Tag Archives: craft of writing

7 Lessons from a First-Year Blogger

This month marked my first anniversary as a blogger. While my stats are hardly impressive, I have 111 posts and more than 5,000 views to my credit. In the process, I’ve learned a lot and would like to share seven key lessons:

1. Keep doing it. The blogosphere is littered with bloggers who started out fast and flamed out. If you are going to start a blog, you must make a long-term commitment. Take the long view. Are you really passionate enough about the subject to keep going back to it again and again. Do you have enough to say? Do you have enough time? Which brings me to my second lesson.

2. Your writing comes first. I have not found the right balance yet. I admit I have sacrificed my writing time in the interest of keeping up my blog and that’s a bad habit. I need to work on that.

3. Read other blogs. Bloggers must stay current on what is being written about their subject. What are the hot stories? What are the trends or books people are talking about? Writing books doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Writers are part of a vast world that includes traditional and self-publishing. Besides, reading other blogs will give you topic ideas.

4. Build your online community. My philosophy is to focus on making a few meaningful connections. This is best done by faithfully reading blogs you like and leaving comments. It also involves being nice to other bloggers, reading and reviewing their work and sharing tips and insights. It takes time, but it’s worth it.

5. Twitter is your best friend. I resisted Twitter for a long time, but a friend persisted in touting its benefits. Once I realized what it was all about and what it could do for a writer, I was hooked. Again, Twitter is about sharing and giving, not about self-promotion. If you follow the right people, you can get all your news about your subject of interest through Twitter.

6. Branch out. My blog started as a resource for new writers. All of my posts were focused on helping the novice writer. I wrote with an eye toward giving advice I would have found most helpful when I was starting out. I always knew it would morph into something more. I have added Author Spotlights on authors I admire and Book Reviews. I realize I am not only a writer, but an avid reading and reading is just as important to me as writing.

7. You own it. Fiction writing bloggers tend to write about the same topics, but what I find fascinating is that every writer’s perspective on these topics is so different. We all see writing through our unique prism. And that’s what the individual blogger brings to the table. Share your insights. Share your journey. Give knowledge to others. You will find it most rewarding. Now I need to go and spend some time on my Work In Progress.

What lessons have you learned as a blogger? Have you figured out the balance between blogging and writing fiction?

 

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Author Spotlight: Alice Munro

Alice Munro occupies a special place in my pantheon of modern authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott. Long recognized as one of the pre-eminent short story writers of our time, Munro received the 2009 Man Booker International Prize in recognition of her lifetime body of work. She is often called the “Canadian Chekhov.”

Ironically, Munro didn’t set out to write short stories. “I never intended to be a short-story writer,” Munro said in a November 1986 interview with The New York Times. ”I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else – I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel.”

She found short stories more satisfying than novels. ”I don’t really understand a novel,” she said in the same interview. ”I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story. There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away, and I don’t feel that when I try to write a novel. I kind of want a moment that’s explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”

Munro sets many of her stories in her native southwestern Ontario Province. The small towns of rural Huron County provide the backdrop for her complex female characters, many of whom feel the urge to break away from their roots, a theme explored to great effect in her 2004 collection, Runaway.

As is the case with Anne Tyler’s work, Munro writes quiet stories that plumb the interior depths of complicated relationships. Some critics say little of consequence happens in her stories, but that is her strength. Munro doesn’t need body counts or car wrecks to keep the reader riveted to her stories.

“Munro’s writing creates…an empathetic union among readers, critics most apparent among them. We are drawn to her writing by its verisimilitude—not of mimesis, so-called and…’realism’—but rather the feeling of being itself…of just being a human being,” Robert Thacker wrote of Munro’s work

In an interview on the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group website, Munro spoke about her approach to writing and why she was attracted to short stories. “I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something that is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”

She also discussed her relationship with her characters. “I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth—what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc…And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with. I can’t see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I want to give as much of them as I can.”

Munro also made the astute observation that memory is a key element of story-telling. “Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What would be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.”

At the age of 81, Munro is still going strong. Her publisher announced recently she will publish her 13th book of short stories in November, Dear Life. I can’t wait.

