011. I enjoyed The Adults, by Alison Espach, The Red Thread, by Ann Hood, The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson, In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard, and The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. My favorite book published in 2011 was Faith, by Jennifer Haigh.

Faith tackles big issues. The plot centers on the sexual molestation scandals in the Boston Archdiocese, but the story explores family secrets, the role of religion in family life, loyalty, compassion, and those opposing twins, faith and doubt. The main character is Sheila McCann, a lapsed Catholic whose half-brother, Father Arthur Breen, is accused of molesting a young boy. The main character conducts her own investigation, which is described in a dispassionate manner. While Sheila has doubts about the church, her faith in her brother is also shaken.

The story centers on the events of the Spring of 2002, the height of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston. Father Breen was abruptly summoned to the Cardinal of Boston’s Residence on Good Friday. He was shown a letter from a law firm that told of charges against him and the Archdiocese placed him on administrative leave. His mother, whose life revolved around the church and her oldest son, refused to believe the charges, but was nonetheless crushed. Her brother, Mike McCann, launched his own ill-fated investigation and became convinced his brother was guilty.

Haigh skillfully peels off the layers behind the events leading up to the charges against Father Breen and the aftermath, while at the same time probing the family’s difficult and complex history. Sheila related a story about how she found out about the charges from Mike, who thought their mother had already told her. Sheila reflected on her family in this brilliant passage by Haigh, “Evasion comes naturally in my tribe, this loose jumble of McGann, Devine and Breen. The reasons for this are not so mysterious. My father is a man of shameful habits. My mother is lace-curtain Irish. She will settle for correctness, or the appearance of it; but in her heart she wants only to be good. The space between them is crisscrossed with silent bridges, built of half-truths and suppressions. The chasm beneath is deep and wide.”

Sheila then offered further insights into her family’s history of deception. “Those same bridges exist across the generations: my mother and her parents, my father and his. On both sides, we are a family of open secrets. When I was a child they enclosed my innocence like a tourniquet. Without knowing quite how I knew it, I understood what might be said, and what must be kept quiet. If from the outside the rules appeared arbitrary, from the inside they were perfectly clear.”

Later, when Mike pressed his sister for proof behind her opinion that Arthur was innocent of the charges, she said, “‘Sorry, Mike, but sooner or later you have to decide what you believe.’ It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form it is a choice.”

Haigh’s novel looks at the child molestation scandal from all dimensions: its effects not only on the victims, but on the accused. It would be easy to write a preachy novel about the subject, but Haigh manages to create a story that is poignant, sad, tragic and at the same time illuminating. Haigh raises legitimate questions regarding the impact of the priest’s life of celibacy on the outbreak of sexual abuse cases. Toward the end of the novel, Sheila reflected, “Like many people, I have wondered: is celibacy to blame? That renunciation of human closeness, of our deepest instincts: is it, in the end, simply too much to ask? Good men–sound, healthy men–can’t make the sacrifice, or don’t want to; has Holy Mother settled for the unsound and unhealthy? Has the Church, ever pragmatic, made do with what was left?”

Father Breen’s tragic story could be interpreted as the story of the church or the story of any family that refused to face its darkest secrets. As Sheila reflects, “Art’s story is, to me, the story of my family, with all its darts and dodges and mysterious omissions.”

Haigh, who lives in the Boston area, is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Condition, as well as Baker Towers, winner of the 2006 PEN/L.L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author. She also wrote Mrs. Kimble, which won the PEN/ Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Haigh’s short stories have appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, the Saturday Evening Post, and many other publications.

My favorite non-fiction book of 2011 was Keith Richards’ Life. You don’t have to be a fan of rock music or the Rolling Stones (I am a fan of both) to appreciate this spirited autobiography, which offers keen insights into the life of one of rock and roll’s most colorful and enduring figures.

What was your favorite book of 2011 and why?

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My 2011 Reading List

You’ve read this before. Aspiring fiction writers should read widely across all genres. This will give the novice writer a better understanding of the craft of fiction. I believe new writers cannot improve their own writing unless they read quality fiction. It also gives all writers an appreciation for great literature.

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. I try to sprinkle in some non-fiction books in addition to the fiction books I read. Once in a while, I re-read a classic, as I did this year with To Kill a Mockingbird. I also make an effort to read e-books by new authors, as I did this year with Victorine Lieszke’s Not What She Seems and A.D. Bloom’s Bring Me the Head of the Buddha. Full disclosure: Aaron Bloom is a fellow member of the West Hartford CT Fiction Writers’ Group and a very talented writer.

Here is a list of books read this year:

Fiction

The Adults, by Alison Espach

The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Burritos and Gasoline, by Jamie Beckett

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Whiskey Sour, by JA Konrath

Not What She Seems, by Victorine Lieszke

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Eagan

Lethal Experiment, by John Locke

Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Bring Me the Head of the Buddha, by A.D. Bloom

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

The Broker, by John Grisham

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

While I Was Gone, by Sue Miller

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Good Mother, by Sue Miller

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Non-fiction

Life, by Keith Richards

Decision Points, by George W. Bush

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Professional Development

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Mass

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Later this week, I will reveal my favorite book of 2011.

