Monthly Archives: February 2014

All Aboard! Writer-in-Residence Program on the Rails

I travel 12-15 times a year on business, so flying is second-nature to me. I can’t say I enjoy it, but I’m used to it. Recently, I had the opportunity to take two train trips on Amtrak from Hartford, Connecticut, to Trenton, New Jersey. I must confess, when it comes to traveling, I prefer trains. The seats are comfortable, there’s more leg room and there are electrical outlets and wi-fi for internet connectivity.

A colleague at work told me about an intriguing program. Though it’s not advertised, Amtrak has started a pilot writer-in-residence program. Here’s the deal: a writer can book a trip on long routes and travel for free, as long as she blogs about it on social media.

The idea came from an interview with Alexander Chee, which was linked from a tweet. Chee said he liked the train best for writing and wished Amtrak had a writer-in-residence program. Writer Jessica Gross read the interview and tweeted about it. Amtrak offered Gross a free round trip from New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited. All Amtrak asked was for Gross to tweet about the trip and give an interview with their social media team.

What’s so great about writing on a train? In an interview with The Wire, Gross described the train ride as a “unique environment for creative thought,” one that “takes you out of normal life.”

Gross detailed her experience in depth in the Paris Review. She wrote:

“Writing requires a dip into the subconscious. The lockbox, at times kept tightly latched in our daily lives, is pried open, and things leak onto the page that we only half knew were there. Boundaries help to contain this fearful experience, thereby allowing it to occur. Looking around at my fellow passengers gives me an anchor to the world: my fantasies, my secret desires, aren’t going to get anyone killed. We’re all okay here; we’re all here, here.”

The train is an ideal environment for writing. It is a confined space, yet the writer has a sense of movement. There are stops in different cities to break up the routine. It’s great for people-watching. And it’s a comfortable place to write.

Amtrak officials say there is no application process set up and they are not sure whether they can offer a free ride to any writer, since there is a cost to the cash-strapped rail service. I am intrigued and I want to check it out.

What about you? Would you find the train an appealing writing environment?


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Reboot Your Novel

You might find yourself with this dilemma: you are on your third or fourth draft of your novel and it’s not working. Rapidly losing enthusiasm for the work-in-progress, you search your brain to figure out what is wrong. You don’t want to throw away months or years of effort, but you cannot figure out what is wrong. As the IT folks like to say, “When in doubt, reboot.”

How do you reboot a novel? There’s no on/off switch on a manuscript, but you can turn off the writer switch and shift to the reader switch. Read the manuscript straight through without any distractions. Do it in one pass if time permits. Take precise notes on what is wrong with the manuscript. During this self-assessment stage, you must be brutally candid about the flaws in your work.

In my experience with my work here are some of the flaws I’ve identified:

• Lack of high-impact resolution to the story.
• Word count that is too long (125,000-plus) or too short (50,000).
• Lack of cohesion in the story; too many detours or low-impact scenes.
• Weak character development.

These types of flaws can be fixed. What is more difficult to fix is the problem of bad story structure. Like a house, if a story is structurally unsound it cannot stand.

Once you have finished a frank assessment of your story, ask yourself this question: what is this story really about? We’re not talking about the theme here, but what is the essence of the story. Is Harry Potter a story about a powerful wizard or is it about an adolescent boy’s struggles growing up in a world where he is different and must learn to use his assets to make sure good triumphs over evil? When you figure out what your story is about, writing it and filling in the blanks will become easier.

Ask yourself these questions:

• How can I make the story concept (what the story is about) pay off?
• What are the main character’s external and internal conflicts and how can I best maximize them?
• What are the weakest aspects or scenes of the story? Can they be improved or should they be deleted?
• Which characters don’t work? Are they worth saving?

Rebooting a novel is hard work. It could entail tearing the story apart and piecing it back together again. You may decide it’s not worth the effort. If you decide to go for it, go for it and reboot your novel.


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Book Review: Lifeform Three, By Roz Morris

I’m not a big fan of dystopian fiction, but I’m an admirer of author and blogger Roz Morris. When I received an Advance Review Copy of this book, I was willing to give it a chance. I’m glad I did.

Lifeform Three” takes place in a future time at a theme park called The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall. Picture a dystopian Disneyworld where “intrepid guests” ride around in pod cars taking pictures with their “pebbles” (smart phones) . The story is told through the eyes of Paftoo, a “redo bod” who works with a team of fellow bods to clean up animal dung, leaves and other debris from the park. The park is one of the few pristine tracts of land left in this future world, ravaged by environmental degradation that has laid waste to the seashore and other bucolic vistas.

The bods are programmed to perform menial tasks and they receive points for the amount of waste they can clear in a day. “Shovel the leaves; don’t think. Hum a tune. That’s the way to make it easier,” Morris writes, through the prism of Paftoo. “A bod’s life is redoing. Because all the time, the Lost Lands are being undone. By the lifeforms, the rain, the wind, the seasons that strip the trees in autumn and make them grow like nonsense in the spring. And by the Intrepid Guests, who drive where they shouldn’t, break the fences, spread litter and set fire to the barn.”

When the bods finish their daily work, they power off at night into a sleep mode, all except for Paftoo. In the opening scene, Paftoo is struck by lightning while trying to coax a huge horse into a lorry (truck) during a thunderstorm. At night, Paftoo dreams of riding horses and finding a lost door in the woods, but his memories are fragmented. While the other bods sleep, Paftoo roams the grounds and discovers a secret world. He tames one of the horses that roam the pasture at night in an effort to piece together his past.

He dares not disclose his nocturnal experiences with the other bods for fear of being “shared,” a process by which a bod’s mind is wiped clean of all past experiences. “A trouble shared is a trouble deleted,” is the oft-repeated phrase used to explain the benefits of sharing.

Morris raises questions about the issues of the day, from climate change to social media. The visitors to this theme park rarely exit their vehicles to enjoy the natural beauty; instead they snap pictures with their phones. The bods entertain the arriving visitors with dances and performances designed to sell products.

The author gives readers a glimpse of how the planet might look and feel in a future age when rampant consumerism ravages the environment and people don’t talk to each other and don’t care about their own memories or their planet’s storied past.




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