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Doctor Print vs. Mister Kindle

When it comes to print books versus e-books, the reader in me is in a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde tussle. As Billy Martin said in the “taste great/less filling” beer commercial, I feel very strongly both ways. The true test is when you’re traveling. What do you take with you: a book or your e-reader? On a recent business trip to Kansas City, I couldn’t decide so I took my Kindle–and two paperback books.

I was tempted to go solo with the Kindle, but there are those few minutes when the plane is taking off and the captain tells the passengers to power off all electronic devices. Besides, it’s nice to have a good paperback (or two) in the unlikely event that my Kindle dies or the battery runs low. And since I happened to be reading three books at the same time (my wife thinks I’m crazy for doing that) I brought them all.

In the terminal, I was enjoying the second novel in Kathryn Magendie’s trilogy, Secret Graces. I had my music in my ear buds. I was a happy camper. When I powered off on the plane, I switched to Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird. Since I was almost done, I also brought Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. I was just getting into one of Anne’s excellent craft essays when we hit 10,000 feet and it was back to the story of Virginia Kate Carey. Landing on the first leg of the flight in Baltimore, I had to abandon Virginia Kate in the middle of a dramatic scene and I nearly finished off Bird by Bird.

The longer leg of the flight to Kansas City took me back to Secret Graces and I made great progress, aided by Wilco in my ear buds. I completed Bird by Bird on the descent to Kansas City.

The next afternoon I returned home and cracked open The Natural, continuing to enjoy the exploits of Roy Hobbs as he smote the ball to lead the New York Knights out of the doldrums. At 10,000 feet it was back to Secret Graces for a long stretch. By the time I returned to The Natural, the Knights had risen to third place in the league.

The short flight from Baltimore to Hartford-Springfield had me juggling the two books. I was again forced to leave Virginia Kate during one of the most dramatic scenes in the book. Meanwhile, in The Natural, fans were celebrating Roy Hobbs Day at Knights Field. And then the plot took a sharp turn and that’s where I left off.

The fact is I still love the feel and the experience of e-books, but it’s nice to read about that hot New York Times bestseller and have it on your Kindle within seconds.

Do you prefer print books or e-books? Are you like me and enjoy both?

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Book Review: “The Night Circus,” By Erin Morgenstern

One of the strongest elements of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was the setting. Rowling created a highly detailed and sweeping world that was both magical and scary. In her dazzling debut novel, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern attempts a similar feat. Like Hogwarts, Le Cirque des Revers (Circus of Dreams) is vivid, whimsical and highly developed. That’s where the similarities end.

Unlike Harry Potter, the stakes in The Night Circus do not involve the fate of the magical world. The stakes are personal as Morgenstern explores issues of love and obligation, competition and collaboration, fantasy and reality, free will and coercion, and the pursuit of one’s dreams.

The story centers on a bet between two illusionists in the late 1800s: Prospero the Enchanter, also known as Hector Bowen, and the mysterious Mr. A.H., also known as Alexander and the man in the gray suit. Prospero puts up his daughter, Celia, against a gifted orphan, Marco Alisdair, handpicked by Mr. A.H. The venue for the competition is a fantastical night circus, designed by theater impresario M. Chandresh Christopher Lefevre (you’ve got to love the names Morgenstern gives her characters).

The two stern taskmasters train their protégés without divulging the rules or the nature of the competition. They don’t even tell their competitor the identity of their adversary. Telling a tale like this is tricky high-wire act for any writer, but Morgenstern’s writing has a seductive quality that cajoles the reader into going along for the ride.

The strength of this story is the highly imaginative and detailed world of the circus. Morgenstern evokes all of the senses in her description of setting, making the circus come alive in the reader’s mind.

Eventually, Celia and Marco catch on to the game. They fall in love and, instead of competing, they decide to collaborate. But they must figure out a way to end the game without triggering a catastrophe.

I’m a fan of ambiguous endings because real life is that way. Rarely do people live happily ever after. However, this ending felt a little too ambiguous. It was as though Morgenstern wrote herself into a corner and couldn’t bear to end the story by making a more painful choice. That’s as much as I can say without spoiling the ending.