How many books did you read in 2011? Which one did you enjoy the most and why?

 

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“A Christmas Story:” A Holiday Favorite

I find holiday movies are either really good or really bad. The bad ones are filled with treacly “sentimental hogwash,” as Henry Potter said in the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Another favorite of mine is the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, the tale of nine-year-old Ralph Parker’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. The great holiday movies are like novels; the story arc contrasts the joys of the season with the every-day struggles of families and individuals to make a better life.

A Christmas Story was based on the work of raconteur and radio talk show host Jean Shepherd. The setting was Hohman, Indiana, which was based on Shepherd’s childhood home of Hammond, Indiana, a steel mill town outside of Chicago.

The story arc centers on Ralph’s quest for a BB gun for Christmas. In a successful novel, the protagonist faces obstacles on the way to achieving his goal. Ralph certainly encounters his share of obstacles. When he asks for a BB gun, his mom and teacher warn him that “you’ll shoot you eye out.” Ultimately, Ralph’s quest proves successful, but he has a mishap with the gun and breaks his glasses.

Not only is the story hilarious, the acting and the writing are brilliant. My favorite line, narrated by Shepherd, is when Ralph observed, “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that to this day still hangs in space over Lake Michigan.” I wish I had written that line. The dialogue in the movie is authentic and sharp. Note to Disney scriptwriters: if you want to learn how young boys really talk to each other, pay attention to how Ralph, Flick and Schwartz interact.

Two years ago, I took my son to visit “the old house on Cleveland Street,” which is now a Christmas Story museum located in Cleveland, Ohio. During the tour I learned what Shepherd intended as the lesson behind the movie and it surprised me. I always thought the movie was about Ralph’s quest, but it was about “the old man.” Shepherd said his intention was to honor fathers everywhere who struggled in menial, dead-end jobs to save a little money just so they could create a little magic for their children. That’s what the BB gun was all about.

Every family has holiday traditions and one of ours is to catch part of the TBS 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story. It never fails to bring a smile to our faces.

To my fellow writers, best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season

What is your favorite holiday movie?

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How Do You Measure Success?

If you’re like me, you’re taking a look at your 2011 goals to see how you did over the past year. When I set goals, I use the SMART method, which is popular in project management and business. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. I also believe most goals cannot be measured without attaching numbers, but numbers often don’t tell the whole story. My goals are focused on two things: writing and professional development. Writers whose work is ready for publication also need to think about publishing and marketing goals as well. Here were my 2011 goals:

Goal One: Publish my first novel, Small Change. I made several rounds of line edits, hired a book editor to work on the beginning section, researched self-publishing options since I wasn’t making any progress going the traditional route, wrote a publicity plan and a news release, started my blog, and arranged for the cover art. As soon as I receive the final cover art, I plan to upload the book through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. So I didn’t achieve my first goal, but I made a lot of progress.

Goal Two: Produce a 100,000-word novel. I failed again. I produced a 53,083-word first draft of a novel as part of the National Novel Writing Month competition and I am 40,000 words into my current work-in-progress, a political novella called, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media.

Goal Three: Start a fiction writing blog. Check mark. My blog, A New Fiction Writer’s Forum, made its debut in September.  As of December 22, I was up to 47 blog posts in less than three months. At 500 words each, that’s another 23,500 words, but I don’t count those toward my annual 100,000-word goal.

Goal Four: Establish a social media presence. Check again. I started a Facebook author page and opened a Twitter account.

Goal Five: Attend a writer’s conference. Another check mark. In May I attended the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association’s annual CAPA-U meeting last May.

Goal Six: Read 25-30 books a year. I’m up to 32 books and still going. I will share my list next week.

Goal Seven: Engage online and in-person with other writers on a regular basis. Okay, this goal has no number attached to it, but I did read and comment on writers’ blogs daily and I attended most of my fiction writers’ group meetings.

What matters most about goals is that you have to decide which ones are most important and focus on achieving those goals. Publishing my novel was clearly a paramount goal and all others took a back seat. Looking back, I made as much progress on getting my novel published as was possible, given other demands on my time, while still meeting several other goals.

I also place a lot of emphasis on producing a 100,000-word novel each year. I didn’t foresee the political novella; it just grabbed hold of my imagination and off I went. One of my 2012 goals is to publish it during the upcoming presidential election year. I will share the rest of my 2012 goals next week.

What were your goals for 2011? How did you do in achieving them?

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Setting: An Overlooked Element of Fiction

Why do fiction writers choose a particular setting for their work? Ask a fiction writer and you will likely get one of these reasons:

  • I visited there on vacation and it was a magical place.
  • The setting enhances the story.
  • I love nature and the plot lends itself to an outdoorsy setting.
  • It’s one of the biggest cities in the country and people will identify with it.
  • I really didn’t give it a lot of thought.

It’s the last answer that should trouble any writer. Setting is one of the overlooked elements of fiction writing. Writers should consider carefully the setting or multiple settings for their story. Setting is where a story takes place, but it’s more than that. The setting grounds the story in time and place. It provides an orientation point for the story. Most importantly, when described well, the setting can function like a major character, giving more depth and meaning to the story.

There are two types of settings in fiction writing:

  • Real (examples include cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles)
  • Imagined (Hogwarts and Scott Turow’s Kindle County come to mind)

Here are some tips regarding setting:

  • Establish the setting early; it will give the reader a visual to orient her about the story.
  • Use all of the senses. You want the reader to see it, hear it, smell it, touch it and even taste it.
  • Don’t go overboard on details, especially when describing settings that are actual places. Everybody knows what Times Square looks like. Select details that help enhance the mood and the tone you are seeking to create.
  • Describe your settings in stages. Avoid the early information dump when describing your setting. Nineteenth Century writers could get away with that because there were no movies then, but it is just not done in contemporary fiction.
  • Make sure the setting aligns with the genre and the theme. In Gone with the Wind, Tara is not only the plantation owned by the O’Hara family. It represents the values of the Old South.
  • Use richly textured, specific descriptions.

When using an actual place, make sure to get the details right. It’s a good practice to visit the settings of your novels, although writers have penned credible novels on the basis of careful research.

Historical novels present special challenges when it comes to the setting. Writers not only have to describe a particular place, but the details must be accurate and reflect the housing, transportation and technology that was available at the time. A novel that takes place in the 18th Century cannot feature a character turning on a lightbulb.

 

Author Elizabeth George, in her book, Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, placed a great emphasis on setting. In her book, she discussed setting before plot because “setting explored to its fullest is not only part of character, it can also be the key to plot.” George identified several functions of setting. It creates atmosphere. “Setting not only promotes the reader’s understanding of what kind of novel he’s reading, it also establishes a feeling that the reader takes into the experience. Setting triggers mood as well.”

Another function of setting, George wrote, is to reveal character. “Through a character’s environment, you show who he is. Everything else is interpreted by the reader,” she wrote.

Setting can also serve as a contrast to an event. She gave the example of P.D. James’ novel, A Taste for Death, wherein a gruesome double murder took place in the hushed vestry of a church.

George also rejected the notion that you should write what you know when choosing a setting. Her novels are set in England and George lives in southern California. “What I believe,” George wrote, “is that your setting should be a place that you want to know about, a place you are interested in exploring, a place you want to describe, a place that resonates with you or a place that evokes a personal and intensely visceral response in you.”

She strongly recommends visiting the setting you have chosen and describes at length the details she records when she visits the setting she has chosen.

When used correctly setting should orient the reader to the story, support the themes and enhance the narrative, without getting in the way.

How do you go about selecting a setting for your story?

 

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What is Your Professional Development Plan?

A new year beckons. It’s a good time to take stock of where you are as a writer and what you need to do in 2012 to reach the next level.

Most good companies offer professional development programs for their employees. Writers usually don’t have the same resources as businesses do, but there’s no reason every writer should not have a personal professional development plan. Here are a few elements of my personal professional development plan:

1. Join and participate in a writer’s group or an online writer’s community. A vibrant writer’s group offers a spirit of collegiality, support, feedback, and mutual helpfulness. Engaging regularly with a group of trusted people who share your passion for writing will give you a great sounding board and a sense that you are not alone in your journey.

2. Read at least two books each year on the craft of fiction writing. Learning is a lifelong process. There’s no such thing as knowing everything there is about the craft. While you are at it, subscribe to at least one writer’s periodical. I recommend Writer’s Digest.

3. Read writing blogs at least three times a week. There are so many excellent blogs out there produced by writers, literary agents, and readers. A few I read regularly include Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Jane Friedman, JA Konrath (A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing), Kristen Lamb, and Bob Mayer. You will learn not only about the craft, but about publishing, the role of agents, marketing, and how to use social media.

4. Attend at least one writer’s conference each year. I attend the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA) annual CAPA-U meeting. In addition to offering workshops on the craft and on marketing, these conferences provide ample opportunities for you to network with other writers and some offer face-to-face meetings with an agent. This is enormously helpful to new writers.

5. Read at least 25 books a year, across all genres, and non-fiction as well as fiction. What? You might say. That won’t leave any time for fiction writing. Stephen King reads 80 books a year and still has time to churn out a novel.

Bonus tip: Practice your craft regularly. You will learn so much just by writing. There’s no substitute for finishing a novel, or two or three novels. You will most likely not hit your stride with your first novel, but you will learn about story structure, character development, and scene crafting.

So there you have it: my professional development plan for 2012.

What is your professional development plan for 2012?

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