My only other criticism is that Morgenstern spends much more time describing every detail of the setting than she devotes to character development. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more about how Celia and Marco fell in love. It seemed to happen quickly without a lot of contact between the two rivals.

Still, these are minor flaws. I found The Night Circus to be an unusual and enjoyable novel.

How important is the setting to your novel?

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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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Lessons from Joe Frazier

It was the stuff of novels. The relationship between heavyweight boxing icons Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was antagonistic, bitter and, at the same time, symbiotic. This week, the world said “goodbye” to Frazier, 67, who died on November 7. There was an outpouring of tributes this week at a service for Frazier in Philadelphia. Anybody who grew up in the 1970s will never forget the three epic bouts between Ali and Frazier, as well as their complicated relationship outside the ring. A would-be novelist would have a hard time in determining which one was the protagonist and which one was the antagonist, but it was a compelling and ever-changing story nonetheless.

They were polar opposites. Ali was charismatic, loud, and boastful, proclaiming, “I am the greatest!” Frazier was a quiet, humble man. Prior to their first fight in 1971, Ali demeaned Frazier, describing him as an Uncle Tom and the white man’s boxer, and worse things. Frazier quietly absorbed the verbal blows. On March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, Frazier knocked Ali to the canvass in the 14th round, eventually handing the seemingly invincible Ali his first defeat. Ali avenged that defeat on January 28, 1974 at the Garden.

It was their third fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” that fans remember the most. Eyewitnesses called the October 1, 1975 bout one of the most savage fights in history, with each boxer pummeling the other for 14 rounds. It ended when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to send his fighter out for the 15th round, over Frazier’s strenuous objections. Ali attempted to find Frazier after the fight to apologize for all the awful things he had said about him over the years. He asked Frazier’s son to relay his apology to Frazier and he publicly apologized. Frazier bristled, saying Ali should have apologized to his face.

Over the years, Frazier became bitter about the way Ali characterized him. Ali seemed genuinely sorry as he reflected on his actions.

The full picture of Frazier was of a man of decency and humility. Frazier had lobbied President Nixon in support of Ali’s reinstatement as a boxer after Ali refused to serve his country in the military. He even reportedly loaned Ali money during the period when he was barred from fighting.

When I was growing up, I was enamored of Ali. He was hip, proud and provocative. He had a way with words. His famous motto, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” became part of the American lexicon. Ali backed up his boasts with results. He was an outsized personality and his swagger captivated a nation that was reeling from Vietnam and Watergate.

Over the years, my admiration for Ali has waned somewhat and my respect for Frazier has grown.

What lessons can we draw as writers from these two legendary boxers? One is that words matter. Ali claimed at the time that he demonized Frazier to promote greater interests in their bouts. He really didn’t mean those terrible things he said. I believe him, but still, Ali’s insults hurt Frazier deeply. Whether it’s the spoken or written word, we must take great care not to hurt people. Another lesson is the way the two men grew as individuals from their heated rivalry. I believe they had made peace with each other by the time Frazier died and Ali’s glowing praise of his fallen rival is testimony to that. Finally, we’ve learned that victory comes with a price. Their dignity and their physical health suffered as a result of their rivalry.

So now one rival is gone and we bid farewell to a good man, Joe Frazier. Rest in peace, Joe.

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NaNoWriMo-Day 3

This is Day 3 of National Novel Writing Month and Day 5 of no power in my Connecticut town. Our utility company projects we will have power back Sunday night at midnight. I’m skeptical. There are still trees and utility wires down all over the place. In spite of the lack of power. NaNoWriMo continues.

I wrote nine pages of my new novel by hand before I could use my laptop. Most of the handwritten material was complete crap. I don’t know how writers write by hand. It wasn’t a total waste of time. I discovered when I went back and read it over that I’d fallen into the old trap of telling and not showing the story. So I went to work on the same story on the laptop–this time showing it through scenes with action and dialogue. I am now at 1,500 words on November 3. I hope to double that by tomorrow.

It goes to show that writers can overcome obstacles. I’m writing this post on my iPhone. It’s slow going, but I heard about a writer once who had to reconstruct an entire novel on the iPhone after his hard drive got fried, so this is really a small inconvenience.

More to come tomorrow.

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